It was good to get out of the empty apartment, even into a bitterly cold evening. Matthew turned his collar up against the sleet and walked the three blocks to David and Ella’s house, the bottle of whisky bundled up in a plastic carrier bag under his arm.
The single malt was over-generous, too expensive, wine would have been enough, or even a four-pack of lager, for it would only be a simple supper, probably just the main course. But David only really drank whisky, only liked a certain kind, and besides, Matthew owed him for last Friday.
They’d gone to the pub after work, just for one drink, David had said, but had somehow ended up in a lock-in, heavy curtains muffling the windows and door, the men who had been yelling good-humouredly about cars and football lowering their voices and sipping whisky chasers until midnight. They’d staggered back to David’s, arm in arm, giggling at nothing, laughing when Ella opened the door to them in her dressing gown.
‘Oh my God, where have you been?’ she fussed. ‘I phoned you, and texted you, why didn’t you answer?’
‘Sorry, Ella,’ Matthew straightened his face for a second and then snorted into laughter again, David joining in as he barged past her and into the lounge.
‘He’s a diabetic, you know.’ Ella turned to follow him.
David slouched in an armchair, still grinning.
‘No! You need to check your blood sugar. Did you take your tablets?’
‘Be fine. Don’t worry.’ David waved his hand vaguely. ‘Sid down Matthew. Have a whisky.’
Matthew put his hand on the arm of the settee and revolved himself into it, ending up somehow with his face to the seat back. He righted himself again.
‘Be fine.’ David was still smiling as his eyes closed.
Ella took a black plastic case down from the mantlepiece. Inside was a small device with a touch screen. She did something to David’s finger and a drop of blood oozed out. He didn’t respond. She stuck a white plastic strip into the blood drop and then into the device. It beeped.
‘Nine,’ she said, with relief. ‘I thought he might have gone low. He’ll sleep it off.’
Matthew wished his head would clear. Ella was beautiful, with smooth skin rising out of the towelling robe, her slender fingers fitting the device back into the plastic case and snapping shut the lid. David by contrast, heavy-jowled, snoring, purple-faced, was what they called a ‘gammon’.
‘Sorry, Ella. It was just, well, David likes to go for a drink on a Friday. And I don’t like to be on my own, to be fair. It just got a bit out of hand.’
She replaced the plastic case and paused by the fireplace, her soft dark hair reflected in the mirror behind her. She heaved a sigh, too gentle to be angry with them.
‘Couldn’t you come round here after work? Have something to eat with us instead.’
Matthew protested that he didn’t want to put them to any trouble, didn’t want to impose. His stomach was churning at even the thought of food.
‘It’d be better for David,’ she insisted. ‘It’s no problem, honestly.’
‘Look, I should go,’ he said. Somehow he made it to the door, down the front path and half-way to the street corner before he started to retch. He must have vomited twenty quid’s worth of booze, he calculated ruefully, most of it paid for by David, who had stacked drinks beside him on the bar faster than he could finish them. Maybe Ella was right.
His apartment was freezing. He kicked his shoes off but didn’t bother to undress and threw himself down on his bed. Later that night he woke, head and heart thumping, anxious about David and Ella, had he made David ill, would his blood sugar go low in the night? And what must Ella think of him? It pained him to think he had offended that lovely woman.
He saw David in the corridor at work on Monday, and made a point of asking after Ella, saying that he should apologise for having been so drunk.
‘Ah, she’s fine. She knows to cut me a bit o’ slack.’ David shifted weight from one foot to the other, an armful of clients’ files braced against his belly. ‘Come round on Friday night, why don’t you, son? You’re definitely invited.’
It was a mistake. That Friday night he realised he was powerfully attracted to Ella, to her tender skin and tranquil face. They shared tastes that David didn’t: garlic, dark chocolate, strong coffee. They shared an interest in politics, their debates often cut short by David’s boozy interruptions: he had to be the centre of attention, thought Matthew.
‘Can’t beat Speyside whisky,’ intoned David, setting his empty tumbler on the coffee table with a thump. He exhaled with satisfaction. ‘Smooth. None of that West Highland creosote, thank you very much. Time for another before m’tea?’
They had been discussing Brexit, with Matthew in full flow on the topic of the European Medicines Agency; pharma was his thing at Cheevers Quinn.
‘Supper’s nearly ready,’ frowned Ella. ‘Why don’t you have it afterwards?’
The whisky bottle was at David’s elbow, with a jug of water, and without replying he poured himself another. It must have been at least four pub measures, Matthew thought.
