My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Eight

Ascending

 The Causeway Café was one of those dejected-looking businesses which eke out a living on the margins of the English tourist trade.   Viewed from almost the entire length of Levenport seafront, St Benedict’s Rock was arguably a thing of scenic beauty, framed by sea and sky.   From here, at the very end of the road which connected it to the shore, its great mass was just a little too close, a little too massive: forbidding and black, it eclipsed the sun.   No landward attractions drew interest to this extremity of the Esplanade.  Its shops and arcades all clustered around the western end, where gulls circled over Levenport’s little fishing harbour and the larger hotels basked in such riches as the season could offer.   Peter was one of only three customers that morning who sat at the Causeway Café’s open-air tables, braving the elements.  An elderly woman in a camel coat sipped noisily at tea: a harassed mother placated her whining child.   At ten-thirty despair drove Peter to text Lesley.   “Cswy Caf. RU comg?  Luv U, Peter.”

Five minutes, then the reply.  “Y.”

He watched her approach from far off, a disconsolate figure with none of the usual purpose in her stride.   Jeans, a short jacket, hands in pockets, her hay-cloud of hair flying in the stiff breeze.   She looked miserable, and cold.

“Alright,”   She said sullenly,   “Why here?”

“I want you to come over to The Rock with me.”

“Oh, no!   Just say what you want to say, and talk fast.  I want to go home.”

“I can’t just tell you.  You wouldn’t believe me if I did.   I have to show you.”

What could he show her?   How could he make her believe him – better yet believe in him?  He had no idea.   He only knew that here was the one person who absolutely must believe him, and she would, however reluctantly, walk with him the half-mile of wind-whipped causeway, and up the road which led around the shady, damp northern face of The Devil’s Rock.

As they walked he told his story – of his first visit to the rock, his invitation to Vincent’s home, of Toby and the cave.  He did not omit his parting with Melanie, or how she had rejected the fate she was being offered.  It was time to be honest about everything, because this was the only chance he would be given.   Finally he explained why he had not called her that weekend; and he related the incident at Hemlington, including Howard’s part in it.   By the time he had stuttered lamely to the end of his tale, they were wandering through the half-ruined, impoverished village at the foot of the rock.  Lesley, who had listened without interruption, maintained her silence.  Shivering against the cold she remained frostily aloof until, as they ascended the little road up the side of the rock, while still deep in the despond of its northern shade, she picked her occasion to say, loudly:.

“That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”

With sinking heart, Peter nodded.   “I know that’s how it sounds.”

“Peter, it’s just nuts!   I mean, they could put you in a home for spouting that stuff!”

Peter turned away, afraid she would see the emotion written on his face.  But then he felt her hand, slipping into his.    “That would mean I fancy a head-case.   I’m not that bad a judge, am I?”

He dared not trust his voice.  He shook his head.

“I mean, you think you can really…..do some of those things?”

He nodded.

A tear escaped down Lesley’s cheek.  “Fuck!”    She said, swiping it away impatiently. “I’ve a shitty taste in blokes, but I really scooped the pool this time!”

They walked on together, hand in hand, then hip to hip.   In the tunnel between the shady and the sunny side of the Rock, they kissed, paving the metaphor for their emergence into mid-morning light.

It was a bright autumn day, made suddenly very new.

#

Melanie was aware of a dark cloud of melancholy closing around her, although she could not fathom why.   She had woken early to a watery sun leeching through the salt-spattered panes of her bedroom window.   The wind which had demanded entry so furiously in the night had tired of its pursuit.   Beyond the bay a rough sea still threw the odd scouting wave at the foreshore, but the clouds were gone.  The beach beckoned.

She had dressed quietly in the clothes of last night: those she had worn on the boat were still draped damply over a clothes-horse in Agnes’ kitchen.  No sound had come from Agnes’s room, so she slipped quietly downstairs and out onto the gravelly scrunch of the drive, following that weed-strewn path which led back to the old harbour.   Why she so needed to return there, she didn’t know:  she had no clear plans, or idea what she would find:  it was curiosity that drew her – the same curiosity which prevented her from following Agnes’s driveway to whatever road it sprang from and running until she was miles from this cold, wild place.  

