The Seeker: a tale from the ‘90s
‘Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing
I took a wrong turnin’ and I just kept going… ’
‘Another Saturday night. And I ain’t got nobody…’ The words of the old tune rattled around his head. Always the same at this time of an evening after a certain quota of alcohol. All the familiar faces seemed to become less so as the night wore on and this too was a predictable result. He looked forward to his evening out with colleagues and friends but as time progressed his joviality and good humour drained away. At the end he was an empty vessel waiting to be filled with desire or anger or self-loathing. Often a mixture of all three.
Lucy was animated as she tried to evoke some sympathy for single working class mothers. No danger of her drifting away as she tried to squeeze some emotion by repeating the question followed by the name of the person she was addressing. ‘I’m not a parent and not working class … so I can’t answer the question’ he blurted as he realised he was the target of her impatience. ‘Haven’t you even got an opinion?’ she jeered at him. Her eyes were bright and her lips moist. God knows what he looked like at this stage of the evening.
‘No’ he finally said. He tried to put a certain amount of sophistication into this simple word. If he had succeeded it was not evident as Lucy turned to the rest of the group with a dismissive shrug. Too late he understood that she was making an opening in the only way she could in this group. Now it was as if he was not there. The rest of them engaged in a raucous debate. It was conducted at full volume with a great deal of gesticulation. He wanted no part of it and started to look around the bar. This made things worse. There were couples or groups. Nobody noticed that he was staring.
He turned to his group and said ‘Who needs another?’
This made no impression at all. Moving closer he repeated the question. Finally Phil looked at him and said ‘Yeah’ before turning back to the discussion. No one else looked up. Should he just get Phil something or drinks all round? He returned with a selection on a tray that was approximately correct. This he placed on the table in the centre and it evoked a few mumbles of appreciation. Feeling worse he grabbed a glass and drained it from the safety of his previous position. What was the point?
As he stepped outside he felt both liberated and empty. The air was still warm and daylight showed in the sky. The gloaming. His gaze moved upward toward the moon and the stars which were just starting to show. Such cleanliness! He stopped and continued to stare heavenward. People moved around him as if he were an island. Slowly his eyes moved down to the pavement. His legs started to propel him forward. Gradually his consciousness moved back to take in the evening pub scene. He became one of the participants in this show that took place every week in thousands of communities throughout the country. Adroitly he moved through the knots of revelers. The beggars spoke but he was invulnerable to their pleas. His eyes were drawn to the women with their soft flesh and hard eyes. Any contact he made was dismissed by the slightest movement of their head or eyes. That was all it took.
Each pub or club was surrounded by its own sound. Passing by each the sound would fade to be taken over by the next thumping rhythm. On he moved as if he were a ship sailing through an archipelago. Soon he would be on the open sea. Gradually the noise and light faded and he was able to walk undisturbed. He was in a residential area now. Around him were elegant Georgian and Victorian buildings converted into flats and penthouses. Occasionally a large car would swoop by or glide to a halt and chic groups of people would be discharged. Murmuring amongst themselves as they moved into their lavish abodes. They were sealed in by the latest offerings of technology.
Who was he to feel this disgust? His whole adult life had been a weak attempt to emulate what he had just observed. Bedsit to flat to town-house. Used car to new. Post Office savings to stocks and bonds. Was it failure to achieve that made him feel this way? Soon he was wallowing in a morass of self-righteousness and half-hearted reasoning. However as he strode on he cleared this district and his mind had to adjust to new surroundings.
Now there were late night convenience stores and small restaurants. Here and there a neighbourhood pub with groups of the standard semi-detached between them. From the shops the light streamed out. Harsh and pure in its bright strength. His mouth felt sticky and stale. Thinking he needed refreshment he walked into a small shop and picked up two large cans of cold beer. As he moved toward the checkout he saw himself in a mirror. Startled he went back for another look. Narrowed eyes in a bloated face atop a slouching, tired figure. Clothes were awry. With a scowl he pulled off his tie and stuffed it into his jacket. When he got to the till the girl working there smiled at him despite his appearance. She was dark haired, slim and beautiful. Her eyes seemed to be of blue crystal. As she mentioned the amount she smiled at him again. He handed the money to her and tried to say something. He wanted to speak with her. Nothing came out and he took his change. A low mumble came from his throat as he grabbed the bag. Banging his way out he felt both relief and dismay.
Outside he opened one of the cans as he trudged forward looking more down-and-out than up-and-coming. The shaken can sprayed some of its contents over his face while some more dripped over his hand. Disgustedly he drank the rest and in a pathetic macho gesture he crushed the can. It stuck around his fist. In a fury he seized it with the other hand and tore it off. When he did this it nicked the hand holding the can and blood seeped out and mixed with the beer covering the hand. He tried to hurl the refuse into a litter bin with his left hand which also held the full can. This flew out and hit a parked car some distance away with a distinct thump. The crushed container landed a few inches from his feet. He tried to kick it into the gutter. It bounced up and almost hit a young woman walking with another. They glanced at him and became frightened. As he tried to apologize they crossed the road.
His eyes followed them. He then saw a bus that would pass close to his place. In desperation he waved at it unaware that he was at a bus stop. Fumbling for the fare he pulled out his tie which produced a shower of coins. Attempting nonchalance he ignored this and found enough to pay. He watched the night pass him by with his forehead pressed against the cool of the bus window. The dreamlike quality was accentuated by the condensation of his breath on the glass and the steady drone of the bus engine. With a start he found he was outside his flat. As he bounded off the bus he felt invigorated by the chill of the night. Running up the steps to his flat door he was renewed and his mind brimming with things he would do to start afresh. Tomorrow he would get up early and exercise followed by a light breakfast and some phone calls. No more lost weekends gazing at the newspapers and television. He would contact Lucy and tell her what he felt. She would understand and see him for what he really was.
He stumbled on the top stair. His hand was oozing blood as he pushed and kicked the door open. Inside his phone answering machine was blinking unceasing rhythm. How he hated those things. In the dark he started to undress. He gave up halfway and lay down. Disgust at his self-pity. Then merciful sleep.
