Short fiction by Alex Barr
Who’ll reply to my post? I hope it’s you, Susan. There you are on the back row, the tallest, still with the power to disturb. Beautiful — high forehead, dark hair with a neat centre parting, possibly in plaits, I can’t tell even with a magnifying glass. A sweet smile, fine slanting eyebrows. In a Fair Isle jumper and what seems to be a wool tartan skirt. But if not you maybe Barbara, on the third row in a black jumper, with a lovely cheeky grin and dense wool-coloured hair.
Remember me? There I am sat crosslegged front row centre. One of two boys holding the photographer’s sign, chalked with the school name and Class 7. Probably the only one expecting a magnesium flash, which is why I’m squinting. You both called me River the Second because I cried a lot (Billy Sidebottom was River the First). And scorned me as immature, youngest in a class of thirty-eight, missing two front teeth. Well, if we meet now it’ll be different. If you’re still in grey North Manchester, wondering what life was all about, I can offer you the benefit of my experience.
Who else might reply? The boy on my right sharing the sign, with those retro round wire glasses and a foolish smile? The one on my left in a tweed jacket, with a face like a football manager? (Remember me, Graham?) Sally, with the round chubby face and delightful smile? The teacher once marked your writing hair on pen, Sally. Not surprising, given the state of the inkwells. Or the boy next to Susan, head slightly to one side, an ingratiating smile. Roger? I’m annoyed if you’re holding her hand, Roger.
In a dark jacket and neat tie, you’re better dressed than most of us in our scratchy pullovers. Only ten of us boys wear ties, including me with my collar flying up. All of us in short trousers. Eight of you girls wear big white floppy hair ribbons. Three wear those curious woollen skirts held up by straps over shoulders.
All those eight-year-old faces! So hopeful. I fear what life might have done to your innocence. Cancer, divorce, accident, prison . . . ? That serious-looking lad on the back row with rolled-up sleeves, dark sleeveless pullover, stringy tie, maybe got blown up in Cyprus in the army and lost his legs. That kind, modest-looking girl in Brownie uniform may have been abused by an uncle, failed in all her relationships, and committed suicide. How many of you are alive after all these years? Reply!
Soon after that photo was taken, we moved from those hard-edged streets to tall trees and fat hedges, South Manchester instead of North. Did you miss me, the kid who couldn’t catch a ball and kept going on about Martians? Our new house had a phone, the ancient kind with separate earpiece, and I phoned you, Graham.
Your dad: ‘Graham! A young man on the phone for you.’
‘Yes, it’s me. How are you?’
‘Did you manage to get that Dinky Toy station wagon?’
‘Well that’s good. And a station master?’
No answer. A long silence.
‘So . . . what are you doing now?’
‘Holding this phone.’
And so on. As if the hours we spent gathering sticks to fend off imaginary bad men, knocking on doors and running away, throwing bricks on bomb sites, never happened. I’ve hated phone calls ever since.
Maybe a reply will be a disaster? No, I spent my career learning to handle people. I have to take the risk, offer myself. What else is there?
Thanks for posting the photo, Alan. I lost mine. It all seems ancient history. I’m the tall one with my back to the drainpipe. You I don’t really remember, sorry. Maybe we can meet but I’d like to know more about you.
Kind regards, Elaine.
It’s her! Not Susan, then, but ‘Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable.’ What’s she like at seventy-seven? Aristocratic-looking in a long ethnic dress, a thick grey plait over one shoulder? Unlikely. Probably bent and shrivelled from bad housing and bad diet, relieved to be widowed from a boring husband (Roger?). She’ll no longer have power over me. I might even impress her.
Delighted to hear from you. I remember you so well.
Me, I’ve had a rich existence. An ugly duckling on the photograph, but I improved with age. I’m fortunate to have been loved by several ladies: Angela, Samantha, Imogen, Zoë. The dots over Zoë’s name remind me of ‘her dark eyes when she loved me’ to paraphrase Masefield. But I’m happily married to Angela, and last year we had a luxurious golden wedding celebration at the Slebech Park Hotel down in Pembrokeshire overlooking the delightful Cleddau estuary, which you probably don’t know. My lovely daughters Josie and Polly sang Gilbert and Sullivan.
