Looking for a Dog at the End of the World

“Have you seen him?”

 

“Have I seen who?”

 

“Have you seen Toby?”

 

“Toby who?”

 

“You know, my Toby.” The man gestures to Toby’s height. “I just popped out to the high street for half an hour and when I got back he was gone. I checked all over but he’s nowhere. He’s gone. Have you seen him?”

 

Mrs. Forsyth’s eyes are red and there are streaks in the makeup on her cheeks. The tears that left them were not shed for Toby. They had long since dried and she had cared not enough to do anything about it, to conceal the pain and the sorrow they alluded to. Who would be seeing her face anyway? Other than Simon Buchanan, that is. And his visit was hardly expected. It is even less welcome. His presence is greeted with a look of disdain piercing through her confusion. She shudders into a shaking of the head and turns away from him.

 

“Just let me know if you…”

 

The door slams shut.

 

“…see him.” Simon finishes his request anyway. He knows it fell on unlistening ears but he feels the need to do all he can. He, too, turns and heads back up the short path to the end of Mrs. Forsyth’s garden. He leaves it and pulls the gate shut behind him.

 

He continues on down the country lane. It is quite a distance until he will come across his next neighbour, and as he goes he calls out Toby’s name. The lane is engulfed by the skeletons of what used to be a thick forest. Toby could be anywhere within it. Simon hopes he isn’t. It isn’t the most hospitable place anymore, even for a dog. In the old days, Toby had loved to go for long walks through the trees. Simon had loved to take him. But ever since the seasons had turned Toby had barely wanted to walk anywhere. Simon would take him out anyway, but only ever to the high street or to walk through the open fields that lie out in the west. It is supposed to be summer, but it is just simply the grey season now. It has been the grey season for many seasons, and the grey has killed off much of the surrounding wild and plantlife. The fields that lie in the west by some miracle are still only dying and not yet dead and so Toby likes them. Or more so than the forest at least.

 

The fields were the first place Simon looked. Toby was not there. Now he goes east. Besides the forest, there is little to the east but there are still a few neighbours in the area who have not yet, one way or another, moved on. Jane and Tim Hemmings are next down the road but still a fifteen-minute walk away. Simon picks up the pace to try and get there before the dark closes in some more.

 

It is only just past midday but the dark has been closing in fast recently. The day, even, has only been bringing brighter shades of dark for several weeks now. Simon cannot recall the last time he saw the sky beyond the cloud and smoke that lies overhead. The air feels fresh though, for the moment. It is because of this that Simon knows the rain is coming. Simon is always grateful for the rain. It takes the ash and the soot out of the air for a while. On and off it has been raining since last Tuesday and it has been pleasant for it. But today Simon fears the freshness that the rain has brought may lead Toby to stray further away. Since last Tuesday he has been more eager to go for his walks and enjoy the outside air. Today the air has been fresher than it has for a long time.

 

In less than an hour Simon will lose all that is left of the light. He will find himself both blind and wet and he will not be able to search anymore. He hurries up and the Hemmings’ house comes slowly into sight. It is a large house but falling apart. The entire outer north-facing wall caved in two Novembers ago, yet by some surprise the house was left standing. Today it stands, still. The Hemmings, a younger couple, still in their late twenties, have gotten by using the rubble to block up and reinforce some of the inside rooms. They live now in a shell of what used to be a house, but they get by. Simon had always found them to be a nice couple but they keep to themselves a lot. As far as Simon is concerned, and considering the circumstances, they have every right to.

 

Simon approaches the house and steps through the gap where their front door used to be. He never knows which of the three doors, that used to face the living room and which now face the outside, to knock on so, like usual, he calls out “Is anyone home?”

 

He waits and listens for movement. It takes a moment but he hears a scrambling and the door to the far left opens. Jane steps out followed shortly by Tim.

 

“Oh it’s you!” exclaims Tim. These days it’s a surprise for anyone to get a visit from anyone. “How are you? It’s been a while.”

 

“It’s been too long,” adds Jane. She is right Simon concurs. He is about to start on the reason for his appearance out of the blue but is pre-emptively interrupted by the crying of a baby further inside the house. Simon is taken aback.

 

Tim excuses himself. “Looks like the little lady’s awake at last.”

 

Simon is left facing Jane. “It really has been a while.”

 

“It’s funny how time gets away from us,” Jane chimes in.

 

“I guess I should say congratulations.” He says it with a smile, but one that fades quickly. The joyous gift of life in the next room becomes tainted by his remembrance of the reality of the times. His tone saddens. “I should have brought something.”

 

“You didn’t know. It’s not that we’ve been keeping quiet about it but…” Jane pauses. “You know how things are.”

 

Simon nods. He can’t shake the melancholy from his gaze.

 

Tim returns with a small bundle in his arms. “Say hello to Uncle Simon. Simon, say hi to little Kayleigh here.”

 

“Hi there little Kayleigh.” He strives for a happy tone but comes up short. She really is little, even for a baby. She looks the size of a premature newborn, but he figures she must be several months old at least. He doubts that there will be a time when little Kayleigh will be anything but little.

 

“What are you doing standing out there still?” Tim asks. “Come on in.”

 

“Sorry, I don’t want to keep you. I can’t really stay anyway. I’m looking for Toby. He got out. Have you seen him?”

 

“Afraid not mate.”

 

“Well if you see him…”

 

“We’ll bring him round,” Tim finishes.

 

“Be safe. Do you need an umbrella?” asks Jane. “The rain will be coming in soon.”

 

“Thanks but I’ll manage.”

 

“If you’re free next week please do swing by because it really has been too long.”

 

A sad-eyed smile returns to Simon’s face. He nods, says “Take care” and takes his leave. He will try to come back next week but he no longer makes such promises to anyone. He hasn’t for a long time. Free time is all anyone has these days but promises are not things that can so easily be kept anymore.

 

He returns to the road. The Duncans are just a short walk further and Simon calls out for Toby still as he goes. The rain begins to fall. It is only a light rain now but it makes Simon quicken into a jog. He makes it to the house in just a few minutes. Eli opens the door but has not seen Toby either. Simon is left with no choice but to return home.

 

He makes it back just before the light goes and checks the cottage once more for Toby. It feels empty without him and Simon feels he cannot just sit around and hope. He puts on a raincoat and grabs a torch. Even with the torch it is too dark out to search the countryside but he can head back to the high street and ask around there. And so that is what he does.

 

He leaves the back door open, just in case Toby finds his way home, and heads north over the hill and down into the valley where the high street lies. He knocks on a few doors and asks to no avail before making his way to the Royal arms. He finds Alice behind the bar and tells her of the situation.

 

“Oh bless you, you poor thing. You’re soaking. Take a seat up here.”

 

Simon pulls up a stool and by the time he sits down by the counter Alice has a pint of beer in front of him.

 

“He’ll turn up, you’ll see. But there’s not much can be done about it at this hour.”

 

“You’re probably right.” Simon resigns himself and takes a sip through the froth of his beer. It is bad beer but the best that can be expected. “How’s business been lately?”

 

”You know, same old same old. Jasper’s in most days. If we’re lucky maybe a couple of the others turn up a night. You know, usual suspects ‘n all.”

 

Simon takes another sip. “Have you been hearing the broadcasts?”

 

Alice’s silence tells him yes.

 

“It’ll be soon, they say.”

 

“They’ve been saying that for months though.” It was true. They had been. But Simon can tell she feels it will be soon also.

 

He goes back to his beer. People don’t have much to talk about anymore, and what little there is to talk about seldom raises the mood. He keeps quiet and contemplative and finishes his drink in silence.

 

“How much do I owe you?”

 

“Oh don’t worry about it, love. Just take care of yourself. I’d hate to lose one of my best customers.”

 

Simon expresses his thanks.

 

“And don’t you worry. I’ll keep my ears open about Toby. Spread the word at this end.”

 

“You really are a saint Alice.”

 

Alice blushes slightly and lets out some laughter. It is a sweet sound and one that Simon hasn’t heard in a while. He takes a moment to enjoy it, and in that moment notices something on the shelf in the refrigerator behind Alice.

 

“Say, is that champagne there?”

 

Alice turns round to look. “Oh! Well look at that. I guess it is. Not sure how well it will have fared by now though. Stumbled across a case of the stuff years back. Been sitting on it ever since. Seems folks haven’t had much to celebrate lately.”

 

Simon takes out his wallet. “I’ll take a bottle. I know some folks who have.”

 

He pays up and sets off, back into the darkness outside. The rain is heavy now but he takes the walk back slowly. The hill out of the valley is gentle but with the rain lashing down at him and the wind blustering hard, it feels something of a struggle. And between the weakness of his torchlight and the spray of the raindrops pelting the ground before him, the way ahead becomes harder to see. He presses on though and reaches the crest of the hill.

 

It is a short walk back from the top and, with the hill behind him, giving more shelter from the wind, the weather eases up. In the distance he makes out his cottage. It looks smaller than it used too, as if the stress of the rain, the ash and the soot has made it shrink like a withering old lady. Along with the sky, and the mood of the times, the masonry of the cottage’s exterior has darkened considerably. It looks a lot different from how it did when Simon lived there as a child, and even from when he moved back to help his parents through the changing of the seasons. It still looks like home though, and with only him and Toby left – and maybe not even that – he is thankful it still looks like home.

 

He reaches the start of the cobbled pathway that leads to his front door. The wet stones glisten silver in the torchlight. With the weather having been how it’s been recently, he finds a small ford lying between him and his door. He has only the one pair of shoes left, and though they are well sodden he elects to spare them, just this once. He removes them and his socks and, rolling his trouser legs up, he begins to wade to wade through. Seven feet or so later and he is on the other side.

 

Another five feet and he is at his door. He finds it unlocked, as it has been for many months, yet the door sticks. The wood is swollen, saturated by the rain, and sits stiff against the frame. It takes a barge of the shoulder to get it open and as he steps through into his living room, and closes the door behind him, he shakes the water out of his hair and clothes, much like Toby would. He leaves his shoes by the door, his socks balled up next to them, and removes his coat. He places it on the coat rack.

 

He tries the light switch but nothing. He’ll need to start up the generator again but that can wait for today. He walks over to the fireplace and, placing his torch in his mouth to see, begins stacking wood and kindling onto it. A couple of lights of a match later and he is able to get a fire going. Slowly it crackles into life, with a crackling that accompanies a stirring from the next room. Simon goes to inspect.

 

He enters the kitchen and finds Toby sprawled out on the floor, waking up. His leash is tied to the leg of the kitchen table. Simon bends down and gives the dog a pat on the head.

 

“Good to see you, old boy. Good to see you.”

 

Toby greets his friend, rising to his feet and lapping at the drops of rain still littering Simon’s hand and clothes. Simon unties the leash and disconnects it from Toby’s collar. He then looks to the table itself where he finds a note has been left. It reads

Found the little fella wandering around the garden not ten minutes after                                     you left us. Must have just missed you. Look after yourselves.

– Eli

He smiles, sets the note down and sets about making Toby and him both some food. He opens a bag of dog food into Toby’s bowl and over the fire he fries up some bacon and eggs and heats up a can of beans. They eat in peace and comfort.

 

Though it has been black out for several hours, the night finally draws in for real. Simon wraps himself in a blanket to go to sleep on the sofa in front of the fire. Toby jumps up, too, and balls himself up at Simon’s feet. They both drift from consciousness within minutes of each other, and through their dreams they wait to see if tomorrow will come.

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In Another Life, or the Daily Lunching Habits of Koizumi and Kimura’s Koizumi Kohaku

“I’ll see you in another life.”

 

Those were the last words she ever spoke to me. She boarded her train and left me forever.

 

That summer with her, was the great romance of my life that never was. There was always an expiration date on it, but still I loved her.

 

In another life

In another life

In another life

 

Those three words bounce through my mind still and I used to spend hours wondering what could possibly, and quickly, bring me closer to that other life. If killing myself would have done so, I would have killed myself a long time ago. But I always figured suicide was kind of frowned upon by the reincarnation gods, and seeing as how I’d done very little with my life I doubt they’d have brought me back as a person again. No they’d probably make me a cat or something, which would be just awful. I mean I’d be allergic to my own saliva. Can you imagine that? Anyways, my point is that that whole another life thing was going to have to wait for just that. For the foreseeable future I was gonna be sticking with this life.

 

Though I guess the thing about dying is that it does somewhat slightly interrupt the whole foreseeable future. I mean just ask Mister Koizumi. But hey, look at that, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here.

 

What I was trying to say was that for the foreseeable future, she was gone, and that for the foreseeable future – the coming days, weeks, months, years maybe (who knows?) – I would be doing my best to get over her. That, I knew would be a tough thing to do. You see we left it on good terms. We left it because we had to leave it. Everything was clear and understood and no one got hurt, but that was the worst thing about it. It was a relationship defined by what could have been had situations been different, but at the same time, one defined by that which it was not and by that which it would never be. It meant I was never really left heartbroken from the whole thing, Heartbreak sucks but when you know what caused the break it’s easier to fix. My heart had been left to starve. That’s the way I saw it and back then I felt I would see it that way for, well, the foreseeable future.

 

I needed a distraction but, without her, distractions were hard to come by. That was until I first became aware of Mister Koizumi.

 

You see, circumstance had found me working security at an art museum near Regent’s Park. It was a pretty small place and had a long French name I never could pronounce. Musée de blah blah blah. Something like that. You can probably tell the place didn’t interest me much. Caring about art was never really something I could bring myself to do but, even so, I knew the stuff I stood guard over was hardly worth dropping your monocle over.

 

Every time we’d break out some new paintings we’d see a flurry of well-suited, well-wrinkled men – with moustaches combed more times that day than my head had in its last twenty-six years – roll through the doors in tandem with their pointy nosed, prickly personalitied women. They’d stock up on champagne and salmon puffs then bugger off, leaving the museum free for the usual riff-raff of unshowered art students and lost Chinese tourists to enjoy. It was hardly a rival to the Louvre, or the…um…Contemporary London Museum of Art (is that a place? I swear you can just throw the words ‘contemporary’ and ‘museum’ together and come up with the name of a museum somewhere). It was kind of an insignificant little place and, except during the odd gala fundraiser, rarely would it ever have any kind of a pulse.

 

It was the sort of place where the security was, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. Working there I felt like a third nipple on the chest of a very body conscious man; the first two nipples already surplus to requirements, I was unnecessary and unwanted while nevertheless hard to get rid of. But museums always need security of some sort, just in case (I guess just in case was my own competitive edge over an actual third nipple – no one really stocks up on extra nipples for rainy days). Even so, just in case was pretty much never the case for me, but if it weren’t the case in the first place I would probably have never even gotten the job. With no experience, job aptitude, or even upper body strength, I was hardly a perfect applicant for the job. Maybe I was the only applicant for the job. Either way, I was above average height and knew how to use a walkie-talkie. That seemed good enough for my employer at least.

 

My time was spent divvied up between staring at CCTV monitors, walking amongst ‘Chair in Field’ by Hayden Menendez, ‘Space as Seen Through a Vacuum’ by Edmund Fitzgibbons Junior and ‘Contemplations of People Contemplating’ by the German painter Dutch McCoy (don’t worry no one expects you, or anyone else come to that, to find these names familiar), and chatting with Jessica at the ticket desk.

 

Jessica was a little more switched on to the art world than I. She could talk the talk when she had to but for the most part found the works we held to be uninspiring and uninteresting. Through the quiet spells, of which there were plenty, we would while away the minutes and the hours talking about nothing in particular, she was the type to whom conversation came easily but seldom in any meaningful way. She had mastered small talk to the extent that it never felt like small talk, and that was just perfect for me. Unintrusive company to last me until I clocked off.

 

We would see the boss from time to time, and the two other security guys I would see in passing; their arrivals signalled the time for me to run to the hills. There’s only so much standing around, listening to elevator music, while pretending to be useful that a man can muster in a day. A handful of other people worked there, a string of faces with name tags that I never cared enough to look at. It was a monthly paycheck. No more, no less, and offering little in the way of a distraction that my mind so sorely needed. At least that would have been the case if it were not for Mister Koizumi.

