Cabinet Reshuffle By Thomas Mogford

Cabinet ReshuffleThere were eight of them on the terrace, sweating in their emerald tailcoats. Dinner plates had been discarded, congealing taramasalata stabbed with fag butts, torn pita breads swollen pink with spilt claret. The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ blasted from the CD player, drowning out the evening sounds of the Corfu peninsula – the chant of cicadas, the distant ebb and flow of the Mediterranean, steady as a heartbeat. Above, the Milky Way glowed eerily, but none of the group was looking up. They were staring instead at the three-inch gecko lying motionless beneath the outside lights.

‘Slops,’ hissed the group, ‘slops, slops…’

As the song reached its final verse, the young man knew he was running out of time. He crept towards the wall, black shoe in one hand, seeing moths fluttering around the light fitting. Then he let fly. His aim was true, a fast bowler’s length and line – the reason, his brother would always insist, that he was allowed to run with this crowd at all. A slap detonated above the music as the shoe hit the wall, then fell to the ground.

‘Did he get it?’ someone called.

The young man bent down, scrabbling beneath the stone table, repulsed by the mulch of ash, wine and vomit coating the warm terracotta floor. A moment later, he emerged triumphant, brogue in one hand and gecko in the other, its head flattened, legs twitching.

The wailing electric guitar began to fade.

‘Eat it!’ came the roar. ‘Eat, eat, eat…’

The man held up the gecko by its tail. The tip detached but he caught the body – good fielder too – and raised it above his mouth. The bellow increased as he lowered the lizard, crunched, grimaced, then swallowed it down.

‘Forfeit complete!’ called a tall redheaded man as he reached over to hit pause on the music player.

Ears throbbed in the silence. A slide of glass panes broke the spell as a girl appeared in the doorway, smoothing her apron around her slender waist, dark ringlets shading her tanned brow. ‘You want more food?’ she asked in her gentle Corfiot accent.

Avoiding the stares of the young men, the girl focussed on the redhead, nose protesting at the foul smell exuding from somewhere on the terrace.

‘Another case of the Chasse-Spleen. Then you can go home. Kala spera.’

The girl retreated, glancing at the untouched bowls of food she’d spent the day preparing – how could they eat so little and drink so much, she asked herself, trying to ignore the phrases she didn’t want to understand called after her, the ugly brays of laughter that had been the constant refrain of the week.

The redhead made a little moue at the girl as she left, then hit play, causing the CD to shuffle on random. A series of sharp tinny drumbeats started up. ‘Who’s got this one?’ he asked.

A slim youth with thick blond hair rose from his chair and bowed theatrically. Though he’d been asleep for most of the daylight hours, the Greek sun had already turned his face an even golden brown. ‘Baywatch,’ chanted the group. ‘Baywatch…’

‘Baywatch’ looped an arm around the amphora and pulled it towards him. The redhead raised a nervous hand – it belonged in a museum, his father had once proudly told him, plucked intact from the Albanian coastline – then disguised the motion by putting his glass to his lips and draining the contents. He winced: French wine in Greece – never tasted right, no matter how carefully they had it imported.

‘Kiss the man opposite,’ Baywatch read aloud. He ran a hand through his hair and smiled at the redhead. ‘That’ll be you, Fergie.’

‘Do it!’ began the bellow. ‘Do it!’

Baywatch gave his mouth a spritz of imaginary breath freshener, then flexed his tongue, lizard-like, as ‘Fergie’ approached. The vocalist on the CD rasped at them to ‘come play his game’ as Baywatch crooked a finger Fergie’s way.

Fergie felt his heart quicken as he closed his eyes. The stubble was the first surprise, then the warmth of Baywatch’s tongue and the bitter tang of cocaine and wine. Fergie’s head began to spin at the throb of the rhythmic handclaps of the group. The song was ending; he tried to pull back, but Baywatch was clutching at his hair, holding him in place.

‘Get off!’ Fergie spat, digging his nails into the back of Baywatch’s hand and freeing himself. The chant of the group stung his ears.

Baywatch stood in front, smiling strangely. He cleared his blond fringe out of his mocking blue eyes and laughed. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much,’ he said, pointing to the bulge in Fergie’s suit trousers.

The roar of the crowd was swallowed by the pulse thumping in Fergie’s ears. Then he lurched forward and smashed his fist into Baywatch’s nose.

The laughter fell silent as Baywatch staggered backwards, face in hands. Balance regained, he lifted his head. Blood dripped down his upper lip, pattering onto the stone terrace. Slowly Baywatch’s features rearranged themselves into a smile. ‘Forfeit complete?’ he said nasally, then grabbed a glass and tipped it down his throat.

‘Top man,’ someone yelled, hitting play again.

The group retook their seats as Fergie busied himself chopping up another gram on a dusty CD case. At the other end of the table, ‘Pig’ watched in silence as he reached for another bottle of wine. The drugs didn’t seem to affect him any more, so the only way to get through these events was to get so drunk he no longer remembered precisely what had gone on. He was close to that now. What the hell was he doing here, he wondered idly as he drained his glass. Maybe his father and grandfather had thought the same.

The next track began. No one recognised it until the title was sung – ‘Smack My B***h Up’. Shaking his head – who bought this stuff, honestly – Pig looked down at his card. The calligraphic letters blurred before his eyes – maybe the drugs were having an effect…

‘That’s Pig’s!’ a young man beside him cried, and Pig felt a heavy rugby-player’s palm slap against the sodden back of his tail coat.

