Portraits from a town 10

He sits in the corner of the pub. His corner. He remembers how pubs used to smell. They don’t smell that way anymore.

He is here alone. There are other people here. Other men. They are alone as well. They are alone together. All of them alone and somehow together. In the pub. Scattered over disparate stools, staring at televisions mounted on dark walls, drinking beer from nearly clean glasses.

There is a younger man and a woman in the corner. They lean in, in close conversation. Her shirt reveals cleavage, a hint of bra and then flesh. He stares. It is his birthright. The woman notices. The man notices. He looks away. What is happening to the world when you are not allowed to stare. What is a woman doing in a pub anyway? He does not bring his wife to the pub.

She is at home, the wife. He thinks. He thinks she is probably at home. But mostly she is not at home. She might be out playing bingo with friends. She might be at that odd gastro pub up the road. She might be at her exercise class. He orders another drink. She might be with another man. Whatever she is doing, she is not at the pub. She is not alone.

He chats to the barman who is too busy to talk. He engages in mild conversation with all the others who are alone at the pub. He watches the TV at the pub. He can’t hear the words on the telly. It never used to be like this. He was never alone at the pub. There were friends, laughter, tales of brave drunken men and women waiting to be eaten. When did they all go home? Why did he stay behind? Now he looks down a woman’s top and the world hates him for it. He is indifferent to himself, whoever himself is. He stares at the beer mat. He could count his life in beer mats, he has known so many.  In his head he does not exist, it is all that makes the loneliness bearable. That and the beer.

He looks at his hands, there is no wedding ring. It is hard to remember why he doesn’t wear one. It makes him feel unmoored. Less like he exists at all. Less like he is tied to any kind of life. He has a freedom he does not want anymore. She wears a wedding ring and somehow she is the one that is free. It is hard to understand. He looks at the beer mat.

He likes beer mats. And ash trays and crisps and shirts that spill open as young women lean forward. He stares at wrinkled hands, wrinkles that somehow crept through the door and interlaced themselves all over his hands, what kind of alone is this? Whose hands are those and where did they come from? They are most comfortable wrapped around a glass. They once held the hand of someone who does not recognise him. He drinks some more. Looks at his phone, thinks his children might text. They never do. They learned long ago not to disturb him at the pub.

She is laughing, at the bingo. Wishing the children would stop sending her texts when she is out with friends. But then, remembering them makes her smile, she doesn’t mind so much. She looks at the wedding band. There is the nice man from number 85 sitting over there, perhaps she will slip it off later. It always feels wrong to be faithless with the wedding band on.

Tomorrow night is Zumba with Lexie, then drinks with the girls on Friday. This is what she waited for, its what made all that child bearing and drudgery worth it. Days in the sun, with laughter. They are all going to Portugal, Maisie’s son has a house out there. Girls only.

She does not think of him. He is at the pub. He likes the pub. When the children were young he was always at the pub. He still is. Probably. He barely exists in her mind. Except as a mouth to feed and some trousers to wash. And as a smell in her bed that she is used to but does not like. He slides into bed beside her. She often pretends to sleep. She used to shower as a courtesy buy she doesn’t anymore.

There is silence as she makes the breakfast the next morning. Every morning. She makes his lunch to take to work. Perhaps he knows, perhaps he doesn’t. How can he know anything through the beer haze.  She is still smiling, the man from 85 is quite ‘energetic’ as it turns out. She fiddles with the wedding ring. He married the pub, she has a life. He goes to work, comes home, trudges back to the pub.

Late one night, he wanders home, sits outside in the gutter. He cannot bring himself to go in. When he was young, he was out at the pub, he missed the kids growing up, but what a life he had. Now she has a life and he is alone. He did not see that coming. He did not predict the end even though it sat next to him on a stool every night. He remembers those old men, their hacking coughs, their sagging skin, joining in conversations they weren’t part of. Desperately free. Unmoored. He did not think he would be one of them.

