I followed the street names on tall corners as the car meandered in stops and starts through the vibrant lanes. East 6th, Guadeloupe, South Congress. Locals jumped on cars and made out freely; students pulled up homeless men for the first dance of a waltz, bars sprouted big hands that read all welcome. When they clasped together the place could ferment into a dream.
“Chris stop it, Chris, not now please… Chris!”
A laugh and a scream, Marianne sat with Teddy on the backseat. My wife, she seemed to like it, she chose it. The boy and his mother were watching a video on her phone, eyes wide and mouths pursed, lapping up the easy entertainment. We didn’t exchange anything but practical words between the airport and the hotel, it seemed to suit us both.
We drove past Shakespeare’s Bar, the strangest memories. It pulsed with people as we passed, hands not yet closed but the place still thriving. Two years ago I followed the current into that bar and its possibility. It was a night I didn’t see with significance, just one of many filled with my delirious confusion. A frenzy of corks, tongues, cards and explosions of expression, I was in the centre of the orchestra, maestro with a crowd determined to create waves of pure chaos. When the crowd sang, I choked, it defied any logic, my stupid words then shouted by 500 people. I grinned and felt a wave of heady responsibility. It seemed, then, that I had a job to do.
“Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing, cus every little thing, gone be alright…’
An unplanned group of revellers sang out from the phone, jovial and free in their chorus. They continued to stare.
We pulled into the hotel, four cars in total. Too many. We were vain and improper. The bags were unloading around me, doors slamming, kids jumping– excited, wives complacent, aides helpful but well paid. I sat within myself for a few moments, not clicking into the terse comments from the back seat. I focused on a guard standing close to my door through tinted windows. Carlos, we had met once only months ago. I let my head move towards him, nose now touching the window and my breath adding moisture and obscurity to any chance he might have of seeing me. He stood in great formality, arms folded and overbearing. His whole persona was designed to give an elevated presence among otherwise equals. He was wearing a black suit from head to toe, including shirt and tie. It made sense apart from his belt buckle. I started when I saw it, big and bold with gold and yellow edges, a bright yellow to cast the sun out. It was him, it was the only thing in and around me that was real.
He rested his thumbs in the strained crevice between the hard leather of his belt and black trousers, the bulk of his hands and curled short fingers falling just below his waistline. The hands told the moving crowds around that he was a serious man, a man to be respected and not tested, yet at the same time framed a sunken personality.
My nose pressed harder against the window, now joined by the skin above my eyebrows. The surface was already warm but heated under my touch, condensation palpitated with my breath.
In a way, many ways, it was my fault. My long reach had pulled him into this world and dressed him unremarkably and professionally. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I had caught a magical fish and stripped him of his colours and clan, made him formulaic and replaceable. Somehow this must be changed. In this city, these next few days.
I took my phone to my ear and made to open the door, only letting it down when a couple of people had me in full view. I darted into the hotel lobby and clamoured for a room key from someone, making to avoid all eye contact and expectation. I told Marianne I would see her upstairs. My room was big and luscious, as I walked in the lights greeted me with the most elegant routine. At first there was only a sea blue coming from the bathroom, then with each step every item of furniture was given its own frame. My eyes flitted to a neglected rug. One more step and the room rose to full attention in a wave of electricity. Two more and I was flat on the bed, looking up at the plain white ceiling and seeing nothing.
That evening we went to dinner. We had a long table of 8 or 10, the band and some management. The table bubbled with the excitement of the following days, 10,000 people. They reminisced about the night in Shakespeare’s and even years before, when we spat out three rabbling songs to a vague crowd of drinkers. I only spoke out in faint agreement when someone wanted me to confirm their sentiment. Harry sat next to me cautiously, almost knowing not to say anything. The others – Andy, O’Neill – seemed to go along with the mood of the night
Around us rich tables sat fraternizing, talking the problems of the world away with jolly aplomb. The grate on the doorway was in operation. 143 horizontal blades across it, making it impossible for anything taller than half a centimetre to pass without equalisation. Waiters darted about the place. The starter was a medley of poached egg, asparagus and truffle shavings. Orders were placed with typical confidence.
