Vera heard the sound of the fridge opening. “Was it there?” she called out and scowled when she heard the rattle of cans on the fridge’s glass shelf. If Dean tried to squeeze any more six-packs of beer into the fridge there wouldn't be any room left for groceries. In Dean’s startlingly short list of priorities beer always came first. Bud wasn't just king in his world, it was God. Primo Numero Uno! Given a choice on a crashing plane between a parachute and a cold one he wouldn't hesitate for a moment: the can would have been empty in seconds and he would have gone to his death with a grin on his face and a yeasty burp on his lips.
“I said, was it there?” she repeated when there was no reply.
“What do you mean ‘nope’? Come in here and talk to me properly!”
“I said ‘Nope’.”
Dean stood in the doorway, one hand scratching his belly, taught against the stained grey cotton of his T-shirt, while in the other he clutched an unopened can of Bud. His black shorts, three sizes too large, hung down like twin windsocks over his pale spindly legs. It had always amazed Vera that such sticks could support his weight.
“Can’t you something more than ‘nope’?" she demanded. "How about an explanation?”
Dean gave her a lopsided shrug – for some reason he always rested his chin on his left shoulder when he shrugged – prized up the aluminum tab with a dirty fingernail and broke the seal. There was a brief hiss and the small living room quickly filled with the stink of beer. “What do you want me to say?” he groaned. “If it weren't there it weren't there. I can’t demand that they pay; they’re all bigger than me! Even the girls are bigger than me!" He rolled his eyes. "Especially the girls.”
No, Dean could not force Vera’s clients to pay any more than she could. Her business was conducted on trust. Without trust there was no business. She made a few exceptions for those who couldn’t pay the full price -- the ones who hadn’t inherited their murdered father’s estate, made a fortune as an inventor or could turn lead into gold simply by touching it. She asked them (and she thought they were the salt of the earth) only to donate what they could… but the client with the silver suit had over a billion dollars in the bank (or so the gossip went) and for the third time this year the payment hadn't been in the agreed drop-off point. Every week one of the nine suits he had in rotation came back for mending – as well as the usual rips and tears that needed patching up it seemed her client was putting on weight too -- and silver thread didn’t buy itself. If the big guns refused to pay, it would be the small fry who suffered. They were already suffering. She’d already put off mending two suits simply because her errant client’s donation did not cover her costs. Matters were becoming desperate; and when her clients were hurting, the city hurt too.
“What about new pick-ups?” she asked nervously. Her son looked down at his scuffed sneakers, shoelaces untied. “Nothing? Again? Are you sure?" When Dean failed to answer Vera felt her heart sag like a bag of cement left out in the rain. “Not even on Bolt Street?”
“Nope. Not even Bolt Street.” Dean tipped the can and his head back at the same time. Beer gurgled in his throat, but only for a few seconds before it was gulped down. By the time the evening was out he'd have chugged down half a dozen more, and munched his way through at least two mega-sized packs of cheese Doritos. The crumbs followed him around the apartment like a fairytale orphan lost in the woods.
Feeling faint, Vera lurched to her feet and staggered to the old leather armchair in the corner. Sinking into the soft, warm leather, broken-in over a period of twenty years by her late husband's backside, she closed her eyes and sighed. Her worst fears were coming true. Only two weeks ago she had remarked on Mrs Chivers’ new coat and handbag, both designer, and yesterday she had spotted deliverymen huffing and puffing a brand new fridge freezer up the stairs to her apartment. And wasn’t that a new Jaguar Mrs Chivers’ brute of a husband was driving around town in, looking like the cat who hadn't just got the cream, but the canary and the catnip as well? How could they afford a new Jaguar? These were the people who had once infamously (well, at least in their apartment block) sold their own pet dog to pay for food.