He gets up, goes inside, the smell of another man mixes with the beer on his breath in bed. It’s like their paths crossed just the once in the middle somewhere and now they are moving further apart, and radiating out from the place they once met, are beer mats, like stepping stones. He’d like to turn around and go back, but the beer has slid down the side of the glass and the beer mats are wet. Someone has thrown them all away, there is no way back for him. He sleeps, snores and thinks of tomorrow night at the pub.

In the Gap of the Gods

And now for something completely different, I don’t normally do poetry, here’s why:

There are gaps.

He sees them as silence to be filled.

I see them as space to explore.

We run at them, at speed together,

To see who gets there first.

He fills the space with overpriced words,

I guard it by wrapping myself in its silence.

It is an endless dance, like the moon and the tide.

We push and pull at the shadows of the world.

When you found yourself surrounded by friends and laughter,

That was him.

When you were lonely because the phone never rang,

That was me.

When the world crushed you with its noise,

That was him.

When you sought and found sanctuary in solitude,

That was me.

There is a balance, a see and a saw,

Endless, the two of us, evermore.

Portrait from a town

On weekends he witnesses car accidents. A picture in words. What does he look like in person? Does he live in your town?

On weekends he witnesses car accidents. On Saturdays he drives to the supermarket car park. He sits and waits. Sees it. Then tells the at fault driver he is innocent. Hands over his details. He has been a witness in 47 accidents in 3 years. Each time he has told untruths. Each time he has said the wrong person is at fault. He wonders if any insurance company will ever figure it out. He does his shopping on Tuesdays. There are never any accidents on Tuesdays.

He particularly likes Christmas, there are more accidents at Christmas.

Every evening, he comes home from work. He gets out of the car. He could walk across the grass to the front door. He could. But he doesn’t. Instead he walks down the short drive and out the gate and around on the pavement and in the front gate, up the front path and goes inside the front door. He likes the feel of concrete under his feet. Concrete is firm and resolute. It makes him feel in control.

He is not in control of the grass.

He works. He has done the same thing for ten years. He has done it so often he does not know what it is. He isn’t certain anyone knows what it is. He likes tuna sandwiches. He watches western movies. He wants to ride out across the open plains. He cannot ride a horse. Instead he secretly longs for cowboy boots with tassels and patterns stamped into the leather. But this is England. They would stand out. He does not want to stand out.

He has pictures of cowboy boots on his phone.

He is secretly in love. With a woman on the train who he has never even made eye contact with. She reads books instead of looking at her phone. That is odd. She wears clothes that don’t quite match. They could be odd together if he could just speak to her. He cannot speak to her. Maybe she is mute anyway. He waits for the day her wedding ring is missing. One day the wedding ring is missing. He almost takes the opportunity to sit in the same carriage as her. He could sit behind her looking at her calf. He thinks about her calf. A week later the ring is back.

He does not sit in the same carriage as her.

He watches pornography. He does not watch pornography. He has it on as he reads the paper. It is not the same thing. He was married once. He has a vague memory of it. There are pictures. Of him smiling at the wedding Maybe in the spare room there are still pictures. It was a long time ago. The dog has been missing. For years. Perhaps it is in the spare room too. This weekend he will wash the car. Last weekend he washed the car. He has cleaned the outside of the car every weekend since he bought it.

He has never cleaned the inside of the car.

Inside the house is the furniture, it has been there a long time. The TV, the couch, the bed. There is not much else. He should go out drinking with mates more often. Take up a hobby. Leave the house more. Perhaps he will get another dog. He looks at the beer stashed in the corner. He should take in a boarder. Except in all those movies, boarders are serial killers. If he wants to survive he should not take in a boarder.

He wants to survive, there is no safe boarder.

He takes a beer from the stash in the corner. He switches on the TV. He thinks of how he needs to make a change. He will make a change.

Tomorrow he will walk across the grass.

