FICTION: These Persons Not Present by Andrew Leach

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You slide your hand under the pillows. As it travels across the sheets like a great hovercraft traversing a snowfield, white and bumpy where creased ravines and folded glaciers have been wrought deep from sleep, you feel the tiniest grains of sand. Or maybe they’re crumbs fallen from digestive biscuits or morning toast from any one of a number of days. They snag on your palm like stones but you leave them be, lacking the will or the energy to sweep them further than from one acre of bed to another. Some spaces under the pillow are jungle hot and others are cool as a late autumn. In an oasis you touch something hard and gnarly. You investigate further, your blind hand curling around an artefact left behind by someone. You remember that the someone can only have been Cassie with the green eye shadow and the short dark hair and the small heart-shaped birthmark on her hip and the nose stud, who you last saw four days ago. You pull whatever it is out and into the air and you hold it in front of your face before opening your eyes, slowly and deliberately. You’re holding a toy. It’s a plastic model of Ariel, the Little Mermaid, and you know it’s from a McDonalds Happy Meal although you’re not aware of Cassie eating anything other than sushi. Ariel stares back at you, her painted eyes looking through you from underneath her mane of red and you’re holding her by her tail of lurid green. The sunlight sneaks in through the open window and peers voyeuristically under the blind and it smears the walls in outside. You close your eyes.

You wonder what the time is. You extend your arm like some languid crane, up, unfurling out of the duvet and into the awakening air, and it falls to the side where it thrashes nakedly among the bedside table seeking your watch. You can’t locate the watch but you feel a water glass and your hand moves it and you don’t know how close it is to the edge of the table now so you take your hand away and leave it laying on the duvet like a dead fish.

A car pulls up in the street below in a sudden rush of engine and the roar of a radio. The driver kills the engine and you hear the handbrake creak upwards. They sit listening to Radio Four and you wonder who the fuck listens to Radio Four in an open windowed car at drill volume at whatever time in the morning this is, for you assume it is still morning. The radio says that the McLibel verdict has gone the way of the company but that the company’s name has been dragged through the mud, even though they won. You wonder how it can be that people are able to say what they like about a corporation and that when the corporation successfully sues them in a court of law that corporation is still somehow left tainted and you know that no one in your circle of friends will agree with you. The radio says that they hope to be speaking with a spokesperson from McDonalds shortly but in the meantime here to discuss the verdict from the ministry of agriculture, fisheries and food is and you wonder if it’s your father but it’s not his voice.

You run your thumb over Ariel’s head, feeling the hard shelf of her hair and the benign stab of her nose. Her hands are folded across her chest and the twin notions of your father and of mermaids brings back stories of lost boys and pirates and the mocking laughter of the mermaids at the lagoon and how Peter Pan would terrify you in your father’s gentle, sleepnow voice before he became too busy to be home by bedtime and then too busy to come home at all.

Outside a woman says Hiya and a car door slams shut and the radio is turned down a little and pulls away, dropping its syllables out of the window and down the street like confetti.

You need the bathroom. You push off the duvet and open your eyes, swing your legs down onto the floor. Your feet feel the familiar rough weave of the red and gold striped rug beside the bed. You run a hand over your face and try to manipulate your features into some kind of awake. You negotiate the boarded wooden floor, stepping around piles of books, a guitar with two broken strings, an ashtray that needs emptying, some scattered CDs, a sheepskin coat that’s reclined in front of the empty fireplace since March like a disappointed dog. You place Ariel on the mantelpiece beneath the framed poster of King Lear at Stratford and she looks at you like an accomplice. You step into yesterday’s boxers and pull them up, open the door to the landing. In the bathroom you pee, clean your teeth, wash your face and stare into the mirror. There are lines that weren’t there before, you’re sure, although it’s probably just lack of sleep. Leaving your teens behind has been a drag. You run your hands through your hair and think about getting it cut. Rub some moisturiser into your face.

