“He went out for a walk. There was a group of ducks on the river, near the wetlands. One of the ducks swam towards him. He told it to fuck off, and it moved away. He sat on the edge of the river with his legs drawn up, hugging his knees. It was a warm morning, so he took off his shoes and socks. His socks were slightly damp where his problems had seeped out through the soles of his feet. He dangled his feet in the water. The ducks swam away, far from the slick of worry on the water.”
He’s up with the birds, usually. Before them, even. Reeling at the shock of cold water splashes on pasty skin. This is always where the day starts: staring out into the sky, into the depths of dark yard silence. Waiting for light to peel over the edges. In this way, he considers the things done the day before, and how these activities might easily become those for the day ahead. He could visit once again the strangers who live by the bridge. He could stare along the river’s reach, towards the lumbering shipyards, and at the fishermen dotting the rocks. Or instead he could sit home, thinking. All alone. Thinking forwards and backwards. Circling around all the things that have to be done, and then all the things that could be done, but in the end not doing any of them.
It was the Sunday of the long weekend. The meatless Friday had come and gone without note. Saturday had been spent down by the bridge. But today he played a song in his room. The same song over and over. ‘I’ll never tire of this,’ but knowing he probably would. Then knowing he definitely will, eventually. Because it usually happens that way. Maybe it’ll always happen the same way. Then, a shout from somewhere, to turn the music down. He turned it up. But the shout again, louder this time, and with an edge. He shut the music all the way off. The tune would be remembered outside his room, and the words too. He put on a heavy coat, went out, walked nowhere, walked everywhere, and the tune stayed with him, playing within; the lyrics too, but the words were becoming mixed up. Placed differently, and deliberately, maybe. Twisted to suit himself, maybe. Worked-over to fit his own rules of rhyme and rhythm. He enjoyed the playful arrangements he was crafting. This song, a new song, a fluid song, kept him company. The tune stayed the same, he thought.
He walked for hours. Walked in a certain way, without aim or need. Ambled, you might say. Through the greyest of the dreary streets, past rows of small damp houses with smells of stale margarine and old roasts and rubbish, feeling that he was completely safe, that he was alone in the entire place, the only one about in this daylight. Only him on this day, save for bored cats and curious dogs. The light had a dulled-metal cast to it, and he felt as if not just his but all life might go on forever like this; as if this were an eternal light, the light from the end of the world.
And then the solitude was disrupted. By a man, parading outside a ruined pub. The man, unable to walk properly, noticed the territorial intrusion and stopped shuffling. Stood, leaning on a dirty old crutch. Leaning, and peering along the street. Malevolence in the stare. Perhaps.
He slowed then halted at the man’s unwavering glare, at the frayed clothes weighted with a history of oily filth. He turned from the man and walked away, retracing, back the way he came, picking up the pace. No coward, but sensible. Radar attuned to possible threats. At the end of the street, he checked back over his shoulder. The man had shifted some way from his original position, and was crutching along the pavement. Advancing.
So he ran. He darted round many corners, sometimes into dank narrow alleys, losing himself inside an imagined spiral, and he didn’t recognise the place he ended up. Here were houses that looked neglected, even those that weren’t boarded-up. It was growing dark, and a light mist was falling in patches like fine rain. He hurried along, and came upon a bus stop with a cracked timetable, and sat inside the shelter. The night people would be out soon to claim the streets with painted hair and tight clothes and strange perfumes. Windows were lighting behind closed curtains. The sodium glow from cold street-lamps split the vaporous air. A car approached, slowed briefly as it passed, a passenger’s face pressed to the window. The music from earlier had left him, without his noticing its departure. He reached for it, but it was beyond him. He knew it would return, as soon as he played the song again, inside his room, and that when it did, the feelings would also come back, and especially the feeling that he was invincible. It would all come back.
Home now. It’s dark, and the window is propped open. It’s cold outside, but he likes to listen to the wind and the tap of the base of the blind against the frame. The door swings lightly, back and forth. The music has gone for the time being, but he doesn’t have a need for it. Not right now. He’s thinking about the man from earlier in the day. He’ll replay the song later. His eyes close. The house is settled. But something is ticking, apart from the blind, slow and even. Ticking, and maybe it’ll send him to sleep.
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.
‘None of this is real,’ he said. ‘Didn’t you know that? Did nobody ever tell you?’