Stories in two sentences

1: The car hit the wall and I heard them say, ‘She’s dead.’ Now I can only smell wood and dirt, but that can’t be right, because the wall was made of bricks.

2: I want to reclaim my heritage, be the girl who tamed the wyvern. As its teeth sank into my neck, I could briefly smell its breath, feel its tongue on mine as I realised the story was a myth.

3: I came home late one night and someone had swapped all my furniture. I woke up the next morning and my husband wasn’t the man I thought he was, I stayed anyway.

It’s about the blanket

I am distracted by the idea of ghouls in the bath, of serpentine creatures seeping up through the plug hole and devouring my children. I need help. I can’t sleep. It’s ridiculous I know. I’ts about the blanket. I know how silly that sounds. It’s a throw, not a blanket, what is the difference-where you put it? IDK.  It’s all the same.

He has been ill so I have slept on the couch, whole nights under its soft, warm comfort. But sometimes I wake in the night and it’s like there is someone lying next to me. An arm thrown over me, a leg along side mine. I don’t move. Horrified, there is someone there. But when I finally do move, there is only me and the blanket and the couch.  And then I can’t sleep.

I look at it during the day, examine it. It is just a blanket, there is nothing special.

I nestle under it each evening to watch the television. But some nights it just feels more ‘aware’.  One night I spilled something on it and I swear it jumped sideways. Or did I throw it?  It’s the way it slips off me or doesn’t slip off me when it should. I can’t explain it.

When I lie in bed at night, I picture it stretching itself out on my couch. The thing is, it never seems to be in quite the position I left it. I get up in the night and try to catch it out. I folded it neatly one night, and got up at 3am to see if it had moved. It hadn’t. Well at least not in a big way. It had sorted of slipped as if it had just folded itself back into position. I know it can’t be the case. Its not real.

I am getting paranoid, I think the blanket is real, I think there are sea serpents down the plug hole, the kitchen is going to be covered in mould every morning when I wake up. I need more sleep.

And tonight I am tired and I need to go to bed. I brush my teeth, put the children to bed. I am so tired.

I take one last look out through the door that leads into the lounge, into the darkness. And there on the couch is the blanket. I daren’t switch the light on. It is there in the darkness sitting on my couch. It is sitting there as if it is a person. It is somehow draped over the cushion and it looks like it has a head. Like a shrouded body. I need more sleep.

I go to bed. I can’t get it off my mind. I can’t sleep. I get up again and peek through the door. It is still sitting there.

I go back to bed.

No I can’t sleep. Just knowing it is sitting there. I know it’s not real. It’s a blanket, it’s a throw, it is some kind of blanket throw combination which doesn’t matter.

I am bewildered, tired. I can’t sleep just knowing it is sitting there, human like, with form and shape.

 I get up, go out into the lounge. I don’t switch on the light. Why don’t I switch on the light? I make my way through the murky darkness. I reach out my hand to smooth it down in the darkness and as I do…

It turns to face me.

Him and her and me

It’s addictive. I sit watching it with my pig.

The evidence is circumstantial. There is no body.

I remember him, the smell of him. Now he looks gaunt.

There were three of us, that day, a long time ago. I really should find the photograph. Her and him and me.

He seemed so nice. She was full of life. I wasn’t. Now they say her life is gone. Gone that day. Unproven though. Like bread gone wrong.

The sex was great. Mind blowing. Afterwards he didn’t call. Either of us. I thought he would call. I drifted, just wandered away.

I should find that photograph. I could help.

Every day I watch. Drawn in. The pig is going to starve at this rate. He is the man I remember. Somewhere in the outsized suit.

Lazy days in the sun.

Bikinis and beach balls-like a coke ad. Afterwards he never called.

I watch the trial. He recounts it. All of it. The whole day. The days before. There is a photograph. Its not quite how I remember it. Someone is missing.

I must find my photograph. I remember the three of us. Him and her and me. He didn’t call.

Then before you know it, it’s over. Guilty. He killed her. Me. The evidence is circumstantial. I might never watch TV again.

