The boy walks towards me, splay-footed, ungainly, twists to kick the wall, and carries on. Ten steps later he does it again – nothing forceful, just a tap with the toe of his scuffed shoe. I make room for him on the pavement as he passes me. I hear another tap a few steps later.
I walk on and my fingers flick up to my breast pocket. My phone is there and so is the envelope holding the letter I’ve just written. The pocket is secured by a zip, but my fingers go there anyway.
It’s a hot day, one of those slow, vagrant days of summer, the sort in which time once seemed lazy and expansive. Maybe that’s how it is for the boy, I think. It’s not that I see my younger self in him, more that I recognise the lack of urgency in his gait, the sense of something between freedom and ennui in his posture. The first weeks of school holidays – I remember feeling like that. And yet he needs to tap his foot.
Perhaps another twenty steps and my fingers reach to pat the contents of my pocket again. I know I’m doing it, though the origin of the movement isn’t intentional. It’s as though whatever takes my fingers there needs to do so for its own purpose. Perhaps it seeks reassurance that my phone and the letter are still there. Perhaps it hopes that somehow they will have gone away.
I look behind me. The boy is about to turn the corner and disappear, but before he does he twists to kick the wall. I realise it might be wrong even to think of it as a kick; it’s more of a touch, the touch of someone seeking luck from a charm, or the kindness of someone whose attention is elsewhere.
My fingers go to my breast pocket, and this time they press a little harder, reassuring themselves of the shape of the phone, of the texture of the tiny envelope beneath. Tiny envelope. It was all I had in the house.
I come to the end of the street and, bearing left, cross the main road. I follow the curve of the high brick wall on my right as it winds beside the radius of the pavement, the incline I will climb towards the station gradually revealing itself.
We would walk this way often. For some reason I think of the way you would take the top button of your blouse between your fingernails. Over time I realised it meant you wanted to say something, but were hesitant. I never thought of you as nervous, but perhaps you were tactful.
I follow the slope upwards. It’s mid-morning, the road is quiet, people are at work. There are other memories here – it’s the birthplace I never felt the need to leave – but there’s no room for them now. You have filled the space where they might otherwise be.
My fingers brush against my breast pocket, linger a few moments. Perhaps text messages, letters, are simply thoughts made tangible – thoughts that, if unexpressed, might drift somewhere unread, untouched, never becoming more than a wish, an inclination, a regret.
At the brow of the hill is the Tube station. I’ve been better at using the Underground in the last few months. Your presence helped, at first, until I even started travelling alone. I wonder how long that will last now?
‘Life has to be more than a series of repeats.’
My palm presses my breast pocket as though it is my heart. The phone and letter are still there. My hand loiters until I make a conscious effort to release it.
There are shops on each side as the road slants downwards. You were surprised when I said most had been there since my childhood. I, in turn, was surprised you should think that. Why ever not? I can’t remember your reply. Perhaps for a moment you held the top button of your blouse between your fingernails.
‘I’m someone who likes to be surprised by things.’
As you went on to point out, you have travelled. You have occupied a bigger world. Perhaps you thought I would expand into it with you. Perhaps I thought that too.
I decide to cut through the park. Standing on the triangle of grass to the left of the flower beds is a bearded figure, not emaciated but lean and stringily muscled in his vest and drawstring pants. His face is turned upwards, his arms stretch above his head, palms open to the sky, fingers flared outwards. He stands like that for several seconds then begins to lull forward, until his arms and torso dangle below his waist like those of a rag doll. Then he repeats. Since I started using the park again he always seems to be there, and I nod to him as if his presence is some sort of guarantee. My palm presses firmly against the phone and letter, and I feel sweat forming beneath the pocket of my shirt.
I quicken my step. Your flat is not far now. Suddenly the tidy lawns around me widen into a bewildering, ungovernable space, and I’m shrinking back into a former self.
I concentrate, I press on. I remember what I was told.
‘People don’t faint although they think they’re going to.’
I reach the park gates and step outside. I pause, breathe, lean back against the railings, fumble with the zip of my breast pocket. I remove my phone and re-read your text, then return it and pull out the envelope. Your name is smudged with sweat. The fingers of my free hand hover momentarily above the broken letters. I look away, cross the road, step quickly up your drive and feed the dampened square of paper through your letterbox. I turn to walk home, avoiding the park. I think about what you have written to me and what I, in turn, have written to you.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story ‘Breath’ (Fictive Dream), and ‘Blurred Edges’ (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nominations. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’ (Cōnfingō), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His website: https://www.polyscribe.co.uk. His Twitter: @polyscribe2.