 

It’s funny how big an influence a dishevelled sixty-four year-old, five-foot-five Japanese businessman can have on the life of a twenty-six year old security guard without even saying a single word to him. If you looked at the guy you would think he was kind of odd looking, but only if you took the time for a proper look. He was a short fella, hair thinning on top. Bespectacled and balding, sort of round in the middle and clad forever in a scruffy grey suit. Maybe the suit itself would differ day-to-day but it would always be scruffy and it would always be grey. From a glance, though, little about him was overly noticeable and I am sure he went quite unnoticed, in quite a few places, quite a number of times in his life. Yet, at whatever the hell my museum was called he sure did not.

 

If the place was instead a pub, Mister Koizumi would have been the sort of local who had his own bar stool, and that stool sat right in front of J.D. Canard’s ‘Echo’. Each weekday at around twelve thirty-three he would wander in off the street, pay his five pound admission and mosey on over to that one painting, ignoring all else. For the next twenty-or-so minutes he would do little more than stand and stare with a sort of lost look on his face. Then, whenever he had had enough, he would remove a sandwich, from the briefcase he always kept by his side, and begin tucking into it as his legs took him back to work. Monday to Friday, January to December, year to year, with only the rare exception, this was an integral part of his day.

 

When I first noticed him doing it, I found it awfully suspicious, like he was casing the joint or something. That was back when I believed I was a security guard in more than just title, rather than an odd and rather unintended piece of performance art portraying the emptiness of life, the arbitrariness of status, the uselessness of man, something like that. I spoke to Jessica about him and she told me he had been doing the same thing since well before she started at the museum and that, from the people she’d spoken to about it, there wasn’t a time that anyone knew of when this wasn’t his daily lunching routine. This intrigued me at first and I would wonder, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, what it was about that painting that interested him so. I even made a point of going and looking at his favourite painting every now and then.

 

It was a simple piece, very simple. So simple in fact that to me it didn’t look like art at all. All I saw was a large white canvas, hung portrait, where once someone had swiped a black paintbrush right down the middle. A line with a few splattered flicks of paint. My four year-old niece could have done a better job making art than J.D. Canard had done with ‘Echo’. Her hand print turkey painting, for instance, had a distinct touch of Warhol about it. Especially after she spilled some baked beans over it one day – I guess the critics would call that an homage or something. But for some reason my niece’s ‘Hand Turkey with Spilled Beans’ was not hanging on the wall of some art museum while J.D. Canard’s ‘Echo’ was.

 

Why Mister Koizumi would come here every day just to see this painting was beyond me. That intrigue I once felt towards his daily visits soon faded away. There would be days when I would ignore them altogether, but other days when Jessica and I would find a little bit of amusement in them. Sometimes we would bet a couple of quid on whether he would arrive before or after his usual twelve thirty-three E.T.A. on a given day, or wonder what he would be having in his sandwiches. We were bored, very bored, and he was a walking quirk that had some degree of entertainment value to us sometimes. He always seemed to be in his own little would, at peace with himself whenever he stepped foot in front of ‘Echo’. As simply himself he was a piece of abstract art, and something of a semi-permanent fixture amongst our main collection.

 

If there’s one thing I knew about our main collection, though, it was that I saw very little value in any of it. But there’s a funny thing about art, and that’s that you may look at the same painting a thousand times and see it the exact same way, but on that thousand-and-first time it may look completely different. Sometimes standing close up to a painting you may see nothing more than a bunch of painted splodges on a piece of paper, resembling very little of anything, but from a distance those splodges become a whole. Other times a painting looks different just because you feel different. Because one day it’s warm and sunny and the next it’s cold and raining. Because one day you’re happy and another you’re stressed. And sometimes just because times have changed since the last time you looked at it. I guess they call that perspective.

 

I remember there was one day when the changing ability of perspective became abundantly clear to me. I was making the rounds at work and found myself in front of ‘Echo’ when I noticed something looked completely different. Not the work of J.D. Canard, but Mister Koizumi. I couldn’t figure out what it was but something seemed different. His gaze was the same as always. His suit, no less scruffy and no less grey than any other day. His stomach, no less round, and his hair, no less thin. Maybe it was me.

 

Looking back, it was just after that summer and I was waiting for another life to begin. My mind was in need of something to occupy it and, for a while, it seemed like Mister Koizumi did just that.

 

Over the days and weeks that followed, my intrigue returned and grew. I would watch him on the monitors as he would stand and stare so serenely. I stopped making jokes about him with Jessica and found myself consumed with the why of it all. I saw nothing in the painting and yet here was a man who saw something important and meaningful in it every single day for the last God-knows-how-long. Why couldn’t I see what he saw? Why could he? It was like a joke with a punchline I didn’t understand, but felt I needed to. It became a reason to go to work in the morning, another chance to solve the riddle, and when I went home I found myself wondering about it still.

 

It reached a point where one day I had resolved to settle it once and for all. I was going to get the answer straight from the horse’s mouth and ask him personally what it was. I got to work early that day, even though I knew he wouldn’t arrive until twelve thirty-three. I watched him enter over the CCTV and hurried down to Jessica and the front desk where I waited patiently for him to finish his contemplations. The moment he reached into his briefcase for his sandwich was the moment I started my walk over to finally find out ‘why’. But the moment before I could turned out to be the moment he dropped his sandwich and begun clutching at his chest. Mister Koizumi hit the floor just moments after his B.L.T. It happened all seemingly in slow motion but in a flash he had left in the back of an ambulance. Jessica had gone with him and I was left alone and in the dark.

 

I couldn’t sleep that night. I told myself it was from the shock of seeing a sixty-four year-old man crumple in front of me – the memory was vividly ingrained – but I knew better. It was from a fear that I would never find out what it was about that painting. I stayed awake praying that Jessica had found out something, anything close to a reason. At least I can say I wasn’t thinking of the girl from that summer waiting out there for me, somewhere, in another life.

 

When she arrived at work the next day Jessica told me that the poor guy had passed away. This was the first time I actually learned of his name: Koizumi Kohaku.

 

Jessica told me he had had a heart attack on the museum floor and another at the hospital. The latter moved him from the main collection to the archives for good. She had intended to stay by his side until his family got there. The second heart attack took him just minutes before they did. She stuck around for the family afterwards in case they needed her. They were grief-stricken but ultimately grateful that Kohaku had someone to talk to in his dying moments. It was a sad fate but almost fitting that it happened at our museum, or so though his family. So thought me too. If only I knew why.

 

Jessica offered me just one more nugget of information, his dying words. Mister Koizumi had been more or less silent and was resting in his hospital bed when he sat up and pronounced “I don’t understand it” to the room. With another “I don’t understand it” he echoed himself then passed away. Jessica went on, musing on what it was like to be the only recipient to the last recognisable utterance of a person’s life. I phased out and, inserting “I don’t understand it” into the riddle of Mister Koizumi, I tried to figure out what it all meant. It wasn’t much to go on and eventually I got back to pretending to be a security guard.

 

It was a quiet and solemn day at work that day and the museum felt emptier than it ever had, especially when the clock struck twelve thirty-three. The next day felt similar, and so did the day after. But it was on that day after that Jessica came to me to tell me the family wanted her to come to the funeral service. Having been the last person Koizumi ever saw she felt compelled to go but wanted someone to go with her. I apparently was the obvious choice. I accepted and the following Wednesday we found ourselves in a crematorium, the only two English people in a sea of Japanese faces.

 

A vicar conducted the service, thankfully in English. He spoke of Mister Koizumi’s life. Born in a small fishing village just outside Osaka to a boat-maker of a father and a dressmaker of a mother, he was the first in his family to go to university, where he studied economics in Kyoto. He was studious as a child and smart as an adult and, soon after graduating, travelled abroad, working for brief spells in Egypt, Peru, Paris and New York before eventually settling in London. He would go on to set up the investment firm ‘Koizumi and Kimura’ with his university roommate, but not before marrying Miyuki, his childhood sweetheart. Kohaku and Miyuki had three children, two daughters and a son, and were already grandparents, with a pair of grandsons and a third grandsomething on its way. He was beloved and respected by many, and as Mister Koizumi’s longstanding business partner and closest friend, Kimura Nobuo, stood up to read his eulogy I began thinking of who Koizumi really was.

 

To me he was just a man who stood in front of a painting every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He was a point of curiosity and not a person in his own right. Yet here he had been a family man. A husband, a father and an ojiisan. A boss, a colleague and a dear old friend. He was so much more than I ever cared to imagine. So much to so many people. The service near completed the puzzle that was Mister Koizumi for me, yet the once piece of it I had always held no longer seemed to fit. It just didn’t add up.

 

The eulogies finished, the last song sung, and Mister Koizumi, burned to ash, was left to find another life of his own. Jessica and I were invited along to the wake but we felt it best not to go. We, like Koizumi at the museum, just didn’t fit in with the greater picture constructed around us. We set about leaving but before we could, we were approached by the late Koizumi’s wife, Miyuki.

 

“Thank you both for coming. The museum held such a special place in Kohaku’s heart. It seems only right that someone from the museum was able to come and help send him off.”

 

Jessica and I both bowed in acknowledgement and expressed our sorrow for her loss. Turning to go home, something stopped me from leaving. I was compelled to ask her something. I knew it wasn’t the right time but I just had to know. I clutched my final straw and before I even realised it myself I was asking her what it was that brought Mister Koizumi to our museum every day. With a smile and a sigh she relayed all she could.

 

“You need to know that Kohaku had two obsessions in his life.” She said it just like that.” One was that museum and that painting of yours, and the other was control. Kohaku was the most organised man I think I’ve ever known.” Her smile grew wider and her eyes searched back to the memory of her lost husband. They glistened with slowly forming tears, but I felt she was happy to be remembering. “At work he spent all his time weighing up risks and rewards. He managed it well and looked for as much control as he could over every deal and every transaction that he could get. He dealt with so much uncertainty at work but he knew his business so well that things almost always progressed exactly as he had predicted. He understood his business as well as anyone could. He understood how it worked, how it could work better and how it could work to give the children and I a better life.” She paused for a moment to brush a tear from her cheek. “In the end that’s all he wanted to control. He wanted a better life for all of us. But he worked so hard, keeping his time so organised, never wasting a second, that he forgot about himself so often.”

 

“There was a time when things were going badly at the firm and the control he obsessed over was out of reached. It was a tough time. Not that it was tough for the family, he always made sure we were looked after, but with the troubles at work his mind was stuck. It was like he wasn’t the same man I married all those years ago. It was around that time, maybe nine years ago now, that we went to a fundraiser at the museum. I’m sorry if my memory is a little hazy. It was a long time ago now. I think maybe we had had an argument or something, I’m not sure, but at some point he went for a walk and stumbled across a certain painting. Art was something Kohaku had always prided himself on and he considered himself quite knowledgeable in it. But there was something about that painting that struck him in a certain way. I found him later that night just staring at it. This next part I remember well. I asked him what the matter was and he turned to me and asked ‘I’m a smart man, am I not?’ I agreed with him. He’s the smartest person that I’ve ever truly known and I told him just that. He looked back to the painting and continued ‘I’ve always thought I could understand anything if only I put my mind to it. But this…this is something I don’t think I can ever understand.’ I tried to console him but for that night his mind was lost.

 

“But from the next day on he was a different man, or no longer a different man. He was the man I had always loved. That was around the time he started visiting the museum as often as he could. It took a lot longer before he got his control back at work but from that next day on he was back to his normal self. He’s been visiting that painting ever since but as far as I know he never figured out what his painting was about. He was never a peculiar man but that painting was surely his biggest peculiarity.”

 

She finished with a smile that brought forth another sigh and a few more tears. “I’m afraid that is all I can really tell you but something about that painting found a special place within Kohaku.”

 

“Thank you for sharing,” I told her. “The museum will surely miss him.”

 

Jessica reiterated that message and added a “we’re sorry for your loss.” We wished Miyuki the best and offered our condolences and our goodbyes before heading back to our homes.

 

Lying in bed that night I felt my comprehension of Mister Koizumi was still no better. In fact it was far more muddled than it ever had been. If ever you see a man on a daily basis, in whatever capacity, it is easy to feel you have some level of understanding of the guy. Yet here I was, feeling I understood Koizumi less than I ever had. Nothing matched. My mind lost hope of ever figuring it out and drifted back to the memory of my girl stepping onto her train headed for anywhere but here, by me. I had lost my distraction. I was back on my own.

 

Not long after, I decided that I was not long to be a security guard for whatever the hell the museum was called. I was leaving. Going somewhere else. With a bit of luck to another life.  It seemed important to me, though, to pay one last courtesy to Mister Koizumi, wherever he was. As my last act at that museum, at the time of twelve thirty-three I strode on over to that same spot Mister Koizumi would always occupy. I had no briefcase, no sandwich, no scruffy suit, but it was twelve thirty-three and I was in the right place. From there I gazed on at J.D. Canard’s ‘Echo’. I saw the large white canvas, hung portrait. I saw the black brushstroke down the middle and the splattered flicks of paint surrounding it. And in that moment it became clear to me that I, for sure, didn’t understand it either.

 

 

Awake

Happy New Year! This is something I wrote three years ago, on January 1st 2013. I’m guessing I didn’t have a good night’s sleep and had given myself a resolution to write more in 2013. As memory serves me, I didn’t really follow through too much with that resolution but here’s a product of it at least.

 

***

 

Often I lay awake at nights, trying to remember how to go to sleep.

 

Two o’clock. I lay still with eyes closed but not heavy, the day’s events whirring through my head. That joke that Andy said at work and how offended Anne got at it. Her reaction was funnier than the joke itself. Boy, Andy never saw her knee coming. My boss yelling at me. I was only an hour late and not even that hungover. The yelling didn’t help with the head that much, nor did the cheap coffee, mind you. And seeing Her in the supermarket. And the film I watched not two hours ago. It was an old film. One with Cary Grant in it, and … oh what’s her name … the one that does the hair thing in that other film … I’ll check IMDB in the morning. That’s gonna bug me though.

 

Ok, come on now: SLEEP. How do I do this? Eyes closed. Check. Lying still. Check. Clear thoughts … clear thoughts … clear thoughts.

 

Two thirty. It was Rita Hayworth – I IMDBed it – and Jean Arthur was in it too. Cracking film it was. Now come on sleep. What’s that? I think that’s chicken from dinner. I must have missed a bit flossing. Let’s try and dislodge that. I stick my tongue to the gap between the teeth and press it up against the food. A couple of flicks and it’s out. Good. I can concentrate on sleeping now. Now come on … concentrate. Concentrate. Wait, concentrating is exactly what your not supposed to do.

 

I lay still, concentrating on not concentrating and trying not to try to get to sleep. The darkness behind my eyelids is constantly changing, constantly getting deeper and darker, tricking me into thinking that I’m just about to go to sleep, giving me the thought that keeps me awake still. It’s getting annoying now. And then I think of Her and it calms me. But that’s not gonna get me to sleep. I just think of her face, her eyes, her smile, the way she laughs and how I like how she’s shorter than me. I think of her height briefly and lose all sense of proportion. One moment she’s pocket sized another and she’s regular sized, if not taller than usual. Now … this isn’t helping. I have to drift off now. I don’t want to turn up to work late tomorrow. My boss, she told me I’m on thin ice. I think she’s bluffing, but I need this job, I need the money, and don’t really want to test her.

 

3 o’clock. I should quit my job. It was only supposed to be a short term thing anyway. Just something to give me a bit of cash to then follow my dreams and do something I want to do. It’s been two years and I’m none the richer. I should quit. That’s it, I’m quitting. But what are my dreams? What do I want to do with my life? … … … Well that’s thoroughly depressing. What do I want to do with my life?

 

What time is it? It feels like I’ve been awake for hours. I need to stop thinking, but I think of Her.

