Ten years down the drain – By A.J Kirby
The fifteenth of April flashed out like a neon sign in the middle of the calendar. It had been there at the back of my mind for so long that I’d started to get used to its Sword of Damocles-like intimidation. And so, almost without me noticing, it had crept up on me. Suddenly it was the twelfth, and I realised that I hardly had the time to even join a gym, let alone get in shape.
We’d agreed to meet at Juniper’s, off Towler Street; you know the one? It’s in all of the vegetarian eating guides; claims to be ‘no frills’ but is frequented by most of the rock bands that live in the area. So pretentious is Juniper’s that it doesn’t serve alcohol. Needless to say, Juniper’s had been her choice of location. So much for the ‘neutral ground’ that she’d promised. She knew she’d be in her element while I’d be trying to drown out my nervousness by chewing the damn table-cloths.
I got there early and loitered by the bus stop. If she’d have seen me, I could have simply been pretending to be checking the timetable for a convenient bus home. As it was, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of her before she knew I was there; when she was ‘au naturel’, so to speak. Indeed, I’d somehow convinced myself that if I recognised her on the street and didn’t have that old flutter of love and lust and anger and pain and hate in my belly that I might finally have gotten over her.
I was so early, in fact, that after a while, I had to take a seat inside the bus shelter, waving away at least three buses that I could have escaped on. While I waited, I stole stealthy looks at my cue-cards. I’d made sure that I’d written as much impressive material about my life now that she couldn’t help but conclude how much better off I was without her. Although I did have to be careful not to make myself into some unattainable demi-god that she’d forever remember to be the ‘one that got away’. I wanted her to decide that although she was not in my division, she was still in my league.
When a fourth bus pulled up at the stop, I decided that I’d better find a new place to do my loitering. It groaned to a halt so close to me that I could feel the dirty heat being produced by the engine. I motioned to the driver that I didn’t want to board his bus no matter how many times he made the hydraulics hiss their frustration at me, but still he waited. Finally, the double-doors opened. I feared that I was about to be shouted at for wasting the driver’s precious time and apologised profusely.
‘Don’t worry son,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t waiting on you. Some bird on the top deck rang the bell, but she’s playing silly beggars and won’t get off now. I’ll damn well wait until she does.’
For a moment I stood by the bus and wondered whether further comment was required from me. The driver paid me no mind though, and carried on watching his little periscope thing which showed him the upper level of the bus. Eventually, he said: ‘Ah! Here comes the daft slapper now.’
Dee emerged from the precariously steep steps of the double-decker trying manfully – womanmanfully – to appear composed while she tried to lug one of those unwieldy art portfolio cases and hold down her wildly flowery skirt and grip the railing all at the same time. My first impression of her was confused. On the one hand, I was delighted that it hadn’t been me that was so flustered on the cusp of our meet, but on the other, I felt like I should leap onto the lip of the bus like some dashing knight and offer to assist the beautiful lady with her baggage.
Baggage; that was a pretty good description of my first impression of her; and I don’t mean her belongings, I mean her general demeanour. Before she’d even spotted that I was standing outside the bus, I took in her severe new hairstyle, the tiredness in her eyes. Something about the way that she clutched onto the shabby remains of her bus-ticket convinced me that she wasn’t rich, but had to scrimp and save her pennies, just like she always used to. Judging from her email, she should have arrived in a bloody limo, but here she was, relying on a DaySaverPlus like a single mother on benefits.
A sudden wave of nausea hit me then. I knew so little about her that she may well have been a single mother, struggling by on tuppence a week and the leftovers from whatever restaurant she worked in. My heart ached for her then, and I knew that I would step in at a moment’s notice to be her little Tommy’s father-figure. Maybe after a while I’d start to stay over, just so I could read him his bed-time story (he always liked it better when Uncle Danny read it; so much more passionate than mummy’s tired drone). Maybe after a while longer, I’d start to sleep in Dee’s bed again and I’d leave her to sleep in on a morning while I made all kinds of breakfast delights. We’d try for a sister for little Tommy after another year or so, and she’d be beautiful and talented and…
‘Hello Daniel,’ said Dee, yanking me out of my reverie as though by the tuft of sticky-uppy hair at the front of my head.
Not for the first time in my life, or even that day – that minute – I was lost for words. Just how do you address over ten years of longing in a single coherent sentence?
As though to cover my embarrassment, the driver did the comradely thing and chose that moment to drive away, shaking his head as though in disbelief that ‘people like her can get out of bed of a morning, let alone get on a bus.’ I thought I caught a warning look in his eye.
