Wednesday August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
Many of these meetings with friends, or perhaps ‘encounters’ would be a better word, are really manifestations of friendships I’d actually imagined not having. Less a series of rehearsals of all those things you wish you had said, or that you would have if the circumstances had only been right, than a repository for all those things you thought you’d never have to.
We are in Berlin, and it is summer or early autumn 2011. Though it is hard to remember. In the mind’s eye all I recall clearly of the evening, aside from the fact of it having been Berlin, and that I was drunk, and that probably so was he, is that high above the table where we were sitting, above the perspex canopy that covered the scores of restaurant tables (all deserted now, it being after midnight) thick heavy rain fell in lines, drumming against the roof and clearly visible in the stray headlights of the taxicabs and private cars that cruised the streets just a few yards away, at either end of the precinct.
I was newly married, just a couple of months before, and he was not much longer than that out of a long-term relationship with a woman who left him to live in New York City. We ordered more golidis, an East German brandy they sold here that we’d acquired a taste for during our stay. Our hotel was in the former East and many of the stores and restaurants nearby carried East German goods, either out of nostalgia or opportunism we were never sure. When the waiter had dropped off our drinks and returned to his table and his paperback by the restaurant entrance, he said:
“When did you know you wanted to get married? Is there a moment when you just know?”
“Hardly. Probably there just comes a point when you’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”
We continued like this until nearly one, walking back to our hotel in the rain in silence. But before we left I think I might have said something like this:
“The other thing of course, is that you don’t have to want to want to get married. You can be dispassionate about it. Most things I ever do, all the time, are because I don’t not want to do them enough, or don’t dislike the idea enough to allow my not wanting to do them, to stop me.”
“You’re talking about pragmatism,” he said, or something very like it.
“I’m talking about survival.”
This was not untypical, as we played against one another in the types to which we had grown accustomed during the course of our relationship, shaped by work, but not unfriendly. He was the idealist in affairs of the heart.
We said goodbye in the hotel foyer, and I watched him trudge up to the lift and ride it up to his room on the eighth floor. At the desk the concierge gave me my messages, in German, and I managed to discern that my wife had called, but left no message, other than he was to let me know that she had called.
Before going up to my room I used the bathroom that led off from the foyer, and as I washed my hands the combination of the scrubbed white tiles and the red scheme that had been used for the cubicles and the tiling around the hand basins caused, unbidden, thoughts of the nineteen thirties to rush into my mind. Visions of cool Weimar evenings, though I’m fairly certain the hotel was a Cold War build. Walking back to the lift there were one or two guests still sitting in the bar, nursing their final drink of the evening.
In the morning the rain had burned off in the early sun, which had disappeared again by the time I found myself pacing the wide sidewalk outside the hotel, leaving only a white haze covering the city. At the taxi rank tourists waited with locals for cabs. At the airport we drank Riesling with Ruth-Ann and Ailsa, who worked for another publisher, and who were actually booked onto another flight that left from the same terminal. Afterwards, as we sat in the departure lounge, watching the squat airport maintenance trucks traverse the runway beneath our plane, I called home and got no reply.
In London it was raining. I said goodbye to ______ in the arrival hall, watching him walk slowly away to the trains that would deliver him back to London, staring intently at his phone in one hand, dragging his luggage forlornly behind him with the other. When I got home Karen was already sleeping. Leaving my suitcase upright by the door I switched out the lights in the kitchen that she had left on for me, and unscrewed a bottle of scotch. I hadn’t the heart for bed, and so passed an hour or two in front the small countertop television set that we’d had installed at Christmas, a gift from her parents that was too big for our small bedroom.
Monday February 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
I smoke a Marlboro, though I don’t smoke, and order a daiquiri, though I don’t drink, and the morning reeks of baking tarmac, a hot funk rising in lines from the concrete stratosphere of lopsided and chipped sidewalks and the jumbled, parched avenues that giddily converge here, dusted with exhaust fumes and rinsed with the dry, dark sickly resin of spilt alcohol sparkling in the gutters. Alcohol by the way that lines the gutters everywhere from where I am sitting now, in the parasol-lined strip of tourist joints and super-bars on the waterfront, all the way as far as Avenida Butragaeno, where the A-Line trams arrive spent and wary and bustle in front of the cathedral, their blue and tangled symmetries frozen in the thick chlorine heat and a tangle of cables, and in whose shadow, at pavement cafes tourists recline awkwardly under limp umbrellas, sipping watered-down pina-coladas.