 

4 o’clock. It is this time of night that no matter what they are, my thoughts seem profound. I prophesise, philosophise and epiphanise. I come to plucking the wisest of thoughts out of mid air, like ‘never trust a bald barber; what will they know about the trade’. I think about whether life is meaningless or whether the fact that we ask that question is what gives it meaning in the first place. I think about theology and reaffirm my beliefs with slightly better phrasing. These are the sort of thoughts where the sleep deprivation really gets to you. They feel like the most important thoughts you’ve ever had. Life changing thoughts. But by the time morning comes, their significance leaves like a pontification caffeine crash. I think about love. I think about Her.

 

5 o’clock. This is getting painful now. My left eye begins to water from being pressed to the pillow for so long. I flip the cushion and with anger, I press my skull into it, as if it will make me sleep quicker. It doesn’t work. I loosen up and relax. This seems to work. I think about Her.

 

7 o’clock. Beep, beep, beep, beep. Snooze. That’s it, five more minutes of sleep. Beep, beep, beep. Snooze just a little bit more. Beep, beep. Okay, I’ll just turn it off. I won’t go back to sleep now, will I?

 

8:41. Crap. Is that the time? I’m gonna be late, aren’t I? I jump out of bed and rush into the bathroom. I look into the mirror. Boy I could really do with a shower. Do I have time for one? Well I’m already gonna be late, aren’t I?

 

9.36. I get to work. Sneaking to my desk is seeming relatively easy today. My boss must be in a meeting. It’s surprising, but I don’t feel too tired. I sit down. There’s an email in my inbox from Anne, bringing everyone’s attention to the menace that is Andy’s sense of humour. It was worth a few laughs. I open up some spread sheets and get to work. It bores me. I think about Her.

People What Don’t Communicate Good

She can’t remember his face. So much for a connection. She was sure she would know it if ever she saw it again, but sitting here, glancing towards the man at the corner table, she has lost that certainty. His hair is similar but not the same. It had probably been due a cut or two since last they met. The face looks similar too, she thinks, but she doesn’t know. Her point of reference, that picture in the back of her head, is gone. She can’t bring herself to go over and ask, and as he takes his last sip of coffee and makes his exit, her hope, her desire, her impulse to find Him follows him out the door. She gives herself a small cushion of time before leaving too.

 

She heads north towards the river. She hadn’t even known him long, and she knows she had never really known him at all. But there was something about him that left a mark. An unspoken bond. How she wishes it could have been a spoken one. She had no name to call him by. No address. No number. And the one place she knew to look for him, no longer could he be found. Had she tried to look for him sooner, maybe things would be different now, but sometimes looking after yourself is more important than looking out for others. She likes to think he understands this and, given how they left things, she senses he does, but she will never know for sure.

 

She reaches the river and walks west along it towards the setting sun. The golden light glistens off the water as gently it laps up against the river banks. The ducks that live amongst the reeds have long since flown south for the winter and behind them they have left a quietness to the riverside walk. The water still flows lazily eastwards but it feels as if life itself has frozen still in the winter cold. She likes it. She finds it peaceful. Here is a refuge from the city bustle buried right in the centre of it all. She comes here sometimes just to clear her mind of the troubles and stress of her city life but hasn’t had much opportunity to do so recently. It is relaxing and calm, but so easily can this illusion be shattered.

 

A wolf whistle soars to her ears, emanating from the opposite bank. She has been targeted now. She tries not to look across to see the origin of the mating call, but from the corner of her eye she sees a small cluster of men crowded around a bench. What a perfect way to seduce a woman. Who needs words anyway when a simple pursing of the lips will do? And what better way to show a woman you’re deserving of her than to do so while lurking by a riverside at four P.M. on a Tuesday afternoon, drinking beers with your buddies. She puts her head down and makes a bee-line towards the nearest stairway to the city streets. She finishes her walk in a peace only broken by thoughts of Him.

 

It is only five more minutes before she makes it back to her building. She opts to make a quick stop at the convenience store opposite before returning home. She needs milk. She had made a point of remembering the milk but upon entering the shop, and walking past the ready meals, the snacks, and the coffee mix, she begins to recall how little of anything she has back at the flat. When was the last time she went for a proper shop? It has been a while. That’s for sure. Times have been rather hectic recently. She’s barely had a moment to breathe.

 

She picks up a basket and begins piling things in. Milk. Orange juice. Bread. Coffee. Coffee is always a must. Toilet paper. Tampons. She probably needs toothpaste too and throws a tube in to join the rest of her haul. She heads to the counter and makes eye contact with the cigarettes behind it. It has been four months since her last but each and every time she makes eye contact with the cigarette cabinet she gets a tingling sensation in the back of her throat, as if her oesophagus is calling out for just one more, for old time’s sake. The thought of a throwback never fails to tempt but the thought of how far away payday still is, and how little money she would find in her bank account were she ever to work up courage enough to check, soon dissuades her. Just get what’s in the basket and leave.

 

Once everything has been scanned, the cashier reads out the cost. It is not a pretty number. At least it is all stuff she needs, all stuff she’ll get through. With a sigh she hands over her card and types in her PIN. The cashier returns to her her card and hands her a receipt and her bag. He offers her thanks and wishes her a nice day. She turns to leave but is stopped by a voice.

 

“Helen, Helen?”

 

Her name is not Helen but she recognises the voice that is calling her.

 

“Helen, I thought that was you. It’s been too long.”

 

Not long enough. Not Helen bites her lip, puts on a smile and turns to face one Catherine Ellsbury. Catherine is the friend of an ex-boyfriend and the sort of person who prides herself on the length of her phone’s contacts list. To Not Helen, Catherine had always been someone she thought she would never see again. It is for this reason that Not Helen, at this moment, is in fact still Helen. Catherine has an awful habit of just showing up and, assuming each time they meet to be the last time they will ever meet, Not Helen has never cared enough to explain that, simply put, she is not a Helen. Hence, Not Helen, unfortunately, is for now Helen Once More.

 

“Do you remember the last time? Oh it must have been Matt Chambers’ thirtieth mustn’t it? Oh how time flies. How have you been? You look well. Getting treated well by someone special are we? Am I right? Oh you don’t have to tell, but Catherine Ellsbury knows how to keep a secret if ever you do.”

 

Catherine has a unique talent for holding both sides of a conversation. This makes the discussion far easier for Not Helen but no less annoying. There is only so much she can put up with.

 

“Well, it’s been a pleasure, as always, Catherine,” she interjects “but I’m afraid I’ve really got to hurry back home.”

 

“Oh well, that is a shame. We simply must have a proper catch up soon. Daniel and I are having a little get together this evening and if you’re not too busy you simply must stop by. The old gang would love to see you.”

 

Not Helen does not know exactly who this old gang is. The possibility of finding out dissipates with her reply. “Tonight? If only I could. I’m having dinner with my parents tonight.” This is her go-to excuse but, as coincidence would have it, tonight it is also the truth. Although, at this moment Not Helen does not know which situation is actually preferable. A get together with Catherine, Daniel and The Old Gang, or dinner with her dad and stepmother. Neither seems particularly appealing.

 

“Oh too bad,” Catherine responds. “Maybe next time. Let’s get together soon though. It’s been simply far too long. I’ll drop you a call tomorrow and we’ll figure something out.”

 

“It’s been nice, Catherine, but if you don’t mind…” Not Helen leaves the sentence dangling and proceeds out the door with her shopping. She hopes Catherine’s threat to call her won’t actually hold up. She wonders how Catherine had gotten her number in the first place, or if she even actually has it. She hopes not and, as she crosses the street to her building, she soon comes once more to assume that she will never see Catherine again.

 

She walks in through the car park and heads to the staircase door. She punches the code into the control panel and the door glides open. Shopping in hand, she starts up the stairs. Four floors later and she reaches her corridor. She heads down it, fumbling through her handbag for her keys as she goes. She reaches her door, puts the key in and opens it. She steps through and closes the door behind her. Her shopping falls to the floor by her feet and her back falls to rest against the door. She breathes in. It is a deep breath. She needs this.

 

She breathes out again and pauses before shifting her weight back to her legs. She gathers her shopping again and sets about putting it away. She puts the kettle on and, using her freshly bought milk and coffee, makes herself a drink. She turns on her television and, drink in hand, sits down to watch it. She does not recall the last chance she had to just sit in front of the television and have a cup of coffee. There is nothing on but for the first time in quite some time she has a little bit of time just to kill. She is tired, she realises. Not so much physically but mentally. She brings her mug up to just below her nose and lets its steam permeate her lungs as she inhales.

 

She has to be at her father’s for eight. If she leaves at half seven she will get there about ten minutes late and that suits her just fine. Until then she sits back and relaxes. The television does little to stimulate her brain but thankfully at least lets her tune out her thoughts for just a little while.

 

When the time comes, she heads to her cupboard and takes out a little black dress. She would rather not wear it but her father bought it for her to wear at dinners such as these. She seldom gets an invite unless he has his business associates over. The pretence is thinly veiled. She gets invited so he can show off how pretty his daughter is. It’s a matter of appearances. The gated house. The brand new Bentley. The swimming pool. The table full of delicious looking food. How it tastes does not matter. Most will go untouched. The beautiful wife and daughter sitting by his side. It is the image of a success. That is why she gets invited. It is a small price to pay to otherwise be left alone. That is why she goes.

 

She throws on the dress, a little makeup, and puts a brush through her hair. She ties it into a neat bun and puts on a pair of earrings, also bought for her by her father, before heading out the door. The corridor is empty and she is accompanied only by the echo of her heels against the tiled floor. Four floors later and she steps into her car and drives away.

 

Her father would always offer to send someone over to pick her up but she would always drive herself. It always gave her an easy exit for whenever she wanted one. The car is too rich for her building, she thinks as the building disappears from her rear-view mirror. It is too rich for her too she knows. Another present from Father Dear. This time a birthday present. She can’t say she was happy to receive it. It doesn’t feel right to drive around in such a rich car when you’re struggling to pay your rent month-to-month. But giving such a rich car as a birthday present was good for her father’s image. She could just see him telling the people at the golf club how generous a father he was that he had given his only daughter such a car. The thought at the time sickened her but she couldn’t refuse the gift. Her father could be rather insistent at times. It’s not that he didn’t love her. He does. It’s just that he loves her in his own way, and he shows it only when it suits him. She, too, loves him but, likewise, in her own way. And even that doesn’t stop her hating him sometimes.

 

The drive goes by too quickly and she soon finds herself waiting in front of her father’s gate, waiting to be buzzed in. The gates pull themselves open and she drives herself up to the end of a modestly crowded driveway. She gets out and saunters up to the front door. She reaches out to the doorbell but before she can press it the door itself swings open.

 

“Where have you been?”

 

“Hello, Martha.”

 

“Don’t ‘Hello, Martha’ me. You’re late.” She speaks with whispered fury. She doesn’t want the other guests to hear. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

 

A shrug is the immediate response. Martha waits for words.

 

“Y’know? Traffic can be a bitch sometimes.”

 

“Watch your mouth. First you’re late, forty minutes late, and now your mouth. You know how your father gets at these things.”

 

Forty minutes? Huh? It is thirty minutes later than she was planning. Funny how things work out.

 

Martha leads her into the dining room before pressing a smile into her cheeks and announcing, “Look who I found in the hallway.” She follows it up with an almost natural sounding laugh, shared by all others in the room.

 

“That wouldn’t be this daughter we’ve all heard so much about?” one of the faces in the room offers.

 

“It won’t be once I’m through with her,” chuckles the father, jokingly waving his fist towards her. He stands and greets her with a hug before showing her off to the room. “This is Joe and Rita Howards, and you know Jeff and Susan already don’t you?”

 

She has probably met them before but concludes that she does not. She fakes it anyway and, raising her accent a class and into her doting daughter voice, “Of course I do and, Joe, Rita, the pleasure’s all mine. So sorry for my tardiness but you know Tuesdays. Terrible traffic.”

 

She takes her seat, next to her father and opposite Martha. Martha is stick thin and wearing an expensive looking red dress. The daughter likes to think, though, that the price of the dress is overshadowed by the cost of the makeup currently making Martha’s face look vaguely presentable on this very evening. She scours her eyes over the guests. Joe and Rita are more wrinkled than the other two guests, and Jeff and Joe both more moustached. She will not take note of their features in any more detail. When the evening is over, she will forget them and the less there is to forget the better. She has become an expert though at feigning interest at her father’s work friends and over the next couple of hours Jeff, Susan, Rita and Joe will see nothing less than delightful dinner company.

 

The conversation stays superficial for the most part. The men talk of handicaps, the women of handbags. There’s a good deal of shop talk and, what few personal questions are directed at the daughter, she is able to deflect with ease. At these dinners though, there is always one question she can’t escape, and it’s one that’s never asked directly. To do so would be vulgar.

 

“Rita? Your Mark returns from Germany soon, doesn’t he?” Martha turns to face the daughter. “Maybe we should invite him along next time.”

 

The eyes of the table join Martha’s in turning towards the daughter. She takes her time swallowing her mouthful of profiterole to come up with a suitable response.

 

“Oh how splendid. I must bring Richard along too then.”

 

“Richard?” comes the surprise of the father.

 

“Come on, George, you know Richard” interjects Martha. He does not but Martha is an expert in protecting appearances.

 

The daughter turns to the four guests to offer some exposition. “He’s the Sullivans’ boy.”

 

The heads of the four guests nod in approval. They do not know Richard, or any of the Sullivans in fact, but they do not want to look out of the know. George, too, quickly comes to remember how well he knows Richard Sullivan.

 

“Ah, good lad that one. I’ve always liked ol’ Richard.”

 

There is no Richard Sullivan but the daughter knows that in this crowd a name is all that matters. Give them a name and their imagination will work the rest out. It’s all about appearances.

 

To maintain the lie, she begins to concoct what sort of man Richard Sullivan is. She tries to think up a face but her mind drifts onto that of the man at the corner table of the coffee shop. Was it Him? The question returns to bug her. She may not remember His face but He still has some sort of hold on her. Was it Him?

 

She sighs and stares down, for a second, at the rest of her dessert before noticing she has phased out for just a little while. She returns to the room and sees twelve eyes once more staring at her. She turns to those of her father who she realises had been the one talking.

 

“Well? Where is he? I do seem to have forgotten why he couldn’t make it tonight.”

 

“Oh!” The daughter stutters into her reply “He doesn’t get back from Brussels until Friday.”

 

The room finds the response quite adequate.

 

The night continues without a hiccup but the daughter finds herself withdrawn from the dialogue, more so than she had already been, with one question racing through her head. Was it Him?

 

It comes time for her to leave and her father escorts her to the door.

 

Quietly he says goodbye. “Well safe travels. Do you need any money?” This is the only way he remembers of showing her affection, but he says it out of a genuine supportiveness.

 

“It’s okay, dad.” She kisses him on the cheek and heads to her car.

 

“You must bring Richard over one of these days once he’s back” George shouts after her. He has not figured it out yet. Martha will explain it to him later once the guests have left, but for now he stands and waves as his daughter meanders down the drive and out the gate.

 

It is cold but she draws the windows down to let in some air. It has been a long night. A long day. It is only Tuesday but it has been a long week, of a long month, of a long year. She is exhausted but the air, rushing over her from the open windows, keeps her awake and keeps her going. She thinks of Him and not of the road, and is almost surprised when she finds herself back safely in the car park of her building.

 

She gets out of the driver’s seat and climbs the four floors back to her hallway. She fumbles in her handbag for her keys but upon reaching her door she finds it is already open. Cautiously, she approaches. She cranes her neck around the doorway and sees a man rummaging frantically through her cupboard. This is not Him. This is not Richard Sullivan. And were she to introduce him to her father, she would give him no name. She relaxes from fear into frustration and enters the room.

 

“What are you doing here, Shawn?” It comes out in tired anger.

 

The man jumps, startled. He is a pathetic sight, she thinks to herself. He gathers himself and tries to act tough. She knows him better.

 

“I want my stuff back woman.”

 

“It’s been months Shawn, I don’t have any of it.” She recalls, after the breakup, stuffing it all in a suitcase with the intention of dumping it in the river. She would have done so too had there not been so much of it to dump. The case ended up too heavy. She had needed a hand just getting it to her car and the dramatic flare of tossing it into the river would have been just too much to muster. His ‘stuff’ found its way to a charity shop on the high street instead.

