CHRISTOPHER CLENCHES – Mike Hickman

Christopher clenches and tells himself to wait it out. The door had been flung open and he’d heard the heavy sigh and heavy feet and he was going to guess Malcolm. He hears the rucksack as it is slung down next to the urinal and, yes, there’s the tell-tale clinking, even with the bubble wrap.

“Bad sign,” Louise had said, pulling on the drawstrings of her anorak hood. “Bubble wrap in your bag?” Malcolm had been riffling through for the paperwork that proved he had been signed off. There hadn’t been anything to clink in there that day. “What you trying to hide, Malcolm, boy?” she’d taunted/teased/smugged. A difficult one to pin down, Louise. As those bouncers in the Swan had discovered to their cost the other month. She’d been very lucky to get off with a conditional.

Malcolm mumble-mutters to himself and there’s some heaving at his zip before the elephantine stream of relief is audibly communicated to anyone within a three mile radius.

He won’t be long, then, Christopher thinks. His hand is still on the toilet roll dispenser and it squeaks from under him, as if trying to betray his presence. Malcolm’s stream stops for a moment. There’s another mumble. There’s a distinct smell of stale booze. There’s a sonorous belch.

He won’t be long.

The door creaks open again and there’s the shuffle-shuffle-shuffle of another newcomer.

It had been a mistake to come in here immediately before the session, but Christopher couldn’t get through the hour and a half of mostly silence without his stomach giving him away. It had been full-on coffee percolator last week and he’d seen Ailments Dan tip the wink across the circle to Louise. He’d seen the little nod. He’d seen Louise file it away as something to use against him if things got difficult. Or there was any attempt to break into one of the Group’s more precious silences.

The shuffling newcomer sighs a greeting to Malcolm. Malcolm zips himself up and the rucksack is hefted quickly onto a shoulder. No amount of bubble wrap could disguise such a swift movement, and it sounds like he’s about to take the recycling out. The New Year recycling. Stretching back as far, perhaps, as Halloween.

So, mostly empties, then, Christopher thinks. The kind of thing that really ought to be worth the Group discussing. 

“How’s tricks?” sighs the shuffling newcomer.

“Hrrrruuhhh,” says Malcolm. There’s some kind of pas de deux between them because the next thing Christopher knows is the door in front of him – freshly graffitied with a quite anatomically incorrect depiction of the sort of gent Christopher most certainly isn’t – shakes disturbingly. And now he’s got his hand out in front of him to hold it in place, in case he’ll be discovered here, trousers round his ankles, clenched up tighter than Ailments Dan when asked to explain precisely where it’s hurting now.

“Hrrruuhhh,” Malcolm says again, seemingly more satisfied with his pronouncement the second time than the first.

He’d been a lecturer once, Christopher knows. He’s guessing it must have been quite the fall.

Another clench. A desperate clench. And the sound of Christopher’s own very minor, fall in the grand scheme of things is, mercifully, disguised by the door shutting behind Malcolm. 

One more stream, a few more shuffles, and he can finish here. He can have let something out – possibly the only one in the circle to have properly done so today – before the hour and a half of watching a National Health clock with fading batteries slide backwards to a complete stop.

“That you in there?” asks the sigh shuffler above the sound of a delicate stream so unlike Malcolm’s water butt decanting.

What can he say? He doesn’t know who the sigh shuffler – it’s got to be Dave, hasn’t it? – thinks is in the cubicle. But if he says anything at all, then he runs the risk of disappointing him or embarrassing him or – hell – embarrassing himself. 

Christopher clenches.

“Guts giving you gyp again, are they?” 

Christopher’s heels rise from the sticky, tiled floor as the clench travels down from his buttocks and all the way down both legs.

“I know, I know, I know.” Patter – drip – patter. There is a modicum of shaking going on. “It’s tough work, this. That room sometimes – hard work, mate. Hard work.”

“Hrrruuhhh,” Christopher manages.

Shuffle-sighing possibly-Dave tidies himself away and moves over to the cubicle door. He leans against it.

Leans against it!

Worthy of note, given how he is in the sessions, Christopher might think, if the clench hadn’t become a shake and he wasn’t now trying to steady both knees.

“Tell you what, though,” comes the voice through the door, “it could be worse.”

“Hrrruuhhh?”

The door creaks under Dave’s over-familiar conspiratoriality. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I could be the poor bastard running the session.”

And Dave leaves it there.

Christopher waits until the shuffles have faded and the door at the end of the corridor has closed behind him. There is the faint murmur of self-conscious greeting/non-greeting from the others who have already arrived. Chairs creak and bubble-wrap shrouded vodka bottles clink. 

No-one laughs. And, as desperate for retirement as he has ever been, their therapist clenches himself into the precise level of discomfort required to facilitate the silence that will follow.

Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound.