by Helen McClory

I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.

I met him at a speed dating event for fans of Talking Heads. He said his name was Devil O’Keefe.

I met him walking in the Botanical Gardens, between an acacia and a palm. We exchanged handshakes when we parted.

I met him in the tunnel. He lunged at my mouth.

I met him in secondary school, I sat beside him and scratched my scalp as the sunshine streamed in on the desks. I always failed the maths tests when it was arithmetic; he always passed without a single mistake.

I met him at the gallery before it opened, where he welcomed me inside and closed the door, ushering me along into the room where the great pink paintings dominated from floor to ceiling. Here, he said, shall we sit a while?

I met him in Livraria Cultura, which was flooding. He was standing with his partner, each in matching shirts of slightly different hues, both at a loss for what to buy.

I met him at the bottom of the steps and we walked to the waterfall. On the way we talked very quietly about the softness of the jungle around us, the blue butterflies and the march of the ants like streams of blood cells under our legs.

I met him. I knew him for what he was.

I met him in the room with the ping pong table with the dance music blaring. There were people spilling drinks on the floor and laughing loudly.

I met him at his place and we went for a coffee. The café issued electronic tokens that had to be scanned on leaving, so the staff would know nothing had been stolen.

I met him in a dream once. There was a door that led to where he lived; on waking there was no door.

I met him arguing with a bus driver in the largest city in South America. I knew it was going to start raining soon, and I just wanted to get on board.

I met him and his girlfriend and thought they were very much alike. The three of us sat in the back of an Uber as it drove us through an opulent, empty neighbourhood, which the wealthy had evacuated in fear of kidnappings.

I met him online. He said he liked my picture, which was of a mask of a wolf.

I met him. What I felt was what I felt.

I met him. He was walking about on the beach as if he was looking for someone to talk to.

I met him between genders on a grey sofa. It would have been easier if we’d known how to drop our forms off at the cloakroom.

I met him in an unlikely milieu. He said his name wasn’t Simão, and wondered why I was calling him that.

I met him in the lush and fraught erotics of place and loneliness and grief. He handed me a plate of food and I sat down with all the others.

I met him on holiday in Amsterdam, where he was living in a narrow room, as most rooms are there in centrum. I wanted the city to swallow me whole, to make us both the squashed yellows of a Van Gogh painting, but that was not what he wanted, at all.

I met him in the ruins. It was a winter day, and the light was glinting low between the leafless trees.

I met him every day when he was not there. He won’t remember but we spoke at great length on those occasions.

I met him on the island where I’d grown up. He complained of the cold and I bought him a fish supper which he ate messily as we walked together along the pier.

I met him in one of the many other worlds that run alongside this. Our choices there were different; not better, just different.

I met him on the moors, in a thunderstorm, with the full moon dashing itself to pieces in the clouds.

I met him in the car park. I helped him retrieve an orange that had rolled under a Toyota.

I met him when I was a little boy and he was a little girl. Impossibly, in some brief distortion of the world, we met, glanced at each other once, and then were parted forever.

I never met him. We never knew.

I met him in Florence at the Uffizi and we talked around the Venus, as if about a neutral topic.

I met him in the hunting lodge. He was six whiskies in, and neither of us belonged.

I met him in a rather lonely and difficult period of my life, but that was not why we hit it off. He carried a bright yellow canvas bag around with him, heavy with things I never got to see.

I met him on the battlefield. Though we were on different sides, something made us pause, and in the chaos of the rout we were parted before ever chancing to strike at one another.

I met him in my house, clambering in the window, a paintbrush between his teeth. His teeth were blackened with paint.

I met him on a backwoods campsite as dusk was coming on and I couldn’t find what I needed to set up, and I was tired, really tired, after a day of driving, after all my life up until then. I couldn’t see his face fully in the light of the fire, just parts of it, picked out amongst the shadows.

I met him in a town whose name I could not, then, pronounce. He said he’d never heard of this place before he came, but he was glad he had chosen to go there.

I met him in the water at night, where we hung suspended, letting the ocean lift us and drop us back. It was terrible, really.

I met him in the queue at the petrol station. He leaned out the passenger side of the car window and asked if I had a lighter, and did I want to burn the world right down to its bones.

I met him at the edge of the woods. I handed him my book with certain sections underlined, so that he could perform his interpretations at a later date.

I met him in a terrible state. Both of us quite appalling.

I met him in the café I had designed on the edge of the rushes, by a melancholy river. He said there was always another way that did not involve misery.

I met him in a modernist house open to the public on certain days. I felt that I might vanish, that he would never notice my vanishing.

I met him. I made him, though if he has made me elsewhere I do not know, I cannot bring myself to say.

Helen McClory’s first story collection, On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her second story collection, Mayhem & Death, was written for the lonely and published in March 2018. The poetry is coming. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart. Find her here.

For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.” Helen McClory’s story is beautifully unconventional and it begins with the prompt which makes it a perfect opening piece. 

Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press) – and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.