Story by Habiba Billal
“Damn it Gabby, what is wrong you?” Seth asked walking into the kitchen in a pair of briefs beneath a glaring beer gut and a chest that was precariously close to needing a bra. “I told you to fold my football Jerseys black on white. Not white on black!”
“I’m sorry. I’ll get to it tonight. I was up all night last night with work,” Gabby said.
“What’s the matter with you, why can’t you do anything right for once? It’s not like there’s much you do around here,” he mumbled just loud enough for her to hear. “Is breakfast ready?”
“Just about,” she replied.
“Have you seen my socks? I can’t find them since you ironed them.”
“They’re in the drawer on your side of the bed.”
“You do that every time! I ask you to put my things in one place and you go and move them to another. Are you hard of hearing or something? You’re driving me crazy!” Seth said.
“But you told me to..”
“Shut up! Just shut up! I’m going to Joe’s.”
“But breakfast – ”
“Forget it,” he said storming out the back door with dark pants and a shirt bearing a rude hand gesture.
Gabby heaved, stifling a protest, and eased her grip on the spatula. She took the pan off the cooker and plated the eggs and sausage she had made. Thank God she hadn’t made a lot. She washed the dishes and made a rush for the train station to catch one to work. If she’d known the morning would start out like this, she would’ve…she would’ve stayed either way. She was used to Seth’s moods. They had stopped surprising her after they moved in together. Living with him for four years had taught her a lot of things – like how to handle pressure. With Seth there was always a problem. There was always something wrong with her, but it could be fixed with the quickest of money lending. Or with food. She couldn’t even begin to count how many times she’d given him money. Or how many times the phrase ‘make me a sandwich’ had been used when he came home from Joe’s in a bad mood.
She supposed it wasn’t his fault he was like that. Having your family throw you out like his did couldn’t be easy. They’d met at a bar in downtown Montreal near where she worked. He’d come to her smelling like a beer keg and looking like hell. His hair was ruffled and his tie askew. There were alcohol stains on his white shirt and his eyes were bloodshot. His shoes were scruffy and his pants looked loose. He told her later that that was the day his family disowned him. It became apparent to her that he needed stability. He had nowhere to go, no money, no job, no home.
They had started to go out when he asked if he could move into her apartment on the right side of the Boulevard Thimens, opposite Marcel – Laurin, on the outskirts of the Montreal metropolis. It would only be until he found a job to hold him down, and at first it looked like he was really trying. But the more the time passed, the more he seemed to just give up and depend entirely on her. Whenever she brought the subject up he’d get upset and accuse of her of wanting to get rid of him. Her income was not enough to support both of them, and his drinking. But the chaos that erupted every time she tried to talk to him was not worth the trouble. She’d let it go each time until it stopped coming up at all.
At one of the windows of the building across Midwest Montreal, in the Province of Pac du Mont – Royal, two women and a man from the floor on which Gabby worked, were peering down into the traffic of men and machines alike, watching for her arrival.
“There she is – call her. Call her!” said Kevin, tugging at Rachel’s sleeves.
“I’m calling, I’m calling!” said Rachel.
“Hi Gabby, are you at the office yet?” said Rachel.
“No but I’m nearly there,” said Gabby.
“Awesome. Quick favour, can you stop at the Coffee shop? Kevin, Lily and I could use a little caffeine,” said Rachel. “We’ve been here for ages.”
“Uhm…but that’s all the way on the other side,” Gabby said.
“I know, but could you be a dear please?” Rachel said in a honeyed tone.
“Umm, okay I guess. Could you let Griffin know that I’m gonna be late?”
“Of course! We’d like two hot mocha cappuccinos, and one caramel macchiato.”
Gabby hated the coffee shop. There was no difference between sitting at a table or going to the counter. The service still came to you in the next millennium. She was contemplating this as the line moved at a soul-crushingly slow pace. Having finally gotten the coffees, she ran out of the shop like a bat out of hell, nearly spilling the lot on her front. By the time she was reaching the office, she was damp under the arms and breathing fast. She looked at the clock in the upper reaches of the lobby. Forty five minutes late. She really should have taken the sugars to go.
