Tuesday, September 2

Middle-Distance

PEOPLE LIKE HISTORY. There is something to history, even of one’s own life, that shuts out the rest of the world and brings back either sadness or happiness (for all those in between are not recounted but forgotten, done away with). I am sitting in an armchair in a hotel lobby. The lobby is orange and wood-paneled. Across from me, to the right of the reception desk, is a clock that can be heard ticking through the silence. I strive to hear the ticking. The clock is ticking. The pendulum rocks back & forth and the ticking is in time. Next to the lift is an illuminated sign that reads NO SMOKING. It is Saturday night. Young people staying in the hotel are gallivanting off for a night out. They are dressed garishly. One girl wears a dress that drapes down in two parts to cover the minimum of her breasts; striding bold and long, bare legs, her man by her side, the group of them chatting and laughing in short snorts. They are good breasts, I suppose from my chair, but I find it a little too much and wince. I am drinking a cold beer that is sweating. I have ordered my date a glass of prosecco, which is balanced upon a coaster and setting off bubbles, fireworks, towards the brim.
She will like the prosecco, I am certain. She is not yet late but I, for once, am early. I am not nervous but I am remembering a girl whom I adored in sixth form. She was all puffy, baby-faced with a voluptuous mouth and at the May Ball she was dressed in the same dress as the girl in the hotel lobby. I went off her instantly because I saw something in her that I hadn’t noticed before.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’m sad.’
‘I can see that. Why?’
‘I can’t tell you.’
Later on she could tell me (in work, where emotion is not pampered by decor): her friend had died. Only thirty. There is not enough history on a dead thirty-year-old. They have no more to say and then they die and only their friends have history and it trembles one to think of young death and cancer.
‘Shall we go for dinner tonight? I know a hotel that does an amazing steak.’
She was out of my league; big eyes, pretty, all monochrome.
I removed my dad’s film from the camera and put it to one side. He had received a photography set for Christmas one year off of my mother, four Christmases before I was born; all the chemicals noxiously disturbing the en suite; portraits of the dog, the pair of them, his car, the woods behind their first house together. The dog looked the best in monochrome because it was a black dog, hellhound, but kind and loyal to the last. The way the dog looked after me when I was a baby is something that still warms me. Beside my bed is a photograph of the pair of us; the dog died of cancer, too. The dog’s name was Morton and I’ve never known anything named Morton since. ’Since’ is a word used in history a lot; the word slithers out of the mouth, opening and closing it slowly around each end.
‘Can I get you another beer, sir?’
I don’t notice but I have drank nearly all of it—‘O, yes, please.’ He asks me if I would like anything else—‘Have you got any wasabi peas?’ He answers that they have and that he’ll get me some. Then she walks into the lobby from down the stairs. She has on a black skirt and a tight black top that descends around her skin like a moon, exposing, from the tip of the shoulders, her clavicle. Her breasts are small and unsupported, exquisite. Her eyes are wonderfully made up and radiate. She has been drinking irradiated water again.
She apologises for being late, though she is not late. One minute early.
She thanks me for the drink. We cheers. I have lost the ticking of the clock, it is out there, somewhere, but unheard of.
I ask how she is as she settles in to the sofa opposite me, a small table away upon which the newly-arrived wasabi peas are bowled. She tells me that she is okay yet around her large, decorated eyes is the red lipstick of sorrow and frantic sobbing. She thanks me again for the drink. She drinks it in big gulps so as to dispel the taste of toothpaste from her mouth. Around the lobby many people continue to go from its warmth out into the windy night. Everyone is muttering with excitement. The staff behind reception are giggling at something on the computer screen and the monitor’s white light is blue light on their faces, lit from the chin up and all the hollows accentuated.
‘I thought I saw her the other day – down Commercial St. – but it wasn’t her . . . she was already dead by then. I won’t ever see her again and that’s what’s really weird to me.’ Her lip started to shift, to tremble like a bee around a flower deciding precisely where to land. Trying not to cry makes it easier to cry, just like trying not to laugh makes it easier to laugh. ‘I’m sorry.’
I told her not to apologise. She was enjoying her prosecco. She composed herself every time she took a sip of prosecco.
My mother discovered prosecco from our neighbours, who were more sociable and active than my parents. She always considered visiting their houses an occasion for which she would do her makeup. ‘It’s Italian,’ they told her and my mother, eager to please, took it over the champagne she was hoping for. It became all she drank for years. Water or prosecco. Then Thursdays, after she had done the housework and relaxed herself into the special chair she kept in the bay window, she would open a bottle of prosecco and read her books and her magazines. It was her time, that no-one, not my brothers nor I, could disturb. At first she was always nervous about popping the cork, until my father’s persistent absence forced her to learn. She was dangerous once she learned how to open a bottle of prosecco. The bottle would disappear within the hour. Her flute glowed on the small table beside her, adjacent to the pile of books and magazines. ‘Darling, could you top me up, please?’
‘What was she like?’
She fumbles in her bag—‘I’ve actually been carrying around some photographs of her since I found out.’ Not in monochrome. She hands them to me. The girl doesn’t look sick. ‘She doesn’t look sick,’ she confirms. She is blonde and slender, like a Joni Mitchell song. She is alive in the photographs, looking at the camera though altogether unaffected by it. ‘I was dating her boyfriend’s friend. She got me a job at this furniture shop and then wrote me a reference so I could move on. She was in this punk, hardcore band they had.’
I’ve heard of it and maybe I’ve seen it for myself, but for a moment she looked off into the middle-distance. There was something there, I imagine, caught between the reception desk and the regular ticking of the clock. Keeping my fingertips from the matt prints, I had barely finished going through them before the photographs were snatched from my grasp and stowed once more in her black handbag.
We, all of us, hang baubles of sadness from our Christmas tree. We get carried away and hang many baubles and the branches sag. We know not when to stop with the baubles. We think they make us prettier. Perhaps they do.
She was near the end of her drink. She told me I looked handsome and that made me smile. ‘You should keep the beard.’ I had booked the table for eight. ‘How do you have your steak done?’ I told her. ‘I have mine medium-rare, too.’ I have a guilt about steaks, especially medium-rare steaks. One slice of that special knife and the thing unfolds on your plate and pink rose rises out and the blood spills out, too, and historically the blood moved through the animal’s body. We catch each other’s eyes and she smiles at me, but it is a quick smile, poked into her face by manners and stolen quickly away. I had booked the table for eight. Another party were talking loudly and laughing down the stairs and they were going out into the night. She looked at them and smiled at me.

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