There was a look of total confusion. It was him; it was her. Four years hadn’t changed much to the face of either. Did he have a piercing, or had he ever had a piercing? Was her hair a lighter shade of red? Sit down, or stand up? Hug, or kiss, or too forward? Shake hands?
They uncomfortably hugged over the breadth of the table. He used his rucksack as a pretext for breaking it off, and sat opposite her. Her pretty silver notepad worried him. He looked stressed and distracted, carrying that slightly tortured and punctured air he always had, like those who have unwillingly had some sad event foisted on them which they now cling onto responsibility for long after. His wrist-watch made him look more grown-up than she remembered, though that was undermined by his patchy post-adolescent stubble. His grey eyes fired about, at her fingers, at the menu, back at her face, at his fingers, restless. He was still handsome, though not quite so as before, something had changed, though he would never tell her what.
“How was the journey?”
“Painful” she replied, revealing a well-rehearsed awkward smile. “I could not smoke for three hours!”
He started, and then stopped, before starting again, with the least audible of all bumbles, “painful, I imagine”. She was still beautiful, only a little older, the gentle and patient way she articulated this alien language suggested a kindness and a gentleness that was hypnotic. Beauty was still hers, in those greeny-blue eyes, her light face, that slim figure. His eyes briefly met hers before searching, in cold panic, to some other discernible distraction. No, no, I can’t look, things are over, everything’s changed, it’d be wrong. He caught sight of a irritable old man at the other corner of the café, ponderously rolling a cigarettes. He focused on him for a few moments, before returning his gaze to her hands, those spidery pale fingers he remembered.
After the awkward silence passed, she took it upon herself to initiate conversation, something she was not in the custom of doing. The same thought had crossed his mind.
“Did… did you recognise me still?”
“Ha, no, you first!”
“Yes, of course. How could I forget?” he smiled with a cheeky look, then frowned. Mustn’t come on strong, no. “Yes, you’ve not changed much. Well no, a little, maybe … your hair’s a bit different, have you lost weight?”
“Ha ha, nice turnaround! Have you seen my arms, I’ve been inked…’
She extended her long thin arms across the table, for a moment her knees knocking against his, displaying a mixture of sailor-type images, a ship in a bottle, on the sea, some pin-up type girls, a heart with an axe through, all with some non-English fine script woven in between, covering up most of her skin. The script intensified around her wrists and under-arms, taking the shape of waves like a calligram, but enough to still see the ladder-work of scars. Would he guess which one was about him, or for him? Or would he just keep gaping with that confused and lost expression?
“Nice, nice… looks really smart.” Her body felt so thin, but strong, lacking that vulnerability it had before. She’d grown up. He looked up and smiled. “You look really well. It’s good. It’s good, you know… it’s good to see you again.”
He’d emphasised the again, and that was ok, but it was only half of what he really meant. What if he’d been honest and emphasised the you, it’s good to see you again? And more than that, it was lovely, it’s more than anything, no, too corny. Ok, what about I’ve really really missed you? Would that be ok? Or not, because that made it sound like she’d just gone away before, like she was sofa-surfing around, when really he’d driven her away, and not because of some silly heart angst, but because of a selfish miscalculation, but one despite that, he couldn’t regret?
She smiled back. He still had something about him, like an air of trouble, but it seemed more frayed now, like his spark had become jaded and self-inflicted. His eyes, buried beneath high cheekbones, were still dark in appearance, but with the addition of a thin reddish line around his eye-lids which made his expression seem even more distant and slightly mental. Has he got into drugs? “You’ve not changed much either! You still look like you’ve been living on a diet of cigarettes, sleeplessness and booze!”
“That bad eh…!”
“No no. A lot of girls go in for the cute lost-boy look.” She gave a silly wink.
“Hah! Well you know, I stopped smoking actually, but I still drink, a lot, but not so bad as I used to be. No more blacking out…”
He picked away at his fingernails, which were neatly bitten away. This whole situation felt really weird, but already kind of nice, kind of natural. Are my feet touching hers? No, nearly. He could smell a very gentle perfume. He could feel himself hard, turned on by that same perfume she’d worn, but relaxed still. The caff-owner in his striped apron was looking at them. God, she mustn’t get any sense that he still found her attractive. He picked up the small laminated menu but there was nothing particular that he wanted.
