Once upon a time in London there was a red jumper…
While southern England was shaking out her green dress for the season, throwing pollen over every available surface in the lengthening days, the department store alcove where James Fitzjames stood was apparently stuck somewhere back in mid-January. Overhead, the jaundicing yellow lights thrummed in their casements and the heating rumbled on, spitting out enough gritty hot air to make him feel like an over-done fillet.
He wished he could peel himself like an orange, skin and all.
Unfortunately, he was human and there were only so many layers one was able to unbutton and unzip publicly. Desperate, he settled for letting his coat hang off his elbows, halfway to dragging the floor, but he found little in the way of true relief as he cursed and dug around in the back of his shirt collar where sweat was starting to make it itch.
He tried to focus; a wave of nausea incited by the heat cresting. Thankfully he knew this particular alcove well and, though he didn’t need to resort to extremes just yet, there was a black bin just to the left of the permanently abandoned check out desk that he may or may not have had to use before.
He willed a thick swallow of watery bile down, turning all his attention to the task at hand. The circular rack was full of fine men’s shirts, recently marked down, and just before the current state of dizziness he’d been hurriedly sliding hanger after hanger aside looking for the proper size.
Not that it particularly mattered.
Thomas was wide through the shoulders and needed everything sized up for tailoring anyway. He wasn’t looking for something specific, either. Just something. Anything, really, would do to get that temporary surge of relief that came with his impromptu retail therapy sessions. One well cut blazer or clearance pack of dress socks and his brain was dispensing the subsequent hit of dopamine like he was a lab rat.
It was short lived. He was forced to pause again, fitting a he was forced to pause and fit hand on the back of his neck, squeezing his eyes down against the unfortunate rolling sensation. Nobody had properly prepared him for the amount of residual shit he felt all over during treatment. Well, maybe they had, but he didn’t stoop to believing them. But in the privacy of the empty department store he thought of himself in visions of a deflated, abused, football being kicked on a school lawn, or asphalt baking to a melted puddle under a gigantic, vicious, sun.
The electric eel, a new resident to the list of endlessly evolving bodily complaints, somewhere just over his sciatica gave a gross shiver at the image and he tensed even harder against the sparking zaps now spitting up and down his spine.
Eventually it dulled to a manageable tension and he let out a slow five count breath, glancing around to face the collateral damage.
A man over by the ties was peering at him over the display.
James couldn’t quite read his expression at the distance; it vacillated between bland curiosity and what could be akin to sympathy in the right light, but there was no doubt he’d witnessed the little spell.
James raised his eyebrows in a blatant address.
The man blinked, head nodding back down to the ties in embarrassment. He lifted a hand to take up the end of one and inspected it thoroughly, the other shoved deep into his pocket.
“You can do better than that, surely,” James called over the rack, hangers clacking again. The man’s head jerked up and they locked eyes for another anguished, awkward, moment that was nearly as painful as his fried nerves. Then, generously, James smirked and tipped his head toward the audaciously green paisley patterned fabric pinched between the stranger’s fingers. “Unless you have an interview with the circus later.”
What little color remained in the man’s face drained, reducing him to shell-shocked silence. He returned to looking down at the tie with reinvigorated interest and then dropped it, helplessly pretending to be busy with the others folded on the table.
“I should apologize,” James said, drifting across the faux laminate flooring to him. The man flinched visibly, cornered, but otherwise frozen in place. That was curious. Most people bolted immediately after being caught gawking, but this one was hunkered down like a scared rabbit
“Impolite of me to comment,” James continued, shifting his strategy and attempting at assuaging. “Nearly as bad as staring.”
“Sorry,” the man mumbled at last, like an afterthought. Closer inspection yielded a remarkably dazed sort of person: dark puffy skin ringed his brown eyes and one of his brows slouched in an exhausted asymmetrical droop, aligning perfectly with the uneven lines of his shave and nondescript clothes that bore a wrinkled fished-from-the-hamper flavor.
“No bother, I’m very used to it at present,” James replied, eyeing him again. He had to admit, he was growing used to, even fond of, these new peers. What a motley crew they were the elderly, the harrowed and othered, and of course, the ill, who found themselves baking under the rattling tube bulbs and resigned to picking things up and putting them down on slow and boring Tuesday afternoons while the well went on being well.
“It’s because of the hat,” he sighed, feeling the Pavlovian scratch of the beanie adorning his prickly recently we’re-being-empowered-about-it shaved head at its mere mention.
It was a gracious understatement, and one he hoped was appreciated.
He couldn’t blame anybody for staring, even this sad sack. James looked microwaved, literally, thanks to the chemo.
Beyond that people could practically smell the impending possibility of death and hospital grade antimicrobial wafting off of him and it kept them away on the off chance his looks didn’t get the job done right. The disease was stretching him out to bizarre proportions, taking him from the long-lined thoroughbred of his prime to a nightmare haunting a funhouse mirror.
He smiled tightly to himself. Standing side by side now, he and the stranger might have looked like some sort of fucked up Laurel and Hardy. He’d have said as much if Frank were there just to see the puss he’d get on his face, which always made James laugh more than the actual joke. His old man made him feel weaknesses that predated prognosis; afflictions of the heart long and so lovingly suffered.
