Lost

The group gathered at the roundabout for the regular Saturday club ride. Pigeons perched on the lamp-posts and one dropped a load of shit on to Jimmy’s jersey. ‘You’ve got shit on your jersey,’ said Clancy. ‘Fuck,’ said Jimmy. Fuck, fuck, fuck-de-fuck.’ ‘They hate you,’ said Clancy. ‘Where we going?’ said Clovis. ‘I tole you’, said Clancy. ‘It’s on the WhatsApp.’ ‘I didn’t see it.’ ‘Not my problem,’ said Clancy. The group headed off; Clancy in the lead, then Clovis, Norton, Lachlan, Norman and Jimmy in the rear. It was a cold, grey day, damp but not raining – yet. The roads were busy with Saturday morning shoppers, drivers heading out on their chores. The dull expanse of South London suburbs – Bromley, Sundridge, Grove Park, Mottingham, Eltham – slipped by. Clancy led them off-road, into parkland and paths. The road wound through the houses and came to a dead end. Clancy squeezed through the railings and on to the cycle path. Leaves hugged the ground and made it slippery. Clovis’s wheel caught on the railings and he tumbled backwards and landed heavily on the path. ‘Ouch! Fuck. Fuck,’ he said ‘You ok?’ they all chorused. ‘Fuck,’ he said again. He checked his bike over, felt his helmet for cracks, remounted and they continued on. The cycle path was little used, and the ground was coarse and rutted, over-grown with weeds and trailing tree branches. They came upon a disparate group of elderly ramblers; heavy shoes, fleeces, anoraks, waterproof trousers, beanie hats, maps in plastic cases round their necks, walking sticks, rambling along, oblivious to everyone else. ‘Excuse me,’ shouted Clancy. ‘Cyclists coming through.’ The ramblers were deaf, keeping watch for butterflies and ragwort, centipedes and birds of prey. ‘Excuse me,’ shouted Clancy again. The ramblers huffed and sighed and moved to the side. ‘Get a bell,’ said one. ‘Why should I?’ said Clancy. More suburbs – New Eltham, posh Blackheath, Greenwich, the edge of Charlton, up and over the hill by the Arsenal. Woolwich was scarred and desolate. Wind whipped through the shopping precinct. Impatient drivers pushing through the traffic, tensing at roundabouts, creeping forward at zebra crossings, tut-tutting at the slightest delay. They circled the roundabout, impatient truckers cursing at the ferry queue, slid down a slip road and sudden silence enveloped them as they hit the Thames Path. The path was smooth and well-made – apartment blocks to the right of them, railings, mud and the grey Thames to the left. The mud goes on forever; dark, gloopy and flat, with light dancing birds skating on its brown surface, the smell of baking shit oozing through the clear air from the sewage works. Coarse iron railings, few people, here the riverside apartment blocks morph into blocks of flats, the neatly kept enclosed gardens now fly-tipped and grubby. Au pairs pushing prams give way to single mothers pushing buggies. Desperation at the river’s edge, out here where the river ceases to flow. A tug boat chugs upstream pushing loaded barges. Abandoned wharfs, jetties jutting out into nothingness. A rowing boat beached above the water line. A broken motor-cycle shoved into the surf. A few people with thin, scarred arms, sitting in little huddles. Concrete blocks were dumped at the water’s edge. Everything felt dumped. Nothing was here out of choice. The water was grey. There are few people. A cycle path to nowhere. We’ve lost Jimmy. Every half hour their little wagon train halts, re-groups, forms a circle, waits for Jimmy. ‘I’m bleeding,’ said Clovis, looking at his bare leg – there was a smear of blood on his thigh. ‘It’s on my arm, look.’ Blood was seeping through the sleeve of his jacket. ‘Take your jacket off,’ said Lachlan. ‘No,’ said Clovis, ‘I don’t want to know. I’ll leave it ‘til I get home.’ ‘It’ll stick,’ said Lachlan. ‘When it dries, then it’ll hurt.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Clovis. Clovis is hungry. He reaches into his back pocket to grab some food. The energy bar is crumbly and sweet, sticky with dried fruits. Clovis takes a bite and re-wraps it and stuffs it back in his pocket. ‘Where’s Jimmy?’ said Clancy. ‘Dunno. He was here a minute ago.’ Jimmy hoves into view, eventually. Lost, still lost. Jimmy’s always lost. ‘Hurry up,’ said Clancy. ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ said Jimmy. ‘Stop telling me what to do.’ Clancy looked at him, sighed, shook his head, said nothing. Silence hung in the air, threatening like a mugger. The group carried on. A mile further on and Jimmy is off the back again. ‘The fuck’s he gone now?’ said Clancy. Lachlan said, ‘he was here a minute ago.’ ‘I’m fed up with this,’ said Clancy. ‘Come on, leave him, let’s go. Let the fucker find his own way home.’ ‘That’s not nice,’ said Lachlan. ‘It’s not his fault.’ ‘Yeah? Whose fuckin’ fault is it then?’ Jimmy appeared, sees everyone looking at him, questioningly. ‘What?’ he said. ‘What?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Clancy. ‘Let’s go.’ The path is finished and they hit the road. Heavy traffic, filter lanes, families rushing to the supermarket, squeezing through gaps, hanging on Clancy’s wheel, desperate not to lose the slip-stream. Racing to beat the red lights. ‘Some of us feel we ought to wait at red lights,’ says Clovis. Traffic lights. Dartford. Cars waiting. There’s a little car, maybe a Volkswagen or a Vauxhall, grey, cheap and nasty. Two lads, young, clean-shaven, seem pleasant enough, more in the back seat probably, maybe girls. ‘Where’ve you come from?’ said a lad in the front seat. ‘West Wickham,’ said Norton. ‘I can pedal. Look.’ The lad sticks his feet out of the side window and waves them in the air. He sniggers. The lights stay red for a long time. ‘What’s it like?’ the lad says. ‘Cold,’ said Norton.  ‘Where you going?’ ‘Get some drugs.’ ‘Why d’you say that? We’re just having a conversation and you come out with that crap. Where you off to? Somewhere nice?’ ‘Get some drugs.’ ‘Forget it,’ said Norton ‘Crack. Heroin. Wantsum?’ ‘That’s just crap. You’re talking crap now.’ ‘Nice helmet. Mine’s bigger.’ Silence. ‘You in the Tour de France?’ Silence. The lights change. ‘Cunt,’ shouted the lad, as the car sped off around the corner. The narrow road weaves through the fields, dipping in and out of the woodland, dappled light drifting through the leaves. The road rises and falls, and Clancy pushes the pace higher; riders are gasping for breath, out of the saddle, straining on the climbs. They miss the junction and have to turn around and retrace their pedals. They meet Jimmy just by the junction; caught up at last. ‘Let’s go,’ said Clancy. The BMW burst out of the gloom, the driver with his elbow on the window-sill, two fingers resting on the steering wheel. The car is black with opaque windows, a drug dealer’s car. ‘Oi,’ shouts Norton. ‘Slow down.’ Jimmy is riding near the middle of the road, occasionally drifting over to the wrong side of the white lines. Oncoming cars have to swerve to miss him. He shouts after one, waves his fist, makes a gesture. ‘You’re too far to the right,’ said Lachlan. ‘Don’t ride so near the middle of the road.’ ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ said Jimmy, belligerent. The road was long and the pace was high but they finally reached the Gates of Eden farm-shop and café. Across the muddy car-park and around the corner to the bleak shed of the café. A group of mountain bikers were just mounting up. Baggy shorts, muddy legs, dirt encrusted bikes with big tyres. ‘Uh oh,’ said one, ‘the professionals have arrived.’ They all trooped inside. It was near the end of lunch service and the serving ladies were having a snack. One rose to her feet as the group entered and slipped behind the counter. ‘What’ll it be, gents?’ she said. Jimmy dumped his helmet, gloves and phone on the table and headed to the counter. ‘Club rules,’ said Norton. ‘Keep helmets off the tables.’ Jimmy looked fierce. ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ he said. They ordered bacon sandwiches, cake and mugs of tea. Lachlan ordered extra food and hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows on top – he worked shifts, lived far away and was always hungry – never had time or inclination to eat before the meeting point. They clustered round the table, with its plastic tablecloth, steam rising from their sweaty clothes. When they’d finished eating and been to the toilet, they trooped outside. Outside, a pretty woman was sitting at a bench cradling a cigarette. She watched as Clovis checked his bike over. ‘Where’ve you been?’ she said to Clovis. ‘Woolwich,’ said Clovis, ‘Thames path, Dartford, Erith.’ ‘How many miles?’ said the pretty woman. She was dark-haired, slim, nice nose, brown eyes, friendly, chatty, in a good mood. ’50 miles prolly,’ said Clovis. ’50 miles,’ she repeated, admiringly. ‘Aren’t you cold? You’ve got bare legs, they’re very brown.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Clovis. ‘Just got back from holiday.’ ‘Where d’you go?’ ‘Tenerife,’ said Clovis. ‘What’s that on your arm?’ she asked. ‘Blood,’ said Clovis, proudly. ‘I fell off. Don’t want to take my jacket off.’ ‘Ouch. It must hurt.’ ‘Nah,’ said Clovis. ‘He’s been very brave,’ said Clancy. ‘He doesn’t keep going on about it.’ Another woman came out of the café with two cups of coffee and gave one to her friend. ‘They’ve gone 50 miles,’ said the pretty woman. ‘He’s hurt his arm but he’s being brave.’ ‘Yeah?’ said the coffee cup woman. ‘Everyone ready?’ said Clancy. ‘Gotta go,’ said Clovis to the woman. They pushed off. The pretty woman smiled at Clovis. They rode out of the yard and onto the road with its slippery leaves. Clovis winced as his jersey rubbed on his arm. There was a dark patch on his elbow which spread down to his wrist. ‘You’re in there,’ said Norton. ‘Imagine if I’d commented on her legs,’ said Clovis. ‘I’d be in right trouble.’ ‘You’re in there,’ said Norton again. They pushed on down the hill to the traffic lights. ‘Which way we going?’ said Jimmy. ‘Shagrabbit hill, said Clancy. ‘Usual way.’ ‘See you at the top,’ said Jimmy. The hill was not hard but as it came near the end of the ride and everyone was tired, and they all wanted to race and be the first up, they pushed on, panting. Andrew reached the top first, then Clancy and Clovis. They pulled into a driveway and waited for the others and Jimmy. Norton arrived, long strings of pale spittle hanging from his chin. He crossed his arms on the handlebars and rested his head on his hands. He was panting, and his tongue was lolling from side to side. ‘Where’s Jimmy?’ said Clancy. ‘He was back about a hundred yards,’ said Norton, bringing the words out gradually. ‘Did he make the junction?’ said Clancy. ‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ said Norton. They waited. It was cold. ‘Got any plans?’ said Clancy, to no-one in particular. ‘Watch the rugby,’ said Norton. ‘Have a bath. Glass of wine.’ ‘Get in the shower,’ said Clovis. ‘Sort my arm out.’ ‘What arm?’ said Clancy. ‘What happened?’ ‘Very funny,’ said Clovis. ‘Fuck off.’ Norton’s phone buzzed. ‘Is it Jimmy?’ said Clancy. ‘Where is he?’ ‘It’s not Jimmy,’ said Norton. ‘It’s my wife.’ ‘Tell her I’ll be round later,’ said Clovis. Norton stuck his tongue out. ‘Fuck off,’ he said. ‘I’m going,’ said Clancy. ‘I’ve had enough, it’s getting cold.’ ‘What do we do about Jimmy?’ said Norton. ‘Who cares?’ said Clancy. ‘He can find his own way home. We can’t wait forever.’ ‘Maybe he’s lost,’ said Norton. ‘Maybe,’ said Clancy. ‘He could phone us if he was lost. People should know where they are; it’s a club rule.’ He got on his bike, headed off into the traffic, stuck his arm up and waved behind him. ‘See you next week,’ he shouted but it was lost in the wind.              

