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They wrote their own vows and spoke them through choked tears, making promises to share their lives, their laughter, to never let the sun go down an argument. They spoke softly, hardly daring to reach a whisper for fear of breaking the spell, but formed each word with so much love and warm sincerity. As a couple they’re exclusive; together complete, forever a pair. We bore witness from a distance with laughter, applause and a tear or two. They might have noticed, I’m not sure they looked, greedily drinking in the other. Not a word of complaint from the gathered.
I’d seen the mother-in-law disappear to walk her dog at regular intervals, bumped into her talking to ‘Penny’ about hunting rabbits. I must have said, “Hi” three or four times and always received the same quizzical look in return. I had my suspicions confirmed by the groom: “She’s absolutely insane, set up the first Indian restaurant in Slovenia, it went tits-up and she’s back.” So the prospect of an after-dinner speech (we were assured she’d won awards) was horrifying. It’s hard to put that twenty-five minute noise into words. Perhaps, the aural representation of a woman’s mind falling apart. Shuddering.
Fourteen pence left in my wallet because I bought those sticky fruit and nut bars on the train so I’m routing through my trousers for change. I scrabble together the £1.80 for a coffee down the road so I can set up camp and do some writing. Out the door I remember we need bin-bags (black and the alarming orange ones for recycling) and while I’m there I may as well pick up that folder. So it’s another visit to the cash machine. Sat with my coffee (panini as well!) and a man comes over asking for change. Why not.
He definitely wants to live – goes to the doctor everyday to get new medication but he’s 92, what does he expect? His grandson visits with his daughter (who nods and smiles with that resigned look in her eyes, repeatedly shaking hospital costs and palliative care out of her mind) and they listen to his symptoms, his many ailments and aches. They offer words of encouragement, tell him he looks so well; discuss friends and new conservatories, holiday plans and how slow things are at work, but his body is slowly shutting down and no amount of talking will stop that.
I imagine he’s called Trevor or Malcolm but his friends call him Jonno or don’t call him at all. He’s short and twisted thin, shoulders stooped like twigs gnarled in sympathy to each other, the blades held high above his back flared out like unfinished wings. I notice he’s carrying four lavender toilet rolls and a packet of biscuits in a Tesco bag that bounces obediently against his knee as he walks, one foot thrown carelessly in front of the other. He lopes like a giant rabbit, feet turned out at a surprising angle, leading his stubbled chin towards home.
In the whole wide world we’d wander; wonder at marzipan trinkets in cobbled streets, at scones in the shape of a kidney, your stomach lining or my broken finger. Arts and crafts presented in striped tents along the path we walk with raffles and lucky-dips, home-made fudge and marquetry. We’d stop in a small hollow by an ancient tree with saplings that rang out like acoustic guitars, playing songs that told a story. We’d read books bound in leather with wet fingertips cracking the spine and folding all the pages at the wonderful places we wanted to wander and wonder.
I am the one who gets the girl at the end; sat in a tender embrace as the sun sets behind us. I am the one surrounded by friends laughing with drinks in their hands and sun-kissed feet playing in sandals. I am the one that old teachers remember fondly with that far-away smile slapped on their faces, looking how people look when they visit themselves as younger people. I am the one who can’t stop looking in the mirror for an answer, who can’t stop telling lies for his secrets. I am the one who is never really here.
I think he runs the Glow Lounge with his partner – she could be his wife – I always see them here together if I stop for coffee (and their coffee is the best around so I stop as often as I can!) and I read or write. We used to come here all the time (on the short walk home) for breakfast at the weekend or ‘Toss the Boss’ after-work beers. The staff knew us and we certainly had our favourites. It’s one of my hidden London gems, sitting in the sun looking out over the Common, letting my mind wander.
Couldn’t quite bring myself to have the chat I’d promised. He made resolutions all by himself and I listened to what he had to say and believed him. How could I think otherwise? He models himself (quietly perhaps) on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and loves the rebellious streak in anyone but that doesn’t account for his own shortcomings. I can’t help but look for the good in all the questions he poses; the freedom encapsulated in the freefall, downhill, hang-time mentality. Memories of pristine powder. We disagree on many things but he’s probably the closest thing I have to a brother.
He had to pack up twenty-three years of life into boxes and bin-liners; decide what needed to be thrown away or sold. Do you keep hold of all the photographs? Do they all have that special capacity to transport you home? Home. Where is home now that he’s gone? It can’t be the building: the ceramic and tile of the bathroom, the wooden floor in the kitchen or the eggshell paint in the lounge. It isn’t the brown grass under the swing-chair in the garden either, it must be something else. Home has moved for him to some sunny future.