‘They told me other things,’ I said. ‘Stories and rules. But not that. These trees, and the sky: they’re real, aren’t they?’
‘None of it. All of it doesn’t exist. It’s a confection; as real as a puff of dragon’s breath.’
‘But dragon’s breathe,’ I said. ‘And I exist. My skin is warm.’ I took his hand, and placed it onto my bare chest. ‘ Where I touch myself, here. There’s life beneath my fingers. Can you feel it?’
‘It’s illusory. All of it. You’re nothing at all.’ He took his hand away. ‘Nothing at all. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to know?’
I woke in the dark. The cabin stank of stale cigarettes and beer. I pulled on all of my clothes, but couldn’t find my shoes. I walked barefoot up the steps, leaving Cubby’s hulk snoring in the dark. The moon was huge and the light falling on the deck was bright grey and harsh.
The boat heaved. I rubbed my eyelids, shivered, and pinched a large painful grain of sleep-sand out of the corner of one eye. It felt satisfying to roll it round in my fingers. We were floating in swollen inky water, overhung with the moon.
I coughed, and once I’d started I couldn’t stop. I feared I might be sick, and felt for the edge. When I straightened up, my head swam a little.
Cubby came up a few minutes later.
‘I can’t see land,’ I said.
‘Morning,’ he said, yawning. He lit a cigarette.
‘But it’s there, right?’
He smiled. The tip of the cigarette fizzed and glowed.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ I said, beginning to fear that being at sea might have altered the order and patterns on which I depended. He was wearing a thin singlet. The fly of his boxer shorts was gaping rudely. He shook his head.
‘Cubby,’ I said, taking an involuntary step backwards, away from the edge. ‘I can’t swim.’
‘You can swim. I’ve seen you.’ He drew noisily on the cigarette, and blew out a funnel of thick white smoke. ‘You’ve got a good stroke.’ He smiled, and I thought he had something in his mouth, a piece of gum perhaps, but it was just his teeth. ‘So what are you talking about?’
‘I’m not a strong swimmer.’
He grunted noncommittally. ‘Hung-over?’
‘I’m okay,’ I lied. I cleared my throat. ‘Last night,’ I said. He blinked. ‘It was… What time did we finally get to sleep?’
He tossed the question off his shoulder. ‘Who knows? I’ll tell you what your problem is.’
‘Sleep. You’re tired. That’s all. Of course you can swim.’
I closed my eyes but it felt as if the deck might fall away at any moment.
‘Don’t look so worried. Go back to bed for a few hours.’
‘No. I’m not tired. We drank a bit, though. Didn’t we?’
‘No more than usual,’ he said, raising his shoulder again in disregard.
‘Look,’ I started, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, so stopped.
‘Anyway, you won’t need to swim. Probably not.’ He laughed. ‘And if you do, just grab onto me. I’ll swim for both of us.’ He seemed to change his mind about a direction he was taking. He looked down at his feet, and flexed his toes. I glanced at his open fly. He looked up, and caught me out.
I looked down at my own bare feet. ‘I thought there’d always be land in sight,’ I said to the deck. ‘You told me that. Didn’t you? I wouldn’t have agreed to this if you hadn’t said that. I’m sure of it.’
‘Take it easy.’ He smiled. His teeth were very white and even, and they glistened, as if they had a plastic veneer. He moved forward. I took another step back. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said.
I smelled oil, salt, burning tobacco, wet wood, all mingling, and over it, the sourness of Cubby’s body. I had the beginnings of a nasty hangover, as the liquor wore off more. I could taste the tar-tang of his cigarettes. I put a hand to my mouth and I could smell it all over my fingers too.
He shrugged, and moved back. ‘Anyway, it’s only for a few days. You won’t even get wet.’
I suddenly hated him, and his boat, and the breathy noise he made when he smoked, and his underwear, and that smell of his, which seemed to be concentrated in some parts of his body, and absent in others. It came back to me then. I remembered being surprised and revolted a little bit, but not letting it stop me.
He peered at my face, then turned away, and looked out to the sky. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’ll be okay, as long as the weather doesn’t turn bad.’ I watched him finish his cigarette. I felt the presence of choices, but was hampered by nausea and the cloudiness in my head.
He spat noisily into the water, then went back down without saying anything else. It was still and quiet, and I stayed for a while on the deck, wanting to go nowhere, but knowing that I’d have to move eventually.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.