Something Like Forgiveness


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Scene Title Something Like Forgiveness
Synopsis The worst nightmares are those that are true for one man on what might be his deathbed.
Date June 11, 2011


Some days, Sophia does not work; on the days Sophia does not work, she spends the afternoon shut in her bedroom with a package of cigarettes, two tabs of aspirin and a mask pulled down over her eyes because the curtains do not block out enough light for her to get the five or six hours of sleep she requires for the graveyard shift that night.

Eileen used to look forward to the days Sophia did not work because it meant that she and Nick had the evenings to themselves. She dreads them now for exactly the same reason.

The flat's curtains do as little against noise as they do against light. The sound of rain glancing off Nick's window fills the tiny bedroom that was a safehaven when he was small enough to appreciate things like the gap between his bed and the floor, small enough for a little boy to squeeze into and hide, but has felt increasingly like a prison cell with not enough room for him to stretch his legs or move. The gentle rumble of traffic is a constant presence filtering in through the glass — much more noticable are the trains that pass on the rails a few streets over, making it difficult to hear anything else.

His sister, for example, is incapable of hearing even the rasp of her own breathing, which is shaky and raw as it always is when she's pretending that she's somewhere else, and sometimes for several minutes afterwards — like now. Her hands come away wet when she takes them off her face, though she has nothing to wipe it with except the blankets, the smell of which she wants nowhere near her nose or mouth.

She refuses to look at her brother.

Pulling a sweater over his shaggy mop of dark hair and over his lean torso, scarred here and there with his mother's handiwork, mostly involving cigarettes and a belt buckle, Nick glances out the window, eyes narrowed. He juts a chin toward the street below, though the gesture is unseen. The rain reflects on his face, water streaming down the glass seeming to stream down his face like ghosts of tears, but the lanky boy doesn't cry. He hasn't cried for months now.

"Jasper's on his way," he says coolly, and in the rain, the dark peacoat and black umbrella of one of his schoolmates can be seen on the otherwise empty street heading toward their building.

He reaches for the cigarettes on the dresser, tugging one out to light it, then bringing it over to pass to her, another already getting pulled from the pack for himself.

"It ain't like it's sommat you haven't done before, and he's willing to pay," he tosses toward her as if it should be some consolation for what he's asking — telling — her to do.

Nick brings the unlit fag to his lips. "You'll prob'ly like it," he adds, as he begins to move toward the door.

Eileen holds the cigarette pinched between slim knuckles, her focus on the ribbon of smoke unraveling into the air. There is no need to wet her lips but she does so out of habit regardless by dragging teeth over her mouth. Throat tight and eyes stinging, she looks up at Nick's retreating reflection in the window and sees only his back without an expression.

It's difficult for her to interpret intent through voice alone, and his body language leaves her with nothing except a leaden, all-over feeling of dread that makes her head and limbs seem heavy but the cigarette in her hands like a feather. The amount of effort it takes for her to swallow is proportional to the time it requires; he's at the door before she's rediscovered how to work the hinge of her jaw.

"I don't want to."

A lighter comes to his mouth as he moves, and he inhales, drawing his cheeks in to draw the fire back through the dry leaves inside the paper; the scent of this brand of cigarette is as indelible as the scars on his body, and yet… the smoke curling from his and Eileen's smells like sulfur instead, and the shadows on the walls seem darker than they ever were in memory.

Her words stop him with his hand on the doorknob, and he turns, arching a brow.

"Mouse's found her voice, eh?" Nick says, a half smirk curling his lip upward. "Jasper's not a bad lookin' bloke. And he's got money. I'll even give you some. It'll buy you a better violin, yeah? 'Sides. It's not like it'll hurt you none." Nick's hand turns on the door knob.

"It does hurt." The train has passed, and although Eileen does not have to strain to be heard over the rain or the static hum of the television left on in the other room, her voice has a taxing quality to it, a presence without the underlying energy that an accusation would have, too fatigued to be the beginning of an argument and not only because Eileen does not argue.

"It hurts every time."

Unseen by her, his hand shakes as he takes a drag of the cigarette, wishing it were something more numbing in quality, hoping maybe Jasper might have brought something with him that is. If not, there's always the cupboard where his mother stores the alcohol, always the medicine cabinet in the bathroom where she keeps the pills behind a small tub of night cream.

Playing dumb — Nick knows what she means but if he acts like he misunderstands, he can continue to lie to himself — he shrugs his shoulders and finally turns the knob, just as a soft tapping can be heard at the front door. "Won't be anything that hurts. He's not that good a mate. 'Sides, you don't talk or eat much, may as well use it for somethin'."

He casts one glance over his shoulder at her without making eye contact before moving through the tiny flat to let in the young man at the door.

