The Trade-Off by Martin Friel.
Its Friday. Rent day. The worst day.
Gerald slouches on the shabby two-seater staring at the wall, contemplating what is to come. He can hear Angie, the landlady, moving around downstairs. His stomach lurches the inevitability of the situation makes him queasy. He doesnt have the rent. He seldom does.
Downstairs Angie takes a dress out of her wardrobe, looks at it, makes a face and puts it back. She repeats the ritual several times, ultimately going back to the original one. Its a long, green acrylic number, the type thats alive with static. She puts it on, ignoring the hole under the left armpit concentrating on the taught material stretching across her midriff. She caresses the bulge sighing as she does so, resigned to her expanding girth.
She sits in front of the mirror. Her cheeks are sagging, the skin around her eyes drooping, her brow alive with wrinkles. She applies the foundation liberally in an attempt to suffocate them. She succeeds only in making herself look older than her 43 years. The makeup is so thick that cracks appear as it dries.
Red lipstick next, layer upon layer. It makes a shocking contrast to the paleness of her face. Mascara, eyeliner, some blusher and a dab of perfume behind each ear. She looks at herself critically. Through the makeup in the tarnished mirror, she can just about make out the woman she once was. She squints her eyes, pouts, smiles. She drops the smile. Her skins sags once more. She sees herself for what she is. She sighs, takes a deep breath and heads through to the kitchen.
Gerald hasnt moved, paralysed with inertia. Theres no avoiding the situation, he just needs to deal with it. No rent. No nothing. His pockets are empty again. He knows what this means. But he just cant seem to control his money. Drinking is expensive even if he sticks to the cheap brands. He finds that he needs more and more as the years go by, as his life offers less and less promise. He tries hard to put the rent money aside but he often drinks himself to sleep, washes himself clean of the day, of his life.
Theres not much to wash away hes only 32 but feels 62. The constant disappointment and unfulfilled aspirations have taken their toll. He seldom sees more than the four walls of his room, a fact reflected in his pale pallor, the red rings that circle his eyes, the thick stubble on his face, the dirt under his yellowing fingernails. It costs money to drink the way he does and more often than not he finds himself in this situation. Friday. Fear. Rent. Resignation.
He hears the key turning in Angies door. Every step she takes on the stairs resonates in his guts. Closer and closer. Theres a pause when she gets to the top. It feels like five minutes but finally the knock on the door comes. Hes been expecting it but still he jumps. He ignores it. It comes again.
Gerald. Its Angie. Ive come for the rent.
He can hear the rasp of countless cigarettes behind her high-pitched voice. It sounds forced. He sits, not making a sound.
Gerald, its me, Angie. I know youre in there. I heard you going to the toilet earlier. Come on, let me in.
He draws air into his lungs, pulls himself off the sofa and heads towards the door. He opens it. Angie is standing there looking tired, worn out. Her smile reveals a row of uneven, yellow teeth.
Hi Gerald. I thought you were ignoring me.
She lets out a nervous laugh.
Not at all Angie. Id just dosed off on the couch. Come on in.
He opens the door wide letting her past him into his dingy little room. She notices unwashed pans and plates on the kitchen counter. The stove is thick with grease. Newspapers, beer cans and empty bottles litter the floor. The curtains are drawn. The room smells dank. An oppressive depression lingers.
You been drinking? she asks him.
I wish. Dont got the money for it.
You want to join me in one? Angie asks producing a bottle of gin from her handbag.
Listen Angie, Im really not in the mood for company today. Im tired and I need some space. Its nothing personal. I just need to be alone today.
But the bottle sings to him all the same.
The smile on Angies face vanishes. She tries not to look hurt but her shoulders have drooped. She stands there cradling the bottle in her hands like a precious vase. She stops to think.
Fine. No problem, she says curtly.
Her lips have thinned; her face has become pinched.
Well Ill just get the rent and go then, she says.
Listen, I dont have it. Ive had a bad week. Not much call for an odd job man at the moment. Ill make it up next week.