Undeterred, the waiters proceeded time and time again to line up in front of the door, always exactly one metre away to allow for sufficient velocity to build. From the metre line they would launch unwitting food through the crushing grill of knives. They lined up one by one and took their turn, perfecting their ability to split the morsels with each attempt. A single asparagus, if cooked properly, could reach six or seven pensive mouths. Outside, lips chattered and eyes glinted in ovation of the incoming nourishment.
The diners spoke of business and TV and fame, too distracted to notice their tables white and empty but for alcohol. Crisp cloths draped over each with a fine dining finesse. Polished cutlery waited at the sides of each diner, eight pieces, no less. Their reflections told stories of prim attire, full faces, careful hair. Never of hunger.
Each set of conversation had the guise of a game of softball. A diner composed their unit of speech in isolation, building words together in a conscious ritual. The diner proceeded to forcibly eject the conclusion of their thoughts across the table, a pitch of confidence and poise. If the diner was joined by more than one companion, their pitch could not diminish in the eyes of any one companion. This served to add length and thought to the routine, the pitcher focusing to make a bigger impact with a single unit. The most assured pitches were those to waiters who hopped between commanding tables in opaque obedience.
The grate developed wonderful arrays colour as the evening wore on. Beef Carpaccio, pan-fried pigeon, rose sorbet. The inefficiency of the act was lost on everyone, diners happy in their ball game, pensive mouths outside taking their invitations to eat.
Out in the night I took a cigarette from a box. I fumbled to light the end as quickly as possible, the promise of escape too vivid. The lighter leaped over the end of the stick, flakes of black paper crumbling in its wake. I absorbed the first breath, taking the dark calm into my lungs. The lights and voices receded out of focus.
In my state of stupor, temptation greeted me. She couldn’t have been older than 21 by the bounce of her gait. A composed walk of a woman, yet fresh and new. My desire peaked.
As she passed I said hello and smiled, it seemed to be enough to make her turn around and grin. She replied, and I threw my cigarette aside and began walking next to her along hard and bright paved streets. I tried to evade conversation for as long as possible, looking straight down 5th street and thumbing a lighter in my pocket. After two minutes and as many blocks I lit another cigarette. She kept walking, her right arm three or four inches from my left. I slowed and held it out for her. As she took it she slowed to a halt.
“I try not to smoke and walk.”
She took her time, letting her lungs have sufficient time to absorb anything the stick could offer, and to make me wait. Her face was a soft white, framed by a half length fringe and a thin line of red lipstick. She seemed to be smoking to a regular beat inaudible to me and anyone else.
That night she took me to a place of want, of that ecstasy possible when two humans are one and the differences between them fade away. The lines and control disappeared into this affirming concoction of everything.
Sami was a student, and a nascent interior designer and collector of things. She lived true to her heart. To her, interior design was the beauty with which the city bathed, the skill was to encourage reluctant sparks of inspiration, to ignite ideas into the pages, papers, fabrics and bars of the city. Her responsibility was to create those sanctuaries of the creative process, a designation which she presided over with flamboyant sincerity.
She spoke in jaunted sentences with a deep energy to be savoured.
“In these pieces I can’t see myself. Some people tell me they are beautiful, but when I look back I can’t find my process. They always look to me without much response.”
“Not many people can make a thing that’s beautiful, or even nice.”
“What I see is never enough. Beauty is unenduring. Personality is everything, I need to look around and see my reflection somehow.”
As she slept I let myself drift further into the night, yet wasn’t getting where I wanted to be quickly. Too alive with guilt and pleasure, senses aroused and I couldn’t conceive of a practical way to calm myself into sleep.
No surface was left untouched in her apartment, a maze of imagination. The living room was still bathed in a warm light, despite the hour. The source was the small window above the sofa, where the curtains were only nets. The city was awake with an inviting glow. It signalled only mystery and possibility, a world reaching to invite me to embrace it.
