Cesare's Cabinet

Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index

Father Figure.

"Your dad's nice," Vince said.

"Put this back, would you?" Stuart passed his friend a brown pullover he'd rejected and reached for the next item from the pile, a green button-up shirt, silky, short-sleeved, nicely tight.

"I mean, they both are, your mum and dad, they're nice," Vince went on, "but your dad seemed really pleased to chum around with us a bit. I don't know why you don't like to spend time with them."

"They're not like Hazel. You can't talk to them about anything," Stuart said, frowning into the glass. The shirt was just a tad too loose across his shoulders. He shucked it and handed it out to Vince. "You should try this one on. I bet it'd fit perfect on you."

"I dunno," Vince held it out. "I can't wear green, I look like a frog."

"What?" Stuart leaned out of the dressing room. "You do not. Try it on! Jesus!"

Vince rolled his eyes and sighed, but disappeared with the shirt into the next curtained cubicle. "Your dad seemed like he might have wanted to come with us," he said. "He offered us a ride, didn't he, and then he's saying how he never sees you now that you're in school. I can't believe you can't be bothered, I mean-- Stuart, he's your dad."

"You don't have a dad and you get on all right," Stuart said, shrugging into a soft dark blue jumper with a V-neck that showed off the smooth lines of his neck and collarbone. "He's always like that. Gets on my tits. I'm not his pal, you know, I'm his son. But since high school or so, he's always coming across like he's my age, like he wants to be friends. When I turned eighteen he actually wanted to go out drinking with me! Just what everyone wants when they come of age, go out and party with their old man. Christ."

"We go out and party with my mum," Vince pointed out, coming out of the cubicle in the green shirt. His shoulders were just a trifle broader than Stuart's, and the shirt fit just right. "I mean, listen to you, you complain that you can't talk to your dad like you talk to Hazel, but then when he wants to chum around with you the way Hazel does with us, you're not having it."

"Well I could hardly take my dad to the Village, could I?" Stuart asked irritably. "Here, how does this look?"

"Good. Really good. Fantastic," Vince said. "Be sure and check the washing instructions, though. That looks like dry-clean only."

He tugged the jumper over his head and looked at the tag. "Shit, you're right, it is. This is mad. Half the clothes I like are dry-clean only, I'm sick of it."

"Check the tags before you try them on, that way you won't be disappointed," Vince advised. "I bet you could tell your dad. You know, he made that joke about how I never seem to have a girlfriend, and he sort of smiled at me like maybe he knew."

"He smiled at you?" Stuart stood framed in the doorway of the cubicle, the next candidate in hand, and grinned viciously at his friend. "Vince. Were you having a look at my dad?"


"You were! You twat, you were cruising my dad!"

"I never! You're such a bastard," Vince said, trying not to laugh.

"I can't believe it, you fancy my dad. Shame on you, Vince, he's a married man, and more than twice your age too."

"Stuart, enough."

"I don't blame you, I guess. I suppose he does have the Jones family looks--"

"Seriously, enough."

"My grandad on that side is a widower, if you'd like me to introduce you," Stuart carried on mercilessly. "You never know, I mean, he's sixty some-odd, he might just be desperate enough."

"Fuck off!" Vince said, with a hint of genuine irritation. "I'm just saying that your dad seems like a really nice guy and maybe you should try talking to him. Not every bloody thing in the world comes down to sex, you know."

"Doesn't it?"

"No." Vince paused, then said, "I mean, look at us, we've been friends for five or six years now, clubbing together and the lot, and not a bit of it. Proves not everything comes down to a shag."

"No?" Stuart said. "And here I thought we got on so well just cos you fancied me."

"Stuart!" Vince looked mortified.

"Oh, sorry, was I not supposed to notice?" Stuart grinned cheekily.

"It's not like that," Vince said.

