“Surprised Baby,” by Tom Mitchell

Aug 20th, 2013 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

 How successful a night? Well, the first guy wasn’t wearing a shirt. That’s what I said: no shirt. It wasn’t in the bar. It was in the function room. That’s the great thing about function rooms, they’ll let you in without a shirt. Pants? Pants’d be pushing it. There’d be problems if you showed up without pants. Speed dating demands pants. Hawaii shorts at the minimum.

Yeah. There’s a side entrance where the smokers stand. It’s cold and full of abandoned beer barrels. You don’t smoke. You don’t notice. His chest? I didn’t really look. It seemed intrusive to look. And, I guess, he wanted you to look. OK. I did look. It was hairless. And he flexed his muscles when he spoke. As if to punctuate what he was saying about going to the gym and masturbating.

You didn’t think the type of man who took off his shirt in function rooms was the type of man to speak? You’d be surprised. No. He didn’t actually masturbate. He spoke about masturbating. They would have thrown him out for masturbating. It’s on the printed rules: NO MASTURBATING. It’s just not the done thing. He spoke about masturbating.

Anyhow, the second guy. I want to talk about the second guy. Ok, then. Here we go: he sat down, the second guy.

What? Will you stop interrupting with questions? Let me tell the story. Apology accepted. The guy sits down. I’m scared. Because he’s wearing a balaclava. Black like oil. No, not him. The balaclava. Really. No word of a lie. What do you associate with balaclavas? Terrorists, right? So, the first thing I’m thinking is that either he’s a terrorist or he’s ironic. Or he’s an ironic terrorist, although I’m not sure how that would play out. Would ironic terrorists bring things to life? Would they construct buildings? Anyway. The second guy. I play it cool. I don’t mention the balaclava LIKE HE EXACTLY WANTS ME TO. We move through the usual questions about work and hobbies and all that and I realise I don’t know his name. He’s used mine enough, like they tell you to do because it ‘fosters amiability’, but I’ve not used his. I’ve not used it because his name-badge only has ‘@surprisedbaby’ printed. So I ask his name and he points to his badge like this is normal. ‘But what’s your real name?’ I ask. ‘This is my real name,’ he goes. No shit? Shit. We’re talking diarrhoea. I didn’t believe him either. I demanded his driver’s license. He showed it to me, making sure his thumb was over his picture. And there, on his license, was printed @surprisedbaby. Not enough people have punctuation in their name. Yeah, OK, hyphens notwithstanding. Inverted commas too. Let’s not get bogged down in this. I was pulling at his driver’s license. It was kind of embarrassing. I was trying to see his picture but I upset a pint of cider. No. He was drinking cider. And you’re interrupting again.

So the bell went for time up, they have bells, and another guy took his place. Looked like a Bond villain and worked in designing the sewers of the future or some shit. Literally. He had thinning hair, so I only half listened. You know what I’m like.

The evening ended and a group of us milled around the bar like flies around shit. Do I keep swearing? I spoke to another person about the balaclava. They reckoned it was to create mystery. They’d read on the web that mystery = sex. I entered five big crosses for my men and went on my way. I was thinking of home and music and the bottle of vodka I knew to be in the fridge. Only: outside stood the guy with the balaclava, sucking at a cigarette through the round ‘O’ of his black wool. I asked if I could borrow one. A cigarette, I mean. No, not his balaclava. ‘Borrow?’ he asks like a proper dick, but gave me one anyway. We stood watching cars fuzz past and it felt as if it should be drizzling rain. We nodded to those departing the function room like soldiers at a troop ship and I see that his cigarette is almost done, so I think ‘fuck it’ and ask: ‘what’s with the balaclava? Are you trying to be mysterious because you read on the internet that you’re more likely to get screwed if you’re mysterious?’

Even though his face was covered in fabric, you could tell that he was deciding whether to answer my question or not. He flicked the cigarette away and says ‘It’s to do with my name’ and moves as if to leave. I pull out a hand to stop his shoulder. He spins around, obviously not a person who enjoys being touched. Like your brother. Well, there you go. ‘Alright,’ he says. ‘You asked for it.’ And he pulled off his balaclava in one go. Big hand, long fingers. He looked … he looked normal. His hair was standing static from the balaclava. And he had a lot of it. Hair. Brown and full. OK. His face was just … normal. Like someone you went to school with. Or their brother. The skin was a bit white from being covered up but that was about as hideous as it got. He wasn’t a guy you’d stop your cab for but if he offered you a drink, you’d accept. The weird thing was- he stood there, waiting for a reaction. ‘You happy?’ he asked. I shrugged. I asked whether I was missing something. ‘Surprised Baby ring any bells?’ he goes, goofy grin, arches eyebrows. Well, does it?

Me neither. YouTube videos. Maybe twenty years ago. Exactly twenty years ago. Some years ago. YouTube. He was a surprised baby. His dad filmed him in different scenarios, being surprised. Yeah, he had a face that always looked surprised. His father has his name changed from Martin to @surprisedbaby. I remember Twitter too. It was shit. Hashtag this, fuckers.

I told him his face did look a bit surprised and he said, like he was proving a winning point or something, that I wasn’t the first person to notice and he folds his arms like he’s proper pissed off.

Suddenly aggressive, he spits that his dad had spent the first three years of his life filming him in every possible situation. If he knew the mail was about to be delivered, he’d thrust a camera in his son’s face. If he knew the microwave was about to finish, he’d film his son. Anything that might be in the least bit surprising, he filmed his son, hoping for a reaction. If @surprisedbaby cried, that was all the better. Crying babies got the best hits. And as he was telling me all this, channelling a torrent of anger if that’s possible, I studied his face and, you know what, I thought: I do remember the videos. They were quite funny. He was surprised at a lot of things, the baby.

What happened next? I told him how I sold my virginity on eBay and he calmed down. ‘I thought I recognised you from somewhere,’ he said. ‘You ought to think about wearing a balaclava. It’s the only way.’ Seriously, he said that. I also got his number. How did I enter his name? ‘At’. I could live with a boyfriend called ‘At’. And, you know, worn correctly, balaclavas can be fetching. There’s a mystery to the balaclava. It reminds me of the French. Or is that a beret?

But enough about me. How’s your father doing? He’s still alive, right?


Defenestration-Tom MitchellTom Mitchell is a London-based writer/father/waster. He tweets excessively at @tommycm to an ever-decreasing amount of followers. He has never been speed-dating, nor has he ever been an Internet meme. He doesn’t even know how to pronounce ‘meme’.

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