Short Fiction Contest-winning story #61 — “Equal” by Chris Simpson

November 7th, 2022

 

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New Short Fiction Award

Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.

Chris Simpson of London, England is the winner of the 61st Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on November 7, 2022.

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Boris Thaser from Augsburg, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Boris Thaser from Augsburg,, CC BY 2.0

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Equal

by Chris Simpson

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“Your dad’s alright.”

…..      “Really? I think he’s a prick.”

…..  That was nearly twenty-five years ago, late 90s. My mate Paul and I were working the summer half-term with his dad, Richard, going out and killing foxes. Not that it was called that, we were doing “pest control” but still – that’s what we did. We were waiting in the line at a burger van while Richard sat in the van, reading. I think it was Henry Miller, but maybe I’m projecting.

….. “Why’d you think that?”

….. “Why wouldn’t I? He’s not like the other dads.”

…..”“What’d you mean?”

…..    Paul sighed. We said no more.

…..     Back in the van, I sat between father and son as we ate. Paul and I had bacon rolls. Richard had a cheese toastie. He was a vegetarian.

…..       After he swallowed his first bite, he asked, “You found any poetry in this, James?”

…..    He was talking about our work. “Not yet, Sir,” I answered.

…..       “Told you, no ‘Sir’.  There ain’t no knights and wizards in this country. Don’t see why any man should be called a ‘Sir’, and they ain’t no woman who should be called a ‘Lady’.” He took another bite, small, chewed, swallowed then said, “Always remember that there’s no one above you and no one below you. We’re all on the same line.”

…..      I could feel Paul tense beside me. I didn’t know anyone who spoke like Richard, not my dad who read The Sun newspaper with its topless women on page three and its anti-union views throughout nor my paternal granddad, the only one of my grandparents left, who told racist jokes and had a photo of Winston Churchill above his telly.

…..      Paul’s tension broke when he said, “Richard, can we go?”

…..      “Can’t drive while eating. Anyway, everyone is equal to everyone else. When we forget that, then we do unskillful things or we let unskillful things happen to us. That’s all, James. The secret of life is to remember that no one else is better, nor worse, than you. What you do after knowing that, is up to you.”

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At the first school only one of the three cages had a fox inside. It knew. It knew better than any other creature alive that it was going to die when it saw us come towards it. The caretaker was in front of us, opening a fag packet and offering out. I knew Paul wanted one, but we all said no.

…..      The caretaker sparked up. “How far you take them?”

…..      “Far enough,” Richard answered.

…..    “Don’t think it’s kinda cruel?”

…..     “You dig a hole deep enough, and we’ll kill it here.”

…..   “No chance, mate.”

…..“In that case,” Richard said while walking to the cage. “Let us get on with it.”

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The thing about killing foxes, back then, was you killed them off site. It’s humane now to do it immediately and not let the fox suffer in the back of a van. Also costly. Back then, it was unfeasible to take one fox to the forest, kill and bury it, then go to the next site and repeat. So with the fox in the back, in its cage, there was room for three more. At the next site we picked up two more and at the last there was two more again but we could only take one, leaving the other in its cage where it awaited its fate.

…..       At the forest, Richard reversed the van back. We got to digging a hole. You didn’t have to make it large to fit them. Just deep. Deep so that they wouldn’t be dug up by some curious animal, maybe another fox.

…..When the doors opened, the foxes weren’t howling, weren’t crying, weren’t biting the bars of their last home. They were placid. I’d learnt after the first time that this was how they acted before death. If there was any anthropomorphizing going on, I guess their actions were stoic. It was like we had Epictetus in a cage.

…..Paul and I took the first cage out and placed the mouth of it right by the hole. Richard had the rifle already. We took the customary six steps to the side as Richard stepped forward and shot the fox. He opened the cage door, pulled the fox out of the cage and let it drop. Only then did Paul and I walk back to the empty cage, close the door, pick it up and took it to one side before going back to the van.

…..It didn’t take long to kill those foxes. Took longer to fill the hole, which we all did.

…..We went back to two more sites, picking up four more foxes and repeating it all again before it got to two. We’d been at it since six in the morning.

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Despite us being only seventeen, Richard took us to the pub. He did this every afternoon. Paul didn’t ever want to go but went for the booze. Often he’d walk off and play the fruit machine while I listened to Richard.

…..       “You ever thought about what you’ll do after school?” He asked.