It was oddly natural being with him again. He wasn’t as hot as she had remembered, but there was still something about him, that had her thoughts drifting back to being in bed, and the way that he murmured her name while they fucked, she’d asked guys to do it since, to say her name and pull her hair like he’d done, but hadn’t been the same as that first time. Maybe he hadn’t changed much. Maybe the horrible parts of him could be peeled away, or quarantined. Maybe cured. Maybe he hadn’t meant to hurt her, it had all just been an accident, or even it hadn’t’ve happened, and a magician and a brass band were going to pop into this poky cafe in a moment to announce all this. Surprise! It was just a test! You’ve just earned your right to a happy life now, bravo! That’s enough suffering collected in sadness points, please now redeem it with a faithful, caring and honest love!
If so, it seemed hardly the place. The waiter was gazing absently at them from the counter: they should really order something. But here, at this point, it felt like everything was paused. It was late afternoon, yet the overcast skies and autumn rain, the damp and empty cafe, it all felt like it could be four in the morning, like when they first met in that garden, and talked about their lives, what they’d known. Maybe there is a future. That’s what she thought then. Future now? How long will this pause last? How long before she had to return back into this world of roaming for a home forever receding?
The waiter politely approached in the usual circumstances. “Can I get…. um…a large espresso please. You have skimmed milk?” “Yes, skimmed, semi-skimmed, soya, even goats milk!” he said, smiling with an affable glint at the pair of them. “With skimmed milk please”, she smiled back. “And for you, sir?” “Oh…um…can I get a…umm…”
Bollocks. Must pick something.
“A caffe ristretto?”. The waiter’s cheery expression suddenly clouded over in confusion and inner turmoil. After a moment, he cleared his throat and spoke in quieter tones, “it’s very small, and strong, what they drink in Romagna, sir.” It sounded fine enough, but his disapproving cautiousness suggested he’d be making an erroneous choice, like an Englishman cannot, or should not, be allowed to access black coffee. Where the fuck is Romanya? Why couldn’t they just have a machine in nice places like this where you put your money in? He still hovered above, disapprovingly. Something straightforward then. “Black coffee then.” “Large or small Americano sir?”, his worried expression showing no sign of relaxing. “Small black coffee please.”
The caff-owner disappeared to another table, where a group of international students were noisily trying to attract his attention for the bill.
His begrudging politeness was so awkwardly enacted it seemed the very essence of Englishness. If only he could see how funny it all was. She was smiling at him, with a look that was deeply generous, almost forgiving. “I didn’t even want anything!”, he said, with a laugh.
“So…are you in the city for long?”
“Just a few days. Staying with an old friend.” She looked away. “Look around, hang out for a bit, see some bands, get drunk with a minor member of the Royal Family, you know…”, and she looked back. “And you? Are you still living in the city?”
“Err yes. I never moved away.” They were quiet again. She was looking intently at him, her expression more steely. “I’m doing my degree in London, […]
The noise from one of the nearby tables obscured what he said, but he was speaking into his collar with such quiet tones it was hard enough picking out anyway. But there wasn’t any point in asking him to repeat anything at this stage.
“And you know, of course, me and Julia moved in not long after she became pregnant…”
“Yes, you’re a dad. How’s that?”
“Fine, fine. Louise is learning to talk at the moment. The nursery say she’s doing really well for her age. She’s crazy, causing mayhem where she goes. She’s even taken to riding on the dog. No, really well, it was a surprise, you know, but it’s worked out really… ok. It’s one of the nicest things surprisingly, being a parent. Makes you very boring of course!”
He was smiling again and shaking his head gently, some stream of images flooding his downward gaze.
