Archive for the ‘stories’ Category

A Gangster Smile – short story by Ethan Crane

November 3rd, 2011 No comments

[first published in an anthology for Earlyworks Press, 2009]

The first time I see Archie, waiting in the playground, I hate him. Of course I hate him. He is fat with the weight of regular restaurant dinners. He has tight, dyed blond curls, and a complementary perma-tan. City boy, almost certainly. And he smiles, all the time – the joke’s on the rest of the world.

I’ve never spoken to Archie before, but I know who he is. Who they are. Archie and Talia. I’m not going to talk to him now, but I’m watching him. Through the classroom window the children are fetching their coats – I can see his reflection. I’m watching those constant smiles. What’s there to smile about? We’re waiting for our children to come out of school.

‘Hi,’ I say. I’ve walked over to Archie. ‘Which one’s yours here then?’ I’m a friendly guy, I could have picked anyone to talk to. Archie tells me he’s Maxine’s father – he uses the word ‘father’ – and, after a moment’s hesitation, deigns to introduce Talia. I shake hands with her as though we haven’t already met, though we have. And I know who his daughter Maxine is – she’s the one wearing ridiculously fancy suede boots, even though she’s six, same as Lily.

‘Haven’t seen you at collecting time before,’ I say.

‘No, I’m usually working,’ Archie replies.

‘I’m here most days. My girlfriend and I, we kind of share the childcare.’

Why am I talking like this?

Archie just grins at me. I silently curse myself.

‘Why are you so bothered about him?’ asks Andrea, when Lily is in bed. She is almost laughing, but makes a show of listening so as not to annoy me. I reiterate my distaste for City boys, for suits. My well-worn rant bores even myself, and I trail off into silence.

‘I don’t think he does work in the City,’ says Andrea. I can sense a certain satisfaction at this deflation of my argument. ‘I’m almost sure of it. Talia talks about him often being at home in the day.’

‘Works from home, then. Deals in third world currencies on the internet or something.’

‘Or maybe not.’

‘Well what does he do then?’ I sulk, quietly.

‘Talia won’t say,’ Andrea says, turning from the table to clear her plate.

‘Well isn’t that odd? Isn’t that a bit strange?

Andrea raises her eyebrows.

‘I’ll bet you he’s into something dodgy. Some people – you can just tell. The way he and his wife smile, it’s – sinister. You can just see they have no consideration for anyone beyond themselves.’

‘And you can tell all this from their smiles, you say?’ says Andrea.

‘Don’t you think he looks like, I don’t know, that kind of drug-dealing type?’

‘And you have been known, at times, to be the drug-taking type.’

‘I’ll bet you he’s dodgy. Something just tells me. He goes around so high and mighty. I bet you it’s through something criminal.’

‘Do remember you just made that up.’

‘Doesn’t mean it’s not possible.’

‘Or that it is.’

‘Low-life criminals still have to send their kids to school, don’t they? Why not to Lily’s school?’

‘Don’t you go spreading scurrilous rumours,’ warns Andrea, and chucks me on the cheek.

‘So what work do you?’ I ask Archie, next time I see him in the playground. I’m being nice as pie. It’s a perfectly everyday question.

The smile stays fixed, but Archie’s eyes flit from side to side. Is he checking to see who’s nearby? Maybe he’s going to tell me a cagey secret, because I look like the kind of guy who could keep one. I feel a ridiculous moment of pride.

‘You know,’ he says. ‘Buying and selling. Import export.’ He’s asking if I’m cool enough, if I can cope with this kind of information. Is that what he’s doing? Well actually yes I can, thank you. But don’t think that puts me on your level, Mr Drug Dealer. Don’t think I’m like you.

‘Right,’ I say causally. Archie turns away to look through the classroom window.

‘Saw this great band on Saturday,’ I say, without even realising I’d started speaking. ‘The Moppets, this local band. They’re amazing. You should see them if you get a chance.’

‘Oh yeah?’ says Archie. Children stream out of the classroom door and he makes a show of looking for Maxine. I’m glad not to have to follow up such ridiculous aggrandising.

Archie eyeballs me. His pupils are tiny.

‘Go out a lot then, do you?’ He doesn’t look away.

‘Well, you know,’ I mutter. ‘Bit more difficult with the kid now. But I still try and keep up with things.’

Where is all this coming from?

‘What about you?’ I mumble.