Somewhere near, but out of sight, the engine of a powerboat snorks and spottles against the clamped surface of the harbour water, while at a café opposite, two local women stand drinking Espresso along the high counter, matching black business-wear, vertiginous heels, unmoved by the lurid heat.
But the fabric of the day, itself like baking tarmac, feels cracked and veined, and the low-hanging clouds are disturbing my equilibrium, like shuttered cobwebs I can’t shake free of.
A garbage truck and its attendants emerge from the closed shadow of a sidestreet.
When Frank got back from the bathroom I was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing a couple of glasses under the cold tap.
Wednesday October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment
When Frank got back from the bathroom I was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing a couple of glasses under the cold tap. It was an old terraced house, the kitchen facing out into the longer part of an ‘L’ shaped yard. As I let the cold water run against my fingers, between the slats of the Venetian blind I could see my reflection staring at back at me, and inside it, the pale negative of next door’s illuminated kitchen window above the waist-high fence that ran between our gardens. As Frank sat down, pulling out a chair nearest the hall, I saw the light go out. The tap was still running.
‘I thought I’d fix us some drinks,’ I said, switching off the tap, drying the glasses, first his and then mine. I took down the bottle of Bourbon I kept in the cereals cupboard, enjoying the smooth popping sound as I pulled out the cork. ‘I would do something about the light,’ I said. It was too bright. ‘But its this or the dark.’ Frank smiled. ‘And I only have tall glasses.’
Frank was my younger brother, although sometimes it felt the other way around. He emanated a sense of calm. And his hair was receding, quicker than mine. He was thin, tall, but still provoked a sense of solidity. He sat a little uneasily in his chair, wearily askance, as though, grateful for the invitation to sit, he was determined to appear comfortable.
‘I also don’t have any ice.’ I took up the chair opposite. There was a hollow thudding sound from upstairs. Our bedroom was directly above the kitchen and that was the sound of Clare moving around.
‘Its really fine,’ Frank said. ‘We don’t need ice.’
We’d been to the cinema, me, Clare and Frank. Frank was staying over before driving back to Southampton in the morning. It was a weeknight, but this wasn’t so unusual since he’d broken up with Tessa. I’d liked Tessa. Shy girl, but warm enough once you got to know her. And sporty, not like Frank, although lately he’d started cycling again, something we used to do as teenagers.
Frank took a slug of bourbon. He started to tell me about something that had happened when he’d been out driving late one night. It sounded plausible enough. Frank was a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, so often worked odd shifts, through the night, or very early in the morning. It was after one of his shifts, and he’d been driving home.
‘There was hardly anything else on the road. Its good then. Nothing in the way.’ He paused, taking another sip of bourbon. As he was talking I refilled his glass. ‘Which was I why I noticed this other car behind me. It had started out quite a way back, and I thought it was odd because it never seemed to catch up with me. I wasn’t going very fast, feeling pretty spaced after my shift, but with nothing else around there was nothing to stop him speeding past. Or her.’
‘Was it a him or a her?’
I took a sip of my own drink, wincing a little with the burn.
‘I couldn’t tell – they were too far back. But I couldn’t see why they weren’t hurrying past. But I thought “never mind“. Except they were there for ages. Just pootling along behind me.’
‘But you don’t think anything of it, right? They might be doing the same as you. A nightshift worker or something.’
‘Exactly. But it felt weird, because I noticed that they were taking all the same turns as me. That sounds weird, I know.’
‘A little,’ I said.
‘But it was every single one.’
‘Maybe they were going where you were going.’
‘Could be. That’s what I said to myself, anyway. But it seemed weird. I mean, one of us driving home at four in the morning to this one place where we both live is slightly uncommon, but two of us, from the same road, the same street both being out at the time? It seemed unlikely.’
‘And you’re sure it was the same car?’