On the landing you meet Alex. He’s dressed in a Bart Simpson T-shirt and cut-offs and he’s smoking a joint. He says Hey man, have you heard? and you say Heard what?

He says that girl. Carrie or something, the cute one with the nose piercing, and you say Cassie and he says Yeah. She’s missing, no one’s seen her for, like, a week. It’s weird, he says, she’s not been to lectures and she missed Richard’s birthday drinks.

You say you thought she was going away for a while, she said she was thinking about Mexico or Cuba or somewhere.

He says Yeah?

I’m sure that’s what she said, you say, and he says When?

Three or four days ago, you say.

He says You saw her three days ago?

Maybe four, you say. A few days.

He says Oh, right, sweet, man, and he fist bumps you and goes into his room and you go back into yours.

You wipe under your arms with a deodorant stick and you put on a denim shirt. Some of its buttons are fastened and you pull it over your head like a sweater. You haul up a pair of black jeans. Your watch isn’t on the bedside table and you find it on the floor under a Kleenex. The water glass is nowhere near the edge and you think so much for judgement.

*

Later you’re all in the café bar, you and Alex, Lottie, Fee, Richard and The Greek who isn’t Greek at all but is studying classics. Lottie’s saying something about Cassie, that it’s just so totally unlike her, she’s always such a planner. You’re listening to Beetlebum drift across the counter and you’re trying to get the attention of the girl behind the bar without standing up from the table and you realise that you’re going to have to go and actually stand at the bar even though they’re not busy, when Alex says that you saw Cassie three days ago.

Lottie says What? Where?

Could have been four days, you say.

Fee says I thought no one had seen her for, like, about a week.

About a week? you say. What, about five days, six? Seven? and she says Yeah, about that.

Richard says So when did you see her?

You say Four days, maybe five I think. Could be longer, I’m not really sure. Maybe about a week. We went to that showing of the Herzog thing together.

Fee says That was over a week ago.

Well that was when I saw her, you say.

Lottie says Did she say anything and you tell her that she’d said about going away for a while, Panama or Chile or somewhere.

You stand and go to the bar, buy half a dozen bottles of Sol, each with a piece of lime wedged into the neck like some fat bug being devoured by an exotic plant, as that’s what everyone seems to be drinking. When you get back to the table the Greek is saying how he once went to Cassie’s room and she had, like, twenty toys from McDonalds Happy Meals lined up along a shelf and Fee says She was so cute, as if she’s already dead and we’re getting ready to move on.

*

Your father calls and asks if you could join him for lunch in a couple of days’ time. You’re sitting at your desk writing the last essay of term and listening to the rain haphazardly hurl itself against the old single pane window in random percussive bursts like faraway machine gun fire. The desk is covered in books and pieces of paper and you’re writing sections of the essay longhand then typing them up into your laptop when you’re happy with them. He says he’s already asked your sister but she can’t make it and he’d be grateful if you’d be there. You ask where and he tells you and you go to say you’re busy but you can’t think of anything plausible and you hear yourself say Yeah, sure.

Thank you, he says and then adds that his brother’s going to be there with his wife and daughter and you think how you haven’t seen your aunt and uncle in a long time, probably not since before you began university.

Cool, you say. You glance over at the Lear poster to where Ariel stands and her wide eyes look surprised that you’ve accepted the invitation. You think maybe you could give her to your cousin who must be eleven or twelve by now. You wonder if twelve is too old for a plastic mermaid toy and you realise that you really don’t care anyway.

And then he says There’s someone I’d like you to meet and you know it’s his new lover and he’s searching for a way to tell you and you say again, Yeah, sure, meaning that he doesn’t have to say any more right now. He confirms the date and time and tells you the name of the restaurant and how to get there and you scribble the details in the margin of your essay and he’s gone, like it’s mission accomplished.

