by Gavin Broom
January 1st, 2009 – At Austin’s
The new year is in its infancy – minutes, maybe only seconds old – and born to a drunken world already neglecting it. The antique clock facing Austin’s bar that had everyone spellbound now looks out at our backs and people who’d shaken hands and embraced are strangers once again.
In the photograph, Claire and I stand near the usual mob at the bar who do their best to spoil the shot. My hand sits on her waist. Her blonde head finds its nest on my shoulder and her smile is warm and crooked like she’s stifling a laugh. James is in front of me, typically worse for wear, frozen in celebration, cheering with wide eyes and mouth. Next to him, in a white dress, Kerry blows the camera a kiss.
That night, the booze fuels talk of approaching thirtieth birthdays, promotions at work, subtle suggestions of overdue engagements that secretly terrify as much as the idea of weddings. There’s talk of seizing the day, of the less worn path, of not settling like our parents, of making something of ourselves, of having big plans. The thing I notice, though, through all the hope and expectation captured on our faces, is that none of us know what’s coming. We don’t have a clue.
February 15th, 2009 – Birthday
It was James who suggested this inspired way to combine Valentine’s Day and Claire’s birthday while picking up some Best Boyfriend in the World points along the way. The result of this idea is a stereotypical Parisian taking a stereotypical photograph of two stereotypical tourists.
Claire and I are rosy-cheeked, wrapped in long coats and scarves at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s impossible to tell if we’re smiling or grimacing against the brutal chill. Over our shoulders, the crisp, grey city does its best to look as though it hasn’t posed like this a million times already today. There’s no such thing as privacy up here and other tourists sandwich us as they have their pictures taken or talk with their significant others and it makes me think of all the paths, all the billions of decisions that have been made independently across the globe to make us all share this moment. It makes me think of my own path.
Later that evening, back at the hotel, we sit at the bar and drink whisky until our blood thaws. The bartender is disinterested and surly until he realises we’re Scottish and not English as he’d assumed. After that, he’s our new best friend and the three of us drink and chat into the wee hours. When he announces that he’s originally from Cameroon, bored with Paris and looking to move on, it ignites something in Claire. Excited, she grabs my hand and suggests we deliberately miss our return flight. Instead, she wants to withdraw her life savings and travel through Europe to the Far East, working on a farm in Switzerland, pouring drinks or waiting tables in Dubai, sleeping on a beach in Vietnam. Over and over, the bartender says what an excellent idea it is and the more he says it, the more animated Claire becomes and the more detached I find myself. She looks at me for a reaction and I smile but when I don’t speak, she gives me back my hand and leaves me with thoughts of paths and how unmade decisions are still decisions and unspoken words can still be heard.
April 1st, 2009 – April Fools
James’ reason for surprising Kerry with a party and proposal on April Fools’ Day is surprisingly simple and valid: she won’t be expecting it. And he’s right. When she walks into the function room, her hands shoot to her mouth, her knees buckle for a moment and she needs to be calmed by her sisters and friends. Eventually, she collects herself and even though she’s crying, she’s laughing when she says yes.
Claire asks me to take a photograph of Kerry’s hand, now seemingly as complete as her life thanks to a chunk of compressed carbon set in a platinum band. I’m no expert on such things but I have to admit to being impressed by James’ choice. It suits her hand; makes her fingers look slender and elegant. I can’t help wondering how much it cost, how much James earns and, if it’s more than me, what he did to deserve it. Any of it. I do as I’m told and take the photo. As I review the image, I notice the French tips on Kerry’s fingernails and a patch of uneven fake tan around her wrist and my stomach flinches at what I suspect may be a ruse.
At ten o’clock, the DJ takes a break for the buffet and it’s while we’re eating that Claire raises a subject I knew was in the post from the moment James told me of his intentions. Still, I pretend to be taken aback and tell her I thought the plan was to go backpacking across Australia or cycle round the world or work on a salmon farm in Tibet or open an orphanage in Mozambique. That’s when something changes, something leaves her eyes and whatever it is, wherever it goes, it doesn’t come back.
June 21st, 2009 – Solstice
Every year, my dad made a big deal of the shortest night. For as long as I can remember, he talked about setting off in the car when the sun went down and driving until it rose the next morning, just to see where it would take him. Given that this allowed him about five or six hours driving time, I would tell him that he’d either end up just past Birmingham if he went south, somewhere in Caithness if he went north and in the sea if he went any other direction. Neither option sounded particularly appealing. He’d look annoyed when I said this. Apparently, I missed the point.
On this particular solstice evening, much like all the others, he’s going nowhere. The doctor says he can’t get home, the surgeon wants to talk to my mother in private about more procedures planned for the morning and the nurse gives him a hard, square cushion to hug on to when the coughing gets bad. The cushion has a face drawn on it in black marker; cock-eyed with its tongue sticking out of its grinning mouth. Dad thinks this is hilarious and while Mum’s still away, he asks me to take a photo on my phone. He holds the pillow next to his face and strikes a matching pose. When I show him the result, he’s delighted. Twins, he says. He asks if I can print a copy and bring it with me tomorrow. I tell him that if the surgeons have their way, he might not be in the best shape to look through photos. It’ll be a piece of piss, he insists. A piece of piss.
On the drive home, Mum repeats her conversation with the surgeon and talks about how she feels things have run away in the last few weeks and everything’s moving too fast. It’s all I can do to keep driving because what I really want to do is pull over, take the phone out of my pocket, show her the photo and see if between us we can find anything that’ll make us smile. The phone stays where it is, though, and the pack of glossy printer paper I buy after I drop Mum off isn’t unwrapped until much, much later.