We were both empty, so I filled up our glasses again. Through the kitchen window I could see a light had come on at one of the upstairs windows of the house opposite. In a heartbeat it was out again.
‘Positive. Because it got nearer.’
‘So who was it? Was it a man or a woman?’
‘I still couldn’t tell. The glare of the headlight made it too hard to see. It was definitely one person. Not two. But I couldn’t see any more. It was a silhouette.’
‘So, what did you do? Did it turn out to be one of your neighbours?’
Frank leaned forward in his chair, shifting his weight from one side to the other, ruffling his hair with the hand that wasn’t holding the glass.
‘I decided to test him. I decided to go a different way.’
‘But you could have ended up changing your route to his actual route.’
Frank didn’t answer at first. He just stared blankly back at me.
‘I mean, if you had gone your normal way you might have lost him. I suppose I just mean that you might, by co-incidence, have gone his way.’
Frank considered this for a moment, and then he said:
‘I see. Maybe. But I did something else as well. I was coming up to this T junction. So what I did was, I indicated to go right, way before I got to it. And the guy behind me, he indicates right too. So far, so inevitable. But what I did, you see…
‘… is you went the other way?’
‘Right. I turned left. Even though I’d indicated right. I figured that there was nothing else on the road. There was no harm. I wanted to see what he’d do.’
‘And he turned left?’
‘He did. It was then I knew he was following me.’
‘’Following’ maybe a bit strong, eh?’
‘How else do you explain it?’
‘I can’t, I suppose. So then what did you do?’
‘I decided to test him again. And in the same way. I did it twice more. Indicating one way, and then, without any warning, doing the exact opposite. And every time he did the same. I was beginning to freak out at this point. So the next thing – I don’t really know why I did this – I think I just wanted to outrun him, to get away somehow – I started to drive away from where I was supposed to be going. Just turned off the main road, onto all these little side roads, B roads. Not going anywhere in particular. Just driving away.’
‘Away where though?’
‘I don’t know. But I started going faster too. Really putting my foot down. And he speeded up too. It was almost as if we were racing. And every turn, every roundabout, there he was. And its pitch black remember. Its night. And there are no lights in the country. After forty minutes, I was shitting myself. ‘
‘Well, all told. Since I’d noticed. It’s a twenty minute drive from my house to the hospital.’
‘I guess.’ That upstairs light had come on in the house opposite again. I glanced over at the clock on the oven. It was a few minutes before eleven.
‘So what happened?’
‘After a few more minutes I realised that I’d worked my way back around to town. And it was nearly five. There was a little bit of light in the sky. And we hit some traffic. We came to this big roundabout, and there were a couple of other cars waiting at the lights. I reckon that must have spooked him. Because as I came off at my exit I noticed he wasn’t there any more. I couldn’t believe it. So much so that I even doubled back to the roundabout. Went around again. Just to see if he was there.’
‘But he wasn’t?’
‘No, thank fuck. Freaked me out though. When I got home, as I parked in my normal space, I even looked back up and down the road to see if anyone was there. And when I got inside. I was peeking out o my bedroom curtains. It was nearly completely light by now.’
‘Tell me about it.’ He tipped his glass forward, holding at an angle, rested on the edge of the base.
‘You want another?’
‘Sure,’ he said.
‘Lets go and sit in the living room though.’
Wednesday September 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
The afternoon had grown sordid. Empty heat poured vacantly across the garden, which lay inert and greedy under its luminous shade. Hannah bristled, snorting the hot air, swallowing to keep down a puff of Benson & Hedges, and emitting a little burp as she did so. The garden, its square lawn, its brief ashy terrace, dark beneath the jaundiced parasol, and the spoiled solar-powered night lamps (dormant in the thick daylight, and carrying the slow, murky smear of summer) jack-knifed into the flaky border soil, had reduced itself to a constellation of surfaces, all lightly reflecting and feeling a little smacked and spoiled with sunlight.
– Everything’s dying, said Hannah, flecking ash into the tall grass. Except the fucking grass.
Becci looked up from her magazine. Inside the house a stereo kicks into life, and nineties pop-music drifts out and across the patio.
– Why don’t you cut it? says Becci.
