Flash?

Image result for car flashing lights at me

“Did the driver of that car just flash his lights at us?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered, voice deep.

Thank God,” she smiled, “sometimes I think I just imagine things.”

Nobody answered. There was nobody in the padded cell to hear her.

There never had been.

 

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Acknowledging the Lie

 

He’d never enjoyed shopping. Couldn’t imagine how joining his ex-partner while she went trying on clothes in a bland, neon washed shopping mall would even begin to lead to them getting back together. But, remembering how much he had fallen so deeply in love with her every day for more than twenty years …

… and that their two daughters wanted them to try to make a go of it. Were suggesting that they go away for a weekend together again – at their expense – to see if they couldn’t work things out. And if he had loved his partner he absolutely doted on his daughters, though only one of them was actually his by blood.

The drive over had been a trial, the weather oppressively warm, the unexpected traffic jams not helping and the only thing he could think to talk about was the sight of two buzzards circling each other above the old Roman road. No. Really, that’s the only thing they actually engaged in conversation about. Buzzards.

She had done some talking: work, the weather, the colleagues from a previous job she kept in touch with …

He had listened, or tried to, but failed to concentrate. She almost certainly paid, at most, the same wandering attention to his stories of a visit to the hospital with the guy whose stag weekend he had been to, his efforts to learn German again, and a concert he wanted to go to in the autumn.

She drove cautiously. She always had. Parked efficiently and, once inside the too-slow-to-open automatic doors dallied at first this, then that display of clothes inside the enormous, soul-less spaces of the popular store. Fancy designer names that wouldn’t last the next twelve months, he thought. Clothes made up in sweat shops the other side of the world. Colours that were too loud. Styles that …

Image result for shopping mall fashion

Then he decided he was over-thinking it all. Give her time. Let her decide. Don’t say anything controversial. Or flippant. And don’t get into some profound discussion with her at a time when she is focussing on shopping.

He passed some time reminding himself of that time he had been detailed by his then-boss to take a visitor from Turkey shopping. His protests went unheeded. He’d even told the very stylish Turkish lady that he didn’t like shopping.

She had smiled knowingly, beckoned him closer and whispered that she knew exactly what she wanted to purchase. It was only a matter of going to the shop – she had seen it earlier, finding out if they had the right sized boots for her feet, paying and then heading for a coffee.

“Marvellous!” he remembered thinking. Then spent the next nearly three hours in shoe shops, watching her trying on coats, looking at blouses and hats. Before she decided, with a sweeping declaration that better goods could be had in Turkey. Better. And cheaper!

He made no argument.

“Turks know about coffee too!” she had stated, then lead him to a ubiquitous fast-food joint, telling him that the “best coffee she had ever tasted” was from such a place.

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Fast-food place? Really?

Though he told her he had an instinctive distrust of such places – and he did, she insisted on buying him a coffee.

Which he had accepted with all the grace he could muster, then passed it to a beggar on the bridge as they made their way back to her hotel.

At the same time that he was re-living this episode, he was sure, he was making sympathetic noises about choices, helping, perhaps, a little bit with decisions, generally nodding and smiling.

Then it was time to try the things on. He wasn’t expected to add any fashion advice (never his strong point, they both accepted that easily enough). So he went to look at the men’s things. Took less than four minutes. He didn’t actually need anything, so wasn’t in the mood for it.

So he waited somewhere beyond the Fitting Rooms. Looking at the customers, the staff, the décor.

There was a woman who, for some reason attracted his eye. Long, lightly tanned bare arms. No wristwatch. Shoulder length loose blonde hair. The lithe way she moved confidently, something like a leopard, on long legs.

Lasciviously, unbidden, the thought that she wasn’t wearing knickers rushed in to his head. At the same time she looked, directly, into his eyes. A small tip up of the corners of her mouth. Humour? Stunned, schoolboy-guilty he averted his eyes … as if she might have read his very mind, his sinful-teenager thoughts.  Clearly she hadn’t because she lingered … and, he couldn’t help it – he looked again, then away again – in his own time -before she noticed. Or maybe she hadn’t noticed the first time. Women! Who knew?

