PRESENT

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
What we desire for Christmas is not the present that keeps on giving. Or taking?

Submitted: January 06, 2017

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Submitted: January 06, 2017

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It had been almost 30 years since they nodded stiffly at each other across a throng of boys at their last Roding Secondary School roll call. Still, Nigel didn't anticipate having any trouble recognising Adam Stewart when they met for a drink. Stewart was one of the golden boys. No doubt every school had one, incongruous as a type, but there was no one else like him.


Adam Stewart managed to be the centre of attention even when he wasn't even there. He always got girls but, more to the point, he got your girl. Any gal you found yourself ensconced with in the bushes behind the gym, she'd be smitten with our hero instead. Some cachet would rub off, of course, but if you hung with a Stewart you'd spend most of your dates fielding questions about his favourite music and what he likes to do in his spare time. Adam Stewart's sins wouldn't seem depraved but merely naughty, waggish, or rather enchanting really; part of the package without which Adam wouldn't be the endearing rogue whom we know and love, and infinitely forgive. He did everything with flair, not only because he was socially adroit, but because the definition of flair in his circle was how Adam did whatever he did.


Nigel Stanley had not been Adam's enemy but rather that symbiotic creature without which Adam Stewart could not exist. The much-admired required admirers and, to his own dismay, Nigel had more than once put himself forward for the position. In fact, adult Nigel's public manner - quiet, gentle, intelligent, wary and deadpan - was wildly discrepant with his secret youthful weakness for being captivated by the young Stewart. He couldn't bear to conceive of himself as a sidekick. Having ever been so slavishly enraptured shamed him almost as much as having once been fat. Thus of Nigel's several ambitions at 47, the most dominant was never to succumb to the enchantment of Adam Stewart ever again.


This was a Herculean task though as Adam Stewart's fortunes since school had been easy to follow. First a model for that high street oxymoron: a surfing clothes shop selling individuality to millions in every town across the country. Then partner to numerous Hollywood stars, forever on the verge of the role that would make his career. Photographed peripatetically in Cannes or Capri and Hollywood or the Hamptons; never from anywhere humdrum, that was for sure. Man, that was the life. While Nigel learnt to his despair how little money was worth if it couldn't buy you out of slogging in a New York accountancy firm from 7am 6 days a week, he'd often grab the National Enquirer in the building's lobby. Albeit the sole reason he poured through the rag was to search out any information on Adam, even though there had been less and less in the last 24 months, whenever he located one of Adam's stories he couldn't bring himself to read beyond the lead.


Accordingly, a month prior, when Nigel had ditched a prosperous career in corporate accounting to try his own hand at acting, he was reluctant to question to what degree this rash, and soon to be financially disastrous, professional U-turn had been influenced by Adam Stewart - who always had the funnier friends, the prettier girls, the sexier jobs and, for the last 22 years, the far more wonderful vocation.


Nigel paused outside Blue Bill's foyer, preparing himself for his old friend - or whatever it was that Adam had been at school. Standing precariously on the ice, surrounded by the snow and bustled by Christmas Eve shoppers, he yanked the Windsor knot to the side the way he'd always wrenched his school tie, inhaled the flaked air and moved one wet foot in front of another into the bar’s double doors. Nigel flattered himself to picture his old school aquaintance waiting expectantly in a corner by himself. Adam Stewart was always mobbed.


But the bar was deserted.


Nigel scanned for that shimmering, blonde, almost white, hair. But there was no humanoid beacon. Just one subdued party, back office workmates presumedly, glancing at their watches, looking for an excuse to leave. A loner sagged in one of the booths - a wrung-out dishrag, quietly sobbing into her “Party Mai Tai” with umbrella and without-purpose slice of pineapple.


Of course, why would Adam Stewart be prompt? Nigel could stew here for hours, knocking back the beers and refurbishing a resentment that three decades had failed to cauterize. Finally when Nigel was drunkenly requesting his bill, Master Stewart would sashay in, double doors swinging with his dozen disciples, all drunk, loud, dashingly dressed and joyfully happy. For now, refusing to consider the higher likelihood that Adam had blown off their appointment altogether, Nigel placed his holly-decorated shopping bag on the floor, assumed a high chair and signaled the barman.


"Stanley?"


Nigel twisted to the hand on his arm and experienced one of those blank moments of mind and body. His eyes were wide and dilated, their lids puffy. His face was broad and bland, his figure padded. In contrast to the lustrous walnut glow of the thrill-seeker who hot-dogged the winter slopes and lazed on Mediterranean yachts, this man's skin was pallid. Yet between the grey straggles across his scalp gleamed a few nostalgic streaks of recognition.


"Adam Stewart!" Nigel leapt from the stool and pumped the man's hand.


"Aren’t I who you were expecting? Listen, I'm sorry about Blue Bill’s. Last time I was here it was hopping but I don't get out much now. Christ, you look exactly the same. After 31 years!"