‘I only really get to my club.’ Now Archie turns away and calls to Maxine. ‘Martino’s. At the marina. You know the place? I’ve got friends who come in by boat and we meet up there.’

Friends with a boat. Right. I’ve got you. Who might be helping out with a bit of import export, eh?

I tell myself to stop being childish. Aren’t we just two fathers talking in a playground? No, because you’re one of those private club people, aren’t you?

‘I’m not really into those places. You know, private clubs. Not my thing.’

I’m going to find Lily and go. I can just avoid him in the future.

‘Oh?’ Archie says. His smile is now a leer.

I’m starting to walk away to grab Lily. ‘They’re just a bit, you know. Divisive.’

Oh, good idea. What are we attempting here, to get him to give up his money with a bit of socialist discourse?

‘Each to their own.’ Now Archie turns his back, as though he can’t be bothered with me any more. ‘Having a bit of a do for my birthday next weekend actually. You wouldn’t be interested in coming?’

‘Oh. Well – ’

He eyeballs me again. ‘Two weekends in a row a bit much for you?’

You cheeky fucker.

‘No, sure. I’d love to. We’d love to. I’ll check – I’ll tell Andrea. We’ll be there.’

‘Great. Martino’s, from nine. Just give my name at the door.’

It’s Saturday. We haven’t managed to find a babysitter, and Andrea has insisted I go because I was the one who was invited and anyway she can’t stand places like that, and now I’m stepping off the bus, on my own, at the marina. I have a suspicion Andrea knows how I got myself into this because she keeps going on about how broadminded it is of me to have made friends with Archie after everything I said.

Inside Martino’s Talia sees me first, she pulls me over to her little group, and kisses me on both cheeks. It would be churlish of me not to mention that she is determinedly sexy. She introduces me to her (all female) friends, some of whom look reasonably normal, and not disgustingly expensively dressed, as Talia herself is. The music, playing to an empty dance floor, is surprisingly good.

After a while I see where all the men are – seated in large leather booths around the edge of the room. Archie will be embedded in one of these male cliques, no doubt. I stay talking to Talia and her friends, I make them laugh – I’m the only man amongst the women. I’m rather enjoying myself. Finally Archie comes over, says nothing to any of the women, and leads me off to a booth I hadn’t noticed, hidden further away in the club’s shadows. He chats to me as we walk, the usual nervous host things about not knowing how many people are going to turn up. I’m feeling victorious. Maybe Archie will even have some drugs going.

The booth Archie leads me to is populated by the meanest bunch of hardnuts I have ever seen in the flesh. He indicates the spare chair next to him.

Archie introduces me to all seven of them. ‘Marco and Juan are over from Spain,’ he says of the two men to my right. Theirs are the only names I catch. Why did they leave a spare seat for me? My mind formulates scenarios wildly. Is this a gang? Are they planning something here? Does Archie – does he think I’m in for a cut of whatever they’re up to, or something?

Archie introduces me. ‘Ed’s an editor.’

‘Good name then,’ says one of them. They all laugh in a low rumble.

‘Copy-editor,’ I say, to fill the silence. ‘It’s – a bit different.’

No one says anything to that. No one says anything much at all. The only social activity appears to be drinking. Everyone has an identical glass of iced golden liquid in front of them. In the middle of the table are two bottles of Scotch and a decanter of soda water, which seems quite moderate until I realise that every time one of the whisky bottles is emptied a waiter suddenly appears, unprompted, and replaces it with a full one.

I sip at my drink, trying to look interested in the scant conversation.

‘Don’t you like Scotch, Ed?’ Archie asks. ‘I can sort you something else out if you’d like.’

I make a plan to sit this out until midnight, and to foreshadow my exit by looking progressively bored, thus indicating the dullness of Archie’s parties. Because this is quite dull, whatever kind of edgy lives these guys might lead, or pretend to lead. I no longer care about Archie, I’d just quite like to be back on the sofa with Andrea and that bottle of wine she opened when I left.

Archie reaches into his pocket and brings out a huge bag of coke.

‘Aha,’ says the man opposite me, whom I later note is called Stan. ‘The goods.’

I look at Archie, who gives no indication of worry that I’ve heard this.

Right, I think. I’m going to get names, registration numbers, boat numbers the lot, and then I’m going to shop you all before I’m in bed. Even if I do like a bit of coke myself every now and then.

‘Got yourself a largish personal supply there, eh Archie?’ I’m being goaded by the Scotch.