At which Hannah directs a withering look in her direction. It is as if she is saying (but isn’t – in fact it is important that she isn’t, for her power, if she has any, lies in her ellipses, in her silences, in her dilatory, but entirely deliberate and steely omissions), ‘I didn’t spend my life landladying to mow my own fucking lawn.’ No, it’s nearly seven years since she got out of that game, since that fire at the Loaf.
Of course, that fire being the other reason she doesn’t say it. Just as it consumed the tired fabric and alabaster certainties of the Loaf and Cheese, so the trauma of it all cauterized her already shaky grip of her own limitations, which now displaced and disputed even in her own mind (though she was cleared of any personal wrongdoing in the tragedy), cause her to decline now even to approach them. This lends her a slightly circumscribed air, with such an emphasis on refusal, and on what can’t be attempted, causing a kind of negative gravity. She inhabits strange orbits.
– Can’t you just get Martin to do it, persists Becci.
Martin: former Loaf and Cheese regular, now sometime boyfriend, sometime caretaker for Hannah, who now escalates her gaze to new more rarefied levels of disdain.
– Mum, I’m just saying.
– Saying what? Becci’s sister Helen deposits their drinks on the table, taking her own from the middle of the tray, and settling into the only chair still in the sun.
– I was saying Mum should get Martin to cut the lawn.
– I’m sure he would, says Helen hopefully.
But Hannah is unmoved. She has turned away now, and standing on the edge of the patio much as one might stand on the deck of a ship looking into the sea, the memory of the fire is returned to her, having drifted unbidden, and quite against her own best instincts, into her mind. The mulchy remains and the strange indignity of its shapeless wilted frames – a door, a window – pointing from the debris with delirious quietness. How she would not miss knowing what she knows, having seen what she has seen, she thinks.
Monday August 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
Her most erotic characteristic was the sense in which, she appeared to him, to be inexhaustible, and unquenchable, just in general. She carried herself with a tangible hunger attached, and what is more, it was a discerning hunger. Not picky necessarily (her impeccable democracy in all emotional and physical matters was another source for her erotic charge), but demonstrating nevertheless, with an openness and a lack of false modesty that was electrifying to Kevin, a willingness to assert her own preferences, to exercise her own sexual judgement.
Not that it was about sex entirely.
It was present in that way she had of chewing a length of her own hair when she was bored. And it was there too during those occasions on which she managed to remain resolutely unoccupied, unused-up, waiting perhaps for a screen to refresh on her work console, somehow outside of her own experience. And it was definitely there sitting in the bath, content in the lukewarm water, running a razor along the inside line of her calf, raised up out of the water at a grotesque angle, with a disinterest and familiarity with her own body that Kevin could only envy (and ogle – leaning in the doorframe, resting a cheek against a mug of warm tea).
On all these occasions she contrived – although there was no discernible effort that Kevin could see – to remain abundant, and unfinished, to inhabit without a shred of self-consciousness her own lack of fixity, and to possess because of it that most tantalising of qualities: appetite. She was all appetite.
If Kevin had possessed the inclination, and the vocabulary (the fault is not one of intelligence, but of interest – Kevin had no interest in thinking of things in this way, is all) he might have said, that such was her state of unwavering, and unrelieved potential, that she was more like a medium than anything else, a form through which he was able to experience his own character.
(He might also have concluded that such a feeling was not untypical for man, and that it conveniently elided her character, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)
She was twenty, and he was thirty-six, and that helped. Because after all, this was about sex as well. And with her milky blonde hair –
suggestively taut, and darkened at the roots – and her darkened, painted lashes, and that slightly defiant way she had of jutting forward her chin in repose – a chin that was a little full in truth, and not helped by her habit of folding up her mouth into an upside-down smile when she was thinking (which was all the time – she was always thinking), she was to Kevin’s eye at least, as sexy as hell.
She was also shorter than him. He was on the short side, but she was shorter, and she walked with the crooked brilliance of corrupt ballerina – plenty of deliberate actions, and all on the front-foot.
As he approached from the garage shop, taking the longest short-strides you will have seen in a long time, the toes of his shoes never being allowed to come into contact with the ground, she winds down the window, and shouts over to him:
“Kevin – did you get me my mints?”
