A strange jumble of a man walks towards him. Dressed smartly in a suit with loosened tie. One of his eyes is swollen, bruised blue and black. The man stares two hundred feet ahead with a glazed, gaze fixed on a point that moves at the same pace as him. Walking a high wire, hands hanging by his sides fingers twitching and fiddling with the thin air. The strange man mirrors his movement as he drifts to one side of the pavement then back to the other. For a second it feels like the man is purposefully trying to collide with him but then he sees the glazed look in his eyes, there is no aggression there. The man stumbles as they pass then sways off down the street.
On arriving at the cafe he orders a coffee and calls her on his mobile phone. She does not answer. He is about to leave a message but cannot find the right words so he presses the ‘end call’ button. Better not to pester her when they were meant to be meeting to make up. He takes a sip of his coffee and surveys the cafe. A lump has formed in his throat, there is a knot in his stomach. He always feels like this when they argue, unable to articulate his anger and baffled by her view point. He waits for her. She is late, again.
* * * * *
An old man holds the door open and she squeezes through the gap, a disarray of shopping bags, coat and umbrella. Her cheeks are red, her nose cold and moist. He scuffs his chair back and waves her over in one movement. A small smile touches her lips as she slides into the chair opposite him, removing her hat before easing off her gloves one finger at a time. He feels he should apologise but cannot speak. He leans forward and looks at her then over her shoulder at the door. He forms and reforms a sentence, imagines her response then rejects the sentence and tries a slight variation, differently nuanced. He gets lost half way through and sips his hot chocolate buying some time. “Sorry about last night” he blurts out, “I was feeling a bit …off”.
Her arms are folded across her chest, eyes hard and narrow as she replies: “What was wrong with you? You went all weird. What was with the silent treatment? ”
“What silent treatment?” his shakes his head as he looks around the cafe for answers.
“You didn’t say a word the whole way home.” she enunciates each word with a slow, punching rhythm.
“I just got a bit freaked out by the play”
“Well, what freaked you out?”
“You know, I said last night, it reminded me of my life and then the crash happened and I thought what if that was me, over, done? What if it was you?”
“And that was why you didn’t talk to me the whole way home? That was why you were acting so weird?”
“Yeah, look I’m sorry can we just forget about it?”
“Fine!” her head drops, hiding her face. When she raises it again she is poking out her tongue. He sits back, his shoulders drop as he begins telling her about his day. Listening she studying his face. A crumb clings to the corner of his mouth. She becomes transfixed by the crumb wondering if it will fall. She feels that she almost knows what he is about to say without really listening to the meaning. A nagging voice tells her to focus but she is distracted by an odd but familiar feeling of Déjà vu. She is waiting for the spell to break, as it always does. The crumb bobs up and down at the corner of his mouth, clinging on for dear life. Up and down, up then down goes the crumb with the stubble of his jaw. Then the crumb falls, she realises that he has stopped speaking. The spell has been broken. She smiles at him but cannot think of what she is meant to say so turns and looks out of the window. He sips his drink and starts talking about something else.
* * * * *
The Old man looks over to his phone that stays stubbornly silent. There are no letters on his doormat and no dates circled on the calendar that hangs on his wall. He was not written anything new in years. In the beginning, after the crash, that great big bang that changed everything, back when he created his first piece his head was full of ideas. He wrote out of necessity, with a furious and desperate need to get the thoughts out of his head and onto paper. Having completed the first draft in just six days he lay in a daze for twenty four hours contented by what he had done. Perhaps, he had written too much, too quickly and now the well had run dry. He should have saved something for later, held something back. After that initial burst, that intense creative period he had nothing left to give. He had lost the first draft, left it in a notebook somewhere. But someone must have picked it up because he had seen it, seen it at the theater. The first time that he saw it he wanted to shout out “it’s mine, I wrote this. It belongs to me. They’ve stolen it!” But something stopped him. Perhaps it was at the wonderment of it existing at all. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of making a fuss. If people didn’t like it then he couldn’t be held responsible if know one knew that he had created it. At the same time he wanted recognition but no one would listen? When he tried to tell people they looked at him like he was mad. So now he just watches his creation played out on stage from high in the rafters. He would like to interject, re-write, edit or insert new passages. He had done so a few times at home correcting chunks of text on his old typewriter, editing with an unforgiving wrath but the results were disastrous and sometimes ridiculous. Depending on his frame of mind passages would become fantastical, surreal or dark and tragic. Not that it mattered as no one would ever read them anyway. It was better not to interfere. Who would believe him? What did it matter anyway? An artist’s creations take on a life of their own when the artist has made his last brush stroke, dotted her last full stop, played the last note. The audience takes over then and makes it their own. It becomes something else under their gaze, in their ears, in their mind. They change it and sometimes, it changes them. Nowadays the old man’s play still resemble the notes that he wrote so long ago but under the direction of others much had changed. The smallest alteration in a phrase or speech has massive implications. Parts were omitted or over emphasised. Sometimes he called the theater to complain but they always seem to be engaged. The Old man is lonely he wishes that they would answer the phone he just wanted someone to talk to.
