The home town, again: oh yes. Bracing air, coming in from the Irish Sea. The familiar smells running through narrow passageways. The main street winding its way down into town, past rows of huddled Victorian and Georgian terraces and crouched pubs, patrolled by roaring green and red buses. Early evening still: everything stretches out and suggests great potential. He is here. He can do as he pleases. Fresh out the taxi, a mile early, he strolls down: past the old cinema, made into a Co-Op, past pubs and greasy pizza bars with hissing kitchens.
It could be his, this great rumbling thing. Here he is, come again to dispense wisdom to all that bump into him; here he is, tasteful jeans asserted with a simple belt, jumper piqued to his sylph-like figure, shoes of casual suede uppers and rubber soles. Contrast laces and lace-loops. Logos prominent: here, there, round there, on here. Yes. Here he is again.
He feels expansive as he strolls: his mind stretches out like the sky, which now is pure darkened azure, with the haze of a sunset in one direction and the gathering blaze of the city in the other. Shadows fall across the terraces, gathering round the pubs. His mind feels only the potential suggested by the end of the day, and by everything else: thrumming away behind a fringe of tastefully untamed brown hair, it takes it all in and sorts it with little shocks of blue fire. It got him where he is today, he will tell them.
Only today he was asked to lay out the path in question to a hundredth excited journalist. Only too happy. He did it over brunch in Cambridge: a perfect day there, too, bringing out the stone of the colleges in golden luminescence, the glimmer of perfectly trimmed grass, setting his narrow figure out in a long, graceful shadow. The journalist had sung the praises, gushing about his flight from one varsity to another, one degree to another, one publication to another. He had admonished the journalist about the tea: leave it just long enough, just long enough, and no more. Milk first. The journalist had gushed about the novels, the concurrent literary and academic careers. He had smiled and nodded, scything a scone into perfect halves with his knife, spreading out a measure of butter, scooping up some jam with a little spoon. Yes, offers from seven universities for a Ph.D. Yes, yes, yes. The new book had done well. The anthology he’d edited, recommended by various provincial varsities, had sold in horrifying numbers. Yes, the position at Oxford. He had poured the tea: see, perfect shade. Waited just long enough. No, never have sugar. What, future plans?
A handshake had brought it to an end, with repeated admonishments of greatness, meaningless nothings, halting valedictions. Been a pleasure, etcetera, etcetera. And then out into the sun, regarding a crisp reflection in the window of the coffee shop. A sex-symbol figure, almost-tousled hair, the slightest smirk. Yes.
Hello stranger! Oh, there she was: the girl with the mousey hair, flicked black eyebrows, all understated charm. Emilia. Brushing back a lock of hair. Hug, expectant smile, kiss: expectation fulfilled. Smells of perfume, of Nivea shampoo. I love you, I love you too. Missed you. Missed you too. What now, a trip round Grantchester Meadows? Oh, certainly. Absolutely. In Roger Waters’ footsteps, like the song, without the swatted fly at the end to dispel the mood.
A moment in the street, her smile blurred with proximity, eyes half-closed. It was paradise to him.
Now, thinking back to the day, his heart swells. Yes, the world is his. His footfalls are heavy on the road, clomping with ownership, and each feature of the neighbourhood suggests itself to him. The houses are studded with window-eyes, broken into rows by winding alleys. Look at the pubs, all warmth and drama. He strolls on, taking it all in. The first streetlamps flicker into pink. One keeps on blinking, prevailing in fuzzy bursts. Perhaps if he spreads his arms all will light up at once, and all other lights, in the streets and the rooms, all blazing and buzzing, until the light bulbs and high-pressure sodium lamps exploded with excess power. He’d bring the entire city to life, filling it with floods of roiling light, only then to plunge it into chaotic darkness. Perfect. He tries. Nothing. Ah well.
At length he comes to a pub, squatting on the corner. Flat roofed, with tiled walls; the evening is gathering and so the lights begin to glare in the voids around them. Soon the city will be like a blending palette of lights, all mixing and filling space, shaping all that he saw. He was so clever for seeing it in this way—
Into the pub. Smell of assorted lagers. Some soaked into the carpet, soaked as vapour into the walls. Check jumper: still following curves of torso. Check jeans, check shirt collar. Shoes?