 

“What about my clothes, my books, my…”

 

“It’s all gone, Shawn. Now just fuck off or I’ll call the police.” She has her phone already in her hand. She knows he is not a confrontational being, that’s why he snuck in while she was out at her parents. With his tail between his legs he follows her instruction and scurries off, swearing and ranting as he goes.

 

“And leave the key!” she shouts after.

 

A key falls down in the corridor outside as Shawn’s shadow disappears down the stairwell. She rushes to collect it and, on her way back to her flat, a head pops out of the flat opposite.

 

“Are you okay? I heard shouting.”

 

“Yes, just peachy” she replies, not making eye contact. She slams the door behind her and looks out upon the mess that has become of her home.

 

How small a life can look when the contents of one’s cupboard are seen strewn across a one room apartment. She has lost the energy to deal with any of this any more. She takes off her black dress and tosses it on top of the tired old clothes she had been wearing earlier in the day. She climbs into bed and as she goes to sleep her mind flickers between Shawn, Richard Sullivan, and Him.

 

She awakens the next day at six o’clock. It is too early, she thinks. She thinks this every day but, regardless of how long she leaves it to ring, her alarm clock can be insistent. She clambers out of bed, showers, makes herself a cup of coffee, and quickly stuffs as much as she can back into her cupboard before she has to leave for work.

 

It is a brand new day but it feels just like every other. Her walk to work feels just like every other, and her shift goes just like every other. She gets to the end of it and, just like every other day, heads to her coffee shop. She gets there to find the corner table empty. She sits down at it and orders a cup of coffee. She settles down and sips away.

 

Her phone rings at the moment the door opens and the familiar yet unfamiliar face of a certain man walks in.

 

“Hello, is that Helen?” the voice on the phone asks.

 

Unnoticed, the man sits down at a table while the woman in the corner booth deals with her call.

 

“Sorry, there’s no one here by that name.” She hangs up and wonders why people always seem to end up calling her by mistake. She stares into her coffee and tries as hard as she can to forget about Him.

 

*                      *                      *

 

He can’t remember her face. So much for a connection. He was sure he would know it if ever he saw it again, but sitting here, glancing towards the woman at the corner table, he has lost that certainty. What he had felt for Her had been real, but timing can be a bitch sometimes. Sometimes you just have to look after yourself before you think about others. He glances again towards the woman at the corner table. He just can’t tell.

 

An old joke comes forth to the front of his mind.

 

‘Parallel lines have so much in common. It’s a shame they’ll never meet.’

 

It is a bad joke but he finds it somewhat apt. He chuckles silently to himself. Outwardly, his smile soon gives way to a sigh.

 

He takes his last sip of coffee and makes his exit. After a small cushion of time so does She.

Adriana: Life in the Real World

This here was another assignment written a few years back for a university writing project. It’s the first couple of chapters to a novel that for the life of me I can’t remember how it was going to turn out. I wrote a blurb with it but not sure where any of my notes for it went. I’m not sure if I’ll ever try to develop this further but I like the writing style of it and wanted to share it.

Blurb

Being broke has, for the most part, kept Adriana’s life in perfect balance. So when unfortunate events become financially fortuitous for Adriana, the fuse is lit on a regime of self-indulgent hedonism. These sad circumstances leave this free spirit fragile, filthy rich and liable to do anything. Childhood friend Matthew Harris is just getting his life together when things start to kick off and it’s up to him to keep Adriana grounded in the real world without getting sucked into her anarchy himself.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Adriana once called me blunt. I guess I liked that. And hence I came to define myself as blunt. A self-image can be so fragile at times, so much so that giving one’s self a single word to live by can be greatly internally stabilising. For me, it was both stabilising and numbing. I had previously flirted with the personas of the rebellious teen, the studious student and the troubled inner artist, but only in bluntness was I ever secure.

A person, such as myself, will search for a logic behind everything. Yet to do so becomes unfulfilling quickly. In being blunt this was what I learnt. Adriana always used to romanticise about art, literature and music. The power of sentiment. Logic was just never enough seeing as to be logical would be to deny one’s self many of life’s pleasures in the hope of self-preservation. A logical thinker is seldom a risk taker. He avoids danger in order to journey to death safely. It is those who stake themselves on spontaneity and whimsy who enjoy more happiness. At least that’s what Adriana believed.

I never knew quite what to make of that. I just tried to make life as easy as possible for myself. Some would accuse me of having a lack of motivation although I never put it in those terms. A smart gambler never chooses the underdog at the races and so to aspire to something with the odds stacked against you, well, I saw that to be counter-productive. Which is why if you ever were to meet me ten years from now, you would probably notice very little different in terms of my work and my lifestyle.

I could never claim to having been truly happy. The cynic in me believes that true happiness is an impossibility, although I know Adriana would dispute this right up to her grave. She believes in the importance of those small day-to-day joys. The smell of freshly cut grass. A summer shower on a hot day. The taste of a home cooked meal. She lived simply and in simple terms. She would sing when she wanted to sing and dance when she wanted to dance. It was her life to live. Her life, and she could do with it whatever she wanted to. I remember once, after a tiring and stressful day of work, she hopped on a plane and went to Italy without telling anyone. A month later she returned broke, red with sunburn and with the most innocent and jubilant of all smiles spread across her cheeks.

And what was I doing during those two weeks? I ate and worked and slept and realised that life was a lot less interesting without Adriana around. She came back with such stories of how she was thrown out of a winery in Tuscany for “abusing the free samples” and of the people she met when in Rome and of the time she joyrode a gondola in Venice. She invited me round to hers a couple of nights after she got back. I had to get off of work for it but she was dying to show off her new recipe for Chicken Arabiatta, a recipe she learned while away. It has never ceased to amaze me how a girl like her could have such a thirst for adventure, could cause so much chaos and still take pride in simple displays of domesticity. The food was good, the wine was better, and we sat there at her dining room table until three the next morning reminiscing about times past as if we had not seen each other in years. Just like old friends.

And there’s not a better name to give us than old friends. For as long as there has been a Matthew Harris, there has been an Adriana Stevenson. Born on the same day, not quite thirty years ago, in the same town and in the same hospital. We grew up just two streets from each other and from nursery to university and now to life in the real world, we’ve been friends. We still live just two streets from each other but just on two different streets to the ones we began on.

I remember one night, just before it all started, she came into the bar. I start my shift most days at about five and most days at about five Adriana walks in. It’s the closest Adriana comes to predictability. There was nothing distinctly special about that one night but for some reason I remember it. She was her same old self and as per tradition, she came and sat herself on the stool at the end of the bar. I walked over already with a Dark and Stormy, and as per tradition I joked with her that her drink of choice matched her personality perfectly. We sat and talked.

They say conversation is an art. If that is in fact the case, then Adriana is Picasso. Or Gaudi. Or Buñuel. The notion of regular conversation has never crossed her mind. She speaks in snowflake soliloquies, which is to say that no two dialogues with her are ever the same. One moment she’ll talk with the utmost eloquence and sophistication and instantaneously descend to taboo topics, creating awkward situations for her own amusement. That night she was telling me of a dream she had had the night before. She was getting chased through an Ikea by someone but kept ending up in the home office section of the store. I wasn’t really paying attention to it but she spent quite some time trying to remember exactly what had happened.

The bar soon began to fill up. A group of twenty year old girls had just come in. They were all dressed up, ironically or otherwise, in eighties clothing and were already a little tipsy, but still they came up to get their drinks. They spent a couple of minutes flicking through the cocktail menu until one of them ordered a Mint Julep.

“Ooh, I’ll have a Mint Julep,” she said, “Gatsby was always drinking Mint Juleps”. She enjoyed the moment as a rare one in which literary knowledge and alcoholic knowledge fused together to provide a culturally stimulating beverage order. Two of the others then proceeded to order Mint Juleps, both fascinated by the same rarity. I don’t recall what the others ordered, but once they’d gotten their drinks they found themselves a booth to sit at and from the bar, we could hear them discussing literature and music with moments of perfect pretention and others of pure dim wittedness.

“We were like that once Mattie.”

“You still are like that,” I replied only to be scowled back at by Adriana. “Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?”

“Speak for yourself”, she said picking up her drink and sipping it as she spun around on her barstool. She stopped and gave me a look that said I think I’ve made my point.

“I guess it wasn’t that long ago.” Her face returned to its regular look.

Adriana finished off her drink, slammed the glass down on the counter and said “I’ll have another one of those barkeep.”

I sighed and made her another. She enjoyed being able to rub it in that she could drink and I couldn’t and that I had to wait on her when she was at my bar. She always got a real kick out of that.

“You gotta love this place,” she said as a bunch of stuffy business types shuffled through the door and found a table, “It’s a veritable tapestry of human society. Every day, all types of people roll through that door going about their daily lives.”

“We don’t get many kids,” I chimed in. It was a bad joke but offered mild self-amusement. It was clear that Adriana was reaching the enlightenment stage of mild inebriation and if I’ve learnt one thing from my job, it’s that people at that stage are seldom as beguiling as they believe themselves to be. Shitty little jokes make it slightly more bearable to pay attention to their ramblings. She continued, making a point of ignoring what I was saying.

“People from all walks of life, each one with a different job, a different family and different stories to tell. And this place is the intersection of all their little lives. They’ll come in here, sit down get a drink, talk about their troubles, about their dreams, get pissed then bugger off home.” It was always intriguing how unrefined she could be when trying to be profound, granted on this occasion she was not successful in her profundity. But you could tell from her face that the idea was fascinating to her, and that she was just imagining the lives of each individual customer as her eyes scoured the room. She took a big sip and another drunken thought came to her. One of the business types was approaching the bar as she turned to me and asked me “Do you think you can tell a lot from someone from the drink they order? Like if I ordered a vodka Martini, what would that tell you about me?”

The businessman looked impatient and I was feeling the same about Adriana’s ramblings. “It tells me that you must have eight quid in your pocket or you’re not gonna get served,” I said bluntly to her as I turned to the businessman. “What can I do you for, sir?”

He placed his order and paid without saying thanks just as more people were approaching the bar. Adriana took this as her cue to head to the dance floor. She instantly found some strangers to befriend and they talked and laughed, drank and danced for the next hour or so. I remember being particularly intolerant of Adriana that night, but the truth is she can be utterly exhausting as a friend and she entertains herself by irritating me sometimes.

When she came back to the bar she told me, in very slurred speech, that she was heading to a party with “um, I didn’t catch their names” and like that she was gone into the night. The place got quite packed that night and her presence wasn’t in any way missed as it sometimes is on the quiet nights or at the start of a shift. It was a good night for the Blue Moon, profitable and uneventful. The crowds started to thin out and I left Hattie and James to look after the bar while I went up to the office to do some finances. I helped to run the bar, in an unofficial capacity, but thankfully with a slightly more official pay raise, for the manager. She had recently had a kid and was working significantly less now.

We closed up at two and after they’d wiped down the counters and left the place ready for the cleaners to sort out the next day, I let Hattie, James and the others go. I stayed to finish my work and left an hour later. The doors were locked so I left through the back and walked along the alley to get to the main road.

As I got there, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Adriana banging on the Blue Moon’s front door. She was in a right state so I hurried over there to see what she was up to.

“Matt, Matt, let me in,” she was screaming, completely oblivious to the fact that I was standing next to her.

“What is it?” I asked.

The question threw her and she stumbled back as she turned to see me and it took a second or two before she realised that I was Matt. She tried to compose herself but just drew attention to her drunkenness. She reached her arm out and pointed at me, her hand swaying in mid-air.

“It’s John, John left me,” she said, crying without tears.

“Who’s John?”

“John, it’s John…” She raised her hand gesturing a height of a person. “Y’know John, he’s…”

I did not know John.

“He’s the guy, who…” she tailed off, stumbled forward and stood, silently repressing a hiccup.

I decided to walk her home and tried to find out what had happened. From what I could piece together there was something about a taxi, Adriana’s shoe and the infamous John. Adriana did not feel compelled to use coherence to tell her story and so that’s about all I can tell you about the incident. I just walked her home.

When we arrived at her flat it took her about ten minutes to find her keys in her handbag; they were in her coat pocket all along. We got in and she collapsed on her sofa straight away. I flicked the light on, poured a glass of water and left it by her side. She was passed out so I emptied a bin onto the floor and placed it beside her head in case she needed to use it in the night. I pulled a blanket over her, turned the light off and headed back to my own flat. It was five by the time I got to sleep. As I said earlier there was nothing distinctly special about that night but for some reason I remember it.

That’s the Adriana effect. For better or for worse, whenever Adriana’s involved in something it will always be memorable, and after memorable night upon memorable night, it becomes difficult to remember which one was which, and so most nights later find themselves forgotten. The great irony of it all though is that Adriana herself had no recollection of that one night. I asked her about it the next time I saw her and she did not remember anything. Not the taxi. Not her shoe and she especially did not remember John.

“Who’s John?” she asked me when I brought it up.

Over the years the truths behind those little mysteries have grown not to interest me and it’s probably for the better. My sanity can thank my apathy and sleep well tonight because of it.

I got a call from Adriana a couple of days after that night. She said she needed money desperately and after avoiding the subject of the size of her bar tab I reluctantly agreed to meet up with her. I lent her a little cash and didn’t ask why. It’s best not to. She thanked me for not asking and praised me for being the type of friend not to ask and not to lecture about her lifestyle. She suggested we go out to a meal to celebrate, what exactly I do not know, and after a mental sigh I reminded her of the current situation and suggested that it probably wasn’t the best of ideas given the circumstances.

Money has always been an interesting issue for Adriana. In all the years I’ve known her, which is pretty much all the years I’ve lived, I’ve never known her to have a steady job. In a way she treats them like books in a library. She’ll work at a hair salon for a couple of months until she decides she wants to work at a restaurant. When she gets bored of that, she’ll move on to something else, and then something else, and then another something else. The day she settles down for good at a real job is the day I decide to be a country music star. And because of her and her job loaning ways, she rarely has much money, which given her and her personality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, being broke has kept Adriana’s life in perfect balance. Whenever she gets any money, she blows through it before you can say the word “bank”. It’s like lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite. The more money she has, the more she has to burn through, but the end result is always the same. It all blows up in her face. Like the time that she shelled out on a brand new car only to crash it into a tree just days later. Or when she gambled away a whole month’s worth of wages on one spin of a roulette wheel. She bet it all on twenty-one, only to win big. “I’m feeling lucky” is what she said just before betting it all again on the same number. The taxi ride home was too expensive for her and she broke a heel on the walk back.

I could tell countless tales of a similar ilk, of the strange times, of the fun times, of the bad and the good, and there were many more good times than all other times combined, but to do so would take an eternity. It would also be a rather pointless exercise seeing as all I’m trying to say is that Adriana was one of a kind. Eccentric is probably the polite way to put it. Captivatingly crazy is another way to put it but the words of Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise probably sum her up best

 

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time

 

At the very least those words help me understand why out of the hundreds and the thousands of people that I’ve known in my lifetime, she’s been the one person who I’ve stuck around with for the longest.

But this is not just the recitation of the adventures of Adriana Stevenson and a marvelling at the nature of her character. This is the story of a person with a unique ability to defy the laws and restrictions of reality. A person who lives in a world free of consequence for her and her alone. It’s a story of a cat, with nine lives to live, only the number of lives she has to live matters not, for no matter how many times she falls, or how far, she’ll always lands on her feet. And this is the story of the one landing that probably hit the hardest.

Like any story, it has to start somewhere.

For me it began on a Wednesday in October.


 

Chapter 2

I had to get up early that day. I say early, it was really only seven, but I was still waking up about five hours earlier than most days. My heating had turned itself off in the night, which made getting up out of a nice warm bed a lot harder than it should have been. And given that it was early and all, I was not happy. A shower woke me up. A coffee kept me awake. And a slice of toast, burnt on one side, barely warm on the other, buttered on the burnt side, kept my stomach from growling at me. I drew back the curtains mid breakfast and looked out over a sea of umbrellas on the pavement. Rain was pelting the window. Cars below had their lights on and their wipers gliding side-to-side, spraying water off of them as they stood, waiting for the lights to change.