* * * * *
The window is steamed up but not so much that the odds cannot be read on the Oldham, Chesterfield FA cup clash: eighty pound winnings for a ten pound bet on Oldham to win 3 – 1. Two blonds chat behind the counter, their gestures mirroring each other, light hair flicking in arcs like halos around their chattering. One of them stops to chew on a hang nail, a bad habit. The other pulls at an eyelash that has been irritating her, a thought occurs, her head lolls to one side accommodating it’s weight, her body slumps then before the thought has fully formed it is out of her mouth, she thinks as she speaks and speaks as she thinks. A few betting slips lie crumpled where they had been discarded in between the hourly clean up. A man in his mid twenties twirls a stubby betting shop pencil around his fingers from little pinky to thumb and back again. He has not removed his woolly hat, he only popped in to put a tenner on the football it was two hours later having been ‘up’ now he was ‘down’ and just needed to win a little back from his remaining steak to feel OK. The horses run, their breath visible in the cold air. Hooves crunch on hard frosty ground that shortly they will pound. He just needs ‘Serendipity Angle’ to win.
* * * * *
He is busy at work. It occupies his mind for most of the day and evening leaving little space for him to consider or plan what he is doing. He exists, propelled forward by deadlines, driven by the demands of others. Time passes, arguments fade. Things that seemed so important at the time are obscured by other concerns. A parcel arrives but remains unopened on the telephone table. He knows what it is but the Play seems less important now. He wonders why he let it effect him so much. Why had he gone to the length of ordering the manuscript? The parcel sits in the morning sunlight on top of letters from the Bank, Water company and junk mail. It seems innocuous, an impotent, inanimate object. But like a rabbit burrow you would not reach into for fear of what lurks there in the darkness he did not feel like opening the parcel. He brushes it aside and opens the rest of his post. The parcel remains unopened on the table, by the door. He passes it each day and looks the other way.
* * * * *
The Old man eats a forkful of baked beans cold, straight from the can and licks his lips. A spot of tomato juice remains hanging to grey stubble. He scrapes the remaining contents from the can into a pan, turns on the gas and presses the ignite button. Click, click, click but no swoosh of flame. The gas hisses unlit and offends his nostrils, he turns it off and rummages around in the kitchen draw for a lighter or matches that he can see clearly in his minds eye but in reality remain obstinately hidden. ‘Where are the matches?’, years ago she would have answered in a sing song voice with comforting condescension. He pats his pockets wandering over to the sideboard muttering about ‘bloody things never being where you left them’. He knocks the floatsam and jetsam of the sideboard back and forth: letters, coins, rubber bands, dead batteries, a leaky biro and broken picture frame but no lighter. The table is next, there is more muttering on his way to it and there underneath a pile of free magazines, two-for-one fast food vouchers and taxi cards is the book of stamps that he was looking for a couple of days ago but no lighter. He gives up and eats the rest of the beans cold from the source pan flicking spots of tomato juice onto his clean shirt, realising with the last mouthful that he could have heated them up in the microwave.
* * * * *
He would like her to stay. They had shared a home cooked meal, a bottle of wine and a DVD at his flat but he can tell by the way that her body is tight and angular that she will be leaving soon. She has a busy day tomorrow and cannot relax though she cannot put her finger on why. Their timing is off this evening, sentences bump and collide. They misunderstand each other. Words scrape and skin against one another. So she leaves, preferring the uncomplicated comfort of her own surroundings. They embrace, a hug to follow protocol at the door. There is little warmth in the dialogue that passes between their bodies as they press together. They are all awkward angles, elbows and bones. Sufficient time passes before they break away. She turns away, he looks at the back of her head.
The lift doors close. He looks at the cold metal for a few moments before turning back into his flat. He swings the door closed. It slams behind him, a little harder than he had intended and he realises that he is a little more annoyed than he thought. Frowning he knocks into the telephone table, the book of the Play shifts, unnoticed. He walks into the living room turning on the TV with the remote as he drops onto the sofa. Unable to settle on any channel he skips from one to the next scratching his balls and yawning. He pulls yesterdays betting slip from his pocket looking at the name that seemed to sing out to him but now meant nothing. He crumples it into a ball and throws it at the television screen. An uneasy feeling creeps over him. A cold draft blows under the door. He is concerned about her, waiting alone outside in the street below. He should get the lift down and check that she gets the Taxi. He doesn’t usually see her into the cab but he has a bad feeling that out weighs his annoyance. He grabs his keys and rushes out, too impatient to wait for the lift he takes the stairs two at a time.