August 7th, 2009 – Satellites
Claire phoned me first. Being honest, it amazed me it wasn’t the other way round and hadn’t happened much earlier, especially as it had been a tough summer, during which I’d become well acquainted with the bottom of a bottle. Given these conditions, a drunken call in the middle of the night, begging for a reconciliation, wasn’t so much likely as downright inevitable. I remember thinking it was good to be surprised. The feeling doesn’t last.
We meet in a coffee shop in town the next evening and it’s the first we’ve seen each other in three months. I have a latte. She orders a green tea of all things, which I read as a flag in the sand, a definite statement that things have changed and they’re not changing back. For the next thirty minutes we’re civil while we tiptoe through our conversational minefield and then she reaches into her bag – new, I notice – and hands me something I mistake for a birthday card. On the front of the card is a drawing of a teddy bear holding a balloon. Inside, there’s a grainy, black and white photograph that looks like an image from a weather satellite. Just as I realise why a cloud looks like a tiny foot, it all falls into place and I become conscious that Claire’s speaking to me, explaining something, saying my name, but the words are too bassy, too muffled, as though we’re underwater. I don’t move my head. I keep my eyes focused on that little foot. I let the waves of nausea crash and wash over me and wait for them to subside. Eventually, the tide goes back out.
It’s only when she gets up that I notice the makings of a bump and puffiness in her cheeks. She tells me she’ll be in touch and that I can be as involved as I want but, because we’re still looking for different things, in every other regard it’s business as usual. I’m left holding the photograph with the very tips of my fingers, as though it’s made from the most delicate of porcelain. The sky is orange and shadows are long when I throw some money on the table. I notice that her cup of green tea hasn’t been touched.
November 17th, 2009 – Removal
When I arrive at James’ flat with the van, Kerry is somewhere else, just as she’d promised. I’m surprised at how little stuff he has and he tells me he travels light. I remind him that he’s lived here for four years. He doesn’t reply to that. Instead, he mutters about how he can’t believe this is happening so close to Christmas and pays no attention when I say Christmas is really six weeks away and not that close at all. No sense in anyone doing stuff that makes them both unhappy, I say to him when it looks like he’s pouting. No sense at all. He agrees.
In my haste to shift a chest of drawers, a photograph frame falls on the floor and cracks under my heel. The photo of Kerry and her dog is torn and just as I’m about to find James to apologise, I spot another picture underneath. This other, hidden photo is of the four of us at a restaurant table in Cyprus. James and I are in shirts and the women are in dresses; Claire blue and Kerry white. James is the only one without much of a tan because, I remember, he spent most of the holiday sitting in the shade at the pool bar drinking domestic lager and chatting up the Cypriot barmaid when he thought no one was looking. I try to recreate the emotions from that time, the things that were going through my head, the happiness I’m sure I must have felt. For a second, I almost have it – I’m nearly there – but then it all feels too far away and not just time-wise. I flatten the original photo back in the broken frame and although I’m not sure for whose benefit I’m doing it, I tear up the Cyprus photograph and put it in the bin.
His new place isn’t as nice as he described it. It’s dark, one bedroom and the smell of damp in the air pounces on me as soon as the door opens. James seems happy, though, so I try not to be too negative. We sit on cardboard boxes and share a four-pack as a reward for our efforts and he remarks about how strangely things have worked out, considering how they looked at the start of the year. I try to remember the thoughts about my path but the finer details escape me and the best I can do is explain that I’m convinced things were always going to work out this way, regardless of any plans. Except, I tell him, I thought he’d be the one to cheat on her. He laughs and for the second time today, he agrees.
December 31st, 2009 – At Austin’s
The year has minutes – maybe seconds – left to live. Looking around, I see enough familiar faces to feel like this used to be home. Toasts are raised to what’s left of 2009 and I’m reminded it’s also the end of a decade, maybe even the end of an era, and this, along with turning thirty, makes me feel old; too old to stay here. Big Ben starts his preamble when I whisper in Kerry’s ear that I want to leave. She smiles and without asking why, she follows me outside. I suspect she knows.
As far as I can recall, it’s always windy at the bells. Tonight, though, it’s calm and the cloudless, speckled night sky allows a frost to shroud us while we sit on the car park wall. Fireworks trace above as 2010 makes its entrance and I’m reminded of shooting stars and then of my dad. Through the explosions, I end up talking about him and I mention his unfulfilled plan for the summer solstice. She says I should do that. She says we should both do that and reckons it would be great if everyone did it. We could start a trend. She laughs at my raised eyebrow and insists it would be fun to see where we end up and what adventures might be waiting for us there. The way she explains it makes me understand what I think the whole world’s been trying to tell me and I shiver, but not from the cold.
A little later, we go back inside where once more the new year feels like it happened a long time ago. James and Claire are nursing soft drinks in separate corners of the bar with their halves of the usual mob. They glower while conversations happen around them. I’m not sure of the meaning of the smile I send to Claire. Maybe I’m apologising. Maybe I’m saying that none of us know what the next twelve months will bring. Either way, she manages to send a smile back. I haven’t brought my camera with me tonight, so none of this is documented and if in years to come my kid decides that he or she needs to know what Daddy got up to on this particular Hogmanay, they’re just going to have to take my word for it.
GAVIN BROOM lives in the Scottish countryside with his wife and his cat. He’s had work published in Menda City Review, Bound Off, Espresso Fiction, flashquake and SFX amongst others. At time of writing, he doesn’t own a house at the beach.