The rock passage echoed to her footsteps.  There was no gale now.   Yet, if she expected the little harbour to seem more welcoming in the greater brightness of the day she was disappointed;  for the place was as stark and grim as before.   At the end of the tunnel the gentle breeze bit icily at her face, played a lonely lament through reeds of piled stone.  The sea washed black in the harbour basin, like a cold douche of arterial blood.

She found the ruined cottage to be no more enticing than the day before, and the old boat, still as  close to final decay.    She wandered about the harbour for a time, as the concrete of the wall was drier and easier to negotiate.  Even the stairway in the rock which led from the harbour to the top of the cliff no longer threatened certain death.   There was no incentive to tarry in this harsh place, so suspending her fear she, set herself to climb. Edging past treads that had eroded away meant progress needed to be careful, and she was thankful for the odd handhold in the side of the cliff, but Toby’s assessment of her as being ‘sure-footed as a mountain goat’ proved accurate once more.  

At the top of the cliff she found little to investigate.   The headland was a meadow of coarse grasses raked by generations of sea-salt and gale.   Of the village which had once striven for life here no more than an occasional stone remained.  The sun was warm though, and one of the larger stones inviting enough to lie upon.

Stretched out, Melanie was drifting into slumber when the faintest of scratching reached her inner ear, a sound so tiny that at first she doubted it was there at all.   Then a whisper came, like breathing in a silent room, as though someone or something wanted her attention.  Whatever it was, it was close – beside her left ear.

With great care, she turned her head to find that just inches from her face the miniscule pin-head eyes of a snake were fixed upon her.   The creature’s tongue, flicking in and out so fast it was little other than a blur, was the source of the whispering.   To her great surprise she felt neither fear nor revulsion, but rather a sense of sharing, of mutual need.   She adjusted her position, carefully offering a hand, palm upwards, so that the snake felt no threat.   Completely unafraid, the snake responded by slipping through her fingers to drape itself over her forearm where it seemed happy to rest, sharing her enjoyment of the sun.   Melanie was enchanted.  As softly as she might she stroked its head, running her forefinger along the earth-brown zigzags of its length.   She knew it was a viper, knew of its poison; but she knew, also, the creature had come as a friend, and she welcomed it.

            The snake remained with Melanie for a while, then, possibly hearing the sounds of a Land Rover carrying in the breeze, slipped silently away into the grass.   Before long a vehicle materialised.  This was Agnes, relieved to have recovered her charge.

“Melanie, my dear, I thought I had lost you!”

Melanie lifted herself onto her elbows to regard her captor.   “I was just here.  I thought I’d look for the village.”

“Well, come back with me now.  We have someone to meet.”

In the Land Rover, Agnes was solicitous.  “Are you warm enough?   I was beside myself!  However did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Walked?   But my dear, it’s almost eighteen miles!   Whatever time did you start?”

“No.  No, it’s not very far at all!”  Melanie replied.  “I came straight up the stairway on the cliff.  It took me half an hour at most.”

Agnes said carefully:   “You’ve been away two hours or more.  Its half past eleven now, I noticed you had gone at nine o’clock or a little after.   And I told you last night:  the steps on the cliff are far too treacherous to climb. The only road to this place is this one, and it has to go right up the valley before it crosses the ravine and returns to the sea.   Did someone drive you here?”

 “I climbed the stairs on the cliff,”  Melanie repeated.   “They were slippery, but not too difficult.”

Agnes appeared to be wanting for words.

#                     

Peter was about to knock on Toby’s door.   Though fond, Lesley was still reticent. Since they had crossed to the more benevolent side of Old Ben, she had rarely spoken.   He felt her uncertainty; she had committed to him and he knew, in his heart, he should answer the questions she was reluctant to ask.  But his own insecurities played against him.  He needed to prove his truth to himself as much as to her, to show she was right to trust him.   He did not understand:  Lesley just needed to know she was loved.

“Peter?”   She stopped him. “That time at the big house?   You know that was, like, really different for me – really special?”

