A short story
He is there again. Alone, as usual, lost somewhere, past the tables and the teacups, the shops and the neon. His tea must be cold by now. It is practically untouched, although the ashtray is filling steadily. He rolls the thinnest cigarettes in the world. His whole face puckers to suck in the smoke, the thin crumple of paper pinched between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. The nails are bitten back; the skin on his finger ends too. His cuticles are rags. His herringbone coat, shrugged from his shoulders, hangs from the back of his chair. Its torn lining spills its guts in voluptuous coils; he looks as if he is sitting in the remains of some disembowelled beast. Alone, as usual. His aloneness is captivating.
She snatches what glances she can across the cafeteria’s muddled congestion. Around her, there are explosions of laughter, of sarcasm and innuendo. Jinksy, raven hair streaming down over his heavy black coat, is on form today. The girls are swooning over their tea and flapjacks; the boys are sullen, cowed. Sometimes one will try to capture the conversation, to impose himself on the table, to say something funnier, ruder, cleverer. But Jinksy, Jinksy is having none of it.
It’s like this every Saturday. Whatever else happens in the week, by 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon everyone in town, everyone interesting, has gathered in the Friary to boast and brag, to be seen, to watch. She fell in with them earlier in the autumn, and they are her family now, whenever she is in town. Which is every Saturday. What else would she do?
She met Jinksy through Leonie, the friend she made on her first day of college. Leonie knows Steve, went to school with him, and Steve knows Jinksy. Worships Jinksy would be more like it. No longer at college, Jinksy is unemployed and spends his days writing desolate poems in his bedsit up by the Garibaldi. Someone said that he sleeps in a coffin. A real, actual coffin. Part of her can believe it, but when she pictures the scene she wonders if he has a duvet, a pillow, if it is a new coffin, or a second hand one. A used coffin. She stops herself then, not wanting that thought to linger. She is disturbed by her easy slip from the banal to the macabre.
So Alice sits with Jinksy and Steve and Leonie and the others, and tries to pretend that this corner of a provincial shopping centre is the coolest place on earth. Certainly the coolest place in her rubbish, tawdry town. At least here with her friends the only currency that counts is a knowledge of music and movies and books. Alice brings books and Leonie, music; they nod ponderously at the mention of films they haven’t seen, directors they’ve only read about in the NME.
Leonie tilts her empty teacup towards her and peers down to confirm its emptiness. Unthinking, she reaches over and takes the little metal teapot sitting in front of Alice and pours the last of its contents into her own cup. Only then does she think of her friend and, coyly, offers a piece of her flapjack. Alice declines. Instead she looks at Leonie, at the pale face behind heavy black eyeliner, at the piece of purple lace tied into her henna-red hair.
She wonders if she only made friends with Leonie because of her clothes. When they met, in the queue to sign up for English Lit, she looked like the kind of person with whom Alice had decided to surround herself in her new incarnation at college. She was alone; no one from her school had gone to college. They had either left to find jobs or stayed on in the sixth form. She had despised the lack of imagination of the workers and the timidity of the rest. She couldn’t understand why anyone with the chance would not choose to rewrite themselves. Only now was she beginning to understand that the potential for reinvention is finite. The self you show to others sort of sticks to you. Unless you get it just right, first time, it will grow to bind you, to ensnare you, just as much as the things you are trying to leave behind.
Leonie now seems like more of a constraint that anything else, but how had Alice been supposed to know that? Leonie had been so much cooler than anyone she’d met before, certainly more so than anyone at her suburban comprehensive, where the girls liked Duran Duran and the boys pretended not to. In the queue, Leonie had been so exciting, so open to everything. Within minutes, she had told Alice that her brother had been at school with the bassist from Bauhaus, and this slightest of coincidences had seemed like proof of Leonie’s specialness. Alice had marvelled at the confidence, the self-assurance, and the glamour of this girl in black and purple, who stared at the world with an insatiable hunger.
Now, two months into the first term, Alice is bored of her friend’s vacuous insincerity. She still has the clothes, and her knowledge of gothic punk is encyclopaedic. But there is nothing there, just surface, shallow and plastic. She is a perfect facsimile of cool, which is by definition not cool. And now they are tied together: until she can escape to university, Alice is simply one half of Alice and Leonie.
She looks from her friend to her teacup, to the little empty teapot, and back to Leonie.
“I’m going to go get some more tea. Anyone want anything?”
She already knows what she is doing, that she will not go back to the table, at least not yet. She orders two teas and a millionaire’s shortbread. The woman in the brown checked tabard smiles as she takes the carefully counted stack of change that Alice slides across to her. The crockery rattles wearily onto the tiled counter.