“This week’s targets are written on the b – ahh, Gabby, how nice of you to finally join us,” said Griffin. “Perhaps we should all be taking forty five minutes of Company time to have coffee. We certainly get paid for it.”
“I’m terribly sorry sir, I thought Rachel –”
“Don’t make excuses Gabby. Sit down. We don’t have any more time to waste.”
“Now then …”
At the conclusion of the meeting Gabby gathered her things without a word and left for her office. In the research division of Brown and Gordon-Levitt, an Air conditioning Company, she was part of a team that helped the company predict market trends and consumer behavior. She was very good at math and recognizing patterns that most people can’t easily see. She had sales up by 45% after her first six months there. The head of her Department found her useful for on the spot calculations, and her deductions were always spot on. She was, in truth, capable and adaptable within her profession. Her work associates saw her as a threat, including those not in her department. Griffin was loathe to voice it but he knew Gabby was among the very best minds in that Company.
As the morning wore on, Gabby’s day took on the usual haze of spreadsheets, probabilities and a host of other math problems. It was like going down a well-trodden rabbit hole for her. She knew all the ins and outs.
At the elevator when she was leaving work, an arm pushed through the closing doors in front of her and Kevin’s face appeared, followed by Rachel and Lily.
“Hey, sorry about this morning. We totally forgot to let Griffin know you’d gone for coffee,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” Gabby said, even though it wasn’t.
“Would’ve helped if you’d brought one for everyone though,” he said.
Gabby cracked a smile that did not reach her eyes. “Maybe next time.”
“Well, see you tomorrow,” said Rachel over her shoulder as the three of them stepped out of the elevator ahead of her.
At home, Gabby sighed as she locked the door behind her. She took off her scarf and coat and placed them on the hook next to the door. She shucked off her shoes and threw the keys in a bowl at a table near the door. She stood still for a moment, listening for sounds in the house. Clear, she made her way to the kitchen and straight for a bottle of wine. Seth’s jerseys would have to wait. She was exhausted. She went to the bathroom and prepared the tub for a good soaking. Then she got undressed, tied her hair up and picked up the book she was reading on Mediterranean History . She felt instant relief the minute the better part of her body was under water. The sigh was so long and deep it actually caught in her throat. She downed some of the wine, then some more, leaned back in the tub and closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the water seep into her skin. She’d started reading a bit of the book, but she soon fell asleep.
The water was cold when she started out of her nap. She was just getting up and out when she heard the door bang open and slap off the wall in the living room. She threw on a dressing gown and robe on top and hurried out of the bathroom. She came to a stop at the entrance to the living room. Seth was struggling on the floor, trying to get a handle on the rocking chair in front of him.
“What are you looking at? Help me!” he growled.
Gabby rushed forward and grabbed his upper arm to lift him up. He was heavy at the top, and kept slipping out of her hands. She had to hold him by his armpits and lift him onto the sofa from the back.
“Useless woman. Can’t even help a man up,” he mumbled. “Who’d even want you.”
Suppressing the urge to vomit due to the smell of him, she said, “Why don’t I get you some water?”
“Did I ask for water?”
“You’re gonna need it.”
“Don’t tell me what I need,” he said. “Make me a sandwich, I’m hungry.”
When she came from the kitchen, he had passed out. His face was squashed against the sofa where he’d just vomited.
After cleaning up, she locked the door again and put a blanket over him, then went to bed. She got up early the next morning to fold his jerseys.
“Hey Gabby, I need a favour. This sales report is due by Friday, and I have a nails appointment I can’t miss today. Do you mind writing it up for me?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t think I can, I have so much to do already. Giles from advertising asked me make a DRIP model for him. Plus there’s a bunch of my own work.”
“Oh come on, help me out here. I just cannot miss my appointment. I need your help.”
“I really don’t know if I can finish this on time for you.”
“Whatever you do will be alright.”
“Fine, put it over there with the others,” said Gabby, pointing to a side table filled with folders.
The rest of the week passed in a blur. Gabby could not catch a break. She rarely slept. She worked late into the night at the office, then went home and worked late into the night there. It was Thursday night when her phone rang. She was snoozing on top of her computer. She started when she felt the table beneath her vibrate. Looking at the clock, it was ten o’clock. She turned to the phone.