She spoke of a blazing row that erupted over the phone and spilled out into the room, two rooms, each with heads snapped back spitting to the ceiling, two ceilings that fell from the sky and crushed all the air from their lungs. Two sets of lungs, collapsed, sweating under ribs and skin, wrung with rage and mucus. One mobile-phone thrown against one heaving wall, four arms thrust skyward, from sea to shore, like grains of rice falling through treacle. Ten years, almost, of poorly-chosen words and heavy silence. Too many holes to fill. The numbers were always against them.
I’ve drawn a window around the 12th and shaded in some bars in black. I’ve trapped today in biro. I have it in my hand to play or work with; I can doodle all over the seconds that pass waiting for tomorrow, but I won’t. I shall underline the number and remember frames from this day a year ago; sitting at the table listening to tears on the phone, a revelation, an embrace and long journey home. Gazing at a golden river cresting over golden mud flats with a hole in my stomach tapping four fingers against the window frame.
‘The smoke blue, blood red, ghost white of Liverpool Street.’ For all the talk of ripping out chunks of her anatomy with a fork, tearing off others and driving a broom-handle where it didn’t belong, the image that elicited the biggest response from the audience; that shocked them into groans of disgust and sharp inhalations was of an attractive white man sat picking his nose on the train, ‘burying’ his finger into his skull and popping the contents into his mouth when he thought no one was watching. Sexual mutilation was accepted, digested with a slight grimace but not surprising.
Asked to take a look a few years into the future and he was terrified at what he saw, or rather, what he felt. The image that emerged was one belonging to another man many years his senior. He was content, setting up a new set of speakers in the dining room, assembling a bread maker, playing with his dogs and writing when he had the time, but it wasn’t the same man. This other man had a wife and children; he even owned a house. Weighed down with responsibilities he was no longer free to be utterly, blissfully, alone.
Learning a new language the first words I picked up were always ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They’re the words I seek out at the very beginning because if I know nothing else at least I can be courteous. So why is it that I hear them so rarely used in my own country? Too often I see people handing over money or tickets without a murmur of thanks; staring blankly ahead waiting for change or their sandwich. I picture them (unfairly I’m sure) shuffling wordlessly through their grey-scale little existences, insulated from human contact. I wouldn’t give them a thing.
Some nights there’s nothing to say. Hours have been filled with the physical sense of being alive in this body, carrying out all the tiny movements necessary to exist quietly and without fuss on a Sunday. The gentle expansion of the chest and ribs for breathing, adjusting for a laugh or two, the contraction of major muscle groups for organising the movement of food and liquids; the blinking, twitching, flicking and falling that cannot be avoided; the skeleton stacked in the appropriate configuration for walking or sitting or slumping. But none of this is really worth mentioning at all tonight.
Can it really only be about the way we look? Maybe less so in this country but out in LA, as they say, it’s how you strike a pose on the red carpet, ‘and what dress are you wearing this evening? You like her style? Well of course you do… you look beautiful.’ Oh, no questions about the film? My role? The next project? ‘The shoes? Sure, the shoes…’ I trained at Med school for six years, play the piano beautifully, speak Farsi fluently and exhibit my own art-work and you would like to know what shoes I’m wearing? Certainly.
It has been left sitting in the pot too long; it’s stewed, simmering away on a hot-plate like tar bubbling beneath the afternoon sun. It’s not what I imagined waking up with but then some things aren’t ours to decide. I scorch the roof of my mouth and then scour the burn with a sausage baguette; I tongue the rough contours until they are smooth once more, my mouth cloying with the faint taste of metal, or how I imagine metal might taste, at least. Someone scrapes a chair across concrete and the warm bubble bursts splashing all around me.
‘He is a man that did a very bad thing and has acted strangely ever since but that doesn’t make him a bad man.’
Dad wakes up some mornings (I’d say most but I can’t be sure) wondering how it came to this. He rolls over in bed and doesn’t see mum lying next to him, he doesn’t hear Max barking downstairs; he doesn’t have a ‘downstairs’ in the new bungalow. He surrounds himself with jobs and hobbies and holidays but he can never fill that hole in his stomach. If he could turn back time he would do it.
I tell him mum is trying to get on with her life and making do with what she’s been dealt. He says he feels the same. I tell him mum feels he made his decision when he had the affair and moved out of the house. He says he doesn’t understand why she divorced him. I feel like I’m umpiring a tennis match but the ball girls and boys are rolling grenades to each end. ‘It could have been different,’ he says again and again. I squirm in my seat, angry and upset, unable to say anything that will help.
He must have struggled with much of the course (his director demanding such an intensely literary approach, carefully analysing each word and every punctuation mark; I suppose if the writer has sweated over his pauses – how heavy to make each breath and break – then the actor should give them more than a cursory glance) but his final performance left an impression on me. Trained in Japan, with a totally different theatrical culture, he was spell-binding to watch; understanding the credo that the moment of silence before we open our mouths is our most powerful, he stood like an ancient forest.
