By Neil, 20 February 2018 #
Bec squints and backs off from the light that floods through as she opens the door as far as the chain will allow.
“It’s so good to see you!” she squeals, although only after I’m admitted via a careful ritual of unchaining and re-chaining, which sucks the spontaneity from the exclamation.
“Did you find it okay? Sorry, I should have come up to the station.”
I had got myself into a mess with the exits but I let the comment slide; we both know that it’s an empty aspiration.
We get the preliminary chit-chat out of the way in the kitchen, while Bec makes a cup of tea and we smoke a joint she’s kept ready, work, her new flat, my news from the diaspora of our friends; I ask about her parents then regret the beat too long of silence where she would once have asked about mine.
As she opens the door to the living room, we shamble into a teetering treasure trove of extinct media. Wooden towers filled with DVDs line the walls either side of the unseemly bulk of a cathode ray TV, whilst CDs vie with books in piles on shelves and dressers, under the coffee table and over the doorway, over-hanging ominously the depth of the fat lintel. Bec moves towards a nest of cushions and duvets, piled at one end of a shabby sofa, nestled in the corner beneath a battered Imogen Heap poster, pulling a tangle of jumpers onto the floor from the neighbouring seat to make space for me.
“You didn’t take the opportunity to have a clear out,” I comment, regretting the paternalism of the dig but unable to stop myself.
“It would have saved on packing,” she laughs, “but I couldn’t face uploading it all; digital’s not the same.”
Bec sticks on some Libs and we chat for a while, pause for another joint, then drift into a comfortable silence as she sticks on some early season Scrubs. I got up at one point, when Bec had nipped out to the loo, and with a finger-tip woozily traced the spines of the DVDs, arranged by a taxonomy that hovered just beyond the edges of my comprehension; East is East, Donnie Darko, Memento, Blow, the ghosts of my teenage terrors and obsessions twitch with a crackle of recognition in the hinterland of my fogged brain.
“I’ve got something to show you,” Bec announces as she slips back into the room and fishes out a thick scrap-book from under the coffee table, bulging against its bindings. She sets it down between us and begins to turn the pages with maternal satisfaction.
“I’ve been sorting some things out.”
Each page is carefully collaged with relics of our shared history: birthday cards; bored, adolescent doodles; tickets to a Razorlight gig.
“Remember this?” she asks as we reach an example of my own handwriting, a roughed out script of a sketch we put on in college, the paper unscrunched but forever veined with its folds.
Bec slowly turns the pages, allowing enough time for each one to be fully taken in, making little comments on shared memories, answering my questions about items I don’t recognise; there was chronology to it but some sections seemed thematic as well and as Bec started revealing pages of leaflets and stickers, press cuttings about protests, her comments stopped and the pages accelerated. In silence we flick through the Iraq War and ID Cards, tuition fees and TTIP, Brexit then, just as the tension is getting unbearable, erupt out the other side into a double-spread of memorabilia from her sister’s wedding.
“That was such a nice day,” she says.
We have some food and straighten up a bit. We chat some more; I tell her about my current shows and she displays interest as if I’m describing the wonders of some distant land, although I know she can stream if she wants to; I tell her what they’re teaching the kids (who she hasn’t asked after); she tells me about the hassle she had in her old block. We go no further: feeling our way around the shapes of our troubles without naming their causes. What good would it do?
We hunker down through the evening, smoke some more and Bec invites me to choose something to watch: I try to find something recent, if only out of contrariness, but even the outliers peter out at about the time we turned thirty and in the end we chug our way through episode after episode of the Sopranos. For one chilling moment the sirens on the TV chime with the needling wail of a siren approaching down the street outside and I sense the same silent shutdown from both of us, as if even our breathing has been suspended, but first one and then the other fade and we slip back into a more restive muteness.
“I need to get back,” I announce after about half an hour of glancing at the clock, calculating and re-calculating the last possible moment I can leave it until. Bec turns herself over, disrupting the cocoon of bedding she had formed around herself, watching me as I shamble around getting shoes and coat together.
“You know you could always stay,” she says, once I’m finally done and have pulled myself up determinedly. Like a rush to the head, fears and feelings engulf me: work tasks left undone, meetings moved at the last moment, the walk to the station, the kids, the lies, the raids. I hesitate.
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