…..        “Don’t know,” I said and shrugged, even then wondering if that were true as I’d started to think like Richard which meant questioning everything.

…..    “C’mon. Must be something. Don’t want to be doing this when you’re my age.”

…..    “I thought you said everyone was equal?”

…..       “Course. And that’s true. But how you spend your time is the most important thing you can do with your life. It’s the only thing you can do with your life. And if you make decisions now, more chance of doing what you want later on. So what is there?”

…..      I spoke into my glass. “I don’t want to kill foxes.”

…..       Richard laughed. “No one does.”

…..      “You do it?”

…..     “Yep. Got a family to feed, even if he hates me.” Paul was putting another quid in the machine. “You think that’s odd for a man to say he knows his son hates him?”

…..         “I don’t know.”

…..        “You don’t know what you’re going to do with your life, and you don’t know what you think of mine? I don’t think you’re telling the truth there, James. All we’ve got on our road is the truth. I told you mine, what’s yours?”

…..        There was only the night I could think of. I’d been suffering from insomnia for some time. At night all I could do was listen to music and think of girls at school and women in films and on TV and in magazines. All life was reduced to tunes and lust and it seemed that it made more sense than anything else I did when in the hours I was with people.

…..    “I like music and girls,” I said.

…..      Richard laughed loudly. It was one of the good things about the man, one of the things which meant no one could really stay angry with him, except Paul who shot his dad a look before rolling his eyes and going back to the fruit machine.

…..    “Honesty suits you. Most people will never say anything approaching the truth. What music do you like?”

…..      I thought back to the nights. There was a guitar playing like a snake crawling in a dark desert. There was a lone voice of someone struggling. There was a low bellow of a brass instrument. It was music which I searched through on my radio, it was music that was free.

…..       “It’s like…,” I started, unable to say what I listened to.

…..        “Yeah,” Richard said and took a sip of his beer. “Music is hard to explain. Before I drop you home, I’ll give you some albums.”

…..Richard finished his drink quickly after that, and was soon up and tapping Paul and we were back in the van going to theirs.

…..      “Wait here,” Richard said when we got there.

…..Paul and I did our handshake, an affair which took half-a-minute with its slaps and secrets before he got out of the van and went in. Richard came back with some CDs which he passed me before starting up the van to take me home.

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That night, with sleep not coming, I put on my headphones and started listening. When Chet Baker sang, I stared at the cover thinking how could a man with a jaw seemingly made of iron sing like he did. No man I knew had a voice like that. The men I knew would’ve called Chet a poof and, by extension, anyone who listened to him was a poof too. None of my town’s truth made a dent. The songs were saying what I couldn’t about the women I fantasied about. The songs declared what I didn’t know, but felt.

…..After that it was Wes Montgomery. The songs were ones I’d heard on the radio but filtered through guitar notes which were familiar and foreign. There was something in the music which kept searching. Something trying to get away from what was home, looking back at home as if it was a place to be loved and feared in equal measure.

…..Then, Alice Coltrane. I couldn’t figure the songs out. I didn’t need to. They existed and because they existed I felt less small, a little more worthwhile in my existence, a little closer to being satisfied in being who I was who was someone who didn’t want to hear what their father was saying, who thought the stock they came from wasn’t to be cherished, who wanted to be different and would start seeking to be so.

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In the morning I came back to the van with the discs.

…..   “What you doing?” Richard asked.

….. “Giving you back your CDs.”

…..  “No-no. Hold on to them. Listen to them some more. They’re not ready to come back.”

…..Paul stared out the window, not wanting to engage with friend or father. I rushed back to my room, put them on top of the hifi and looked at them the way you’d look at a lover you wouldn’t see for a while.

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Back in the pub after five more dead foxes, Richard went to the payphone at the bar and made a call. I snuck looks at him while Paul was on the fruit machine. Richard turned his body to the side, as if he had something to hide. Smiling as he held the receiver, it gave him away, that he was smiling for the unseen person on the other end of the phone. Maybe though he was smiling for himself, building up the courage of what he was saying. By the time he returned my focus was on the book he’d given me that day, relieved from the back of the glovebox: Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara.

…..   “You know Paul has got a date tonight?”

…..    “Yeah. Caroline,” I said, trying to hide my jealousy. I’d been asking him to set me up with one of her friends but she must’ve been the only person in our town not to have any.