“I guessed.”    Peter kissed her forehead.  “It was pretty amazing for me, too, yeah?”

“It’s important to me – that you know?”   Her eyes betrayed her fears, but Peter did not see.

He knocked.

The sun was high over the south side of the rock, bathing the turning colours of heathland in a warm, September glow.  Most of the birds on ‘Old Ben’ were done with nesting now, singing their freedom in trees just tinged with gold.   A flock of seabirds wheeled and played below them on the lower cliffs: Tern, Kittiwake, Black Back Gulls, Guillemot.   Their distant cries added a descant to the song of the wind in the grasses, the tune of the blackbird and the thrush on the branch.  Nothing else stirred.

“He isn’t in.”   Peter accepted.

“It doesn’t matter.  Peter, let’s go home?”

“Come on, I’ll show you the cave.   Maybe, if you touch the rock, it will do for you what it did for me and Melanie…”

Peter carefully folded Lesley’s hand in his, leading her toward the narrow path on the seaward side. 

“Now, young Peter; where do you think you’m be goin’?”

Toby appeared in front of them, his malformed figure’s awkward, rolling gait suggesting a grotesque dance as he climbed the path.   Lesley suppressed a gasp of surprise.

“Toby!”   Peter felt genuinely delighted to see him.   “This is Lesley – we’re going down to the cave.”

  Toby stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily from his efforts. “Tain’t poss’ble, young ‘un.”

“Why not?   I can do that climb now – so can Lesley, with my help.”

“What?  An’ you goin’ to put ‘er at risk, jus’ to prove what you’m told ‘er?    Wha’ you told ‘er, Peter?”

Peter knew the trust he had broken, yet he felt no shame.   “Everything.  Toby, whatever I have, Lesley shares.  I won’t keep secrets from her.”

 “Never’ less, it were given to you in confidence.   Peter, I can’t let you past, an’ I wouldn’t if I could.   That’s my job, lad.   That’s why I’m here.”    Immovable and austere, Toby stood between Peter and his proof: there was nothing Peter could do.

“Young Miss,”   Toby said, his stooped head and up-cast eyes giving Lesley an arch look;    “He’s already told ‘ee more than you’m s’posed to know.   More ‘an anyone’s s’posed to know.   He’s told you ‘cause of ‘ow he feels about ‘ee, that’s what I’m thinkin’.   He’s different, young Miss, very different.   But you can’t have what he has, unnerstand?  You never can.”

Peter was moved to protest, but Lesley took his arm, drawing him back.   “It’s all right, Peter,   I do understand.  Come on.”

“But you have to believe me!”

“Do I?  I want to be with you.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Take ‘er home, young Peter.”   Toby said.  “If she wants to stay with you she’m got troubles enough, I reckon.”

Peter still argued, but Lesley tugged his arm:  “I just want to go home, Peter!   We can do this some other time, yeah?”

Protesting, Peter allowed himself to be turned back up the path to the summit of the Rock.    As he watched their retreating forms, Toby shook his head sadly.   “Women!”   He murmured.  “’Credibly strange creatures, them.”

Lesley hugged Peter’s arm as they walked, keeping him close to her:  “Listen – all this, it doesn’t count:  it doesn’t matter to me.   What matters is you’ve told me – all the places in your head you were keeping me away from, you’ve let me in.    The smelly guy, the whole thing.  I’ll try to believe you.   It’s all mad, but I’ll try.   Seems like I can’t bloody live without you, so I’ll have to, won’t I?”

The sky was beginning to cloud over as they made their way back, past the house where the little girl played.   She at least was there,  dancing her secret little dance in the garden, as always.   Lesley watched her as they walked past, a laconic smile on her lips.   “Oh, sweet!”   She murmured:  “Petey, look at that!”

They, allowed the steep gradient of the hill to draw them down, back through the tunnel which led them to the dark side of the island.   Peter’s fear of impending doom at this point was unwarranted, for Lesley was not Melanie.   There would be no parting here.   Nevertheless, he clasped Lesley to his side protectively and when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, drew her close to the wall to let them pass, and it did not seem at all extraordinary to him that the creatures pulled a carriage, any more than it was unreasonable that the coachman wore a full livery, or its passengers, a young man, a veiled woman and a little boy, should be dressed in Regency fashion.  The carriage had past them, and Peter was looking after it as it made its way into the tunnel when he realised that Lesley was leaning into the wall with him and expecting to be kissed.