Ignoring the prehistoric bellowing of the departing bus, Dee leaned over and planted a single whisper of a kiss on my cheek. I could already feel myself reddening. It’s an appalling family trait that I’d be embarrassed to pass on to any children I have. At first, I feel this prickly heat all over, and then it becomes more localised. Cartoonishly, red blotches start to appear all over my cheeks. I know this because Dee once made me watch myself as my face clouded over in this way. I can’t remember what she did to embarrass me, but I seem to recall the aftermath, when she tried to spot objects and faces in the blotches like children do with clouds.
‘Clouding over again?’ she said, grinning wildly.
And in that one moment, it felt as though the last ten years had never happened. I had to stop myself from reaching out and grabbing her around the waist.
‘So? You going to help me with my baggage?’ she asked.
I realised that I had still not spoken to her and was in danger of appearing like some common or garden idiot. I forced something out. A joke; surely you can’t beat a good joke to smooth out the rough edges in an awkward situation. Get her laughing again. She always liked a good laugh.
‘Have I got to be your psychiatrist again?’ I asked dead-pan.
She looked at me coldly. I thought that I’d better have a go at explaining the joke or else I’d seem even more stupid.
‘You know? Baggage? Psychiatrists?’
Dee shook her head at me. Suddenly I remembered that ten years is a long time. Who was I to know whether she had to go see a shrink these days? In fact, who was I to know about any of it? To be on the safe side, I decided right there and then to leave all of my usual stock-in-trade bitterly cynical remarks right there in the cynical old bus stop.
She handed me her art portfolio so that I couldn’t see the contents. I waddled away from the bus stop in her wake, the case banging into my shins as I went. I caught her looking over her shoulder at me a couple of times, although it was exasperation written all over her features, rather than the hoped-for longing. We crossed the road and made for Juniper’s like that; her leading the way, me bumbling behind like I was her embarrassing younger brother or something.
As we approached, I could see that most of the rock-star set were out in force. Despite the rather chilly spring weather, they were all sitting around small metal tables arranged in the middle of the pavement. When they stretched their legs, their ridiculous little winkle-pickers were dangling over the gutter. I saw a couple of old women having to virtually step into traffic in order to wheel their tartan shopping carts around these great sunglassioed oafs. I was so spitting with disgust at these boorish yobs that it took me a while to realise that Dee had indeed stopped to talk to one of them. I noted that she nodded over in my direction and one of this great swathe of leather-panted buffoons grimaced at her as though he shared her pain.
Almost unbeknownst to me, I realised that my old friend jealousy had come a-knocking, and as usual, I’d damn well gone and let him in again hadn’t I? Instead of nonchalantly walking over and introducing myself, as I’ve done so many times since when I’ve replayed it in my head, I simply stayed by the menu sign and repetitively examined my watch. Finally, Dee remembered who she was supposed to be having lunch with and she bade goodbye to her choice of the stick-thin men. As she returned to me, I sucked in my paunch and tried to look cool.
‘That wasn’t very cool,’ she hissed at me. ‘Those guys have asked me to do some of the art-work for their new album cover. We could have joined them if you’d have not behaved like a jerk.’
I grinned, meanly. ‘A jerk? What are you; American now?’
She knew exactly what I meant. I, of course, knew her from before her sudden adoption of that new accent mid-way through university. I knew that her real voice was more Bette Lynch than Bette Midler.
She sighed: ‘Let’s go inside and find some dark little corner shall we? Like mould?’
I let that one go. I feared that if I pushed things any further she’d tell me to leave, and then I’d be left wondering what was going on with her and the tight-trousered philanthropist out there.
We found a table toward the back of the café which was rather too close to the cappuccino machine and its hissing echo of the bus’s hydraulics for my liking, but I didn’t want to labour the point. Here, there were still enough people surrounding us to prevent anything as backward as a full-on scene, which is clearly what she expected of me.
I propped the art portfolio against the leg of my chair and craned myself into the rather too small space which was left between me and the counter.
‘Can’t park yourself there love,’ said a waitress rushing by. ‘We need to get to the hatch.’
‘Where am I supposed to go then? In the toilets?’ I muttered.
The waitress didn’t hear me. Dee shot me a withering look. Awkwardly, I shuffled round the table a bit more. I was now virtually sitting on her knee, but she didn’t seem to mind this as much as my making her look a fool with my cynical remarks. She always hated those cynical remarks.
She handed me a menu, probably so that I’d stop tearing at the paper table-cloth. ‘You’d have preferred it if we’d gone down to the pub, wouldn’t you? But you can’t even smoke in there these days, can you?’