…..Richard drank some of his pint. “Well, what you going to do with your evening?”

….. “Probably read this.”

…..     “No. That won’t take up the whole evening. I mean, it’ll take up your whole life but not the evening. Come over to ours for a bit of tea.”

…..     “Nah, I’ve got—”

…..    “Listen.” Richard leaned forward. “That was Ange on the phone and she always gets to know the blokes I work with. Come over.”

…..I nodded and drank. Couldn’t bring myself to say anything.

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I’d been to Paul’s plenty of times but we’d rushed to his room, away from his parents, so we could go on his PS and smoke out the window while Bracknell’s skies remained grey. Richard answered the door. In the hand which drooped by his hip, he held onto a tumbler of whisky.

…..      “Come in, James.”

…..The door opened wider before Richard closed it as I took off my shoes. With an open hand, he pointed to the living room. Inside was the woman I knew as Paul’s mum. She looked bored sitting on the sofa, smoking. She was younger than Richard, but still seemed much older than me. She was probably around the age I am now. Not old in body at all. Her focus was not on the telly which was turned off but the record player. My eyes went to it; the shellac fireplace. The sound was of a woman wanting something, respect and abandonment, security and adventure: contradictions through the groove.

….. “Hello, James,” she drew on her fag.

…..”“Hello, Mrs. Shepherd.”

…..If smoke could be weary, it looked it while drifting out of her mouth. “No need for that now. Angela will do.”

…..I swallowed. “Yes.”

…..   “Yes, what?”

…..“Yes, Angela.”

…..She took another pull. “That’s how it starts.”

….. “Drink?” Richard asked, his hand on my shoulder – squeezing.

….. “Yes, please.”

….. “What do you fancy?”

…..  “Beer?”

…..   “Sounds like you’re unsure. How about what I’m having.”

….. “What’s that?”

…..   “An Old Fashioned.”

…..   “What is it?”

…..  “Have a sip.”

…..Richard passed his glass. The coolness which enveloped my hand made me think of my parents. They’d never have allowed Paul to drink in the house. They’d have hurried him to the sofa for a sit-down while my mum would rush off to make him a tea and a sandwich, even if he didn’t want one. My dad would’ve chatted away to him not letting a gap of silence enter and break their relationship, which was that of a surrogate parent to a surrogate son; better than the one he had, but not loved as much. The coolness of the glass stayed as my eyes were on Angela, who had dispersed from being Paul’s mum once I’d spoken her name. She looked more open as I drank, more appealing. Something to do with the air around her. Unlike the record it could repel dust rather than attract it; seeking out life rather than death.

…..  “I’ll take one.”

…..  “Good man,” Richard answered.

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Paul dated Caroline throughout that summer, and into the autumn too. By winter they were through and his Friday night dates came to an end. The ending of anyone’s first love has the magnitude of every near-miss asteroid hitting your tiny little heart as you stand, with tears, on this spinning blue planet. The ending was all he ever wanted to talk about. There was no life he had lived before she came into it and life afterwards would not be the same; he was inferior before her, damaged after she left. Paul now though, in his forties, is married, happily, as happily as any married man can be, which I believe can sometimes be a lot. He’s been happily married for eighteen years.

…..I’ve never married.

…..Nothing happened that first night which was more, now I look back, a getting-to-know-you evening. I had my Old Fashioned, a couple of them, and Richard talked for all three of us, unable to sit down, unable to conform to what relaxing looked like. Relaxing for Richard was to be on his feet, pacing around, changing one record for another, pulling out one book and saying why I should read it before pulling out another. It was Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and it was The Second Sex and it was The Hobbit. It was Nina Simone at The Village Gate and it was Neil Young’s Zuma and it was Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage. It was stating why I should watch Brian Yuzna’s Society and why George Carlin was the greatest philosopher who bothered to grace us. It was Jasper Johns’ sculptures and Natalia Goncharova’s paintings. There was nothing he didn’t know, and nothing he didn’t want to impart. All the while, Angela listened and studied me. The night was the smell of lemon from her, some fragrance I’ve never since been able to detect. It was hazel eyes which looked like a star exploding. It was white skin similar to some modern art vase. It was a presence which didn’t need me, no matter how much I hoped that would be different. It was a presence which wanted me the way how time, and an inclination towards the extreme, makes us hungry for anything.