Monday August 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
As the numbers on the pump ticked around, Kevin Howells surveyed himself in his reflection in the offside rear-passenger door of the muddied Nissan parked at the pump opposite. Its driver – a portly old hippy, ponytail and three days worth of stubble – was out of sight behind the pillar, and so Kevin felt comfortable motioning forward, resting a tired heel against the concrete step skirting the bottom of the pump, and striking what his dear old ma (as he always referred to her – it possessing that right blend of distance and affection for a man of his emotional means, and lack of ostentation) might refer to as, a pose.
It was not altogether discouraging. What with the gentle whisper of a breeze picking up off the open spaces of the forecourt brushing against his shirt, and the dimmed glare of the morning sun on the concrete, it was possible to believe that he was eminently plausible as the man he had set out to be today. Which was especially lucky for him, as the man he had set out to be today was a plausible one. He was plausibly plausible.
Sure, his whitest white work-shirt was a little bunched up around his midriff, where his body thickened, and the stubborn line of his middle-aged spread determinedly refused to budge; and ok, his plain black trousers, were a little plain. He’d had a pair like these during sixth-form (he dropped out of his Biology A-level – his only A-level – after two terms), and there was an unmistakable odour of schoolboyish conformity pervading his look. But this did not discourage him overly. He felt plausible.
There was a sharp click in the throat of the pump, and a judder as the tank registered full.
No, what bothered him most was his hair. As the breeze tickled his fringe – his receding fringe – and he replaced the pump in its holster, he was compelled with his free hand to stroke it back into position (again) – a position he would concede was chosen to minimise the effect of its encroaching disappearance. For although he could tell himself with some justification that what was at stake was not vanity, but rather, practicality – his hair, to him, genuinely was not an image, but a predicament – there remained the problem that it retained the potential to make him look, well, a little old, and when its lank lengths rode up over the wide parabola of his puckered scalp, only emphasising in their thinness, and their scarcity the white expanses beneath, a little ragged.
Inside the arctic hush of the petrol station proper, he pondered this as he perused the chocolate snacks, finally picking out a Boost, and a packet of Extra Strong Mints, periodically catching further refracted reflections of himself along the competing glass surfaces of the window.
“Number Five,” he said levelly.
Wednesday July 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
Little Dean Buckley is awake, his small tight eyes like dark knots unravelling in the cool shadow of his pram, which is arrested in its forward motion by a brick and a length of spoiled timber beneath each of the wheels, that live on the neat patio that runs onto the back of the house. Its crooked paving stones are alternately biscuit and peach in colour, hot underfoot. Sticky sunshine suffuses the garden. The baize lawn seems luminous.
He yawns. The first eyes he meets are Cathy’s. She is tiny against the empty afternoon sky, leaning in under the hood of his pram. When she lifts him out -a clammy hand under each arm, and a hesitant action, so that she seems to bring him out in stages – he feels his skin smacked with the heat of the day, and he gulps, like a diver falling into the deep swell of an ocean.
The other children are playing. Mary, older, too old for playing, is sunbathing with her friend Alice Tanner on the lawn, lying on towels that Hilly has let them have, pretending to read paperbacks that for the most part lie open against their midriffs, while Betty, nearly five now, wanders up and down the garden naked from the waist up, filling a bucket with water at the outside tap, which she uses to water the lawn in one corner.
Cathy walks with the baby to the end of the garden. Here, beyond the chain link fence the ground slopes away along a grassy verge, until it meets the train tracks that run alongside their estate to Ullerton Station, which may as well be Arabia to Cathy, so distant and inaccessible is that world, and what it represents.
Hilly, standing smoking in the frame of the backdoor, shouts something after them, or maybe it was to Betty, which Cathy ignores, and Dean has closed his eyes again anyway, and a train can be heard approaching from Ullerton, heading away from town towards Derby, or Burton. The two carriages, bottle-green and fringed with pale dust and mud that has dried and caked against the paintwork, slow to pass the row of houses that comprise their street.
Dean cries, but out of sympathy for his world, feeling keenly the consoling pressures of its treacly immersion.