It was an expression that was impenetrable, and the temporary shelter established together in this sweet-perfumed grotto of a memory had again disappeared. He’d only told her long afterwards that Jodie was pregnant after he’d spent that night with her. That act of infidelity, however drunken or confused or whatever he said it had been was, it ended them. The child just added more weight to that. But something good had come of it, something that was naturally good and not premised on pain, and maybe what they’d had before had been so unnatural. But nature’s shit, a blank flag for anyone to ink their colours into. He was talking away about his life, about his daughter and his partner, and he looked happy. And she was rootless and roaming. She remembered that final day in the city four years before, the last time she’d been there. Wandering around with him, but something was wrong, and he wouldn’t say what, until the very end. All that time, not saying anything, as if by not saying something you could somehow froze it in time and prevented it from having consequences. She didn’t even shout at him. It was unforgivable. And that final day on her own, walking around the city where they’d been, where they’d first known each other. They’d been men she’d loved before and after, but this one had really hurt. Going away to get him off my mind, work it off my mind. Always on the move, living out of suitcases. He was asking her something.
“What’s that sorry?” a grave and serious expression had taken over her face.
“I said, ‘and how about you?’ ”, he said, with a nervous smile, attempting sympathy with a liberal dash of condescension.
I haven’t got any fucking kids, Callum. “Ok yeah. I’m not a mum!” She felt like looking at him pointedly, but the appetite for confrontation, something she normally enjoyed in part, restoring the balance, wasn’t there. “I was working back home in a record shop for about a year, that was fun, and now I’m at uni too. I want to write screenplays, but really, I have no idea what I’m doing!”
“That’s ok, neither do I.” His phoney expression from earlier was fading away, revealing a face that looked more tired, like as when he’d first wandered in, confused, not spotting her at all until she called him out.
“Who does. You think you do and then you don’t.”
The coffee arrived. She continued. “I think it’s part of how we live now. We’re roaming, we’re rootless. The way we work benefits capitalism…”
“…It prefers workers to be rootless, no contracts, no security, moving around to fulfil demand, working for lower and lower wages with no attachment to where they work…”
He agreed entirely. He’d written anti-capitalist pamphlets and more since then, but it’d never been much of a feature of their relationship. Talking about it reminded him of facetious and pedantic disagreements over doctrine in paranoiac squats and dreary pubs. Of people like him and who knows, perhaps like her too, who hoped that a political transformation would solve their personal problems. “Have you moved around then?”
“Yeah a bit. Different cities – Berlin, Glasgow, a few towns around Sweden. Marseilles, Turin, Geneva. Frankfurt, now that was dull…”
“I like Glasgow. Boy can they drink!”
“Hehe! Sounds like good times.”
She was fingering the silver ring in her right hand, while with the left she sipped at the strong coffee. When should she give it back? It was not hers, it had never been hers, when what it symbolised wasn’t hers, and wasn’t even his to give.
“Do you write at all, still?” she asked, more quietly.
“Yes, but I haven’t tried to get much published.”
That was his excuse. “I self-publish a lot, in little magazines and home-produced books I make.”
“Umm-hmm, so no-one will ever read it, right?”
“Yep, that’s the plan! Not sure who’d choose to read moody and cryptic little stories anyway…”
“I’ve worked in a bookshop, and believe me, a lot!”
“And you? You were writing stories too before, I remember.”
“Well not so much stories, more articles, some autobiographical stuff. I had a few things published online under a pseudonym, until a teen magazine back home picked them up. They’re a bit more ‘literary’ over there, haha!” she said with a smile. “…So, reluctantly, I agreed to do a series with them, about two years ago. Ok…”
With this, she pushed her long and thin frame forwards, her hands pressed towards Callum, ready to pitch.
“Imagine now, what’s the most corny, gay-sounding title for a series of autobiographical articles about issues, experiences, desires and disasters that a fair young lady like myself might encounter, living in an era of late capitalism?”
She was laughing and smiling, her expression different from earlier. It was so pleasant to see the transformation. He wanted to stay longer and longer.
“Ha, I don’t know…umm… “Chihuahuas, Chanel and Chelsea tractors: the ennui of an independent woman?”
“Haha, no no, much worse. Some experiences, some stories, bundled together, of course I can’t imagine you would heard of it, it wasn’t very cool…”
It was finally at this moment, and for this moment, that he could feel some intense flickering within that brought him back to her eyes, fluttering langourously by a window, by a bridge, by a night with its distracted and hopeful faces, when he realised that this could not just be some insignificant affair. Do his best or not to forget her. Her mouth fluttering again with giddy nerves and charming self-deprecation, her words washing over with the beauteous meaning of her. Touching her arm and back again was like connecting with some dark and sexy current that charged manically between them. He nearly fell off his chair.
