This Is Classified

Entry by: Seth Dinario

21st September 2018
Standing in front of the en-suite’s shaving mirror, Gavin Standall flicks his hair first one way, then the other. It looks wrong whichever orientation he chooses. Sighing, he moves to the bed of the guest bedroom, giving his laid-out new clothes the once-over. He shakes his head. They’ve been selected by Ash in the latest ‘Dressed By My Wife’ range. Smart but utterly inoffensive. No flowers. No alarming splashes of colour. Clad only in boxers, he considers himself in the free-standing, full-length dress mirror. He doesn’t get the chance to see his body in its entirety, as it were, not in what he considers to be his normal life. He stands a bit taller, sucking in his stomach. Not bad, he thinks. You’re not a bad-looking chap, Gavster. Donning the anodyne shirt, he feels itchy; something around the back of the collar is irritating his skin. It looks smart though, and that is the main thing, tonight. Clothes maketh the man, said the bard, after all.
He wishes it were true.
A woman in her mid-twenties and a lemon cocktail dress appears over his shoulder in the reflection. “Are you coming down or what? You’ve been up here an eternity,” she says, pushing on to the doorframe so her chest is thrust forward. The pose is unsexy though, confrontational; her black hair coils on her shoulders with serpentine menace and she makes no effort to conceal the irritation on her face.
Gavin turns and looks at his wife; cracks a lazy grin. “Sorry babe. Got carried away with my reflection.” He smooths an eyebrow, pouts. “Can’t blame me though, can you?”
Aisling Standall, née Sable, rolls her eyes. “Narcissist. Come on.”
He walks over to her, ignoring the fact that she’s half-turned away from him and seems to be pointing at the floor as if he’s a wayward puppy that needs to be brought to heel. He casually grabs her by the waist and spins her round, pressing her close to him. She seems annoyed at first, tense, but quickly regains her poise and smiles a wicked smile, one eyebrow raised. Waiting. Waiting for a line.
He looks around the back of him to where her right hand is resting on his left buttock. He raises an eyebrow. Meets her eyes. “If you want to sample the goods, sweetheart, you have to ask nicely.”
“Is that what you tell your female students?” she asks, smart as a lash.
“That’s classified,” he jabs back. But he said it without thinking. It doesn’t really make sense, or connect with anything previous, and she’s not impressed. He blows out his cheeks, pretends to consider. “To be honest…as long as their parents have signed the blanket consent form at the start of the year…I don’t see the problem.” He stares at her, straight-faced. He’s pretty chuffed with that. It bodes well for later on.
Aisling pretends to be disgusted, but he knows she’s secretly pleased. If he’s on this kind of form, there’s less chance of brooding, jaw-clenching, inexorable silence over dinner with her family. She flicks her head towards the door, that snake-hair seeming to move independently of the action. “Come on,” she says again. “We’re all waiting.” She extricates herself.
“Can I at least get my trousers on?” he asks. “That is, providing I fit into them. You picked them, after all.”
“Of course,” says Ash, ignoring the jibe. “You also need to brush your teeth.” And with a brilliant smile, she twirls out of the doorway and down the stairs.
Gavin waits until she’s out of sight before cupping his hand around his nose and smelling his breath.