The dust hung on the silver sunbeams. He lay motionless watching the light and listening to the gay chirping outside his window. His mouth was furry and had an unnatural taste. The room had a sour odour. When he touched his forehead it was grimy and oily with perspiration. The joy of late nights in the big city. Out in the street a car pulled up. It had a sound system that made his windows rattle. The driver’s ears must be bleeding. ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’by The Crystals was pounding out and boy, did it sound good. Middle age trying to retrieve its youth with fat tyres and big sound. Some more Motown made him feel better. Lurching out of bed he threw open the window and breathed in the new day. The sun bathed the old town in its benevolence and the world was new. Turning back to his room he was struck by the contrast. Here all was fetid chaos. He tried to think how he reached this state – unloved, uncouth and unreachable.
Work, his job, his career (surely not his vocation) seemed to be going well. He was never quite sure why the people there valued him, it all seemed a bit of a masquerade but he was happy to go along with the promotions, the pay and the status (even though he hated that word). This was one aspect of his life that seemed to run smoothly. He spoke- people listened, he emailed - people responded, he had ideas - colleagues valued them. Not like real life at all but pleasing nonetheless. Effort was required but there was a rough equivalence; you put a certain amount in, you received a certain amount back. It didn’t seem that way on the outside.
Often at work he daydreamed. Like most people he had a stock of favourite dreams that he would return to, embellish over a period of time and in some cases alter the outcome. Now he was dreaming his ‘weekend at home with his lover’. He was looking out of the balcony of his spacious penthouse apartment, which was constructed mainly of glass and stainless steel. Beneath him was a river – maybe the Thames? – or perhaps the sea. It was sunny and warm; the French windows were wide open. Upstairs his woman was drowsing after they had made love in the early hours. He was making some coffee, freshly ground of course, in a cafetiere that matched the rest of the décor. On the table was a basket of fresh pastries (from where? – logic held no place in his dreams). In the background an erudite news show was on the radio. Ahead of them was a day walking in the park followed by perhaps a theatre show or an ‘art house’ movie. In the evening more passion (of course). There was only one thing missing from this, the identity or even a face to this woman. He had tried Lucy, but it was not her. It was someone he knew, he was sure.
This dream was how life could have been for him before something happened. Somewhere things had gone awry, more wrong decisions than right ones. Gradually he lost his ability to relate and communicate, to give as well as to take. He could not pin down when this started to happen but it was somewhere in the last ten years. As a young man fresh out of university it was all easy, it happened as if by right. Jobs, money, relationships. Even sports were easy, he had enough energy for work, nightlife, football and travel. Now the ability was still within him but the will was not, everything seemed to require effort. One day it had come as a shock to him to realise that this was probably how 90% of people managed to live, by making an effort, by pushing themselves to achieve something. For him this was a recent experience and one that he was not fully reconciled to.
Hours at the office would pass this way. Talk about ‘blue sky thinking’, this was deep sea drifting. It was a wonder he still had a job, let alone one that he seemed to be doing well in. He must still have some latent ability, he thought. Sometimes he wished they would get rid of him, then change would have to happen. He was drifting in a sea of apathy and self-pity. At the office most people seemed to live orderly lives. They got married, spawned, moved to larger houses, went on holidays, had grandchildren, died. Statistics said that some were wife-beaters, some having extra marital affairs, some were deeply unhappy, some were seriously ill and so on. But to an observer like himself this did not seem the case. Their lives seemed to move smoothly, if not in a completely predictive time sequence the events would at least happen. Event A would follow event B, it was a question of when exactly, not if.
By comparison his life seemed to resemble a pinball in one of those old-fashioned arcade games that were popular in the 1960’s. Resting briefly at certain points, then shooting off in another direction, entirely at the whim of some force he could not control. He was not sure when his life had entered this phase, all he knew was that at one time there was sureness and now there was today, tomorrow and some future which he could barely comprehend much less try and control. It was not as if he wanted the predictability that life used to hold for him, he did not feel that this would lead to greater happiness. He accepted the way things were for him now just as some of his colleagues were in a life so structured and foreseeable that one once said to him, only half in jest ‘I never have to think what to do in the evenings, we and the kids always have some activity, except Thursday which is just TV. Saturday she and I go to the pub in the evening. Sundays -wash the cars and gardening.’
Noticing J’s look of disbelief he added ‘However on our summer hols we once drove to the Lake District without booking a hotel. Luckily the first one we stopped at had a room.’
J thought this was some sort of joke but his colleague was serious, viewing this aberration as proof that he could break out of the mould if ever he wanted to.
This colleague, Bryan, was intelligent and well educated. Surely he could see the stifling effect of this existence. He was less than a year older than J and yet his life had already entered a cage or perhaps it more closely resembled a hamster’s wheel within a cage – the illusion of change. It did not seem to damage Bryan in any way, he looked fit, seemed happily married, was head of the work team that J. belonged to, always in good humour. It was hard to imagine him as one of those statistics. By contrast J’s life was chaotic. He imagined if he really told Bryan how he lived he would not be believed or he would be thought of as being in need of counseling by the new health initiative task force that was cluttering up their email in-boxes recently. Bryan saw J as talented and imaginative, the most important member of his group. The fact that in many ways he was the opposite of himself he saw as an asset, able to give a contrary view in many discussions. He was vaguely aware of J’s lifestyle and envied it, although he would never admit this to J.
Often he would make remarks like ‘You need to find a good woman’ (to which J silently replied ‘I need to find any woman’) or ‘You should settle down and start a family’.
Bryan almost felt compelled to say these things, as if he needed to defend the way he lived. His wife, Wendy, had made similar remarks when J came over for dinners or Sunday lunch, although she spoke in a jocular way. She found J attractive and likeable. The way he obviously had no concern for most of the things she and Bryan felt were important amused her, although it vaguely unsettled her also. She knew that J was intelligent and someone who thought about his life, this was what made his attitude all the more puzzling.
One evening the three of them were clearing up after a dinner at his supervisor’s house. Bryan had gone out to the off-licence to get some more wine, due to what had seemed their guests unnatural thirst during the meal. J carried some things into the kitchen where Wendy was busy. He had remarked that this made a change from his usual Friday night activities, to which she responded ‘Oh, and what would you normally be doing? Having a drink and trying to chat-up some girls?’