“Gabby! How are you doing? Still slaving away at that corporate farm?” Luther said.
“I’m fine Luther. How are you?”
“Thriving, love. Mum wants to talk to you.”
“Beats me. Here you go”
“Gabriel, honey. It’s been so long,” said her mother.
“How are you doing mother? Everything alright?”
“Yes, yes of course everything is fine. We miss you honey, we see so little of you these days. Your father hasn’t seen you in years.”
“I was there for Christmas mother.”
“Yes but – “
“I can’t come right now mum, too much work.”
“That’s all you ever do. You don’t have any time for your family.”
“What do you expect, mother, from a job like hers,” said Luther caustically.
Gabby sighed into the phone.
“I have to go mother. I still have work to finish. We’ll talk later.”
“But Gabriel, you always say that.”
“Sorry I’m just so busy. But I’ll try tomorrow evening. Is that fine with you?”
“Of course honey.”
“Alright. Tell dad I said hi. Bye.”
After she hung up the phone, Gabby took a hot shower and finished Giles’ model. She had just finished Rachel’s report when the first rays of orange light threw leafy shadows on her the notes she’d been making. The parc Marcel-Laurin across the street would be a lovely place to walk right now.
Gabby dashed through security with three Styrofoam coffee cups balanced in her arms. She barely made it to the elevator. Bursting onto her floor, she dropped Giles’ work on his table and made a beeline for the back. There was a department meeting that she was definitely late for. With no grace whatsoever, she hobbled in, laden with folders and papers, because she’d twisted her ankle in her rush to reach the office on time. It was a long, tedious presentation punctuated with needlessly complicated questions, wide off the mark estimations, and the usual touch of sexism. This part usually made her feel like she was prey in a jungle of floor to ceiling glass windows, all marble surfaces and smooth angles, but she answered to the best of her ability, trying to address their questions.
She was at her desk, following that morning’s Spanish Inquiry, doing some light reading, when Griffin’s secretary came to tell her he wanted to see her. In his office, Rachel was standing in front of a projector, explaining the report she’d made Gabby do for her.
“Gabriel, yes, have a seat. I’d like you listen to this insightful report Rachel has just been showing me,” he said. “Maybe you’ll pick something up.”
“This is Rachel’s work on the last sales quarter. It’s very accurate. The figures are actually better than yours.”
“You should. At this rate, Rachel will outpace you if you don’t watch out.”
“Don’t be too hard on her sir. At least she makes good notes,” said Rachel.
Gabby turned her face to the windows with an open view of the lower east side. Birds could be seen circling one of the buildings with a lot of spires. At the end of the report, Gabby left the room and went back to her desk.
“Guess what,” said Seth the following week.
“What,” said Gabby.
“I just got a call from one of my family’s attorneys. My granddad just died. They’re calling me to the reading of his will. Seems like he left me something.”
“Oh that sounds nice. Are you gonna go?”
“Of course I’m gonna go. How could I not. Who knows how much he’s left me.”
“When is it?”
“This Saturday afternoon. There will be a dinner. I’m supposed to bring someone.”
“Do you have anything nice to wear? I don’t want you looking out of place in front of my family.”
Stung by his careless comment, she simply nodded and turned back to cooking.
Saturday evening arrived and she couldn’t help the excitement quietly creeping into her at the thought of finally meeting his family. She’d bought a new dress just for the occasion. It was a Ralph Lauren sheath, midnight blue with little glowing jewels at the hem, a graceful V neck with a brooch where the V met. She put her hair up and left tendrils around the ears and the temples, twined through with pearls. Beautiful really, for one whose face is so expressive. But she thought it simply looked ‘nice’. Seth didn’t even bother to comment (not that she thought he would). He simply shrugged and walked over to the driver’s side of her car.
The McFarland manor was a thing to behold. Just inside the Southern extremities of the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc extension, western Montreal, the three story palatial stone mansion was fronted with pillars, a fountain, and a tree-lined driveway leading to a staircase at the top of which were large oak doors with a brass iron ring. At the moment, the doors were wide open revealing another long-winding, twin staircase in front of it, and a black and white tiled floor. Light bounced off of these in the most hypnotic way. They were so clean you could see your reflection. There were two butlers just outside the door, receiving the guests who were milling inside in pairs.