“That was nice and spontaneous!”  She murmured when they had disengaged, “If you want to go caveman on me it might be a bit public, though.  Your bum’d be visible from  most of the Esplanade.”

He laughed.  “I just didn’t want you to be flattened by a coach and horses, that’s all.  Although now you mention it…”

“Oh, there was a coach and horses, was there?  And here’s me thinking ‘he’s into exhibitionism now’!  What next?”

“Les!  There was an old carriage – it passed us, just then!”

Lesley scowled, then gave a smile:  “If you say so, love.”

 They walked quite slowly:  for a long time neither of them said much, their minds too full of each other to need words.   Back at the Causeway Café they ordered coffee and sat inside on scrooping wooden seats to warm up.   There was a real chill in the air now, and no sign of the sun.   On an impulse, Lesley kicked Peter’s leg under the table.   It hurt.

“What was that for?”

“Well, you being superhuman and all, I wanted to see if you feel pain.”

“You were right to try.  I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Oh, yeah!”

The coffee came. 

“Peter, I don’t understand what this  is all about, I don’t really care.   But if we stay together, I mean, if it works out that way, I want us to be happy, Okay?  I know it sounds stupid, but in fifty years’ time I’d sort of like to be like that insane old woman.”

“As if!   You’d like to be an insane old woman?”

“She was happy, Peter.  She might have been a bit cracked, but she was happy.  It was lovely.  I’d like to be a bit like that.”

“What old woman?”

“That one back on the rock:  you saw her – the old dear dancing in the garden.”

“Wait a moment.”  Peter tried to understand.  “There was a little girl – a child – dancing in a garden.   You said how sweet she looked.”

Lesley watched Peter’s face closely; seeking something she didn’t comprehend, but knew was there.  “Pete, that was not a little girl; that was a very old woman.  She must have been, like, eighty or something?”

A truth dawned on them both.   “I saw a little girl.”  Peter said.

“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”  Lesley breathed.   “Oh Peter!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

A Meeting on Praed Street

She is sitting by the window and far away in her thoughts when the voice intrudes, asking quietly…

“Excuse me, it’s Eve, isn’t it…?”

She is sitting by the coffee house window, staring out at Praed Street and the passers-by who hurry against the rain.   Hoods and high collars, hunched shoulders, plastic hats of clear polythene.

“…Eve?”

A peach-mac’d mother bent over a recalcitrant child, controlling her anger:  brollied partner standing by, impatient.   Two young Chinese men arm-in-arm, running and laughing…

“It is Eve, isn’t it?”

The smell of rain, that rustle only a wet coat makes, the persistent voice:  there is something familiar in it.  She turns to acknowledge its source, reluctant.   “I’m sorry?”  

“I’m Paul.”   He is standing across the table from her, one hand resting, two fingers, on the bleached wood surface, looking down on her;  “Paul Ferryman,”  He says.    Then, when she does not answer:  “You don’t remember me!  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I must be wrong…”   His hand leaves.

“No.   No,”  She says quickly,  “No, I don’t think – that is, you aren’t wrong.”  She doesn’t wish to be impolite.  “How are you, Paul?”  This is awkward; so awkward!  

“It’s been…oh, lord, how many years?  You look sensational!”  He laughs and the sound rings in her remembering like a peal of bells.  “Eve!   After all this time – who’d have thought of it?”  Then he remembers himself:  “Oh, look, this might not be such a welcome surprise.   I have to return to a meeting, so I won’t embarrass you any more.”

She lies.  “You’re not embarrassing me,”  Wishing she could return his compliment, she adds,lamely:  “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“How I wish that were true!”  He says;  “But you!  You’ve scarcely changed at all. Do you still dance – is that your…?”

“No.”  She cuts in quickly,  “No, I haven’t worked in years.  I still practice, that’s all.”