Plenty of people here. Barely a second look. Then a voice, after he has stood for a while, slicing out into the crowded air: ‘You alright there, mate?’
It has jarred him.
The man is sitting at a table alone, hunched over a pint of bitter, holed cagoule billowing out around his form. Neutral enunciations but flat vowels—rather like himself. Messy hair.
‘Yeah, I’m alright. Thanks,’ he answers.
The figure at the table grins. ‘You look lost mate. Ere yar, buy you a drink.’
Odd. Forward? But then people are friendlier here, friendlier than in Cambridge or Oxford; friendlier, perhaps, for not knowing him. To accept? Best move; a desperate, vicious part of him quivers into life again. One must grab all one can, especially for free.
‘Oh, cheers! Tell you what, I’ll get the next one…’
A nod and a winking grin. He ventures to speak to his friend before he goes up to the bar.
‘I’m Alex, by the way. Alex Cibber.’
The man nods again. ‘Charmed. I’m the bachelor.’
Sitting down, Alex is vaguely amused. The bachelor. Or rather the Bachelor. Like an emblem, a badge of honour.
Oh Emilia, with her soft sweet smell, the press of slightly parted lips, the flicking back of tawny hair—
But the Bachelor is already back, pints in hands. Strange—as if time has skipped, and one moment is lost as the whole flows over it. The Bachelor smiles, top lip flaring up over yellow incisors; Alex wonders when he last shaved. Funny eyes. Like his.
‘So what brings you back here?’ the Bachelor asks.
Alex opens his mouth, taken aback. The Bachelor laughs.
‘There’s still a bit of accent there,’ the Bachelor says. ‘That’s how I know. No one ever really leaves it all behind. Not quite. But nevertheless, I’ve heard about you…quite the success, aren’t we?’
Alex smiles. ‘Well, I’m doing okay…’
‘You’re quite the beacon of the community. The one everyone aspires to. That must be nice.’
A pause. A grin. They drink.
‘Seven offers for a doctorate, was it?’ the Bachelor says. ‘I heard Oxbridge, maybe Durham too, UCL…Harvard, was it? Yes? Yale? Yes. Dartmouth…?’
Knowledgeable, this man. Strange. Around, other men, the odd woman, crouch over tables with beers in hands. Beer-mats stick to tables, beer is spilt on the floors; sixteen-year-olds run the rounds, collecting glasses and pumping out ales. How could any of these people know where Dartmouth was?
‘How did you know about all that?’ Alex asks, flattered.
‘Oh, everyone knows who you are. So how come you’re back here again, then? Lap of honour?’
‘No…no…just wanted to look around the old place again.’
The Bachelor studies him from under drooping eyelids, sipping away at his pint.
‘You know, Alex, I was determined to get out of here once. I was determined to go out and conquer the world.’
‘Well,’ Alex said. ‘It’s never too late, is it…?’
The Bachelor offers a brief smile. Of course it’s too late.
‘I had dreams once, Alex…I can call you Alex, can’t I?’
‘I had dreams once. Did okayish at school. I wanted to write, to change the world, to have everyone look up to me…’
Questions—firstly, where has Alex seen this man before? It can’t have been school, can it? Secondly, why is the alcohol taking effect so quickly? He’s already feeling that strange rush in the brain, that slowing, cloying, gumming up. The particulars of the room are beginning to fuzz over. Is it darker now than before? It makes sense.
‘I dreamt of far more than what I got, Alex, I’m sure you understand. I dreamt of the cloistered places of the highest order, or wide-ranging recognition. I certainly had grand dreams for myself, very grand dreams.’
‘Don’t we all,’ Alex says. His words are lagging. ‘I always dreamed of it…and, you know, I couldn’t really believe when it started to happen…’
The smell of the man strikes him. Disgusting. But there’s something there: the facial structure, the hair even. Where—
‘No, Alex, I had dreams. Really gorgeous, over-the-top dreams, like yours, full of towering stone colleges, and hyperbole, etcetera…but then also simple, happy ones. A loving relationship. A lady. I’d love that, though, I’d love it, you know?’