"Go on, what's it like then?" Stuart smiled. Poor Vince didn't stand a chance. Just the two of them in the dressing room, Stuart in his tightest jeans with his shirt off, baring his slender, tightly muscled physique. It couldn't be a more perfect quandary if Stuart had planned it. He was almost sorry he hadn't. As if to add the crowning touch, a Muzak version of "Angel of the Morning" played distantly in the store, an awful song Vince had once confessed a secret predilection for in the wee hours of some sleepover or another.

A whole conflagaration of intensely embarrassing things, all coming down on Vince at once. Interesting, though. Vince was ordinarily so reticent, but maybe all this would push him to say or do something unexpected. Stuart doubted they'd actually have it off in the dressing room, Vince was too cautious for that, but Vince had his own place now. Maybe they'd wind up there.

It would be a bit odd to shag Vince; they'd known each other so long. Stuart had never once come on to Vince in all those years. Vince's place was always at his side, never in his sights.

But Stuart wasn't one to pass up a situation as baleful and fabulously malevolent as this.

"We're friends," Vince insisted.

"Really," Stuart drawled. He rested his free hand on his hip and shifted his weight onto one leg, not quite posing, but definitely calling a bit of attention to himself. Vince's eyes followed down the curve of his body reliably enough, but his gaze quickly snapped back up to meet Stuart's stare with a hurt, almost angry look: disappointed and betrayed.

Stuart suddenly felt a bit shamed. Shit, he really wasn't supposed to've noticed. Apparently it was meant to be a secret. He supposed it was bad form to fuck around like that. After all, Vince was his closest friend. But what was Stuart supposed to do? It wasn't his fault that Vince set himself up for it like that.

Drove him mad that he felt bad about it, too. Stuart made a point of never feeling bad about anything, never wasting time on regret. He shook his head and gave Vince a weak grin. "I'm just taking the piss, you sad bastard. You don't have to look like I shot your mum."

"You're such a twat," Vince answered with a scowl. "Sometimes I wonder how come your parents didn't just bloody well leave you in Dublin. Perfect opportunity to be rid of you, and what do they do but haul you all the way to Manchester with them just like a fucking albatross."

"What, me?" Stuart ducked back into the cubby and put his own black t-shirt back on, ran his hands through his disarrayed dark curly hair until it looked a little less askew. "I can do no wrong so far as they're concerned. It's tiring, that is. I got a B in history last semester, I thought my mum was going to have a coronary. She wanted to phone up the professor about it! What am I supposed to tell her, I can't be arsed to get up for a ten o'clock class so I only went on test days, and he took off points for not attending? She'd drop dead."

"Your dad seems really understanding, though," Vince said.

"He's not. He's just digging for trouble." Stuart gathered up the clothes he'd chosen and strolled out of the cubicle. "I used to think he really cared about what was going on with us, you know, me and Marie. But round about the time I got to be ten or twelve, I started seeing how he never got interested when things were going well for us. He just wanted to hear about all the shit we were running into, so he could get his fingers into it."

"Maybe he just wanted to help you out," Vince said, "did you ever think of that?"

"You don't know, Vince," Stuart said plainly. "You don't know what it's like to grow up with normal parents. I used to think my dad was practically a superhero, you know? He could fix anything. He was ten feet tall. And then I got older and realised, he's just a bloke, like any other bloke. It's a sad thing to wake up one morning and figure out that you've got one up on your dad. It's a hell of a letdown."

Vince shrugged his incomprehension.

Stuart sighed. "It's like how I got into the school that turned my dad down," he explained. "He said he was proud but I think he was more pissed off than anything. And kind of, so was I. I wished he hadn't told me he tried to get in there. Fuck, I don't know, I can't explain it to you. I mean, the closest thing you ever had to a dad was Doctor Who."

"Oi!" Vince frowned, affronted. "I do have a dad, you know. I see him twice a year."