…..The next Friday, before leaving my house, I poured on half a bottle of Old Spice. Nothing had been said. Nothing had been promised. There had been a hum that something could happen, a hum of opportunity and I thought it was important, necessary, to smell good for that opportunity. When I got in Richard’s car, he exaggerated his sniffing.

…..   Smiling, he said, “Not sure about that, Paul.”

…..   “Sorry?”

…..  “Don’t be.” He started the car.

…..At theirs, Richard stopped me before I could go in the living room. “Why don’t you go have a shower?”

…..      “But…I’ve had one.”

….. “I know,” he said, and pressed a hand on my shoulder, squeezing again. To that squeeze I responded, heading up the stairs. “Use the blue towel.”

…..I heard him enter the living room where he said something indecipherable. But the laughter from him and Angela was clear.

…..Halfway through the shower there was a knock on the door. I turned the shower off. “Hello?”

…..   “When you’re done—” Angela started. “Just put on the white bathrobe. See you downstairs.”

…..My hand shook as I started the shower again. I’ve never had an erection like that before or since.

…..There’s a certain kind of person who watches his wife have sex with someone else. I guess there’s a certain kind of person who has sex with a wife while their husband watches. Maybe that kind of person talks about philosophy and art and music, maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s the kind of person who doesn’t believe in hierarchy and believes in everything being equal, maybe not. And, of course, for all the talk of the husband and the lover there is the wife and it was Angela who had the brightest of laughs, the widest of smiles, the most pleasure of all in our trifecta even if no one lost — while it was happening.

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Foxes don’t encroach in my life much. I haven’t buried one in years. There is the occasional one, in the early hours of when I leave my room, part of a house share, on the way to work as a supply teacher. I’ve never wanted the commitment of teaching full-time, never wanted that pressure of molding lives. There’s also the free-time of not marking their work, of not being involved with their problems, of not going down to the pub with other teachers to only talk about the students as if we had no life of our own which for your full-time teacher — there isn’t. The symbiotic nature of teaching is not the life for me. Sharing life for another isn’t really in my plans. I still suffer from insomnia and there’s too much learning of my own to do.

…..Evenings are pleasant enough. Sometimes I’ll get a Chinese takeaway and sit at my desk by the room’s one window and read, or I listen to music, or I think. It is The Republic and it is Nausea and it is A Game of Thrones. It is Ella in Berlin and it is Leonard Cohen’s The Future and it is Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. It is thinking about Adam Curtis documentaries and what makes Bill Hicks the greatest philosopher. It is scrolling through images of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures and Tracey Emin’s paintings. There’s nothing that I don’t want in my head, nothing which I won’t allow.

…..Sometimes the orange hue of the street light outside the window will take me away. There’ll be thoughts of abandonment and thoughts of being yesterday’s bread. There’ll be something like regret that no book, no song, no philosophy, no art can rekindle the ignorance of thirty second handshakes of goodbye, of not knowing what an Old Fashioned was, of sons hating their fathers, of knowing someone else’s mother as purely “Mrs Shepherd.”

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Chris Simpson grew up in Bracknell and Slough, England. He has worked as a waiter, a projectionist, a shoe salesman, hiring out construction and demolition tools, a pasty seller, a caretaker for a primary school, a tutor and a freelance Creative Writing teacher and editor. He received a First in Creative Writing BA from Birkbeck University. He writes literary and crime fiction.  In 2021 he was published in  MainStream  from Inkandescent Publishers.  In 2018 he was an awardee of the inaugural Spread The Word’s London Writers Award.

He lives in London with his wife. They are broke, but happy. 

Click here to visit his website

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Click here  to read “Thrush,” by Owen Duffy, the winner of the 60th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest

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Short Fiction Contest Details

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2 comments on “Short Fiction Contest-winning story #61 — “Equal” by Chris Simpson”

  1. What a great story! The description breathed life into the characters and I could smell all the scents, even the ones not mentioned. Stuffiness in the van and pub but the freedom of Richard’s house with its vast stores of knowledge. It is rare these days for people to step out of their little boxes and share so much with others. Give a young man the chance to escape the humdrum world via music and books which can open those grey walls that seem so eager to close in on us. A well deserved winner!

  2. I love it! I never saw it coming and had to reread. It all makes sense. The description and the language is brilliant! Although I would say that I had some trouble understanding the ending and the writer’s feelings. Thank you for the story. It has enlightened me!

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