‘This cool with you, Ed?’ asks Archie, and he seems serious for a moment. I cannot tell if he’s asking if I’m cool with the drug-taking or that they’re a gang of drug dealers. It hasn’t yet registered that I might be in any personal danger.

Archie snorts a fat line, then pushes a mirror containing two more fat lines in front of me. He passes over a twenty pound note.

‘Not for me, thanks,’ I say. I don’t want to now. I know I’ll just end up gabbling and asking Marco or Juan or someone to tell me just what it’s like being a drug dealer.


‘Just not my kind of drug.’

You stupid arse. Next thing I know there’s a sizeable bag of E’s on the table in front of me. I can’t refuse.

I casually throw one in my mouth and slip it under my tongue so I can spit it out later.

By now the bag of coke has done the round of the table.

‘So what’s it like, being an editor?’ Marco suddenly turns to me. ‘I’ve done a bit of writing in my time.’ He signals Archie to pass the mirror his way again, and tells me he’s got a drawer full of stories but never had any of them published. That figures, I think to myself, seeing as you’re a drug dealer, and then immediately reprimand myself for such intellectual snobbery. What’s to stop a drug dealer being a writer? Plus you still don’t actually know that they’re drug dealers. I need to reciprocate Marco’s interest in me, so I ask him whereabouts in Spain he’s from, noting it for later, for the police. I tell myself once more that they’re most likely not drug dealers, and ask Marco what his stories are about. He describes one of them to me and it’s funny. In fact it’s very funny.

I forget all about the police. I feel around the floor of my mouth with my tongue and find there is nothing there but a few grains of powder.

Later I’m in a huddle with Archie, and I tell him: ‘You know what.’ I’m laughing again. ‘You know, Archie, earlier I thought, you know, what with that bag of coke and the pills and the boat from Spain I thought for a bit that maybe you were all a bunch of drug dealers.’

And Archie laughs, and it’s the laugh that goes with the smile from the school playground, the distant one.

Later still I’m in the middle of the dance floor, dancing with Talia. She’s laughing at my dancing. In a good way.

And even later we’re out the back of the club, the side that opens onto the water, and right there moored by the back door is Marco and Juan’s boat, an enormous motorboat, and we get on board and Marco starts the engine and then we’re out in the open sea. Now there’s just Archie and Marco and Juan and me, and these other men stare out at the dark horizon without talking, or maybe they couldn’t talk over the noise of the deafening engine. And we keep going for what seems like hours, and I know this because what with the cold air and the silence and the deep stares of these men the ecstasy seems to be wearing off, and now I’m fully aware what we’re here for, I know for sure that they’re going to dump me overboard in the middle of the English Channel, and no one will ever have any idea what happened to me, and Archie will go to school on Monday same as always and pick up Maxine like nothing has ever happened. I call over to Archie but he doesn’t even turn round.

‘Further out,’ I hear Archie say to Marco. They look back at the lights on the shore. ‘We don’t want to see anything.’

And now I’m feeling really ill, though I can’t tell from what. ‘You all right, Ed?’ says Archie, leaning down to where my head’s between my knees.

‘I’m alright,’ I say, ‘I’m fine,’ and then I vomit into the neck of a life jacket. Archie tells Marco to cut the engine.

‘Well, what are we going to do with him?’ I hear Archie say.

‘Do you want to lean over the side, Ed?’ he says to me.

‘What, so you can tip me over?’ I reply shrilly. ‘No way.’

And I hear Archie tell the others that they’ll have to turn back, and then I’m sick all over Archie’s shoes, and Archie says nothing. And then I’m back on shore and I’m in a cab, and the last thing I remember is Archie leaning over me.

‘Missed out on something special there, Ed,’ he tells me as he shuts the cab door. ‘Floating in silence out on the ocean. Complete blackness. Not even any light pollution. Just you and the stars.’

On Monday, at school, there’s Archie, picking up Maxine.

I go up to him. I have to.

‘Didn’t think you picked her up on Mondays,’ I say, for want of something better.

‘I don’t usually,’ says Archie. ‘Thought I would today.’

I want to punch that smug smile right off his face. I find Lily and go home.

