Sunday, March 24

PART IV: In the Hall of Raphael

WAITING IN THE rain with a cigarette. Down long streets in every direction car headlights pick out white scattered lines. A pretty girl came and stood next to me to smoke, too. A couple of young men walked along and stopped to talk to her. I couldn’t bear them, so I walked around the building and stood at the front.
It was Friday and all was not lost. Helen was due at a dinner and a party, and she’d text me – ‘Kind of thinking about skipping the dinner, such a bad mood … because I didn’t really wanna go, or to the party after either.’ Then she asked me – ‘Wanna go to the V&A?’
So outside the rain fell and I made my way. Now that I had spent more time with her and felt her insides and seen her sleeping, I was not so nervous to meet her. My despondency that had smogged the past few days was lifted.
Again she appeared from nowhere – ‘Why aren’t you waiting inside?’ I didn’t know why I wasn’t waiting inside; I liked rain, though. We kissed on the steps. There was a camera looking at us. Inside there was music playing; people sitting in the entrance; drinks being served from a makeshift bar; tables & chairs laid out. We deposited our belongings in the cloakroom and so eager was I to hurry around with her that a strange woman chased after me with the token I had forgotten.
We went to an exhibit of Middle-Eastern photography. ‘There will be a tour in five minutes.’ ‘It’s okay, thanks.’
We looked around. She was with me again. It had felt like so long since Wednesday morning and the city had changed. I knew that my life had changed. Of course I was still employed somewhere and I was still living at home and was still a little hopeless, but now there was a new name in my life that would not be forgotten (five letters six letters, foreign) and a girl who saved me in a way that she would never know. (If a girl doesn’t save you in some way or other, then it is not worth it.) Whenever she walked past me – behind, from one piece to another – she brushed against me or ran her hand along my back. Our discussions – pieces, events, our day, history, amusements – were held with our faces an inch apart. I could smell her breath.
I had not been to the V&A in years, since those fresh days of primary school, seventeen years ago. I did not recognise it nor why should I? Everything was different now.
Former self.
I bought a can of overpriced Coke that we could share. A thin woman played music from behind a record player, the halls made every sound angelic, people sat around, sipping wine, sitting there so they could be seen. It was all very strange to me.
Everything unrecogniseable and still I was revisited by memories of my childhood.
Ancient sculptures sculpted by sculptors with no idea that she & I would be walking beside them so far in the future in a foreign country. She would pause, take a light-reading and then, sometimes, she would take a photograph. More often than not, she just took a light-reading. In the hall of Raphael, she took a small pink pill. I didn’t know what the small pink pill was for and so I took her hand. I did not like to take anyone’s hand in front of other people but I wanted to hold her hand. Smaller hands than mine. Raphael, Jesus, the disciples, the onlookers, the doubters, she, I.
Very soon – maybe I imagined it – her pill pepped her up a bit and we laughed at some Pope robes in a dark corner. I thought of lying her down and being inside her with the head of the Catholic church looking down at us, blessing us and coming together. The V&A was ours. We walked round, a Friday night, quiet building – except the hubbub in the entrance. I paused to look at some architectural exhibit (and she paused to wait for me) and when I caught up I took a photograph of her on my phone. We walked the Japanese exhibit, too, because I wanted to see the Samurai armour and the swords and the paintings. We stood side by side at a case of netsuke and we were interested in them.
I suppose I understood what people meant by love. Who knew if I was in love? But I understood that I was doing something with a girl who made me feel relaxed happy excited joyous and I wished for nothing else on the planet and her company made me forget about my hunger & my sobriety & that I hadn’t written in six days; writing was at the wayside because it felt like Life – defined in dictionaries and on gravestones – was happening to me. I had spent whole nights since her arrival stuck on some fucked-up wonder.

We left at about quarter-past-nine.
The underground was penetrated and then relieved by people going out for Friday night.
On the travelling train she put her head on my shoulder we shared a bottle of water she talked. I didn’t like to talk on the train with all the sour-faces around us but I liked to hear her. She was pressed up against me and I wondered what everyone thought of us with her head on my shoulder. They probably thought that we were a couple or something. Down the street, that fresh air upon us in the rainless Friday night, she told me about her favourite songs, singing as she went, bumping into me. She was making me laugh. We went to a bar and sat down with some drinks that she had bought. Big armchairs, I suppose. Our knees together like teeth in a zip. I asked that she sign the book she’d given me, the thin red paperback. Her note was nothing at all, but was signed on a page she chose after some deliberating [to be continued].
Behind her, I watched a couple become a couple. At first they were two and then they talked and then the man went and kissed her. I understood his jubilation and the sensation as they conveyed fluids into the other’s mouth. He went to the toilet, - ‘I don’t understand it! He’s just built up the courage to kiss her! and then he’s gone to the toilet!’ Her knees were slender and warm against mine. When her pint was finished she helped me with my second. She asked me a good place to buy scotch for her friend.
Remembered – it was the time of year, a date, when I went to Hannah’s bench, to reminisce about her, but now I could not remember Hannah – the last girl to have spiked my heart on the city limits. Perhaps that’s all one girl was, a distraction from the last. I wondered. I did not think about Hannah – though she has since married – and could not think of a time when I was happier than when I was in a bar with Helen, her knees around mine. It was a very small thing. Maybe it could have been anyone. Maybe I was just floating in the water, clinging to whatever piece of wreckage I could find, no matter how big or buoyant it was. I suspected that this was not the case, because – and I spilled my feelings (her listening very closely) – everything just seemed perfect. A word I was not used to.
She would see me tomorrow.
The fact that she would see me tomorrow – on her last day – flattered me.
The eyebrows and the tiniest wrinkle of her eyelid upheaved over the waving stroke of her makeup brush. Don’t let the night catch you counting the yays on another’s face.
We stood by the gate until my train was to leave, and afterwards she was going out west where the town was more electric. A young man behind us was vomiting, a policeman coming over to check on him. The station was all a-go with drunkenness and a great shift back to the counties. We kissed. I walked down the train with the young man. He stumbled hither and thither. He might fall over. He was about to throw up again. He stopped to let it all come out of him.
I would see her again tomorrow. Hopefully.
Hopefully I would see her again tomorrow.
She was leaving on Sunday and there was no telling what sort of interesting young men she would meet in Vienna and Berlin. I, everything considered, was not very interesting. Everything was in my head. I sat on the train. A jolted reflection shone back at me.

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