The first person to greet him downstairs is not his wife, but Jeremy, Ash’s eldest brother. He is in his early thirties, with a pinched face and thin, brushed back hair that’s a colour somewhere between dark grey and brown. Gavin suspects he dyes it. Jeremy’s not unfriendly, but considering he’s probably sunk about three beers already, he’s not exactly brimming with bonhomie, either. They talk about inconsequential things while the rest of the family bustle around them: where Gav went on his earlier run, what Antonia has cooked for dinner. It’s best to keep Jeremy on these small talk topics. Anything to avoid him mentioning how much he earned last year. Gavin also wants a beer, and as if summoned telepathically, Jeremy’s latest partner sashays over with a couple of drinks for them both.
“Thanks Patsy. I’ll have to add mind-reading to your considerable list of talents,’ Gavin says, taking his first delicious swig.
“It’s not difficult,” says Patsy in her cut-glass RP accent. “You’re a man. He’s a man.” She spreads her hands. “Beer. It’s not like I’m choosing which wine to go with Vincisgrassi. Here, have a beef-flavoured crisp.” And with that, she’s away, and Gav is left clutching a bowl of snacks she grabbed from a sideboard. He offers one to Jeremy, who declines. Gav mulls over a quip about Patsy, but all that comes to mind is a comparison to Jeremy’s ex-wife, and that will go down about as well as shitting in his beer.
A silence spreads between the two of them, like a bloom of algae in a cold lake. It’s all the more awkward for its juxtaposition with the braying and festive banter from the rest of the party. Gavin can see Marcus Sable, Ash’s dad, through in the distance in the lounge, pairing his anecdote with some quite raucous gestures. Gavin thinks, not for the first time, how is such a flamboyant man partly responsible for raising such staid, ossified sons? Lucky that Ash inherited at least a bit of his sparkle. There she is now, raising her eyebrows at him. It could mean, are you behaving? Or why aren’t you helping? Or how long does it take to brush your fecking teeth?
Gavin has managed exactly four beers by the time Antonia orchestrates them all around the giant oak dining table. He is larger, somehow. He feels crafty, pugilistic. For once, he reckons, he can take on this entitled collection of Sables, and win. As he seats himself, Ash on his left, Jeremy on his right, his attention is occupied by the table before him. It is immaculately and tastefully laid. Ranks of gleaming cutlery flank designer plates; shining tureens and earthenware bowls contain the evening’s many dishes, and three bottles of red wine are uncorked and sit at equal intervals down the spine of the table, like funnels on the Titanic. Gavin gratefully accepts Jeremy’s offer of the nearest. He loves the glock-glock-glock as it pours into his glass.
Spirits seems high from the outset, matching the magnificence of the table and the food. Wine is sunk. Crispin, a naval officer and Ash’s other brother, sits opposite Gavin. He is quietly working through his tapas methodically, almost surgically. Crispin does not allow two dishes to co-exist on his plate. Gavin, pretending to listen to Jeremy’s explanation of hedge-fund investment strategy, is fascinated and amused by Crispin’s strategic approach to dinner. Gav knocks back the wine, shovels in his own, varied feast and gawks at Crispin even wiping the paella-juice from his plate with some flatbread, cleaning it completely before spooning on some patatas bravas.
Suddenly, as happens at these occasions, all the conversations limp to a halt simultaneously. Just as this happens, Crispin snaps his gaze up to Gav. “Have you got nothing better to do than watch me eat? You’ve been at it for the past fifteen minutes at least.”
Gavin chortles, looks around the table as if for support. Can you believe this guy? Everyone seems to be waiting for Gavin to respond. Nettled, he decides to change the subject. “So, Crispin. Have you been up to much on ship these past few months? Any brushes with death?” Gav knows he won’t get much change out of Crispin; the chemical reaction when they met several years ago led to an inert substance akin to stagnant pond water. But the alcohol has made him bold. This time, he’ll get somewhere. Make a crack. Volunteer an interesting fact he saw in a National Geographic documentary once. Something.
Crispin chews slowly, reaches for his wine glass. He’s in no hurry. Nobody has resumed their conversation, but he doesn’t seem to mind the silence. In contrast, it screeches at Gavin’s brain, clawing his attention onto the void he seems to have created. “No,” Crispin says eventually, and places another forkful of chorizo and pepper salad into his mouth.
Gavin snorts, throwing a look at Ash. Can you believe this guy? But she isn’t playing; instead has a neutral expression on her face. Mild boredom, perhaps. He turns back to Crispin, but before he can challenge this arid response, Marcus Sable, now on his best behaviour, clears his throat. “Surely there some high-jinks in Morocco, Crispin? Thought you were looking forward to that?”
Crispin shakes his head. “Didn’t make it there, in the end.” Chews, sips. Stares impassively at his dad. At Gavin. As if to say, it’s not my fault there’s silence here.
“No? Did Sandy take on different orders? Charlie end up somewhere else?” This from Antonia, his mother. She looks as immaculate as the table, does the Professor of Egyptology and part-time wondercook. Alexander ‘Sandy’ Collingbrook is the captain of Crispin’s aircraft carrier, the Prince of Wales, affectionately known as ‘Charlie’.
Another head-shake from the terminator. “Nope. Charlie went to Africa, but I got…called away.” Now he looks down at his plate, suddenly the awkward one.
“Oh?” says Ash into the silence. “Another ship?”
“No,” says Crispin, and spears an olive. He’s not meeting anyone’s eye now. Bloody hell, thinks Gav. It’s harder than lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together. “I, er…got sent on a mission.”
“Cool!” explodes Gav. Everyone looks at him. “What?” he demands. “It’s cool! Ethan Hawke, Jack Ryan, all that.” Ash grimaces, but Gav careers on, picking up speed. “A mission. So, where was it? Did you get parachuted into Iraq? Have a refresher on your sidearms training? Ordered to take someone out?”
Crispin is looking at him now, barely concealing his disdain. He takes a long drink from his glass before answering. “It’s classified,” he says quietly.
Gavin erupts into laughter. “Shut up!” he roars. “Wait…good one!” he says, pointing at Crispin’s deadpan face as if to say, ‘aww, you got me!’ “Classified. Classic. All that Call of Duty Black Ops you’ve been playing on the ship – got you thinking it’s high stakes, yeah?”
“High stakes?” asks Crispin, frowning.
“Yeah! You’ve been in the Navy what, two years? You’re telling me you really can’t tell your own family about some desk-job mission in Baghdad? What are you going to do, single handedly take out the remains of Al-Queda?” Gav slaps the edge of the table.
“Gav!” hisses Ash.
“What?” Gav says, smiling at her, then looking around. Everyone is looking murderous, or incredulous, or just plain offended. It’s then he realises how far he’s gone.
“Ah. Right, right. Sorry. Sorry, Crispin. It’s just…it was funny from earlier. When you said, ‘it’s classified’, I realised that I’d said exactly the same thing to Ash upstairs. Funny coincidence, no? Except she was talking about me shagging some of the girls I teach. I mean, what’s going to be classified, if not that…”