In the bedroom, Garrett was doing sit-ups while holding a magazine, and telling Amber why he couldn’t possibly come with her to the protest.
“It’s not as if there’ll be no libraries left,” he said without breaking rhythm. He only spoke at the peak of each curl, so his words came in gasps of two or three syllables as his hip flexors activated, his chest rose to meet his knees, and his eyes neared the page for a moment. “They’re closing a couple and changing the opening hours. They won’t exactly be overflowing.” This coincided with his final sit-up of the set; the word ‘overflowing’ had the grunting, heavy force of a conclusion. He lay on his back, breathing hard, staring up at the pale ceiling. A lone bead of sweat rolled towards his eye and he blinked it away.
“They’re replacing the staff with volunteers as well,” said Amber. But just then she couldn’t recall quite why this was the outrage she had, when she strode into the bedroom, known it to be. Garrett often had that effect on her: reducing her fierce multi-pronged conviction to a candyfloss preference for librarians to be paid.
In any case, her final appeal had been out of duty, not expectation. Perhaps if all of Wandsworth’s public libraries were threatened with total and imminent closure, but a few administrative tweaks and efficiency measures? Fat chance. Garrett had always had a taste for the grand, the absolute – when he proposed he told Amber he would kill himself if she rejected him. She had half believed it.
Garrett had resumed his sit-ups. How could he read like that? It was dizzying. “I’m going, anyway,” said Amber. “Why do they keep making those?” she added, gesturing to the Men’s Health in his hands. “Surely its readers know how to do a press-up by now?” It was a cheap shot she had first heard somewhere else, but it lanced something in her.
“See you later. Love you.”
“Love you,” said Garrett, his teeth clenched and rectus abdominis burning.
After an hour of steady drizzle and polite disinterest, eleven of the twelve protestors were ready to call it a day. The sole exception was Beatrice, who had brought placards and flasks of tea (the placards were unexpected; they depicted a book with a sad face and a single tear. Everyone agreed they were very good, particularly with the campaign acronym that ran below the anthropomorphised hardback).
“Save our books! Save our books!” The protestors were now huddled together like chicks in the thickening rain. In their cagoules they could be mistaken for a lost group of ramblers. Beatrice patrolled the slicked pavement in front of the library indefatigably, bellowing and thrusting damp A5 fliers at the few passers-by.
Leafleters and leafleted alike were glad that the nearest bin was around the corner, hidden from the protestors’ view.
Amber jostled her sign a little to show willingness as she saw a man approaching, then stopped when he crossed the street before he reached them. Beatrice had drawn the placards herself, and somehow on Amber’s a line sloped down when it should have sloped up, so it looked like someone had wrenched a corner out of shape. Which wouldn’t have been a bad symbol for the protest, but it was also a little embarrassing: someone might think Amber had drawn it.
“I think we’re going to go now,” said a couple. Hamish, was that his name? Amber had never seen his partner before. With polite little grimaces they held out their placards to Beatrice, who replied without breaking stride.
“Give them to the others.”
“Actually, I need to go too.”
“I should be going too,” said Amber, as the window of blameless opportunity opened.
“Oh, well, OK. Fine.” Beatrice snatched the placards from them one by one until they were all held tight in her fists. Amber felt bad, but not too bad: she’d been there, hadn’t she? And she did need to get going if she was going to be on time to meet Maria for brunch.
Brunch! That had been an unexpected addition to her late 20s. All that bruschetta! It was indecent, and crumby, and once a splodge of tomato had fallen onto her white shirt, and its bright redness had resembled an entry wound.
Other unexpected developments of her late 20s included only phoning her parents on the bus and having an affair.
It had been a year ago, the affair – a bouquet of a word, so much warmer than its hard-nosed cousin ‘cheated’. It had been a sad, grey, limp thing that she had nevertheless wanted to care for. There had been coffee that tasted of salt, and guilty exercises in make-believe conducted across the plastic tablecloth in the café near his house.
If they ever made a film of her life, they would have to find some other settings. You could only have so many cafés.
Amber and Maria tried to do brunch once a month, although the last time had been three months ago. On Amber’s suggestion they had gone to a vegan place in central London, where the staff serenely bowed and glided around the place. Maria had been sceptical, and when their food arrived she sprinkled over her plate little pieces of chorizo from a small tub in her bag.
“Stop it,” Amber hissed, although the juicy chunks were only showing up the flaccid wetness of her lentil salad. “You’ll get us kicked out!” They weren’t kicked out, although the bill didn’t arrive when they first asked for it, which prompted Maria to stage-whisper, “Don’t they want our money?” Amber, who had eventually accepted a couple of spicy, meaty additions to her meal, wondered whether their notes had somehow been tainted by their lack of commitment the café’s cause (they had not, it transpired).
That month it was Maria’s turn to choose, so they were going to somewhere new between Tooting Broadway and Collier’s Wood. On the bus Amber left a voicemail for her parents, then settled for reading the adverts out of the rain-speckled windows to kill time. Snack Confidently, read one, on a large billboard near some traffic lights. As if shyness regarding inter-meal grazing was a chronic affliction in modern Britain. There was a loose connection there, something about snacking confidently having gotten us into this mess in the first place – but the bus jolted forward as the light turned green and the thought was torn from her.