Hands in coat pockets, tousled blond hair made dark by the rain and umbrella shoved haphazardly under one arm, Jasper gives the impression of being somewhere he does not belong but is past the point where that matters to him. Eyes trained to automatically assess whether or not things are worth separating from their legal owner skip past Nick and take stock of the flat's dimly-lit interior. Two years the younger man's senior and already graduated, he cannot remember the last time he was here, only that his mother caused a small scandal at one of the local hospitals a year back and narrowly managed to keep her job.

It's a cursory glance only; you don't steal from your chums (or their habitually drunk mothers). "'ey," he says, scrubbing a soggy sleeve across his nose as he steps into the flat, not bothering to stomp the water off his feet on the mat provided, which is lacking either courtesy or awareness. It was already soaked through anyway. "S'really pourin' out there."

Nick takes the umbrella to hang in a stand near the door, nodding back down the hall. "I'll put some tea on," the younger boy suggests, though his lips curve up in a knowing manner. He'd proposed the idea to Jasper before Eileen, after all. "Go on back to my room, see if there's anything y'like."

The only thing passing as recreation (besides his sister) would be the small collection of books read so many times that Nick and Eileen could transcribe them by heart if necessary, along with an old radio that comes in scratchy. Nick turns toward the kitchenette to put water in the kettle — and then to peer at the levels in the alcohol bottles to decide how much he can get away with today.

"I'll have a beer," says Jasper, rivulets of rainwater carving down his throat and jaw, "if your mum won't miss it." His sneakers leave dark marks on the carpet as he moves out of the doorway and behind the sofa to trail the tips of his fingers along its back. Like an animal, he takes the time to grow accustomed to his surroundings before moving into tighter quarters; Nick's bedroom is an open door at the end of a hall on the other side of the flat, full of shadow and promise in equal parts.

He stops with his hand poised above the sofa's arm, unsure whether to rest it there or continue with purpose into the room. "She knows, then?"

The refrigerator door is opened and Nick pulls a can from the shelf where it's less likely to be noticed, striding across the small space to pass it to Jasper. Pale eyes dart down the length of the hall. "Yeah. She's a bit shy but I think she'll like you," he says with a shrug.

He moves back to the cupboard to find something harder for himself; a bottle of vodka is uncapped, a swig taken, before Nick glances up again, lips parting as if he might speak again, but instead he brings his cigarette back to his lips to chase the vodka with lungs full of smoke.

"She don't got to," Jasper says, and without any real malice; this isn't about hurting anyone, and unlike Nick it isn't about necessarily about power, though the feeling of being in control is probably more of a turn-on for a man his age than Eileen.

When he goes inside, he makes a point to close the door behind him. If performance anxiety is an issue, then privacy — or the illusion of — will minimize it. There is a reason why it isn't safe for Nick to do what he does when Sophia is home; from the kitchen he can hear, above the rain, above the telly, above the monotonous whisper and groan of car engines out on the pavement below, Jasper's rough baritone on the other side of the door followed by something softer and tentative, though the words themselves have fuzzy edges. Indistinct.

Everything is murmurs, then the brassy squeak of a bed spring. Someone sitting down or getting up. He must not care that she's been crying because he does not come back out again.

The rest is left to Nick's imagination.

Nick swallows hard, letting the burn of vodka in his throat distract him from the sounds he hears, and the sounds he doesn’t. Turning back to the kitchen, he retrieves a mug to pour more into, enough that it might go noticed — he’s been less and less careful, pushing his limits, inviting his mother’s wrath in a myriad of tacit ways.

The level of the fluid left in the bottle drops beneath the label — an easy landmark to keep track of. If he were being more careful, if he were trying to stay under the radar, he’d dilute it with water.


Instead he puts the bottle back in the cupboard and takes the mug, heading to the door that leads to the hall and stair outside their flat, perching on the top step as he stares stonily down, taking another gulp of the vodka and letting it punish his throat and sting his eyes, willing it to numb him even further than the cold he already feels.

It is some forty minutes later before the flat door opens at Nick's back and Jasper appears at the top of the stair. His hair has gone from wet to damp, and he holds his umbrella clasped in the weave of his fingers; there is nothing about his appearance or demeanor to suggest whether or not this will become a regular thing, though the odds look like they might be tipping in Nick's favour when the older man— boy, really— reaches into his pocket and produces a plastic bag with a handful of oblong white pills and his wallet, which he flips open with a flash of a small smile in a an almost reluctant expression of what is most likely gratitude.

He does not say thank you — for either the beer or whatever went on behind the door. What he says instead is, "I know a couple'a other guys could be interested. Bad idea to bring 'em here, though. I got a place."

The door’s squeak has Nick instantly on his feet and he doesn’t quite meet the other’s eyes, focusing his own pale gaze on the bag of pills which he accepts, tucking in his jeans pocket. “Yeah, prob’ly better that way,” he agrees. “Lemme know and we can set it up.”