Macedonia

Clovis sat in his armchair reading Bradley Wiggins’ book, Icons. There was a newspaper cutting printed in the book, a race that Wiggins won, and there, in fourth place was the name – S Griskowitz, North Downs Wheelers Cycling Club. His club, Clovis’ club. Once a big name in the cycling firmament, now smaller, less well-known, but still chugging along, still with a proud tradition, still the occasional member who could make a splash on a bigger stage. Who was this S Griskowitz? Where had he come from? What had happened to him? What trajectory did his life take compared to Wiggins? Clovis texted his club-mates. Did anyone know who this man was? He was in the club, years ago, some older members remembered him. Clovis arranged to meet up with them and discuss club history. ‘Bring any old newsletters,’ said Clovis. ‘And any pictures, stories you have.’ They met in their usual café. Cold outside, warm inside, fog on the windows, not many tables occupied, Nina Simone on the shuffle, singing That’s All I Want From You. Norman had a doughnut, frosted with thick icing. Clovis had soup. Thick and green, like snot, bits floating in it. What’s the soup?’ said Norman. A little love that slowly grows and grows… ‘Not sure. Lots of garlic. Bit of potato, carrot.’ ‘What’s the green?’ ‘Not sure. It’s green soup. That’s what they call it. It’s the special. Green soup.’ ‘Green soup? Weird,’ said Norman. ‘What’s it taste of?’ ‘Green,’ said Clovis. I have no time to waste… ‘Left-overs,’ said Norman. ‘It’s left-overs, what it is.’ Clancy was one of the oldest members and had been in the club for more than 30 years, through the good times and the bad, the schisms and splits, the disagreements; he remembered all those who had threatened to leave over the years, and still kept in touch with some who had. He had grey hair, thinning, big eye-brows, fierce eyes. Slim, as they all were. Strong but the muscles not quite so strong and recovery took longer. But he still rode every other day and still did 150 miles in an average week. He drank tea: Earl Grey, splash of milk, a spoonful of sugar. ‘How can you put sugar in Earl Grey?’ said Clovis. ‘I always do. Did. Love it. It’s an acquired taste.’ Tomorrow might not come… ‘Not by me,’ said Clovis. Norman took a bite of his doughnut. The hard, white sugar cracked and fell down his chin. He rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. ‘Yeah,’ said Norman. ‘I remember him. Solomon, that was him. Back in the day, back in the day. Big guy, young, strong as an ox. Good rider. Albanian, I think. Or not. Macedonian, maybe. Croatia? Balkans, anyway. One of those rogue states.’ ‘Rogue?’ said Clovis. ‘You know what I mean,’ said Norman. ‘Civil war, Tito.’ Jam spurted out the side of the doughnut and splashed on his jersey. It looked like a blood stain. Clovis sipped his coffee. Americano with hot milk. Strong and thick, dense with a sharp taste that attacked the palate. He glanced at Marina behind the counter; dark wavy hair casually pushed behind her ears, tall, slim, pretty, long fingers, soft lips, foreign, strong accent, hard-working. She ignored him. ‘And?’ ‘I dunno,’ said Norman. ‘Disappeared after a few years.’ ‘We could find him,’ said Andrew. ‘It could be a Channel 4 documentary.’ A sunny day, with hopes up to the skies… ‘Good idea,’ said Clovis. ‘Where do we start?’ ‘Google it, always works.’ They sat there, iPhones in hand, the foursome, all Googling. ‘Anything?’ said Clovis. ‘He’s not on Facebook,’ said Andrew. ‘Smart boy.’ ‘Or Strava.’ ‘Not on Strava?’ said Clovis. ‘You sure? Can’t be a cyclist any more, then, if he’s not on Strava.’ ‘Or Twitter.’ ‘Not on Twitter? He’s really off-grid, isn’t he?’ ‘Off-grid?’ said Andrew. ‘Off-grid? What’s that, then?’ ‘No foot-print. No social media profile,’ said Clovis. ‘Perhaps he disappeared, like Lord Lucan.’ ‘Lucan’s dead,’ said Andrew. ‘Yeah? Who says?’ ‘I saw a documentary. He was shot and thrown overboard. In the Channel, by his friends. You know, Aspinall. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, he’s dead.’ ‘Maybe,’ said Clovis, mysteriously. I have no time to waste… Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ said Norman. ‘Forget Lucan.’ ‘There’s something here, on 192,’ said Andrew. ‘Same initial, same surname, right age profile. Lives in Streatham.’ ‘Is there an address? Phone number?’ ‘No, that costs, you need a subscription.’ ‘What would we do?’ said Andrew. ‘If we find him. Then what?’ ‘Ask him if he still cycles,’ said Norman. ‘He could re-join the club. See if he knows he’s in Wiggins’ book. How should I know? It’s a quest, innit? What do you do when you finish the quest?’ ‘Like Lord of the Rings,’ said Clovis. ‘We find the ring, and then…hang on. What happened to the ring?’ ‘They threw it in the crack of doom.’ ‘Painful,’ said Clovis. ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. When we find the ring. I mean, when we find him.’ They finished their coffees, stood up. ‘I’ll pay,’ said Norman. ‘No,’ said Clovis. ‘It’s my turn.’ He wanted to see Marina close-up. ‘And I’ve got my coffee token, I’m due a free one.’ ‘You’ll be lucky,’ said Clancy. He went to the counter and gazed longingly at Marina. She punched the buttons on the till, hardly noticed him. She was still thinking of sourdough and doughnuts, porridge recipes and cake fillings. Clovis used his contactless card – he loved contactless, it made him feel like a millionaire; he hardly carried cash any more, like the Queen. A little love, that’s all I want from you… ‘Bye Marina,’ he said. ‘Bye,’ she said. She couldn’t remember his name. They swaddled up; buffs, head scarves, gloves, helmets. Clancy unlocked the bikes. ‘You out Wednesday?’ said Clovis. ‘I ‘spect so,’ said Norman. ‘Me too,’ said Andrew. ‘Probably,’ said Clancy. Clovis drove to Streatham – he didn’t feel like cycling. The forecast said sleet and 2 degrees and the roads would be busy; he was worried about black ice. Streatham was suburbia, close packed little streets, big Edwardian houses. But that wasn’t where he was heading. He parked near a tower block; it was dark and foreboding and there was broken glass at the bottom of the stairs. The lift was out of order. He climbed the stairs to the sixth floor, knocked on a door. A small boy answered the door; maybe six years old, a shock of blonde hair, wide-eyed, dirty face, wearing shorts and a t-shirt with a picture of Zinedine Zidane on the front, barefooted; not Zidane, the boy. There was a large dog behind him, long-haired with a drooling mouth and dirty paws, peering round, anxious to see the stranger at the door. Clovis looked down at the boy who stared up at him, not saying anything. ‘Hello,’ said Clovis. ‘What’s your name?’ The boy said nothing. The dog barked. Clovis didn’t know what to do. ‘Nice doggie,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’ shouted a woman’s voice from deep inside the flat. ‘Who is it? Go away.’ ‘Er, my name is Clovis,’ Clovis shouted into the emptiness. The boy continued to look at him. The dog sat back on its haunches and began to lick its private parts. Clovis didn’t know what to do. An elderly woman appeared at the end of the corridor, wheeling herself along in a wheel-chair. She dragged herself with her stockinged feet, her arms resting on the arm-rests. Progress was very slow as the chair creaked and squeaked on the wooden floor. She stopped behind the dog. The boy turned and ran away. ‘Who are you?’ the woman said at last. ‘What do you want?’ She had grey hair, skinny arms, a shawl over her shoulders, a pair of glasses perched on the top of her head; one lens was cracked. ‘I was looking for Solomon,’ said Clovis. ‘Does he live here?’ ‘Why?’ ‘I’m from a cycling club – North Downs Wheelers,’ said Clovis. ‘Solomon was a member many years ago. I saw his name in a book. This book.’ He held out a photocopy of the page from Wiggins’ book. ‘I can’t see,’ said the woman. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Clovis. ‘I’m not blind. I mean, I haven’t got my glasses.’ ‘Oh,’ said Clovis. He didn’t feel he should tell her they were on her head. ‘Anyway, I found his name in this book and I wanted to find him. To see if he wanted to start cycling again. And see if he still cycled. Maybe join our club again.’ ‘He doesn’t cycle,’ said the woman. ‘Not any more. You’d better come in.’ She pushed herself backwards and then turned and headed off back down the corridor. ‘Not any more,’ she said again. Clovis entered through the door and shut it behind him. The dog brushed against his legs. ‘Nice doggie,’ he said. She entered a dark living room. The curtains were closed, the television on but the sound turned down. A two-bar heater blasted out heat. There was a man sleeping on a big dark brown leather sofa. He wore dark trousers and a T-shirt with a picture of Maradona on the front. He was swarthy and unshaven and was snoring steadily. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Clovis to the woman who had wheeled herself in front of the television. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you.’ ‘Don’t mind him’ she said. ‘That’s Simon. He works nights. Make us some tea,’ she said then. ‘The kitchen’s there. You’d be quicker than me. You’ll find everything you need on the counter. Milk’s in the fridge. I take two sugars.’ A week later. The ride finished, back in the café. Marina still behind the counter, beautiful as ever. This time, Clovis had a latte. When it came there was the shape of a heart in the creamy froth on the surface. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘She fancies me.’ ‘They always do that,’ said Norman. ‘It’s not special for you. ‘So you say,’ said Clovis. ‘So you say.’ ‘You’re obsessed,’ said Andrew. ‘Why not?’ said Clovis. ‘Might as well be obsessed about something.’ ‘Any joy?’ said Norman. ‘With Marina?’ said Clovis. ‘No chance.’ ‘Not Marina. You’ve got no hope there. You’d have more luck with Lord Lucan. Any joy with the mysterious Solomon?’ ‘Lucan’s dead,’ said Andrew. ‘Forget Lucan! Jesus. Any joy with Solomon?’ ‘Yeah,’ said Clovis. ‘And?’ ‘I found him.’ ‘And? Christ, this is like pulling teeth.’ ‘Sorry’, said Clovis. He ordered toast. The girl brought it over; not Marina – she cooked, she didn’t serve. It came on a square plate, two slices of sourdough bread, lightly toasted, a pat of butter, a little glass dish of jam. He spread the butter on one of the slices. He had to scrape, the butter was hard. ‘You never get enough butter,’ he said. ‘Ask for more,’ said Norman. ‘You can always ask for more.’ ‘You never do that,’ said Clovis. ‘You never ask for more butter. That’s one of the rules.’ He took a bite of toast and chewed it carefully. ‘Mmmmmm,’ he said. ‘I found him. I got a subscription to 192 and got the address; it’s in Streatham, like I said. No phone number, just the address.’ ‘So, what are you gonna do?’ said Andrew. ‘I’ve done it. I went round there, knocked on the door.’ ‘And?’ ‘It wasn’t him.’ ‘What? It’s gotta be him,’ said Andrew. ‘It’s such an unusual name; same age, local, everything.’ ‘It doesn’t gotta be him, and I’m telling you, it wasn’t him. It was his brother. Twin brother.’ ‘Twin brother?’ said Norman. ‘I didn’t know he had a brother. Is he a cyclist?’ ‘Funnily enough,’ said Clovis. ‘No. He’s done a bit but mostly he’s a runner.’ ‘So, where’s Solomon? Did you find that out?’ ‘Yeah, I had a long chat with Simon, he’s the brother. And his grandmother, she lives there, she’s disabled, has disabilities, I mean. Simon remembered the club, said Solomon used to talk about it a lot. And about Wiggins. Crits at the Palace, club rides, races on the rollers, in the clubhouse, the Brighton run, evening 10s, everything, open 25, everything. He said Solomon went back to Macedonia in 1999; their parents were ill. He carried on cycling. Won a few races, just amateur stuff, road races, mostly. He was in the army. He coulda been a contender, said Simon. And then he got killed, in 2001.’ ‘Oh,’ said Norman. ‘Oh’, said Andrew. ‘How,’ said Clancy, speaking for the first time. ‘Land mine,’ said Clovis. ‘He was mine clearing in Serbia. Missed one, obviously. Killed instantly.’ ‘Oh,’ said Clancy. ‘He was a good cyclist.’ ‘But his brother wants to get back into cycling,’ said Clovis. ‘Simon. He wants to join the club. He’s going to come out on Saturday. He’s still got one of Solomon’s bikes. Steel.’ ‘That’s good,’ said Clancy. ‘He’d be good, it’s in the genes. How old is he now?’ ‘Same age as Solomon would have been,’ said Clovis. ’They were twins, don’t forget. 38.’ ‘Good,’ said Norman. Marina was at the sink, washing cups. Clovis looked at her; she looked nice from the back. Looked nice from the front too. An elderly couple came into the café and sat down. The man took a kindle out of his pocket and started reading. The woman started knitting. They didn’t talk. The man signalled to Marina, obviously regulars; she started the coffee machine. ‘Who wants more tea?’ said Andrew. ‘Go on then,’ said Clovis. ‘And shortbread. Get me shortbread.’  

