by Monim Wains
Behemoth blocks of glass and concrete rolled by the window of the bus, wobbling in the streaks of London’s rain. Alex gave no notice to the wet-smelling air from the window, too busy tapping his foot on the floor. He kept biting on his lip, his head stiff and restless. Butterflies flitted about in his stomach. Every time his eyes flicked up to the skyscrapers, he could imagine black inner-city high heels rushing around their offices. Just fast enough to keep their balance.
‘How are you feeling?’ said a warm voice on the other end of the phone.
‘Erm, you know, just gotta walk in, do the interview, walk out with a new job, right? No biggie,’ said Alex with a nervous laugh.
‘Hey, don’t worry, you’ve got this. I heard you practicing in your room yesterday, you sounded great!’
‘Yeah, but my room’s a little less intense, y’know? I don’t think J. P. Morgan are gonna give me a bean bag to sit on.’
Alex’s voice dropped and slowed down. He let out a sigh. ‘James, you know I’ll still keep in touch, right? And I promise I’ll visit whenever I can.’
‘If I managed to keep in touch with you when you switched to your fancy sixth form, I can keep in touch when you’re over the pond,’ James laughed back.
‘That was such a long time ago! How are you going to bring it up now?’ Alex replied. The joke made him smile, but it wasn’t enough. ‘Well, I guess I’m doing it to you again, aren’t I?’
James could remember the first time Alex dreamed about making it big. He talked about the fortunes that traders made overnight. A few good deals, and a lifetime set on track. He made it sound so easy, so grand. He would jump up with a glitter in his eyes, just imagining the sheer weight of money the big boys earned. James knew how much this meant to him. He could tell from his voice that Alex was sitting there just wanting to spring about like they used to on the trampoline. He had wanted this for so long, and now was his chance. James had to be there for him, even if, secretly, it hurt.
‘You are doing it again, and I’ll bitch about it whenever I get the chance!’ James said, ‘But that’s not a bad excuse to call you, is it? Or will you be too busy making millions to take my calls?’ He held back the loneliness of his now empty flat as he tried to calm down his childhood friend.
Alex smiled a little, but his eyebrows furrowed. ‘Don’t say that. You know how much I tried to find a job at home. There’s just nothing this big I could find here.’
‘I know, mate, I was just kidding. You’ve wanted this forever, go get it.’
The trampoline Alex had at home barely fit inside the backyard. In the summer, both of them would race to his house just down the road from school – and Alex would always win. Not by much, but enough to be inside the door with his mum giving him a hug before James caught up. James would even lean forward, stretching his arms back behind him like a ninja to run faster, but he could never catch up to Alex; Alex has always been the one to race ahead. He didn’t like how the net around his trampoline had holes in it. Or how, whenever James came over, his mother only gave them fish fingers and plain boiled peas for dinner. He wanted to change all that.
James remembered Alex talking for hours about the house he would build for himself when he got older. It would have a swimming pool, and a pizza machine, and a super-impenetrable vault in the basement full of money. And the roof would be a massive trampoline with a net going all the way round!
By the time James had run to the door, Alex’s mum would have leant back, her hand still on his shoulder, taking her time before letting go. That hug seemed magical to James. Once, Alex lost his balance and fell through the bottom of the trampoline net. It wasn’t a bad fall, but Alex cried as though he’d broken his arm. His face was bright red with baby tears gushing down his cheeks. He kept screaming that they needed a new net and that he’d told dad about it last week.
‘Alex, daddy told you we can’t get it yet. He’s working late tonight as well, he doesn’t even have time to go to the shops,’ said his mother, bending down on her knees. She could tell that Alex wasn’t really hurt, but she lifted him up and had a careful look anyway. She put on a face of concern and frowned; then she tutted at the bruise before leaning in to give it a quick kiss.
‘There, that’ll go away in no time at all now,’ she smiled. She pulled Alex onto her shoulder and rocked him till he calmed down. She knew that his arm was fine, but that wasn’t what she was worried about. It only took a minute for Alex to go from broken sniffs and a tear-filled face, to a lull on her shoulder. And then he was back on the trampoline as if nothing happened. That hug was magic.
Alex’s body leaned forwards as the bus slowed to a stop. He saw the bottom of the giant glass cuboid that would decide his future. The sun had peeked through the clouds, making the building gleam in the sky. He took a deep breath and nodded to himself.
‘Well, I’m here now. I’ll be back in time for dinner, whatever happens.’
‘I’ll be waiting. Good luck Alex, you’ve got this,’ said James with an affirmative tone.
Alex jumped out of his seat and slipped down the stairs onto the pavement. His heart was racing, and he clutched his bag tight. He had been in this situation before, 23 times to be exact. He had tried every bank and firm he could find and had now pinned his hopes on this, his last hope, as he looked up. He felt the wallet in his pocket, empty. After a year of failed job-hunting, he thought of this as his last chance. The butterflies in his stomach had tied themselves into a knot, and his shoulders stiffened up as straight as the creases on his ironed shirt. He lifted his chin, puffed out a short breath, and walked through the main door.
James was waiting with almost as much nervousness. The last rejection that Alex got had left him crying in his room all evening. He could see how every rejection letter pulled Alex down a little further. Every time Alex went home, he came back saying how he could fix his parents’ house with just a bit more money. James knew that, in Alex’s head, it was all or nothing at this point. He could see how Alex still itched to fix everything, but every rejection made the spring in his step a little smaller. He didn’t really want to leave the country, but he was desperate now. He wanted the money, he needed it. He thought himself unhappy without it.
A couple of hours after putting down the phone, James had set the table and was waiting on the sofa. He knew the interview would have finished a while ago. The sound of the key turning slowly in the front door came down the corridor. A pair of shoes shuffled in. A bag thumped onto the floor. He heard a small sniffle. Alex walked into the room. His eyes were red, and the hood on the back of his jacket was dripping wet, as was his hair.
Alex broke into a sob. His chest arched down as he sighed, and spasmed as he pulled back his breath. He reminded James of that boy who fell from his trampoline, with the same tears and desire to help, to make things happier with a little bit more fortune.
James stood up. He walked over to Alex and pulled him just as close as his mother did, letting his head rest on his shoulder. Alex clutched his arms around James and cried as long as he needed to. The tears had soaked into James’s shirt by the time he calmed himself down. He had tried everything. He was just unfortunate.
But something changed in the minutes he spent on James’s shoulder. He realised that his desperation had gone. As his heaving sobs turned into quiet sighs, he felt the warmth of James’s body heating the rain on his face. His eyes relaxed and his tears stopped. His lips lifted into a smile, and he let his head rest. The butterflies in his stomach went to sleep, and he was back in the backyard with the trampoline. That hug was magic.
What was the fortune he was missing, when he had always had this? He would never leave.