The Catalyst


Posted by in May's Magazine

Katy Nixon’s Short Story

Joe woke up slowly, his arms stretching as far as they could above his head. Although he was in the fold down bed of Jules’ study he felt completely relaxed. He knew now he didn’t have to rush. The walls above him were covered in black and white photos that Jules had taken over the years. He was encased in her and Bev’s history. His as well now, he supposed.

As my steps are measured down the hall to the corridor, I select suitable morning music from my wrist. It suggests ‘Happy Days’ playlist. It wants me to be in a good mood.

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Until Joe had met Bev in the shop, outside of work he had been struggling to find a place that he could call home. He swam between friend’s flats. The ever-changing sofas making him feel like a slut. Lovers were interludes, nice ones, especially if they came with a bed for the night. 

Joe had always been at odds with his surroundings. Even when he had been a little boy, his kaleidoscope, freewheeling body had been a cosmic splash on monotone. “But elephants are grey!” his auntie had shouted as he drew a circus on the back of unused wallpaper, sitting on uncomfortable carpet, dressed in Joan’s silk kimono. 

He didn’t care what his Auntie Joan had thought; he made sure all of the animals in the worlds he created were as bright as the one inside him. 

At least at work there was something tangible for Joe to hold onto. He lost himself in the stacking of cheap products. His imagination drifted in and out of the reality of the Poundshop. Sometimes he would imagine he was the character of a 1980s game, stacking as quickly as possible, like he could be the King of Tetris. 

Other times he became a narrator in a wild life documentary, talking in sad tones about the plight of the Mattisons Smoked Sausage. Once thriving sea pigs now beached in a giant mountain of themselves, their fate to be endlessly rotated until in the event of an apocalypse they would finally be in demand, along with the tinned haggis and Frey Bentos pies.

The other folk at work called him and Bev the odd couple. Bev was possibly around seventy – nobody dared ask. She towered above everyone on account of the huge amount of white hair that she wrapped around her head in a bun, pinned together with garish, plastic butterflies. 

Her mouth was always painted in scarlet red lipstick. Joe was just a breath beside her, skinny and barely twenty. He had been drawn to her as soon as they were introduced on his second day in the shop.

Bev had pirouetted down the pet food isle towards him and the manager as M People were playing. She had grabbed his hand and shown him outside to the back of the shop, a spot where they could smoke freely without being seen on camera. ”Just say you needed to restock the Mattisons Smoked Sausages, they’re kept in the basement,” she said while offering him one of her L and Bs.

It was the first time that Joe had ever felt properly seen. Bev didn’t even consider asking questions about him, the ones that usually hurt. The ones that were asked to measure his worth based on everything in the universe that had been outwith his control. She just listened to what he wanted to say. 

They spent afternoons in her and Jules’ flat looking through her beautiful wardrobe. They would tell him stories of when they had met. Bev talked about all the tables they had held hands under, years of kissing behind closed doors. They told him about the boys like Joe that they had known, some who had been lost in a wave of devastation in the 1980s. 

He didn’t care what his Auntie thought; he made sure all of the animals in the worlds he created were as bright as the one inside him 

Boys who might have been men now, men that Joe could have understood his history through. Past voices that would have made Joe feel less alone. He studied the black and white pictures of linked arms at demonstrations, as Jules said all of their names out loud. He wished all of them had been around to see the bright balloons above Arthur’s seat when equal marriage was passed at Holyrood.

Joe realised he had always been trying to see round corners, wondering if love was about to arrive. Always asking ‘is this it yet’? Closing his eyes tight as if it would make the silence easier to bare.

As he walked through to the small kitchen of Bev and Jules’ flat he felt something like belonging. He sat at the old pine table and watched the women bicker over making the breakfast, shooing the cat out of the road, laughing at nothing in particular. Joe felt himself sigh, the breath that left him turning a page.

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