I’ve travelled all over Europe, not without excitement. On a British Council exchange to Bulgaria in the Iron Curtain era, I was nearly recruited as a spy! In my hotel room my guide, Natasha Nadzorova, shrugged off her dress and stood provocatively in black lace (black market?) underwear. Fortunately I knew hidden cameras might kompromat me. I held back, though now I regret it. Feeding the Bulgars low-level intelligence couldn’t have been that bad. I might now be doing well out of Putin!
Angela and I live in a leafy Cheshire suburb, so unlike the streets you and I grew up in. I’m a valued member of the local bridge club. Where do you live now? Do you play bridge, or just rummy?
I would like to hear about your children — I assume you have some. Did they go to our old school? Are they successful and in good relationships? I hope they haven’t disappeared to Australia. I’m glad to say Josie has a thriving florist business (our house is often bursting with the scent of alstromeria) and Polly is a management consultant. If only George Prendergast, our local council führer, would draw on her expertise!
I always imagined you’d marry Roger (?) the boy on your right in the photo. Whoever it was, I hope you’ve been as happy as I have.
Looking forward to meeting you.
Yours, Alan Egan.
Six weeks later, this:
Interested to hear about you Alan, but I don’t think it’s a good idea if we meet. Apologies.
Smug. Just like in the photo. I have my front teeth, Elaine, my glasses react to light so I don’t squint into the sun, and I don’t cry any more. Your loss.
After months hearing nothing, this:
What took you so long, Alan? I’ll meet you at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Name a time.
Betty (Grimshaw — I kept my surname).
Betty, eh? Which are you on the photo, Betty? The dark-eyed one in a gym slip with an Edith Piaf look? The shy blonde turning away from the camera? And what do you mean, ‘What took you so long?’ Maybe a silly joke, but you’ve unsettled me. I’d ask Angie what she thinks, but I haven’t told her why I’m going into Manchester. She thinks it’s for shopping.
I’m imagining our meeting. Deep armchairs in a plush lounge with Nat King Cole at low volume (they pander to oldies). We drink Tom Collinses with little umbrellas. You lean towards me.
‘I nearly got tired of waiting.’
You look around. The barmaid’s busy at a laptop. No other guests. You take something out of your Gucci handbag and thrust it into my hand. It’s in a small transparent plastic bag. A flash drive. Bright red.
I’m about to take it out when you hiss, ‘Hide it, Alan, quick. You’ll be contacted. The drinks are on my account. Have another.’
Then you’re gone, silent as light.
The reality’s different.
For the first time I penetrate the encrusted façade of the Midland, that expanse of brown faïence I always found so daunting. The foyer has signed photos of Muhammad Ali and Tommy Cooper. We’re in a small room dominated by a ridiculous mirror in a carved frame (walnut?). Boxes of ‘Everyday’ copy paper in one corner.
Betty’s wearing a llama-wool shawl with a pattern of stylized figures. Must be from Peru — my boss had one. So has Betty been to South America? Is she fluent in Spanish and Portuguese? Or even Guaraní or Quechua? I doubt it. Doesn’t look the type. The shawl is probably from the Oxfam shop.
Still, her face has a weathered look, unlike the pallor of my old classmates. I show her the photo but she waves it away. Which one is she? One of the skirt-with-straps brigade? I’d guess fourth from left on the second row, with a big toothy smile and eyes that slope down towards the sides. If so she’s turned out better looking.
‘So, Alan,’ she says when we’re settled. ‘I nearly got tired of waiting.’
My heart thumps. I wait for the red flash drive. She leans towards me . . . and ties her bootlace. Smart green leather boots with chunky heels. Then sits back, tucks grey curtains of hair behind her ears, and looks at me intently. Waiting.
‘Well this is interesting,’ I say at last.
Betty raises eyebrows. ‘You came to find interest?’
I don’t like the challenge in her tone. I shrug.
‘Why do you focus on the past, Alan?’
‘Not much future at our age, is there?’
‘And the present?’
I blink and shift in my armchair.
I snap, ‘I was happier in the past, before . . .’
