29. The Imposter
The doorbell rang and Neil went to greet some more guests. It was Russ and Katie.
"Hey guys. Come in, come in" Neil beckoned the couple inside. "We're all in the garden."
It was a beautifully warm Saturday in May: the first really good barbecue weather of the year. The garden was well maintained: bright pink and purple azalea, camelia and lilac flowers were in full bloom on mature shrubs that filled the borders. The freshly mown lawn smelt of grass cuttings. The extension at the back of the house didn't leave a lot of outside space, but it was still large enough for a social gathering. In one corner there was a patio which was filled with smoke as the charcoal had recently been lit and was getting up to temperature. The guests moved around trying to avoid the smoke as the wind changed direction.
"Red, white, beer, soft drink?" Neil asked.
"Can I have a white wine spritzer, please Neil?" asked Katie.
"Certainly. Anything for you my dear" Neil replied flirtily. "And for you, Russ?"
"I'll get a beer."
"Beers are in the bucket of ice right there. Opener's on the table. Katie, I'll be back with your drink in a minute" said Neil, disappearing into the kitchen.
There was a fine spread of food on a table set up in the garden. Potato salad had green flecks of chopped chives mixed through the buttery yellow new potatoes. Greek salad was full of bright white crumbled feta cheese, jet black olives and juicy red tomatoes. Mixed bean and pasta salad completed the vegetarian fare. There was enough salad to feed a small army and very little would actually get eaten. Everybody would take a few scoops of each dish to decorate their plate with, but copious amounts of bread and meat were about to be consumed.
"Here you go" said Neil, presenting Katie with her drink. "Barbecue's lit. I'll put the burgers on once the coals are hot" he said loudly to the group. A cheer went up from a couple of slightly tipsy men.
"What are you going to do about that shed, Neil? It's rickety as hell" asked Russ.
"I'm glad you asked that, thanks Russ" said Lara from the kitchen doorway with a smirk on her face.
"Oh you're back are you?" Neil said sarcastically.
From a plastic carrier bag, Lara deposited napkins, paper plates, paper cups and two bottles of Prosecco on the table.
"I've already had a go at trying to tackle that blasted shed. Problem is, a lot of those cheap sheds you get from garden centres come with big panels that we can't carry through the house easily" Neil explained to Russ.
"I heard you already knocked it down once."
"That's not exactly true. We just filled it up with a bit too much stuff" Neil replied, shooting a sideways glance at Lara. She was fiddling with a bottle cork. There was a pop and people cheered. Neil was grateful for the diversion as Lara filled paper cups with a thimbleful of fizzy wine.
"What's the occasion?" somebody asked.
"Oh, I don't know. First day of summer... almost" Lara replied, distributing the drinks.
Neil went to check on the barbecue. It was a shiny black enamelled one with a huge lid. The coals had stopped smoking and turned a little grey with ash. There was no flame but there was a lot of heat. He spread the coals out, put the grill over them and went into the kitchen. He returned with a large oval metal plate covered with plump home-made burger patties. The meat quickly started to drip juice and fat onto the coals, making them sizzle and delicious cooking smells filled the air.
Lara fetched out a serving dish piled high with burger buns and placed it next to a selection of assorted condiment bottles.
"Who wants cheese on their burger?" she asked.
Having tallied the numbers, Neil flipped the patties, which were now nicely char-grilled on one side. He placed sliced cheese on most of the burgers so that it would melt on the hot meat. Placing the lid back on the barbecue gave everything an authentic charcoal smoked taste.
Exchanging the subtlest of glances with Lara, Neil indicated that it was time to serve up the main event.
"Right, everybody grab a plate and a burger bun" Lara yelled.
The guests, who had enjoyed many such a gathering before, now swarmed around the table and passed ketchup, mayonnaise, salad leaves, relish and other things around amongst themselves, while some of the hungrier ones took their place eagerly at the barbecue. Neil deposited burgers into buns as people clustered around him and his giant stainless steel tongs.
With most people happily enjoying a burger, Neil now covered the grill with a variety of sausages. Pork and apple, leek, chilli and onion. Cumberland, Lincolnshire and chipolatas joined a smörgåsbord of traditional and flavoured sausages. Content that the best British barbecue sausages are burnt black on the outside, he could now relax and enjoy a bite to eat himself.
