by Mike Fox
Sunset. I leant on a single rail, looking down at the coarse stones and muddy sand as ripples of spume lapped slowly towards where I stood, fed by a distant, rising sea. A cluster of timbers, blackened and braced, jutted from the water in front of me as if they’d been there forever, obstinately refusing to rot. I felt the chill that can seep into you, even at the end of a stifling day, when you stand by a river as it darkens.
It was one of those strangely private places you wouldn’t expect to find in London. A ledge concealed from the walkway above by a raft of old decking, accessible by narrow concrete steps, the lowest green with lichen. Everything about it spoke of desertion: even after a few minutes alone there I could sense the ghosts of vanished industry, the desolate hush of a vibrant world abandoned.
This was where I waited on the odd occasions she decided we would meet. The venue was of her choosing, and never changed. The time itself depended on the point when, in the early moments of dusk, a tide turned back towards the city.
‘I like things that coincide,’ she said, when I recognised this pattern and commented on it.
So it was not as if she would phone randomly, though often it felt like that. There was a perverse symmetry in the arrangement. But she could afford to be whimsical, if it pleased her. We both knew that once bidden I would come.
It began with sex. Or almost—the first time I was too nervous, while she just laughed and shrugged. But soon there were other factors, things I couldn’t quite define. Something about how it felt simply to be there with her compelled me to return: our lives two circles, almost separate, only briefly intersecting in that time and place. After a while it was what I didn’t know about her, as much as what I might hope for, that kept bringing me back. Perhaps also, in the bleak purity of that setting, a sense that things lost might somehow be regained. Maybe it was the same for her.
I heard footsteps, and turned to see her skipping lightly down the worn stone treads, wearing trainers and a plain summer dress, as if she’d just stepped off the tube. I turned towards her and she pressed herself close and kissed me, then stood back. She was always like this: present, immediate, almost exultant. We made love against the wall within an alcove of yellow stocks and crumbling mortar, out of sight of any passing river craft. At some point, for a few moments, I forgot where and who I was.
Occasionally we would talk afterwards, but this time she left almost immediately. We had an agreement: she would go first, and I would not follow. As always, my thoughts wandered after her, craving more.
Long, mundane hours at my new workplace, sandwiched between the abrasive shunt of the morning and evening rush hours—this was the rest of my life. And then the unimaginable quiet of a city night, lying in a single bed on the ninth floor of what my family would call a ‘posh block’, just north of the law courts. Once in a while I might hear the sound of kegs echoing down into a pub cellar, or a siren, somewhere below, fading towards distant streets. Otherwise nothing. With the silence came a sort of peace, the kind you might acknowledge in retrospect, forgetting all the other feelings that once attached to it. I could leave my working self behind there.
Or not quite. I sometimes found myself believing that everyone and everything I’d encountered during the day was crucial to someone or something, with me the sole exception. London, before you get to know it, moves about you swiftly and relentlessly. Everything reconfigures while you look for a way in: plenty of doors, few entrances. I had to do something. But if a dating app is not the answer to loneliness, it will put you in the orbit of plenty who seek an answer.
I’d never had to reach out before—born and brought up in a small town, a place where I knew, or thought I knew, almost everyone. Now there were different rules, few of them stated. My colleagues, the only people I spent much time with, were older, established; the patterns of their lives, as I imagined them, enviable and unattainable. The onus was on me to find some sort of opening.
She was the first person who agreed to meet me. Ridiculously, I wondered if this was how things were done here. I had no bearings. And when I reached the place—her directions were quite specific—I could hardly believe that this was what she intended.
Over time she told me things, thoughts, ideas, memories of childhood, but nothing that would locate her in the present moment. I learned that her parents were religious, and that she rarely saw them, that she had once wanted to study music, but had been channelled in another direction, that she had been a very careful child.
‘What changed, then?’ I asked, when she said this.
She looked at me. She had a way of opening her eyelids slightly when she wanted to make a point.
‘Nothing changed, I’m still careful. Much more than you might think. But sometimes I’m willing to back a hunch.’
‘Am I a hunch then?’
‘You were at the start, but just in case I checked you out.’ She looked away and I knew not to ask any more. All the power was with her.
And yet I kept returning. After a while I even began to go there on my own: the context itself begging questions. Why the confluence of tide and dusk: the gradual swell of water, the slow ebbing of day—one approaching, the other receding? Like, I thought, the rhythms of seduction and abandonment.
I like things that coincide. What was she saying? Our lives now coincided, but not through simple coincidence. I tried to make openings, telling her about myself, hoping that she might follow and share. She would listen, sometimes nodding as if she could sense meaning beyond my bare words. But she rarely asked for more, or offered more.
I was thinking of her when I tripped and cut myself, returning from work. It was a hot day and I’d rolled up my sleeves. As I tried to break my fall, my forearm came down heavily on some shards of broken glass. I had stuffed a sweater in my rucksack, and pulled it out now to stem the bleeding. An elderly passer-by directed me to the nearest hospital, just a few streets away, and offered to come with me. I thanked him and said I’d be okay to walk there alone. He looked at me then nodded, and it was only as I walked away that I felt the full extent of the pain.
