Matthew Rhys Thompson
Bad News (2021)
Autumn months, dark finds us, raining and cold. The past few weeks have unfolded like steady footsteps. The last of summer gently walking into early Autumn as rain begins to mount. The estate seems to be greying by the hour. I round up the keys from the cupboard and throw them into the blue plastic bucket in the boot of a different car (which only went up to Mark’s safe twice, as Julian demanded, before we stopped again). Ellis is inside the half-built office attending to two or three matters at once as he juggles paperwork, his briefcase and a phone call. Mark is waiting outside. I wait by the door ready to set the alarm as Ellis skips over, forgets something, and runs back. Outside, the rain is frequent and slight. The paintwork of Mark’s car beads on every panel, catching the light from the market beyond the fence. It’s just a five minute drive to a local Starbucks where we’ll quickly grab a hot chocolate and panini.
Mark insists on parking in the disabled space by the doors, every time he does so I wish he really was disabled. As we queue along the counter and edge closer to the cashier, he systematically places different items into his pocket. Biscuits, waffles, chocolates; a small theft perceived as a victory. He always insists on paying for us, to the point of anger if we contest. In an hour or two, I’ll be paying him.
We each sit impatiently around a small table awaiting our name to be called to collect our food and drinks. Right now Mark is recalling a story I’ve heard time and time again.’Whenever he came out for food he would take out his wallet and fish through the stolen cards he had until one landed. We used to call him Harry Potter, like he was casting a spell.’ His eyes fill as he impresses himself once more with this short tale.
‘That’s wild.’ Says Ellis, revelling in the story once more.
Mark scans the room quickly before continuing. ‘Another one was so quick with mental arithmetic. He would take the bill and divide it in his head by the number of people around the table in an instant, minus himself. He ate for free for years until we finally realised what he’d been doing. He didn’t hang around long after that, let me tell you.’ His fist gently taps the table as he nods his head somewhat sideways.
‘Class.’ Says Ellis.
My mind is elsewhere at the minute. We took in a car this morning that turned out to be category D. We can’t sell them through the garage so I put it online under a fake name with a number from a plastic phone. It was in an accident, the insurance company wrote it off and moved it on after the repair work was made and somewhere down the line it ended up with us. This afternoon a young woman rang. After food we’ll be driving across the city to show her the car. You have to declare the status of these cars to sell them legally, but in doing so yield less profit.
Back outside the unit I jump out of Mark’s car into the Chevrolet I’m selling. I put the address in my phone, double check I have the logbook, service history and spare key, then set off. I’m halfway to convinced the sale is secured, but ride waves of doubt on the journey there. Perhaps they know it’s being sold illegally, perhaps I’m stepping into a trap. I nervously flutter the radio on and off, change stations, increase the volume and silence it. I check my phone, speed up the wipers, tweak the heaters, drop the windows and raise them again, all the while driving with Mark shielding me behind. The car is untaxed and the last thing I need is the police running the plate and pulling me over. We arrive to a residential area in the South East of the city. I pull alongside the pavement, Mark and Ellis pass me and take the next right just a few metres down the road. Now all the nervous, excitable energy will allay into charm. I call the woman and after a minute she steps outside a small block of flats, glancing left to right. I step out into the rain and catch her eyes with a raised arm and slight smile. As we walk towards one another a man steps out of the block and traces her line. A lamp post between us lights the rain with an amber cast as it dances like a ribbon stick in the wind.
‘Jacob?’ The young woman asks.
‘That’s me, nice to meet you.’ (Jacob is the name I chose for the advert this morning).
‘I’m Emily. This is the car then?’ She stops and looks at it from a distance, with a modest smile.
‘This is it, and here are the keys.’ She takes the keys from me and studies them, looking for clues to the tale behind them. The man who traced her line now stops at her shoulder and holds out his hand for her to pass them over.
‘Hi sir, nice to meet you.’ I say.
He nods at me as he studies the blue car in the falling rain. I take a couple of steps back and hoist myself on top of a wall, pulling my hood up over my head.
‘It’s so clean!’ Says Emily, stood a metre to my left a few feet down. She’s wearing a dark padded jacket with light blue jeans and white trainers. Her auburn hair falls an inch past her shoulders and is indiscriminately gathering the smallest drops of rain.
‘To be honest with you I try to clean it as often as I can. I can’t stand a dirty car.’ The lie steps out of my mouth with ease and walks straight to her. ‘Is that your father?’
‘Yeh, he told me to come here so he could view the car for me, he’s just trying to look out for me I guess.’
Her Father has short wiry dark hair with a sprinkle of grey. The skin of his face was shaven this morning and hangs ever so slightly. He’s visually cautious and adopts a stance of distance and unease as he surveys the car in front of him.