He was amused by her quaint diction. Grinning, and with his tongue loosened by the good wine, he told her about his Friday night a couple of weeks ago; fairly standard for him. Realizing that she was genuinely shocked he tried to put a hand out to reassure her. She shrank from him, then apologised, muttered something and went into the toilet. Luckily Bryan came back a few minutes later, at which point she emerged. The next day she mentioned to Bryan what J had said to her. To her surprise and dismay he threw his head back and laughed, exclaiming ‘Good for him!’ She became aware then that she did not know all of her husband, despite the years, the love, the children.
Then there was Lucy. She was not in his group at work but he could not avoid her and, despite what he told himself in his ‘rational’ moments, he always enjoyed being with her. In a sense she was his touchstone, despite or perhaps because of, his constant craving for her. Lucy had a friend she spent a lot of time with at the office, an older woman, Jane, who stood out somewhat from the mass of bright young ‘techies’ that seemed to make up the majority of the office. Jane was in her mid-forties with two children who had left home and an ex-husband. She was not ugly but kept herself basic. Straight short hair, no make-up, ‘sensible’ clothes. One day in the cafeteria she and Lucy were having lunch when they spotted J shambling around, his tray piled up (large lunch then peanuts and crisps for supper). They both started laughing, Lucy beckoned to him and he started over. Too late he noticed Jane. She looked at him after he had started attacking his food. In his crudeness she saw something else. Most of the men she had known, including her ex-husband, had perceived her as something delicate, needing protection. This was one of the reasons her marriage had broken up – she was not fragile, inside or out, and hated this presumption. Watching J, and knowing what she did of him, she realised that here was someone who had an earthy view of things in general and people in particular. Looking at him demolish a large meal in a few minutes, while carrying on some sort of conversation and, every so often scratching an itch on his leg, confirmed her view of him. Crude perhaps, a mind like a kaleidoscope but interesting with an undoubted physical attraction.
He was focused on Lucy, trying to ascertain if she was upset about the events of last weekend. This allowed Jane to observe him for long periods. While doing so she reflected on her life since her separation and divorce. It had been almost ten years now. She felt that she had grown more during this period than in the whole of her adult life up to the time when she and her husband had parted. Before she was on her own she had imagined that her new life would give her vastly more freedom. Now she was painfully aware that she did not really know what was meant by the word, at least within the context of her life. If she was unable to define the word how could she know whether she had more of it, or even whether more was desirable? Greater Freedom was one of those phrases that were parroted as being something axiomatically desirable, like World Peace or Freedom of Choice. Now she had the freedom to live in a large house that made noises at night due its old plumbing and wooden beams. She would lie alone and a little afraid. She had the freedom to go to any restaurant she wanted without an endless argument about which one, except she hated to dine alone. And so it went.
With a start J realised he was being watched. Breaking in mid-sentence he looked toward Jane. Instead of turning away immediately she met his gaze for a moment, a slight upturn appearing to one side of her mouth. He failed to pick up his broken sentence and saw that Lucy was smirking quietly, her eyes looking at him with that amused, questioning look, just like last Saturday night. This was all too much. Shoveling down the last of his food he got up, mumbling, pushing his chair back too far. Reaching back to catch it he let go of one side of his tray which tipped toward Jane, plates and cutlery sliding toward her. He steadied it just in time but not before a knife tumbled off. She caught it adroitly. Sensing his intense embarrassment she held it out to him and said, in a softer tone than he had ever heard her use,
‘Here. It’s okay, really.’ Muttering an apology he left them, feeling hot and confused.
After lunch, at his desk, he began to think about his last social contact with Lucy, although looking back at that pathetic Saturday night and disastrous Sunday it was not very social and not much contact either. He had been determined to follow through with his thoughts from Saturday night (it all seemed so clear then). He had marched over to the phone with the idea of calling Lucy. The stupid thing was still blinking its ‘Message received’ light. He jabbed the erase button. She had said to him once to call her. Was it last night? Then he saw that her number was not at hand. Angrily he slammed the receiver down and fumbled around for his address book. With surprise he found her name and number, written in her handwriting. He was almost breathless with anticipation as the phone rang.
‘Hello’ she answered in that voice. ‘It’s me … J’ he added reluctantly when he realised that she did not recognize his voice.
‘Oh, how are you …’ her voice tailed off. He had never called her at home before. Much less on a Sunday morning. In the background he heard a door close. There was someone else in her apartment. His face went hot. He did not know what to say. She felt his silence and knew that he knew.
Finally he blurted ‘I’ll call you back. Sorry.’ Why had he felt betrayed? She was not his partner and at this rate never would be. What was he sorry for? Maybe her folks had come over. Perhaps her best friend at the office had stayed over. Perhaps is a big word. Surely not that wretched chap she was talking to on Saturday night, with his face like moist pastry? He almost called her back to confront her. Then he became aware of how crass he was being. He fell into a chair with a feeling like he had been hit in the guts. If he had any. In the space of a few seconds his new world was destroyed. The old one of corruption was closing in again. He looked out of the window. Where was the rainstorm to match his mood? The sun was still shining. Some kids below were screaming as they did tricks on skateboards. Was his world focused only on his own paltry ego? The normality of the world outside made it all worse. He had to get out.
Soon he was walking by the river. A silver ribbon sliding silently through the heart of the city. How he would like to ride over that shimmering surface. Where would he go? He had no idea. It was all feeling and instinct. Coherent thought was his foe right now. Any attempt at rationality made an enemy of what he felt inside. The park was full of happiness. Children and parents. Lovers and friends. His twisted face kept all this at bay.
The scowl matched his spirit. He had no concept of where he was going. Lost but not free. His mind was running on two parallel lines. One said that this fixation with Lucy was illogical and foolish. She had never given any real indication of what she felt for him. He was just a colleague with whom she could talk and whom she smiled at when they passed at work. At lunch she once mentioned that she did not have a boyfriend. To this he had replied with a monosyllabic grunt. That was the last time she had confided in him. Forget her. Move on.
The other track of his mind was irrational. It could not be extinguished no matter how hard he tried. Her look during that lunchtime encounter had made him feel that she wanted something. If only he could know. He could not make that jump. His intuition was as weak as his logic. But the feeling was still there behind the reasoning. What if? Why not? He had to know. ‘Know what?’ he thought to himself. Did she see him as someone outside of work? Could he let her into his world even if she wanted it? Had he ever let anyone in? This was too much for him and he tried to divert his thoughts. Obsessions like this were eating him from the inside. He could feel it. Even when he was ostensibly content it was always there. Sometimes quiet. Always waiting.