“The Temple of Mithras. They were autobiographical, of course, you know, but with details changed. Anyway, it was a hit with a particular audience, and they ended up publishing the pieces together as a book, which is now getting translated into German, Finnish, some others…”
“Congratulations, I guess! Did you get much money out of it?”
“Probably enough to cover these coffees!”
Would she mind asking? It didn’t seem so. She was all happy and sad, one moment her hands running against her long hair, the next her arms folding her thin frame inwards, her colours changing continually. “And do you still cut, Agnes?”
With a very quick clearing of throat, she matter-of-factly responded. He could imagine her having to update her doctor or therapist or whoever she went to see in this kind of formal voice. He missed the first part of what she said. “…but despite that, I’m better at the moment I think. Things have been ok for about a year now.”
Why was he asking all this shit, like as if he was immune from it? Fine, he can hear things like everyone else does. There is no special place for him or anyone else, just the world and I, the world against me.
Love will make you drink and gamble, make you stay out all night long
But Billie Holiday didn’t have the choice. Her songs are all about being a victim of love, and of taking these lousy unfaithful men back.
Love is just like the faucet. It turns off an’ on.
“That’s good to hear, really…”, he murmured in place of a sincere reply a moment later. Who trains you for these things?
They both stared into their coffees.
He could no longer clearly remember how they’d met. Memory always feels like a film capsule that is only allowed perhaps one or two exposures, before it becomes corrupted by contemporary environs, becomes confused with anachronistic or wishful details added or subtracted to the picture. He’d thought over too long about how they’d met in the past, to the point where those happy scenes in the past haunted every conversation and scene. We were like two of the same kind, our moods and our movements, like the last two of a forgotten species, mostly silent, but in a sexy way. Hands always off and on each other. But we were just kids.
Seventeen’s not kids, she thought. He’d said shit like that in his letters later, the letters that she now carried in her rucksack with the ring she was also to return to him. Seventeen is when your apprenticeship in life, love, sex, and self is in full throes. So at what point does it become too late to unwrite bad habits? This, perhaps, she would love just to chance to ask to someone. But all roads led to fucked-up exes either of the past or of the future. It was all so wrong.
What was it about her? She was of course, most obviously, very attractive, in an intense, subdued, compelling way. He wanted to know her, but ordinarily would’ve been too shy to introduce himself or some matter of conversation, had it not been for the plentiful amount of alcohol around at that small party, where, in the garden, he heard her talking to her friend about music, who would later turn out to be a relative she was staying with in London, and a mutual friend of his friend. And he interrupted them, because at that point they happened to be talking about one of his favourite bands…
He was a bit drunk when they’d met. He rolled out into the garden with a cigarette in his mouth, talking about this band he was in. He seemed like a bit of an arse but kinda cool, anyway, they got talking, Mel probably could see they liked each other, as she left them to it, and the more they talked the more they got on. He was a nice boy…
But she was unhappy, you could just tell. And that was the bite. That sadness he wanted to salve, he could feel all the pain in her, he could sense all the love that she needed, and he wanted to be one to give what she needed. So it is that sadness often first attracts young lovers to find refuge in each other, and to project all the confused, rootless, positive qualities in themselves onto someone else, with such hope for a life no longer alone, but shared with someone else…
She’d never believed in love at first sight, but there was intense attraction and lust, and that was far more real than all the abstracted and tragic descriptions often given of love. You grow up feeling alienated and alone from being a child, from the security of your parents and their lives, and all that longing and angst might well be some genetic component that kicks in to force you out into the wild and rootless world, to increase your own chances of genetic propagation. All that makes it sound so straightforward. But no personal development is ever simple. And rarely is it simply a case of just lust or sex…
Yes, that was it. Every conversation seemed leaden with distrust, cold mockery, and cynicism. For once, he wanted to put his trust in her, perhaps. So he’d asked her, ‘how’s life?’ That was it, so simple enough…
No-one had ever asked her that before. And that was how they’d ended up talking for most of the night, until Mel insisted that they had to go and catch the night-bus, and they made sure that they’d meet up again the next day. It was sweet how he’d followed them to the bus-stop and they’d kept talking…