She can feel the eyes falling on her back as she passes the table and continues through the emptying café to where he is still sitting with his cold tea and his red carnation. Her red carnation. She had given the flower to him, earlier in the day. Leonie and she had been circuiting the centre, as usual. He had been wandering in and out of Revolver and W H Smith. She had recognised him from previous weeks. As usual, he was wrapped in his oversized coat; an unruly mass of snags and knots emerged from beneath the peak of a cotton cap.
His haunted eyes had searched the dark marble walls and shop windows, but never rested anywhere long, never gave you to believe he was seeing what you were seeing. She knew Leonie wouldn’t approve. Maybe that was part of the attraction. She had wanted to say something to him for weeks, but had never had the courage.
Until today. Today she had decided.
She had bought a single, blood-red carnation. Leonie had gone with her despite her misgivings and had even been polite when they caught up with him outside C&A. Alice had told him that she and her friend had been judging a Best-Looking Man competition and that he had won, that the flower was his prize. She had held it out to him, stretched across her two upturned palms. He was probably eighteen, maybe older, but for a moment he looked younger, unnerved and embarrassed. He had asked if it was a joke, had expected the girls to burst into laughter. But Alice had assured him that the judges’ decision was final. He had bowed slightly, Alice thought, when he had taken the flower.
Of course he remembers. How could he not? Her gesture had been well-judged, both knowing and innocent. A flower. Not a weighty rose, but something light enough to brush aside if need be, yet meaningful enough to capture attention, to convey intent. She pushes one of the cups towards him across the Formica and takes a seat opposite without waiting for an invitation. Her sudden capability intoxicates her.
He looks at the tea, at the fingers of his left hand, then up at Alice through the cracked ends of his unkempt fringe. He has brown eyes. Soft, like a cow’s. He says thanks, indicating both the tea and the carnation, before pushing the plastic wrap of Old Holborn towards her. Alice shakes her head in a tight, rapid vibration, her lips pursed. Instead, she cuts the shortbread in half, and then into half again, then she cuts each of the four new squares on the diagonal, so that the plate is littered with triangles and crumbs. Alice drops one of the triangles into her mouth before pushing the plate towards him.
“I’m Alice. Pleased to meet you. Properly, I mean.”
He looks at her primly extended hand, smiles, and simply dips his head in acknowledgement. There is no handshake; Alice wrestles with her awkwardness.
He is called Hal, but not like Henry IV; like the computer in that film. Alice rides over her disappointment and is off, telling him about herself, about college, about the music she likes, the books, a sudden flurry of facts and positions. Hal watches, waits. While he asks no questions about her, neither does he fill the space with his own voice, his own opinions. Alice is aware that this unnerves her. It is unexpected and unusual. His quiet command of this table, his table, is so much more complete than that exercised noisily by Jinksy across the way. She can hear the blood thumping behind her ears.
“What about you?”
He looks puzzled, but still says nothing, only watches.
“I mean, are you at college? What music do you listen to? That kind of thing. I mean, I feel like I’ve been boring you rigid with my life story, and yet I don’t know anything about you.”
“Why would you want to?”
Alice is about to answer honestly but catches herself. She would be giving away far too much far too early. So she says simply that that is how conversations are meant to go; it is the normal way of things. Hal’s nostrils flare slightly, but he answers her questions nonetheless. Eighteen years old, he works in a record shop, saving some money to go abroad for a few months before university next autumn; for now he lives at his parents’ house. He listens to The Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain rather than the Cult and Fields of the Nephilim; he watches Lynch and Cronenberg, reads Kundera and Camus.
“Alice? I’m going, mate. Jinksy and them have already headed off. Do you want to get the bus with me, or what? They’re shutting the place up.”
Leonie is standing behind her. Alice knows, if only from Hal’s face, that while Leonie is talking to her, she is staring at him with something like disgust.
“No, I’m going stay for a bit.”
Alice turns in her chair to offer a smile to her friend, adding: “You remember Hal from earlier, yeah?” Leonie manages a dismissive nod in Hal’s direction. Then she is gone and there is only Alice and Hal. In the conspiracy of solitude, both the posturing of Jinksy and the limits of Leonie become brittle and plastic. Hungrily, Alice soaks in the depth of Hal.
“I fucking hate this town. I mean, why would anything sentient want to live here, right? It’s like they put something in the fucking water. Like the air is dosed up with something.”
His anger is sudden and shocking. He draws furiously on the cigarette that has been resting extinguished in his left hand for ten minutes. In the end he gives up on the idea that he can re-ignite it with his own incandescence, and leaves the cigarette between his lips and reaches for his lighter. Sparks splutter before a shallow dome of orange flame settles into being. It is at this point that Alice notices that his right hand is planted firmly in his coat pocket.
