Keeping in Touch – Mike Fox [Fiction]

I’m sure we’ll see each other around.

I wish she hadn’t said that. Sometimes hope needs a guillotine. It’s kindest.

‘You parted before you could withdraw the projection. If you’d stayed together longer it would have happened naturally.’ The therapist was about my age. She was detached and very careful with her language. 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘In time you would have taken her down off the pedestal.’

Six months: not long enough for a dream to be sated? I suppose that’s one way of reading the situation. And it’s true I find it hard to think of her as anything other than perfect – even the things I might see as imperfections I wouldn’t change. But surely that isn’t a bad thing? Therapy wanted to tell me I had not only lost her but myself in the process. And worse, it reduced the whole experience of knowing her to a transient phase, with no essential truth. 

So three sessions was enough. After that the simplest thing has been to follow her. Not every day, although the temptation is there. How else could I keep what we had alive? 

The underground line on which she travels back from work bifurcates in Acton. Two stops later she gets off. That’s where I wait. The station has never been upgraded, so unless I stand on the platform, which would be foolish, there are no signs to tell me when a train is coming. But the alighting passengers have to climb stairs to reach street level. The sound of their tired feet is my forewarning. I move away discretely from the entrance and watch for her.

In the following moments I wonder how she will be on that particular day.  I always felt her hair reflected her mood, so I look for that as a sort of barometer. The style I like best is when she allows her natural curls to flick loosely around her shoulders. She seemed at her most relaxed, most self-accepting, when she left it like that. If it’s scraped back tight I’ll know she probably woke late or tired. For a day the world could take her as it found her. If she’s used a straightener it’s possible she’s had a meeting of some sort. For some reason she seemed to equate straight hair with formality. And just occasionally, perhaps following a whim, she has left a small twist of curl on one side. This tiny asymmetry can almost stop my heart.

At the end of March, before I even guessed she would end things, she put her winter clothes away, so in these last couple of months I’ve only seen her in light, summer wear. I wonder now if she has always done that. At the time it didn’t occur to me to ask. I could have known so much more if I’d only thought. As it is, I love the sense of order this small habit suggests, of complying with the seasons and expecting them to respond accordingly – perhaps a memory of shedding Cumbrian winters, before she moved to London.

You can see I often find myself speculating now. When all you want is to recreate closeness, distance itself becomes mystery, a space that somehow has to be filled. At the other end of this space is the person I observe, perhaps twice a week, as she leaves behind her working day. I look at her posture, every small detail of her appearance. I try to imagine her moment to moment expression. As I do this I fight back a sense that her life is not static. I realise I fear changes I can’t know about, but which must be happening anyway. Or perhaps I just fear change. Change rips people apart.

Her route home from the station is a simple ten minute walk. I’ve known it most of my life – certainly for more than two decades before we met. As passengers fan out from the entrance onto the broad tarmacked forecourt, she bears left and down the sloping main road that, if followed, would lead to the house where I was born. To her immediate left is a former library, where I once borrowed my first books. If the traffic allows her to cross at that point she might glance left at the façade of an old cinema house where I often spent my Saturday afternoons, now owned by Jehovah’s witnesses. In another thirty metres she will turn right into a quiet residential avenue that leads to Niagara Park. Other than roofs newly pockmarked with skylights, and paving stones split or lifted by the roots of plane trees, this road seems completely unaltered from my childhood memory. Somehow I find this both reassuring and confusing.

When she reaches the park she turns right between posts that have shed the ornate iron gates the keeper once locked at sunset, then follows a path that almost immediately pivots ninety degrees to her left. I wonder why she never cuts across the grass. By the time I enter after her – I pause for a moment here because she has moved into an open area – we are walking directly through my past, and all the things time has altered or taken away. To her right is a characterless stretch of grass which once had pitch markings and goalposts. My friends and I spent many untended hours there. How unthinkable now. Beyond that is a depot that acts as a terminus for trains that might otherwise travel on to the airport. I once found that fascinating, in the way that children can be fascinated by the promise of a wider world. Now, I recognise, my focus is smaller and more defined: the simple hope of keeping something lost alive.

Hope. There’s nothing more human. It’s the defining condition of life. It’s what you must have to prevent something dying. She, I’m certain, knows this. She nurses cancer patients. She talked about the questions they would ask before going on clinical trials. Even when they were told a treatment was not potent enough to cure, she could see they still hoped. And of course they would. Wouldn’t anyone?

After about seventy metres the path joins a fringe of tall hedgerow to her left. Behind the hedgerow is another large expanse of grass, enclosed by wire fencing stretched between concrete pillars. This land, to my knowledge, has never been used for anything. Fallow space. As a child I used to hide in the hedgerow with my best friend and imagine we could never be found. Now, as I walk directly behind her, these next few hundred metres of straight path are where I’m least hidden. She only has to turn round. But she never turns round. She never looks back.

I learned to cycle on this path, with my friend holding the back of the bike, then telling me when he was going to let go. It was my first conscious experience of balance, of deliberately claiming a state of equilibrium, and of the curious mix of calmness and exhilaration that can accompany even such a small act of transcendence. The memory makes me think of the completeness I felt whenever I was in her company. It was something like that.

Where the hedgerow ends, the park opens briefly on both sides. To her left the flat mown grass is bordered with a crescent of wildflowers, thick with bees in the summer evening. After perhaps a hundred steps the path continues between ragged allotments, usually deserted at the time we pass. This area has a quietness all of its own, and I become conscious of my footsteps in case they should attract her attention. But they don’t. They could be anyone’s footsteps. 

This is the image I most often carry away. The path widens slightly and cambers down to old, cast iron railings. It’s almost as if they frame her. I look at the fluent sway of her hips, and the way her back tapers to her waist. I see the strength of legs that will have spent most of the day standing, and feel their tiredness as if it were my own. I observe the way her handbag loops unnoticed from her shoulder, and, newly on each occasion, am overcome with loss.

Sometimes I’ve wondered how long I will do this, found myself imagining her footprints in December snow, the almost imperceptible outward slant of her small booted feet, the dark of the winter sky, the quick shorter steps to get out of the cold.

But that will never happen.

It’s a Tuesday in early August, and she has reached the allotments with me no more than fifty metres behind. I’ve never thought of myself as a risk taker, but as the weeks have passed I’m aware that some compulsion has kept edging me closer. 

A little boy approaches her, skipping beside his mother, who’s steering a pushchair. She moves a foot or so to her right to let them pass. By the time they’re within a few feet of her I have entered the section of path between the allotments, with railings now on either side of me. I have also moved slightly to my right in anticipation of avoiding the mother and child. But just before they get to her the little boy stumbles as though he’s caught his foot on something, and falls over. He begins to cry. I know in that moment she will bend to help him. And she does. She joins the boy’s mother, both crouched on their haunches, in comforting him.

I find myself with two options. Neither is simple, but I must decide between them immediately. I can turn round, a hundred and eighty degrees, and leave her to watch my back, and surely to wonder how many evenings I’ve spent watching hers. Or I can carry on and face what might always have been inevitable. 

But is there really a choice?

As I approach her, it’s as if I have to remember how to walk, conjure the simple mechanics of moving myself forward, then discipline myself to obey them. After even a few paces I am nearer to her than at any time since we split up. I feel something like a horizontal gravity drawing me forward, rather as a parachutist must feel pulled towards the beckoning earth. By the time I reach them the mother is thanking her and she is about to turn and walk away. She glances towards me and makes space for me to pass. 

And then she realises who I am.
By Mike Fox

 

  • Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2
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