He says nothing for a moment.  His eyes are clouded with memories, yet he sees into her soul as well as ever.  

 “You’re sad,”  he empathises, stepping back,  “I’m intruding on your melancholy.”   He produces a silver case from beneath the folds of his coat.   “This is a business card,I’m afraid, but the number reaches me. Maybe we could meet up sometime?  Have a coffee together, ‘do lunch’?  If you don’t hate me too much, that is?”

His card is on her table and he is gone, leaving a last brief smile in his wake.  Perhaps he will get his coffee somewhere else, she thinks?  Hate him?  No, never that.  Her last sight of him, striding away down Praed Street oblivious to the rain, awakens emotions that have lain dormant for a long time.  

Memories.   

With a sigh of resignation she rises from her table, goes to pay her check.   

Six weeks after that meeting Paul Ferryman finds a message on his ‘phone.   ‘I Can’t keep pretending this hasn’t happened.  Are you in town Saturday?  I’ll be at the Arbor Cafe at eleven o’clock – you know, stay twenty minutes, that sort of thing?  If you can’t make it, don’t worry.’ Her voice is clipped and unemotional; so unlike the Eve he remembers.

He replies with a text, simply:  ‘OK.’

She is late, though not by as much as twenty minutes.   Wearing a simple green dress of a shade she always favoured in their long ago days together she sweeps towards the pavement table where he waits, and once again he wonders at an elegance that is timeless.  He worshipped her once, idolised her – an alabaster creature of unnassailable grace and beauty.  Life has taught him since, given him ample occasion to rue his mistakes.  He was so young.  They were both so young.

“Hi, it’s so good to see you.”  She greets him, before adding in an undertone as she sits, “I nearly didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did,”  He says.  “I hesitated too.”    A waiter appears.   He orders coffee, a cake he remembers she used to like.  “What are we doing?”  He asks.

She makes a small, open-handed gesture.  “I don’t know.   Seeing you again was nice. I wanted to talk, I suppose.”

He grins,  “Reminisce?  There are things I prefer not to remember.”

“Then those are the things we’ll avoid!”  She decides.  “Do you live in Harliston?”

“Not quite.  My firm opened an office here and I moved back to Brickley just before Christmas.  You?”

“Yes.  Do you remember Alice?”

“Alice with the teeth?”

“Oh, that’s cruel!  She had them corrected, anyway.   I live in her street now…”

And they talk,  They speak of this and that, of who among their once-shared friends remain close, who is still near, who has travelled far.  Who has gone before them…

“You haven’t eaten your cake,”  He accuses her.

She is apologetic,  “I hope you aren’t offended.   They’re a little too sickly for me, these days,”  Then she says:  “Dad was only doing his best for me, Paul.”

“I thought we agreed not to go there,”  he admonishes her.  “You want to, though, don’t you?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  You were so angry, the last time we were together.   We didn’t have a break-up; not properly,  We couldn’t.”

“And you want closure.”

“I suppose I still want to know why. No goodbyes, no parting scene, you just left!   The next thing I heard, you weren’t in town anymore.”

“I was on the morning train.  I couldn’t stay near yet apart from you.  He banned me from seeing you, effectively.  He told me I wasn’t good enough; he’d set his sights high for you.”

“And you didn’t fight for me?”

“He had all the weapons, Eve.  You were too young – we both were.   I knew you couldn’t make an enemy of your father for me, just as I knew he would break us up if I stayed.  I had nothing to offer; no right to take you away from everything you had.” He adds reflectively,  “I wanted to though, I admit that.”

“We were children.”  Eve fixes her gaze on her lap, brushes absently at her skirt in a demure gesture he remembers.  “Those were such different times, weren’t they?   I think I would have gone anywhere with you that day, if you had asked, but I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  I couldn’t make myself choose.”  She sighs.  “So, what are you doing with yourself these days, Paul?  Are you still married?”  

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll return your question.  What are we doing here?”

“We’re talking.  We’re laying old ghosts.  Isn’t that all?”

“Is it?”  She says miserably.  “Why didn’t you just walk past me the other day?  Why did you leave that card?”