The same two members of staff walked slowly by. Store detectives? Checking him out? Letting him know that they were on to him? In case he was up to … well, up to something.

His legs are beginning to ache, the handle of the shopping basket (picked up “in case I see anything I like”, she had said – like, surely that was the idea of coming to a shop) digging into his fingers. He needed a drink. Even an insipid cup of tea such as he was sure they served in the in-store café. And the sooner the better.

Going on holiday together? They weren’t even getting over that awkward first hurdle were they?

But she was smiling when she – eventually – appeared.

All four garments fitted her, indeed, felt comfortable. So, to buy all four – or whittle it down to just two? Three?

Oh and maybe, while they were here, she should look to find some shorts …

“I need a cup of tea,” he said. Her face fell, reflecting the flat tones he had used. Looked pensive? No, looked worried. Definitely worried.

“Sorry,” she managed, “ just trying to make something work …”

Then, after a pause, added, lamely, “You know?”

“Let’s go for a cup of tea first eh?” he suggested. A type of peace offering? Well, actually no: more a course of survival the way his head was pounding. Couldn’t she see that he was trying to make it work? He was actually, for the first time in God-knows-how –many years, shopping with her, brave face and all?

He got the table, she went for the drinks, taking her hand bag because she would need the loo on the way back.

He waited. Thinking. Thinking hard. It didn’t seem like they would make it. How to broach the subject with her? Make her understand? Did she want to make it work? Not by changing her habits. that much was sure from the past two hours and forty something minutes. He was drained. Looked around for inspiration. Tired elderly couples, sitting quietly at tables modelled apparently from ecologically friendly timber. A few too many of twee tables were still cluttered with safe debris, undesirable scones, sandwich packs, carbonated water bottles. Under-staffed? Inefficient staff? None of his business, he reminded himself, looking at the sterile walls painted in clashing colours: like that was making a statement of something other than the designer might have been colour blind. A single wall clad in timbers of contrasting woods and sizes. He’d seen allotment sheds with better walls.

 

A group of three mothers with four youngsters, one asleep in a push chair. They, at least were animated, laughing. The air conditioning switched up a gear. He pushed his chair back on to two legs.

She was suddenly there, opposite him. No tray, just a bottle of Coke and a straw. Standing. Looking down at him. Long bare arms. No wristwatch.

“Sorry to bother you,” she said, quietly,

“…it’s just that there aren’t any other tables available …” that flickering ghost of a smile; now you see it, now you don’t . This time definitely there, this time acknowledging her lie.

“… and I was wondering if you’d mind if I shared yours?”

“That was your sister you were with? Am I right?”

She didn’t pause for an answer. He wasn’t in a rush to give one.

“Bumped into her on the way out. Car keys in hand. Talking to herself. She said something like … she didn’t know why she had come here in the first place. It’s not like she was going on holiday or anything.”

She was already skilfully pulling the chair back with a sandaled foot.

“So my guess is she won’t be needing that little lot,” nodding to the basket of clothes on the chair.

“Oh and did I mention, ” she added, with what that firework flicker of a conspiratorial smile, “that you’re looking like you need a little help?”

“Only to find the answers to the big questions in life,” he leaned back in the minimal chair.

“The big questions in life?” she repeated, “now which are those?”

“Well, we could start with that one I suppose. Any ideas?”

“For me,” she sighed, “there’s usually only one. What shall I wear today?”

His next breath was a long one. He took it while she settled, bent over to take along pull through the straw.

“You do know what I mean? Don’t you?”

Fearfully From the Trees …

It was dark when he got home. Home after travelling a new journey. A journey that was baulked by diversions, slow drivers, an old man who wasn’t able to judge distances and so, frustratingly decelerated every time a wagon came in the opposite direction; a woman in a SUV who had blazed past them both, leaning on her horn; traffic signals that stayed annoyingly red for his lane of vehicles – whichever lane he was in. The radio traffic updates  had been no help: warnings coming on too late once he was in the serpent of dying motors. That or not at all. The GPS system was malfunctioning, the map keeping spinning and – at best – recalculating.