The following afternoon they’d spent walking around and talking again. For a long time they’d sat at a riverside bench by the booksellers, facing the Thames. She had retraced her steps at numerous different points since to that bench, with its peculiar plaque, ‘Everyone needs a place to think’. She sit there alone and evaluate her life and where it was heading, with this alien river as her company, just as for a moment he’d been her companion. It was not home, but places like that were a kind of home, back in a time that she still had the power to revisit. But later, they were round at his, where they could drink easily enough. It all felt natural at that point. He’d not really been with girls before, and so when they first made out, he asked her what she liked, and what she wanted. She hadn’t believed that he was inexperienced for a long time. ‘I bet you say that to all the girls’. But she was so beautiful, and all her doubts made that a beauty without a hint of self-consciousness. If only they could have stayed within those first few days…
She’d always been uncomfortable with intimacy – for instance, she hated it when guys touched her without any kind of warning, and she didn’t like guys taking her clothes off – she preferred keeping control. Touching, fucking, she was ok with, but somehow it felt most uncomfortable and strange being completely naked with another, and making love. It was like she’d never been able to properly relax. But that was the first time where she had relaxed and found herself. It was the first time that a guy had properly made her come. She’d never been that open with a guy before, but in a different city, other things felt possible, like maybe she could move here and make a new start, have her chance at happiness…
They’d been silent for almost too long now. She’d come here to return his things, to say goodbye properly, not to just sit in a sad silence like this. There’d been quite enough of that.
“So, I have the things you wanted.” She placed on the table some CDs and a book he’d long forgotten ever possessing. She’d give him the ring at the end, it didn’t seem right now.
“And I have your letters here. You said some very beautiful things in them…”
She’d read through them a final time the previous day, along with all the mixtapes he’d sent, for the first time in at least two years. She wondered what she’d put on hers, or the cards she’d made, of those things exchanged between them over a one year-period after that first night, and then abruptly halted.
…“What did you do with mine I sent you?”
“I haven’t got them any more Agnes. I had to … get rid of them… there was no choice.”
Jodie had known about Agnes. They were just fucking, just friends. Nothing was ever said of that other thing, until it was pretty clear that there was never any such thing as just fucking. It was after she’d found out she was pregnant, when they had to take their lives far more seriously, and of course, he never said anything about contraception, that she discovered Callum’s letters, and evidence of phone-calls, and texts, and everything else. ‘Why did you think you could do this?’ Perhaps his first gesture of commitment was in burning all of those letters. He felt the soft skin of a ridge in his nose where later, extremely drunk at a friend’s house, he’d burnt matches into his skin, like everything else.
“Why does that not surprise me?”
She had prepared so well for all of this. So far, although it had been sad, every part of this conversation had been in some way predictable. But this last detail had tripped her up. Just how could he do it? Still?
She remembered a poem she’d seen on the city’s public transport system after the second time she’d returned to the city, six months after that night. That second time was horrible. Something had gone wrong so badly. It was only at the end that he’d bothered to tell her the truth she already knew: that he’d got lonely and got together with someone else, but kept both relationships hidden from view. How the fuck could he, when we were so good. It was like before but all wrong. Walking round in quiet sadness, hugs, holding hands. A letter at the end that explained, written on a piece of cheap and dirty coloured card.
I loved you once, knowing I would never be your lover
She found the source of the words later, by the poet Carol Rumens. She could quote Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Genet now… of nameless punk bands and blues singers, lyricists of the ‘fuck it’ school who’d been an aid since, I’m leaving here yo cryin won’t make me stay, but it was this line which took her back to this time. Perhaps none of it was especially significant in itself, except this was when she’d first meaningfully lost her naivety, in that cruel taste of bliss taken away. And though for a long while she’d blamed him, it was clearer now that this is what men were like, and what people were like. Like Billie Holiday, could she take him back? Looking sad and pathetic there, his lips murmuring away, attempting to justify why he’d set fire to all that hope. Was it not enough to break her heart, he had to set fire to it too? She couldn’t listen.