Categories: stories Tags:

Drunk, Polite, Lazy, Scared – short story by Ethan Crane

October 29th, 2011 No comments

[first published in Aesthetica magazine Feb 2007]
[listen to an audio version on MacGuffin]

A boy meets a girl at a party. He is not timid, but like all boys, timid or otherwise, he doesn’t find the seduction of girls an easy task. He has slept with a number of girls before, but that’s not what he wants now. He wants a girlfriend. But if the girls at the party are not what he considers girlfriend material then he’ll settle just for sex, if he can get it. There’ll be plenty of parties and plenty of opportunities to meet the right girl.

The girl wants a boyfriend. Some of her friends have boyfriends, some of them don’t, and the ones with boyfriends are no happier than the ones without – but at least, she thinks, everyone looks up to them. And anyway this girl isn’t going to settle for just any boy as a boyfriend. He needs to be a boy who will treat her well. The girl is not a prude, she’s not waiting around for the perfect boy before she’ll sleep with anyone – that moment has long passed. She doesn’t consider random sex with a boy to be a shameful thing, not if you’re just testing him out, working out if he’s one of the nice ones.

The girl and the boy leave the party together. They are both drunk. The boy makes witty comments easily now, he no longer has to think about every line he says to her. She is not the girl of his dreams, but she’s a girl, and right now he wants to get laid.

The girl thinks the boy is most likely not the kind of man she has been looking for. But she’s not absolutely sure, and being drunk makes her certainty less relevant. Maybe his constant attempts to be witty are just nervousness. She knows how nervous boys get. She thinks she might be better able to tell in the morning.

In the late morning when the girl wakes, she knows for sure he is not the man of her dreams. But she likes him well enough and does not want to hurt his feelings. In the bedroom of the boy’s shared house they have sex again, and it is much more enjoyable sex than the night before.

The boy also knows she is not the girl he is looking for, but he likes her and does not want to hurt her feelings. He wonders if they can have sex just a few more times like they had that morning. But right now he just wants her to leave, because now he is not drunk he is finding it difficult to think of things to say to her once again. She makes no immediate move to leave, so he cooks her breakfast. After they have eaten she gathers her things and makes to go. The boy knows he cannot simply make his suggestion about having sex a few more times. He asks her if she’d like to meet the following weekend.

The girl does not really want to meet. But to say no would seem rude after a pleasant morning. She says yes, but decides she will phone him later in the week to decline the invitation.

On Monday the girl sees her friends at college and finds that she has gained new status due to her weekend conquest. She discovers that this boy is much admired by one of her friends, and as a result he goes up in her own estimation. When asked if she is going to see him again she delights her friends by telling them the boy has asked her out. She says nothing about the phone call she is still going to make.

As the weekend approaches the girl finds she has no better plans for going out, and she does not make the phone call. On the appointed evening, she waits for the boy outside the ticket barrier of the station, picking at magazines in the newsagents. When the boy arrives, without a word he hands her a bunch of flowers. He knows from experience how awkward the first words of a first date can be, and thought flowers would overcome this.

The boy takes her to an inexpensive restaurant. He has decided to act as though he is interested in a relationship with the girl, and then after sex has occurred two or maybe three more times he will apologise and declare things are not working out between them. He’ll say they are not really the same kind of people, which is at least partially true. But he does not want to appear calculating, and has resolved not to sleep with her on this occasion, but on their next date.

The restaurant meal they eat is not particularly good, but their conversation never lags. The girl has decided that she will exaggerate the offence in her reaction when the boy tries to sleep with her at the end of the evening, and then not return his calls. With neither of them pressurized by the potential of sex they have a good time together. Outside the restaurant the boy kisses the girl on the cheek and makes to go. The girl is so surprised she accepts his subsequent invitation, to a party for his birthday the following week.

At the birthday party, in the boy’s house, the girl talks to her accompanying friends for most of the night, and hardly sees the boy. She enjoys mixing cocktails with her friends in the kitchen, but is too loud in her delight – she is irritated that the boy pays her little attention, in the main because it makes her stories to her friends about how much this boy likes her seem like exaggerations. By the end of the night the girl and the boy are both quite drunk and have had a number of dabs of MDMA powder. The girl has long forgotten her irritation, and as first light seeps into the house they sleep together beneath a pile of coats. The sex is very good, mostly due to the MDMA.

When a friend phones the next day and asks the girl if her and the boy are now seeing each other she denies it, but the melodramatic manner in which she says so implies she might mean the opposite.

