Excerpt

Dominoes

Phoebe McIntosh

March 15, 2024 
The following is from Phoebe McIntosh's Dominoes. McIntosh is an actress and playwright from London. She wrote and performed in a sell-out run of her first play, The Tea Diaries, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, followed by her solo show, Dominoes, which toured the South East and London. Her most recent full-length play, The Soon Life, was shortlisted and highly commended for the Tony Craze Award as well as being longlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award.

It was a crisp evening in Angel. The kind where the sky is that deep, dark blue, clear and limitless. The kind you never get. The kind where anything is possible.

From the doorstep of the Regency town house, we could hear the party already in full force. I let Sera ring the bell. I stood with my arms folded, giving her a look out of the corner of my eye. It was yet another way for me to show her that I didn’t want to be there, that I wished I’d gone straight home after work.

“Half an hour, tops, then I’m out,” I said.

Through the living-room window, I caught snippets of chatter and wondered if I could make it home in time to order sushi from the new place I’d found. That, and only that, would redeem the night.

“Twenty minutes,” Sera promised me. She was lying, which she knew I knew. She also knew I wasn’t in the mood to pass the time with a group of strangers whose default topic of conversation would be either work or how they spent their time when not at work in order to forget about work. She knew because I’d told her three times: once in the staffroom when she’d asked me to go with her in the first place, again in a voice message, and for a third time on the way there.

“Watch me though. Twenty minutes gonna be too much for dese people!” She spoke in the voice we both had a habit of slipping back into when it was just the two of us. The one we’d used during our rude-girl phase as fourteen-year-olds. Sera began to dance to the beat, winding her waist like she wasn’t really on a doorstep in the middle of a residential street at all but on a stage being watched by adoring fans, proving to me she was in the mood and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She stopped abruptly when the door was answered by a random reveler who let us in without bothering to ask who we were. Sera kissed her teeth and closed the door behind us, muttering that this was London and people shouldn’t just be letting anyone and everyone in like that. As soon as we were inside, I could see her pulling a large bottle of rum out of her tiny bag like she was Mary Poppins. Then she morphed seamlessly into her alter ego, Rum-Punch-Stiltskin, a name I’d christened her with in a haze of daiquiris, Jean Harlows and mojitos on our graduation trip to Ibiza where I’d spent most of the week trying to forget that I’d only managed to achieve a 2:1 while Sera had got a first.

Turning round to look at me from the end of the corridor in that cavernous house, she gave me the same mischievous lip curl she’d been giving me since we were kids, and hollered, “You know you love me, Lay Lay!” before being sucked into the vortex of a party she never had any intention of leaving. Fuck, I thought, wondering how many people were staring at me at that exact moment, on my lonesome. I seriously considered heading straight back out through the front door leaving Sera to it. I could probably even get away with blaming it on Leon breaking things off with me abruptly three days ago, despite, in truth, not being that bothered. After six dates and zero sexual chemistry, plus quite a lot of thought on my part about the many changes I’d make to his personality, whatever we were doing had barely got off the ground.

I scanned the rooms leading off the hallway trying to decide where to hide and scroll. I chose to bypass the living room full of people shouting into each other’s faces over the playlist and opted for the more sedate open-plan kitchen with its expensive-looking bifold doors leading out into a garden featuring strung lights with exposed elements, a fire pit, an underwhelming water feature and a willow tree, wondering who in the hell could afford a house share as swanky as this one.

I made myself a drink, purposefully ignoring house-party etiquette by finishing off the Bombay Sapphire and claiming the last remaining chilled can of Fever Tree tonic without replacing them with anything because I’d arrived empty-handed. I inspected the nibbles on offer but then remembered to save room for my late-night sushi feast which I intended to eat in my kimono in front of Valeria, the Spanish version of Sex and the City I’d discovered on Netflix. I felt almost nauseous knowing there were unseen episodes I could be watching and maki rolls I could be eating, instead of standing on my own in a stranger’s kitchen trying not to catch other strangers’ eyes and thinking about how I could begin reclaiming my time as soon as humanly possible.

I nestled my lower back against the edge of the island. No sooner had I positioned myself with just the right amount of nonchalance in the angle of my lean, my elbow both propping me up and facilitating my browse, than I was interrupted. He was someone I’d describe with a phrase I reserve for only exceptional-looking individuals and use indiscriminately for men and women: he was quite, quite beautiful. Obviously tipsy but no less attractive for it. There was something stylish about him too. Not smart or particularly well groomed—but there was an effortlessness about the way he looked, the way he carried himself, that struck me as the epitome of good styling in a man. He wore a striped crewneck jumpers which he’d ruched up at the sleeves to reveal toned forearms, a Casio watch circa 1987, and a freckle on his left wrist. He was only a few inches taller than me—I’d put him at about five eight. The care and attention he’d paid to his clothes hadn’t quite made it down to his feet. His Diadora trainers were so battered it looked like he’d lived in them for years. His hair was mousy brown, longish on top, shorter on the sides, but not so short that I couldn’t make out a few silvery tones beginning to creep through before their time.

