© BM 2008
He that is strucken blind, cannot forget
The precious treasure of his eyesight lost;
Show me a mistress that is passing fair,
What does her beauty serve but as a note,
Where I may read who pass’d that passing fair:
Farewell, thou canst not teach me to forget.
William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet
Chapter One – Episode 1
It was Sunday evening, around nine; he had been drinking coffee in front of the TV when the phone rang. Sod, he thought, and with coffee in hand went slowly into the next room, eyes still on the television. He arrived just as his answer phone started to cut in with the recorded message. “Hello, I’m sorry, I’m not here to……”
He picked up the handset, “Hi, apologies, I am here, good evening.”
“Alex, it’s Francesca.”
The coffee mug slipped from his suddenly lifeless fingers, and he watched as, apparently in slow motion, it dropped to the vinyl floor, where it bounced, and exploded into several pieces, throwing coffee over most of the kitchen, including the ceiling, and forming a brown steaming tide on the floor.
He had experienced a thousand emotions in two or three seconds. Did hearts actually miss a beat, could time really stand still? God, how did she still have that power, after all these years? His head pounded, and a vein in his right temple started to throb. His mouth was dry and he could find nothing to say. Alex Millar, journalist, author, with nothing to say.
“Alex, are you still there?”
He looked at his kitchen, transformed in seconds from a neat clean room to something resembling a war site in Basra. His mind, struggling to come to terms with the unexpected shock of his caller, wondered how he had apparently managed to fit several pints of coffee into one small mug.
“Yes, I’m still here.” He scarcely recognised his croaked response as his own voice. He rubbed his foot across the coffee spillage, making it worse, and not doing very much for his sock either. He reached with his free hand inside a drawer and removed two tea towels, which he dropped onto the brown flood.
“Say something.” The familiar voice prodded him.
“I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t even sure that you were still alive. It’s been so long since I’ve heard from you, I thought you could be dead.”
“Try hello, how are you.” She ignored the second part of his answer, as she always had ignored anything she had not wanted to hear.
“Hello, how are you?” He responded, his mouth even dryer now. He used his foot to spread the tea towels over the coffee.
“I am well, how are you?”
“Pass,” he grunted. Dumb answer, but she always seemed to be able to deprive him of intelligent speech when it mattered. “OK, I suppose.”
“That’s good. I am pleased.”
“What do you want, Francesca?”
“I bought your book and I have just read it. I enjoyed it, I think it’s really very good.”
“Thanks, very kind of you to say so. Still, you shouldn’t have bought it; I would have sent you a copy if I’d known. If you wanted to buy it, you should have waited for the second edition, I believe that will be the rare one.”
If she knew it was a joke, she ignored it “There’s a lot of you in the book, Simba. Did it take you a long time to write?”
Oh God, he had not been called Simba in a very long while, not since she left, in fact. No, some time before she left, in the crushing pain of their break up. He looked at the faint twin scars on his left arm, and remembered Nairobi.
“All my life, really. The difficult bit was from 1990 onwards”
She ignored that too. She was silent, and he feared she would finish. What could he say?
“It has been a very long time. I didn’t even know if you were dead or alive.” Oh my God, famous author, and all he could find to say was to repeat something he had said thirty seconds before. All right, he was not even famous, not even a bloody writer, if anyone was asking.
“I just wanted to say I enjoyed the book and to congratulate you.”
“I suppose you saw yourself in it, here and there?” His question was off hand, and hesitant. He was afraid that she had seen herself in the dammed thing, and hadn’t liked what she had seen, although all his love for her had gone into it.
He thought he heard a small throaty chuckle, but he was probably imagining that.
“Yes, I think you were kinder to me than I deserved.”
Well, he thought, that’s not so bad.
“It is a strange title, Simba, ‘A mud hut in Mali.’ Does it mean anything? ”
It meant everything, it summed up what he felt for her, but he bypassed the question. He had once said to her “I could live in a mud hut in Mali, if you were there.” Either she had forgotten that, or had chosen not to remember.
“Well, it was not my choice. I wanted to call it ‘The Italian Job’, but the publisher wouldn’t have it, said Michael Caine would sue.” He lied. The choice of title was all his own, but it was better to make a joke of it. Was there any point in opening old wounds at this stage? God knows they had barely closed.
She chuckled, and he was not mistaken this time, he had heard it too many times in the past.
He opened the fridge with one hand, and holding the door with his knee, took out a carton of orange juice. He found his hand was shaking. His throat was parched, and he took several gulps. “What did you really want, Daina?” He had not used that name for years, either, and it sounded awkward.
If she had heard, or even recognised the once familiar intimacy, again she ignored it. “I wondered if the author would sign a copy for me. After all, I have a role in the story, even if it is only a small one.”
“Delighted, I will send you a copy, signed by yours truly. They gave me extra copies to give to all my friends. I got three.” His flippancy did not work either. “And your role was not small. It was pivotal, and definitive.”
If she recognised the compliment, she choose to disregard it. “Or you could sign the copy I already have.”
“OK, send it to me and I will. You will be able to sell it when I become famous, or dead, even if you have to wait thirty years, longer for the fame.”
“Perhaps we could meet and have lunch, and you could sign it then?”
His stomach was a tight ball, and he suddenly realised that he was sweating, and that the vein in his head was again throbbing as if it would explode. He put the carton of orange juice on the work surface, before he dropped that too. He felt flushed, and underneath his armpits he was sticky, and he could smell his own fear.
