‘I’m going to get another beer,’ Gary said. ‘Do you want anything else?’
‘No, just get that and then let’s go home,’ Alice replied.
She was sitting with her legs crossed and her arms folded across her stomach, looking right over his head, which was an astonishing feat for such a short woman. You’d figure he’d get used to her moods after three years, but he was just growing more frustrated with her every day. Her frozen smiles. The condescending look she had in her eyes whenever he was trying to be funny. He was beginning to suspect she thought him a bit of a fool. Or maybe ‘fool’ wasn’t the right word. He was working on his second PhD after all. More like a big baby who had to be tolerated. A big baby with – almost – two PhDs.
Gary had to elbow his way through a group of people who were huddling against the bar, laughing loudly and making excited gestures. Well, at least some of us here are having a good time, Gary thought. He realised he felt quite bitter about it. Just as he was about to signal the bartender, he felt someone tugging at his sleeve. It was one of the women in the group. She was standing with her back against the bar, wearing one of those skimpy red dresses that always seemed to be on the edge of legality, and was positively beaming at him. Something about her face struck Gary as very familiar. She was holding on quite tightly to the waist of the man standing next to her. He looked like a bloody jeans advertising poster. Figures, Gary thought.
‘Well, don’t just stand there blinking, Gar!’ the woman said. ‘Aren’t you going to say hello?’
‘Um, hello,’ Gary said. And, after a few more blinks, ‘I’m sorry, have we met before?’
‘Yes, we have,’ the woman laughed. ‘Is Alice with you?’
Gary blinked. The woman’s boyfriend leaned in to whisper something in her ear and then shot him a look that seemed to be meant for a mentally challenged person. Which Gary definitely wasn’t. He had almost two PhDs. Then it hit him. No, it can’t be, he thought. And yet, he made an attempt.
‘Evelyn?’ he said.
‘Who else?’ she beamed and, pointing to Poster Boy, she added, ‘Oh, by the way, this is Alex.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Gary mumbled, still trying to make sense of the fact that the woman was, indeed, Evelyn. She had lived with them for a couple of weeks, during which she could have been described quite accurately as a giant mess of a human being. She had lost her job and got into a terrible fight with her parents. They suspected there was something more to it, but she wouldn’t say anything about how the situation came to be. She pretty much spent every day crying on their sofa and going outside to smoke. They eventually had to let her smoke inside, since her eyes were constantly red and swollen. The neighbours might have thought they had taken in a drug addict. By the end of the day the whole place smelled of smoke and they had to sleep with the windows open. She only wore old, dirty sweat suits, although Alice insisted she had proper clothes in her suitcase, and hardly ever ate anything, despite being told on numerous occasions that her stomach would only be suitable for making bagpipes if she stuck to her current diet of cigarettes.
And then, one morning, they woke up to find her packing her things. Humming a song as she did so, too. Evelyn. Humming. She said ‘Thanks for everything. I’ll be fine now.’ They were trying hard not to let their jaws drop to the floor. At least she was leaving their house. If Gary remembered well, this was about a week after she’d dragged them to see that crazy old lady’s indoor live bird museum. The Bird Room, it was called. Which was kind of stupid. It was a place full of birds. What were they supposed to call it? The Dinosaur Room?
‘Eve!’ Alice exclaimed, sounding genuinely surprised. Gary thought it was funny. A good change from the mock surprise she loved to put on.
‘You look great!’ Alice blurted out, after giving Evelyn a hug. Out of the corner of his eye, Gary saw Poster Boy looking quite pleased with himself. Arsehole.
* * *
‘She’s your cousin, so you should be the one to talk her out of the house!’
They were in the kitchen and Gary was trying to keep his voice down. Evelyn was in the living room, as usual, staining the sofa with tears and mucus.
‘If I do that, she’ll always think of me as the heinous bitch who kicked her out,’ Alice retorted.
Gary rolled his eyes at her.
‘And meanwhile, you’ll just hang around looking like a nice guy,’ she added.
‘Fine,’ he sighed. ‘What would you suggest instead?’
Alice shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I guess we could all go out. She might feel better. And then…’
‘Go out?’ Gary interrupted. ‘In the state she’s in? She’s already scaring the neighbours!’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll talk to her,’ said Alice, heading for the door. She would try, at least.
Several evenings of taking Evelyn out followed, without any visible changes in her overall behaviour and mood. She would actually wear decent clothes and even put on make-up, but she would just sit there, drinking and smoking and not talking. Her only attempt at even acknowledging another person’s presence was that one time when she took a flyer from a bug-eyed teenager with bright pink hair and a piercing in her lower lip. ‘Thanks,’ Evelyn said. Yuck, Alice thought, eyeing the girl’s piercing. The flyer advertised something called ‘The Bird Room.’ Alice looked over it and found it outright creepy. Some family had been collecting live birds for generations and keeping them inside a room in their manor. Alice figured there had to be a huge bird cemetery in the back yard. They had probably run out of money, because – as the flyer said – their private live bird museum had been receiving visitors for about twenty years.
[To be continued]