Did you ever treat a girlfriend or boyfriend callously at school? Were you just lucky to have one?
James sat in the bath until his fingers wrinkled. He sunk lower and lower escaping the chill air of the bathroom until only his nostrils, eyes and forehead remained above the water line. He turned the hot tap with his foot, but cold water jetted out. The phone rang in the hallway.
‘I’m not an answering service,’ his mother said.
He heard her give the last four digits of their number the way she always did. He yanked the bathplug free and stepped onto the bathmat, towelling his back, as the water gurgled down the plughole.
‘It’s that girl,’ his mother shouted.
‘Tell her I’ll call her back.’
Mrs Lesser was dusting the branches of a spider plant. Houses didn’t clean themselves. The phone was cradled against her chest.
‘You should employ a secretary.’
James took his Dad’s aftershave from the bathroom cabinet, easing the door to, avoiding the tell-tale squeal of hinges. He tilted the brown bottle and dabbed a fingertip behind each ear, the way his mother did on bingo nights.
‘Are you coming or not?’
James sauntered down the stairs, wrapped in the longest towel he could find in the airing cupboard. His mother handed him the phone with a sniff and went through to the living room. He waited for the flick of the switch, the hum of the vacuum cleaner.
‘Alright?’ he said.
‘Hi. How’re you doing?’
Katie’s voice echoed. She was always at her grandparents, but James had no idea why. He’d built up a picture of pot plants, porcelain figures and tea served in cups and saucers.
‘Are you going later?’ she said.
James had left a small puddle where his legs had dripped on the woodblock.
‘Don’t know if I can,’ he said, twirling the phone cord.
James didn’t say anything. A carriage clock chimed four.
‘I mean, I might if you are.’
The vacuum cut out. His mother crashed about in the sink cupboard in search of the dustpan and brush. James stretched the cord so he could stand in front of the mirror. He breathed on the polished surface and watched it evaporate. He smoothed his hair forward, tried centre-parting it with a finger. He’d have to decide which short to wear.
‘Are you still there?’
‘Course I’m still here.’
He stared at his wet footprints on the woodblock. He was starting to feel cold and pressed himself against the hall radiator. The pipes were almost too hot to bear, despite the thick towel.
‘I love you, you know.’
Katie’s voice was almost a whisper. James cradled the phone against his chin and picked at his thumbnail.
‘Perhaps I’ll see you later then?’
‘Perhaps,’ James said. He hung up.
His mother stood in the kitchen doorway, drying her hands.
‘You’re a little sod, aren’t you?’
‘You shouldn’t listen to other people’s phone calls.’
James ran up the stairs, trailing his dad’s aftershave.
‘Why don’t you just put that little girl out of her misery?’