Every ten minutes a conversation from passing crowds danced over the street to enter the room. The language was true and poetic, no matter what the words. Four young men discussing the upcoming election, a couple giggling to the percussion of high heels, a woman recounting the details of her night on the phone, a lone man. I weaved the sounds with the textures and colours in front of me, the notes in their voices fluttered onto squares of fabric with long bars of bright colour. The rhythmic sounds were enough for me to jump from block to block with a natural ease, though I was careful not to use up too much canvas on any one individual. I instinctively placed the women on the red blocks, lines or bars.
In the morning I sat in peaceful quiet. A coffee cup sat on a table in front of me whispering sultry platitudes. The winter sun shone through the leaping spirals of steam. They rose in a fluid colourless motion, only to be quelled by shade almost as quickly after. The gentle consistency was rare and special, something told me it was to be observed properly and considered. The room shrunk.
Sami came through the double doors of the bedroom. Her light bare feet brushed against the hard wooden floor, notes a little too long for an ordinary morning routine.
Perforated. Sultry became disappointing.
I didn’t avert my eyes from the glass as she sauntered toward the kitchen counter in night clothes. Her vie for something was obvious, it wedged against my calm meditation on the glowing steam.
“Thanks for the coffee.”
I kept staring and paused for as long as possible to tell her about the beauty of my new discovery.
“It’s good. How did you make it?”
This wasn’t going to work.
I coughed up a sort of explanation.
“I’m sorry, I have to go. I need to do something. Let’s meet up later, ok?”
She changed completely, not speaking for 10 seconds as she continued to occupy the kitchen. She looked at me once and said only, “ok”, before walking into the bathroom and turning the shower on. Too late now.
Buildings leapt up around me as the car sped through sleepy avenues. Any music had dissolved, the morning now blunt and regular. The crisp air lay in waiting for the scorching afternoon that was bound to follow. I went to a coffee shop on Guadeloupe, the only place I really knew.
The atmosphere was more distinct than usual, its subtle tones entered me and introduced themselves. It pointed out the careful movements of a barista and flowering pastries there for consumption. Were they there out of boredom, industry or art. I hoped the latter. Their bloom and volume would become something pure, accelerating my interest in every measure.
Two policemen walked in as I was wrangling over the words, clawing at some sort of vision and consciousness that was supposed to be there but maintained its place just somewhere. A policeman must find it irritating that uniforms follow them wherever they go, not so much the human that entered as the hat, ripples of responsibility rising in an instant.
A grainy picture of Margaret Thatcher in a sexual embrace with a member of the front bench could only complement the cocktail of rebellion. The men chose the sole coffee shop in Austin with ‘fuck’ in its name. Fuckoffee. Not so much hidden as a slap in the face. The place screaming a natural discard of the rules and homage to creative impulses.
The men entering doing everything that could possibly be expected, ordering a black Americano and a latte, medium, both, while hovering poised at the counter, then proceeding to pay with contactless (most agreeable) and take the Fuckoffee loyalty card, the words “fuck it”, “fuck me” and “fuck you” compromising the conventional government-issued pockets.
As they waited they observed their curious scene and the uneasiness they affected. In their three minutes in this world they never managed to arrive, policemen they were on the street and that they remained.
I looked down at my phone to see an endless scroll of messages, calls and likes. Flicks of vague validation from a global flood of following. I scurried down the screen, my thumb fixed in a repetitive loop which revealed nothing. I knew I was missing things, things that logic told me were important, a breakfast with my family, a radio interview to roll out some old stories, then a queue of smiling, only ever on the surface – almost as quickly as the logic entered, the expectation, the people, the places, the pointlessness, became too much, and disappeared.
A toddler sat across from me, captivated in her surroundings. Abandoned hiking and exploring as if the sofa were the most magical object and the place in that very moment when everything could come together and be entertaining. Gradually then suddenly it was conquered and newer interest became the floor and the table and a paper bag so full of wonderment. To be so of that moment with nothing in the head but the want for now. There could be nothing but admiration for this playful sage. She needed to never change, never stop being impulsive and pure and in awe of each of the little things in the world. The feel of the cold floor, the intrigue and possibility of mixing the water and coffee, the clear and impossible weight of the connection with the mutt, the difference in feeling when more pressure placed on one leg, the reverberations of a single jump.