Well, today’s going to be fun I thought to myself, without realising how lost the point of sarcasm is, when you’re effectively talking to yourself. A few mouthfuls of coffee later and I was ready to go. I grabbed my coat and headed out the door. The rain was heavy and I pulled the collar of my coat up to keep the rain off my neck. A couple of minutes later and my hair was already soaked, as were my jeans, and I was becoming more and more aware of how my shoes were not waterproof. I kept walking and a little while later the Blue Moon came into sight. We were closed for business that day, but we were having decorators in and Katherine, the manager, had asked me to open up.

The decorators said eight and it was about ten past when I got there. There was no sign of them. My coffee was wearing off and so them being later than I annoyed me slightly. I spent a few minutes looking around the office for a coffee machine but couldn’t find one. I was sure Katherine kept one there somewhere but I couldn’t find it, so I went back down to the bar, found a stool and sat and read a newspaper that I had picked up on the way over. It took a further hour for the decorators to turn up, by which point I had read most of the paper and was already on the Sudokus.

They knocked on the back door, but I waved them round to the front because it would be easier there for them to get their equipment in. The guy in charge was called Jim and after he’d gotten in he turned to me and said “Lovely day, innit? D’you have any coffee in ‘ere?” I broke the news to him gently but offered to make an espresso martini instead. I’m not sure he understood I was joking since in my tiredness I sometimes forget to emphasise my sarcasm. He just stood and gave me a funny look. I took that as my cue to leave, so I headed up to the office to do a bit of work.

As the morning grew old, the idea of an espresso martini did nothing but grow on me and by about half eleven I had just finished my second. By this point Katherine was just showing up. I caught her up with what I had been doing while she pulled a coffee maker out of a cupboard and made herself a cappuccino.

I left about an hour later, just after handing a black coffee, three sugars, to Jim who once again gave me a funny look. It was still cold but it had stopped raining, which I was thankful for since I was supposed to be meeting Adriana for lunch a few streets away and didn’t want to turn up all wet. The restaurant was a nice place and I had eaten there before. They took my coat when I got in and I asked for a table in the name of Stevenson. The place was fairly empty and they seated me at a table for four seats. I didn’t think anything of it at the time and for the second time that day I sat and waited for someone who would turn up considerably late.

I was quite surprised, though, when two familiar faces walked into the restaurant following a waiter, more or less, to where I was. I stood up to greet them.

“Mr and Mrs Stevenson? How are you? Funny seeing you here.”

As the name suggests, they were Adriana’s parents. They lived in Sheffield, hence the surprise on my part. But, surprise or no surprise, hindsight tells me I should have solved the mystery of their presence much, much sooner.

“Funny? Adriana told us you were looking forward to seeing us again. Where is she anyhow?”

That was Robert, her father. The guy hated me, which was something I always found strange. When I was a kid and used to play with Adriana he always seemed happy to see me, but then I, along with the rest of the my year at school, hit puberty and from then on, I think, to him, every boy who hung around with Adriana was the enemy. Even though she and I never dated, he still bore me a grudge. He was overprotective like that and because he was so overprotective, Adriana, and her lack of ambition, turned out to be something of a disappointment to him. But I’m getting away from myself.

“Oh …” at this moment I sensed that Adriana had neglected to tell me something. “I was making a joke sir … of course it’s not funny to see you … and I don’t know where Adriana is. She must be running late.”

“Well I can bloody well see that myself, can’t I?” the old man snapped.

“Oh calm down Robert, I’m sure she just missed her bus or something.”

That was Andrea, Adriana’s mother, who like Robert, was not particularly fond of me but she didn’t like seeing Robert angry, thankfully.

The table silenced, I not wanting to say anything to enrage, infuriate or irritate them, which, were I to open my mouth, I inevitably would have done, and Robert not wanting to talk to me. Andrea, though was clearly uncomfortable with the lack of dialogue. She subtly nudged him in the ribs. He coughed a couple of times and then addressed me.

“Still a bartender, then, Matthew?” He was a judge by profession and his judgement was coming through loud and clear. When he was my age, he was already a partner at a law firm, a partner with his name on the company, and I can bet you that that was exactly what was going through his head at the time he asked the question.

I nodded and replied “yes, still a bartender” while I stared at my cutlery. It was torture being there. What was only about fifteen more minutes in real time felt like a week and half of slow paced, mind numbing small talk between three people who would have all much preferred to be standing at the summit of an erupting volcano than sitting there at that table. But Adriana eventually showed up, sat down and the mood lightened slightly. The rest of the lunch consisted of me keeping quiet, Andrea interrogating Adriana about her life, Adriana lying about having a stable job and Robert repeatedly sending his steak back for being either too rare or not rare enough. When he did finally get his steak the way he wanted it his chips were too cold. Even Goldilocks would have found the nit-picking over his food too much.

I wanted to leave after we finished the main course but Andrea fancied a slice of the Cheesecake. We all ended up having a dessert and after finishing that too Adriana and her parents continued talking. I phased out completely and ending up drawing pictures in the remaining chocolate sauce on my plate using the back of a spoon. It took a while for the others to notice and it was only when Adriana looked over at the sight of a hanging man on my plate that they did. She burst out laughing and before the others saw it, I had balled up my napkin and thrown it over the picture. The incident only made things more uncomfortable for me. In some respects, I became envious of the hanging man.

The cheque came and Robert seemed offended that I did not reach for it. In the end I put down my share and paid the tip as well just to get him to shut up. I thought I was being generous too seeing as I had been misinformed and lured into a two-hour dinner in a land where time stands still. I haven’t eaten at that restaurant since, even though the food was really quite nice.

As we stood up, I hurried us to the door as quickly as I could. Adriana said goodbye to her parents who were parked in the opposite direction to the way we were going. They headed back to Sheffield, while Adriana and I started to walk home.

“Lovely meal, wasn’t it?” she exclaimed.

I stopped walking and stared at her with anger in my eyes. She turned, stared back for a few seconds, then a beaming bright smile spread across her face. Involuntarily, I chuckled, partly because it was amusing but mostly out of self-pity.

“You owe me for this.”

She nodded, the smile still as wide as before.

“You owe me big.”

We started walking again and though still annoyed, I decided not to dwell on it. Adriana knew I was not happy with her, but something told me that she needed me there. Growing up, we both seemed like such promising students. At some point, though, and for whatever reason, we both seemed to plummet from our upward trajectories. Mr and Mrs Stevenson were both proud, professional people and it shamed them, to a certain extent, that their daughter had not followed in their footsteps. I think having me there, someone else whose life still wasn’t on track, was in some ways comforting to her. I believe it also made her parents less hypercritical of her, since a lot of that criticism was directed at me. We got to Adriana’s building and she went home. I decided to go to the gym to clear my head. It was then a couple of hours before I returned to my flat.

I had just gotten in when the phone rang. It was Adriana. All she said was “we’re going out tonight, pick me up at eight” and then she hung up. I would have argued with her if she had stayed on the phone, especially after lunch that day, but on that night, I wouldn’t have needed much persuasion. The combination of a large pile of laundry, a microwavable chicken tikka masala for one in my fridge, and nothing else, and little on television besides programming designed to mentally deprive anyone with even the remotest trace of intelligence, meant that my decision was made pretty quickly.

I was slightly insulted by the fact that she just assumed that I would have nothing better to do that night. The fact that that was in fact the case was irrelevant and so in a typically British, mild mannered act of passive aggressive protest, I waited until nine to pick her up. It took her a further half hour to get ready and from what it seemed like, she had started the evening’s festivities without me. Her eyes were red when I got there and she was stumbling around the flat looking for her keys. At this point she had just one shoe on and was pulling up sofa cushions and throwing them across the room. It took her ten minutes to find them. They were in the bowl by the door where she always had kept them. She then proceeded to do her makeup and just as we were about to leave I noticed she still had just the one shoe on. It took a lot more excavating of her home to find her other shoe, a black stiletto with the heel missing. She changed her shoes then decided to change her top as well and finally we were off.

We met up with Hattie, from work, and a couple of Adriana’s friends, from God knows where, at a club called Dawn. Adriana immediately suggested shots and ran off to get them. She returned with a tray with twelve shots of Sambuca on it. “Three each, I had mine at the bar” she explained before she disappeared to the dance floor. Chris and Sam took their share and followed her. Hattie and I were left attempting to chat. I couldn’t tell you what we were trying to talk about, but my guess is we spent the time shouting “It’s really loud in here” to each other and pretending to hear what the other was saying. It was entirely possible that we were having two different conversations, but we were both tired, having worked long shifts the night before, and so we were content just relaxing on the sofas.

A short while later Adriana returned, dumped a few more shots in front of us and once again vanished. Hattie and I decided to attempt to enjoy the dance floor but it was crowded and neither of us really wanted to be there. I think we were both just counting the minutes before the club closed and we could go home. It was a short stint on the dance floor before I went out to the smoking area and Hattie went to the bathroom. I don’t smoke, but as ironic as it sounds, I enjoy the fresh air that the smoker’s area offers.

I took my phone out of my pocket and began pressing buttons on it just to make it look like I was doing something. When Hattie returned, I finished pretending to send a text before turning to talk to her. She was worried and told me that she had heard Adriana crying in the toilets so we went back inside to find her. It wasn’t a hard search since the first thing visible as we entered was the sight of her being wrestled off a guy about twice the size of her by two bouncers. She was kicking and screaming and swearing more than a Tarantino movie and once she was outside it took about ten minutes to calm her and the bouncers down. It wasn’t clear what had happened but I’m pretty sure she’s still not welcome there.

After walking down the road, out of sight of the club and its bouncers, we called for a cab and got in. Hattie got dropped off first. It then took about five minutes to get back to Adriana’s. She seemed to be in quite a state and had been stubbornly silent since we left the club. You could see the turmoil behind her eyes. I had never seen her like that before. There was a certain sober quality to her that I noticed for the first time that night. It also occurred to me I had not seen her drink all night, and if she really had drunk the same amount that she tried to make me drink, I would have been able to smell the alcohol on her breath a mile off.

I had been constantly talking to her since the club trying to keep her collected but her muteness was beginning to irritate me. We got to her door and she tried to unlock it and open it. The key turned but nothing happened. She jiggled it around but still nothing. She had not yet unlocked the bottom lock and when she noticed this, she looked down at it dejectedly. Then, in a fit of rage, she forced her shoulder into the edge of the door, barging it open. The wood of the doorframe splintered off in all directions, while the door itself was just barely hanging on.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” I yelled in a cocktail of surprise, confusion, anger and concern. “You could have…” I was so taken aback, that that sentence was never completed. “You’ve been acting strange all night, even for you, and now…”

Her back was turned to me and there was still no response. She slammed the door in my face only to have it bounce open again. I stopped talking altogether. She then proceeded across the room to the answer phone. The green light was flashing. She turned to me. Her eyes were red. Tears were running down her face. She pressed play and then left the room.

“Message recorded at five, twelve p.m on Wednesday the twenty-fourth of October…”

I could hear the shower being turned on in the bathroom. A shrill voice, muffled and interrupted by sporadic sobs and whimpers, then began to talk from the answer phone.

“Adriana? This is Jean Sanders. I work for your Dad. I, I’m his secretary. We met once before.” She paused. “Um… I, I have some terrible news…” This pause was significantly longer. Then the glass shattered. “It’s your mother and father, they died. There was an accident, on the motorway. I’m so sorry.” By this point the woman’s crying was too much to hear over. The message carried on, but I didn’t need to listen anymore. Time stopped. Everything now made sense and I felt just awful.

There was a pit in my stomach They had been sitting across the table from me just hours earlier. He had the steak, she, the salmon. She had a glass of wine. He had mineral water because he was driving. The snide remarks they made earlier that day and the petty grudge they held against me seemed now utterly insignificant.

And then there was Adriana. From the moment that night had begun I knew it had been a mistake. It was only then that I knew why. If only I had known sooner. But that’s just how she dealt with things. She just ignored them. Not this though. Never this. She had tried just to sweep it under the rug but simply couldn’t. I thought of Adriana and soon the pitter of the shower returned to my conscious mind. Adriana.

I rushed to the bathroom where the door was left ajar. I called her name. No response. I pushed the door open fully and steam met my face. I drew back the shower curtain and there she was, fully clothed, sodden, and crouched into a ball. From her mouth came the saddest laughter I ever did hear. It echoed, if not through the flat then at least through my head. Formerly a siren of joy, now it haunted. Her eyes were tearful. Were it not for the water of the shower, her cheeks would have been too. I stepped into the shower, stooped down and embraced her. I held her head against my chest with one arm. The other rested on her shoulder and amidst the sound of running water

“It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

Franklin Buxton

I was looking through some of the old stuff on my computer and came across this. This was written about three years ago as part of the coursework for a university writing class. It was originally written to be the first chapter of a novel but I think it works as a piece of short fiction on its own.

***

Sun setting. Rain pouring. Tyres screeching to a halt, beautifully within the confines of two white lines. Driver’s door opens. Heeled black shoe steps out, carefully avoiding a puddle. Louisa James emerges. Hair tied perfectly and professionally into a bun, protected from precipitation by only a newspaper in the palm of her right hand. In her left, lies a black leather purse parallel to her left thigh. She steps swiftly towards the entrance, the grey of her suit blackening with each drop of rain that falls and rests on it. The patter of her heels echoed by the pitter of the rain. She reaches the shelter of the veranda and discards her newspaper in a nearby bin. She turns to her car and presses the button next to the Mercedes logo on her key. The headlights flash twice, then, gracefully, she proceeds through the doors ahead, which pull themselves open as she approaches. They push themselves closed once she is through. The reception desk lies ahead but there is no one there. A bell sits silently upon the counter until Louisa’s hand presses on it sending a loud ding resonating around the foyer. A woman’s voice is heard from the office behind the desk.

“Hold on just one moment.”

Mouth sighing. Face frustrated. Phone lifting out of purse. She presses a button and the screen lights up. In the top left corner, it tells her that she has missed three phone calls and has two text messages to read. She ignores these, most likely saving them for later, and proceeds to check her emails. Her eyes flicker over them for a couple of minutes until the woman, whose voice was heard just minutes earlier, appears to interrupt her.

“Hi, sorry for the wait. How can I help you?” The woman is well into her fifties and a name badge on her left breast reads Pamela. She is round and has a friendly face.

Louisa doesn’t look at her. Her eyes are still glued to her phone. She speaks with purpose “Yes, I’m here to see Mr F. Buxton.”

Pamela removes a book of some sort and flicks through the pages. She asks “and you are?”

Louisa’s eyes pry themselves away from the screen of her Blackberry and fix themselves on the receptionist. “Mrs Louisa James.” She pauses as the receptionist keeps searching through her book. “His daughter” she adds.

“Oh, in that case just fill in your details on the visitor’s sheet there in front of you … yes that’s the one … and then head on in.” She smiles and closes the book, while Louisa removes a fountain pen from her purse and begins to scribe her name and phone number onto the piece of paper on the clipboard. She signs in one well-practised motion. “Thanks.”

“Which room is it?”

“Oh have you not been before?” Pamela keeps her smile pressed on her face, suppressing any visual expression of judgement. “I’ll take you there, just follow me.”

Louisa senses the critical tone to the receptionist’s initial question and meets it with a slight scowl. She is in no mood to provide any other response and so politely she follows the receptionist as she makes her way out from behind the counter and down a corridor.

“Horrible weather, isn’t it?”

No reply. Louisa James has never been one for small talk and this receptionist is in no position to change that and so the walk continues in peace enough for Louisa to be contemplative. She feels nervous, slightly. She never feels nervous. Maybe a little guilt is surfacing. Yes, it is true that this is her first visit here. And yes, it has been six months since his fall forced him to move in here. But she works hard and has a family of her own and an important job. And so she feels nervous, slightly.

“It’s just in here” she knocks on the door and then starts to walk back to her desk, “I’ll leave you here.”

