Julie’s Boys by Preti Taneja

Here’s a short story read live at Days of Roses a while ago, now edited for your pleasure. It’s all set around a retail park a bit like the one in Stevenage, where the author spent many a childhood weekend.

Julie’s Boys

“Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away. Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away. Chicken burger – ” Three hours ago Julie drove Jake home from work. Then she had a shower, got glammed up, and now she’s gone out with Ash. It’s Friday night and they’ve gone back to the retail park to watch a film and have a drink in the cinema bar like they always do.

Jake’s lying on his back on his bed, and he’s got ‘Chicken burger, large fries, coke to take away,’ going round his brain, over and over again. He’s trying to rub them words from his head with the music he’s got on, louder than loud should be allowed to go. He dreams that “Chicken burger” phrase some nights, he hears it so often, so often that he’s not sure he’s dreaming any more; and he knows that working at the retail park’s drive-thru Mister Chicken means he has fewer dreams, long term.

He turns it up some more and Shy Child start punching ring tones, bleeps, dial sounds and drums into him as if his brain is the phone, and he closes his eyes, trying to get in the moment like the singer is begging him to, but all he can see behind his lids is work.

Wipe clean yellow chairs, bolted to the floor, grimy tables that have served better days. Plastic food wrapped in plastic paper, the fat-bummed customers or spotty girls; there’s nothing to drool over in his day. Except Ash. Julie’s boyfriend. When Ash pulls up to the order point and Jake can see him – like a film star, a God in the tiny TV screen that’s balanced on the edge of Jake’s collect-and-pay window, Jake drools; fuck, does he drool when Ash pulls up. He drools over Ash’s car, his clothes, his gravely voice, the way he asks for a Mister Chicken special with a choc shake and medium fries, extra bacon on the burger, hold the sauce – Jake says “Coming right up!” as if he’s in a film too. It’s all he can do to smooth his hair and straighten his Mister Chicken badge and brighten his smile in the time it takes for Ash to roll up to the collect-and-pay window and hold out the money for his order. By that time, Jake has lost the power of speech.

It happened, just like that, this afternoon. All as usual. But something else happened that’s got him freaking out. Now he’s stuck on his bed, replaying it, trying to make sense of it all. Fuck, man, what the fuck am I going to do? Jake thinks. It’s OK, it will be OK he tells himself, but he knows he’s got a choice to make, and it’s no joke.

He remembers how he smiled when he saw Ash in his TV screen today, pulling up to the order point. Ash was on his phone, he wasn’t looking into the camera. In his mind he hears Ash’s voice again, and sees himself, like a patsy, in his stupid Chicken hat, immediately standing up taller.

“Mister Chicken special with a choc shake and medium fries, extra bacon on the burger, hold the sauce,” says Ash to the box.

“Coming right up!” says Jake, and watches Ash in the mirror to see if he reacts. He just rolls the car out of the camera’s range and about five seconds later, arrives in front of Jake’s window.

“Hey babe,” Ash says into his phone. Jake’s mouth goes dry. He reaches out his hand and takes Ash’s money without touching fingers and turns to his till, pressing the keys with his thumb.

“I miss your body,” says Ash to whoever’s  on the other end of the line. Jake’s thumb gets slower, he can hear every word in his ear and in his ear-piece. Right inside. Eh?

“You have a hot body, baby and I love lickin’ it slow,” Ash is grinning, Jake can hear it in his voice. He’s almost unable to move.

Is he talking to Julie? thinks Jake. Does he talk like that to Julie?

Jake pictures his sister in her pink and white New York Nails uniform, standing outside the salon across the car park, probably on her break, probably smoking with her best friend Jo instead of eating any lunch. He doesn’t want her to go hungry; he will take her a Mister Chicken no-Chicken salad later. The serving is too small to fill him up, but the plastic box is big enough; at least it looks as if he is bringing her a proper lunch.

“Yo where’s my change, Jakey?” says Ash. “This boy’s asleep on the job!”

Jake’s snaps back to Ash, laughing down his phone as he holds out his hand for his change. Ash doesn’t look up as Jake places the coins, carefully into his open palm. Both of them focus on the money. For some reason, Jake wants to say, “Sorry, I’m sorry Ash.” But he doesn’t. Speechless.

Ash finishes his call. “I am so ready for you – I’ll see you in five. Make sure you’re ready!” He laughs again, claps his phone shut and finally looks at Jake. “See you brother!” He punches the air with his right fist in that way he has, and then he drives off. Jake stands there while the old Mister Chicken feeling: boredom, with a side of frustration, settles down on him like a comfort blanket. But something isn’t right. It’s as if he’s nine again, and Julie is thumping him gently through the blanket over and over, trying to tell him something, trying to make him listen to her. Thump – “Jake!” Thump – “Jake!” Thump – “come on Jake!”