*

             

Podcast Artwork

Dolls Houses

  There were five of them, cycling through Kent at the week-end. Four men and a woman, she the wife of one of the men. The weather cold and misty, a sharp wind from the sea, heavy dark clouds, a fine drizzle buffeting their faces as they turned into the wind, huddled against the gusts. They’d left Whitstable just after 10am, standing by the lobster shack and arguing about the best route to take – some favouring the coastal path, others a route to Ramsgate, others fancying a short loop to Canterbury and back before the threatened rain. They set off finally, Nigel leading, fed up with the arguing and pushing on to Herne Bay, there hoping for coffee and a swift turn-around. Keith and Andrew favoured the Ramsgate option, but the others didn’t fancy such a long ride. Herne Bay was poor and cold, empty shops and boarded up cafes, little amusement in the amusement arcade, the people huddled against the wind. The little group pushed on through, doughty Nigel setting the pace, his nose to the wind, his back to the sea. Near Reculver they paused to study the map, weak eyes hooded against the light. ‘This way,’ said Martin. ‘No, this,’ said Peter. ‘No, this,’ said Nigel, pushing off down the road. They settled in behind, grateful for his bulwark against the breeze. The A28 to Margate was a brutal road – pitted and pot-holed, scarred and acned, with no shelter and the cars rushing past on shopping trips or off to see the in-laws or the grand-parents, duty calling. Martin spotted a sign to Grove Ferry, half a mile down the road and off the busy highway. ‘Let’s go and look,’ he said, as they huddled in a lay-by, their weak, elder’s eyes struggling to read Google maps on their shaky phone screens. ‘The sign says “ferry trips” – let’s check it out.’ They turned off the road, eager to escape the rushing traffic. It was quieter here and the road eased away down a hill through arching trees. ‘Not a hill,’ said Nigel, who hated hills. ‘If I go down I’ll have to come back up.’ ‘Let’s just see,’ said Keith. ‘It’s not far.’ Nigel grunted. They drifted down the slope, not as fearsome as Nigel had feared and rolled over a level crossing just before the gates rumbled down and then onto a bridge over a fast-flowing river. NO STOPPING ON BRIDGE said a sign, so they rolled to a stop in the middle of the bridge. The water flowed strongly beneath them; some ramshackle boats could be seen huddled against the banks, a man in a speed-boat rushed around the bend, the damp tables and benches of a riverside pub were visible beneath the green branches of the trees that leaned over and kissed the current. There was no-one else around. Martin took out his phone and took some pictures. Nigel rested astride his cross-bar. Mary removed her rain jacket from her saddle-bag and shrugged it on. Andrew and Keith leaned on the railings and watched the fast-flowing water. Andrew checked the map again. ‘We can continue on this road,’ he said. ‘We can do a loop through Plucks Gutter and it will bring us back to the A28, a bit nearer to Margate.’ ‘Are there more hills?’ asked Nigel, sourly. ‘I can’t tell,’ said Andrew. ‘But if we go back you’ll have to climb back up to the A28. This way looks better.’ ‘Let’s get it over with,’ said Nigel. Keith was the youngest cyclist of the group and he set off strongly up the road. It was more sheltered here and there were few cars. They moved along in single file. ‘I want to see Plucks Gutter,’ said Andrew. ‘I’m intrigued.’ He pushed on, upping the pace; Nigel and Mary fell further behind. The landscape was quite flat with small low rolling hills, occasional houses half-hidden behind high hedge-rows or picket fences. Many buildings appeared derelict – half dismembered cars littered the unkempt driveways, the clucking of free-range chickens could be heard, barking dogs broke the silence. Andrew wanted a photo of Plucks Gutter but there was nothing to see – just a pub and a few houses, no explanation for its strange name. They felt alone in this bleak land, unsure of their route or destination, while the occupants of the few cars that passed knew their goal on the road. ‘I call this duelling banjos country,’ said Andrew. ‘You’ve all seen Deliverance?’ He wasn’t sure they had. ‘Stay close together,’ he continued. ‘You never know what lurks in this land.’ They eased round a bend and approached a small hill. To their right was a clutch of tumbledown buildings and a loose collection of old tables and chairs could be seen. An old, faded sign was half-hidden in the bushes: HOT AND COLD FOOD SERVED ALL DAY ‘What about here?’ said Martin. ‘It’s time for tea.’ ‘Are you mad?’ said Andrew. ‘Look at it. It doesn’t even look open.’ ‘I need tea,’ said Nigel. ‘Any port in a storm.’ ‘I’ll go and see,’ said Keith. ‘Be careful,’ said Andrew. ‘If you don’t come back, we’re getting out of here. I can just imagine, one by one, we disappear in there, never to be seen again.’ ‘Hurry up,’ said Nigel. ‘I need tea.’ Keith wheeled his bicycle onto the gravelled drive and through a wooden archway towards a darkened doorway. An old BMW was parked at the front but there was no other sign of life. The others waited by the side of the road, ready to cycle away at the first sign of trouble. Keith disappeared into the doorway. Time passed. Silence broken by the gusts of wind and Nigel’s laboured breathing. There was no traffic and no-one around and no birds flew overhead. The four were alone in this strange land, amongst strangers who couldn’t be seen. Keith emerged. ‘It’s open,’ he said. ‘We can get tea.’ ‘Thank God,’ said Nigel. ‘I think you’re mad,’ said Andrew. They dismounted and wheeled their bikes into the front yard and leaned them against the rusted seats and broken flower-pots. There was a covered area with some broken toys, some upturned toy cars, an old tennis racket, tennis balls, discarded dolls, bits of string, crumbling wooden benches, chipped metal tables. There was a sign on the wall: UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE SOLD AS SLAVES ‘It’s not a joke,’ said Andrew. They stepped into a darkened room, faint light seeping through a curtain. A couple of tables with unmatching chairs, rows of wooden shelves with pots of honey and home-made jam, old photographs and prints on the walls, a make-shift counter with cakes beneath glass lids, an old-fashioned cash register. A woman emerged from a curtained doorway. Mid-fifties, short, greying hair, dark trousers and a shapeless jumper, suspicious eyes. She stood behind the counter, eyeing the cyclists in their lycra and helmets, their eyes hidden behind opaque glasses. Behind her on the wall menu items were scrawled on blackboard panels. Sandwiches, cream teas, toasties, hot and cold drinks. ‘Afternoon,’ said Mary. ‘I’d like a latte please.’ ‘What sandwich fillings do you have?’ said Keith, acting as if he was at the Ritz. The woman gave him a long, slow look, trying to judge if he was joking. She jerked a thumb behind her head. ‘It’s on the menu,’ she said, no smile in her voice. ‘Sorry,’ said Keith. ‘Cheese on toast for me and a cup of tea,’ said Nigel. ‘And me,’ said Andrew and Keith and Mary together, fearful of causing a scene. ‘Bacon sandwich please,’ said Martin. Andrew said, ‘Excuse me, do you have a toilet?’ She looked at him. ‘Follow me,’ she said. ‘You’ll never find it otherwise.’ Andrew looked at the others for reassurance and then followed her. They passed back out of the room, across a small courtyard, past a wooden shack with a sign on the door – CHILDRENS MUSEUM, A COLLECTION OF OLD AND INTERESTING ITEMS – through another door and into a dark room filled with thousands of items of dolls house furniture. Faint light came through the open door and shone a faint glow on the many items. They continued on and emerged out of the back of the building into a jumbled farm-yard. Pig-sties and chicken runs, a series of cages filled with small, chattering birds, clucking turkeys, puffy rabbits; a dog was barking somewhere but couldn’t be seen. She pointed down some steps to a shed in the far corner of the yard. ‘The black door,’ she said, and turned and walked away. Andrew moved gingerly past the caged birds and the suspicious turkeys. He tried the black door, but it didn’t move. He tried again but there was no movement. There was an eerie silence in the yard and no sign of another human being; the invisible dog had disappeared. He crept back, past the caged birds, back up the steps, past the doll’s house furniture, through the gloom, outside and back into the other room. He stuck his head around the curtain where the woman stood by a cooker. ‘I think it’s locked,’ he said. ‘Have you got a key?’ She looked up. ‘Probably someone in it,’ she said slowly. Andrew thanked her and wandered back. When he reached the black door, it was partly open. There was an old immobile mobile home wedged sideways on, its curtains drawn. A door was closing, and Andrew could just see an old man disappearing inside. There were two baths behind the black door which looked like they saw little use and a toilet. Andrew locked the door behind him and the light faded. On his way back, he paused in the doll’s house room. Every available surface was covered with miniature items of furniture or household objects – chairs, tables, sofas, beds, lamp-stands, coal scuttles, bunches of artificial artificial flowers, magazine racks, desks, lamp-shades – carved in wood, moulded in plastic, shaped from wire and meticulously painted. Everything was for sale. In the centre of the room, surrounded on all sides by tables piled high with materials, was the work-station for whoever made all of this stuff. It was quiet in the room and eerie, the air heavy with a sense of loss – who was this all for? Andrew hurried back, his cycle cleats clicking on the stone floor. From the kitchen came the most glorious smell of frying bacon – rich and pungent, an old-fashioned smell of real meat, not the vacuum-packed pale water-logged slivers found in supermarket packets. ‘I remember real bacon,’ said Nigel. ‘It had rind and fat. You never see bacon rind now.’ ‘And bristly tufts of hair,’ said Andrew. ‘Like an elderly woman.’ They sat round the rough table amidst the old toys and the sizzling bacon smell. The woman brought out a tray with cups, a big jug of milk and an enormous tea-pot. ‘I’ll be mother,’ said Nigel. ‘I like a pot of tea. I always make myself a pot of tea for breakfast. And porridge. I like porridge.’ ‘You’ve got time,’ said Martin. ‘You’re retired.’ Next came their cheese on toast and Martin’s bacon sandwich. Thick meaty slabs and drooling fat oozing out from the sides of the bread. The woman stood and watched them, leaning on the counter. ‘May we know your name?’ said Nigel. ‘Wendy.’ ‘Have you been here long?’ ‘1980 we moved here,’ she said. ‘Place needs doing up now.’ ‘We like it,’ said Mary. ‘Aye,’ said Wendy. Nigel asked for a slab of fruit cake and sat there munching. ‘Tasty cake,’ he said. ‘Can you show me where the toilet is?’ Mary asked Andrew. Wendy had retreated to the kitchen. ‘Follow me,’ he said. ‘You’ll never find it otherwise. Better take a ball of string with you.’ He led her through the doll’s house room and out to the yard and pointed to the white building with the black door. ‘Do you want me to wait for you?’ he said. ‘I think I’ll be okay,’ said Mary. There was another room off the main room, full of doll’s houses in various styles and states of repair. It was gloomy. Andrew peered through the tiny windows into the detailed interiors. He looked round the back of one of the houses. There was a small dolls garden – a swing, a slide, a little white dog, a seesaw, a traditional roundabout, some artificial grass, two tiny white crosses planted in the artificial ground. Andrew sensed someone nearby and whirled around. An elderly man was standing there. He had emerged from somewhere, silent, noiseless like an usher. He was dressed all in black with thinning grey hair, a thin face, pale watery eyes, long bony fingers; his lips were dry and crusted but his black shoes were shiny and polished. ‘What are you doing here?’ he said. His voice was sharp and unfriendly, and he leaned in close to Andrew. ‘What are you looking at?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude. The dolls houses, they’re exquisite, perfect in every detail. It’s like they’re real.’ ‘They are real,’ said the man. ‘Everything is real. Everything, just as it happened.’ Andrew looked at him. There were tears in the man’s eyes. Andrew followed his gaze, to the two tiny white crosses. ‘Can I ask…’ he said, and his voice trailed off. ‘What?’ said the man. ‘Ask what?’ ‘The two crosses,’ said Andrew. ‘There’s a reason, isn’t there?’ ‘There’s always a reason,’ said the man. ‘There’s always a reason. Not always reason, but there’s always a reason. Do you know your Hemingway?’ ‘Wayne Hemingway?’ said Andrew. ‘The designer? I’ve heard of him.’ ‘Not Wayne. Ernest. Ernest Hemingway, the writer. The Old Man and the Sea, remember? The Sun Also Rises?’ ‘Sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘Yes, I’ve heard of him. But I’ve not read anything by him.’ ‘You should,’ said the man. ‘You should.’ He moved past Andrew and reached through an open window of the doll’s house and straightened some items of furniture. He blew gently on the garden furniture which had collected some dust. ‘I’m William,’ he said. ‘Andrew. Pleased to meet you.’ ‘Hemingway wrote a lot of short stories. You should read some. “Big Two-Hearted River.” “The Killers.” He also wrote the finest short story ever. It’s only six words.’ ‘Six words?’ said Andrew. ‘How can you write a short story in six words?’ ‘Try it,’ said William. ‘What was it?’ said Andrew. ‘The story?’ ‘” For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”’ ‘That’s beautiful,’ said Andrew. ‘Maybe,’ said William. ‘Not if it happens twice.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ said Andrew. ‘I’m so sorry.’ ‘Thank you,’ said William. ‘It doesn’t go away, you know. It never goes away. I make the dolls houses. Wendy makes the tea. We get by.’ He walked over to the work-bench and sat down.  He picked up some tools and started whittling at a piece of wood. ‘We get by,’ he said again. ‘You learn to.’ Andrew went back to find the others. They each paid separately for their food and their drinks, mounted their bicycles and rode away, over the crunching gravel, into the wind, along the coastal path to Whitstable, rushing to get back before the rain came.                                          