Fully composed, Louisa takes a gulp of air to shake off the occasion’s mild anxiety just as the door opens. Another name badge is holding the handle. This time the name reads “Amanda”. She is about twenty years younger, slim and dressed in a nurse’s uniform. Louisa thinks to herself that with staff, that look like Amanda, for company and assistance, Mr Buxton probably enjoys being here very much. The dirty old bastard.

She smiles, somewhat insincerely and begins to talk. “I’m Louisa, here to see Frank.”

“Louisa?” Pause. Recognition. “Oh you’re the daughter, you’re Franklin’s daughter aren’t you?”

“Yes”

“Oh come on in then, Franklin’s just having his dinner, but come in and sit down.”

Hesitantly, Louisa asks “How is he?”

“Oh he’s fine. He can tell you himself.”

Louisa steps over the threshold and into the room. It is bigger than she had expected. There is a single bed in one corner, a small table next to it and a large cupboard next to that. There is a television mounted on the wall, a desk, a table with chairs and a nice armchair, with a footstool, in which seventy-seven year old Franklin Buxton is sitting. A tray with what is, hopefully, a plate of cottage pie on it rests on his lap and there is a glass of water resting on the arm of the chair. The nurse walks over to Franklin and tells him in a sweet, soft voice: “Louisa’s here”

A look of confusion appears on his face and slowly he begins to talk, “Louisa? Louisa?”

“Your daughter”

“Oh, Louisa, is that you? Come closer, I can’t see you. Where are my glasses? Come closer.” He moves around in his seat trying to find his glasses, apparently forgetting about the tray of food on his lap. A few peas fall off and onto the floor before the nurse, Amanda, has a chance to grab the plate.

“Don’t worry Frank. Be careful there. I’ll find your glasses.” she says while Franklin rests back in his seat. Amanda places the plate back on his lap and picks the peas up off the floor. She takes his glasses off the bedside table and hands them to Franklin. “There you go, Frank,” she turns to Louisa “I’ll let you two be alone. I’ll just be outside so knock on the door if you need me.” She leaves, leaving Louisa still standing and staring at Frank.

He looks older than she remembers. She remembered his hair to be grey, but now it seems closer to white. His face seems closer to white, too. But more than anything else, he seems small. He used to be big and strong. You get to be like that when you spend fifty years in construction, at least that’s what Franklin would say. But now those powerful arms look weak and frail. Those strong hands, now small and wrinkled and he looks thin. Very thin. She notices the cane next to his chair and then realises that she is yet to open her mouth inside his room.

“Hi Dad,” she ventures with a certain shyness.

“Louisa,” he replies with a certain cheerfulness, “Come sit down. How are you?”

“I’m fine.” She finds herself a chair and pulls it closer to Franklin. She sits, crosses her legs, leans over, resting her right hand on Franklin’s forearm. “How are you? Are they treating you well?”

“Oh, you know me, I’m doing okay, and they’re treating me just fine. They give me help when I need it,” he pats his cane next to him, “and they’re giving me my food three times a day so I’m happy.” He picks up his fork and is about to shovel another mouthful of food into his mouth when he becomes struck by his duties as host. “I’m sorry, is there anything I can get you?” He fumbles around and tries to get up, again nearly forgetting about the tray on his lap. Louisa stops him before his dinner goes flying. She settles him down.

“No I’m fine thanks, you just sit back and relax.” Her hand again rests on his forearm.

“Are you sure?” She nods. “Okay then.” They both sit silently for a moment. Frank stares affectionately at Louisa, who tries to show the same expression but instead displays a look of some sadness and sympathy. The old man has softened, she thinks, as guilt sweeps over her. He opens his mouth to talk again.

“So tell me how are things with you? It feels like it’s been a heck of a long time. I don’t even remember the last time we talked.”

She chalks that forgetfulness up to his age           until, just seconds later, it occurs to her that she does not even remember the last time they spoke. More guilt. She replies as Franklin continues to eat, his affectionate gaze slowly turning into a blank, absent one.

“Well … things are going well at the firm, we’re currently working on a big case. Um, Steven is well. Um, and the kids are doing well at school.”

“The kids? Oh how is Louisa?”

She is thrown by this and stammers slightly trying to respond. “Dad? I’m Louisa.” She pauses. “You do know that, don’t you?”

He stares back blankly before replying. “Louisa, yes, Louisa.”

“Okay then,” she says, “um, well, um, the kids, Tommy and Hannah, are doing fine. Tommy has just started secondary school, while Hannah’s in year five. She just got moved up to the top class for maths.”

“Isn’t that nice” adds Franklin who continues to eat his dinner. There is another brief silence.

It can be hard to converse with someone, especially family, if it has been a long time since last seeing each other, and when a lot has changed in the meantime. Louisa is only just realising this and finding a topic to talk about comfortably proves difficult. “It’s a nice room you’ve got here Dad.”

“Yes. I like it. There’s a lovely view out of the window. You can see the river.”

It is true, you can see the river out of the window, but Louisa finds it hard to accept the view as a lovely one since between the windowpane and the river, lays a labyrinth of busy roads, car parks and ugly grey office buildings. “It is a nice view.” She stares at her feet for a moment and then “What are the other residents like?”

“Old,” chuckles Franklin for a moment until remembering he’s in the same boat. “No, they seem nice. There’s a group of us who enjoy a nice game of poker every now and then and, so long as Nurse Janis isn’t on shift, we can even sneak off to the pub sometimes.”

Louisa smiles and nods. She doesn’t know whether to be worried that the home lets its residents go out to the pub or not, but she chooses to accept it since Franklin’s demeanour is a joyful one.

“You should join us next time Mary.”

Again, she is caught off-guard and it takes her a second to react properly. Her tone is a serious and concerned one. “Dad? Mary, Mum’s been dead for a year now. I’m Louisa. I’m Louisa, Dad.”

He appears shocked by this information. “Dead? My Mary?” he questions. “No, you’re mistaken, I was just speaking to her this morning.” He tries to shake off the suggestion that his wife of forty-five years had passed away but a look of desperate confusion remains on his face.

“No Dad, she had a stroke last September and died. Don’t you remember? Please try to remember.” She speaks assertively but there is a definite shakiness to her voice now.

Franklin takes a moment to think and avoids any eye contact with his daughter. Slowly, it comes back to him and every bit as shakily as Louisa he starts to talk. “Yes, yes. I know. I don’t know what came over me.” He looks up and smiles forlornly to Louisa. “Where’s my water. I think I need some water.” He looks around and his hand appears to be shaking rather violently.

“Here it is Dad” Louisa says taking the glass off the arm of the chair and handing it to her father. His hand, still trembling, accepts the glass, but with each tremor, water spills over the sides. His mood changes.

“Dad? Dad? Who are you calling Dad? I don’t know you. Who are you?” He throws the glass against the wall and it smashes into several pieces and as he stands up the tray of food on his lap, crashes to the floor below. Louisa gasps and covers her face in shock, she too now trembling. The door to the room slams open and Amanda rushes in.

“What’s happened? Is everything okay?”

Louisa stands up.

“Is there a bathroom around here?”

“Down the hall and turn left.”

Louisa rushes out down the corridor leaving the nurse to get Franklin settled. She breathes heavily and loudly. She is very distressed but she hasn’t cried in decades and she’ll be damned if she were to cry now in front of other people, especially in front of her father. She is thankful, momentarily, that the nurse hadn’t directed her to the bathroom in her father’s room, but that thought quickly moves on. She reaches the bathroom. Pushes the door open, locks it behind her, then leaning over the sink she lets go of her composure.

Sun now set. Tears Pouring. Daughter crying, painfully within the confines the old folks’ home’s public bathroom.

 

*          *          *

 

Louisa rushes out down the corridor leaving the nurse with a look of confused panic spread across her face. She looks at Franklin who is standing up still shaking slightly. She looks down at the broken glass surrounding the wall and at the plate, face down, split in two, lying on the floor by his feet. Franklin appears not to be hurt but the nurse feels obliged to ask and does so with genuine concern.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine thanks,” replies Franklin as a wry smile creeps onto his face. “My dinner seems to have gotten away from me, now, doesn’t it?”

Amanda experiences a moment of perplexity, unsure of what has happened. The important thing seems to be that no one has been hurt. She calms and an unfelt laugh escapes her in response to what she assumes was a joke on Frank’s part. “It does look that way. We need to get this cleaned up.” She bends down and starts to lift the pieces of plate off the floor, revealing some mashed potatoes, peas and gravy all nicely pressed into the carpet. Franklin bends down to help but Amanda stops him. “Just sit down there and I’ll get this taken care of”

Franklin happily defers responsibility and sits back down in his chair. He takes a couple of deep breaths and thinks to himself quietly as the nurse tries to scrape as much of the food as possible off of the floor. He finds the nurse’s lack of curiosity intriguing as she exits into the hallway and returns with the cleaner who finishes off cleaning the carpet. The glass on the floor then consumes the nurse’s attention while Franklin sits quietly and calmly, apologising for the inconvenience every so often. When he has finished removing the gravy and potatoes, the cleaner quickly hoovers up any remaining shards of glass and then leaves. In a surprisingly short amount of time, the room is returned to normal and the nurse continues to make sure that Franklin is not hurt.

Minutes later a knocking is heard at the door and the nurse goes to answer it. From where he is sitting, Franklin cannot see who is at the door but he hears Louisa’s voice faintly. What she is saying cannot be heard. The nurse returns and tells him that his daughter had to go.

“She says she’ll try to come back soon,” the nurse explains. She realises that in all the commotion, she had neglected to inquire as to how Louisa was. She looked distraught as she left the room. “Is your daughter alright? Did she get hurt or something?”

Franklin leaves his thoughts to themselves and answers the nurse. “No, no, she’ll be fine.” He then adds “She’s going through some things at home and as she was telling me, I went to put my arm on her shoulder. My dinner then seemed to jump across the room. I’m so sorry about all of this.”

“I see.” The nurse digests the information and accepts it as truth. “Is she going to be safe driving home, do you think?”

“Who, Louisa? She’ll be fine. She’s a tough one she is, I think her emotions just got the better of her.”

“I see.” She pauses for a moment. “Are you going to need any more food?”

“No thank you. I was nearly finished anyway and wouldn’t want to bother anyone.”

“Okay then. Well, I’ll let you get on and enjoy your evening in peace then, shall I? And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Mr Buxton offers his goodbyes too and the nurse leaves, closing the door behind her. Satisfaction, which had been building up over the past few minutes, finally breaks through to his face in the shape of a smile. Pride. Self respect, even. Then, lying on the floor by his right foot, Frank notices a pea. He leans over, picks it up, blows on it and chuckling slightly, he tosses it to the back of his mouth.

He looks around at the walls for a moment before stopping at a certain point. He remembers something, stands and walks over to the shelves on the other side of the room. He reaches for a framed picture which is lying face down. He props it back up. The picture shows a woman smiling at the camera as she pulls a cake out of an oven. He looks at the woman’s face as it stares innocently and joyfully back at him. A sadness comes over Frank. “I’m sorry, Mary. It was cruel, but deservedly so” he says. Guilt. A lump at the back of the throat. That, he hadn’t expected. He takes a minute and reflects. The guilt remains. The pride has gone. But Franklin has a cure for guilt. He proceeds to find it. On that same shelf sits a Bible. He removes it and reaches behind to find a bottle of single malt Scotch. He pours himself a glass and returns to the comfort of his chair.

Sun now set. Scotch sipping. Father sitting comfortably within the confines of the four walls he calls home.

Faces

Rule #1

You get one choice.

If you fuck it up,

You must live it out to the end,

Whatever the end.

 

A man awakens to find himself in a darkened place. He has the face of his seventy-nine-year-old self yet he is one. Not years. Not months. Not days. Not hours, nor minutes, nor seconds. He is simply one.

 

He looks around. His eyes, not yet adjusted to the absence of light, make out very little. He is lying on the floor. He knows that much. He stands and, in the dark, through his strained vision he makes out a counter in the nearby distance. He proceeds towards it, step by step, edging closer. A bell sits on the counter. When he reaches it he rings it, an act that sends a siren throughout the caverns of wherever the hell he has found himself.

 

Slowly but surely a receptionist appears. “Have you made your decision yet?” is their greeting.

 

“Decision?” the man replies.

 

The receptionist does not respond and instead disappears back into the darkness. The man rings and rings again but nothing brings the receptionist back. The man is left clueless. Where am I? What is this place? Why am I here?

 

His mind is hazy. He tries recalling how he got here, but as he sifts through the haze he finds nothing, just an emptiness unburdened by memories, yet burdened by their absence. Where am I? What is this place? Why am I here? These same three questions flicker through his head again and again yet uncover no answers. Dumbfounded, he remains, contemplating what he should do, but there is only one thing to do. He steps forth into the darkness.

 

As he inches forward through the blackness, a blackness that hits him almost as a fog, his surroundings begin to slowly reveal themselves. They appear first as a corridor but as the fog thins he notices the walls are lined with shelves. Endless, endless, empty shelves. A dim light begins to penetrate from somewhere, from anywhere and nowhere, for as far as he knows nowhere is where he is. It illuminates the path ahead just enough and he continues on, journeying into the void.

 

After a while, he knows not how long, he reaches a circular opening. He enters into it and looks around. Three hundred and sixty degrees and he finds himself at the intersection of eight seemingly identical. A tilt of the head back and he sees the building, the structure, the cage he is in continues upwards and upwards and upwards. He sees no ceiling, just floor after floor after floor of empty corridors and empty shelves.

 

In the centre of the opening sits a table accompanied by a small desk lamp and a single chair. This is a peculiar place, but most definitely a library he soon comes to realise, But where are the books? He sets off in search of them and proceeds once more into the emptiness.

 

He finds nothing fast.

 

Nothingness after nothingness, aisle after aisle, floor after floor. His legs grow tired from walking so far, his eyes from scouring so long, and his mind from the lack of progress, yet his resolve remains strong while his search remains fruitless. He drifts along as if seeking a single and specific grain of dust in the entirety of space. The passage of time disappears until he drifts back to where he began.

 

He rings the bell and, slowly but surely the receptionist appears. “Have you made your decision yet?”

 

The man ignores the question, instead asking “Where are the books?”

 

“One-A-One,” comes the reply.

 

The receptionist exits and leaves the man wondering as to the meaning of the answer. The answer, though, reveals itself the moment he turns around, as a large number ‘1’ faces him on the edge of the aisle before him He steps towards it and, there, in the first space on the top shelf, a space marked ‘1A1’, he finds a single book with the roman numeral ‘I’ printed on the spine. He sighs a sigh of fatigue and frustration. It was the first place he should have looked and yet he has lost so much time getting back to it. He had damn near lost his mind a few times too and now he finds himself confronted with something equally as frustrating and confusing: the only book in the whole library. Why such a grandiose cavern for a single, lonely book? He lifts it down and takes it to the desk in the middle of the intersection. He turns on the lamp and opens the book. He begins to read and is struck almost immediately by a familiarity to the words and the story as they unfold. This is the first thing in the whole place to offer the man any resonating familiarity yet the familiarity offered comes only to strike him as horrifying in its nature. He makes it only a few pages in before he cannot take anymore. He slams the book shut and storms off into the abyss that surrounds him.

 

Nothingness after nothingness, aisle after aisle, floor after floor. This time he searches for a way out, like a lab rat scratching at the walls of its box. Yet just as for the rat, the man’s box offers him no such way out. In time he realises this and the object of his quest shifts simply into one for stimulation. Any stimulation. Anything besides the book. Of this kind of stimulation though, there too is nothing to be found. He finds himself as that same lab rat, trapped in a box that contains nothing but a lever. It is only a matter of time before the rat pulls the lever to see what will happen, and for the man it is no different.

 

He returns to the desk. He sits and opens to page one. This time he will read to the end. The initial horror of the text eventually subsides but an uneasiness lingers throughout. One by one the pages turn until finally so is the last. The man closes book. He inhales deeply and exhales. He stands and carries the book to the receptionist’s desk. He rings the bell. Slowly but surely the receptionist appears. “Have you made your decision yet?