Damn, didn’t mean to say that. What’s she up to? A kid from a North Manchester back street, acting sophisticated on the strength of, what, some package tour? Still with the same flat accent.
Betty smiles and repeats, ‘Before.’ It’s not a question. Then she falls silent. It’s Graham all over again, unsettling me. After a long pause I can’t stop myself. It all spews out. I tell her about the bridge club, being the crap player no-one wants to partner. The damn noisy bypass near our home. Josie’s business going down the pan and Polly’s nasty divorce. I have to pause, shaking and sweating.
Betty’s still silent. Till I tell her I’ve realized what a safe bloody boring life I’ve led, and she pipes up.
‘Nearly recruited to spy for Bulgaria – exciting, surely?’
‘You’ve been in touch with Elaine!’
Betty’s poker-faced. And I confess: Natasha didn’t come on to me, I came on to her and she froze me out. Made me look a fool. Betty nods.
‘Why do you think Elaine wouldn’t see me?’ I demand.
‘I think you can guess, Alan.’
Can I? Another long pause. She drains her coffee cup, then asks about the women I mentioned to Elaine. Damn! If she was a crow she’d peck out my liver. I tell her Samantha was one of my team at the town hall – a team of two, her and the tea boy. I could get off with her because she was ugly, with frog eyes and protruding teeth, and desperate. She thought I’d leave Angie, though I never said I would. She had a nervous breakdown and left and I don’t know what became of her.
Betty nods again. Why? Was all that inevitable?
‘And Imogen?’ she asks.
I tell her I’d rather forget. All over me one minute, screaming and clawing the next. I couldn’t stand that for long, especially when she started phoning to accuse Angie of perverting me. And as for dark-eyed Zoë, she said she loved me when she was drunk, but she said it to anyone when she was drunk.
‘So now you know,’ I say angrily.
Betty’s playing with the edge of her shawl, lost in thought. Suddenly gives me a piercing look.
‘What did you learn?’
Learn? Learn? I need a drink. A few minutes later, back with two double espressos, irritated by the smarmy barman, I see she hasn’t moved. Exuding calm, or should I say, smugness.
‘What about you?’ I ask aggressively.
‘Me? Was it me in particular you wanted to meet?’
‘No, but I’d like to know something about you. You say you kept your surname. Are you married?’
‘I know you are, Alan. Happily married, you told Elaine.’
‘Happily? Yes, I thought so. Angie thinks otherwise.’
A long long pause.
She says mildly, ‘I suppose your overdose didn’t help.’
‘How the . . . How do you know about that? It’s not something I tell people.’
She raises her eyebrows. ‘I see it in your face.’
The grinning prognathous kid in the second row at the world’s most ordinary school has turned into this? A Lancashire cloggie turned clairvoyant? I’m shutting my eyes, against her, against the world. I wish she’d leave. But when I open them, damn, she’s still here, studying me.
I tell her, ‘I suppose you’ve been useful in your life. Still are. Doing things for people, campaigning, righting wrongs.’
‘Is that what you came to find out about me?’
‘No, because you wouldn’t have the ghost of a clue how to cope with never having done any of that.’
She gets up, stands beside my chair, and holds my head against her middle. I smell llama wool and something else, maybe rose oil. When she speaks I feel her diaphragm vibrate.
‘Listen, Alan. I want you to promise not to do it again. I know you’re thinking of it. I want you to decide not to give up, to go on, day after day, step by painful step, not knowing what’s round the next corner. Will you do that?’
I don’t respond.
She reaches for the photograph and studies it. ‘There we all were, fearless, full of hope. The dreadful war was over, the NHS was about to start. Now you owe it to all of us to keep going, into the messy future.’ She sighs and I smell the coffee on her breath. ‘Will you?’
I sketch a nod. She returns the photo. I don’t ask which is her. She rubs my thinning hair, and suddenly she’s gone. Silent as light, yes.
Outside the Midland the streetlights are coming on. The pavements are shining but the rain has stopped. Two hundred years ago, when all this was fields, a peaceful protest meeting was dispersed with injury and slaughter. I wish, I wish, I wish I’d been there.