The biggest possible betrayal and shame would be losing her careless curiosity. A parent should be a simple shepherd. To create a world to survive in with much safety, but never to force a child from the natural instinct to be and react in their chosen way.
Now the milk sat in blobs. The natural outlines created by the weight of the liquid were too unlikely, so they were spread, licked and manipulated. What a marvel that one thing stays and another moves with the same touch.
Harry tracked me down, somehow. He was ever changing and radiant, beautiful. You never know where you are with Harry, or where he was. The movements of our soft planet were more liable to affect him than most others. His deep senses were open, ready to let in goodness and spit that goodness back out in a reflection once again unique.
Outside our seats were two feet from the road. Every so often a vehicle sped along, unconscious, but for the murmurs made in coffee.
We had a great conversation of nothing much at all in effort but lots in substance. He had a natural way with me, full of kind and gentleness. He got me to wake up, to click in and suddenly I felt waves of importance to myself and my new mission. Now so fixed in my mind, Carlos. We had never met before in the real sense, but my affect on him being very real we had met more than most ever would. I disliked my influence more as the day progressed. We decided how to make it right with Carlos and all the people around us, a fantastic joining of people, for once all on the same level with no hierarchical pretence, to make everything ok. Our wholesome mission would liberate them from my miserable clasp. The day would begin to end my turmoil, I believed Harry.
The journey back to the hotel was different to any of those in the last few days. My destination was fixed and necessary, the city no longer lingered but jarred against our deliberate flow. Harry drove with purpose, sitting to my left and navigating the roads with attentive control. The colour of each traffic light provoked a vivid reaction in my mood. Green was perfect, everything was right and our quest was validated. I could calm into the next 100 yards and jump to hopes of the next light being equally fruitful. Orange was the most contentious possibility, neither affirmation nor disapproval, until the next second ticked. The most disastrous sequence became clear when it hit me with a full force of frustration. Twenty yards from a light and it clicked from green, to orange, and then red with an inhuman brutality. The car in front of us, large and American in style, seemed to prophesise and encourage the change, such was the rapidity of its red break lights. Forlorn, the waiting minutes dragged.
We went on as so, the certainty of green no longer giving me calm but perhaps the most anxiety, for it had that outside but significant possibility of becoming orange then red, and causing the most amount of delay.
The hotel entrance arrived in a haze of hope. It was 1pm. By 2 we were to meet in Dixies, opposite the hotel to the left and perhaps a three minute walk. We would have identified where Andy and O’Neill were, we would convey our mission in simple and passionate sentences to not only tell them of this night but of its significance in comparison with our shallow daily quests. This task could be reasonably completed by 1.20pm, then giving us a full 40 minutes to collect together Carlos and the most important but casual acquaintances who would be the pure object of the evening. With the right amount of energy and dedication become great friends by tomorrow.
The hotel lobby shot up from the marble floor, a wide column of corridors spiralling to the distant ceiling. As I entered a trio of willing hotel staff jumped towards me, they spoke firmly …”Sir”…”are you ok?”…”can we…?” I smiled all around and gave as much as I could before working to gather the band in earnest.
We found O’Neill in the bar, writing on a clean notepad. He was easily convinced when Harry and I came with a certain force. He was an accomplished musician and devastating artist when he had the sensibility to dedicate energy to his strings and not some other chemical pursuit. O’Neill was a listener and a fan before anything else, never enamoured with himself enough to take more than a quarter of the attention. When we spoke he listened until the last possible word, for he knew what we were saying better than we ever would.
Andy was harder, seeing himself as everything he should be, an artist and free spirit for whom the dint of stardom was natural. How could it be anything else for a man with such a natural rhythm, the pure ability to react to a mood with a drumstick and turn it into a euphoric experience for all those around… Any instinct I could have to react and pull him back was quelled into subversion by dense and consuming pulses from below us. Today I must succeed in some invite towards humility, even if the argument I took required some inflated filament of his own personal artistic benefit.
In the back of the lobby four phones stood side by side on the wall. They were each attached to the wall and cream in colour, small wooden panels in between. I dialled 418.