 

He nods.

 

 

 

Rule #2

Your decision will change

Everything.

You have no choice

As to how.

 

The man awakens. He has the face of his fifty-six-year-old self yet he is two. Not years. Not months. Not days. Not hours, nor minutes, nor seconds. He is simply two.

 

Were he to see his mirror image he would notice the difference between his current face and his previous one. Besides the obvious youth, he would notice how his hair is already a paler shade of grey. He would see wrinkles forming in places where previously he had none and no wrinkles where previously there were plenty. He would see the extent to which a thick stubble now fills in his cheeks and upper neck. He would see also a small scar, just beneath his left eye, that his seventy-nine-year-old face had never owned. With no mirror to hand, though, he is able only to run his fingers through his beard and take note of a skinnier physique, a less hunched spine and a stiffer left knee. He tries walking and discovers a slight limp. He takes it slowly but finds the disorientation his previous face experienced wears off a lot quicker.

 

For a child fresh out of the womb, the world is new. It is strange and confusing. Frightening even. Nothing makes sense and the child has not yet a language developed enough to make it make sense. One year on and the child, far from mastering its world, at least knows what to expect from it. It knows not why things are the way they are, only that they are the way they are. It acts accordingly.

 

Our man heads straight to ‘1A1’.

 

He takes a slow saunter. He is tired, very tired, and, though everything around him is the same, it feels different. It fills him with a new sensation, curiosity and intrigue, and soon his tiredness falls away leaving him reinvigorated. He is no longer fearful of this place. He accepts his place here but remains cautious. He takes his time but makes it to his destination, the top shelf of his first aisle where there, next to volume ‘I’, he finds this time, as he had expected, a second book.

 

He reaches an arm up and pulls the book from its resting place. His fingers caress the cover before he runs them down its spine to feel out the indent of an ‘II’. This is volume two. He pulls it close to his chest and turns back towards the aisle. He returns to his saunter until he reaches the desk at the intersection of the aisles, the dead centre of his personal playpen. He places the book down in the middle of the workspace but does not sit down and join it. He is not yet ready. He turns and wanders off into the unknown, roaming through his empty aisles and silent shelves.

 

He searches for nothing this time. He roams just to roam, wanders just to wander, and gets lost just to lose himself. He is a ghost in his own world, haunting nothing but himself. He floats through the fog and becomes one with the darkness around him. He drifts until he is ready and, when he is ready, he returns to his throne to sit before his subjects, or rather subject, volume number two.

 

The horror and unease of volume one is now gone completely. He knows now what to expect and has prepared himself and his mind. He opens it up and begins to read. Each page, each sentence, each word hits him and shakes him right to the bone. Each emotion he reads he feels intensely. Each pain hits him like a thousand arrows to the chest. Each grief, as if a thousand souls are torn from his heart. But just the same, each joy is a thousand times more joyful for it. Once the last page is turned, our man takes a long sigh and slips into a deep sleep.

 

Later, he awakens, rises, gathers himself and the book and heads back to his receptionist. He has made his second decision.

 

 

 

Rule #3

            Past decisions

Cannot be undone

Only time may

Overwrite them

 

Our man awakens with the face of his twenty-seven-year-old self. He is now three and wondering what went wrong.

 

He heads to his first aisle and gazes up to the top shelf where three volumes sit. Volume three is considerably thinner than the first. He gazes with regret. I lost so much. Was it greed? Was it recklessness? Perhaps just immaturity on the part of his fifty-six-year-old-faced self. Things will be different next time.

 

He grabs volume three and takes it to his desk. Without hesitation he begins reading, searching for what last time he missed and for what now needs fixing. Things hadn’t panned out the way he had hoped. They hadn’t even come close. And now, everything he thought he had, everything he held dearest, is gone. As he reads, one thing is certain to him: he wants it back. He needs it back and from now on all his energy will be spent getting it back.

 

Upon reading the to the end, he makes his third decision and becomes four, a man with a sixty-three-year-old face. With his fourth he turns five, a man with a fifty-one-year-old face. When he turns six, he looks forty. Seven, and he looks eighty-one. Each face replaces itself again and again. Older or younger, they all share the same commonalities. They are all him and they are all new. But more importantly, each face takes him further and further from what his second face misplaced.

 

He casts his mind back, back to before all of this. His memory is heavily clouded but he is able to make out three faces. They pull in and out of focus and get fainter each time he tries to remember them, but even so their smiles beam through brighter than everything else. A deep fear grips him that one day they will fade away completely. They are the smiles of Lauren, Chris and Janey, his wife and kids from before he was even one. To him they are his one true family and the family that his fifty-six-year-old face robbed him of. So far he had failed in getting them back and each fresh faces brings with it instead a fresh new family. Yet, for the mind behind each new face, each new family is nothing more than a hollow replacement, a place-filler.

 

With a seventy-one-year-old face he awakens again and makes his way towards the newest volume. Collecting it, he soon finds that by now the path back to his desk feels worn and well trodden. He sits down, back at his throne, and, turning to page one, returns to a journey he has taken many times before.

 

Chapter one has never changed. In each and every volume it has always remained the same. The first page tells of a light. The first ever light, for him at least. The brightest thing he is yet to see. It terrifies him. This is his first ever emotion. Fear in its truest form.

 

Through the light the world presents itself to him. Some unknown figure takes him and wipes him down, bringing him almost instantly to tears. His fear persists until he is handed to a second figure. Gently, the figure pulls him closer to her and here he feels his second emotion: comfort. He knows not why but he feels safe now. So long as she is here with him nothing will ever harm him.

 

Chapter one continues with abstract, broken moments, each personally uncontrollable while simultaneously infinitely controlling over what will come. Little thought takes places here, only pure feeling. This is the first year of whatever world he was born into, the first chapter of his life.

 

The next few chapters, too, unfold for the most part as they always have. He makes his first friend with the daughter of his next-door neighbours. He has the anxiety and excitement of his first day of school. In one week, he experiences true loss for the first and second time, first with the death of Smokey the family dog, and second when, unwittingly left behind on the train, his favourite teddy bear sets off to see what adventures the world has in stock for it. Previous volumes told of the first time he broke a bone as he once fractured his arm, aged seven, falling out of a tree. A few faces back, though, a sixty-six-year-old face saw to it that his arm stayed safe as he convinced himself, rightly so, that that top branch was just a little too far out of reach.

 

Relatively little, however, from these early chapters ever changes. They contain so many defining moments but so few stem from distinguishable and conscious decisions. Just as the law does not hold young children accountable for their decisions, neither does the law of our man’s world and so these early days remain, for the most part, the same.

 

Our man reaches the midway point of chapter sixteen. Here too he finds an extract that has seldom differed. He has read this many, many times before and he has always reacted the same way. It is Year Eleven English and his class is studying poetry. The teacher tells them to open their textbooks to page forty-three. With a yawn and a sigh he does so. “The Road Not Taken,” the teacher announces to the class and there before him, on page forty-three, sits Robert Frost’s poem of that very name. Over the coming weeks he will come to know this poem well. He will come to hate it as, each time he is made to study it, its meaning dies a little more. But this time, however, the words greet him for the first time.

 

‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both’

 

Like his sixteen-year-old self will later come to do, the eyes of our man’s seventy-one-year-old face hold a deep resentment towards these words. His thoughts turn to the ever fading smiles of Lauren, Chris and Janey. ‘Sorry I could not travel both’? I’m sorry I did.

 

Several faces later and as he reads this passage again, those three smiles are gone, out of reach of his mind’s eye. They have vanished forever.

 

 

 

            Rule #4

There will be suffering.

Suffering is unavoidable.

Each decision will lead, one way or another,

Back to suffering.

 

Once those smiles were gone, what little purpose our man had given himself was gone too, never to return. What next?

 

Defeated, apathetic, longing for an end, as the faces went by our man turned to thoughtlessness, recklessness, and eventually destruction. Destruction of the world he had built himself while searching for the one he had lost. For a while, the faces remained youthful, and made decisions seemingly on a whim. The consequences were of little worry for these faces and often led to younger ones replacing them.

 

Once he broke his arm reaching for that higher branch on that same tree, only on a different day. Another face tested the highest speed of his new car on the motorway before he tested the brakes. One more and he discovered what would happen if he told his boss what he really thought of her. He would walk to the edge of every cliff and sometimes beyond. A trip to the beach was where he found out exactly how far too far away from the shore was to swim. Once he fought off a mugger and won back the rights to his own possessions. Once he fought off a mugger and didn’t. He lost the rights to his everything. He was an Icarus flying too close to the sun. And as the faces flew by the Icarus became a knowing one, an Icarus soaring high not through ignorance but propelled by the desire to watch the wax of his wings melt and his feathers flutter away. He would soon follow those feathers himself and plunge into the ocean below. For face after face, for a while at least, this became the point.

 

Yet this would change when a nineteen-year-old-faced Icarus gave way to a ninety-three-year-old-faced Daedalus. Icarus’s impetuousness had led him to drop out of school and follow a girl to India. He had met her while backpacking through Europe and had soon after decided she was all he would ever want. Who needed a degree anyway? It did not last and by twenty-one this Icarus was back where he started. He had broken the bank and had broken his heart, and as he crawled back to his family for support he abandoned his pride. For three years his family ties had been cut and going back brought him shame and a deep personal resentment. That they welcomed him back with open arms somehow made it worse. His naïveté and eagerness had led to the destruction of the him that previously existed, but in its wake he had humility thrust upon him. Meaningless job after meaningless job went by and he had no complaints. As far as he was concerned he had lost the right to complain. He chose to open his eyes and ears and learn instead. He chose to steal back the education he robbed himself off. He would receive no certificate at the end of this education though. His course would never officially end and in every place he found himself in he would take away a lesson or two, some more valuable than others.

 

His education brought him for a while to a small country pub. Pints were easy to pour and too much thinking was never needed. It was what it was. It was a job, nothing more, nothing less, a means to an end, a way to kill time while making money, but every once in a while it gave him a good story to tell. One such occasion came during a funeral reception for one Mrs Ruth Willoughby. The man’s pub often held wakes for people of the neighbouring areas and our Icarus had worked several such events before. It had always struck him that these receptions never seemed as sad as perhaps they should have. They were always respectful but he rarely saw grieving the way he expected to. People laughed. They joked. They caught up with one another and they drank. They reminisced through a nostalgia that recognised not the loss of things past but their joy when they were present. This was no less the case for the wake of Ruth Willoughby.

 

Things had been progressing with relative normality when, about midway through the reception, a man approached our Icarus at the bar. He ordered a Jack-and-coke and sat down on a stool by the counter. He was “the son-in-law” he explained as Icarus fixed him his drink.

 

“She was ninety-four. Can you imagine that?”

 

“Ninety-four?” came Icarus’s response. He paused to think for a moment before “She must have lived a full life then at least.” He always tried to keep a polite distance in exchanges like this at times like these. He never pried but always offered an open pair of ears to those who wished to talk.

 

“That she did. That she did.” The son-in-law received his drink and took a sip. “But your heart’s gotta go out to her husband.”

 

Icarus offered back a sympathetic nod.

 

“Married seventy-two years they were, her and Frank. He’s a year older. Ninety-five he is. And the life he spent three fourths of a century with is now buried at Westerfield cemeteries. Can you imagine that?”

 

Icarus let out a sigh, a mixture of speechlessness and astonishment. Searching for words he offered a simple “That’s gotta be tough.”

 

“You would think so. You sure would think so. But I asked him about it. Y’know normally at that age when one goes, the other doesn’t take too long to follow, but I asked him about it and d’y’know what he said to me? He tells me he’s still gonna make it to a hundred at least. ‘I’ve stuck it out this long and I’m not missing out on my birthday card from the Queen, even if I gotta wait another five years for it,’ is what he tells me.” The son-in-law took another sip before adding another “Can you imagine that?”

 

Icarus could not. It was utterly remarkable he thought as he cast a glance across to the ninety-five year old Frank sipping on a half-pint lager shandy on the other side of the pub. Just remarkable.

 

From in front of the pages of this particular volume our man echoed this same thought. He looked around at the now stacked shelves of the library he called a prison. He thought to himself that in none of these other volumes had he lived for something so arbitrary as a birthday card from an old lady he would never meet, or just even for a number. One hundred for instance. He had never cared much for the Queen, but ninety-five-year-old Frank’s mentality impressed him.

 

He read on and found that, for the first time in so many faces gone by, this Icarus, the boy who had once scorched his wings and plunged so far, had done what none had done before him. He had come to live for the little things and had opted for a long life of gentle pleasures. He was unable to keep around long enough for his card from the Queen but ninety-three was not a bad go at it.

 

In turn, Icarus had become the father Daedalus, and wise enough to forewarn not only of the dangers of flying too close to the sun. That is not to say that our man would never again choose the mistake, soar to high and singe his feathers, it is only to say that when he did he would do so knowing full-well the weight of his choices. Each decision has the possibility of changing everything for the worse but our man learned also from his final life as Icarus one final thing. From birth ‘til death, life is one perpetual free fall, and in free fall everything is weightless. Each decision no matter how heavy it looks, can only ever have mass. It is either big or small but ultimately each and every decision falls at the same pace.

 

From that ninety-three year old face on, our man would take this musing and wear it as a mantra. He had tried searching for perfection before, for the smiles now forever lost. One decision could fix one thing but it would break so many more. Imperfection was all there was, all there ever would be, and so whatever decision, big or small, he would make it to see the small joys amongst the sufferings that his choices would inevitably create.

 

And when our man would grow tired of making new decisions, he found before him an almost endless source of little joys. He would return to ‘1A1’ and read once more of Lauren, Chris and Janey, read of the stories behind the smiles his memory no longer had a place for. And he would read of Sarah, Jessie, James and Sam, of Ellie, David and Isaac, of Kate and Annie and all the other families he would go on to have. He would read of the break-ups and the hook-ups, the broken hearts and the broken promises. The broken arms that led to the broken dream; his seven-year-old self would never grow into the monkey he so wanted to be. He would read of the suffering, and there was so much suffering, but he would read of the lighter times between the sufferings, and those were plentiful too.

 

*                            *                             *

 

A man awakens to find himself out of the dark. He has the face of one of his older selves and he is, himself, old. Too old to remember. Too old to count. But not too old.

 

He looks around and as his eyes adjust to the light he finds himself in the middle of a library. It is comfortably bright and the light penetrates from somewhere, from everywhere and nowhere. It illuminates all around and he sees shelves and shelves stacked with books. He stands and makes his way to the latest volume. He takes it to his desk and opens straight to the final page. He reads it:

 

Rule #1

You get one choice.

If you fuck it up,

You must live it out to the end,

Whatever the end.

 

Rule #2

Your decision will change

Everything.

You have no choice

As to how.

 

            Rule #3

            Past decisions

Cannot be undone

Only time may

Overwrite them

 

            Rule #4

There will be suffering.

Suffering is unavoidable.

Each decision will lead, one way or another,

Back to suffering.

 

Using a fingernail he begins to scratch one more rule into the book just below the ink of the others.

 

He turns back to the start and begins to read. Once he has finished, he stands and takes a long stroll. He winds up at the receptionist’s desk. A bell sits on the counter. He rings it.

 

Slowly but surely a receptionist appears.

 

“Have you made your decision yet?”

 

 

 

Rule #5

If you fuck it up,

Embrace it.

 

Our man stands at a city intersection. He is twenty-eight years old and across the street he sees himself stepping into a taxi. He is going to visit his wife and newborn child in the hospital. On the other side of the street he sees himself walking into a coffee shop. He is late for work but needs a quick Americano to look and feel a little less hungover. He will tell his boss he got held up in traffic. He sees himself crossing the street, walking his girlfriend’s dog and, walking the other way, he also goes arm in arm with another girlfriend. A bus passes with our man on it. He is heading to the job centre. As the bus pulls up to its stop, a brand-new Jaguar overtakes it. Inside sits our man, heading to the airport for a business trip to Tokyo. Our man walks behind himself with a bag of groceries clutched against his chest, the apples balanced precariously on top. He will loose at least one on the walk back home. Across the street, and our man’s arms are laden with Christmas shopping and his mind is oblivious to the fact that the jumper he has just bought for his wife is one she already owns and wears quite often. He thinks it looks nice, the sort of thing she might like to wear. You can’t say he is wrong.