He looks at the bottle. She watches him eyeing it, recognises the hunger. A smile creeps across her face. Her shoulders rise again.
Well in that case, youll join me for a drink Im sure, she says.
Gerald contemplates a protest but that old futile feeling returns. Theres no point resisting. He knows the score. Knows how much he needs that drink. The one that will steady him, ease him through the rest of the day. He looks at Angie and knows that the bottle she holds can free him from the rent and get him through another day.
Well are you going to get some glasses or what? she asks with a smile.
Gerald gets them, fills them with ice. Angie pours two large ones and they settle on the couch. They say nothing for a while. Just drinking in the silence, staring dead ahead. Angies the first to break the quiet.
You ever get lonely up here on your own Gerald?
Weve been through this before. I like my own space and my own company. Everybody gets lonely. Silence again.
I do, says Angie.
Yeah I know. Youve told me. Angie gives him a stern look. Theres hurt in her eyes. He tries to hide his discomfort at the situation, his irritation. He needs to keep his emotions in check.
Im sorry. I just a bit low at the moment.
Whats wrong? Youre a fine young man, what you got to be down about?
I dont want to get into it Angie. Im just down thats all.
Well maybe I can help with that, she says attempting a coquettish smile.
She pulls herself closer to him. He instinctively recoils but remembering the situation relaxes and lets her push her thigh up against his. He knows whats coming. He shuts his eyes waiting for her hand to creep over his thigh. There it is. Cold, stiff and needy.
Youre wasted up here all on your own honey, she whispers. He can feel her face drawing closer to his. He can smell the stale cigarettes, the coffee and the gin on her breath.
Its a crime to keep yourself locked away like this, she breathes in his ear. He feels her hand run over his crotch. Her fingers search for his cock through the thick denim. She struggles. Theres no response from him. He sits there, stroking the glass with his fingers, eyes shut. He remains rigid on the couch letting her grope.
Suddenly she starts tearing at the belt and buttons of his jeans, pulling them open violently, desperate to get at his cock.
Finally it flops out. Limp, lifeless. Small and terrified.
Awww. He needs a little attention, she says in a baby voice. He winces.
She grasps it roughly, squeezing the head. Gerald lets out a little gasp but otherwise remains motionless. Takes a large gulp from his drink. She slides off the couch positioning herself between his legs. She goes down, taking his still-limp cock in her mouth and starts working on it furiously, desperately trying to give it some life.
Gerald opens his eyes. He watches her working on him. Notices the beginnings of a bald patch at the crown of her head. Where theres hair, theres dandruff. He can see the bulges of flesh around her waist desperate to break free from the confines of the dress. Her ass seems to be twice as wide as her shoulders. It dominates the scene. Still she works away fruitlessly. Theres no response from his cock. Nothing.
No response. Bobbing and slurping.
Angie! he says firmly.
She stops, his wet cock flopping from her mouth, and looks up.
Whats wrong? You not enjoying it honey? No no, its great, he stutters. I just need a drink. Can I have another?
Of course, of course. Whatever you want. She gets up, reaches for the bottle on the table and hands it to him. He tips the bottle almost vertically into the glass, filling it. Angie reaches down to the hem of her dress and starts to pull it up and over her head. She reveals a stained slip, frayed at the edges. That goes too as do the large, shapeless panties and miss-matching bra. He looks at her sagging, lumpy form. Her bush is untamed and spreads down to her inner thighs. Her tits are tired, sagging to the bottom of her rib cage. The thighs are large, dimpled and broad.
You like what you see?
Gerald takes a large gulp from his glass, winces and stares into the distance. He looks down at his cock. Its shrivelled and cold from the drying saliva.
Now where were we? she simpers.
She gets back down on it. Gerald closes his eyes again trying desperately to get turned on. The sooner this is over the better. Hell be left in peace for another week. He rakes through the wank bank in his head trying desperately to find something that will turn him on. He can feel her working away trying to get his cock hard. Finally he latches on to a distant memory of porn. The images pour into his mind like a waterfall, fresh and invigorating. He focuses intently on them. He can feel his cock start to stiffen.