His legs were tired. The sun was at its apex. The sounds coming from his stomach were not pleasant. He became aware of hunger. There was fine grit on his eyelids and lips. Everything about his body matched his mood. Tiredness, filth and emptiness. He looked about him. A place to sit and eat and drink. He was aware that he knew where he was but could not quite place it. With a start he saw it was the road that led to the cul de sac where Lucy lived. He had taken her home once, a brief snog on the doorstep. If he turned around now she would have no chance of seeing him. No explanations would be needed. He had just called her, what would she think of him turning up like this? Supposing her guests (or whatever their status was) were still there? Just walk away. No emotional effort would be required.
He pressed the buzzer.
‘Who is it?’ That voice made him feel like a 16 year old again.
‘It’s me …’ before he could say his name the door clicked open. The hallway was clean and polished with light cascading down from a skylight. She was standing on the landing holding the door to her flat open with a look of concern and bewilderment on her face. He had never seen her like this before, dressed in shorts and t-shirt with no make-up, her hair tousled. She reminded him more of his kid sister or her friends than the outspoken, tough minded woman he knew from work or his evenings out with colleagues. He suddenly felt even worse than before, afraid that he would contaminate her life just by the merest close contact. At the same time he felt pleasure that she was talking to him at her apartment despite his boorish behavior of the night before and his wretched appearance now.
‘J …’ she said before he interrupted ‘Lucy, I’m sorry, I meant to … I should of …’ He was so inarticulate it was pathetic.
‘Come inside’, she opened the door further. He shambled inside and felt that his presence was alien to such a place. There was no sign of anyone else being there.
‘Sit down, you look awful. No, I didn’t mean that, you just look worn out, what have you been doing?’ He was about to explain that this was how he usually looked and felt on a Sunday morning but then stopped. Was this what his world had come to? Instead he flopped into a chair, realizing how incongruous he must look in his present state when set against this tidy, elegant, feminine dwelling. Even when he cleaned and tidied his place before his mother came for her first (and thankfully only) visit it had never looked like this.
With a start he looked back at her, aware that he had been staring around as if he had been raised in the wilderness and this was the first time he had seen a modern building. He turned back to her and she was smiling slightly with her eyes wide open, sitting on a stool a few feet from him. He felt even more moronic when it dawned on him that she was still expecting an answer to her question. His mind raced to dredge up some plausible explanation of his ending up at her place looking almost like some homeless indigent. Why bother – she had asked him so he told her. What had happened after he left her and the group in the pub, how he had gotten home, what he had thought of when he woke up. How he would change and try and lead something more than a narrow life. He was getting in deep, coming to terms with what had just been unformed sensations and vague feelings, moulding them into words and sentences which seemed to tumble from him at a rapidly increasing pace.
He glanced at her for reassurance that she understood this verbal barrage of ideas and feelings. Her smile was gone and her eyes had narrowed somewhat. She looked puzzled and a little apprehensive.
‘J, would you like a drink? Something cold or a coffee perhaps,’ Lucy asked, trying to restore the situation to one that she could recognize. She was taken aback by this normally quiet colleague coming into her flat, telling her thoughts that were usually confined to a private diary or seen in a French movie. Getting up, she muttered something about refreshments. Sitting there he had become less and less sure of the situation. A minute ago he had felt strong and certain, now he was aware that this eruption of thought and concepts to a relative stranger was self-indulgent. He wanted her to understand but understand what exactly? He was unaware how he would hope to impart this to her. She was not a dumping ground for the random ramblings of his overdriven mind. She was a colleague, perhaps a friend and nothing more. Maybe one day. Maybe.
Returning with a tray she asked him to pull over a small table. He placed it between them and they both seemed more comfortable.
‘Fizzy water, coffee and biscotti’ she pointed out, as if explaining to a child who had never seen these before. Grunting, he ate and drank all that was presented to him. He tried to chew slowly, aware of the awkwardness that would manifest itself in silence when they finished.
‘Thank you, I think I’d better go now, maybe …’ he could not bring himself to say that he wanted to meet her again. There was no conviction in his manner or his feeling.
‘Maybe what?’ Lucy interjected, curious and puzzled.
‘Maybe I’ll try and make one of the park teams this afternoon’ he said. There was a germ of truth in this; he used to be a half decent midfielder.
‘Oh… well I heard you were a good player, you look fit, just try and get some sleep before you’re next match’. As he stepped out he realised that she had paid him a compliment. He tried to smile at her, not sure whether to kiss or hug.
She looked at him and said ‘Take care of yourself… during the match I mean’. He stumbled out, thanking her as he left, not trusting what he felt.
Walking down the street he felt confused. Was he happy? She had opened herself up to him a little. What had he done? Why had she expressed concern? Why hadn’t he asked who was in her flat when he phoned? All this was inside of him and he was failing to release it. He did not know what was holding him back. It was the same as the night before. This time however he began to accept his muteness. Perhaps this was his future. His past had been better. Parents okay, did their best, family and friends good, school better, girls and relationships there for him. Since leaving college he had been drifting. The very freedom he had craved was leaving him bereft of companionship. He had lived with a woman for a while, she had moved into his place. He had craved her. She had loved him and then had the foolishness to say it. He had not reciprocated, he could not bring himself to consider it, let alone say it, much less to her face. It was only lust he reasoned, locking out his instinct. It will pass, he thought. It did. He came home from work one day to find that he still had all his freedom.
That was some years ago. Since then he had done well in his career, God knows he could put in the time. Relationships were things that took him by surprise, like oasis in the desert they were brief, very welcome and surrounded by desert. He was moving slowly but seemingly inexorably into this barrenness. Sitting at his desk, thinking of last weekend with one track of his mind, the other track talking over the phone, responding to emails and the other tasks that, for all his offhandedness, earned him the respect of his colleagues.