The amphora appeared. Exquisite, Pig noted dully as he stuck a hand inside and felt the autumnal rustle of screwed-up paper. Soldiers, spears, helmets and juggling balls, all dancing in procession around the neck. Mycenaean, he thought as he drew out his forfeit. Wasted on these philistines.

‘Jump from the terrace to the pool,’ Pig muttered.

‘Speak up, you swine,’ someone yelled.

‘Jump from the terrace to the pool,’ Pig repeated more loudly, hearing a trace of a long-suppressed Scottish accent creeping into his voice. He gazed at the seven other faces. As sunburnt and clammy as every other British tourist blighting this island. We are all the same, he thought, then heard himself laugh – it’s just the lottery of birth. He stood unsteadily and turned to survey the view. The swimming pool was hidden, but he could just see the dark slick of the Corfu Chanel beyond, the lights of Albania clustered in a port city above, a strange orange glow from a mountaintop – a forest fire, Fergie had disclosed yesterday in a rare moment of sobriety. The girl who served them – the one Fergie said had the hots for him. Her father had come from Albania, apparently. Swam across the channel to escape the Commies – just a mile and a half of breast stroke, a bit of good fortune to avoid the currents and snipers’ rifles, then you were free from your former life.

‘Sorry,’ Pig said quietly, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of anger – or maybe courage – swelling in his chest. ‘I won’t do it.’

‘Slops,’ began the chant, ‘slops, slops…’

The bucket was pulled out from under the table, its contents thick and fetid. A tumbler was emptied of gin and tonic, then refilled with a stinking scoop of spittle, mud and deliquescent moussaka.   ‘Slops, slops, slops…’

Pig stared at the glass, then slowly pushed it away. Everyone looked at Fergie.

‘Drink it,’ Fergie said.

‘I can’t,’ Pig replied.

Then do the goddamn forfeit!’

Fergie was up on his feet now. ‘Ooh, his blood’s up,’ Baywatch sniggered as he pointed to the other’s crotch. Everyone laughed.

An ugly flush coloured Fergie’s cheeks and throat. ‘Man up, you chicken-s**t,’ he spat, grabbing Pig’s shoulders and hauling him round towards the edge of the terrace.

Pig peered down at the swimming pool, fifteen feet below. The distance between the water’s edge and the retaining wall couldn’t be more than a single flagstone, he estimated. He became aware of the others beside him at the wall now, as though something had already been decided. Someone turned up the music: his ‘song’ was halfway through.

‘Jump,’ began the chant, ‘jump, jump…’

‘I’ve done it a hundred times, you pussy,’ Fergie hissed in Pig’s ear, sharp chin jutting into his cheek. ‘First time I was only six years old…’

Pig eased aside the topiary and laid a hand on top of the balustrade. The stone was still warm from the daytime sun.

‘Jump, jump, jump…’

Pig raised a knee to the wall. Below him, the pool looked warm and inviting, underwater lights beckoning through the turquoise, infinity lip spilling over the furthest edge, the deep end directly below.

Pig hauled himself up, raising himself from a crouch. Then he turned to the group. ‘Shut up,’ he shouted. His voice cracked, but to his surprise they obeyed, even Fergie. ‘All of you. Just shut the hell up…’

Pig’s stomach tightened as he edged back round, eyes drawn to the lights of Albania. His song began to fade: just seconds left. Timing – that was what life was about. He bent his knees…

Behind him in the house, the girl switched off the kitchen lights then pulled the door closed behind her. The shouting had died down, at least. She could even hear the cicadas, the percussion band of the night, as her father used to call them, asking to be wheeled out to listen to them in his final days, insisting that they reminded him of home, of his childhood in the mountains that he never ceased to stare at. She checked her watch. The baby was due its feed about now. She hoped her mother would wait before giving him the bottle. Then she could unwrap him warm and drowsy from his swaddle. Clucking and snuffling as she kissed his unbearably soft skin…

Smiling, the girl set off down the pathway, pausing by the gazebo at the entrance to the pool deck. It was then she saw the figure swaying on the terrace wall. Thickset, arms up as though conducting an orchestra. He started to turn himself round, cut out against the blue-black night as he shuffled round. His knees dipped… The girl opened her mouth to scream, but then the young man launched himself outwards. He fell so quickly it was as though a rope were pulling him from below. Almost at once, the girl heard a noise like a cypress tree hit by an axe. Seven heads peered down in silent silhouette over the balcony.

Dropping her heavy bag of laundry, the girl ran out onto the pool terrace. The young man’s feet were all that was visible at first, the soles of his black shoes just beneath the surface. Then the tails of his green coat began to billow, like a superhero’s cape as he started to rise to the surface. The girl waited for a kick of the leg, a swirl of the arm, but nothing came, just the steady procession as the rest of him floated upwards. At first she thought a shadow had been cast onto the water, but then she saw that the turquoise was stained red, a swirling wine-dark cloud issuing from the back of the young man’s head. His eyes were open, jaw still set in a look of determination.

‘Pig?’ came an uncertain voice from above. ‘Pig?’

*

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5 thoughts on “Cabinet Reshuffle By Thomas Mogford

  1. Just the sort of nightmare party you would not want your your boyfriend or sons to be at! For a moment I thought Pig would stand up for sense, for another moment i thought he had made it… Repulsion for these characters was balanced and emphasised with the beauty of an ancient artifact and the warmth of the young mother whose own life is revealed with just a few words.

    Liked by 1 person

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