‘I know…but don’t lose hope, that’s what I say…you’re obviously clever.’
‘Oh, you’re too kind…’
‘No, you are.’ But is he? Never mind. ‘And as for love…well…I think I loved my girlfriend for a year, maybe even longer, before I told her…before I persuaded her to go out with me that is! Haha. But then we’ve been together ever since.’
‘Oh, well…’ but then the Bachelor pauses. ‘Your round, by the way.’
A yellow, crooked grin. Angling of the almost-empty glass to him, rim first.
‘Oh! Of course…’ for the first time, Alex feels awkward. He looks at the bar: the patterns on the carpet seem to be bleeding darkness. There are less people here, now. Were there that many before? Are his eyes rolling? Where are his feet falling?
‘Two pints of…uh…John Smith’s, please.’
Note on counter. The pints are measured out. Foam brims over the rim of the cup: that’s him, the froth at the top of the cup, staring down upon the dregs. Even Emilia is in the dregs. They all are. All are in the dregs. Love is in the dregs.
Turning back with the cold-sweating pints in hand, Alex can’t help but notice how dark the pub seems to be now. There is a faint orange glow from the streetlamps outside, but that is all, like a golden glimmer appearing just before dawn. The walls are becoming darker, and the lines between shadowed and illuminated surfaces are dripping away. He can still make out the Bachelor, hunched at the table in a folded shadow of nylon, hood perched upon the back of his head, eyes narrowed with an expectant smile.
‘Cheers, mate,’ the Bachelor says. ‘As I was saying. I was just the same as you. I loved someone for a year, maybe more. But then I never told her. She went away. Come to think of it, that whole thing’s started to slide away from me. To think I used to be a bit of a romantic! Whatever definition you use. It’s gone, now. If it ever was there at all, that is—’
‘Well,’ Alex says, sipping his pint. ‘Just tell her how you feel.’
‘She’s gone away, Alex. Told you that. Far away. I shan’t be one of those people who leave electronic messages. I prefer tangible things. Scary encounters in clubs, you know, that sort of thing…awkward bedroom moments. But to be honest, nothing ever happens. They’re just shapes. I’ve brought people back, and I end up talking them to death, or making bad jokes: you should have seen how quiet the room was the last time.’
‘Never lose hope,’ Alex said. ‘That’s my motto.’
‘What kind of motto is that? I apologize. I’m being rather rude. But it’s a ridiculous motto. In the beginning, in the fresh-faced days of yore…’ he winks, ‘…I would have said: “never lose hope”. Then school finished, my friends began to move on: to law, to academia, to other countries. Never lose hope. I had promise, you know, plenty of promise. Plenty. People said. Plenty of promise.’
Then something jars. Something is wrong. Alex’s voice catches; his brain cannot make connections. Pissed? Can’t be, not yet. He’s seasoned.
‘Why is it so dark in here?’ Alex manages to say. ‘This is ridiculous. Look, I can barely see a thing.’
‘Dreams,’ the Bachelor said. ‘The surest way to temporary heaven. However you induce them. Success. Bliss. Dreaming, it’s all mine. I mean, just look at you—’
‘I don’t need to dream.’
Words are slurring. Is he having a stroke?
‘Not anymore,’ the Bachelor says. ‘You’re already there.’
The Bachelor drinks deep, grinning with a frothy moustache.
‘I got there,’ Alex says, head spinning. ‘I’m therrre.’
‘I know you are,’ the Bachelor says, grinning even wider. ‘Good on you. Because in real life something always seems to get in the way. I felt like I was somehow sabotaged: was there some great figure watching down on me, towering over buildings, stopping me somehow…’
‘Not for me. Not for mee…’
‘But what kind of dream is that anyway? Drinking, shagging, getting tinnitus from loud music…that’s the dream. But yours is, er, alright. I suppose. Fair enough.’
‘Yeah. Nothing got in your way.’