Clement Attlee

  Her hair was long and brown and straight, parted in the middle and it swished around her shoulders when she shook her head, and if she was nearby it brushed your face and was warm and fresh and clean and you wished it would always be there. She had pale green eyes with long lashes and a small straight nose and soft lips and she was slim with narrow hips and small breasts which I could see in faint outline beneath her sweater. Her eyes were clear and direct and warm and when she looked at you, she held your gaze and you didn’t want her to look away. She had long legs and always wore jeans, at least for me, and she had small hands and neat nails and I thought she was lovely but so far away, until that changed, and she got too near and I never wanted to leave. She had two children – little girls, I forget their names or their ages – but I didn’t care about them, I only cared about her. I suppose that makes me a bad person, but I didn’t mean to be. And she was married to my favourite teacher and she was the first woman who ever loved me. He had got a new job teaching in a town in the Midlands and came back at the week-ends. So, she was alone during the week, except for the two girls. And me. I left school in the summer – 18 – and like every 18-year-old, I thought the world was fresh and exciting and new and mine for the taking. But some things you shouldn’t take. I wasn’t planning to go to university; I’d read too many books by Leonard Cohen and Jack Kerouac and done too much studying and I thought that manual labour was noble, and the Spanish Civil War was still a suitable destination for a vaguely socialist middle-class boy. My teacher was a socialist and maybe it was his teaching about sharing stuff that made me think I could share his wife – I don’t know. I worked in a hospital to earn some money and in the spring, I went to Israel and spent three months on a kibbutz, picking bananas, working in the fields and the factories, strangling chickens, washing dishes, travelling around and sleeping on beaches, and desperately, and unsuccessfully, trying to lose my virginity to one of the other volunteers or anyone else who would have me, which, as it turned out, was nobody.

*

Back in England, foot-loose, restless and rootless, I got a job in a metal-casting foundry; but 45 hours a week of wearing ear defenders and eye protection amid the flying aluminium, roaring furnaces and crashing sounds soon taught me that office work or a career would not, after all, be the total betrayal of my pretend working-class destiny. I kept in touch with some of my old school-friends – some were mathematicians, some were carpenter’s wives, I don’t know how it all got started, I don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. I also kept in touch with my favourite teacher and in the early summer he invited me and a few other former pupils round to his flat for an evening of alcohol and reminiscence about the old school days. I don’t remember if I had met his wife before – if I had, she had been ‘teacher’s wife’ and so not a real person and maybe that was also in the days when I was too shy to look a woman in the eye. Whatever the truth, I saw her now for the first time and with my now 19-year-old eager, desperate, eyes. And was it my imagination, or did her eyes linger on mine longer than was strictly necessary and did she try and sit next to me on the sofa? And when we said good-bye that night, did her fingers hold my hand just a little tighter?  Maybe, and maybe time plays tricks on your memory. He went away the next day and she invited me and a few of the others to come round in the evening. I stayed behind after the others had left. I knew she wanted me to and I wanted to too. The girls were asleep in bed in their room and the living room was warm and cosy and we were alone and we both knew why we were there and what was going to happen and it was natural and inevitable and perfect and we were powerless or unwilling to control it and nothing else and no-one mattered; it was just us together, alone in that room, lost in each other’s arms and I was young and innocent and naïve and it was the first time I had seen a woman who was naked just for me, (it was the first time for lots of things that night, but it wasn’t the last), and I wished I had died before then but it was too late, it was always too late, and I should have stopped her and she should have stopped me, but we couldn’t and didn’t want to and didn’t and nothing would ever be the same again. ‘You have to go,’ she said, early in the morning. ‘The girls can’t see you. But I can’t stand to see you go.’ It was very early when I left the flat. It was still dark, but the faint touch of dawn’s early glow was poking its pink fingers above the roof-tops. It was cold, but I wasn’t cold. I felt like I’d starred in my own movie. I was the subject of every love song – I’d slept with a married woman and somebody loved me. We met almost every day and in the evening after the girls were in bed and I stayed the night and left early in the morning before the girls awoke. There were a couple of occasions when one of the girls awoke and called for their Mummy and she had to go to them, and I hid beneath the bed-clothes until she came back and joined me in the bed and we shut the door and resumed what we had been doing.

*

In the autumn, I went up to university. My gap years were over, my working-class experiment was finished, and it was time to discover if three years spent drinking and taking soft and occasionally hard drugs was the ideal foundation for the career that so many seemed to believe it was. She visited me once in the first month. She told her husband that she was going to see a friend for the week-end. I don’t know if it was then that it all began to unravel but once those threads came loose, the whole carpet didn’t take long to fray. We had a lovely week-end. I had a room in halls with a single bed but as we spent most of the time lying on top of each other, the space was sufficient. We held hands and walked on the campus. I introduced her to my friends; she was so much more sophisticated than them (and me) and it made me so proud that she was mine. But possessions are cruel. On the Sunday afternoon, I waited with her at the draughty bus station. It was cold, but I opened my great-coat and folded her in and she put her warm hands around me and we stood at the bus-stop and I buried my face in her hair and she buried her head against my neck and I knew that my world was going to end.