“Callum, why did you want this? What were you hoping to see? You fucked it up…”
“No, I let you fuck me up. I put too much trust in you, too much trust in anyone. It wasn’t your fault. How could you compare to my dream? I though you were an angel, but seeing you with her – isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that really why we’re here? – everything’s changed…”
Everything’s in between everything, displaced and rootless, wandering. She caught her breath.
“I won’t ask you, and I don’t think you’d know either, except like how it always is, ‘yes’, ‘why?’, oh, ok, ‘why not?’”
She was angry, but with tears in her eyes. It would be offensive to attempt to console here. Better just to hold it together, hold these arms together, until it’s over, until things maybe stop making sense again. But there was something kind of silly and sweet in it too, the way she’d dropped her voice in this kind of deadpan-mopey way to take the piss out of how he spoke, he was trying hard not to laugh, even though he was starting to get a bit wet-eyed too.
“Hey don’t laugh, don’t laugh, you hear me? You fucking asshole!, haha!” What use was there still being angry? It was all so silly, and she couldn’t help laughing too. She mock-slapped him, but did in fact hit him a little hard. He was laughing more and more, but he deserved it.
“If you keep laughing, I’ll read out one of your really corny poems!”
“Go on, I’d love to know…”
She skimmed through for vacant margins in his tight cursive. “Ok, remember this?”
She cleared her voice, and put on a thespian-sounding, deep-pitched voice:
“ ‘You and I, we fed ourselves on dreams til we were fat‘ … oh my God Callum… ‘and too full on this sadness to act on just dreams‘… I think I’m going to be sick! Ok, let’s see if it gets any better…. ok, here’s another, in your last letter actually. You really should’ve made it up to me in this one, I mean after all, I really liked you, and you went and cheated on me with someone else who you didn’t even tell me about, I mean, come on…”
The silliness and humour was getting more and more painful to keep up. “Ok, here it is: ‘Agnes, I have crushed both your soul and mine in attempting to cover up my lies. And there is nothing left of me except the world’s least acceptable sorry, and goodbye” ‘. At least you attempted a rhyme there, very good…”
As she read aloud those letters that he’d poured his pathetic doggerel and post-adolescent heart into, he remembered that time once more when they’d made love, two bodies in the night, hands mapping and discovering each other’s bodies, and how that had compared to the second time, and their final night together, just stroking and kissing her hair, holding each other, knowing everything would always forever be fucked in some capacity, like it had been before, like it always would be. He looked up at her. She was thinner than before, but he could imagine still what she was like, he could smell her still. But nothing would ever happen. What could he teach Louise of this? But he’d do it again, of course. No regrets.
“Would you do it again?”
“What do you mean? Do I regret anything, is that what you’re asking? Oh my god…”
“Yes, I guess.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong, don’t forget that. But I won’t regret feeling love of any kind, and of offering that love…”
“Callum, it was madness, all of it. Every moment from start to finish. But how were we to know?
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not a damsel in distress… that’s not my style.” Strangely, as she would later reflect back on this whole conversation, she kept seeing images of her and her flatmate Eliane drunkenly wandering around a hypermarket in Turin looking for lampshades.
“…but it would’ve happened somehow anyway. No long distance relationship lasts…”
“The body always beats the heart…”
“I don’t know. I drank a lot too, and who knows, maybe I would’ve fucked a guy at home too, or maybe not, maybe I just could’ve waited…. but all your letters make this error, I checked.”
She looked up, and smiled at him. It’s ok to be sad about the past, but it’s the past, she wanted him to know. She’d found the courage of her voice finally, within a transparent labyrinth of glass partitions of things once said, what should be said, and what shouldn’t. “You always assume that love and ‘the heart’ are somehow separate, higher domains to sex and ‘the body’. But it’s just not true. There is no lower or higher love – you love with the body. We liked each other, our bodies fit together, we loved each other. But yes, maybe we were just kids, I can say that even now. I couldn’t lock you up, and we should’ve called it off as a beautiful holiday-fling after the first night. You waited, then you fell for someone else. Doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your intention, it can’t be unwritten. I’ve loved others since…”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been so turned on like I was that night. It’s like you gave me the taste for something I’ve kept searching for since. But I will find it.