He took a beer from the fridge, suddenly needing it as the intense concentration of rush hour driving began to ebb away. Passed straight through the house with a grunt to his wife (sitting watching some detective repeat on the large TV). He had made it home. Now just needed to relax. A fraught day. Computers at work locking him out. Share prices falling. The kidnapping of hostages in an out of the way café half way around the world. At least some of them, he was certain would end up dead: when, inevitably the forces of law and order decided to free them. That they would not, could not, could not afford to negotiate. The precedent it would set.

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Been A Long Time.

Been a  long time – a very, very long time – since I’ve felt like being around people. Strange how a few moments will change your outlook. Change your life. I’d never thought about it before. Had no reason to, I guess. But the accident changed all that. Changed me. Changed me and changed the people I had around me too. Funny how that can happen, don’t you think?

I began to feel that, if I shunned the hum-drum, noisy, mean-nothing company – and I certainly did – they seemed to … well to ignore me. It became like I wasn’t there for them. I didn’t mind; well perhaps I really did but hid it from even myself. Hid it for so long it became fact, became the solid, immoveable truth.

I took to hanging out in the quiet places. The places that were at first so unfamiliar to me. Away from my usual haunts. The alleyway between the factories with the long-unrepaired streetlights. In the wall shadows cast by the railway marshalling yard lights. The demolished church on the arboretum corner. The quiet places. The shadows. The quiet whispering darknesses. I became those places. The night hours. It was, simply not necessary to be bothered by people any more. Not my family. Not my friends. Not any one of those people I hadn’t met yet.

And – I missed them not. Keeping my own company. Alone but not lonely. I spent my time thinking about events in my life. I am sure that I exaggerated some of them, that I may even have completely invented others. But I kept returning to the accident. Just in snatches. The country road home, made unfamiliar by November fog. The road not holding the tyres of the car. The rush that started as a slide. The crackle, jerk, breaking of the quick thorn hedge. The start of the roll. The path to the oak tree on which I swung as a child. The sickening echoing shock of coming to dead-stop.

 

And still I stayed away from people. Quite deliberately. I saw no sense any more in their busyness, their businesses.

For years I went on in that way.

But, just lately I’m feeling a change. It may have started when that poor, slope-shouldered man strolled sobbing in the arboretum. Late at night. When nobody was around – he believed – to see him weep. His path had taken him, un-noticing, uncaring across the shards of broken stained glass beneath where the west wall of the church once stood. He leaned, shaking against what was left of a door frame for long minutes.  

I did not approach him. Why should I? Why would I? I knew better than to intrude on his privacy. On his grief. On his deeply felt but undeserved guilt. He came back. Twelve nights in a row, even though it rained for three of them. By the final night I began to think he recognised my own presence there.

But he didn’t speak. Didn’t approach me. I imagine he was respecting my privacy too – in the way that I looked to protect his. But we shared a physical space: alleys where large puddles were rippled by big raindrops, that reflected occasional stars, occasional clouds. We shared a time too. The midnight-quiet dark time. When people were scarce. When people slept. To dream to recover. To refresh.

But my curiosity was growing. He did nothing to encourage this. It was all my own … fault (if fault be the right word). I know this when I think about it. And, trust me I have the time to think, the luxury of time to think. So … I’d watch him, ever more closely. At a distance. Of course. I took to following him too. I am sure that – to begin with at any rate – he did not know this. But I’d watch him pause at the porch door of a house. Look at the little blue car parked, unused in the driveway. Once he leaned heavily on the bonnet. Both hands pressing down, his head dropped forward between his shoulder blades, breathing noisily.

Eventually he’d take the key and unlock the door. Enter slowly the dark, still house. He never bothered to put the lights on. The rooms didn’t need them. He didn’t want them. Lights lit up the photographs, the memories, ornaments, and these were times when he would do without their painful reminders.

He didn’t drink to excess. Not usually. He drank to help him forget. It worked a few times, though usually not. One evening he even accompanied a younger woman to a flat not far away from his own home. But, though she was willing he couldn’t get himself past the first hot kisses and fumbles. He rushed away, head: to the demolished church. Where he wept for over an hour.