I’m not your brother, Jake stupidly thinks. I’m Julie’s. Is Ash going to marry Julie? That would make us brothers. If they get married will Julie still let me go out with her? Will Ash talk to me more? Hey, he’ll have to. He’ll have to because we’ll be brothers. And the three of us will go out together. On Julie’s lunch break, they’ll both come over…Hold up, if Julie is on her break, why is Ash talking to her on the phone as if she’s miles away, not just across the car park? And why is he ordering chicken? She’s a vegetarian. Why isn’t he with her?

For a moment Jake wants to cry because he thinks his sister is skiving off work and is waiting somewhere, maybe to have sex with Ash, and Ash is on his way there now. Jake raises himself slowly to his tiptoes and cranes his neck like Mister Chicken, waiting for the chop. “I’m not taking her a fucking salad,” he mutters to himself, then stops. In the back of his mind, Julie is still trying to tell him something. He cranes his neck a bit further – Julie’s car is still in the car park; he can see it where she always parks it, a bit crooked, half way between Mister Chicken and New York Nails, she’d rather park like that than spoil her fresh done fakes. The car hasn’t moved.

Finally he gets it. Ash was talking to someone else. He was arranging a hook up with someone else. Not Julie.

“Fuck,” says Jake.

“Twelve chicken nuggets, coke and fries.” In the TV screen, a woman with a big forehead looks pissed off. Did she hear him swear? He doesn’t care.

“Medium or large?” he says. Well-trained, that’s him.
“Regular.”
“That’s £5.99, please drive round to collect your order.”

Ash and Julie got together when Jake was 13. They were both in their last year of school, but Ash already had a job doing up cars at his dad’s Garage. Julie had it made, all her mates said so. Jake thought Ash was the business. Just being around him gave him like, the silliest smiley feeling he’d ever felt.

“Here’s your meal.”
“Thanks. Can I have a straw please?”
“Do you want one or two?”
“Just one, and some paper napkins. Thanks.”

Jake still remembers the first time Ash really spoke to him. Two years ago, when Jake was 14, Ash came up the stairs and into his bedroom. Julie was downstairs with Mum, getting the tea ready; Ash was invited to stay and offered to fetch Jake down. Ash knocked on the door, something no one else had ever done. When Jake looked up from the bed, Ash nodded instead of speaking, as if they were best mates, the same age. Jake took off his headphones and just stared back. Ash came into the room, sat down at the end of Jake’s bed and said: “I need to speak to you.”

“Chicken bucket special and four large fries, two large cokes.” A mum and a fat kid.
“Don’t forget the ketchup.” The kid leans over his mum.
“And four extra packets of ketchup.”
“That’s £16.98, please drive round to the collection point to pick up your food and pay.”

Need. What could Jake have that Ash, amazing 17 year-old Ash, with his fresh trainers, his gold chain, his proper wheels, possibly need? Jake still remembers the way he stared at Ash, mouth open, and sat totally still in case Ash suddenly realised where he was, punched him in the face the way Jake had seen him punch the air, and left.

“Three pounds and two pence change.” He offers the money, and the woman takes it, dropping one of the coins in the car, slapping her son’s greedy hands before driving away, coke straw in mouth.

Jake remembers how Ash got really close to him. “Jake. What if I told you that you’re the only one who can help me?” Ash gave him a smile as if it was a gift, wrapped up especially for Jake and with Jake’s name on it. Jake felt the sweat prickle on his palms and under his arms and he wanted to giggle. He concentrated on the bright red and white of Ash’s football shirt. Arse-n-all, he thought, and it made him want to laugh out loud, and cry.

“I am?” He said, hoping like mad that this wasn’t a joke. His mind raced ahead. Did Ash want him to give Julie something? Did he want to ask him something about Julie?

“Jake, you have a secret, don’t you?”
“Yes!” Jake wanted to shout. “I do!”
“Maybe,” he said. His heart was pounding and he slid his hands underneath his thighs to keep them still. Then he had to remove them and put them in his lap, and press stealthily down. He kept his eyes on Ash, but Ash saw everything.

“It’s OK, you don’t have to tell me,” Ash said smiling. He leant forward on the bed towards Jake. His breath was minty over Marlboros in Jake’s face. He said, “I know your secret. I won’t tell. I have a secret too. I’ll tell you mine, because you’re the only one who can help me. And help me keep it.”