The girl is invited to the wedding of a cousin. It is a big wedding, and she is asked to bring a partner. This is the first time a wedding invitation has asked her to bring a partner, and she likes the feeling of adult status. She asks the boy to come with her, making the occasion sound casual, and not showing him the formal wedding invitation with their names written side-by-side in calligraphic type. She regrets talking about the boy to her cousin. The boy dresses too smartly, and the seating plan sits him with the girl’s parents at dinner. Just after the dancing begins, they have sex in the disabled toilet.

The wedding is a setback for the boy’s intention to end the relationship. He realises that this is what he will be doing now, ending a relationship rather than just telling a girl he does not want to see her any more. When he thinks about the girl, he recognises that he takes pleasure in her company, although there is no part of him which thinks he loves her. He does, however, like the sex, and the prospect of regular sex in the future. He concludes that it will make little difference whether he ends the relationship now or at some point in the near future, after more sex. He will still have to upset the girl at some point, and does not relish the idea.

When the girl thinks about the boy, she recognises that she takes pleasure in his company, although there is no part of her which thinks she loves him. But he treats her well, with far more respect than she expected when she first met him. She judges that, at the moment, nights spent with the boy are more enjoyable than recent nights with her friends, which seem to mostly consist of friends without boyfriends lamenting the fact, or the friends with boyfriends complaining about them. She decides to carry on seeing the boy until this balance of enjoyment tips in the other direction. She does not expect this to take long.

The following year the boy and girl go on holiday together. They spend much of their time sitting in beachfront restaurants, drinking cocktails and not talking much. They do not have sex nearly as much as they used to. Because of the reduction in their conversation the boy’s embraces suggesting sex appear to the girl cold and lacking in seduction, and although she enjoys the sex when it takes place, resents this lack of respect towards her. One night after an expensive meal for which the boy insists on paying, she rebuffs his advances. On the day before the holiday ends they have their first argument that entirely lacks humour.

Back home the girl thinks about ending the relationship. She imagines the feeling of being single again, and it scares her.

The boy thinks about ending the relationship and tries to imagine himself chatting up a new girl after so long of not doing so, and the idea scares him.

Three years later one of the girl’s best friends announces she is getting married. The girl recounts this to the boy over breakfast in the flat they rent together. She does not intend the story of her friend’s marriage to sound like a challenge, but in the customary atmosphere of low-level tension in their household that is the impression her words make. The boy picks an argument on a subject that is nothing to do with the friend’s wedding and leaves for work without saying goodbye.

That day, sitting on a bench eating the lunch the girl made for him, the boy gazes around him at the women he finds more attractive than the girl. He considers his chances of marrying one of these women, and finds it impossible to picture the circumstances under which this might happen. It seems likely to him that his chances of future happiness are greater if he stays with the girl.

The following weekend, to the girl’s horror, the boy presents her with a small velvet box containing a diamond ring, and asks her to marry him. The girl cannot answer, and dashes from their flat without a word. She drives to her mother’s house, seeking comfort. But as soon as she tells her mother that the boy has asked her to marry him, her mother translates the girl’s upset as a commonplace fear of marriage and commitment, and counsels her with a story of how she felt the same way before her marriage to the girl’s father. The girl’s mother goes on to compliment her on what a good partner the boy makes, and the more compliments that the girl is paid, the more awkward she feels about announcing that she does not love the boy and does not want to marry him. Her mother’s detailing of the boy’s qualities cause the girl to doubt her own judgement. And she begins to wonder if perhaps the boy is the best match in marriage she is going to make. Eventually the girl pretends to her mother that her tears are indeed due to a fear of marriage, and she feels considerable relief that she has avoided causing a huge upset in the direction of her life.

Her mother instils her with a burgeoning excitement as she sets in motion plans for the big day. The girl thinks with pleasure the circumstances of announcing the news to her friends. At the same time she mentally rehearses a scenario where she runs out of the church on the wedding day.

The wedding day is set. On the morning, dressing in his morning suit, the boy feels a hollow in the base of his stomach that he puts down to a nervousness at being the day’s centre of attention. The complexity and expense of the wedding arrangements have forestalled him from thinking too much about the circumstances of the engagement.

In her mother’s house, fitting herself into a white dress, the girl feels a hollow in the base of her stomach that she puts down to a nervousness that the day will not proceed according to her detailed plans. The pleasure she has derived from the increased closeness with her mother and bridesmaids during the organisation of the day has prevented the girl from thinking much about the state of her and the boy’s relationship.

At midday, a vicar asks the boy and girl to declare their love for one another, and they become man and wife.

Categories: stories Tags:

Double Debra – short story by Ethan Crane

November 29th, 2010 No comments

[first published in ABCTales 12]
[listen to audio version on MacGuffin]

When Deborah walked out on him on Thursday afternoon, Joseph guessed her parting words just before she said them.

‘Things are going to be different when I come back,’ she told him.

She said the same when she left the last time, except this time she added the word ‘things’.

She said it sweetly, like a promise. Joseph took it as a threat. He had no defence against Deborah’s promises. Sometimes, midway through an argument, she bit her lip and laughed. This ought to have made him angrier, but always calmed him down.

On Friday morning, Deborah returned home to Joseph.

On Friday afternoon, Deborah returned home to Joseph and Deborah.

In the evening Joseph stood by the cooker, his dinner half eaten. Deborah sat at the kitchen table. Deborah sat opposite.

‘You said you were going to Helen’s for the night,’ said Joseph. ‘You didn’t say anything about this.’

‘Well I knew you’d be a bit funny about it,’ said Deborah. Deborah smiled at her.

‘But how do I tell which one of you is the original?’ Joseph tried to laugh.

‘Does it matter?’

‘It might be nice to know which one of you is my girlfriend. Which one is – you know. Which of you is – Molly’s mother, say.’

‘We both are. Our memories are identical,’ said Deborah.

‘We were hoping you’d like it,’ said the other Deborah. ‘You complain that I’m never around, and now I’ll be around a lot more. One of me can go to college and the other help out more at home. Look after Molly more.’

The Deborahs cleared the dinner plates to the sink. Joseph didn’t even get a chance to help. One Deborah washed and the other dried.

‘But surely when you do this you grow a new person from an egg?’

‘Not the place I went to.’


‘You didn’t have to – go this far,’ said Joseph, later that night. Deborah checked the back door was locked whilst Deborah turned off the lounge lights. ‘When I said I wanted things to change, I was just – a bit under pressure.’

‘It’s fine,’ said Deborah, kissing him on the forehead. ‘It’ll make things easier.’

‘I didn’t even know – that they could do – ’

‘Well you don’t know everything, honey, do you?’ said Deborah, coming back into the room.

‘But what about Molly? Isn’t she going to be very confused?’

‘We’ve gone through all that that. We’re only going to appear to her one at a time.’

The Deborahs went through into the bedroom.

‘And now it seems I have two girlfriends,’ said Joseph, calling after them. ‘I don’t know how I feel about that.’

‘Are you coming to bed?’ A Deborah poked her head around the doorway.

‘Where are you both going to sleep?’ said Joseph.

‘Same place we always sleep,’ said the Deborahs together. They looked across at each other.

Joseph hurried on into the bedroom.


On the Saturday morning Joseph was delighted to find one Deborah had got up to look after Molly, and he was able to lie around in bed with the other. Throughout the weekend he acted as though nothing could be more normal than having two identical girlfriends. He delighted in talking to one about a particular subject and then having the exact same conversation with the other.

On Monday one of the Deborahs left early for college whilst the other took Molly to nursery.

‘Why don’t you come straight back after nursery?’ said Joseph as Deborah went out the door. ‘We can spend the morning together.’

‘Don’t you have loads of work to do?’

‘It’ll keep.’

‘I’m meeting Deborah. I need to read her notes from this morning’s lectures.’

‘You can’t do that later?’

‘We arranged to meet for coffee in her break.’

‘But what if someone sees you? The two of you, together?’

‘I have a disguise,’ said Deborah theatrically, waggling a pair of sunglasses.

‘Right. Ok then.’

‘We’ve still both got to study Joseph,’ said Deborah. ‘We’re not telepathic, you know.’


Joseph spent the morning in his home office, trying to prepare some designs for work, but found it hard to concentrate. After lunch he left his desk to tidy the flat but found nothing to tidy. He thought he would cook an evening meal for everyone, but there was already a pot of stew on the stove.

When Deborah returned from college she gave Molly her tea whilst the other Deborah hid in the bedroom and read a book. Joseph tried to help with tea but Deborah said she was fine. He took a book into the bedroom and propped himself on the bed next to her.

‘You don’t have to do everything, you know,’ he said after a few minutes. ‘The two of you. You don’t have to look after everything.’

‘It’s no problem,’ said Deborah, not looking up from her book.

