BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist - Jeremy Page
Standing on a petrol station forecourt in a pitch black valley in Wales, Thom remembered his girlfriend’s parents liked to walk around their house naked. Well, not exactly true. Sometimes they wore clothes. Susan had given him all the necessary details, such as how her mother, Lindy, would probably be wearing an elasticated tent dress with a floral print on it, that she kept hanging on a peg in the hall, in case someone she didn’t know knocked on the door. Likewise her father, Alistair, had his own peg next to hers where he hung an old pair of tennis shorts.
‘Modesty clothes,’ Susan had called them. ‘Anyway, most likely – they’ll be dressed when you turn up. So nothing to worry about.’
For Thom, most likely was plenty to worry about.
He pushed the nozzle of the pump into the tank and listened to the soothing gush of petrol. The car made ticking appreciative noises as the engine cooled. He smelt the cool night air, full of the scent of rock and fir trees and peaty soil, mingling with the smell of petrol, softly rising from the nozzle. He let his finger off the pump’s trigger, and stared beyond the acidic light of the forecourt into the velvet darkness of the Welsh night. He saw a bank of trees, dimly illuminated, and the beginning of a hillside, rising steeply.
The nudity wasn’t the problem, he thought. It was the other thing that Susan had gone on to mention:
‘What touching?’ he’d asked.
‘They might touch each other in a way that’s – inappropriate.’
‘I don’t know. A pat on the bum maybe.’ Susan had been hesitant. ‘You know – like when they’re passing each other on the stairs.’
‘Well – what can I say – it sounds sweet. Suse – I’m sure I’ll cope.’
‘Dad likes to cup her breast at the kitchen sink.’
‘Right.’ Thom had looked at Susan, wanting to laugh, wondering how serious he should be taking this and whether (a slight possibility) she was teasing. It was going to be the first time he met the parents.
‘Just – don’t make anything of it. Don’t react,’ she’d said.
‘Keep calm and don’t stare!’ he’d joked. She hadn’t replied. ‘We don’t choose our parents, do we?,’ he’d added, expecting her to agree. But instead she frowned, and he wondered whether she’d taken offence from an insult he hadn’t meant to give.
The farmhouse was old and large and not very well lit, as if this far up the valley electricity had dwindled to a trickle. He parked the car and knocked on the door, his bags in his hands, listening to a steady string of drips falling from a downpipe. Through a panel of pebbled glass he saw Susan approaching. She opened the door and threw her arms round him. ‘You got here,’ she whispered. ‘I can’t believe you got here.’
Behind her, he saw Susan’s mother take a step towards him from a back room, before she halted to let her daughter complete the hug. It was a gloomy corridor, lit by a single low energy bulb, and he couldn’t see her properly.
‘What have you eaten?’ Susan asked.
‘Crisps and chocolate. Then more crisps.’
‘Right – so we need to sort you out.’
Susan brought him into the hall and called out to her mother. When Lindy came forward, he saw she was wearing the thing that must be the elasticated tent dress. It did have a floral print on it. Her shoulders were bare and freckled and her knees and legs looked dirty. She gave him a welcoming kiss on his cheek, holding him tight with large fleshy arms, and as she let him go, gave him a slyly appraising wink.
‘Yep – he’ll do, Suse,’ she said.
‘Mum!’ Susan replied, giving an exaggerated roll of her eyes. ‘Just ignore my mother, will you? She turned to Lindy. ‘And you, behave.’ They had terrible fallouts, Susan had told him, but it seemed his arrival was a good time to show their love. Susan gave her mother a hug and, during an embrace that seemed to have several ritual stages of rubbing each other’s backs and stroking each other’s hair – Thom noticed the couple of pegs behind the door, where Lindy and Alistair’s modesty covers could be hung. Both pegs were empty.
Jeremy Page's story Do It Now, Jump the Table has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust. The winner and runner-up announcement will be broadcast live from the Award ceremony on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.
Read the entire shortlist in the BBC National Short Story Award 2015 Collection.