At the bus stop where she got off was a film poster. It was a favourite past-time of hers to read the critical praise and construct scenarios in which it had been selectively presented. This one was easy: the film was described as ‘a triumph’, which needed only an extension of ‘of mediocrity’ to be subverted. Harder were those posters that declared more effusive praise, such as ‘a magnificent performance’ or ‘one of the films of the year’. These generally required hopes to be raised beforehand (‘It clearly has pretensions of…’) before being dashed (‘unfortunately it is nothing of the sort’), a workaround Amber had never quite felt satisfied by.
She was greeted at the door by a young man in a Heath Ledger t-shirt who seemed oblivious to the phonic possibilities of his workplace’s name.
“Welcome to Route N Tooting,” he intoned dully, before showing Amber to a table with a wooden spoon standing upright from a beer bottle in the middle of it. Maria was yet to arrive. A newspaper had been left on the seat, and Amber glanced at its headline (a barista had drawn a swastika in someone’s latte foam) then looked around the café. From her seat, if she craned her neck a little, she could see into the kitchen area. She hated that. She supposed it was so you could see the process: we’ve got nothing to hide! But it put her on edge. She felt as if she was expected to be alert for any health and safety violations: uncovered hair, a detached blue plaster, earrings. That man just rinsed his hands without any soap. Was that OK? Who could she ask?
“Sorry sorry sorry!” Maria breathlessly slid into the seat opposite Amber. The sour heat of hangover emanated from her, and her sunglasses confirmed her state. Their brunches, always on Saturdays, were often spent by one or other of them in a post-alcohol fug, and Amber prepared herself for Maria to recount stories of her drinking to interjections of ‘Ooh’, and ‘Oh god,’ and, at appropriate points, forced dry laughs. What was she like?
But today Maria wanted to talk about anything other than the previous night.
“Did you see that thing about the swastika in the coffee? So weird. Why would anyone do that?” Despite the interrogative mood, this wasn’t intended to start a discussion; they were simply statements of what Maria thought. Amber felt narrow, constricted, a tightly-pulled drawstring. She could hear herself talking too loudly, reacting too quickly, and too often having no response but “Well!” and a desperate smile. Well!
The man in the Heath Ledger t-shirt took their orders: eggs benedict for Amber, and toast with a berry jam for Maria.
“Who do you think was the second person to eat an egg?” asked Maria suddenly. “I mean, if you think about it, the first person must have got ill. Because they ate it raw.”
Amber thought about it. “I suppose. And what about berries? They can make you unwell.”
“Mm.” Maria was happiest when imparting new knowledge, or posing questions that had no answer but offered unusual, quirky takes on the world. Their last brunch had included consideration of whether there was any country in the world these days where no-one was awake, as well as a monologue (that Amber hadn’t been sure how seriously to take) about opera being a cover for upper-class debauchery and only seeming so dull to avoid the riff-raff’s interest.
“Hellooo? Anybody there?”
“I was asking, how’re things with you?”
“Oh, right, well I’ve been doing lots of mag work recently,” said Amber, rummaging through the last few months for any stories that didn’t involve learning a new Photoshop trick or meeting a last-minute deadline. “I went to a personal brand surgery last month?”
Maria’s eyes lit up. “Ooh tell me about that. Did you lie on the table and declare ‘time for some surgery!’? Or bring a scalpel?” It was a skill, really, and maybe necessary for a freelance lifestyle journalist, to make yourself the pivot around which everything moved. But as Amber explained about the bottles of ‘air-chilled aqua’ and the over-familiar workshop leader, a dry pressure began to build and pulse. Although she was talking, it was still really about Maria.
Maybe this was how things changed, Amber thought as their food arrived. They’d met as freelancers, counselling each other over bottles of Blossom Hill that while work may be infrequent, at least their children would recognise them. Only neither of them had children, and they had long since graduated to better wine. So where was the monthly paycheck?
She took a large bite of egg.
“Do you want to know what I’ve been up to?” said Maria, having waited patiently for Amber to finish. “I’ve got a new gig – writing dating profiles! Imagine! People send me their photos and a list of what they like and don’t, and I turn it into a profile! I’ll read you one.” She scrolled through her phone for a few moments. “Here we are: ‘I am not to be trusted in bookshops’. Isn’t that a great line?”
“Who pays you for that?”
“People who can’t get a date, I guess.”
It was a good line, thought Amber. What would hers be? I require careful nurturing, like a rhododendron. Was that right? She had never been good at gardening. The plants that boyfriends had given her had wilted and died, which she took with relief as signs of incompatibility. Garrett had yet to buy her a plant, so she made do with reading the condition of the lettuce leaves when he made her a sandwich, which were always fresh and crisp. She suspected him of wasting food.
They didn’t say much after that. The flurry of conversation seemed to have exhausted Maria, and the pressure in Amber’s head had only intensified. After they had paid and promised to do it again next month, Amber decided to walk home: she needed the confirmation that her body still existed. She felt hollowed, scooped out, as if all her organs had been pulled from her. The only thing she could be sure was still there was her heart, which she could feel knocking against her ribcage.
At university, she and her boyfriend had only ever said ‘I love you,’ never ‘I love you too,’ so that it was always a statement, never a response. How strange, then, that years later she and Garrett would, without discussion, do the same thing. And how strange, too, that when she came in, soaked by fine rain, she would hear his staccato bursts of laughter through the wall, the television volume too low to carry so it sounded like he was laughing at nothing at all.
Jamie Thunder lives, reads, and writes in south London, and tries to behave better than the characters in his stories. He writes at http://asintheweather.wordpress.com and tweets as @jdthndr.