“Why did you dial my number?”  He counters; then, more gently:  “What do you want me to say?  How long is it?  Thirty years?  Do you want me to admit that not a day’s gone past when I haven’t thought of you, if you were happy, if you were well?

“But you married,  You got married very quickly.  I heard.  You’re still with her, I take it?”

He strives for a smile.   “Yes, in a manner of speaking, I suppose we are.  Perhaps that’s why I’m here.”

“You must love her?”

“I must, mustn’t I?”

“Tell me.”

“You’re right; I married very quickly, and for the wrong reasons.  I was angry, I suppose, with the hand society dealt me, something I was too  young to change.”

“Poor woman!”

“Ali?    I don’t think I’ve ever made her regret my mistakes.  But there,”  He hesitates as if he has a Rubicon to cross with his next words:  “When we parted thirty years ago, my energy died where love was concerned.  So were you to ask me if I love her…”

“That’s tragic!”

“No, I suppose I do love her,in my way,”  He retreats behind his coffee cup,  “Anyway, now it’s your turn, woman.  I heard not a breath about you.  Are you with someone?”

She too will find the props on the table helpful.  She can toy with them and does so – her cup, then the cake she refused that now seems so tempting.  “Maybe I will just have a bite of this?” She will not look at him as she speaks.    “I did marry.  I met someone in London in a show I was working on.  It didn’t last.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!  You have to stop apologizing for things, especially my inability to hold my marriage together!   He started cheating and I ran out of reasons to stay.   We divorced, in the end.”  She adds reflectively;  “Same diagnosis as you, I suppose – were we ever really close?   Anyway, that was a long time ago.  I’m promised to someone, so I’m not really free.  What a horrible word that is – ‘free’!  What does it mean?”

“In this case, I’d say it means there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”

“Which is another horrible word; one I use too often.  Circumstances have changed, can I say that?   I’m not sure if I should keep my promise, Paul.  I’m not sure I can live up to it, you see.”

“Because?”

“Lots of reasons.”  Her eyes at last agree to meet with his, for she can no longer hide that same melancholy he detected in the coffee bar on Praed Street six weeks before.  “I’m not sure I’m capable of giving someone the depth of love they will need.   Perhaps I’m like you, my energy for love is dead?  You said that so well, you made me think…”

“Is he still around, your father?”

 “He died two years ago. We hadn’t spoken for some time before that.”  She reaches across the table so their fingers may touch, a gentle invitation he takes, and their hands join. 

“I’m sorry,”  She whispers;  “Sorry for all the hurt he caused you.  I wish we’d kept in touch somehow, or things had been different.  I just…”  She shrugs, smiles;  “…wish.”

He says, quietly, that he would join her in that wish, and  he asks, quietly, what she is doing with the rest of her day; has she plans?  When she replies in the negative, he asks if he could spend her day with her.  She says, gladly, that he may.

Come evening, as they wait for the taxi that will take him home he wants to know if she will join him tomorrow, or the day after that, and she bites her lip before she asks:   “Paul, will you tell your wife about today?”

He nods.  “I won’t hide it from her.  I don’t think it’ll surprise her  too much.  We’ve been huddled together on a raft of deception for a long time, now.  She’s been seeing someone I’m not meant to know about. It might even be a relief to her if I wasn’t quite so intensely loyal.  The climb to the moral high ground might be rather less steep.”

Three weeks pass:  three weeks of stolen encounters, some short, some longer, the precious minutes of which they count, and fill with new memories.  With each new tryste another bridge is crossed, another precious affinity revived until their harmony is such that although they both fear it, there is a conversation that can no longer be postponed.   

This Saturday, this epic meeting day, they greet each other familiarly with a kiss, and walk together beside the river which divides their town.   He knows it must be his obligation to speak.

“How long can we go on like this?”

She turns to face him.  “Do you want to stop?”  There is a plea in her eyes which speaks for her better than words.

“No.   No, I don’t!  Every time we part it feels like a little piece of me dies.  I feel closer and closer to repeating the mistake I made all those years ago.  Listen, Eve, I’m not the only one with a life to dismantle here.  If I asked you to come to me, to break with this guy I don’t know, go somewhere so we can both start afresh…If I asked you?”