"You, too, you look... erm... terrific!"


Stewart guffawed. "Thank you for being polite. I look like shit. Dogshit that’s been stomped into the earth by triplets and a depressive wife. What'll you have?" Nigel liked to think of himself as a JD man but wanted to stay casual. "Coors... Light."


"Never lose the fear, do you?" Stewart smiled, his teeth no longer blinding white. But the smile also seemed physically smaller, less showbiz and more honest.


"No... not quite," Nigel admitted, telling himself not to stare. "Inside this dude is always a lard-ass fighting to get out."


A lot of Roding Secondary is a blur now but the one thing Nigel remembers clear as crystal is daily roll-call. The one, true connection Nigel Stanley has with Adam Stewart - their names were alphabetically sequential.  


"A Coors Light and... erm... a triple JD and coke."


Nigel nodded backwards, surprised, although he shouldn’t have been, a passing stranger blinking at Adam would know there was a serious drink problem just waiting to reveal itself to a group of strangers sat in a circle.


Adam looked down at his Christmas shopping.


"What brings you into Manhattan? Christmas shopping for the kids? Wife?"


"No. Job interview."


The barman arrived with their drinks and Nigel welcomed the interruption, since he realised how little the two had in common.


Accepting his Coors Light, Nigel tried to create an easy humour. "Here’s to stop chasing the past. And chasing anything that walks passed."


Adam smiled sincerely, “I’m glad I contacted you”.


The next 40 minutes was less catching up and more a verbal list of Adam’s bawdy conquests. Nigel loved to hear the banal, pompous tales from inside the rich and famous. While every story was indistinguishable, conceited indulgence Nigel was exalted back to school assembly, saturated in Stewart’s company. However, as time lagged and with little to add to the one-way conversation Nigel found tallying the individual bubbles on top of his beer more interesting than the regurgitation of Adam’s encounters.


Nigel’s mind eventually wandered with a lack of concentration creating an awkward pause. And awkward pauses need to be filled.


“I said, asked you here because I’ve been thinking about our time at school, old friend. You were always there for me.” Adam lets out a theatrical laugh that snaps Nigel’s attention into being. “I can’t tell you how many times I attended roll-call and you shouted “Present” in that ridiculous voice, impersonating me. Amazing they believed you.”


Adam took his companion’s smile congratulatory but Nigel’s inner reflection was elsewhere. Thinking back, his imitation of Adam fooled the head of year every time. Really he should have been the actor. While Adam was lost in a haze of girls, booze or weed, Nigel supported his assembled friend as anyone who worshipped another would.


The words “And now I need you again.” lit a glow inside Nigel unlike any Jack Daniels had ever achieved. And Adam continued, “I work in the post room of your firm. You don’t recognise me as you enter through the executive entrance...” Nigel could see the proof of that right in the distorted face in front of him. “...but I watch you. You pick up the financial papers I laid out not 5 minutes before, each and every day.”


Nigel shuffles, looking down anxiously. Did Adam Stewart just say he needed me? He raises his head again to see a broken man on the stool beside him.


“But... but I can’t survive, my marriage... can’t survive on minimum wage. I need... you. I need you like I did in school assembly. But instead of saying “Present”, I need you to “give me the present” of getting out of the mail room...”


An honest answer was too complicated - Adam’s hack-eyed play on words was no substitute for the life hack with which he’d ruined himself. Delving into how Adam had come from drinking at post- Oscars parties to slinging back triples in Blue Bill’s, or why, was for another time. A simple answer was that Nigel himself had just come from the interview reapplying for his old job. Adam was right about one thing: Nigel had never lost the fear.


“I didn’t know why you asked me here today, Adam.”


Nigel reached beneath his feet and brought out a freshly wrapped present, bought no less than an hour previously. “This is for you. Thought you’d need something to remember me by...”


Adam ruefully smiled but offered no thanks. He tore at the paper like a spoilt child at Christmas until his whole body froze.  


“Nigel... is that?”


Adam’s eyes of desperation were awash with tears.


“Yes, it’s us. About the only time we were ever really together. Outside of assembly.”


“And you kept this all these years?”


“It’s a new frame but... yeah.”


Adam dried his face and blew his nose with a tissue. “Our old school leavers’ photo”.


“And I’ll see what I can do at the firm”.


The hug Adam gave Nigel was half in thanks and half relief. Swaddled in Adam’s arms he pondered if it was irony that all his life Nigel had wanted to trade places with Adam Stewart. Who cares, this was a nice place to be.


Of course, it couldn’t last forever. Nigel and Adam said their good-byes before there was time for another round. Adam had a second job to continue. Nigel had a dull life to resuscitate. They walked out into the Manhattan snow and hugged once more. As Adam went back through the swinging doors to his bar work the smile on Nigel’s face disappeared. Had anything really changed between them or, to Adam, was Nigel just “present”?


© Copyright 2018 Thom Goddard. All rights reserved.

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