Thats more like it, she says through a mouthful.
He concentrates on the images. He hardens. Its almost at a respectable size now. She stops suddenly, pulling herself off, looking up at him.
OK lover boy. Give Angie what she needs.
Gerald drains his glass, eyes closed.
Can I get another? he asks opening his eyes.
She looks at him trying to look confident but the desperation leaks through her eyes, betraying her.
Sure, help yourself.
He pours four fingers out of the bottle. He watches her as she stands before him rubbing her clit. Shes trying to look sexy but her natural awkwardness dominates her movements.
You like that, huh?
Gerald takes another swig in response. Angie starts to climb on top of him. She pushes his rapidly-softening cock into her trying to work it into something useful. He closes his eyes again, glass in hand, still motionless. He lets her work herself up and down on him. He feels very little. Either he is too small or she is too loose. He cant figure it out. He can smell her breath again. Sour. Stale. He goes back to the film in his head. He cant bear to touch her. The feel of her sagging flesh would shatter the fantasy in his head. He grips his glass, caressing it with his fingers, savouring the cool condensation that has formed on the sides.
Angie starts to moan, working faster. Despite himself, he starts to feel something. He can feel his cock getting harder, stiffer, reacting to her repetitive strokes. He takes another swig, the film on a loop in his head. Angies getting closer to climax. Her breathing getting faster. Hes getting close himself. He hates himself for it but his cock knows no different. Finally, she comes with a screech followed by a slow rasp at the back of her throat.
He looks up. Through the makeup he can see her face is flushed. She looks down at him with that yellow smile.
Did you make it?
No he replies, monotone.
We need to fix that then dont we?
Honestly Angie its fine. Its OK.
Ive never left a man dissatisfied yet, she says with mock pride.
She pulls herself off and starts to stroke his cock. She spits in the palm of her hand, rubbing vigorously. Again Gerald takes a swig and closes his eyes. She works her hand back and forth spouting cheap dirty talk in an attempt to get him going. Gerald caresses the glass. He stiffens. He drains the glass. He arches his back and empties himself into her hand. A small, lifeless orgasm but one he knows will liberate him.
Angie gets up and wipes her hand on a dishcloth. Gerald grimaces at this but says nothing. He watches as she puts the bra and panties, the stained slip and the green dress back on.
Listen, about the rent he starts.
Dont worry. I know things are tough. Well sort something out, she says with a smile.
She leans down and kisses him on the cheek.
You want me to leave you the rest of the bottle again?
Yeah if you dont mind Angie. That would be good.
Gerald gets up, puts more ice in his glass and fills it with gin. He settles back on the couch. The same spot. He watches as she heads for the door.
Ill see you next week OK?
Gerald raises his glass. The cool condensation runs onto his fingers, soothing him. The gin is taking effect. He feels soft, mellow, like he can handle things. The sharp edges have been shaved off. He even manages a smile.
See you next week Angie. And thanks for the drink.
She looks at him. Her smile is gone. Her jowls hang heavy with the weight of years. She looks down, pauses, looks back up.
You do like me dont you Gerald?
He looks at her with gin-drowsed eyes. He raises his glass and winks, kisses the glass and takes another gulp. Angie forces a smile, turns and walks out the door.
Upstairs Gerald does up his jeans, looks at the bottle of gin. Its half empty. He thinks about what he has done for that bottle but he loves it nonetheless. He takes it in both hands, holds it, hugs it, knowing it means he will make it through another day.
Downstairs Angie is slumped in front of the mirror. It taunts her, reflecting her shame, her desperation. Once upon a time she turned heads. Now she is reduced to bribing alcoholics in return for momentary love. She wraps her arms round herself as the uncontrollable tears make a mockery of her makeup mask. Her body convulses with emotion.
Outside a dog barks, a siren sounds and the sun sets on another day.
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