‘What do you do?’ I ask Emily.
‘I’m a nurse. My car failed its MOT drastically a few days ago. I need a car to travel for work, I don’t just stay in one hospital, I visit many.’
‘Well, in all honesty it’s a lovely car. I just began a new job and was offered a company car so there’s no use for it anymore, otherwise I would keep it.’ The lie leaves before I have time to check it.
‘What job?’ I question silently. My mind flickers between different friends and family members until I land on Chris, a fire safety engineer with a company vehicle. If she asks, that will be my new job. ‘So do you also live here?’ I ask.
‘No, I live just down the road maybe ten minutes or so.’
By now her father is half under the car laying on his back with his knees bent and his feet flat upon the gritty road that begins to gleam as water fills the indentations.
‘The heat shield is loose!’ His voice echoes out misshapenly.
‘Is it?’ I question emptily.
‘Yes, and by the looks of it the right shock absorber is leaking too.’
I pause for a second, ‘How much will that cost?’, adopting an oblivious and forthright tone. I glance to Emily and see her trustingly vacant face pointed towards her father.
‘I’m not sure exactly, perhaps two, three hundred quid.’
The father pulls the top half of his body out from under the car so fluidly at first it seems the car is rolling over him. He stands and brushes himself off, avoiding my eyes. I’ve had the car a matter of hours, and although I doubt the problems really exist, I know I’m selling it illegally and sense this isn’t a deterrent, but a point of leverage for him. My thoughts bounce between wanting to sell and not wanting to, with the facial expressions to match. I try to feign the look of hesitancy, all the while knowing what I’m about to offer.
‘I’ll knock two hundred off for you to help you out.’ I drop down from the wall and with the slap of my shoes stretch out my hand to fasten the deal. The father withholds, turning to his daughter.
‘Are you happy with the car love?’
She takes a moment to brush her eyes over it front to back. Sodden strands of hair cling to her face, down to her lips. She sweeps a few with her fingertips. ‘Yeh, I really like it Dad.’
The father grabs my hand and shakes it, inviting me into his home. I can’t believe it. We haven’t even driven the car. I follow the pair in, wipe my trainers on the mat and take them off, hoping my feet don’t smell. I place my coat on a rack that’s screwed to the wall. The narrow corridor is carpeted an old beige which has worn to a light grey down the centre where the daily steps of the family land. We walk past a narrow kitchen to our right, just big enough for two or three people to stand within. Every room has a light on. We step into the living room and I’m met by an entire family. The mother, aunty, cousins, I think someone has died as they are speaking of someone in both kindness and disbelief amidst a heavy windowless air.
‘Nice to meet you all.’ I say, as I try to address each person with the turning of my head.
‘So you’re the one selling the car?’ Asks the mother as she wipes her nose and smiles through reddened eyes.
‘That’s me, yes.’ My instinct is to begin convincing her of the car too, but I sense the mechanics and redundancy of this and stop myself. One of the family members is sat on the arm of a sofa, her head dropped down in an untenanted stare to the floor, her arms detached, stranded on her thighs.
‘Would you like a glass of water or a cup of tea love?’ Asks the mother as she shuffles herself in the sofa, readying to stand.
‘No, I’m fine thank you, that’s very kind of you.’
She furrows back down. I hand the paperwork to the father and direct my attention back to the mother.
‘And what do you do then?’ She asks to fill the silence.
‘I’m a fire safety engineer. It’s a bit boring really but I get paid to travel and be on the road a lot which is nice. I’ve just started a new job with a company car which is why I’m selling it, and you?’
‘I’m a nurse like my daughter here.’ She nods her head towards her daughter and then grants me a smile I recognise well. Her daughter smiles too and I follow suit.
‘I have a lot of respect for you both.’
‘I must apologise for the mess, there was a death in the family this afternoon, it’s still a bit of a shock.’
The house is perfectly clean. ‘I’m very sorry for your loss.’
‘Thanks very much love.’ She blows her nose into a tissue, folds it and blows again.
‘How long have you had the car?’ The father asks bemusedly. The question pricks me. Worry douses the skin of my body as I realise I can’t remember the name on the logbook, but know it to be a woman’s. I try to play it safe and quickly tell him, ‘It’s my girlfriend’s car. I’m not sure how long she’s had it, but I’ve been driving it for the past few months.’ I refuse any more information and remain stood, slightly unsure whether to sit or stand, surrounded by this family in the midst of bad news, I pray that he doesn’t doubt me and ask her name.