“Agnes. These are yours, aren’t they?” He handed over what he still had of the mixtapes, the letters, things he’d kept hidden from everyone. She gasped and smiled. Of course he hadn’t destroyed everything. As she began to look through the finely-decorated letters and outpourings of her own once-young heart, he downed the rest of his coffee, and began to gaze out of the now empty cafe’s windows, at drizzled buses beating streets covered in the black and the gold of another urban autumn night.
Maybe she was right. It reminded him of literary history, and of some French theorist he could vaguely recall studying, and his sweeping yet compelling remarks about the 19th century. The world only ever offered a temptation to give in: this was the submerged message of 19th century high literature. Its long novels, usually serialised into episodes, concerned the waves of tempting assaults on a hero or a heroine, and how their subjectivity variously yielded or resisted such temptations. The heart and the soul were intertwined and at times taken for granted as synonymous. So maybe then, the 20th century modernists partially abandoned the soul, attacking it as a fusty construct of religion and class, with its temptations merely moral prejudices. Instead they’d invented the ego and its stream of consciousness, hoping to liberate in their narratives some era-shaking drive. But whilst the soul was abandoned the heart was kept, at times as the gushing optimism of the mind, at times little more than the speaking clock of the cunt and cock.
And what of the 21st century then, that melancholic minefield of dead ideologies and dead futures? Now the body had become the protagonist, like his, operating outside the narrative but defining its limits and structure of references. 21st century characters are shaped by their doingness, by their activities as customers, consumers, and producers. They buy and buy into sex, sleep, love, and romance, and go tumbling and stumbling into one romance after another in a vain search for satisfaction as permanent state, when it could only be temporary. But much of these shifting thoughts were of little help here. He didn’t regret Louise, of course it had been a surprise, he’d naively thought that Jodie was using contraception. But it had created something beautiful and wondrous, which never would’ve otherwise existed. He was starting to feel a little faint.
“Err, I’m just gonna go for a slash.” He politely ducked round the cramped table, coldly knocking his legs against hers.
Need to get away, work you off my mind
She was glad that the conversation had nearly reached its end. She’d mapped out this conversation countless times before, in short stories and screenplays, in lucid dreams, and in passing holidays in her memories. This time, it had almost failed to live up to some of the high drama, or the sensuousness, or even sadness, of those past conversations, which now all seemed like the distant lights of faraway planets, whose present tense could only be seen thousands or millions of years after the fact. But in those distant travelling lights, the past continued to remain alive, and perhaps if we had a powerful-enough telescope, we might see on one star or planet lives like ours, living through again and again their past romances, excesses, and special moments. Perhaps in a telescope or another medium someone from the future would see what became of them, on those nights.
But he was still kinda hot, just unshakeably sad, and she no longer felt like trying to save him from all that. It wasn’t for her to hold him. She’d become comfortable with that loneliness now, it was hers, and must be killed again before ever shared. Hurting oneself in order to feel spelt a degradation of feeling. The waiter began to pile some of the chairs on top of the tables. “The bill please?”
The cold water helped bring him back to earth. Yes, he had given her back everything. Was there anything else?
“I’ve got a question and a statement left to say. Do we have to go?”
“Yes, but go on.”
“What happens if you just say yes your whole life, for fear of losing something by saying no?”
“Well well, the answer most often is a question.”
“Ok Agnes.” He wanted to hold her hands. No. They were folded in on each other, but her rich green eyes looked into his without any gesture of friendliness, as if perceiving their own reflection. “… I’m sorry. And that’s it.”
Is that really it? Of course it wasn’t, but at least they were both now released. “That’s ok Callum”. I forgave you a long time ago. “But this will be the last time we see each other.”
His expression seemed to have stalled into confusion. He looked about to say something, but then retracted. He went to down the coffee, though of course the cup was empty, though he pretended it wasn’t, and adjusted his seat again, then folded his fingers together.
“Which way are you heading?”
“Just up the way to the station, back home”, he lied. “You?”
“Back to my hotel, then out again later, meeting up with some friends for a pint”, she replied, also lying.
“Well, I guess this is it.”
“Good luck Callum, I hope you find the happiness you’re still searching for.”
“You need that luck more than I do, Agnes, love.”
And with a long hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and their departure in different directions, so ended their conversation.