Seth and Gabby joined the latest arrivals and went inside. As soon as they walked over the threshold a booming voice called Seth’s name and the only thing Gabby saw was the chest of a man before she was engulfed in a bear hug by what was, apparently, one of the species. When she was released she looked up. Way up. Into the heavily bearded face of a giant, with twinkling dark brown eyes. Gareth, as he’d introduced himself, was a smiling giant, about two and half a head taller than Gabby and one shorter than Seth. Gareth was Seth’s cousin. He lived in the country mostly, as he had a big stud farm out there. Only occasionally came into the city when he needed supplies.
Seth introduced Gabby to him and his eyes glowed darker. Gareth then swept the two of them over into the drawing room where the majority of the guess were.
“Where’s Ted and Tony?” asked Seth, looking around.
“Have you missed us little brother?” said a voice behind Gabby.
Ted and Tony were twins. About the same height and weight. Same black hair and brown eyes. But Gabby noticed right away certain quirks in expressions and body language that were not similar.
“And who’s this lovely confection you’ve brought to us then,” said Tony.
“Gabby, Ted and Tony,” said Seth. “Brothers, this is Gabby. You don’t need to know who she is.”
“Oh but I think we do,” said Ted
“Where’s Mum and Dad,” said Seth, changing the subject.
“Upstairs. Don’t worry, they wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“How very presumptuous of you boys. Ted, where are your manners? Do tuck your shirt in.”
Gabby actually flinched at the sound of that voice. Seth’s mother was not, at face value different from how her own mother looked. But there were certain nuances. Certain features about her persona. For instance, she did not slouch. Her shoulders were back, and her head held high. Her hands were crossed loosely in front of her. If you looked her dead in the eye you could not miss that sharpness, that rumor of intelligence and wit that drifted leisurely within. Her fingers were long and graceful tapering at the end. Clean and without traces of ink like hers sometimes had. She presented such a picture that Gabby found herself staring.
“You’ve brought a friend then, Seth,” her mother observed. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
Seth got flustered. “She’s nothing really, mother, just someone I know.”
Gabby felt like she was going to be sick. “Excuse me. I need to use the bathroom.”
“Well way to stick your foot it in Seth, you lousy piece of garbage,” growled Gareth.
Gabby was making her way to the bathroom when she realized she had left her purse with Gareth. She turned back for it and heard Seth discussing her with his family.
“She really doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m just using her until I can find my own place or get some good money. She’s just convenient. In fact I wasn’t sure I’m leaving here with her tonight after reading Grandpa’s will. She’s really needy you know. She asks for too much and I’m tired of supporting her.”
“You son of a bitch!” breathed Gabby.
Seth turned just as Gabby was turning around and half walking, half running back out to the foyer. Gareth cursed fluently and left after her. “Hey wait! Wait!” he shouted
Gabby didn’t slow down until he overtook her at the front steps. She rubbed at tears furiously.
“Listen I’m very sorry you heard all that. Seth is an idiot. There’s more than one reason why he was kicked out of the family.”
“I never thought that’s how he actually felt about me.”
“It’s very provoking, I agree.”
Gabby felt the fragile control she had over her emotion slip dangerously. Before she knew it she had taken the very expensive heels she’d bought just for that evening off and was running barefoot down the steps, across the driveway towards the parking. She exited the premises and branched onto the sidewalk to hail a cab. She got in without really caring and mumbled the address to the driver, while silent tears flowed unchecked down her cheeks.
When she got home, she paid the fare and called for a locksmith to change the locks on the doors. After he left, she locked everything up and went weeping to the solitude of her tub, wine and ancient History.
She did not feel like going to work the following Monday.
She did not feel like getting Rachel’s coffee.
She didn’t have her phone with her and she was glad. They could call all they want. She wasn’t stopping today.
She didn’t give the clock in the lobby one look.
She used the stairs.
By the time she got to her floor she felt a little better. A little lighter. But she wasn’t smiling. Walked right past Giles’ table without so much as a Good Morning. He started after her.
“Hey, is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yes I’m fine,” she replied, deadpan.
“It’s just that, you walked right past me.”
Sighing, Gabby lifted her head. “Good morning Giles.”