*

He sent me a letter. This was before the time of mobile phones and computers and email; this was in the days when a letter was the preferred means of communication between people – particularly for what he had to say. He asked me to meet him as there was something he wanted to discuss. He suggested Westminster Abbey. I suppose I guessed why he had chosen that location; maybe he didn’t trust himself. I was nervous on the train to Victoria and walking along Victoria Street. I still wasn’t sure if he was going to hit me. I decided to offer him one punch; I’d seen that in a film once – one punch and honour would be satisfied. I wondered where he’d hit me; would it be in the face, nose, jaw, stomach? I knew I didn’t want a broken nose. The jaw was risky though; it looked easy when you saw it in films, but it was possible to do more damage to your own hand than you did to your opponent’s jaw. Stomach, then? But that could be dangerous – didn’t Houdini die from a punch to the stomach? Outside the Abbey was a souvenir stand and a cart selling guide books and toys and Houses of Parliament fudge. There were lots of people milling about – mostly tourists. I wondered how many other people were there to meet the husband of the woman they’d been sleeping with, or was it just me? I walked inside and walked slowly down the long nave, past the ancient pews and found him by the altar. He wore his usual blue check three-piece suit. The waist-coat was tight across his big belly. He had a big shock of thick wavy, red hair and a full jutting beard; his pot-belly and his beard pushed in front when he walked. He reminded me of a clown. I tentatively held out my hand. He looked at me and then looked at my hand and then reached out and shook it. ‘Let’s walk,’ he said. Tourists and tour guides wandered past. It was late morning and the bright sun illuminated the stone floor. We stopped by the grave of Clement Attlee – one of his vaguely socialist heroes. ‘We need to talk about M,’ he said. ‘How did you know?’ ‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘Not until just now. Anyway, not for certain.’ I cursed my stupidity, my naivety, my teenagery. ‘What are your plans?’ he said. ‘Plans? How do you mean?’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘You’ve been sleeping with my wife. I just wondered what you were planning to do? Were you intending to continue with that?’ ‘Um,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘Do you love her?’ ‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Yes. Yes, I do.’ ‘That’s a shame. Well, obviously you can’t continue. It’s going to have to stop.’ We carried on walking and stopped by Chaucer’s tomb. There was a big group of American tourists with a guide who was telling them who Chaucer had been. The Americans looked as blank as Chaucer’s verse. ‘We need to decide how to do this,’ he said. I nodded. We were two conspirators – Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby – hiding in the shadows of that massive church and furtively plotting together the best way to ruin his wife’s life. I hated him then, more than I’d hated anybody, before or since. He’d won, and he knew it and he was going to make sure that I knew it too. We walked on and stopped by the memorial to John Keats. I thought of his many lines of love, of the passion in his words and of his early consumptive death. ‘This is what we’ll do. I need you to end it,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to tell her.’ I winced at that “we,” but I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘It has to be your decision, though. You’ll need to have a reason. What’s your reason?’ ‘I suppose I’m too young,’ I said. ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money.’ We were at the memorial to Neville Chamberlain, the weak-willed, well-meaning arch-appeaser. I felt that I resembled him in my own little, ineffective way. ‘You’re not having second thoughts, are you?’ he said. ‘You know you have to do this?’ ‘I know.’ We stopped by Wordsworth’s tomb. The light drifted through the stained-glass windows and made ghostly coloured patterns on the floor. He stopped and looked at me. ‘I’ll say one thing,’ he said. ‘What’s that?’ ‘I admire my wife’s taste in men.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. But it was the way he said “my wife” that really hurt. Possessions can be cruel, and I knew that she was mine no longer. We walked out into the sunlight in front of the Abbey. Everyone seemed to be going about their business; groups swirled around us, busily photographing and buying and waiting for the open-topped sight-seeing bus to come by. ‘Good-bye,’ he said and held out his hand. ‘Good-bye,’ I said as I shook his hand. I watched him stride off down the street, his check suit shimmering in the sunlight. I headed back to Victoria station.

*

We sat in her ancient beige Mini on a quiet side street in South Croydon.  She switched off the engine. I don’t recall the season or the time or much about the weather. But I remember her. ‘Do you have something to tell me?’ she said. I couldn’t look at her. ‘Look at me,’ she said. I couldn’t look at her. ‘Look at me’, she said again. I sat there in my big great-coat and looked at her. Her eyes were dark and smudged from tears and her long hair had lost its shine. She squeezed the steering wheel; those hands that used to hold me. ‘You want to end it, don’t you?’ she said. ‘I…” ‘Say it,’ she said. ‘Go on, say it. I want to hear you say it.’ ‘I…’ ‘Say it, why can’t you?’ ‘I…I…Yes,’ I said finally. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why? Tell me. Tell me honestly.’ ‘I’m too young,’ I said. ‘I’ve just left school, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any money. I’m at university. I can’t do this anymore. You’re married, you’ve got two kids.’ ‘Don’t mention my kids,’ she said. ‘Don’t blame my kids. Say it. I want you to say it. Look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t love me. Go on.’ I looked her in the eyes and told her the lie that I’d rehearsed with him; the biggest and worst and cruellest lie I’ve ever told anyone and I knew that whatever happened in the years to come, I would never be forgiven for that lie. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t love you anymore.’ ‘Have you met someone else?’ ‘Yes,’ I lied, and didn’t believe that I wanted to, or would, meet anyone ever again ‘I still love you,’ she said then, simply. ‘God. Even now. Even now. God, I love you.’ ‘I love you,’ I said. ‘No, you don’t,’ she said. ‘No, you don’t. But it’s all right.’ ‘I can walk from here,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t going to give you a lift,’ she said. And then, ‘One day this will happen to you; I don’t want it to, but it will. You shouldn’t treat people like this, it’s not fair. One day you’ll learn that.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I opened the door. ‘Can I have a last kiss?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. Just, you know, to remember.’ I reached for her and we kissed long and hard on the mouth. I felt her slippery tongue, that tongue that had known every part of me and I her. Her tears were damp on my face and mingled with my own. She still had her smell and her warmth and her green eyes and her brown hair. After a while she released me and pushed me gently away. I got out of the car finally and stood on the pavement and watched as she drove away. Through the rear window I watched as she lifted one hand and waved it across the rear-view mirror. And then she was gone. It was cold, and I felt the cold. I fastened my great-coat and put my hands in the pockets and turned and walked away.

*

I never heard from, saw, or spoke to either of them ever again. I did hear from one of my friends, I can’t remember who, that she contracted a serious illness; I don’t know what it was or what happened, or what the outcome was. I’m much older now, happily married and with children of my own, but sometimes when it’s late or I’m bored at work, or feeling sad or lonely or curious or feel that the  time has come to make amends to those I’ve hurt along the way, I search for her and sometimes him, but mostly her, on Facebook or Instagram or Friends Reunited and I play with the Google search page and sometimes I think I see her, or she comes to me in dreams and she’s so real that it hurts. But then I wake up or a person turns around or the light changes or a bus or a train or a taxi moves on and I see that it isn’t her and it wasn’t her and it won’t be her and it will never be her and I know that she is gone. And I know that it’s my own fault.