Her face betrays her troubled heart.  For an age, it seems, although she must have turned her answer over in her mind again and again, she delays her reply:  “I would do it.  I would do anything you wanted me to do.  You know that.”  She puts her hands on his shoulders,  “But think, darling, please?  You have a marriage, someone who’s been there for you for a long time.  Think of her, too?”

“I have,”  He takes a deep breath.  “I told you I wouldn’t deceive Ali.  She’s (he chooses the word carefully) aware of you, and all you mean to me.  She’s been surprisingly understanding, really.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re still together, in much the same sense we’ve been for the last ten years.  We share the same house and greet each other when we meet.   But I don’t think she’ll be surprised if I vacate my half of it.”

Her eyes brim:  “Are you asking me?”

“To live with me, yes, that and more, if you want? I mean, will you – could you do that?”

“Of course!”  She draws him close and they kiss as passionately as teenagers, then crease with laughter as a boy no more than twelve years old scooters past offering advice.  “Please!  Get a room!”

Thereafter for a while they say nothing, wandering aimlessly, arm in arm, along the riverbank until they find a park bench where they can rest and watch the river.   “Goodness!  Where do we start?”  She says.

In a week or two Paul has found a little flat close to his work which they both agree upon, and they furnish it together.  Ali, Paul’s wife, has exhausted her fount of patient understanding, so he has moved into this new home, where Eve will join him on a day that she has set.  Much of their time is spent together now, fulfilling the demands of the missed and neglected years.  Both are as happy as their moral sense will allow.

No time at all, it seems, elapses before the morning when Eve moves in.  She will wait for him at a corner near their favourite bookshop at eleven am.  

“Leave room in the back of the car.  I’ll still have a bag or two, I expect,”  She advises him happily.

A little after ten o’clock on the appointed morning Paul is dancing with anticipation, his emotions turning somersaults more becoming a man half his age.  The knowledge that within the hour he will be embarking on a new life after so many unhappy years so excites him he finds the inaction of waiting intolerable.  The bags she mentioned would be heavy, would they not?  He supposes there might be extra things she needs, weighty items not accounted for, awkward burdens unsuitable for carrying through the streets.

As the minutes tick by Eve’s imagined burden grows greater, until his mind’s eye sees her struggling that half-mile to the bookshop under a Sisyphean load.   It does not occur to him that in such exigency she might simply get a taxi – no, he must help!  He tries to call her, only to find she has not switched on her ‘phone, so ignoring their arrangement he gets into his car and drives to her house.  After all, what can be wrong with picking her up outside her door?  He need not go into the house, if there is any chance the person she is leaving is there, and anyway, she has never made reference to them actually living together.  It has been, from the little she has divulged of her relationship, a stilted, rather distanced affair.

Ten-thirty sees him drawing up before her house.  There is little chance, he tells himself, she has already left, so all he need do is wait.  Minutes elapse:  five, ten….

The front door opens.  Paul climbs from his car, advances, ready to help.  The plangent whine of an electric motor reaches his ear.   

At first he thinks the doorway must be empty, that the door has just swung open, improperly latched. Then he looks down; he sees the ramp that covers the steps, the handles bolted to the walls.  He sees the pair of weary  eyes that are fixed on his midriff somewhere, the wheels of the chair, the fingers playing on the keyboard that make up the rudiments of a voice – a cold monotonous voice:

“Is it you?  Are you the reason she is going?  What is your name?”

In horror he retreats the few steps that will take him onto the street,  a guilt that has yet to find a name compelling him to glance right and left, as if he is afraid of being seen.   Eve, carrier bags in hand, is rounding the corner, not four houses down.  She stops when she sees him.  The voice, now behind him, repeats:  “What is your name?”

Eve raises the bags a little to support her explanation.  “A bit of shopping.  Some food for…”

“What is your name?”  An electronic accusation, not a question.

“Before the accident,”  She says helplessly,  “I could have coped.  I could have, before then.  Before  us.”

The street is suddenly so, so long.  She is very far away and the sky is darkening:  “It’s going to rain soon”, she says.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.