* * * * *
She stands under a street light her figure a silhouette in the orange glow. The street is still wet from the rain that had fallen earlier making it glisten and sparkle. She rummages through her bag, bent in half her head almost in the bag that she lifts and rests on a raised knee. Her hands moving mirror, tweezers and lipstick this way and that as she explores. She does not notice a man as he stops halfway across the road at the T-Junction having looked in her direction. She does not see him change direction and walk towards her looking about him. She is unaware that he is now coming towards her. She is looking for a piece of chewing gum that she is sure is in there but seems to be eluding her searching fingers. She locates a small cylinder that from the grooves in the side is recognised as the remaining three or four mints. That will do she thinks pulling it out and straightening up. She does not notice the man getting closer, only fifty feet away now. She does not see him reach into his pocket. She is unaware of him checking the street as she untwists the nearly empty packet of mints. Her cold fingers, a little clumsy and numb loose their grip and the mints spin towards the pavement. She crouches down to pick them up. She does not notice the man’s pace quicken. Resting on her calves, her nails scratch at the pavement as she picks up the mints. She does not see the man start to draw his hand from his pocket. She starts to rise examining the chipped coloured varnish on her finger nails, unaware of the man reaching towards her.
He calls out as he emerges from the entrance to the flats the doors swinging close with a swoosh and clatter behind him. She becomes aware of something behind her, a shiver runs through her and she turns with a start as a man brushes past her, hood up, head down, he hurries off down the street.
She watches his back as he strides away her shoulders hunched, her muscles tensed. She looks back towards him as he calls her name again and runs over to her. Her shoulders return to their normal position, her muscles relax. She is annoyed that he followed her down wondering how he is going to try and convince her to stay. Then she looks back down the street in the direction of the man as he turns the corner and she is glad that he is there. “What you doing down here? Can’t get enough of me hey?” he looks down the street after the man and frowns. This happened in The Play, he is sure this happened in the play. He puts his arms around her drawing her closer to his body. Her head rests on his chest. They stand in a familiar pose, he frowns, his brow knotted deep in thought.
“I just though I would put you safe in the taxi, make sure that you go” She chuckles and snuggles into his chest, enjoying the familiar sent of his aftershave. He stares into the blackness over her shoulder and thinks of the unopened parcel containing the book by his door.
The tail lights of the cab disappear around the corner. He is left staring into the void that she left. He nods turns on his heel and races back to his flat. The front door bangs against the hall wall. He sweeps unopened post onto the floor and grasps the parcel containing the book in both hands. The brown cardboard is glued down on one side and it takes a little coaxing to get it open. His fingernails pull at the edges. The cardboard comes apart in bits. He casts the packaging aside and kicks the front door shut before walking, holding the book lightly, delicately with his finger tips into the spare room. He clears a space and places it in the centre of his table and flicks on the reading lamp. He looks at the cover and feels the embossed lettering of the title. He wipes his hands across his chest then his lap then turns to the first page and starts to read. The opening pages remind him of the opening of the play and the words prompt him to recall that night, the sound of the audience. He sees the actors face as he reads his lines. He sees his mothers face as he reads the stage direction describing the actress giving birth. He becomes impatient and flicks forward trying to find mention of a mugger, a dark street. There is a meal, too far forward he turns back a few pages, there is an argument. He turns back some more, there is a school girl’s party, too far back. Then there it is, in black and white, what had happened just moments ago. At the very least it was remarkably similar. The stage direction was sparse but there was a mugger walking down a dark street who’s intentions were averted by the arrival of the woman’s boyfriend. The dialogue was very similar if not the same or was it? He tried to remember what they had said to each other as he watched the dark figure hurry off. He tried not to read ahead but to think first then look to test himself, test his theory but his eyes betrayed him. The zoomed ahead greedily searching out the next detail, to discover what happened next.
‘Can’t get enough of me huh?’
‘Just making sure you leave.’ Was that what they had said? It sounded like it. How could he know for sure? He read the lines again.
‘Can’t get enough of me huh?’
‘Just making sure you leave.’ He had said that had he not? ‘Just making sure you leave.’ It taunted him, it was hardly funny and more clichéd than witty. When he said it, it had just been something to say, the answer to her ‘call’, an automatic response when something more honest, deeper, thoughtful was required. He had responded to one moment whilst thinking about another. Staring at an alternative future whilst the moment slipped into the past. ‘Just making sure you leave.’ he had not even want her to go. Why had he said that? Had he said it? ‘Just making sure you leave.’