An uneasy glance is given to the door, then back to the older boy. Nick jerks his chin in a nod, in the manner of young men saying goodbye or hello. “Cheers,” he adds, patting his pocket. It’s as good as cash, as he can sell them at school tomorrow to his mates with less resources than Nick, who has always tended to find the older, rougher crowds.

Pulling the door open again, he slips inside, not moving to his room nor Eileen’s, but back into the kitchen to pour another splash of vodka into his mostly empty cup; this time he also pulls out a carton of juice to fill the rest. It’s simply not good enough vodka to drink “neat.” His hand shakes as he takes a swallow, grimacing at the bitterness of the juice coupled with the burn of the liquor.

A wedge of light illuminates the hall where the bathroom door has been left open. From where Nick stands, he can see small, porcelain-pale hands gripping the toilet's tank, bare elbows resting on the edge of its lip and long, dark hair hung over the bowl — either Eileen is about to throw up or she's just finished, having dressed at some point between Jasper's departure and Nick's understated return.

Cardigan sweater sleeves are peeled back like the skin of a fruit past her elbows, and while she was able to pull it on before being overwhelmed by the need to use the bathroom, she has not buttoned it or the white blouse that she wears beneath. Her skirt is noticeably absent, but not the bottom half of her underthings, the outline of her panties visible through the drooping, semi-opaque material of the blouse.

She makes a sound like his name.

He ignores the sound for a moment — it may seem he is planning to pretend not to hear it, which they both know would be a denial in the tiny flat where they can hear each other breathe in separate rooms if they’re quiet enough. But eventually he straightens from where he leans on the counter, setting down his cup and reaching for another, pushing the faucet on to fill the cup with water. Striding with long legs across the small rooms to the hallway, he pushes the water into her hand without looking at her face, then moves the medicine cabinet to the stash of Quaaludes.

“Here,” he says, holding it out for her rather than risk it dropping into the toilet. He looms above her, nearly six feet in height now, three inches grown in just a half a year’s time. “It’ll settle you.”

As if a simple pill could do so much. Not even in Carroll’s Looking Glass world could his offering settle the rocky ground between them, chasms and cliffs that will separate them forever.

“You’re okay,” he adds — a lie more for his own sake than hers. “What d’you want for dinner?”

Something happens behind Eileen's eyes, which are swollen and pink, and wet enough still from crying that their appearance distracts from the silent decision being made. He does not look at her but she looks at him, glass of water held cradled against her chest with one hand. The other smears at her cheek.

She fills her lungs with air. "Can I have a Pot Noodle? The cheese and tomato kind."

That it’s raining, that it’s cold, that it’s almost dark, that there are other things they have in the flat she could eat without Nick needing to run down to the corner market — there are plenty of arguments he could make. But he nods once, staring at the space between them, a spot on the linoleum where his mother had dropped a cigarette and not noticed until it had scorched and melted the flooring.

The part of him that he’s been trying to numb knows that a cheap cup of ramen is hardly too much to ask after what he’s asked — told — her to do these past months.

“Yeah. I’ll get some Vimto, too,” he says quietly; the sweet soda a rarity in their home, and one of the things he’d done in earlier years to try to cheer her up when things were bad, when their parents were fighting, when Sophia first began drinking, was to buy (or steal) a can or two and sneak them into his room to drink.

Nick’s eyes dart to the mirror, then hastily turns away, as if unable to stand the very reflection of the young man standing in front of him.

A moment later, the front door closes with a soft thud.

Memories can change with time, but the past is set. Nick can relive this sequence a thousand times, each with a different series of variations made completely inconsequential by the fact that the ending is always the same.

When he comes back: violin case gone, biscuit tin of hidden keepsakes gone, sister gone.

Many years later, as he lies dying in a small, cramped room with four brick walls on another continent, Nick again does not know where Eileen is, not because of anything he's done, but because his illness has advanced to the stage at which he can no longer even keep track of himself. He could be sopping in London, or he could be drenched in his own sweat with his head in Eileen's lap and her cool hand smoothing sticky strings of hair away off his brow.

She's crying again, which is this time something like forgiveness without exoneration.

His eyes open suddenly, red and bleary eyes tearing up and sending streams down his cheeks. Delirious from fever, he stares up at her, brows knitting in confusion. His hand comes up, shaky, to touch her cheek, thumb sliding over the damp skin before it drops again.

“Don’t cry for me,” Nick whispers, in a moment of lucidity that may be gone in seconds. “I don’t deserve it. Just…”

Just what? He doesn’t deserve forgiveness, and won’t ask for it. Not even now.

A hand moves to curl around the medallion at his neck. “Pray for me… after I die. I’m so sorry,” he manages weakly, voice little more than a breath, the rattle in his chest louder than the words. His eyes close again, his fist loosening around the silver at his neck.

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