Oh sweet Jesus, she could do it to him every time, even now. He wanted to say, “What are you doing, what do you want? I haven’t heard from you in a million years, you ignore me when I write. I truly don’t know if you are in England or Italy, or even on the other side of the bloody moon, and now you want to have a literary sodding lunch.” He wanted to say all these things, but he said nothing. He despised himself. He felt that if he simply said, “Oh, fuck off!” she might think more of him. On the other hand, she might just “fuck off”, and this small thread of contact might vanish completely, as it had vanished during these last ten years. And he knew he did not want that to happen again, and that was the fear he could smell.
“Alex, are you still there? What about some time next week?”
“Yes, I’m still here.” He didn’t know if he could handle this. “Next week? Next week for what?”
“To have lunch, of course, silly.”
Tell her to ‘fuck off’, Alex. He knew he couldn’t.
“Yes, that would be fine. Where and when?” He could not believe that he had just said that. Parted for ten years, not having met in all that time, apart from one sad, little, stomach churning half hour, and not a word, nor even a bloody Christmas card in all those years, and here he was again, entwined around her little finger.
They talked a little more, arranging the mechanics, and the cartography of the A24. God, they were talking like normal people, but he did not feel like a normal person. It was done; they would have lunch the following Wednesday. After five years living and loving together, and ten years almost total absence, they would have lunch in a small market town in the south of England, fifteen years and several lifetimes away from the sticky, rancid and deadly Angolan bush where they had met. He thought “God, I must clean the Jag.” Absent-mindedly he peeled off his once white, now brown, dripping socks.
He wandered back, aimlessly, into the lounge, carrying his carton of juice. He ignored the coffee stained kitchen. The television was still on, and he could almost recollect the plot of what he had been watching. He glanced at the clock above the television set, and saw that it was now twelve minutes past nine. Jesus, all that took only ten minutes? Ten minutes, that is all it takes for her to turn my world upside down, again. Ten minutes, after ten long years. His mind was too agitated, his body too restless to sit down once more. He switched off the television and went back into the kitchen, surveyed the carnage, and returned to pacing the lounge. He stopped in front of the cabinets housing his CD’s and DVD’s and looked at the mixed crowd of soft toy animals who resided on the tops of the cabinets. They had all been presents to Francesca, mostly brought back from business trips he had been on. The exception was a battery operated grey elephant who walked, trumpeted, waved his trunk and moved his ears. He had been named Jumbo, an exercise that had required no imagination at all. They had bought Jumbo together in Sarasota in Florida, on their first holiday. She had left them all behind when she moved out, and Alex had not had the heart to dispose of them. He reasoned they had done him no harm, and in any event, they all had names.
“What do you think, Jumbo? What’s she up to?” The elephant just stared at him, his trunk raised high in the air.
“Thank you, that’s very helpful.”
He was nervous, which was not only a surprise, but was ridiculous. For God’s sake, he was a grown man, and had been in many situations where his life had been threatened. Yet, here he was, sixty-eight years of age, sitting in a café, watching the trembling of the fingers of his left hand. He quite deliberately put the hand flat on the plastic tabletop and pressed hard. He stared at it, and counted for fifteen seconds before releasing the pressure. The hand still trembled. Once again, he picked up the Daily Telegraph, and once again, found he was unable to concentrate on what he was reading. He put down the paper, and tried to think, but after some seconds he was aware that he was, yet again, simply staring, unseeing, into the middle distance.
“What? I’m sorry, what did you say?” He looked up at his waitress, small, dark haired and aged about nineteen.
“Would you like any more tea?” She spoke as one might speak to a particularly stupid child.
“No. Sorry, yes, this is cold.”
“Well, it’s been sitting there for twenty minutes, and you haven’t touched it.”
He smiled, somewhat weakly and tried to look apologetic. “You’re right. Please let me have another cup, and I’ll drink it this time, promise! I’ve been thinking.”
She smiled back. “ OK, coming up. A penny for them?”
Alex shook his head. “No, love, they aren’t worth that much.” He folded the newspaper, and carefully laid it on the table beside him. If it was to save his life, he could not recall one item that he had spent the last fifteen minutes reading, or more accurately, not reading. No, the girl had said twenty minutes, and glancing at his watch he saw it was closer to half an hour since he had come into the café. God, poor old Little Chef! Here he was, occupying one of their best tables for thirty minutes, and drinking, or not drinking, one miserable cup of tea. Perhaps he should also have ordered toast, and failed to consume that as well as fail to drink the tea. At least that would have made his visit marginally more profitable for whoever had taken over ownership from Mr. Forte.
He looked at the watch once more, not to check the time, but to remember the occasion he had been given it. When was it? It had been at Christmas, yes, but which one? Things had become very blurred in the last ten years. Was it ‘95 or ’94 perhaps? Maybe he shouldn’t keep wearing it; it always reminded him of her. But, then, so did almost everything else.
The girl returned with his tea. “Make sure you drink it this time.” This was said with mock severity.
He raised both hands, palms outwards. “Don’t worry, I will.” He felt like adding ‘Miss’, but resisted.
What was he doing here, anyway, sitting in a roadside café in Sussex? And why had he left so bloody early? As sure as God made little apples if he had left it later, the traffic would have crippled him. Leave early, he had told himself, and allow yourself plenty of time, just in case. Well, he had done that all right, and the traffic had been all sweetness and light. He sipped his tea, and made a face, no bloody sweetener!
Chapter One – Episode 2 Tomorrow