But was there something? A great pair of legs set against the sky? A celestial grin?
A grin like the Bachelor’s now: widening and widening, glinting yellow in the tiny strays of light from the lamps outside.
‘The surest way to heaven, Alex, they really are. Gorgeous.’
‘You’re the surest way to hell,’ Alex says, managing to laugh. He stands up, almost falling over his chair. Is it just him, or is the darkness spilling out everywhere now? The Bachelor looks almost formless, spilling out in the swirling murk like an oil slick, ecstatic toothy grin still in place. And then he staggers outside, just escaping the roll of gloom, and sets off once again.
His strides break themselves; he totters. He tries to pick out details, but the world is falling into itself, dripping away like a chalk drawing on a paving slab. The shadows are falling outwards, eating up every lit surface they can find. He strolls on. It’s still all his, all this. Perhaps if he spreads his hands, the lights—
He runs. The darkness is rolling over everything. It’s looming out of every nook. Then he controls himself again: this is silly! If Emilia could see him, she’d be laughing at him. With him. Ha ha.
Have the stars gone out?
He strolls down the main street when he notices his jumper. It’s stretched. Stretched! Look at it, falling away from his torso like a woollen bag. Disgusting. What is this? He barks in indignation. And what’s this down here? A paunch? No, can’t be. Can’t be. Has to be wind. But then, all those takeaways, all those carbonaras. A paunch! It really is. Man boobs returning too. Emilia will judge him. No, she’d never judge. Would she?
Emilia, Emilia, with her tawny hair…la la…
He’s there, she’s there, Grantchester Meadows, sunny day. Yes. She’s close, smiling, eyes half-closed. But then—what? What? Painful spots! Bites on his fingers! He smells, he smells!
No, no; concentrate on her. With her lovely, uh, what colour eyes? And Grantchester Meadows, gleaming out in emerald green. But wait a second. Is that actually what it looks like? He knows what it sounds like. That’s easy. Like an acoustic guitar and bees. Wait a second, is that what she actually looks like? Like a whitish blob? Slight brown gauze of foundation, slight cross-hatching?
Oh, forget it.
On the main street: one way town, the other escape. He has to go. He can still save it all. Easy—it’s easy. But his head is really spinning now, his gut squirming. This is ridiculous. He can still have it all. No—he has it all. It’s all his.
The dark is closing up the gaps now, viscous like oil, clinging to him, slowing him down. No! It’s his, all his! The warmth of one day is being pared back into orbs around streetlamps, and then the orbs are pared back to the Perspex covering to the lamps; there’s no getting away from it now. He puffs out his chest, shores himself against it, rallies.
He thinks. This is easy! Give it your best shot! It’s all here, all held together.
But this is more difficult than he remembered.
So what college again? He has a Ph.D! Pale brown tea! Brown hair! Slender legs! Hands!
Then: face to tarmac. It’s dark but he is sprawled in the glare of streetlamps. The ground is cold; the chips he was just holding, now scattered over his heaped form, are hot but cooling quickly. He tripped. His friends have already flagged a taxi down; it is not long now before the club closes, and already people are gathered outside en masse with a smoky halo over them. Handsome lads, pretty girls in arms. People pairing up. Mayo is smeared on his shirt.
Beyond the electronic haze of the city and sniggering onlookers, the sky is a murky almost-nothingness. Somewhere on those light-stained clouds, yes, there they are: the Bachelor’s shimmering teeth, bared in that enormous grin, face pulled back in a grimace of unspeakable pleasure.
His head is spinning too fast for him to gain any kind of balance, and his limbs are numb; he is so drunk that his teeth seem to be vibrating. He’s pinned down here, in this gutter, and his friends are already ready to leave; a terrible wind is coming in from the sea, skimming the rooftops and passing straight through his best shirt.
Funny that the whole of that could exist in a fleeting moment: an incidental thought-dream in the space between nose-height and the ground. Very funny. What now?
Sam Buckley currently divides his time between Liverpool and Leicester, England. He has been published in several online journals including Linguistic Erosion and Smashed Cat Magazine.