And that was the first time. Half an hour later, they were downstairs. It was chips for tea, and Jake put too much vinegar on his.

“Four apple pies and a medium Coke,” A group of girls, Julie’s old mates from school. The one driving is picking her nose – the others can’t see her as she leans towards the order point.
“Please drive round to the collection point to pick up your food and pay,” Jake says.

And that wasn’t the last time. It happens all the time. Love is a secret special thing for Jake and Ash, and Jake knows he can’t tell anyone, because Ash is like the only one who trusts him. He doesn’t say ‘love’, even to Ash. He doesn’t say anything to anyone. And even without saying anything, he still gets called a fag, a gay boy at school. It’s as if everyone knows anyway. But no one knows about Ash.

Between them they look after Julie. Jake made Ash promise not to sleep with her, so she won’t get pregnant and ruin her life like Mum always says she will, going out wearing what she does. What would Julie say if she knew Ash was getting his lunchtime special from some other girl? Fuck.

I DROP THE PHONE screams the tune, and Jake rolls off his bed like a frozen chip in the hot fat fryer, and spins round the room till he comes face to face with himself in the mirror. He sees a face that looks younger than he feels himself to be. Around the mirror is the stencil he painted on the wall when him and Julie shared a room when they were kids. And when their mother started shouting at him, Julie told her she made him do it. So he got off, and she got grounded. She said, “Don’t worry, that’s what big sisters are for.”

Jake wonders who Ash spent the afternoon with. He wonders what little brothers are for. Suddenly he can see Ash so clearly behind him that he can’t even cry. He gets his bag, rummages, and finally finds his phone.

“U got 2 tell JuLE” he txts. Ash is first in his contacts list. He presses ‘send’ and counts three heartbeats. A message beeps back on the fourth. Ash.

“W8 brother, whassup?”
“Am not ur bro. Am hrs.”
“Will C U l8r for U&me time.”
“No.” After he sends that one, Jake feels his face might be ageing in time with his body. His heartbeat speeds up and on the fifth one, his phone rings. Ash.
“What you playing at, Jakey baby? I’ve left your sister in the bar, she thinks I’ve gone to have a piss.”
Jake keeps his eyes on himself in the mirror, staring at it as if his gaze could break it.
“You’re seeing someone else. You spent the afternoon fucking well sleeping with someone else.” He says. He sounds strong, grown up.
“Oh don’t start Jake, I’m not sleeping with Julie, you know that, you moron. Not even after two years. She’s fresh as, you know it’s all about you, man, come on.”
“Don’t Ash, just… Someone else.”
“What’s wrong, are you all alone? Friday night no outing? I’m dropping Julie off later, I’ll take you for a drive.”
“Fine.” Jake waits a beat and then punches his fist through the air, slow and controlled, so it gently meets itself in the cold mirror. “You’ve got three days.”
“To what?”
“To tell her. Or I will. Maybe I’ll do it tonight!”
“Come on, Jake, Jake my man, where’s that talent for keeping schtum that I love? Jake it’s all up to you. And no one means more to me than you. You’re why I’m with Julie. Come on. Later, I’ll take you for a drive.”

“Three days. And if you don’t, I’ll – I’ll tell her I heard you on the phone to someone else. At the drive-thru. Right in front of me, Ash.” Jake gags, and tastes chicken.

“Oh Jake, little lovely Jake. That was just to get to you, man, just a little tease. I was talking to you! Can’t say that stuff out loud without some kind of frontage, can I? You’re so sexy in that Mister Chicken hat. There was no one on the other end of the phone. You fell for it man! You are really my man. My man, Jake, my man! And you deserve something special.”

Is it true? Jake turns away from himself in the mirror. He is young, again.

“Do I?”
“Sure. Just you wait.”
“And will you?”
“Take you for a drive? Of course. Just be ready, Jake, I’ll make all your dreams come true. I’ve got to get back in, just, you know, be ready and I’ll be there, I’ll see you soon. All your dreams.”
“OK.”
And then Ash is gone.
“OK,” Jake says to the room. ‘OK.’

He goes back to the bed and puts his headphones on. His body is buzzing with the tiny soundwaves that speed through his blood, the echo of Ash’s promise. All his dreams. He’s had enough of them; it’s time to make something happen for himself. What’s he going to do? Still, he hasn’t decided. He lies back on the bed, and turns the music up and then down again. He wants to be ready when he hears Ash’s car outside; be ready for Julie, when she comes up the stairs.

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