When I reached it, the hospital was huge and modern, with a broad, open atrium from which you could see each landing above like the ribs of a skeleton. I followed signs that led me down an open staircase to A&E. At a desk to the side the receptionist pointed to a machine that fed a numbered ticket, and told me to sit nearby until I was called. The waiting area comprised of smooth concrete, moulded floors, strip lighting, bucket seats. My arm throbbed under the sweater as I kept it pressed over the fresh wound. After an hour of sitting there I began to wonder if I should have tried to bandage it at home.
Then the plate glass door swung open and she entered briskly, taking a moment to speak to the receptionist, before striding over to press the lift button. I found myself staring at her small figure. She was wearing dark slacks and a plain grey jacket. A plastic cord holding an identity card hung round her neck. The lift doors began to open and suddenly she turned and looked in my direction, but without recognition. Then her eyes widened in an expression I recognised, and she stepped inside. I watched as the doors closed.
I stood and went over to the receptionist. ‘Not long now,’ she said, looking up.
‘No, sorry,’ I said. ‘Who was the person who just got into the lift?’
She looked at me curiously.
‘Dr Paston—she’s one of the new registrars.’
I was trying to take this in when my name was called. The wound was cleaned and dressed, and I was given a tetanus jab near my hip. It ached with each step I took for the rest of the day.
I lay awake that night aware that I’d lost something, struggling to know what it was. The hospital environment was sterile, efficient, devoid of individuality. There, the plain cut of her clothes and her ‘on duty’ posture created the effect of a uniform, enhancing her power, reducing her uniqueness. Even in those few moments I recognised the drivenness in her movements, the aura of competence; the sense of someone imbued in a setting governed by rules and protocols. I’d never dreamt she might spend her days like that.
I compared this to the person I’d met on that neglected ledge by the darkening water: just as swift, even as decisive, but also freer, younger, almost girlish. Perhaps what she found there—seclusion, disinhibition, a sort of sharing—was her antidote to the mixture of scrutiny and anonymity in that workplace, where little would go unnoticed, but much remain unexpressed.
Then I remembered her words, I’m still careful. Perhaps that was it: in both settings she held the authority, was the person in control, the one who could make the situation work for her.
I feared I might never see her again—that she might think our relationship, whatever it had been, had been violated by the fact of a circumstance she hadn’t initiated.
But she phoned the following week, and we had the same brief conversation, almost.
‘Meet me as usual tomorrow at eight-fifteen, then we can go somewhere else.‘
Something different was going to happen. I got there early, perhaps seeking reassurance from the usual combination of creeping tide and dimming sky.
When she arrived, she stood at the top of the steps and beckoned me.
‘I’ve booked a table nearby so we can talk,’ she said, when I joined her on the pavement. We followed the riverside path for about ten minutes, saying little. It felt strange to be walking beside her, as if I was breaking a rule, and she somehow a different entity. As we left the stagnant docking bays behind, the towpath wound towards a residential area, and we continued until we came to a small bistro, with a few empty tables set outside on a raised forecourt.
‘This is it,’ she said. She gave her name to a waiter who settled us at one of the tables closest to the river.
‘Order whatever you want.’ She looked down at her menu. ‘You’re my guest.’
‘I want to know what you want from me.’ The words just came out.
She raised her eyes and held mine silently for a moment, then almost smiled. ‘I’m interested in people who look as though they might fall through the cracks.’
‘Is that how you see me?’
‘But isn’t it true—you’re not at home here, are you?’
‘Everybody has to find their way at the start—it doesn’t mean I’m about to get lost.’
But I said this knowing she had seen the truth; that all I had were crowded days and restless nights, both empty. She continued to look at me, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that she could read anything I might think. At that moment the waiter came to take our order. She gestured for me to choose the wine. Once we were alone again I continued.
‘Anyway, even if I am like that, why would it interest you—someone who’s “fallen through the cracks”?’
‘Because people like that—like you—know the pain of life.’
‘Everyone knows the pain of life. It’s part of the package.’
‘There’s a difference between feeling it and really knowing it. You know it. You wear it on your sleeve.’
‘Well if I do, what’s so great about that?’
‘It makes you more real. You’re not shallow, are you?’
‘Perhaps we both are, or why would we do what we’ve been doing? And I would have thought you’d see enough pain in a hospital.’
‘A hospital is a sanitised space.’ Suddenly there was a defensive note in her voice. ‘But it’s taught me that everyone looks for love in different ways.’
We were silent for a moment, and it came to me that something had happened in her past, and, just perhaps, she saw me as a pathway back.
‘They look in different places too,’ I said. ‘Why did you really choose somewhere like that?’
‘I told you, I like things that coincide. You can see more as it gets dark—a lot gets hidden in daylight. The opposite to what people think. And just look at everything that’s left when the tide’s still out, all the stuff that used to mean something. It’s just other peoples’ lives, the bits they couldn’t control or hang onto. That tells you a lot.’
‘But most of it’s rubbish.’
‘And they didn’t want to hang onto it.’
‘Of course they didn’t. That’s the whole point.’
‘Someone’s hurt you,’ I said.
She looked away for a moment, as if she was looking inside herself.
‘It ended some time ago. And it doesn’t hurt any more. Sometimes what you lose sets you free. That’s what I’m trying to say.’
‘Sets you free for what?’
She pushed her hair back and looked straight at me again before answering.
‘To find something else.’
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath and Outliving the Muse (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story Voices (Ayaskala) was nominated for Best of Net 2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk.