Maskers

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‘How old are you?’ he asked.

‘How old do you think I am?’ she said.

She too was wearing a mask, so he had only clothing choices, posture, eyes, mouth, and voice to go on. She was tall. Her hair was thick and dark, though he wasn’t sure what that told him. ‘I’m no good at this,’ he said.

‘No good at what?’ Her voice clear, low, unhurried.

‘At ages. Guessing.’

‘You don’t have to answer,’ she said. ‘Keep it to yourself. However old you think I am, that’s how old I am.’

Later, still masked, on a couch in a different room, they drank bitter clear liqueur from tiny glasses. ‘Have you noticed,’ she said, ‘how I haven’t asked you about your age?’ She licked her lips. Her tongue was deliberate, and pinkly vibrant.

He said nothing, and nothing was expected, then after a while, ‘No, I hadn’t noticed,’ he said, ‘but I’m aware now.’ He thought some more then said, ‘I did notice that you didn’t query the relevance of my question.’

‘Which question?’ she said.

‘The one about your age.’ He thought he’d only asked her the one.

‘Didn’t I?’ she said, and perhaps she smiled. He detected for the first time a delicate perfume, hers, a hint of white flowers, and something else, something suggesting softness and marshmallow, and then it was gone, absorbed in the incense burning from another part of the building.

Later still, when he was alone with the realisation that they wouldn’t meet again, with the knowledge that she’d been accurate in calling their encounter a one-off, he was puzzled by an inability to recall the details of the mask she’d been wearing, other than its having definitely been a mask. Its shape, colour, texture and material, how it had been secured, all was lost and absent. All seemed important, particularly as he’d never once sighted her full face. This vagueness bothered him, and the bother would thrive and sometimes visit, surprising, as the years peeled away.

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THE FINDING

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… closed his eyes, slipped into a place. Into an easy unfettered place where a meadow slopes gradually down to a river. A narrow stretch of river through a town, old town, a university town. It’s summer, it’s evening. The air pale and yellow, viscous, an end of day light, settling. Trees, old buildings around. Medieval? He’s no expert. There’s a chapel. Means nothing, beyond its architectural beauty, compelling lines against the sky. The whole is more a sensation, a relief, but sometimes these call to be described and this is how it could be described. There’s not much more to say. An elusive episode. Something else. A word came to mind: infused. The yellow, perhaps, suggested the word. As if the air were infused with a gentle dye. Suffused might be more accurate, he’s not sure, but that wasn’t the word that came. What else? That’s it, really. Nothing more to remark on. The experience, call it that, though he never left his seat, didn’t last long. Barely enough time for him to register it. It’s as if it were trying to avoid capture or precise definition. But despite its brevity, he knows now that such a place exists and is accessible. He’s reassured by the possibility that it might find him again. He’ll wait.

Paco Rabanne, take 2

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A one page ad in a glossy magazine: image of a man sitting in a brightly lit theatre, looking towards an empty stage that’s framed by deep red curtains. There’s no one else around. His feet are up on the back of one of the seats in front. The man’s in casual daytime clothes. He’s wearing the fragrance that’s being advertised, thinking over the events of the afternoon. He’s been rehearsing the actors in his new play. This is Sweden, perhaps, and the theatre is in the middle of a small Swedish town. But the actors, they’re not very good. Or they’re not quite right, although they were the best from the auditions. He feels differently to yesterday. Not one of the actors has given any indication of really understanding the material, and he’s worried that its message might be getting lost. If only he’d stayed in the city where he lived before. If only he was still in Stockholm. If he were in Stockholm, there’d be a larger pool of talent to choose from. Of course he’s considered the possibility that the play itself might be at fault in some way. That perhaps it’s a little abstruse in parts. There’s nothing to be done about that; the play can’t be rewritten. There’s nothing to be done now about any of it. In either case, whether towards the play or the actors, he’s aware that he’s harbouring less than kind thoughts, and he’d hate for the actors, or anybody else, to be privy to those thoughts. He closes his eyes and kneads his brow and silently berates himself. He’s tired, he’s doubtful. He’s had enough, for today. Head down, he becomes aware of a pleasant subtle scent. His cologne, upon his clothing. The quiet personal fragrance that develops many hours after the cologne’s application. A smell you can’t rush towards. He’s rarely aware of this, his scent. He likes it whenever he catches it. Unrushed, quiet, breathing. He forgets where he is, is briefly disarmed. He reopens his eyes. Enough of this ad. On, to the next page.

THE GHOSTS

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It’s a squarish room, plain by day, and nothing to speak of. But after dark, when the lamps are lit and the candles positioned, the room takes on an inviting glow, and were you to walk inside from the chill of a wintry evening, throwing off your coat and rubbing your hands together, you’d think it had the air of an old-fashioned club. A suggestion of wood-panelled age, perhaps; of capacious leather armchairs, and small low tables ready for heavy tumblers of whisky. You might describe it as a pleasant room, a cheery welcoming place. A place where a roaring fire and reliable grandfather clock wouldn’t be unexpected.

But that isn’t the real room. Often he keeps his head still, feigning sleep, then rolls his eyes gently to the side, and he can make out the profile of a face, or the line of a limb. And sometimes, if he concentrates, he hears whispers and breathing. But whenever he moves his head to probe the deep corners, there’s no longer anything certain to observe. But he knows his eyes and ears aren’t the only arbiters of all that happens in the room.

He has no friends. To have friends might create a need to explain himself. Why is it, they might ask, that your life is one way and not another? And eventually he’d have to tell them about the company he keeps. It’s the ghosts, he’d say.

American Writers Review – A Literary Journal | Summer 2018

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My short story The Longstanding Arrangement is published in the Summer 2018 issue of American Writers Review, available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The attached Elwood Writers blog post has links.

Elwood Writers

American Writers ReviewSummer 2018 Issue includes work from two Elwood Writers: Loss, a poem by Helen McDonald, and The Longstanding Arrangement, a short story by Barry Lee Thompson.

American Writers Review Summer 2018 Issue, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

American Writers Review is a multi-genre literary journal published by San Fedele Press. For five years, AWR has shared fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography and art from a diverse group of contributors. We welcome writers of all experience levels, who want to explore their art with us.”

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