‘What I mean is at least let me do my share. A third, I suppose.’

‘We just don’t want you getting annoyed all the time again.’

‘I don’t think I was annoyed all the time.’

Deborah continued to read her book.

‘Didn’t you finish that yesterday?’ said Joseph.

‘That must have been the other me.’


Later that week, as he read a bedtime story to Molly, Joseph could hear the low murmuring of them talking in the bedroom, occasionally broken by laughter.

‘Who’s Mummy talking to?’ said Molly, interrupting the story.

‘No one,’ said Joseph.

‘She is.’

‘She must be on the phone. Shall we finish the book?’

He kissed Molly goodnight and slipped into the bedroom. The Deborahs stopped talking as he pushed open the door. Both were half dressed, trying on clothes.

‘What’s up, honey?’ said a Deborah.

‘I’m just feeling a bit – confused.’

Joseph sat on the bed between them.

‘Poor thing.’ Deborah stroked his arm.

‘It’ll take a bit of getting used to,’ said the other. ‘But we all have much more spare time now. Isn’t that what you wanted?’

‘I just wonder if I’m – still needed around here.’

‘Don’t be silly, honey,’ said Deborah, kissing him on the cheek. ‘You’re Molly’s father. She needs her father here.’

‘It’s okay now. But say it didn’t work out. What if this – wasn’t right? What’s the procedure for her – one of you going back?’

‘Going back?’

‘How does it work?’

‘Are you talking about some kind of – termination? That would be a bit barbaric.’

‘No, of course not.’

‘What do you mean then?’

‘I don’t know.’ Joseph jumped up from the bed. ‘What do the two of you find to talk about all the time, anyway?’

‘Actually we were just wondering when you’re going to fix that door you keep saying about.’

‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’

The Deborahs raised their eyebrows at each other.

‘You can’t do that.’ cried Joseph, leaving the room. ‘It’s not fair of you.’

‘Why don’t you call up Andy? said Deborah the next morning. ‘You should go on that weekend away you’re always talking about.’

‘You want me to?’

‘We think you should.’

‘Why are you so keen for me to have a holiday?’

‘You always complained you couldn’t before. Now that there’s two of me you can.’

‘But I don’t want to leave you looking after Molly. It wouldn’t be fair.’

‘We’ll be fine.’

‘And you’re suggesting that’s fair?’

‘Of course.’

Deborah poured them both another cup of tea.

‘We might go away as well.’

‘You and Molly?’

‘The three of us.’

‘Where to?’

‘We might rent a cottage or something. In Dorset. We found this nice little place on the internet.’

‘You’re forgetting your rule about Molly. About her not seeing the two of you?’

‘Oh that’s all sorted out. Molly knows. She’s fine with it.’

‘What kind of say do I get about it all?’ Joseph called after Deborah as she left the room.

In the middle of the night Joseph woke from a restless sleep. There was a rustling sound on the other side of the bed.

‘Deborah?’ he whispered.

The rustling stopped.


‘What are you – ?

There was no answer, and a quiet giggle.

‘I thought you said you were both tired!’

‘I couldn’t sleep.’

‘So now you’re – ’


‘Well I don’t know what you’d call it.’

‘What if I was?’

‘Well isn’t that a bit – weird?’

‘No,’ said Deborah.

‘Call it our version of the dead arm,’ said the other.

Joseph sat up in bed. ‘You know, I’m just not sure there’s room in this bed for all three of us. We’re not sleeping properly. I’m not, anyway. And I always seem to end up on one side. When do I get to sleep in the middle?’

‘Maybe you’re right. One of us can go on the sofa bed.’


‘Tonight you and Deborah sleep here,’ said Deborah, climbing out of bed and putting on a dressing gown. ‘Tomorrow you and me. And then Deborah and I the night after.’

‘Deborah and you?’

‘That’s fair, isn’t it?’

‘But – ’

‘I shouldn’t have to always sleep on the sofa bed, should I?’

Deborah left the room, and Deborah turned her back on him.

Deborah dragged the two large suitcases in through the front door. Deborah followed her in, carrying Molly.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Joseph, emerging from the kitchen. He kissed the three of them.
‘Did you have a good time?’

‘Good. It was nice. How was the weekend with Andy?’

‘I didn’t go away with Andy in the end. Come in the kitchen. I’ve got a surprise for you all.’

At the kitchen table sat a second Joseph. He jumped up, grinning, and kissed the three of them enthusiastically.