He asked me if I minded. I didn’t know what he meant at first but then he pointed to a bottle of Grey Goose like it was mine so I shrugged and told him to go ahead. I could feel him looking at me as he chose a mixer, as he poured them one by one and replaced the caps on both bottles. And I could still feel his gaze—not creepy, just noticeable—after someone else at the party, who clearly wanted him to join her out in the garden for a cigarette, had come and gone, giving up on him and leaving him there staring at me staring at my phone. I took a sip from my emptying glass. He raised his in my direction, performing a sort of air toast which felt old-fashioned and an inappropriate thing to do at that kind of gathering, so far from a bar or dining table.

“Courtesy of the birthday girl,” he said. “Cheers.”

“Yeah. To What’s-Her-Name.” I mimicked his extended arm, miming the toast and stopping short of any meeting of actual glassware. I noticed him smirking but assumed it had nothing to do with me.

“What’s-Her-Name,” he agreed.

We stood in silence playing footsie with our eyes for a few moments then I reached for my phone again. But before I could load BBC News, he asked, “What’s yours?”

“My drink?”

“Your name.”

I chose to reveal no more than the first syllable, telling him, “Lay. Yeah, Lay’s fine,” thinking that it would send the message that I wasn’t really in the mood for making small talk, even if he was fit AF.

“Fine if it’s your name, yeah,” he said, and I instantly felt stupid for not just saying Layla. My name is Layla. Like the song. So, while I tried to think of a way to rectify the situation, I smiled a smile I saw go right through him, as though it were a bright light hitting his retina at the optician’s.

“Well, if you must know, my name is Layla McKinnon.” And then I waited. Half wondering if he’d be impressed when really I just sounded like I was at school calling the register.

“Really? That’s my name.”

“Layla? Fuck off.”

“No. I’m obviously not called Layla. I meant McKinnon. I’m Andy. McKinnon.”

I suddenly felt the innermost part of my left ear begin to tingle, a sensation which spread along my jawline and into my lips. I didn’t know what it meant but hoped it wasn’t the warning signs I used to get before a migraine.

Part of me wanted to tell him to fuck off again. It would have been easy enough to have pretended to need the loo, to have walked off, leaving him standing there, to have forgotten about him and the encounter altogether. It’d just be one of the weird things that happened at a party I could barely remember. But at the same time, I felt temporarily immobilized. As though what was happening between us was a marker of some kind, something I might look back on and recognize as a moment of change. An awkward silence began to creep in and the only way I could think to put a stop to it was to knock back the rest of my drink and tell him I needed to look for my friend, the one I’d arrived with, who was the person who actually knew someone who knew What’s-Her-Name, as she’d probably be wondering where I was, even though she’d abandoned me at the door and was dead to me.

“Stay for another drink,” he said.

“I think you’ve had enough,” I shot back without missing a beat.

He laughed and put down his glass. “C’mon,” he pleaded. “We can compare family trees. Make sure we’re not long-lost cousins or anything.”

“You say that like it would be a bad thing.” “It would be. Devastating.”

“Devastating? Really?”

Running the tip of my tongue along the bottom of my teeth, I felt the left corner of my mouth rise. This felt like a flirty thing to do, so I held it there for a moment before adding, “How do you know I’m not here with my boyfriend?”

“Are you?” he said, calling my bluff.

“No.”

“Have you got one? Husband?”

“Straight to the point then.”

“Well, I haven’t. A wife, I mean. Or girlfriend. Dog. Anything.”

“That’s good. I’m not into animals.” It wasn’t true but I wanted to fill the space with something before putting him out of his misery. “I’m not currently in a relationship, no. There.”