"You're still thin as a rake considering the way you eat, Neil" said his friend Adam.
"Mmmm" Neil responded with a mouthful of food, his hands dripping with burger juice.
"Still, you're looking a lot healthier than last time I saw you. You were wasting away."
"Mmmm mmmm" Neil nodded in agreement, chewing. He reached for a napkin. "How's work?" he asked, swallowing.
"Oh same as ever. Same shit, different day. You?"
"Pays the bills. Can't grumble" replied Neil.
"Last time we spoke you said you were thinking about trying something new. Retraining even. Changed your mind?" Adam asked.
"I was thinking about it. Been doing the same thing since I left college. I'm just grateful to have a job and be working at the moment. You read about a lot of layoffs, you know?"
"You can't worry about that too much though. Life's too short. The gaffer says you've been working every bit of overtime you can get. Make sure you look after yourself, right?"
"Right. It's hard though, isn't it? You get used to the extra money, then you don't want to give it up."
"Sure, but you've got a lovely house. Just don't over-stretch yourself. Don't wanna burn out." Adam cautioned light-heartedly.
"Yep. You're right. I've been feeling pretty down lately. Thought about going see the doctor for the first time in ages. So hard to get time off when your diary's full of client site visits."
The barbecue progressed from sausages to chicken and finally finished with bananas and chocolate wrapped in foil, baked in the hot ash of the coals. The nights were getting longer but it was still cold as soon as the sun was gone and some guests started to make their excuses and leave. A few of the men had moved to the lounge while the ladies were sipping wine in the dining room.
"I've completed this one" Neil was saying, flashing the box of a computer game.
"No way. That's supposed to be really hard."
"I know. I'm not really into computer games, but I really got into that one. Took me weeks."
"Well, I don't get to play that often."
"Nah, me either. Bit bored of computer games to be honest."
"I got this one. The sequel. It's impossible. Can't get into it at all" said Neil, showing round another box.
"I hate that whole Duty and Honour franchise" said Adam. "Stupid shoot-em-up. Let's play that go-karting game."
They set up a 4-player computer game while Neil fetched more beer from the kitchen.
"I don't know if it's going to happen again, but I just have to trust that it won't" Neil could hear Lara saying as he passed the dining room. The ladies cooed with sympathy. "Everybody has a blip at some stage in their life."
Back in the lounge, Adam was skinning up a joint. "Outside, yeah?" he asked.
"Yeah, please. No smoking inside the house" Neil replied.
"Nah. You know I don't like weed."
"Just the white powder, eh?" Adam joked, poking his nose with a bent finger and sniffing.
"That was just that one time at Barry's and she doesn't know" replied Neil in a hushed tone, conspiratorially.
"Gave you the confidence to chat her up though, didn't it?" Adam winked.
"Enough said already. Fuck off and smoke your joint. And make sure the neighbours aren't in the garden before you spark up."
Some time after midnight the remaining house guests departed en masse. Lara and Neil spent a bit of time gathering glasses and bottles into the kitchen and putting the worst of the rubbish into big black plastic refuse sacks, before retiring to bed.
"Do you remember what we were like when we met?" Lara asked, lying next to him with the bedside light still on.
"You were so... different."
"No, not really. Now. Things seem so different now."
"In a bad way?" Neil asked.
"No. I don't think so" Lara replied, turning off the light.
The room span slightly from the amount of alcohol he had consumed and he was tired. He fell asleep almost immediately. Lately, he'd been drinking more and more. Without going to bed drunk, he would lie awake feeling depressed. Suicidal thoughts were creeping in.
He really didn't want to trouble Lara with his worries. He was struggling to get up in the mornings, but he really needed his job to pay the mortgage and they thought highly of him at work. He'd barely taken a day off sick since he'd started and he knew his bosses were pleased with his performance.
Why was he so tired all the time? Sure, he enjoyed entertaining guests from time to time - especially when there was alcohol - but the rest of the time he struggled to find the motivation to do anything. It was so damn frustrating to not have his usual levels of energy and enthusiasm. He didn't seem to be enjoying life very much anymore.