A life sentence. I should call. I could help. Days, weeks, months, he is in prison.  

Then I find the photograph. It is not how I remembered.

The picture is just him. Him and me. I wandered away, never went back. Circumstantial. No body. I remember now. What the doctor said. She was just a voice in my head.

I should call. I could call. I didn’t call. I fed the pig.

Portraits from a town

Part 1

And so this was London. These weird overplayed notes in the darkness of the concert hall. If there was a dress code, it was black and grey and greyish black, like the sky and buildings, as if the whole place was constantly at a funeral.

She was married to man who’s name she never took the time to remember. And when she could remember it, she didn’t know him anyway. They never spoke. She never needed his name. It was mutual.

It hadn’t always been like that. There had a been a spark, a fire, then life. Life was like a fire extinguisher. The thought made her laugh. They had spent their life walking into the gushing nozzle of a fire extinguisher. It wasn’t a sophisticated thought. Not like these weird queasy notes, not like London. 

She sat in the concert hall wishing she’d brought a book. She could sit outside in her mismatched clothes in the empty bar, sucking in the smell of alcohol, her nose in a novel.

This was her life. So different to the other life. She came from somewhere no one had ever heard of and no one else had ever been. It meant nothing, the rest of London came from somewhere else as well, inexplicable how they all dressed the same.

London was another planet. You could be an alien in London and no one would know. It was not like that in the town where she lived. The music baffled her. Was that singing, is there a difference between noise made through your mouth and singing? She thought so.

Part 2

Another working day done, off the train, head down, up the hill, along the high street. It was dark as she dawdled home. Dithering in her bag on the pavement. He rushed past, ear phones in. He didn’t say sorry. He didn’t look. She simply didn’t exist. She was non-plussed, unimpressed. That level of speed, focus, direction was unnecessary in town. This was not London.

She kept going. Down that street, along that one, to her street. The van was blocking the pavement-again. They were standing there talking-again. She smiled. The van door was open. What would happen if she just climbed into the cab and just went through it, opened the door on the other side and leapt out. She didn’t. Wasn’t brave enough. She just went around and home. To Him, the one who’s name escaped her, again.

Part 3

He saw the woman dithering on the pavement, paid no attention, brushed past her, meant to say sorry but didn’t. He would have said it too loudly. These damn earplugs. He was listening to music his wife recommended. There had been a concert the night before. He had refused to attend. This was why. This rotten damn music. This singing, was it singing? It was just noise through your mouth and a plinky plonky keyboard. He didn’t enjoy it. He was trying but he didn’t like it.

This marriage, this life, he hadn’t made it work. How had he gotten here, the same place where had he come from. He was from here but never intended to end up here. He had wanted something different. This music was certainly different.

This noise, this music, it reminded him of a fire extinguisher, one had accidentally gone off at work. This odd music, that was exactly the sound it had made. How could she like it? He made an effort to think of her name when he thought of her. Otherwise he was worried he would forget it.

They had parked blocking the pavement-again. Damn it, he was just going to go through. The door was flung open, why not? Through their cab, open the door on the other side and leap out. They were standing there talking-again. He was going to go through, not around through. He got closer, closer still. Then at the last minute, he swerved, went around. Next time he told himself. Next time.

Two lives, they touched so briefly, almost. More similar than different, despite their beginnings. A moment, but not long enough to make their destinies collide. Maybe next time.

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town.

Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town.

He sits outside the house in his car for longer than he should. He loves this car. Its like him, well built, smooth running, up a gear. If he were a car, this is the car he would be.

Outside of the car, inside of the house, is his life. The children don’t fit in the car. She had said it wouldn’t be a problem. Now it’s a problem. Everything is a problem.

He hadn’t thought it would be like this. He had always thought they were together, a unit, as one. It never occurred to him that they just met in the middle occasionally and then went back to their separate lives afterwards. It had been this way forever, when they were dating, when they lived together. They moved in the same circle, different circles, they met in the middle and moved away again as they chose.

