Interrupter, a short story by Barry Lee Thompson
Available from In Short Publishing Co.
He stopped swimming, and floated in the middle of the pool. I watched him closely, the long thin line of body broken by the blue of his swimming trunks. Then I imagined the trunks gone. It was easy, really, but almost unbearable. He started to swim again, towards me, then tumbled over at the end, and started up the other way. And he kept on, lap after lap. It was good to watch. Mesmerising. But that’s all it was. Over and over. I became a little bored. Maybe not bored, but it wasn’t going anywhere, so I went inside to break it up, and I bought a coffee and a sandwich from the vending machines. I took them back out to the pool, to where I’d been sitting. But it had all changed. The water was flat and still. The pool, empty. He was gone, the swimmer. He would have climbed out of the water, and pulled his goggles to the top of his head. Stood there dripping, looking around. He’d have grabbed his towel from the lounger, and gone back to his room, to sleep or to masturbate, or to listen to music, or read. And if I hadn’t been inside getting the coffee and the sandwich, I could have started talking to him, telling him what a good swimmer he was. It’s a valid reason to start a conversation. You’re a terrific swimmer. Who wouldn’t want to hear something like that? I watched him all that time, then I go to get something to eat, and … nothing. The end. Well, that’s the way it goes. It was meant to be, I suppose. That’s the consolation.
He feels the pressure of opposition, and he has to go somewhere, get off the street. Anywhere will do, as long as it’s quiet. A quiet interior. He walks around, looking for the right kind of place, all the while feeling as if there’s something in his chest about to fly out screaming. He finds a hall. It’s unlocked, no people inside, just him. It’s like a community hall. That sort of thing. It doesn’t really matter. It smells like a primary school. That smell, of children, thirty or so of them breathing in and out at the same time and filling the air with their sticky breaths. Primary school. That’s a good memory.
It’s subdued in the hall, mellow and airy. Not silent though, but that’s alright. The traffic outside, you can hear its hum and its throb. In a way it’s reassuring to know that everything is going on beyond and that none of it is touching him in here. He grabs a chair from a stack and sits in a corner. If someone comes and says something, he’ll say he was feeling unwell and came in to recover. He wouldn’t really be lying.
Dust motes in a shaft of sun. He starts to breathe in the peace with a slow simple rhythm. His chest loosens. His body feels steady. Is this calmness? he wonders. But how long will it last? Things like this, they usually end too soon. Silence, for example, is always about to be shattered. A piece of music fades, or shuts off. Stories break off. Things end, in their way. The thought makes him feel rushed, as if he has to grab at the moment.
He shuts his eyes. Maybe sleep, then. Try to doze. Perhaps that’s the answer. Often he does this, comes to places like this. It works, mostly. And when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But that’s okay. It’s okay, because mostly it works.
Look at him working. The way he smiles at every customer. He’s impeccable. But when he goes to his room at the back, at the side of the kitchen, the smile is gone. He sips clear liquor from a teacup, swears under his breath, and watches everything through the small glass in the door. When he sees a new customer, he’s out to greet them, bounding over, showing them to a table. Then as he bows slightly, moving away, he nods to a waiter to bring menus, water. He returns to his room, sits down, stares through the glass, sips at the liquor. No one would ever guess. He seems impeccable.
The heat surprised us early in the morning, and after noon it was pressing down. The first day of summer, I called it. Roddy said it was a phantom. We closed the curtains and sat around without clothes. My back was slick with sweat, and the backs of my knees. Roddy touched me, but he made a face and wiped his hand on the couch. We argued about it. I grabbed a towel and went out the back. He stayed inside.
He sent me an SMS. Hi Martin, it began. My Sunday name. But the message was full of typos and nonsense. He knew it’d make me laugh. I wrote one back, cordial, adding a smile. It went on like that, and things were repaired. I stayed outside though. It was easier than talking.
I heard Pino rustling round in his backyard, tapping his dodgy thermometer. He peered over the fence. 29 degrees, he said eventually, a fag bobbing at his lips. Beautiful, I said. Yes, beautiful, he said. He stared. But maybe you’re burning. Here, he said, indicating the shade below the fence. I moved. That’s better, he said.
When it got dark it cooled but not by much. The air filled with tiny ashy insects. I dozed to the tickle of papery wings at my eyelids and inside my ear. When I woke it was balmy, the insects were gone. The air was perfumed with night scented flowers and cigarette smoke. I turned on the tap and the hose kicked and spat. I aimed the spray on myself, drenching myself. The back door opened, and Roddy was standing like a naked ghost. What the fuck, he said. You’ll wake the neighbours. He came over, turned off the hose, but he was smiling. Come inside now, he said. I’m wet, I said. It’s late, come inside, he said.