After leaving Lucy he decided to go to the park, maybe he could at least watch. He found his old team, churning around the pitch, their faces intent. At half time some came over to him. Why wasn’t he playing anymore? Too old, injured? Come by for a drink after the match. He felt somewhat suspicious of these greetings but did his best to respond. No one was that uninhibited any more with him, certainly not once they started to know him. Watching the second half he felt regret and his anger started to grow. Before the final whistle blew he strode off, hoping that no one would see. The sun was low in the sky, the clouds had cleared and the leaves filtered the golden rays. The earth was warm and the grass dry. These days did not come often at this time of year. When they did it was as if the populace assumed a new life, more earthy and carefree, eating, drinking, loving, even sleeping outdoors. He had known this once and yet he could not reach it. It seemed as far away as his pre-adolescent youth. The same person in a different world. However just as an adult likes to look at pictures of their childhood, so he wanted to look at this scene. At the top of a small hill he sat on a bench, looking down on a view that seemed to radiate happiness and satisfaction.
His tears were slow and silent. Barely aware of them until they seeped into his mouth, he tried to move away lest someone see. This failed. Eventually he bowed his head and tried to stifle what had become sobbing. People moved from this unacceptable scene. Soon he was alone with his grief. He was afraid that someone he knew would see this weak and pitiful scene. After the tears he sat there for a long time, no grief left, very little of anything. The pain had dissipated with nothing very much in its place. He was able to observe the sun descending in the sky and the activity in the park began to change also. The various games on the pitches below began to end, players gathering up bits of kit. One team of ‘oldies’ - at least in their forties and still enjoying life, he mused – passed close by and he smelt the sweat and liniment. This brought back in a rush his days on the team, he had enjoyed them and would again, he resolved.
For some reason he began to feel better. Adolescents were starting to appear, equipped with mobiles, ‘alcopops’ and a vocabulary that left him thinking. Each generation making its mark in the only way it knows, trying to shock, to be cool and outrageous. Who could blame them? He wished he could re-join them. How did they see him now, he wondered? A washed up ex-yuppie, ex-athlete, not married, still trying to burn the candle at both ends. Buried in introspection as he was, these seventeen year olds could at least express thought without gagging after just a few words.
Realising that he was starting to slide into the morass again he stood up. He had been on the bench for so long his legs were stiff and weak. To clear this he began to stride rapidly toward the periphery of the park where the seductive lights were starting to beckon once again. He passed an ‘American’ hot dog stand. The smell of greasy fried onions and cheap meat was beguiling. He ordered one and slathered it in fluorescent mustard, watching with interest as it slid off the oily surface of the hot dog and soaked into the bright white roll. Despite this it tasted great. Partially refueled and feeling better with each step he marched toward home. The pubs were just starting to fill. Not this time he thought. It would be too easy to slip that way again.
At home he tried to distract himself by watching some television. Re-building a garden into a mock Venetian villa on one channel, the Nazis obsession with astrology on another, snooker, a drama featuring over-inflated pubescent teenagers and a quiz with contenders standing in a sinister half-light on a fourth, another featuring people in some competition of self-humiliation. He paid money for this! In disgust he gave up and started to read a paper, saw it was two weeks old and threw it away. Putting on some music he began to drift. Going to bed he began to read a book he had started almost a year ago. If only he could talk to Lucy.
One day at work his sister Melanie called. She asked him to come over on Saturday for a meal and then to baby sit while she went out to a hen party. Her usual sitter was ill and she had no one else to ask. She was apologetic, realizing that he usually went out on that night. He was more than welcome to bring his girlfriend, she added. Fat chance, he thought bitterly.
When he mentioned to Lucy his weekend plans he expected her to laugh at the idea of him looking after two small children. She surprised him.
‘I expect you’re they’re favourite uncle. When I was a kid my Mum’s brother was something like you and I always liked it when he came over.’ Intrigued he asked her what she meant by ‘something like you’.
‘A little unusual, full of energy … you know. Stop fishing!’ she seemed to be looking at him with a mixture of amusement and admiration. J was embarrassed and tried to change the subject. She caught his eye for a moment as he turned away. For the rest of the day, and intermittently for the rest of the week he thought about what she had said. He had never really considered himself a ‘real’ uncle before. His sisters kids had never stayed at his flat, he never took them for days out and anyway, uncles were middle aged with aunts beside them. Uncles were stable and could be relied on and always had children of their own. Only biology had bestowed the title on him.
He found himself looking forward to Saturday. In the morning he bought a couple of gifts for the kids (an extremely difficult task – how did parents do this on a regular basis?), some liquids for himself in the evening and some household things for his sister. As a teacher her salary was low for one person, let alone three. The real reflection of society’s concern for education. Melanie lived in one of the less well-endowed areas of the city. Charity shops, job centre, corner shops, cracked pavements, boarded windows, people of various shapes and colours. She lived on the ground floor of a large Edwardian building. The steps were cleaned but could not disguise several layers of vomit and urine. Inside the smell was distinctive and not exactly pleasant. He slapped on the door with the flat of his hand.
‘Mummeee! Someones here! Is it Uncle J?’ Millie’s voice was shrill and joyful. Her little brother was now babbling and squealing as well. Melanie tried to calm them as she opened the door, physically restraining them, stooped over. Every inch the committed single mum, and yet also a teacher, still under 30 and still looking for ‘Mr Right’ (or Mr Good Enough as she sometimes joked). She hugged him, she had been doing herself up and he smelled her perfume in his eyes. He complimented her on her appearance.
‘Give me 30 minutes’ she said, ‘some food in the oven, give the kids a drink, yours in fridge’.
She installed herself in the bathroom. The kids liked their new toys and soon he was stretched out on the floor while Millie and Sammy clambered and giggled all over him, jabbering constantly and doing a series of tricks in case his attention wandered. She emerged, transformed and sparkling.
‘Look after yourself’ he advised, playing the big brother.
‘Yeah, don’t worry, not everyone’s like you’ she joked, as she walked out to the waiting taxi. He wished she had not said that, now he started thinking again about the real currents in his life.
The kids were asleep (or at least in bed and quiet). He wolfed down the food she had left him. Watching the TV and drinking beer the time slipped by, he drifted in and out of football, movies and late night ‘comedy’ (was he the only person who failed to laugh?). Outside the day had died and noises of the night had taken over. A car backfired, a ghetto blaster faded in, faded out. A few cars roared by, doors slammed, voices raised as the pubs emptied. Just the occasional train and the muted, constant sound of the bypass.
Sometime, well after midnight he awoke with a start as he heard loud female voices, then a car pulling away. Recognising Melanie’s voice he opened the door. She and a friend lurched through the door, looking disheveled and happy, voices loud, eyes bright.
Melanie said loudly ‘J, this is Gemma, she wants to meet you’ giggling at this last part. He held out his hand, Gemma ignored this and instead gave him an embrace that allowed him to feel the full extent of her femininity, finished with a loud kiss on his startled (but not unwilling) lips.
‘So you’re J, Melanie talks about you a lot’ and then turning to his sister ‘Why didn’t you tell me he was like this, do you have a drink, is there any food around.’
Then back to him ‘Do the children like you – I’ll bet they do, where do you live? Do you play football? Did we wake you – I’m sorry. We had a really good time, it’s hard to believe our friend will be married tomorrow, are you still working at that place – Melanie tells me all about you, how old are you really? Is that drink for me thanks, she says you are very clever – are you? I’m sure you are. Do you have a girlfriend? Oh, sorry! Melanie can’t understand why not, we went to a club that was awful, I don’t know how we stayed there for three hours, do you like to go out much?’
Before this onslaught he stepped back, admiring her body. It was young and firm, rounded without being overweight, well wrapped up but oozing sexiness, at least to his starved senses. His sister was checking on the kids. Gemma fell onto the sofa and gesticulated for him to sit down. He did so, feeling stiff and old next to her. He asked her questions about her work, children, where she lived. She was looking at him with flirtatious amusement and he tried to respond, although he felt awkward. He did not know what to really say. The usual problem – his body knew what it wanted, his mind knew too but it would not transmit. Hopefully she would understand what he was feeling – he was sure he had heard in some course at work that less than 10% of communication was verbal. Thank God! Then, his mind racing, he tried to formulate exactly what the rest of him was telling her. That he wanted her physically, that he did not give a damn about where she worked, what her interests were, or how she felt about anything. A few years ago this realization of his own moral vapidity would have shocked him. Now he just accepted it – this is what he had become, an amoral beast that, like a wild creature, had few needs and less cares. Within the space of a couple of seconds his whole existence had been laid bare. The essence of what he was had been exposed once again to him and he fought to pretend there was something more.
His mind was still charging along on this parallel fast track when he suddenly understood that Gemma had asked him a question and was giggling, waiting for a reply. She had put this down to shyness, unaware of how easily his mind slipped into some internal moral debate, as if he could not accept the fact that someone found him interesting or attractive without having to be aware of his past.
‘Well, will you? Melanie says you like them and you know what it’s like for a woman to go on her own.’ She smiled at him while shaking her head quizzically.
‘Yes of course I will’, he answered, while wondering what exactly he was committing himself to.
‘OK good, what night is right for you? Can we see the new one with Ronnie Dap in it? You choose the day, I’ll chose the film – that’s fair isn’t it?’ she was relentless and he was beginning to like it. This woman – young, attractive, smart – was asking him to go out with her.
Melanie came in from the hall after looking at the two urchins. A lot had happened in the three minutes she had been gone. She noticed.
‘You two seem to be getting on well’ she said smirking.
‘Your brother has asked me to the pictures’ Gemma announced, grinning.
‘Really, he didn’t waste much time’ his sister replied. It was as if he was a small child who had done well in class and the teacher and parent were discussing him.
Lying on the sofa after his sister and Gemma (who was staying over) had gone to bed. He touched his lips where Gemma had given him a goodnight kiss, he smiled and allowed his imagination to rove. Then it occurred to him that she was more than a little drunk. How would she feel about him in the morning? She would realise that he was older, cynical, had no moral centre. Physically he wanted her and she must have noticed this. The spiral was starting again. Couldn’t he just enjoy something at face value? Was everything multi-sided, every answer leading to another question? Things got worse in his tangled mind before sleep rescued him. He dreamed of toyshops at Christmas.
Gemma woke with a start. Then she remembered that the she was still at Melanie’s and that one of children she was sharing the room with had stirred and woken her. It was cool in the bedroom, still dark outside and the streetlight came through the curtains and illuminated the room with a soft yellow light. ‘City moonlight’ she smiled to herself. Thinking about the evening before, she then remembered meeting J and forcing him to ask her out for an evening. He was attractive in an unusual kind of way, not conventionally good looking but not exactly ugly either. Did not talk very much, but she liked that in a man, having to draw them out. But suppose he refused to be drawn? That he was always like last night, quiet, self-protective, and awkward? There was something about him that hinted at more. She could not pin down what this ‘more’ was, or what aspect of him gave her this sentiment. Then she remembered they had met for less than an hour. She felt she knew him more than this, probably because of what his sister had told her of him. When she stopped worrying about what she thought of him she began to worry about what he thought of her. A drunk with a loose tongue? Or a hussy who had forced him to go out with her – he could hardly refuse in front of his sister.
Yes, his sister and one of her best friends. What would Melanie think, approaching her brother in such a state? Would it come between them? But there again Melanie was always saying how lonely her brother was, apparently one-night stands were his most common form of relationship with the opposite sex. She also knew Melanie had asked J to come out with them on several occasions, she wished now that they had met at least once before last night. Gemma resolved to speak to J quietly, away from his sister, in the morning and say that it was OK if he didn’t want to go out. This was a triumph of reason over instinct for her. The more she thought of him the more she wanted to get to know him. However she was resolved to clear things. Feeling better having decided on this course of action she drifted back to sleep.
A couple of hours later she woke suddenly. She got up before she could change her mind. The flat was already alive, filled with energy and sound. The TV was on; Millie looked as if she was in a trance, watching some high volume cartoon show. Sammy was hitting on an upturned pan with a large spoon and simultaneously shouting
‘Mum, look….Mummy, look!’ Melanie was in the kitchen with the radio on and the phone wedged under her shoulder, stirring a gooey grey mixture on the stove while also looking at a magazine. Every so often she uttered a monosyllabic word down the phone.
Gemma wondered where J was, the other bedroom perhaps, or the toilet. She went and asked Millie.
‘Gone’ was all she could say on the second time of asking. The TV was first priority. Back in the kitchen Melanie confirmed this.
‘When did he leave?’ Gemma asked.
‘Apparently he was gone when the kids got up.’ Melanie replied. Seeing her friend’s disappointment she sought to reassure her. She tried to explain his impulsiveness and his nervous energy, also his obsessive nature.