Metal shutters clatter down behind her, signalling that the counter is now closed. It is five o’clock, and she has been sitting with Hal for almost an hour. She realises that during this time he has been doing everything – smoking, drinking tea – one-handed. She frowns, squinting at where his right hand disappears.
He shakes his head. Something flickers behind his eyes, and he leans in slightly across the table. His voice lowers.
“Shouldn’t really tell you; might freak you out. Let’s just say I’ve got something in my pocket that I’m… I’m keen to hang onto.”
The woman in the brown tabard ignores them as she shuffles past, towards the bus station. Over the chocolate acrylic of her workaday uniform, she is wearing a blue quilted coat trimmed in scarlet, but she is unconcerned by the inappropriateness of her choices. Watching her leave, Alice does not need to turn around to know that there is no-one left in the courtyard of the cafeteria, that the little shops that surround it are either shut, or shutting, or empty. Her vulnerability nags at her shoulder.
“Alright, look. Do you promise not to go mental if I show you?”
He too is aware that they are alone, that there are no witnesses to whatever secret he is about to share. Alice knows that this is a moment to test her presumed audacity; that to hold back now is something that Leonie would do. The person she has willed into existence would embrace this. She knows that the world will hold bigger shocks and terrors than anything that Hal could carry in his coat pocket. She studies his face, his eyes, looking for any trace that he might be some sort of pervert.
“Yeah, go on then.”
Needlessly, he looks over both shoulders. His eyebrows twitch upwards, maybe as a warning, or perhaps as a drum roll. His right shoulder drops as his arm snakes out from under the folds of gabardine; Alice looks only at his eyes, does not want to uncover the mystery earlier than is necessary.
He has stopped squirming in his seat, is still, expectant, yet her gaze remains fixed on his face. Impatient now, he nods slightly, eyes widening, to where his hand must surely be beneath the Formica. She leans around, hesitant, boldly, to see. Under the table, he clutches a hand grenade.
“Fucking hell! I did not see that coming! I thought it was going to be something sleazy…”
Alice laughs a nervous laugh, a flash of mischievous delight on her face. She knows that to Hal this is serious, but she cannot contain her relief, the joy of finding something so outrageous in this humdrum shopping centre, in this pointless town. Before she can ask where he got it from, whether it worked or not, Hal is talking again, his voice level and confident, but maybe a little too cold, a little too rapid. There is anger still, but no bile, no blood and heat, just iron detachment as he explains that he had taken the grenade from his father’s collection.
“Another time, another place, he’d be a fucking Nazi or something. He’s got knives; I mean big knives, by the bucket load; rifles and that, too, most of them replicas. But not all. That’s how he keeps himself anaesthetised: pretending to live in some made-up Second World War adventure. He comes home from work and numbs the boredom with all this… It’s real, you know, I’m not messing about.”
“What do you mean? Not messing about?”
Before she reaches the ‘b’, she sees that Hal’s hand is clamped hard on the lever, that there is no pin in the mechanism.
“Where’s the pin, mate?”
She doesn’t have time to ask what he means by this.
“I took it out this morning, threw it in a bin on the market square. I’ve been carrying it round, primed, all day. Locked in. In case I start to wuss out.”
Alice remembers that he had taken the carnation with his left hand earlier on. Even then.
She is angry now. There is living on the edge and there is being bloody stupid – she can hear her father’s voice in her head, and strives to shake it out. Looking at the floor, she struggles with the ‘w’ of why or what, or any number of questions that are jostling inside her mouth.
“Wuss out? Wuss out of what? This is messed up, man.”
For some reason, as if it made anything better, Hal slides the grenade back into his coat pocket.
“Look, I was never going hurt anyone. Just, you know, make a mark. I was going to wait in the centre until it had all shut up, then throw this at the shop that’d pissed me off the most today. C&A most likely. Maybe Chelsea Girl. Hadn’t decided. Probably C&A.”
He laughs then. The conviction is gone, and he is left only with uncertainty and a live grenade. Alice reaches out to touch his free hand and his eyes soften again. She asks what he plans to do now, knowing he has no plans. His not knowing is reassuring.
Abruptly, Alice pulls a scrunchy out of her hair, then a second, and hands them to Hal. She explains, in her impatient adult voice, that he should secure the lever of the grenade with them, that he should still hold on, just in case, but less fiercely than before; she has an idea, a way out of this, an alternative to the demolition of C&A.