Oh blessed opportunity! I hadn’t needed all of the cue-cards in the end after all.
‘Gave up smoking about eighteen months ago,’ I said, triumphantly and sat back and waited for the adoration to wash over me.
‘Good for you,’ said Dee, picking up a menu of her own and starting to nosy on through the starters.
Hang on! Was this all she was going to say on the subject; the subject that had caused so many blazing rows between us? I remember her crying once when she woke up in the middle of the night and found me smoking in the darkness. She was worried that she’d have to live without me when I died of cancer. And now I’d done as she asked, all she could say was ‘good for you.’
‘It was a hard slog,’ I said, self-depreciatingly, ‘but in the end I came through and out the other end of that tunnel of crap. Like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank.’
She always liked watching Shawshank Redemption with me. Or so I’d thought. Instead of smiling at the memory, she frowned.
‘I hardly think that you can compare giving up smoking as being wrongfully imprisoned for something like twenty years and then making your…’
‘Ah! That’s where you’re wrong. Smoking was like being in prison. It was…’
She interrupted back: ‘Let’s just agree to disagree on this one. Think we can do that?’
Sometimes she behaved like she was my teacher, or parent. What was all that business with the ‘we’? Think ‘we’ can do that? Again, I had to bite my tongue. While I tried to regain my calm I began revising my picture of Dee. Now I had the reason that she was a single mother; her new bloke was in prison. I stored away my conclusion for future reference.
Despite it being well past the traditional lunch-hour rush – Dee had always liked to keep a different routine to most of the rest of the world – the café was still a hive of activity. I’d once believed that there was a limit to how many smoothies or mochas or espressos that anyone could drink. Juniper’s soon disabused me of that notion. People were treating the stuff as though it was holy water or something. While Dee stared at the menu, I tried not to listen to the snatches of conversation I heard from all around me. There were people talking about art exhibitions, theatre performances and the texture of the vegetarian food. I wondered if this was what they really wanted to talk about, or whether they simply felt that they had to in a place like this. I wondered if they would have much rather been talking about last night’s football or why nobody ever watches Eastenders in Eastenders. I had some interesting views on that very subject, but didn’t think that it would be the right time to share them with my lunch date.
‘I think I’ll have the stuffed peppers,’ said Dee, confidently closing the menu.
I chose to see the act as the challenge that it was most probably intended to be. I surfed my way down the menu; it was, I’m sure, being ironic or post-modern in the way that it placed photographs of each dish next to their descriptions. Nothing looked remotely appetising.
‘I’m a big fan of stuffed peppers myself,’ I said. ‘I’ve even got to like aubergines, you know?’
Dee smiled. When she did so, her whole face seemed ten years younger. I could have been in a time machine if it weren’t for her new haircut. Nevertheless, it was the first real sign of encouragement I’d had from her since my ill-advised jibe about psychiatrists. I decided that I had to build on that success.
‘So; I’ve replaced the cigs with aubergines. What have you been doing in ten years?’
She gave a long drawn-out sigh as though weighing up how much to tell me.
Finally: ‘Well, a lot of the time, I’ve been getting to know who I really am and what I want from life.’ She ran a hand through her short black hair and gave me this weary smile. I didn’t jump in as I usually do, but allowed her the time to collect herself and continue.
‘I know that you used to hate all of those people at university who went travelling to ‘find themselves’, but after you, I felt like I had to. I felt like I didn’t know who I was any more. Do you know what I mean?’
I did know what she meant. I nodded, half-heartedly. I wanted to know more about what had happened to her physically, rather than spiritually or mentally.
‘I’ve been living down here for most of the time since university, but I did spend some time living on a farm up in the Lake District,’ she continued, gesturing to the art portfolio, ‘and that’s where I started painting.’
And I was prepared to stake my meagre savings on the fact that she started a hell of a lot more up in the Lake District too. She always liked outdoorsy-types; I could imagine her taking up with some poet up there or something. For some reason, I discovered in that moment that I absolutely hated poets. And the Lake District. Luckily, the over-worked waitress chose that moment to attend to our table and I was distracted from my baser instincts by my sheer confusion at the sheer number of coffees which I was supposed to choose from.
‘Just white; three sugars,’ I decided finally.
The waitress shoved herself past me and through the hatch, probably on her way to spitting in my drink. Dee looked at me in silence. Evidently I was supposed to enquire further as to her new talent.
‘So is painting your line of work?’ I asked.
‘I wouldn’t exactly call it work,’ she said. ‘I don’t work. Not in the conventional sense anyway. I don’t believe in all this capitalist accumulation nonsense. I’m not one for slaving my whole life just to pay for a roof over my head. I’m actually squatting in a friend’s caravan at the moment.’