A girl answered after seven rings. She was dazed at first but then glad to talk to me. Ella, apparently. We had met. Andy came to the phone. I explained everything we were doing to people, all the wrongs that happened every day to allow us to be free. He kept talking of money and fun. He told me how it must be an unbelievable privilege for anyone to be on the road with us, our concerts and our planes. I told him he was wrong. How he couldn’t be right, we were the only ones who were supposedly truly happy. They only followed instructions, without ever being able to strip away our influence. He talked more about money. I said we had to make it right for our people, it is our responsibility. He had to come this afternoon, and everything we did had to let them free.
In Dixies we mixed into and among each other with a casual frivolity. Our money flowed freely as at least 40 people indulged in the same way that the three or four of us had become so familiar. Andy had arrived a couple of hours after most people. My theory, conceived at a height of enthusiasm and now validated by most of my bandmates, that if we hurtled into the night with equal propensity, us and them, we would at one point become connected, barriers removed and air cleared for all time. I adopted an equally weighted pattern, mixing an interaction bedded in questioning with invites to have another drink.
Among the dizzy hue an old hand sat on the edge of the group, sometimes engaged in conversation, sometimes alone drinking, yet with the steady demeanour of his experience. His hair was white from years on the road, mid length and ruffled, continuing down around his face with a consistent disregard for style. It covered skin of a cold English December, pink and alive with its aversion to the surroundings. His tough stringy body was hugged by a woollen black sweater. The strands of material were more worn down the middle, becoming almost transparent. Despite his slight weight he sat heavy in the armed wooden chair, grounded by unmoving legs and oft folded arms.
Whenever my eyes glanced back to his corner, I felt a twinge of powerless guilt. He seemed unwaveringly sceptical, despite all our good attempts.
My connection to Carlos remained strange and distant for that part of the night. To underplay the significance of him to this act and evening I ensured that we orbited around each other with the required distance of unfamiliarity. The times I broke the rotation were unexpected blips, at the bar or in the bathroom, and I could feel the pressure of the moment rising with the possibility of interaction. This invariably invited a constriction in all of my abilities to socialise. I would edge around the situation, hanging on all the words and movements available in search of an opportunity to say something. Carlos was generally content, going about the evening happily among friends. He was now wearing dark black jeans, the kind with artificial creases, trainers with a combination of grey and black shades, with a plain white t-shirt. He had unquestionable style. There was no space or need in his actions for my voice or thoughts.
The night became early morning as the bounds of chatter dissipated and gave way to conversation hidden beneath five hours of alcohol and meandering. I could see Carlos standing alone. I fought my instinct to appease the situation and walked over.
“Hey, I’m Jack.”
“I know. Carlos. Good to meet you.” He reached out his right hand.
“Mind if I join you for a quick drink?”
“Sure man. What are you on?”
“Let’s take some of that Jameson?”
I asked the bartender to line up two shooters. Without speaking, we each took a slow look at the glasses and found our grip. Lifting them to two thirds of the way to our mouths, we paused and made eye contact, as if using each other to psyche out the alcohol. We drained the glasses in one and hit them on the bar. A song by The Doors slipped onto the jukebox. I noticed a small sip of whiskey I had left. Its amber hue reflected down through the thick base of the glass. Carlos noticed it too. I looked up at him, without expression, then it, then emptied the glass.
“This is a good time, right?” I said, taking a quick glance around.
“Yeah man. Me and the boys aren’t complaining, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, that’s great. Well, you know, let me know if you guys need anything, right?”
“Sure man, cheers Jack.”
I walked off.
Back in my hotel room I lay flat on the bed. Marianne was asleep beside me. The stark white ceiling was now a dark grey. By the same time tomorrow 10,000 would have heard me sing. As usual, they would become a snake-pit of joyous fervour but would know nothing.
Tom is an MA student at Goldsmiths, University of London. He’s based in Bermondsey and originally from Stoke-on-Trent. This is his first published short story. He’s currently working on a novel, and when he grows up he hopes to become an infrarealist.
If you enjoyed A Day, leave a comment and let Tom know.
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