“Listen if anything is bothering you, you know you can tell me right?”
“Well in that case, I wanted to let you know you did a really good job with that model presentation last week. Would you mind cross-checking it with some of your research data and see what correlations you can dig out for my department?”
Gabby gave him a long speculative look. “I can’t, Giles. I’m busy this week. Maybe later.”
“Come on, I really need your help on this one.”
“Giles, there’s a difference between helping you and doing the work for you. I’m not paid for the latter. If you want I can give you the files with the relevant data but I can’t do the whole assignment for you. I’m not your assistant.”
“I can just as easily get one, you know” he retorted.
She didn’t miss a beat. “What are you waiting for? It’ll be the first smart thing you’ve done.”
The next morning, Kevin found Gabby standing facing the window near his desk, from where he and the girls watched for her in the mornings.
“Nice view you have here,” she said.
“Yes, I quite like it. You can look at the scum passing below,” he said.
“I’ll just bet,” she said casually.
“What do you want?”
“Oh nothing just admiring the scenery. But I do feel a bit warm after this coffee. I wonder if I could -” she released the hatch for the floor to ceiling windows and stepped aside. A thunderous wave of cold, dusty air burst into the room and swept all of Kevin’s paper work into the air, off his desk and into the rest of the office; under people’s desks, onto them, under the copier, all over the place!
“You bitch! Look what you’ve done!” he cried.
“Oops, sorry, not sorry. Good luck cleaning that up!” She told him cheerfully over her shoulder.
She’d never had a more relaxed week.
A little after dinner the following evening, there was a knock at her door. She left her computer and went to look through the peep hole. Devil doll was playing in the background. She could only see a black leather jacket and a black shirt. Whole lotta black. She felt a lick of fear and moved a step back.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“It’s Gareth. I’m Seth’s cousin. We met at a dinner at Seth’s parents’ house last Saturday night?” he replied.
Gabby heaved a sigh of release.
“Wait, what color dress was I wearing?” she asked him.
“Midnight blue, with little jewels at the hem, and a brooch in the middle of the dress. Your hair was up and it had pearls in it. You took off your shoes and ran across the front of the house before I could talk to you.”
That’s pretty accurate, Gabby thought.
“Hold on,” she said as she opened the door.
There stood the mild giant with the smiling, hairy face and the twinkling eyes.
“You forgot this,” he extended her black, dancing purse to her. It was crushed in places but she didn’t mind.
“Thank you so much, you didn’t have to go to the trouble,” she assured him. She was getting a new phone anyways.
“It was my pleasure, really.”
“I’m sorry where are my manners, do come in and have some tea? I was just making some,” she said, smiling at him.
She moved to the side as he walked in.
“Are you part European?” she asked, too curious.
“Part Irish,” he replied.
“Are you feeling any better?” he asked.
“Quite,” she answered.
“Again, I’m really sorry about Seth.”
“Why are you apologizing for him?”
“I don’t know. I guess it rubbed me the wrong way as a man.”
“How positively gallant,” she smiled. “Your mum taught you well,”
He blushed. “Guess she did.”
The conversation travelled a long interesting road with stops at her work, his Irish homeland, his horses, and the McFarland family. Seth had been driving his family’s riches down into the ground, drinking and gambling everything within his reach; developing a weakness for flagrant lechery, coming to work at the company near the end of the week. If he came at all. Having affairs with women on all the floors in the building. Investing large amounts finance in unreliable projects. At that rate it was only a matter of time.
As the talks progressed, she discovered he also liked History. And the two of them were soon deep in a debate about origin civilizations. And that was how the night passed. By the time he was leaving it was past midnight.
“It was really nice getting to know you,” he stopped at the door.
“Can we do this again some time?”
“Preferably in a restaurant?”
“With actual food?
She leaned against the door jamb, studying him. Looking at his was like looking at a glittering night sky with no moon. The beard that covered the lower half of his face was so damn attractive. The size of him would be super convenient in the winter. Yeah, she liked him.
“Are you good for a cuddle, Gareth, in the winter?” she asked, looking at him from under her lashes.
If she thought his eyes were dark before…
“It doesn’t have to be cold,” came the low baritone reply.