And now, now he realised, that wasn’t a relationship at all. Worse. She had become anchored to one spot. Immovable. She was tied to that house and the life inside it. And her life, her circle of movement had shrunk, until she was just standing still looking around her. His circle had remained the same, maybe even gotten bigger. Except now, now she was demanding he shrink it. Demanding she have some of his circle, demanding that she should be able to move. The kids weren’t his fault. The kids were nice to have but shouldn’t restrict who he was. It had changed her, not him.

It was all reflected in their cars, hers full of car seats and wrappers and debris from toddler parties, his sleek and smooth and clean. She was chained to chaos, chained to a single spot and mayhem existed around her and somehow emanated out from her, like it was her super power. She reached out to settle it, but she couldn’t, didn’t want to. The house, their beautiful house, so shiny, so new, with its shades of beige and grey, so well put together, but always untidy, messy, unkempt. There weren’t enough words. He strode through the disorder like a titan, never looking down. He tried not to see it but there were squeaky toys on the couch. He could never find the remote. The place smelled of milk and pooh and powder.  

Then, now, there was Friday. It was a girls night out, one of the few times she would leave the house without them attached. The in-laws were coming, thank goodness, the in-laws were coming. But she wanted to take his car. It was like she hadn’t looked in the mirror lately. It wasn’t right that she should be seen in his car. In his head, there were two lives and they should be kept apart. There was the one that happened in the messy car and then there was this sleek, lithe machine. The former was her but this was him. He hadn’t changed, he had managed to carry on as before. He was aghast at how anchored she had become, how stuck. This car was not built for people who were anchored. This car was built for freedom.

He wasn’t sure what he’d ever seen in her. She had become an alien species, glued to that house. Riveted to that spot. That child, one or the other of them endlessly attached at the hip. He was faking it. He spent every spare minute watching porn or sitting in this car. This sleek clean vehicle. The world around him changed. He sat still in his nice shiny car. There is no way she could use this car.

An answer: Unclever, ungiven, undone

A crowd. Suited. Tied. Watched-Rolex. Worldly. Erudite.

She is here, pretty. Dress, shoes, gloves.

He speaks. Preening. Glossy teeth. Words oozing out. Applause.

He is clever. Suited. Tied. Watched-Rolex. Cufflinks catch, glittering on lights.

A hand raised. Delicate. Ungloved. Not ringed. Red nails. Ignored.

Another hand. Cufflinked. Watched-Rolex. Question. Answer. Applause.

A delicate hand. Again ignored. Another hand. Answered. Applause.

A delicate hand. Eye contact. Flicker. Recognition. Passed over for him. Again.

A tie loosened.

She takes refuge in the bathroom.

Later. She is there. Still. Quiet. Tied, marks on her neck. Unwatched, no one saw.

Did not see her. Don’t know her. A lot of men wear ties.

Blue. Questions from the blue. Blue uniforms. Swarming, like odd little bees.

Suited. Tied. Watched. Look at the Rolex. These are not the clothes of a man who kills.  

Who was she? He? Were they? Ever?

Tied of the tongue. The little blue bees search on. Time travellers.

Was she clever? Pretty? Both maybe? Now you ask, there was a time. Once. Before. He was clever. She was pretty. Tied to her now. Watched-he cannot leave town.

Her gloves drape across her body. She is lowered into the ground.

Her words. Written down. Kept. Tied. In a pile in the drawer. Clever girl. A theft. Of thinking, of words.

I wrote what she wrote. We wrote together. I wrote better. Better punctuation. The words, yes, the words the same. Her words.

Recognition, confrontation, yes, in the bathroom. She fell. Fell. Unwatched, but tied- around her neck.

He is quiet. An answer ungiven. His tie. Her neck. Squeezed into silence.  

A theft of thoughts. Words. A book.