‘Try and keep him occupied when you’re with him, stay away from silences, I think his mind starts to roam’ Melanie explained.
On the bus back to her place this last remark started to worry Gemma. What exactly did his sister mean by this? Was he unstable, or just a deep thinker? And ‘obsessive’? That was the kind of word often used by the news media when describing stalkers or worse. Mel had given her J’s phone number, she would at least call him, try and glean a little more of his character from him. She waited until she was home before phoning. His answering machine came on; his voice was deeper and more assured than last night. Maybe she had made him nervous – she smiled at the thought. Meanwhile she busied herself at home, called her mother to bring her child home, took a shower, pretended to tidy the flat. Soon an hour had passed and she called again. He answered.
‘Are you OK about Wednesday?’ she asked. He seemed bemused by the question, then became aware of her nervousness.
‘Looking forward to it’ he tried to sound enthusiastic but not over eager.
‘Oh… good, I just wanted to…perhaps… ‘she was starting to stumble.
‘7:30 then, as agreed?’ he intervened, trying to help out.
‘Right, great, will be there. Bye J’ She liked saying his name. Putting the phone down she felt foolish. What must he think? Last night she was pulling him one way, the next day pushing in the other. He was no fool that was for sure, and must wonder what was happening. Let it be, just look forward to it. The doorbell rang, accompanied by the happy shrieks of her son.
Midweek, at the end of his working day, J went to the office toilets and put on a change of clothes. There was no time to go home and still meet Gemma at the appointed time. Anyway this was better, less time to brood. On his way back to his desk he passed Jane at hers. She looked up.
‘Hot date?’ she enquired, smiling. He blushed, surprised that she had noticed his different garb.
‘No. I mean, not really…it’s just someone I …’ J tried to be coherent.
‘It’s all right. None of my business really’. She turned back to her work. ‘Lucky woman’ she added quietly to herself.
They met in a pub for a drink first. She looked even more desirable than before, he thought. Was this all he could see in her? He rounded on himself, despising his base instinct but unable to suppress it. Hopefully she would not notice. They were both talking as if to hide something. Entering the multiplex they were engulfed by the odour of popcorn, a mass of colours, flashing lights. The movie was lighthearted, a comedy with no pretence to anything too serious, something he would not have dreamt of going to on his own. A couple of times she whispered questions to him. Normally this would have irritated him but he enjoyed the sensation of having her so close, inhaling, wanting her.
After the movie he held her hand, they went to another pub. One drink later, emboldened, he asked her if she would like to come back to his flat for a ‘nightcap’. Such an antiquated word. To his (and her) surprise she agreed. They behaved like teenagers on the bus. Touching, pulling and fondling, lips, fingers and tongues. Back at his place he poured drinks, noticing that the answering machine was flashing. He ignored it. They both wanted each other, both ravenous. He was surprised (and delighted) that her ardour and desire matched his own.
Afterwards he held her close, not talking, listening to her, thinking how much he wanted her body. That was all he was interested in, he would say almost anything to have her again. Much later she looked at her watch, sat up with a start. Explaining that she had to leave, could he call her a taxi, when would she see him again, he had been great. Talking to hide some residual embarrassment now she was out of the covers. He walked her to the taxi, promising to get in touch in the next day or two. Farewell kiss, door slammed, brief wave, eager face fading in the dark.
When she had gone he felt as if a weight had been lifted from him. The world was suddenly a better place. From the tipsy chatterbox he had met at his sisters she had now become a wonderful creature the ‘Queen of all my dreams’ as Zeppelin had sung years ago. Back in his flat his answer phone was still demanding attention. He listened. It was Lucy, asking him how he was, would he like to get together sometime over the weekend. ‘So what’ he thought, he had given her a chance to get to know him and she had spurned it. His thoughts were brutal in their arrogance. Maybe he would call her. But why, what for? He felt that he should communicate something to her but he had no idea how to coalesce what was inside him into something coherent. He would see her tomorrow anyway. This thought went through his mind like a flash and then he was back thinking about Gemma, her smell on his body and bed.
Next day he was calling her, confirming what they had agreed last night. As for Lucy he put her off, saying he was otherwise engaged. When she asked him at work with what, smiling and intrigued, he just said ‘personal reasons’ and walked abruptly away. Lucy was upset and also confused but did not say more. With J he pushed, she pulled and then the roles were reversed. This had been going on for a year or more, at work and outside. A few quiet words sometimes, once that kiss at by her flat. ‘Give it up’ she now wanted to say to herself.
J met Gemma in the evening at his flat, this time they dispensed with preliminaries. After a couple of hours they lay spent and happy on the sofa. Making plans, feeling as though the future was open and theirs to seize. They made plans to visit Melanie as a couple, to go again to the movies again, to introduce J to Gemma’s son Harry, they made plans to make more plans very soon. She found him endlessly fascinating, constantly asking him questions about things he hadn’t thought about for years. ‘Where was his first school? How old was he when he first went out with a girl? What was his favourite meal? What was he doing at Christmas?’ and so forth. He did his best to answer, he didn’t mind but found the focus on him unusual and slightly worrying. She invited him to ask more about her. He did, but they were really just the same as she had asked of him. He was more interested in their future. It was as if she was only there since he met her at his sisters, her past he knew it existed but it wasn’t actually real. It had less value (if these things could be measured); only what was going on with them now was tangible.
They visited Melanie over the weekend, taking Harry with them. The three urchins got along famously as usual – if only that energy could be harnessed! His sister seemed genuinely happy, delighted that her big brother had found someone he seemed openly fond of. One of her best friends appeared to think he was special and deserving of endless attention and affection. He of the moods, weeks of incommunicado, inability to hold on to a relationship for more than a week (as far as she knew). Such a change in a matter of days, it was difficult for her to understand but she was delighted for him. Something deep in her however felt that it was not her real brother. This thought, although it was not truly an idea, nothing as coherent, maybe a sudden sensation. She ignored this - whatever it was – hated the concept that people or their nature could not change. During this visit he played with the three children, rolling around on the floor, hoisting them in the air, playing hide and seek, finally reading them stories on the sofa. Gemma and his sister looked on approvingly, viewing this as proof (unsaid of course) of a change. He had always been fond of his sister’s children but this was more, unrestrained and spontaneous. After a few weeks Gemma took him to visit her parents.