At an ambient little place beneath the eves of the Cap-Saint –Jacques Nature Parc, off the Boul Gouin O, they were sitting in a warm cozy alcove, talking horses and history. He was immensely well informed in Art History and Hieroglyphics. Just listening to that deep voice of his drone on and on about Egyptian archaeology was having the most inappropriate effect on her.
“Hey, are you with me? You’ve been staring at your lap for the past half hour, am I boring you?” he asked, smiling uncertainly.
She was trying to calm her breathing. It was taking longer than she thought it would.
“Will you give me a moment? I should use the ladies room.”
“Of course,” he got up to help her out of her chair.
She splashed cold water on her face, and got her breathing under control.
She really should be surprised with herself, entertaining fond, albeit PG13 thoughts about an Irish man when she’s just barely got out of an abusive relationship. So much for logical reasoning. But she couldn’t help it.
His laugh was like a drum roll. The thrumming in his chest raised the hairs on her arms, and his fingers on her back when they danced was like a warm branding iron she wanted around her waist; making her feel how a woman is supposed to feel when a man touches her. The heat and the aftershave coming off him in waves made her dizzy. In a good way! It was a miracle she hadn’t already fallen head first on his chest. That masculine chest that was just shy of defined muscled inside of his black shirt. He always wore black. It was her favourite color. And he looked positively beasty. She loved it!
It wasn’t really soft but it wasn’t quite deep either. She had a cheeky little dimple, low on the left side her mouth. It came at you like a rabbit out of a hat when she smiled. It made his heart double up. She had a way of looking at you so intensely when you spoke, like nothing in the world was more important than what you had to say. And she was so perceptive, picking up on almost everything you hadn’t said. Like the morning dew in his highland home he would try to avoid but always got wet with. She smelled like the plant vanilla. Delicious and intoxicating.
He’d wanted to pick her up for their date just so her smell would permeate his car, but she’d insisted on coming by herself. That’s why he’d suggested this place. It was relatively close to her apartment.
As he’d waited for her in the parking lot, he’d smelled her before he saw her. She came around the corner from the left side of the establishment, dressed, to his utter delight, in a dark, becoming combination of soft plum pants and a white pristine blouse that brought out her face and the dark brown eyes. There was a thin soft black belt at her waist, and a neat little choker around her throat. The best part as far as he was concerned was her hair in a daring, curly afro around her head, dozens of loose strands crowding her face and ears. She’d looked utterly, gloriously adorable.
As he watched her now he was genuinely baffled at how Seth could actually acquire a slice of paradise like her and then be a world class jerk about it. Seriously. How do you mess this up?
“Are you listening to me?” she asked.
“I could not-not listen to you if I tried,”
“So I want to be straight with you. I haven’t spoken to Seth since the night of the dinner. I changed my phone and my number, and the locks on my doors. Even if he did find me somewhere, he knows I wouldn’t give him the time of day. Obviously I’ve just come out of a relationship. A difficult one. And that’s gonna leave a mark. So I won’t sit here and make promises I can’t keep. However, I like you, and it follows that I’d want to spend more time with you. If you feel the same, I would that we move Andante, to use a musical term, so as not to hit a sudden speed bump and spill the milk all over our fronts. What say you?”
“I think you are the most intelligent female I’ve ever met. And I’d take that to the bank. Whatever you say goes.”
On a small vacation In Ireland with Gareth, she was sitting on a hill overlooking a vast wide greenery filled with nothing, she contemplated the challenges of being human, and more importantly being alive.
“Do you know, that looking for growth is looking for opposition?” she asked the man sitting next to her.
“How do you mean?
“If you want to grow, that means you feel a marked restriction in your current environment. Even if you can’t see it. You might not even know what it is, but it’s there and you don’t like it. So you try to move around, you squiggle about until you define its dimensions and then you tear that bastard a new one. And that, my friend, is how you rise above it.”
“When did you get so philosophical,” he asked, smiling at her with his eyes.
“I don’t know, I think I always have been.”
“If Seth would have listened to you it might have prepared him for what happened after you left that Saturday night. He completely lost his shit when he found out during the reading that his grandfather hadn’t really left him anything.”
Story by Habiba Billal. You can find more of her work here.
Taste of Mel continues here: Grown Folk9