Cold  steel bars. Entitlement still not displaced with regret. Untied, chained, no cufflinks, still cuffed, watched, the Rolex gone, uniformed, no suit. Inelegant. Unclever. Undone.

Portraits from a town

Some people would draw it but I choose words for my pictures. You know the place, you’ve passed through on your way to somewhere else. You didn’t stop and if you did it was just to buy some food  before you drove on. It was nondescript, home to no one you know. You can’t even remember its name. It wasn’t big, it wasn’t small, it was just a town. What were the people like? who lived there?

Sameness came late in life. It didn’t have enough time to bed in. She always felt on the outer, even now. She still knew single women who owned bright scarves and loose fitting summer dresses. They danced on beaches in the moonlight in holiday brochures. In reality they drank cocktails and read racy novels by pools in places that were out of season, holidaying in weather that was slightly overcast.

She had learned to cry silently, just let the tears fall out of her eyes with no sound. She could do it anywhere. There was not the time or space to cry in front of anyone. She realised now that all women learned this skill somewhere. It was only men for whom tears were a show and tell session.

She supposed the house was nicely decorated. She did not know. It was the same with how she looked. She wasn’t indifferent just unsure. Maybe mirrors lied? She could never see her own image without seeing herself. She wanted to know what she looked like without knowing who she was, that way she could judge her looks objectively. How else could she know, how did anyone know? She didn’t know if other people had that problem and there was no one to ask.

The house was meant to be like her clothes, an extension of herself.  The walls were, grey, blue. Magnolia. Colours she never wore. She found it hard to see herself reflected back in décor. The whole idea seemed as elusive as the image in the mirror. It was a skill you could not learn. The house was a house. Nothing more. The car was the same. Things she knew she should be grateful for even though the weight of them on her shoulders…it was best not to think about it.

Then there was him. She did love him but she wasn’t sure he noticed. She couldn’t help thinking that if he had to choose between her and the sofa that the sofa might win. Or the telly. And almost certainly she was second to his phone. She had learned to cook, convinced herself to enjoy it. Convinced herself there was purpose in this life of looking after others. Contrary to her politics, to what she had spent her life saying, she had ‘settled down’. The emphasis she had realised too late was on the ‘down’.  

Trying to tell herself there was meaning in ironing someone’s shirts. It was bullshit. There was no meaning. The shirts were just ironed. They would need ironing next week. Wasn’t she lucky, she had a roof over her head? But when she added it up, the roof,  in exchange for the ironing? It had looked like a good deal on paper but was not so good in real life.

She knew she was meant to be happy and by comparison maybe she was. It was like the mirror, she didn’t really know. Certainly, there was no time to sit by a pool in overcast weather and read a book. Shouldn’t she be grateful for that? Except somewhere she wondered if women with bright scarves were actually dancing on beaches. 

She loved her children. They were both special and ordinary. There was no great tragedy to interrupt her days. No cataclysmic existential mountain she had to climb except everyday mundane existence. The ignomy of housework, the tedium of tidying up, the emotional hefting of small children, then big children. There was no war to suffer through, no hurdle that a tradesperson couldn’t overcome.

She loved her burgundy jacket with the same passion which she had once marched against-she couldn’t remember what she had marched against. Maybe she hated the jacket. Emotions were hard to separate when your time was spent moving the emotions between family members. His needs, childrens needs, someone else’s needs. Her thoughts and feelings only existed in the gaps. There were hardly any gaps. She went from yoga to pilates, to yoga again, sipping stupid ineffective diet tea along the way. She wore last seasons lip colour and this seasons nails.

She had friends but no one to talk to. She drank coffee in a place with an Italian name because otherwise it wasn’t real coffee, except that real coffee was grown in a different hemisphere. None of it made any sense. She tried hard, so hard, just to belong.

But hidden in the box in the back of the wardrobe, a place no one ever looked. In a box with a lock and key, hidden from the whole world, inside that box, written on a piece of paper-the name of a beach and bright, sparkly, brilliantly coloured –scarves.