He looks me up and down, glances back to the paperwork and walks out of the room. My socks fuse with the carpet threads. No one’s attention is on me, the mother is talking to the woman next to her, the young woman buying the car is sat holding another woman of about her age. There’s a man in the corner of the room looking through a photo album. I feel estranged, with the voices of the family growing louder, my own internal voice is like a shrinking shadow escaping me. Features of the room begin to jump out. A cracked picture frame hanging perfectly straight on the wall, a ceramic dog placed atop the cavernous green tiled fireplace. The floral wallpaper begins to sway in a breeze. Next to my hanging arm is a small circular table with an unsolved Rubik’s cube on a glass coaster. I pick up the cube and examine it. I shift the blocks one way and then the other, hoping to re-establish a sense of control.
‘Here you are,’ says the father. He hands me a light brown envelope and the signed paperwork. I look inside and to my relief see a thick chunk of tens and twenties.
‘I haven’t solved it yet.’
What the fuck is he on about? ‘Solved what?’ I ask.
‘The Rubik’s cube. I was trying to do it without searching for tips online.’
‘Yeh, I’ve never really given it the time of day.’ I hand him the cube and begin to count the cash.
‘I know that the centre cubes indicate the colour of the faces when finished, and I’ve managed to get a white cross, but I can’t quite do the corners yet.’
‘I uhh.. four, five, six, I can’t help you sorry.’
‘You have to think in terms of an algorithm, you have to keep track of the movements.’
‘Ten, eleven, twelve hundred, it’s all there, thank you very much.’ I lift my head from the envelope and hold out my hand to shake his and leave. He complies and I begin to walk out of the room.
I marry a smile with an open face, and turn around.
‘Thanks so much for helping me with this car.’ Says Emily.
‘It’s my pleasure. Look after it.’
‘How will you get home love?’ Asks the mother.
‘By chance my friend lives just around the corner so I told him if you do take the car I’ll walk over afterwards.’
‘That’s lucky. Emily would have taken you home. Isn’t that right Em’?’
‘Yes, but I’m sure he wants to go and see his friend, so drop it Mam.’
‘Thanks again, if you have any trouble at all just give me a call. You won’t, but just in case.’
‘I’m sure it will be fine, I’ll save your number anyway.’
‘Again, I’m sorry for intruding in this moment.’
‘Don’t be daft, good luck with the new job darling.’
‘Ahh, yeh, thank you.’
I walk out of the living room and the father follows, tapping me twice on the shoulder with an open palm as I walk past him, the last tap lingers on my shirt. A few goodbyes call out from the living room ending on a sneeze. I reach the front door and bend down to slide my trainers on. I stand back up to see the father uncomfortably close to me.
‘Truth be told I never did like her very much.’
‘What?’ I arch backwards trying to increase the distance between our faces. I catch sight of the first stubble pushing through his skin. His mouth’s edge is stained orange and a whisper of expired patchouli hits me.
‘Wife’s sister. The one who passed, we never did get on. I’ll try to find something to do for the next few hours as this all sets in for everyone.’
‘Terrible timing really.’
‘Is it ever good timing?’
‘She thought she saw something in me that wasn’t there you know? Convinced of it. Almost managed to separate us on two occasions but we pulled through in the end. I’m as honest as a day’s long.’
‘I really need to get going.’
I turn the handle of the door to a throb of heavy rain that forgives the father’s awkward intensity and reminds me of my coat. I take it from the hangar and place it on with the father watching me. I pinch the envelope of cash under one arm inside my coat and leave. At the end of the path I turn to see the father stood at the door still watching. He lifts his arm high into the air to wave. I follow the road with my head down, my hood pulled up. I can see Mark parked outside a bungalow across the road down a side street. I wait for a car to pass and skip over the road, glancing back over my shoulder. The father is no longer within sight. I lift up the lid to a bin behind a gate on a short driveway, reach my arm into my pocket and toss in the plastic phone. The heat in Mark’s car stifles me at first.
‘How’d it go Matth?’ Asks Ellis.
I hand him the envelope as water runs off me onto the leather seats. ‘Easy, had a little bit of a moment where they could have caught me out, but got through it.’
Mark laughs. ‘You’ve turned him into a rouge mind Ell’.’
‘He’s one of us Mark.’
‘I can see that.’
‘This is for you.’ Ellis hands me a couple of hundred pounds over his shoulder, his gaze held forwards.
I slide the notes through my fingers and fold them into my jeans pocket. ‘Nice one.’
‘Better than a kick in the teeth.’
‘On to the next one now.’
About this work
Bad News is a short story that explores a moment in which Matthew Rhys Thompson steps forwards to align himself with the men around him, selling a car illegally in one day. Thompson drives the car across the city to a young woman’s address and upon entering the property, finds himself stood before a grieving family in their living room. Thompson hands the paperwork over, and upon seeing a woman’s name, the father proceeds to question him.
Bad News is an extract from Matthew Rhys Thompson’s forthcoming publication, On Top. Keep up to date with this via Instagram: