The snip tap of the scissors played around his head. Too much off the top. Kayley wouldn’t let him lean into her hand when she touched his hair. Jab didn’t say anything. Just hunkered down under the flap plastic gown in the hope he’d be a smaller target for the blades. No time for small talk.
It was busy. Rows of them, sat like they’re at a show they’ve paid for but don’t want to watch. That careful look, when you stare at yourself, only just above one eye, so you don’t look self-indulgent. On his left was a right one, voice so low it’s coming out of his shoes, a careful crease down the arms of his shirt. Corduroy trousers. That sort.
No time to sit and chat, it’s the cut that’s got to do the job, send him on his way. Just keep looking at that spot above the left eyebrow, circle scar from chicken pox where he scratched his face even though Mum slapped his hands away and dabbed pink powder lotion on.
Mr. Corduroy was crowing, ever so pleased with the snip cut on his head. Jab was already up, out of the chair, shoulders in coat before he finished handing over the wrinkled fiver with a nod. The man at the desk, he tipped his head back, looked down at Jab like he knew, could see the thing that’s waiting there for him, lined up like the tip of a domino. A perfect tap in the right place and he’ll be set, pick up a House Special on his way home, set himself down on the floor in front of the sofa so she can settle her hand in his new haircut.
He let the gusts of people take him down the road. Coming out in little bursts, rushing out of Poundland like they’d get found out, clutching the shivering plastic bags to their sides, all full of Tunnock’s caramel wafers and some tat the kids might like, keep them away from the Xbox for another five minutes.
Jab had a higher purpose. There above the offy, Carl was waiting. In his hands were mounds of grey-green papery slips, squash them together and you’ve got no rent worries for the next six months. There for the taking. Practically his already. He tucked hands in pockets, felt something slippy, soft, like the money was already there.
Around the corner, he stopped. Pulled it out. Just a few steps away from the blue door his future lay behind. It was a yellow tie. The colour ached his eyes, something green in it, a slice of gold that had gone rotten. All shiny, like a snakeskin. It fell onto the floor, coiled up, a bright splatter on the pavement.
Mr. Corduroy. Jab could see him, rummaging in his pockets, all bent out of shape about his lost tie, maybe one that Mrs. Corduroy got him last birthday, in one of them presentation boxes, ready wrapped and smart as anything.
Jab looked back up the street. Busier now, suited types filling up the spaces in between the mummy shoppers, heading home from work, or going to the All Bar One to sink a few before facing the gauntlet of dinner at home.
If he went back now, tried to give it back, he’d be late. Plus, there was no telling whether Mr. Corduroy would still be there. He’d probably taken his uncreased sleeves home, no doubt there was a pile of fancy things like this he could hang around his neck. He wouldn’t miss this one.
Jab leaned down, picked it back up. A little dark spot down one end, that wouldn’t notice. He flopped it round his neck, let the material rub over the rough bit, when you get little hairs back there and it itches like buggery.
This could give him an edge. Carl would be impressed, the lengths he’d gone to, to look the part. He slip-tied the knot – they had a blue one with red stripes on at school – flopped down the soft collar of his polo shirt. A dark shadow of himself in the blackened windows of the old newsagent’s. Reliable, his reflection said. Boasted of how he could carry things off without a hitch.
He made his entrance, didn’t even bother to knock.
‘Here, Jabber thinks he’s an estate agent.’ That little one in the corner, ratty face and fingers. Not the entrance Jab was hoping for.
‘Nothing wrong with making an effort, you want to show a bit more respect, like, not turning any heads in your dowdy rags there, are you?’ The words tumbled out, like they always did. Rat Face was always with Carl, it wasn’t good to criticise.
‘Easy now.’ Carl was sat at the dining table, flap-up baseball cap tipped just to the side. Jab had tried to wear his like that, preened and flicked in the mirror until Kayley snatched it off his head, told him to go downstairs, the baby was napping.
‘I’m here.’ Jab stepped forward. Silence ticked out. It was better to say less, but the words bubbled out. ‘I’m here ‘cos of what you said was going down, and how you needed someone reliable, and I turned up to the Saturday job I had every week even when I got tanked the night before, and when we did our drama project I was always first to rehearsals.’
‘Easy.’ Carl put a hand up. ‘No need to explain.’ He turned, rummaged in a rucksack on the floor. ‘Here we are.’ In one hand, a thick envelope. In the other, a small brown package, about the size of a large special fried rice.
‘No problem.’ A delivery. Jab took both, no hand fumbling, envelope in the pocket and parcel swinging from one hand.
‘Address.’ Little slip of paper, jagged at the top where it’s pulled off the pad like Mum’s shopping lists.
‘Safe.’ Jab swiped the words with his eyes, his route growing out in lines over the roads – walk to station, get tube, bus, short walk. He could be home by eight.
He strutted out past the ratty one, that slippery slither down his front a marker of success. No questions asked.
Jab entered the crush going into the station – commuter crowd scrabbling and paper flick reading, that smell of print that you couldn’t get off your fingers. He took one off the pile, another mask for his mission. Beep tap on the reader, seamless, sliding through the crowds.
A follower. Hood up, face with shadows drawn on, looked like the ratty man. Scampering through the barriers over there, looking away as if Jab wouldn’t notice. Do the double, on the train then back off. This guy with the pointed nose would be on his way, snuffling through the window while Jab went back out, got the 259 from outside.
On the platform, crowds were lining up, clustered round the sweet spot where the train comes in and whoosh, doors open like they’ve been expecting you. Jab kept walking, up to the end, like he wanted that rattling bit where he could get a seat. Sniffling behind came rat face. Got to time it just right.
Dirt scent breeze from the coming train, eyeglare of headlights coming out through the tunnel. Rattle and click, thump and the train was there, squealing as it stopped. Jab waited, let the leavers get off.
He stepped in, kept to the line between in and out, quick check to see the back of ratty man further down, leaning on the pole next to a straight suit woman. Robot voice telling them what to do, everyone stood there like sheep. Not him, he was different.
There it was. The beep. Right at the end of it he snicked off, just before the gulp of the closing door. Perfect. Now he could carry on, get his work done.
Something wrong. He stepped away but his body didn’t move, something anchoring it back to the train. He pulled again, jerking free, only this time it hurt. A sharp pain round his neck. The tie. The bloody motherfucking tie had caught in the doors and there he was, suspended from it, parcel still swinging from one hand and that knot. Too tight, tied too well. He pulled, again, the doors were about to open and ratty man would find him.
It locked round his throat. Squeezing. He tugged too hard. Scrambling for breath, red panic heat rising up his neck, itch at the back from the little hairs and thank you Mr. Corduroy for your gift. He was going to get something for Mini Jab, a tiny cap to wear like his dad but now he’d strangle himself on a slip custard tie.
The doors burst open. Jab slumped down, air like water pouring into his lungs and he grabbed at the knot, peanut small, jerking it open to free his neck. A hand on his arm, scrabbling down and pulling the parcel out of his hand.
‘You should stick to selling houses.’ The rat’s claws were in his pocket, slipping the money out, off through a brick-round tunnel and Jab was alone.
‘Stand clear of the doors.’
He found the bench and sat, unwrapping the tie knot and staring down at his hands, all covered with a stink of failure.
Sarah Tinsley is a writer, teacher, runner and drummer who lives in London. Prone to musing over gender issues and eating cheese, she has an MA in Creative Writing from City University and won the International Segora Short Story prize in 2016. Her short fiction, reviews and blogs have been published on a variety of platforms and you can find her on Twitter @sarahertinsley and find her blog at http://sarahtinsley.com