He had protested at this, their first real disagreement. She said it meant a lot to her, her parents were very upset after her divorce, she was so proud of him, it felt like the right time to her. J could not argue with most of this but to him it all seemed so new, a mood that he liked. If he met her folks it would be like the initial phase was over. He couldn’t quite mention this to her, not really sure how to express this without it being upsetting to her.
‘It would mean a lot to me’ Gemma said one lunchtime on a Saturday, stroking his forearm.
‘I know’, J replied.
‘We don’t have to stay that long and most of the time they’ll be playing with Harry. You know what grandparents are like’, she said.
‘I know’, he said.
‘If we went in the morning we could have lunch and be home before the evening’ she added.
‘I know we could’, his voice was getting lower.
‘So, if you know, Mr Know All, it’s not a problem is it?’ she said, trying to sound lighthearted.
‘Just because one knows something to be true doesn’t mean that you feel want to do it, does it!’ he said, his voice considerably louder that last time. This startled her; she had never heard this tone from him. It startled him too, he had suddenly slipped into another darker vein, one that he had thought he had left behind.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.’ He tried to excuse himself.
‘It’s ok, I didn’t appreciate you felt that way, it’s just that…’
‘I apologise and we can go whenever you want’ he announced. The rest of the day they verbally tiptoed around one another, afraid that the slightest remark would offend. Soon it was as if it were forgotten – although these things never are – and the next weekend they visited her parents.
Gemma’s mother took to J at once, she found his dark features and rough edges attractive and was delighted when he would smile at her when she made the slightest remark concerning her daughter and himself. With her father there was an underlying tension, very slight but there all the same. Her father was polite, almost too much, but there was an edge to many of his questions, such as
‘I expect you have a good job, after all you have nothing else to hold you back, such as a family’. It was said with a smile but J could not see the wit. He held his tongue, a fairly unusual sensation for him, but vowed to remember the remark. Gemma glanced at him nervously during these exchanges; his outburst a few days ago had given her a new insight into his personality.
Gemma’s mother was beaming, pleased when J put away a large helping of food while he complimented her on her cooking. Feeling replete afterwards (a vigorous bout of sex in the early morning helped this sentiment) and sipping on some sweet wine after the meal, he put his arm around Gemma. He mother smiled at this but, from the corner of his eye he could see her father ever so slightly wincing, before a glacial smile stole over his features. J liked this easy ability to irritate Gemma’s father. He wondered what Gemma would have thought of this silent pleasure.
On the train back to the city she said to him that she thought the visit had gone well. He gave a non-committal grunt and started to doze.
‘What does that mean?’ she demanded. J was about to give some sort of answer that would placate her when Harry started to demand attention from her. Kids have their uses, he thought as he resumed his dozing. After she had quieted her son she observed her slumbering lover and started to wonder. She loved him, wanted him and knew that he wanted her. But did she really know him? Could she expect to after just a few weeks. What J’s sister had said to her after her first meeting with him entered her consciousness.
Some people in his office noticed a difference in him. His eyes had some sparkle to them and he seemed to smile a little more. Lucy no longer asked whether he would be interested in any social engagements, she knew that something good had happened to him and felt unsure of how she felt. A missed opportunity or a disappointment averted? Perhaps one of life’s ‘maybe’s’ that most of us have experienced. Jane could tell that he was ‘all loved up’ (as she thought to herself), if only she was twenty years younger! She had thought about him over the past couple of years but did not want to make a fool of herself – the expression ‘no fool like an old fool’ always ran through her mind when she looked at a younger man. Bryan failed to notice any change, although J did politely refuse a dinner invitation. When he informed Wendy she said
‘I’ll bet he has better things to do now’
Bryan looked blank initially and then said ‘Possibly.’
So it happened that J and Gemma became what is known as ‘an item’. Both basked in a general feeling of satisfaction, physically and emotionally. Both also had a nagging question that they didn’t really want to acknowledge, let alone answer. For her she felt that J was always on the verge of becoming moody and less communicative. He had never really slipped into this mode since she had known him but his sister had mentioned his past. Most of the time he was consideration personified, not just to her but with Harry, taking him to watch his old football team, buying him small toys and even reading him a goodnight story now and then. She was being silly, she was the envy of most of her friends, her Mother always mentioned J with accolades. For him he had within a matter of weeks acquired a lover (very good indeed), a near step-child (sometimes good, sometimes irritating), a set of near in-laws (not good) and a feeling that he was attached (most unsure). Quantifying was part of his job and it seemed to have extended into his personal life.
They had bickered about whether to go. Then they wrangled about what to take. Finally they managed to quibble over what time to arrive. The party was for a friend of Gemma’s, it was her birthday. They were both invited by name, not just ‘Gemma and friend’ and she was pleased with this upgrade. J was not so keen due to his feeling that he would be scrutinised and questioned, albeit in a jocular manner. Finally he grudgingly consented, adding
‘…but I won’t enjoy it.’ When she just laughed at this it only irritated him more. She wanted to take some wine and cook something, he had suggested beer and packaged snacks. Finally he wanted to stop in the pub for a swift ‘warm up’ while she wanted to go directly there. After various negotiations they were agreed.
Leavinf the pub, where they only had the one, both were in a good mood. Eager for each other, touching and fondling, still basking in their ‘afternoon delight’, happy to talk to others, feeling good and wanting others to be aware of it. When they arrived it was bouncing with noise and bodies, smelling of sweat, alcohol and weed. J was introduced to various friends of Gemma’s, most of whom seemed to want to question him endlessly, especially when she was dancing or talking to someone else. One of them in particular, a tall intense woman with piercing, investigative eyes (attractive in a hawk-like way), was remorseless. He did his best, trying to retain a sense of humour. Eventually his irritation broke through and he interjected that she was living in the wrong century. When she queried this he said that a post in the Spanish Inquisition would have suited her. He compounded this by sniggering and saying, in an inebriated manner
‘You missed your vocation!’ She glared at him, tried to say something but (for once) was speechless and marched off towards the drinks table.
He felt quite pleased with this and, after the Hawk had moved on, helped himself to a large helping of a lurid, sweet drink from a bow