‘I’ve done all of those bits and pieces you were on about,’ he said. ‘Look, the door’s fixed.’

‘We both fixed it,’ said Joseph.

Molly looked from Joseph to Joseph, and from Deborah to Deborah.

‘Are there any more of you?’ she asked.


Joseph appeared much cheerier than he felt. There had already been a number of disagreements. The other Joseph had not taken kindly to being asked to fix the door and tidy the house, and after a brief stand-off they had agreed to share the tasks. When these were completed Joseph suggested a game of chess, but this was dismissed in favour of the book Joseph was reading.

‘Why do you think you should decide everything we do?’ said the other Joseph. ‘What makes you think you’re in charge?’

‘Because I’m the original,’ said Joseph. ‘That gives me some kind of precedence, doesn’t it?’

‘You’re the original? I think you’ll find I started this. I can remember telephoning the clinic.’

‘So can I,’ said Joseph. ‘I remember sitting in the waiting room. The old guy with the dog.’


‘So where’s everyone sleeping, then?’ asked Deborah.

The four sat in silence eating dinner. Joseph had not considered the sleeping arrangements.

‘Me and you, one of you, whichever, in our bed, the other me and you on the sofa bed,’ jumped in the other Joseph. ‘That’s the obvious solution. We’ll swap each night.’

‘Deborah and I would like to sleep together sometimes. Tonight, in fact.’

‘Why? That doesn’t make sense now there’s two of me,’ said Joseph.

‘I’d very much like to share a bed with one of you,’ said Joseph’s clone, seductively.

‘Tomorrow night, honey,’ said the other Deborah, smiling at him. ‘At least you’ve got each other to sleep with now. You complained you had to spend the night sleeping alone before.’

‘It would just be nice if you seemed keener to sleep with me rather than yourself.’

‘I like sleeping with you, Joseph. Just sometimes I want to sleep with Deborah.’

‘So what are you saying? That she’s better than me in bed?’

‘Oh, leave it,’ said the other Joseph. ‘Stop complaining about everything.’

Joseph sat in silence. A Deborah leant over and squeezed his arm.

By bedtime Joseph had argued his way to sharing a bed with Deborah, though he was relegated to the sofa. As he swung the mattress up on its rocker he watched the other Joseph playfully nudge the other Deborah out of the room.

‘Night,’ he called from the bedroom.

Joseph wanted to punch him.

‘Joseph.’ Deborah’s toast sat uneaten in front of her on the kitchen table. Joseph looked up from his breakfast.

‘Joseph and I are leaving,’

The other Joseph was upstairs shaving, and the other Deborah dressing Molly.

‘You’re what?’

‘It’s for the best, Joseph. We’ll be gone when you’re back from taking Molly to nursery. And please don’t tell Deborah. I’m worried she’ll cause a scene.’

‘You’re walking out on me? Just like that?’

‘You’ll be happier if we do. You’ve been even more miserable since this started.’

‘What about Molly? You’re just abandoning her?’

‘No one’s abandoning her. She’ll still have two parents here.’

‘Why him?’

Deborah avoided his gaze. ‘Don’t go on at me about it, please. I’ve just realised from, well, having time with just the two of us. You remember the fun we had when we first met. And of course I’ll miss Molly.’

‘You have more fun with him?’

‘Please stop repeating everything I say. It’s like there’s an echo in the room.’

‘How do you know it’s not me you want to leave with?’ cried Joseph.

‘Shh. Deborah’ll hear you. Come on, finish your breakfast. Molly will be late for nursery.’

Deborah left for college, and Joseph found himself alone with the couple. He refused to take Molly to nursery, and did jigsaws with her in the lounge, listening to their movements around the flat.

‘Daddy, I need the toilet,’ said Molly.

When he came out of the bathroom they were gone.

When Deborah returned from college she sat at the kitchen table in tears. Joseph sat with her and said nothing. Occasionally he handed her a fresh tissue from a box on the table.

‘Thank you, Joe,’ said Deborah. ‘Sorry about the snivelling.’

It was not unpleasant for Joseph to sit there. This was how they had lived for some time, the familiar scene of he and Deborah alone on a weekend night amid the domesticity of their city flat. He looked closely at the texture of the skin of her cheeks – she was a Deborah he had not quite seen before. A slightly imperfect clone. He sat in silence and waited for her to speak. But it was not really waiting.

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