‘What friend?’ I spurted out, rather too quickly.
‘A girlfriend,’ said Dee, raising her eyes to the ceiling in mock frustration. ‘Honestly, Daniel, anyone would think that we’re still together.’
For a long moment, we sat in silence.
‘So what is it you do?’ she asked, finally.
I remembered the cue-card. ‘I’m actually doing okay for myself. Got a nice little copy-writing business going. I slave away at it so I can pay for the pile of bricks I got myself out in the ‘burbs. I’m pretty much Mr. Capitalist Nonsense himself.’
This time it was Dee’s turn to respond rather too quickly: ‘I didn’t mean anything by that remark. It’s just that I’m not cut out for traditional lines of work.’
‘More of a free spirit?’ I grinned. Because that had always been how I’d seen our relationship. She was flighty; other-worldly and I was the one that grounded her. Perhaps she saw it as me dragging her down to my level, but ‘solid grounding’ was how I saw it; I stopped her from just floating away into the either. Which was, it seemed, exactly what had happened to her.
‘I’m not just some innocent,’ she said.
‘I know; I miss you for you,’ I admitted, before I’d realised that the thought had even passed my lips.
Amazingly, she reached across the table and took my hand. Her hand wasn’t as I’d remembered it. It was coarser now; more lived in. There were still traces of paint on her long fingers.
‘You’re not still holding out a hope for us, are you?’ she asked slowly. ‘Because we’re both different people now.’
I let her voice soothe me. In a trance-like state, I hardly listened to her imparting the bad news once again.
‘Because our relationship was a tired old love story which limped on way past the time when only amputation was the only thing that would cure us,’ she continued. ‘Instead of discovering the world, we rotted together in the flat. We watched our dreams grow so gangrenous that even our friends sensed the aroma of decay in the air around us and so let us alone.’
I remembered the basement flat. I remembered the glory days of doing nothing because we had each other. We basked in bed all day long, like sea-lions. We locked the door on the outside world, only occasionally drawing the curtains and blinking confusedly at the raging August heat. When we pulled our sticky bodies away from each other in September, we agreed that we had to part. No recriminations. We simply went our separate ways and entered the world like new-borns.
‘I had to end it, Danny, or we’d have ended up ruining each other for ever,’ she said.
‘But that was just a trial. We had to find jobs and do things and then we’d get back together. I thought we both wanted that long summer after Uni again. There’s a lovely garden at my new place…’
‘Your memory is playing tricks on you. What do you really remember of that long summer? Sure you stayed in our pit all day long, but I crept away and sat on the front stairs like the poor abandoned flower that cranes its neck to a room’s only sliver of sunlight, hoping for some nourishment.’
I snorted my disbelief. She was the one whose memory was playing tricks. I pulled my hand away, suddenly disgusted with myself for showing my weakness. For as soon as I’d shown it, she had leaped right back in to her old ways; that rather unbecoming habit she had of making me feel guilty for holding her back, as though I’d been some kind of tyrant. I wouldn’t have stopped her from going outside if she’d wanted to.
She thought she’d won again, didn’t she? She thought she could manipulate my feelings once more.
‘What’s the matter now?’ she asked. ‘You look as though you are trapped by love and hate.’
I sighed. Maybe Dee wasn’t such a new person after all. She had retained just about every annoying habit that she’d had when we were together, including colouring everything she said with this pretentious jargon which seemed to come straight from Bitch magazine’s summer self-help book or whatever other clap-trap she happened to be reading.
I tried to be reasonable.
‘I shouldn’t have said that about missing you,’ I said. ‘Just forget I even said it.’
‘It was a sweet thing to say, as long as it was for the right reasons,’ she said softly.
Before I could even respond, the waitress called out that our order was ready to collect from the counter.
‘Why can’t she give us table service like everyone else?’ I hissed.
‘That’s just for the customers outside,’ said Dee. ‘Look; would you mind getting these, only I’ve already told you I don’t have a job.’
She fluttered her eyelashes and I meekly obeyed. I sloped over to the counter and handed over the exorbitant fee for the sad-looking portions on our plates. While I was waiting for my change – and I’m sure the waitress took twice as long as she needed to in order that I’d say ‘keep it’ – I looked back at Dee at our table. She was staring resolutely at a message on her mobile phone; a dark frown had crossed over her forehead. Bad news?
The waitress handed me my change on a saucer, perhaps hoping that this would embarrass me into leaving her a tip, but I picked it up and poured the contents into the palm of my hand. She tutted quite audibly as I picked up the tray and returned to my table. My next coffee, if there was to be one, would be laced with rat poison rather than spittle.