She is all bustle and motion, collecting her things and leading him out of the deserted cafeteria and past the bored and vacant stores, which are killing time until they are allowed to close at last. He offers no resistance as they plunge out of the yellow brightness of the arcade and onto the already dark street. Despite herself, Alice is thrilled by their secret cargo, the potential it carries, and the ignorance of the stubborn shoppers and eager drinkers that coalesce on Abingdon Street.
She leads him down Fish Street, then out along Derngate, as far as Becket’s Park, its darkness ringed by the insidious sodium glow. They push on into the blackness, darker yet under the trees, and towards the looming bulk of the perfume factory across the river. They are laughing now, giddy in their freedom, in their adventure. Alice squeals, exuberant, as they trip over their heels, tumbling down the slope towards the light band of water, luminescent orange, distinct among the shapes made up of shades of black. At the bottom, by the swings, they stop, sucking air into their lungs, shaking out their remaining laughter.
There is low lamp light here, and they sit on the wooden boards of the little roundabout. He struggles to roll a cigarette with his free hand, and Alice asks if she can hold the grenade, to make it easier; they exchange a look, and he hands the weapon to her, his pupils dilating so wide that she sees all the world reflected back in them.
“It’s not my real name. Hal, I mean. I lied. I’m sorry”
But Alice does not mind and her eyebrows rise in encouragement. He stares at the glowing tip of his cigarette, searching for the words or the courage or another, better lie. Eventually, he tells her how he hates Phillip, hates his parents for imposing it upon him, how the decision to name himself anew had arrived late one night in front of the television. She feels the warmth crackle between them and pulls him to his feet once more.
Across the first bridge, then the second, past the factory and its empty car parks. The tarmac melts to gravel, and they are on rough paths. The intermittent street lights disappear, and only the orange sky illuminates their careful navigation of open ground. Alice still holds the grenade, will not give it back, refuses to surrender either the responsibility or the thrill. She weighs the potency in her palm, needlessly clasps the lever’s spring in her trembling fingers, tastes the sweetness of latent destruction, its power.
And then it is there: the rippled slab of water, phosphorescent. Pocked with dark clumps that she knows to be islands. Above them, a stream of light slides off the edge of the dual carriageway, hoist above the water on concrete piles. Yet despite the constant flow of traffic across the flyover, they are essentially alone, separated from all those lives by speed and steel and combustion. She thinks that it is odd that it is possible to be this close to so many people, but to feel completely separated from them, alone even.
Except for the boy, of course. In the darkness, unseen, he is asking what she has in mind, what her plan is, and she smiles invisible smiles, forcing down pride and excitement.
“It’s better than C&A, anyway. And there’s no danger of us getting caught. Nor of anyone getting hurt.”
Out in the lake is a jump ramp, a boon to the town’s water skiers. Alice has often seen them on weekend days through the window of her parents’ car. She first noticed them a few years before, when she was being driven to see her grandmother in the hospital, during the weeks of illness before she died. Ever since, Alice has been fascinated by the men and their boats, their wet suits and skis and pointlessness. Every weekend, from thirteen until she left school, she would be driven past them, violin across her knees, and she would stare and wonder why they were there, how they came to the decision to spend their free time like that, why they were allowed to defy the gravity that sucked at her feet.
“That. We blow up that.”
She is pointing at the ramp, some 30 metres away across the water. Phillip hesitates, complaining that he cannot throw the grenade that far. Alice appeals to Hal, calling him out to see off the boy with feet of clay, the man who lives with his mother. Her frustration dissolves, almost as soon as it has risen, in the paleness of his outstretched hand, palm upwards. Alice passes the grenade to him, surprised at the relief of its absent weight. Hal takes the weapon without a word, the darkness cloaking his smile. He is smiling. She knows this without seeing. There is that sparkle again, the twist of his mouth, invisible, the devilry, the child. It is elemental.
Hidden, he removes first one band, then the second, from the lever. He pushes the black scrunchies into her palm, firmly but without aggression. Her fingers close over their softness, forming a fist, too tight for its purpose. Her jaw is set, clenched like the lever on a grenade, and its tension surprises her.
She knows that his left arm is extended, his finger trailing in the dank air towards the black fuzziness in the water. She nods, knowing he does not need to see her to know.
When it comes, she is surprised by the movement, the violent displacement of his arcing, straining arm, the rushing of cotton and wool against each other, against skin. She believes she can hear the grenade looping through the air; she can almost see it, even though she knows this to be impossible, imagined. Only the sound of metal parting water in the distance is real, is physical.
They stand at the water’s edge, separate and together, staring at the flat surface. Silently they count, first to seven, then to ten, then twenty, both braced against the blast. The evening’s darkness wraps around them, holding them in its chill. Alice slides her hand into his, and together they stand on the shore, waiting while nothing happens.
© Adrian Harvey 2015