He looked at me as if I’d just handed him a gift of some kind, as though I had made his week or possibly his year. And that look, despite the attraction of getting back to the sex lives of Valeria and the other Madrileñas, was enough to make me want to stay. I decided to let him succeed in his mission to make everything I said a conversation starter until I couldn’t remember how long it had been since I last checked my phone and I’d used up all the spirits around us by making cocktails ranging from the extraordinary to the disgusting. I spotted Sera some time later, over Andy’s shoulder, at the center of a conversation with people I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I knew it would probably be related to one of three topics: her recent obsession with the FIRE movement (and what she’d do if she could retire in ten years’ time at the age of forty), American politics, or her new guilty pleasure Netflix binge, Love Is Blind. I turned back to Andy and found him looking at me so attentively I wondered if I was sporting a milk mustache from the White Russian I’d just downed. I rubbed my upper lip and tilted my head down more self-consciously than I wanted to, brushing a loose strand of hair back behind one ear. But then I thought better of it and lifted my eyes to meet his gaze. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, he couldn’t take his eyes off me because there was something he liked about me. Something strange or rare that intrigued him. But then he had to go and ruin it all.

“What part of Scotland is your dad from?”

I’m usually prepared for dad questions, but that one hit me square in the chest. Ordinarily, I would mumble something about how I didn’t have one—a dad—how it had always been just Mum and me without elaborating further. It was the truth after all. I didn’t have one. I suppose, if pressed on the subject, I could admit that my mum had met a man in a nightclub in the early nineties, but he hadn’t wanted to keep in touch or go through the grind of the whole parenting thing, so I preferred not to think of him as my dad, or to think of him at all really.

“That’s a bit presumptuous,” I said.

“Sorry. Is he—Don’t you—Did he—”

“No biggie. Just, no dad.”

“Shit. Sorry,” he said again.

“It’s okay. He’s not dead or anything. Well, he might be. I wouldn’t know. Never met the guy. McKinnon is my mum’s surname, from my grandad. That’s where she got it. As opposed to being married to anyone with that name, if that makes sense.” I looked at the ground so he couldn’t see my cheeks flushing.

But like a dog with a bone, he said, “So whereabouts in Scotland is your grandad from then?” Now my cheeks were aflame.

“The Jamaican part,” I said plainly, and stared at him.

“You’ve lost me.”

So, I broke it down as simply as I could. “The part that enjoyed sugar and rum and lots of overseas travel for a couple of hundred years. That part.”

“Ah. Oh. Shit.”

I could see then that Andy wished a hole would open and swallow him up. Perhaps cruelly, I was a little amused by this reaction, but I was also finding his awkwardness attractive. It was probably a bit inappropriate to bring up such a heavy subject within only a few minutes of meeting someone who was simply trying to make polite conversation.

He filled the silence as quickly as he could by saying, “Sorry, do you mind if we just un-meet so I can go back in time and erase the last three minutes?” He said it so effusively it seemed like a genuine prospect.

“Sure. Never happened.”

“Cheers. And just for the record, the only time I’ve ever been to Scotland was for D of E, so, yeah. That whole—thing—nothing to do with me.” He said it jokingly, holding his hands up in the air.

“Noted,” I said. I didn’t want him to give himself a hernia with all the effort he was putting into thinking of the perfect thing to say to make everything less awkward, so I changed the subject completely.

“So, who dragged you along to this thing then?”

“What’s-Her-Name.”

“Oh no,” was all I could say, feeling a tightening in the pit of my stomach.

“Afraid so. My sister. Better known as Alex.”

We were even then. We drifted outside and stood by the fire. Beyond it, the shapes of other people began to soften around the edges, their movements slow down a little. The lights seemed brighter and the moon a little higher in the sky. Everything felt like it was expanding. You’re in trouble now, Layla. Good luck and Godspeed.

*

We talked and joked about this and that and nothing and everything, for what seemed like hours. Essentially, however, we were just two strangers who had clearly had too much to drink, wondering how long we had to keep talking before we could have sex. Just when I thought we might have another round of drinks, instead he kissed me. The softest kiss. It was like I was a bubble, and if he pressed too hard, I’d pop or float away. After that, I made up my mind that spending the rest of the party kissing would probably be a better use of our time.

“Pretty sure we’re not related,” I said, more to myself than him.

“Pretty sure you’re right about that,” he said, as he held his face close to mine and peppered his sentence with kisses as though it were the only way to make it comprehensible and grammatically correct.

“That’s good.”

“Yes. That’s something.”

“Yes,” I echoed, nodding with my eyes closed. Then after pausing for the exact amount of time needed for a lingering “yes” to make the palms of his hands feel noticeably warmer, I sweetened it with, “Could be.” And this time, I kissed him. I wasn’t sure if he realized it, but he had me then. I think that was the moment I decided to love him and not to stop. Bank that, I thought. Bank that whole moment and never forget it.

But that was before. Before our meet cute turned out to be not so cute. Before the documentary, before everything with Sera.

Before history caught up with me.

__________________________________

From Dominoes by Phoebe McIntosh Copyright © 2024 by Phoebe McIntosh. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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