 

Our man looks out over a sea of his own twenty-eight-year-old faces, each one the same yet ever so slightly different. Each weathered and beaten in its own unique way, and behind each face sits the story that made it that way. Our man turns his current face to the wind, a light Easterly breeze, and lets the air wash over him. He takes a deep breath, in and out, and closes his eyes.

 

“Have you made your decision yet?”

404 Riverview Apartments

They say as one door closes another door opens. At Riverview Apartments rather the opposite was true. This was a place where opportunity came to sleep the deepest of sleeps. And for a period of time, here could be found the home, one of the humblest of abodes, of James Shore.

His was a modest home, and one he occupied when he had little not to be modest about. Some would call it cramped but for James it had room enough for a bed, a small kitchen area, a bathroom, and plenty of left over floor space for his collection of dirty clothes and empty pizza boxes. Its walls were decorated by the green stains of poorly removed mould, and the floorboards, if played correctly, could be creaked in a rather instrumental fashion. It grew cold in the wintertime and was made worse by a draft that kept it breezy in the summertime too. By no estimations was it a homely place but, for a time at least, here was where James called home.

He lived alone, surrounded by Schrodinger’s neighbours. Were it not for the snoring at night, reverberating from the apartment above, and resonating down the drain pipes into James’ room, or the occasional barking of a dog from an apartment below, James may have easily come to forget the existence of his neighbours altogether. He had seen only a few of them and conversed with even fewer. They were his neighbours only in the shallowest understanding of the term, and left only faint reminders of their being. A stubbed out cigarette on the car park floor, footsteps echoing through the hallways, and the slamming shut of doors upon the opening of others. Here was a building in which people, more often through circumstance than design, collectively came to live in isolation, undisturbed.

James was here by circumstance. Bad relationships, bad jobs, bad investments, call it bad luck, had led James to Riverview but, as bad as times may have been, he made do, or at least made a fighting effort to. He believed he would pull through, that he would receive a fated pick-me-up, that sooner or later things would sort themselves out and fall into place for him. Call it optimism, call it faith, call it delusion, but telling himself this was what morning after morning kept James ploughing on.

Six o’clock everyday he would awaken to an alarm clock that was not his, but that instead lived adjacent to him and which would sound on for far too long before fate, battery life, or the clock’s owner intervened. Seven o’clock he would drag himself out of bed, incidentally in concurrence with the siren of his own alarm. The promise he made himself each night to go for a run upon waking at this hour seemed forever destined to remain a broken promise. He would instead pull himself into the bathroom to share a long look with the mirror and debate whether having a shave was really worth it. He’d throw himself in the shower, dry off and get dressed, then spend what felt like a small eternity waiting for his coffee to brew before leaving for the mundanity of his work life. Most would call this a routine but routine implies some degree of conscious planning. For James this morning ritual was carried out for the most part without such consciousness.

The same could be said for most things for James at this point in his, what could barely be called a, life. His job was of little significance to anyone, himself included. His evenings would be spent with as little need for cognisance as possible and hence he would often find himself at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, having fallen asleep to repeats of old TV. His social life was as empty as his antisocial life and some nights he would worry that the cat – who would stare at him every time he left for work, every time he returned, every time he threw out the trash, and who, every time James went for groceries would stand expectantly beside the building’s front door, hoping James had brought back for her another can of tuna – knew him better than anyone else.

It was upon heading back to his room after feeding this cat one day, though, that something both enormously insignificant yet significant occurred. Meet, is perhaps too strong a word for what happened but for current purposes it is as good as any, for it would be on this day that James would first meet Miss 405. He would know her by no other name and would see her just two more times during his stay at Riverview Apartments. And this first time would have gone completely unnoticed were it not for a single thought.

Leaving the cat to feast in solitude, James gathered up his shopping and proceeded up the stairs. Four floors later he would reach his and carry on down the hallway until he reached door number 404. Clutching his bags against his chest with his right hand, he reached his left into his jacket pocket to fish out his keys. He fumbled around until he found the correct one to insert into the lock and as he opened his, another door opened too. The one directly behind him. From it emerged a young woman, wearing a little black dress, slinging her handbag over her shoulder with one hand while using the fingers of the other to brush her hair from her eyes. For a moment she made eye contact with James as, slightly startled, he turned around. He opened his mouth with the intention of saying a simple “hello” but no such word came out. No sound at all, even, as the thought that this place is no such place for such niceties slowly began to articulate itself in his mind.

Simultaneously, their doors closed shut, with her hurrying down the hallway and him safely inside his home. The thought, though, continued to articulate itself. This place is no such place for such niceties. Wouldn’t want to intrude. A simple “hello” is simply too intrusive for such a place as this. He realised he was merely obeying the unwritten rules of the building, and it was in the following of these rules that James felt the first sense of community with those he lived with. Though, at the same time it was a sense of discommunity. We are all here to be left alone. Let’s leave it that way.

Few nights at Riverview James could have laid claim to having truly slept well and that night certainly wasn’t one of them. While here James tried not to pay much attention to his thoughts. This thought received no different treatment. Had it, James may have, perhaps, at least understood why sleep tried so hard to evade him that night, but James was already full of so much emptiness that a little more seemed hardly noteworthy. The next morning he would awaken to next door’s alarm an hour before rising to his own, drag himself into the shower and then to work. Night turned into day, day into days, days into weeks and, were time to have any real meaning in Riverview, it would have felt like quite some time indeed before James saw Miss 405 again.

For a time, on James’ kitchen counter sat an upturned glass where inside lived a fly. James had lost track of for how long exactly. He had always meant to open a window and let it go but something had always stopped him. Mindlessness? Curiosity perhaps? There was something disturbingly entertaining about watching the fly fight for its life. It would take shifts resting then battling against the glass to release itself. Entertaining is perhaps the wrong word. The resilience of the fly intrigued James. What would a fly have to live for that was that worth fighting so hard? How long could it keep fighting? James would never know the answer. He would need to use the glass before the fly gave up the ghost. The fly flew away and had sense enough never to return. James remained. He poured whiskey into his former fly cage and drank until the night blurred into every other.

Days on the calendar continued to cross themselves off until the one that James would meet Miss 405 for the second time. In the midst of his morning routine (ritual? trance?) was when this would happen. Six AM had come. James had awoken to the alarm that was not his. Seven. James had risen to the one that was. Mirror. Shower. Clothes. Coffee. Not a thought passed through James’ head until he opened his door in unison with the one opposite. It was then that James was greeted, not by the empty hallway he usually found at this hour, nor the sort of “good morning” uttered from neighbour to neighbour the world over. No. James was greeted by the throwing of a half open suitcase, by Miss 405, directly into the hallway. She came out and scrambled to stuff clothes into the case while James stood speechless. He was not used to anything new or different this early in the morning and it took his brain a while to boot itself up. During this time Miss 405 struggled against the zip, forcing it, at the risk of damaging the case and it was not until she began attempting to move the case that James, his mind now switched on and logged into, sprang to action.

Well, sprang is an overstatement. Sputtered into life like the dying engine of an old tractor, maybe.

“May I help you?” he asked.

The reply came in the form of a stare that said neither yes nor no. He paused expectantly before hesitantly and permissionlessly proceeding to help her lift the case. It was large and heavy, but more importantly it was in his way. This was his only motivation but out of politeness, or the silent workings of his inner-Samaritan, he helped carry the case down the building’s four flights of stairs and into the boot of her car. Once tucked safely inside, James left the case, the car and their owner and swiftly departed. He arrived at work seven minutes late and received nothing in the way of a thank you, just four floors and a car park full of silence.

Thereafter, time continued to fall away unnoticed. Were he to have paid attention, though, he would have witnessed time becoming tougher and tougher on him. The business he worked for was hit by crisis and James was hit by a greater workload, and greater stress to go with his feeling of greater indifference to the work he was doing. The laundry and the pizza boxes piled up on his apartment’s floor and so did the whiskey bottles.

The air grew cold. The weather turned grim. Autumn turned to winter and, as times got worse, James was turned out of his job. The indifference formerly felt towards his job quickly transformed into indifference felt towards having lost it. He was lost himself, but his morning trance for some reason persisted. Six o’clock awaken. Seven o’clock rise. Mirror. Shower. Clothes. Coffee. Then what? The pizza boxes soon shifted and the laundry found itself clean and tucked neatly away in his drawers and cupboards. Once his house was cleaned and tidied, what else did James have to do? Daytime TV had little effect on a brain already as numb as his and his apartment, more a rented locker for his own existence, offered little more to inject feeling back into his mind. Were it not so cold, James may have finally gone for that run he had promised himself on so many nights before falling asleep. Or gone for walks or exercise. Gone anywhere. Anywhere but Riverview. Yet, beyond the occasional necessitated trip to the shops for food, in his apartment James remained.

Even tediousness can get too much sometimes and if ever there was a word for what James’ life had become in those weeks and months, it was ‘tedious’.

James may not have realised it but he needed a change. His mind may not have known it but his feet sure did when one day, out of the blue, they took him from his sofa bed, out of his front door, down his corridor, step by step by step. He did not comprehend why, but at the same time he did not think to try. Third floor. Second. First. Out through the car park and into the open air. His feet stopped outside. It was raining hard and the falling drops sent shivers down his spine. He was happy for it though. It had been a long time since he had last felt anything and was happy to be doing so even if it was just merely temperature. The rain continued to fall and James continued to stand there embracing it.

As the automatic doors to Riverview creaked themselves shut back on the other side of the car park, a car pulled up in front of James and the passenger door swung open.

“Get in”

This was the first time James had heard Miss 405’s voice. He did as instructed, sat down and closed the door behind him. The car pulled away.

“Where to?” asked Miss 405.

Her question was met by silence from James but she understood enough. She fixed her eyes on the road and headed towards wherever it would take them. The radio was the only thing between her, James and silence. It was tuned into some station James had never heard of and was playing a selection of so-called oldies.

“Skip a life completely

Stuff it in a cup

She said money is like us in time

It lies but can’t stand up

Down for you is up”

James recognised it and it drew him from the natural urge to small talk and into his own head. Riverview was no such place for such niceties. But this was not the reason his lips remained shut; in that almost silence he realised he had nothing to say. Speechlessness at this point of his life was his truest expression of self. Her silence led James to wonder whether she felt the same way. From the radio’s display, which read the song name ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, his eyes drifted to the rear-view mirror where they found the reflection of Miss 405’s dark brown ones. While hers stayed glued on the road ahead, James gazed contemplatively upon them. There was a sadness to them, haunting in a way. Yet there was beauty too, beauty in its deepest, truest sense. Night was drawing in and together they drove off into the rain, no particular destination in mind.

Autumn may well turn into winter, but year after year there is comfort to be found in knowing that winter will again turn to spring and then summer. Doors may close but they also may open. That is their purpose. And though here is not to say what became of James and Miss 405, what can be said is this: their time at Riverview Apartments was coming to an end.

Buskers in the Night: People With No Names

Amidst the bustle of the city night a man emerges from the subway, face buried in his phone, the world moving by without his notice. He weaves through the crowd entranced by his screen, neither seen nor heard, present only for a passing moment. He has become an android, his mind plugged into cyberspace and little else. He is everyone, anyone and no one all at once. We have all been him at some point or another and we will all be him again. For that reason who he is does not matter.

This man however has not become completely blinded to his surroundings. He is still susceptible to his senses and as he approaches two figures sat on the curb side his ears gradually pull him back into the real world. First drawn to a voice, and then to a rhythm. He slows his stride and breaks his gaze with his mobile. Looking up he sees the object of his distraction. The rhythm flowing from the guitar of someone ragged and unshaven, and a voice at once melancholic yet comforting, emanating from a young twenty-something girl. She sits hunched over, consumed by her music, swaying with her melody. The man comes to a stop, still plugged in but slowly tuning out of his palm-held-partner.

He pokes at it with an increasing aimlessness while throwing the occasional glance towards his minstrels. They sit serenading the city yet the more he listens the more he feels it is just for him. She sings with sadness. With both an innocence and a worldliness. And the guitar accompanies with a certain loneliness. Our man is struck by them, by a sound that seems both immediate yet distant. He is drawn into an isolation and as the songs progress his phone finds for itself a new home, in his left trouser pocket.

He stands attentively. He listens. He absorbs and he focuses. While the lyrics wash through him, he contemplates.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…

He recognises the song and it greets him with a certain familiarity, but he hears it in a way he has never done before. It feels fresh and new. Her voice lends a French feel to his ears and once more he finds himself plugged in, only this time to a human jukebox.

When the dog bites, when the bee stings

When I’m feeling sad

I simply remember my favourite things

And then I don’t feel so bad

The words echo through his consciousness as the guitar takes over, weaving and winding through the notes, creating and crafting. The man meditates upon the song. His mind searches, trying to figure out his own favourite things, yet it falters. He finds nothing, just numbness. For sure, he used to have favourite things but for now he cannot recall what they may have been. This train of thought leads itself quickly down into a dark tunnel, but our man is returned to light upon the return of the singer’s voice.

…when I’m feeling sad

I simply remember my favourite things

And then I don’t feel so bad

She sings with beauty and reassurance and his mind calms.

The song ends. The man strides over, tips his loose change into a basket placed at his performers’ feet then disappears into the city crowds.

*          *          *

It has been a long year already. It is only May. A young man stands in the middle of a park surrounded by his audience. He is armed with an electric violin, a keyboard and a mixing desk, and is intent on inventing new sounds and new feelings. He is one with his music. They exist together in a bubble He creates with it and it with him. The people around can only witness, but they nod and move with the beat, moulded by the mix.

Behind, his girlfriend sits, cigarette in mouth. She is alone in this scene. She has been here before. Different parks, different places, maybe, but she has been here before. The situation has grown stale to her. Each night crashing on a couch by his side. A futon on a friend’s floor is a luxury. Thoughts of a bed are little more than dreams. She is tired, worn out. The smoke sticks held in her reluctant smiles, her closest companions. He has his audiences. His art. What does she have? Him? Even she is not sure anymore.

She puts her cigarette out and lights up another. The night rolls on as such. He performs. She cheers from the sidelines, by now only a programmed response. It has been weeks since she stopped paying attention, since she stopped caring. Each cigarette takes her further and further away.

Phased out she rises from her seat. She begins to drift through the crowds. Trying to feel what she felt, way back at the beginning of everything. She tries to blend in and stands in the shadows. To herself she debates whether or not she will ever return to his side. By the end of his set she will have reached her decision but for now he plays. Consumed by his bubble. For now he plays…

*          *          *

Three thirty rolls around quickly on some nights, but sometimes, when it gets to that time, five o’clock is only on the distant horizon. Some nights even the night wants to go to sleep. When that happens, the street becomes a strolling ground for those who have struck out, those reluctant to part with the night, and the simple wanderers. One young man in particular falls into this latter category. His friends and him have gone their separate ways and he has decided to stroll, to get some air into his lungs, and to feel the night grow tired as he does.

He is alone but not lonely, the quiet of a city going to sleep is companion enough. He turns down a street and sees a small gathering of people around a store front. He approaches and sees and hears why. Sitting in the middle are a guitarist and a box drummer, both singing. Their music, soothing in the night air.

As he watches on, he looks around and notices he is surrounded almost exclusively by couples sharing romance with the music. He too finds a romance of sorts with the music. He stands as one and they all as two. He does not mind and neither do they. All listen to their performers as if morning is about to be played in. Here is a gathering place for people with nowhere to go. A haven from the troubles of day, and yet one destined to disappear into just that, day. All here know it but there’s no use fighting it. Best just to enjoy it, while it lasts.

Everything fades though. Even darkness upon the entrance of the east-rising sun. The players pack up and wish all a good morning. The man leaves the street behind him and strolls off to catch the first train home. What tomorrow will bring has not yet been written.