You turn back to your notebook but you’ve lost your train of thought. You lay down your pen and pick up a packet of cigarettes, walk over to the window and lift the sash. You take a cigarette from the pack and light it and stand blowing cumulus clouds out at the day. Every so often the wind throws handfuls of rainwater at you and you close your eyes and smile, like you’re on the deck of a ship and you’re standing there smoking and looking for mermaids. When you’ve finished the cigarette you flick the butt out into the street and you watch it arc to the ground, giving off tiny sparks as it flies through the air like a rocketship. You can imagine it hissing as it crashes into the glistening pavement. Your face is wet and the front of your shirt has turned from light blue to dark. You pull down the sash and you walk over to the fireplace. You pick Ariel up and you lift her to your lips.

*

You’re a few minutes late to the restaurant, having decided you could remember the address and didn’t need to write it down, but when you’ve walked the length of Kingly Street you realise it’s not there. You ask a black cab driver and he says you need King Street and he offers to take you. It’s starting to spot with rain and it’s warm and the idea of walking is miserable so you get in and tell him you only have ten pounds. It’s a short journey across Piccadilly and when he pulls up at the restaurant and tells you the fare’s seven eighty you give him the ten and say Keep the change, like a big shot, and for some inexplicable reason you say No worries, buddy, when he thanks you.

Inside you immediately see your father among a small group of people. He looks different somehow and then you realise it’s his shirt. He only ever wears plain shirts, white or light blue or pale pink, generally with a tie, but today he’s wearing an open-necked shirt that’s patterned and predominantly purple.

Your aunt hugs you and kisses your cheek and you say something apologetic about your face being so hot and sweaty because it’s so humid outside and she calls you silly and beams. Your uncle grips your hand a little too firmly and says Long time no see, long time no see and he fixes you in his steely glare as if sighting a deer. Their daughter smiles and says Hi and you think about the Ariel figure in your coat pocket and you decide that maybe she’s too old for it but maybe you’ll save it for later and see how it goes and you say Hi back. Then your dad’s saying This is Laura and a small young woman half your father’s age who looks like a bird wearing glasses and a polka dot dress says Hello and you shake her thin, limp hand before giving your Dad a hug. You say Mum says hello a little too loudly, although you’ve not spoken to your mother for over a week and when you last did she didn’t mention your father at all. His shirt is floral, a purple and black print with highlights of pink and you know that it was a present from his lover without being told.

You sit and a waiter hands you a menu. You flip through a few pages of indecipherable French calligraphy and say My, this looks good, what’s everybody having, maintaining a volume that prevents anyone else from speaking. Your uncle says he’s chosen the foie gras and then the veal and you say You know what, Uncle Ed, that sounds terrific, I think I’ll join you in both of those, announcing as if you’re delivering lines in a play and you feel your cousin recoil a little and her chances of leaving with Ariel diminish.

Your father’s clearly told his lover which college you’re at because she says So how are things at Pembroke?

Well, you say, someone’s gone missing and she says Oh no, that’s awful.

Everyone looks at you like it’s your fault and you compose your face into an expression of sincerity, lowering your brow and slightly pursing your lips and you nod solemnly and say Yes, it’s dreadful, over a week ago now.

Your aunt asks if you knew the missing person, conjuring another murder weapon. You say Not well, a bit. You say that the last you heard she’d been talking about going away to Brazil or Peru or somewhere and maybe she’s not missing at all but she’s just gone to South America.

Your father’s lover says There are a lot of interesting things happening in Brazil right now in terms of the environment. And there was that oil spill, she says, and you realise you’ve already forgotten her name.

You say Well she is very much into environmental issues, she’s always talking about the environment, or so you’ve heard, and you decide to give this woman whose name you’ve forgotten the benefit of the doubt.

Your uncle says Christ not another one, it’s all I hear about these days, global warming this, global warming that and your cousin says Dad please, not again. Your uncle addresses your father and says You agree with me, don’t you and your father says Let’s just say I remain to be convinced. Typical New Labour, your uncle says, waiting to see which way the wind blows and everyone laughs except your cousin who twists her napkin into a rope and bites her bottom lip.