Sometimes I am convinced that I could have easily gotten in to his house. Even if, one careless pre-dawn he hadn’t left the front door unlocked. It was just easier … and, honestly, sometimes I convinced myself that it was what he wanted to happen anyway.

Other times I believe it was a mistake.

But I did it anyway. Stood in the darkened hallway while he lay collapsed on the sofa, his world a small black space that not even his snores could breach. He had been drunk.

But I lingered that night. I couldn’t help myself. Neither could I explain why I was so drawn to the man – this miserable man – or his unforgivingly lonely dwelling. But I made myself familiar  with the place. The untidiness. The random collections of magazines, papers, underclothes, library books. Fines to be paid. But among the discarded dinner plates I could also sense the underlying determination to go on; not to give up.

So I returned. This will not have been a surprise to him. He must have known it would go this way and, by now, I no longer startled him when ho glance me out of the corner of his eye. My pale presence. Anyway he never objected and our living – side by side – if not together became the way it was.

I took great comfort from it, that steady undemanding presence of his. He never said but I think he got the same from my being there.

And, for the first time since my car hit the tree in which I played as a child – the tree that took my life – I am beginning to feel  a new connection with the living human race.

“It’s Sport, Jim, But Not as we Knew It …”

So, some moneybody said,

“How about we

Pay more for ’em,

Set no limits,

Pay ’em more;

Give ’em much more

Than an hour an’ a bit

Of a Saturday afternoon?

Put the celebrity shine on

Lads who once were welders,

Scoring for chicken ‘n beans?

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Iron Frustration.

 

Been away. Not travelling; just absent. Been away. Again. But this time my feet stayed in the same place. My muse went away. Again. Was it my fault? Of course … but I guess she needs space too, to visit her own sources of inspiration. Away.

While I dallied, uselessly, and useless, between weak guitar runs and wet days that leaked bad energies. Nothing came. Nothing came out right. Again.

Did it ever?

Been surrounded by books, often my favourite company. New stories, plots, characters, facts, you’re a reader you know what I’m saying … but everything was going in,

in,

in,

in:

no sparks, no fires being set off, no leaps of disjointed thingummywhatsit coming together.

No bl”%*y writing!

Couldn’t see the thoughts for the iron?

The phases of the moon … which was honey when it should have been bone?

Bad karma, not enough sleep, not enough you know what else, too much this, too many that … and introspection never pays the going rate.

I smile to think it, but patience is over-rated, just sometimes has to be enough.

Image:imperomedia.com

 

Alarm.

The strident telephone bell exploded into his sleep. Broke into  his dream., where it was an alarm on a ship. And he staggered out of his bed into the corridor. Which became the half-remembered armoured claustrophobic corridor of a military ship. Which pitched and tipped as the ship, something like a destroyer to be moving like this … his waking mind was trying to make the unconscious inhabitable. And the destroyer was beginning the nautical equivalent of a racing hand-brake turn and his stomach was rising towards his throat. So he grabbed the big circular handle that, when turned would water-tight the rooms beyond, as he gazed into the …

…. control room of a Russian submarine, with transparent battle-stage screens and computers and the iconic periscope mount.

The telephone rang again. A jarring old-fashioned Rrrrring- Rrrring of bells. Now he was awake.

Who could be ringing at this time of the morning? His mother? Presumed somewhere on the way to Australia to stay with friends? The plane ? Oh God, please let everything be OK … the silent unformed prayer. One of his daughters?

Oh God …

“Good morning sir, this is Chris from …”

Highly accented voice. Cheerful, but somebody called Chris could not have sounded less like somebody called Chris if you had given them two sacks of diamonds and a winning Lotto ticket to try hard not to sound like Chris.

His mind now was working in different directions. Part of it relieved  that the call was not from his family; part of it angry that he was being disturbed from a good sleep – and one he really, really needed by some idiot cold-calling. Part of him remembering another glorious time when an alarm bell had burst into his dreams. Dreams that were not entirely dreams.

Between lucrative jobs. Away from the wife he loved and the six-month old child that had turned their lives into a wonderful new phase he was loitering on the Bergen harbour front. Interview completed, nothing particular to do, nowhere to be for an afternoon.

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