‘Drink, Matthew?’ David raised the bottle in his direction.
Matthew shook his head.
‘Still trying to recover from last Friday,’ he grinned. ‘I was wiped out for two days.’
He shrugged off David’s blustering and sat down on the settee with a glass of tap water. That was the other thing he had in common with Ella that night: they were both sober. His back was to the window. He looked past David’s fat shoulder across the lounge, at the soft glow of the lamps, at the black plastic box on the mantlepiece containing the glucose meter. He looked at Ella’s wedding picture on the wall, at her breasts outlined in white silk.
He excused himself to go to the bathroom.
As he stood washing his hands at the sink he examined his reflection in the mirrored cabinet above. He smiled: he had even teeth, his eyes were large and bright, he had laughter lines but his eyelids weren’t yet baggy, unlike David’s, and his face wasn’t plethoric and bloated either. He dried his hands and returned to the cabinet, reached out a finger and opened the door. It was full of David’s tablets: angina tablets, lipid tablets, blood pressure tablets, diabetes tablets. There were eight packets of tramadol, enough to put you to sleep for a week, or perhaps for ever. The man was a walking chemist’s shop; a sick man.
A plan formed in his mind.
Returning to the lounge, he found it was time to go through into the dining room.
‘Let me top that up for you, David,’ he said, reaching for the crystal glass. ‘A rare malt, this one.’
Winter gave way to spring. In the ensuing weeks, every Friday night was an assault on David’s ailing metabolism by a Speyside regiment. A bottle at a time, later two bottles at a time, of fine single malt, presented as gifts to a connoisseur. Matthew brought wine as well, sipping it sparingly while he charmed Ella and watched David decline, watched his movements become slower and more painful, watched him grow heavier and more breathless. By the late evening David would be snoring in his armchair while they did the washing up, and in the kitchen Matthew span the conversation out for as long as he could, hoping that he would hold Ella’s interest.
‘I should check his blood sugar,’ Ella said.
They were sitting at the kitchen table with their espressos; Matthew gently placed his hand on her forearm.
‘Leave him,’ he said, ‘he’ll be fine.’
Her forearm was bare and his fingers brushed across her skin as he removed his hand. She remained still, silent, her eyes wide, as though acquiescing in what he had said, whether from weariness, or listening to her own inner voice. She was hard to read.
He restarted the conversation and and it was only when her eyelids started to flutter with weariness that he announced he was heading home. At the front door she allowed him a kiss, first on one cheek and then the other, a late night politeness, as customary on the Continent. He felt her hug him, her arms as light as a cashmere shawl, her hand softly patting his shoulder.
‘Goodbye,’ she said, drawing away. He sensed such a sadness there, ached to reach out to her again, to tell her, it won’t be long, won’t be long before you’re free of him…
‘Good night,’ he said. It was best not to give too much away.
He spent the next week with his thoughts constantly spiralling upwards, wondering how long it would be until David succumbed to his next heart attack, how long after that would be proper to wait before making a move on Ella, whether they would move into his apartment and rent out that house to a tenant, or the other way around…
Friday evening came around and he called in as usual at the off-licence. They had gotten to know him; the manager reached beneath the counter and produced a couple of dark tartan boxes trimmed with gold.
‘The smoothest of the Speyside malts, in my humble opinion, sir.’
This whisky wasn’t just one of the regiment. It was the regimental commander and the pipes and drums.
‘I’ll take three, if you have them.’ He paid with his credit card.
Tonight was going to be the night, he felt, something was definitely going to happen. Blackbirds sang in the plane trees as dusk settled over the city.
He had told David he’d be there around seven. But he waited a long time outside their door, the off licence carrier bag weighing on his wrist, rang the bell a couple of times more, knocked, and was just about to pull his phone out of his pocket when David opened the door to him. Something wasn’t right.
He passed David the carrier bag.
‘You’d best come in.’ David, still in his work clothes, was wild-eyed, agitated, his chest heaving.
Matthew followed David into the lounge. The house was silent, there was no smell of food from the kitchen. Where was the wedding picture?
‘Is everything OK, David? Has something happened?’
David opened the cocktail cabinet and got out two crystal tumblers.
‘Where’s Ella? Is she-‘
‘She’s left me.’ David pulled the whisky boxes out of the carrier bag, examined the labels, gave out a snort. ‘Couldn’t put up with my drinking any more.’
Matthew sank down on the settee, silent as he watched David open a bottle and fill the glasses almost to the brim.
‘So you and me, son, you and me, we’re going to show her, you and me, we’re going to drink ourselves to death. Right?’