You think that the moment’s about to pass and everyone will move on from saving the blah blah planet or your father’s promotion to the position of junior minister in the government ministry of blah blah and blah to something more interesting, like whether anyone else has heard the new Depeche Mode album, except your father’s lover says something that keeps it going and you zone out, watching opinions being passed back and forth along with the salt and pepper. You stare at a framed picture on the wall above your father’s head, a seascape watercolour and you look for mermaids and from somewhere you hear someone say So what do you think of the foie gras and you realise they’re talking to you and you hear yourself say Excellent, excellent, although it isn’t excellent at all, it’s too cold and too firm and too peppery and it’s making you feel slightly nauseous, or maybe that isn’t the dish at all.

Lunch passes in a haze of small talk in which anecdotes are tied around your neck like rocks. Eventually your father and his brother tussle over the bill like two old bull elephants and in the end they agree to split it fifty fifty. When you stand to leave you realise that you may have had more of the Pinot Noir than you thought. Outside there are hugs and someone says that they hope your friend is ok and you say that you’re going to walk to the train station and get some air. Your father presses five folded twenty pound notes into your hand and you thank him and push them deep into the pocket of your trousers. After more goodbyes you stride purposefully into the distance. You have no idea which direction you’re heading in and you stop once you’re out of sight and smoke a cigarette, before hailing a taxi and using one of your father’s twenties to get you to the station. In the back of the cab it occurs to you that the friend someone hoped was ok is Cassie and you put your hand in the pocket of your coat and you wrap your fingers around a toy from a McDonalds Happy Meal.

*

On the train you rest your head against the cool window but the motion is lulling you to sleep and you worry that you’ll miss your stop. You stand and start pacing between the carriages, rolling like a sailor and watching the creep of bricks outside eventually admit defeat to the low flat fields where the sun digs its own blue and mauve and orange grave in which it will later rest in peace. By the time you alight from the train you’ve pretty much walked off the Pinot Noir. On the way home you stop on a bridge over a river and stand looking at its restless, squirming passage. From your pocket you take a plastic toy and you consider dropping it into the water, where mermaids belong to flirt with the moon and seduce the unwary into joining them, but you decide against it and you slip her back inside your coat. As you turn away your face is unexpectedly wet as the sea.

*

You’re woken by a telephone ringing and it takes a moment to register that it’s the phone on your desk. You abandon your bed and you cross the floor in the dark and your foot deals a flourish of CDs. You lift the receiver and an American accent says You have a collect call from Miami and asks if you’re willing to accept the charges. You say that you are and you hear Cassie say Hey and then the line breaks up a little. You’re hearing her voice in stuttering bursts and it says Next week and Join me and Gulf of Mexico before the line clears and she says We’ll go looking for mermaids together, I promise.

You say you had lunch with your father earlier and she says Did you tell him and you say that you didn’t.

There’s a beep on the line and then Cassie says something about a big adventure and the lagoon laps at your feet, with the pirates and the mermaids and the boy who never grew up, and your father’s voice talks about dying.  You hear her say I can’t wait to see you and you say it back. It’s going to be magical, she says.

And you agree, it will be magical, and shocking and the people will say how could they. I don’t believe it, they’ll say.  And you sit and hold the phone long after Cassie’s gone and you practice her name next to yours.

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Andrew Leach

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Andrew Leach is a London-based writer of novels, short stories and the occasional poem. He has had work published in a number of literary magazines including STORGY, Magma Poetry, Reflex Fiction, Ellipsis Zine and in two volumes of anthology, Stories for Homes Volumes One and Two, for charity Shelter. His first novel, Blow Your Kiss Hello, was published in 2012 and a second is very much underway.

If you enjoyed ‘These People Not Present leave a comment and let Andy know.

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You can read Andrew’s previously published stories below:

Star Crossed ’95

Almost Over Now

Almost Over Now

The Climate Change Blues

Blow Your Kiss Hello

blow your kiss hello

Ellipsis Zine, Four; The Whisper Place

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