"But he didn't raise you, you never looked up to him," Stuart said. "It's something, growing up, figuring out your dad's just like everyone else. It's like if you were watching Doctor Who one day, and the Doctor was suddenly acting like an ordinary person, you know, swearing at traffic, kicking puppies, trying to chat people up and falling flat, tripping over his stupid scarf. You'd be pissed off, right?"

"Well, yeah," Vince said slowly. "It'd be out of character."

"There you go. Imagine watching Doctor Who for the rest of your life, and it always being like that, with the Doctor acting like any old prat. You'd hate it. Well, that's what it's like to be around my dad now." Stuart moved toward the checkout counter with his armful of clothes. "What happened to your other shirt?"

Vince looked down at himself, still clad in the green shirt, and started. "Blimey, I forgot I tried this on. I don't want it, I'll just run back and change."

Stuart grabbed his friend's arm and hauled him along to the counter. "Could you ring this up as well, please?" he said, holding out the dangling tags of the green shirt for the clerk, who scanned the bar code without blinking an eye.

"Don't, I don't have enough on me for it," Vince said, "and anyway, it's green."

"It looks fine. Don't worry about it. I'm putting it on my credit card," Stuart said. "You can pay for drinks tonight."

"You've got a credit card?"

"Sure," he said, producing the plastic oblong for the clerk.

"How? You don't even have a job. You're still in school."

"Paid internship," Stuart said. "At that PR agency."

"God, that tears it," said Vince. "I don't have a credit card, I don't make enough. I practically run the shop single-handed, I do all the inventory, pick the music, I'm doing the books and everything, but Don's always got some excuse why I can't have a raise."

"Have you been looking around?" Stuart signed the sales slip and got back his card. They moved through the racks toward the shop doors.

"I put in for a job at Harlo's. That huge grocery? Head cashier. Had a really good interview and all, they're calling back next week to let me know. I dunno though. It wouldn't be like the record shop. I'd have to wear a suit every day."

Stuart stopped to look at a display of polo shirts, eyeing up the stockboy who was arranging the clothes. Nice, but when he looked up, he raised his eyebrows questioningly: must be straight. Stuart shrugged defeat and resumed walking.

"Plus, it's a supermarket," Vince said heavily as they moved on. "How boring is that? That's the nice thing about my job. When I'm meeting people and they ask what I do, I say I work at a record shop-- smashing, we start talking about music. But if I'm working at a supermarket and I tell some bloke that while I'm chatting him up-- it doesn't exactly make for scintillating conversation, does it? 'Oh, you work at Harlo's? Brilliant, I've been wondering if avacadoes are in season.' It just doesn't work."

"You talk too much anyway," Stuart opined. "No one comes out to the clubs looking for conversation, Vince. You shouldn't ever have to say a word except to work out whether you're going back to yours or back to his."

"That might work for you," Vince said. "Some of us have to try a little harder." He sighed. "I dunno. I'm never going to get more money out of Don, and I could use a better wage. If they offer the cashier job I guess I'll take it."

"You should," Stuart said. "It's pathetic, the pittance that shop throws you. God knows, I probably made as much in those two months as an intern as you make in a year. I can't believe you don't make enough to qualify for a credit card. Everyone has a credit card. They practically give dogs credit cards anymore."

"Oh, you're so flash now that you're at university," Vince said mockingly. "I can't wait 'til you get out and have to pay off all the money your parents loaned you. You'll be living high on Top Ramen, you will. You'll be lucky if you can afford salt."

Stuart stopped by the door of the shop, spotting a rubbish bin. He yanked the tags off Vince's new green shirt with a sharp practiced jerk that broke the plastic strings but left the fabric unharmed. "Then I guess you'd better get used to buying my drinks, hadn't you?" He tossed the tags into the garbage. "Come on, Kermit, let's go out."

The look Vince gave him might have been annoyed, or offended, or desolate, but it was so brief there was no telling for sure. "Piss off," he said stoically, following along.


Next Story: Tales Out of School.

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