Frank never thought the jokes were funny, but of course they were. They were hysterical. Prostate cancer might drag him (kicking and screaming) to an early grave, but James would take along the image of his husband beet red and steaming with anger, sawing ineffectively at baked salmon while James and Tom volleyed increasingly lewd euphemisms back and forth across the dinner table, clutched to him till the bitter end.
“What’s the occasion?” James asked, coming back into the moment and canting slightly to show off just how properly nosy he felt like being.
Like a conjured spirit Francis intruded in his subconscious, whining about at least wearing a mask while communing with these unwashed masses, but he’d long decided to spare himself that further indignity. His ears stuck out enough as it was, an insecurity he’d never even considered before the diagnosis.
“Funeral,” the man breathed, not seeming to care very much that he was speaking to James Fitzjames, tumor-riddled ghoul at large.
“Oh, a classic.”
The man’s bleary expression snapped tighter, eyes sharp with recognition that another human being was offering something other than an apology. Instant telepathic understanding pinged between them in the damp magic of shared suffering.
“Well, black then, obviously,” James said, looking at the darker colors once more with a wave of his hand. “Every man ought to have a black tie. Or charcoal if you’re feeling especially festive. Who died?”
“My brother,” the man said, still looking at James. He was vetting a few examples, holding them up so his eyes tick between them. “He killed himself.”
James dropped his hands back down to the table, looking at the stranger with genuine concern. The man lifted his eyes briefly.
“He jumped off a building.”
James allowed himself to feel fully, truly, transported in surprise.
“I didn’t know people really did that.”
It blurted out of him before he could stop it. There wasn’t even time to slap his hand over his lips as the man, to his astonishment, lifted a corner of his mouth in a weird smile.
“I didn’t either,” he agreed with a devastated laugh. “He left a note and everything…”
James stared at him. The man’s eyes grew impossibly wide and then flooded with tears.
“I - uh.”
The man floundered with partially formed words and redirected his attention back to the merchandise, blood flushing up his neck. “I figured I’d get a new one,” he cleared his throat, pawing at his cheeks.
“You can’t go wrong with black,” James said quickly, lifting the first one he saw. It was by Drake with a subtle sheen of diamond patterning in the silk. He grimaced. “I don’t think any of these will do, though. Usually I’d suggest Hackett and be done with it, but it’s a bit too flashy…”
The man stared emptily at the table. James sensed that he had reached the precipice of some unseen internal edge, a feeling he was getting to know very well. He didn’t mind toeing at it when it came to himself, but this man looked like he might be capable of walking straight out in front of an oncoming bus if pushed too hard.
“But hope is not lost!” James insisted, seizing the silent mission of comforting him literally. He took the man’s arm and gently steered him over to a smaller display. “It’s quite incredible what clothes can do. They can say everything for you, even in dire circumstances. They’ve saved my life countless times.”
He pulled open the display’s drawer and sifted through a few options till he found one he felt fit the bill. He unfurled the tie and looked at the tag.
“For instance, this one says: young, sober, Englishman. Stiff upper lip and all that rot. And a good wool blend to boot. Just look at that weave.”
“Absorbent,” the man muttered, examining the threads. James couldn’t help but grin.
“Exactly. Here,” he held it up to the man’s chest. He squinted, then nodded decidedly and forced him to take it. “They look terribly dowdy on me, I’m more of a Paul Smith man, but this will suit you and your mum will love it.”
He closed the drawer with a rumble, the man draping the tie carefully across his palm, thumb rubbing at the fabric.
“Thank you,” he said blankly.
“Think nothing of it. I was about to give up on looking for something for my son, as the staff here are so entirely helpful.” He looked around the deserted alcove. The sales people usually vanished into thin air as soon as they caught him lurking about. “Probably better off, frankly. If I come back with another bag from this place my husband will have my head.”
“I’m so sorry if I’m keeping you,” the man said, sounding dismally apologetic and James shook his head gently at his hangdog expression.
“No, no, no. Anything for a fellow in need,” he replied. “James Fitzjames-Crozier, by the way. I’d ask to shake your hand but unfortunately you are a walking petri dish and at this point I’m in enough trouble as it is wandering about all exposed.”
The man huffed and curled his fingers more protectively around the tie, folding it loosely with his other into a neat wad.
“Edward,” he said, still looking down.
“Very nice to meet you Edward,” James smiled.
“That red thing there is nice,” Edward said, choicely tilting his head toward the clearance rack that he’d first seen James sorting through. “For your son. I saw it when I first came in.”
“Look at that,” James praised with a cocked eyebrow, going over to pluck the jumper out and hold it up. It was a wonderful bright red, and the cut was decent. “You’re catching on, Edward. Tommy hardly wears enough red. He’s always blue, blue, blue. And scrubs,” he frowned. “Which is a waste. He’s got such a look.”
He shot Edward a gloating smirk over his shoulder.
“Least I can do,” Edward replied, still messing with the tie between his hands, winding it and unwinding it. He was smiling faintly again at James across the floor. “It’s a good color. It stands out.”
“It is, isn’t it. Sort of lucky,” James appraised, pursing his lips. He stretched the sleeve of the arm along his own. “I reckon he’ll be impossible to miss in this, don’t you?”