This is my chair. I could write novels here. One day I’ll drive past slowly, craning my neck out the window trying to see my chair. “Look kids,” I’ll jabber, “that’s where Daddy used to write stories,” and I’ll squeeze your thigh with a grin. A man might be sat reading or chatting with a friend or lover and catch us staring at his table; he’ll wave (uncertain where he knows us from) catch himself at once, now certain he’s made a mistake and return to his book or companion. I’ll drive on with a sense of something lost forever.
I’ve got the fear again. I’m trying to make sense of these funding forms; trawling through hundreds of charities, foundations and trusts in an attempt to find a handful sympathetic to my cause. I live in the wrong city or neighbouring town, I’m too old or qualified to be eligible. I’m not Anglican, Methodist or horticultural; disabled, pensionable or Freemason material. I can’t trace my blood back to ancient French dynasties and I’m simply not a children’s organisation. Can anyone sponsor an actor in training? I don’t fit into any of these boxes, does anyone have a box for me?
I let it all get to me and snapped at you; let the conversation stutter and stall before stopping altogether. I sometimes wonder how everyone else manages on the phone. Do they pace around the room with sweeping motions of the arms, wide-eyed in mid-sentence? Do you? Do you slip in and out of silly voices trying to make her laugh or feel more comfortable? Does that draw the two of you closer together? Or do you mumble into your pillow, keeping your voice near a whisper, trying to find more words?
It’s easier when I can see your face.
‘Lots of thinking space, I’m thinking lots; it’s good. I had to go, I really didn’t want to work. Alas. I miss you too.’
Gazing out, cross-legged, mapping great journeys in the clouds; tales of monumental discovery and adventure etched upon the sky where heroic silhouettes are bleached to white and left to glow in memory. She finds a story in this sky, this window to a silent world; a story that makes her feel something beautiful inside. A madeleine memory that transports her to some other time or the simple pleasure of watching for signs of the oncoming night.
Brass, bronze and black rings on her fingers, a silver ‘SOS’ pendant hanging from her neck on shoe-lace cord; a length of lace tied around her arm like a floral tourniquet and her hair trussed up in black ribbon. Creating ink sketches curled up in a ball, her tongue darting out of her mouth and bouncing on her lips with every stroke of the pen. A duckling with mascara eyes clutching her pad like a parachute staring directly into the sun burning pictures into her mind. A tuft of cloud falls away from the sky and is captured in ink.
I heard him muttering under his breath, words he thought nobody else could hear. Words about falling in love again. The words he chose were short and sharp; a peculiar sky at a wedding in June full of weight and foreboding for the bride and groom who laugh off the charcoal clouds in procession as one of those things we endure. He wondered, so I’m told, if it would last this time, if he would always feel this bliss, forever. ‘What happens when I stop falling?’ He mouthed through a break in the rain, ‘What does love feel like fallen?’
They pass through metal doors like little clockwork mice; revolving, escalating through floors of glass and steel. Pinstripe suits with muting lining, tippy-tappy shoes; modest ties with houndstooth weave offset by twinkling monogrammed cufflinks. Some shuffle past, double-breasted, staring at the ground, content to wander in a haze of numbers fogging out the world around. Some canter through the foyer with scanty economic steps, heads rotating on an axis falling right and left. The surfaces look too sharp to touch, the floor too cold to stand and you’ve lost me temporarily in your wallet-shaped handshake, folding notes around my fingers.
We slot in somewhere between Generation X and Y: too young to remember much of the Historical Overdosing from the 80’s and nearly too old to live online drowning in the relentless Historical Underdosing of Tweets and profile updates. I suppose we’re closer to the latter: familiar with the concept of networking alone in our bedrooms or offices but aware that a Second Life is not a life at all. I wake up everyday torn between a love for the system and a desire to run as far away from it as I can. Into the wild with my laptop.
I wonder how I look sat here writing, breaking off at regular intervals to stare into space. My brain hasn’t started functioning properly, I’m still running on Sleep mode. I ordered three drinks in a determined voice for no reason I can see and now I have three large drinks sitting on my single table. This seems strange to me now at this particular moment. My mouth is dry but I’m not sure I’m thirsty. My head really hurts, I should probably go back to bed. I don’t like who I am in this next moment and I’m bleeding again.
Summer is drawing to a close and I have the old familiar ache of wanderlust in my bones. A longing to sit beneath a different stretch of sky and speak a different language; to absorb another culture, walk through cobbled streets and discover something new in something very old. I want to run my hands over cold stone walls and stand in the lay-lines of History. More than anything, I want to stand in the ocean with a board under my arm and run towards the crashing waves. I need to feel the swell beneath carry me into the shoreline.
The Tip Jar