I manoeuvred the tray onto the small table and tried to find somewhere to put the menu and condiments which was not the centre of my plate.
‘I’m going to have to make a move straight after we eat,’ said Dee. ‘I’ve had an urgent message and I need to, you know, do something about it.’
I pretended to concentrate on the task of sawing into the tough red pepper, hoping that she would elaborate, but she said nothing more on the matter.
‘You got me here under false pretences,’ I said, though a mouthful of cheese. ‘All you want me for is my money.’
Perhaps I hoped she would laugh. Perhaps I hoped she would tell me the real reason she wanted to see me. Whatever I hoped, it certainly wasn’t that she start crying. She cried the silent tears of a person that has cried too much for one lifetime. She dropped her fork right into the middle of the stuffed pepper and blew out her cheeks.
‘Don’t you understand? I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want your money or your emails. I don’t want your concern. I don’t want…’
‘You emailed me,’ I snapped. I was right on this point. In a court of law, if they had to ascertain which one of us was responsible for us being in this miserable lunch date, they would conclude that she had made the first move. Sure there were all of the other emails I’d sent, but this lunch had been her idea.
‘Why can’t you remember all of the misery when we ended?’ she asked, through a fog of tears. I glanced around nervously to check whether anyone else in the café had noticed. They hadn’t; still lost in their discussions of Stanislavski and his system. ‘Don’t you recall your drunken phone calls?’ she continued. ‘All of the times I had to stay on the line for hours for fear that you would commit your threatened suicide if I hung up?’
Commit my threatened suicide? The dismissive way that she’d spat that out of her mouth pretty much summed up where she believed the balance of power lay now. She didn’t think that I meant anything that I’d said. Ever. The realisation hit me between the eyes like a train. Fast, I re-discovered the fact that my hope was unfounded.
‘I’m sorry,’ I moaned. ‘I won’t pester you like that again.’
‘I don’t mean that,’ she said, still exasperated, still crying. ‘I just wanted to know that you were happily on with your life and that you’ve forgotten about me. But you’re still there, aren’t you? You are still the man you were ten years ago?’
Finally my own tears came. I couldn’t stop them. Everything she said was true. I stumbled away from the table, knocking over her art portfolio in my haste to get away, and made for the toilet. I couldn’t let the damn waitress see me like that.
As I pushed my way into the toilet, I stole one last look over my shoulder and saw the slumped shoulders of Dee leaving Juniper’s. It was such a familiar sight; the amount of times I’d reduced her to such defeat was despicable. I was despicable.
When the toilet door swung shut behind me, I realised that I was not alone in there. But male-bathroom etiquette dictates that you can’t very well back out of such a place; not of there is a spare urinal; not if you don’t want people wondering why you’ve backed-out and what you might have to hide; and certainly not when the other inhabitant of the room is one of the stick-thin, leather-trousered, winkle-pickered sunglassioed buffoons from one of the tables outside. Indeed, the more I stared at him, the more I decided that he was the very one that Dee had been speaking with when we had first arrived.
I ambled up to the urinal, staring at the tiles, trying with everything I had not to make eye-contact. He’d surely see that I’d been crying.
‘You were with Dee. How d’ja know her?’ he said. He was leaning backwards as he urinated, legs wide apart. He oozed confidence.
I didn’t say anything.
He asked again. I could see that he’d finished urinating now, but he still stood next to me, not zipping-up.
‘You know Dee?’ he repeated.
I answered finally, sensing that he wouldn’t leave me alone until I at least acknowledged his presence. ‘We go way back.’ I felt like adding ‘unlike you’ in brackets.
‘Whassyer name then squire?’
For a moment I felt like lying, but really, what was the point?
‘Danny,’ I muttered.
‘Really; Danny? Danny Morris?’
‘Yeah,’ I replied, warily.
‘Oh, I’ve heard so much about you man,’ he said. ‘Dee’s always telling us funny stories about you.’
I dreaded to think.
‘She told us all about your witty remarks and all that, although she swore she could never do them justice when she said them. She told me all about how you got together and all of the stuff you used to talk about. You inspired her, man.’
I was speechless. I met his eyes, tried to ascertain whether he was being sarcastic or not. He wasn’t. I could tell straight away.
‘I miss her,’ I said, sadly.
‘Aw, some people just ain’t meant to be together, man. It don’t mean you’re a bad person.’
He left me in the toilet, still gripping the towel. When I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I had those awful red blotches all over my face again, only now it was tears again.
I still had a chance.