A new short story
I kept seeing him. When I popped out to get milk and a paper he was leaving the posh greengrocer’s with whatever he’d bought in a black backpack. No plastic bag with a garish logo for him. But then a writer should be a person of taste, in touch with a better world.
Late afternoons he’d seem to be coming home from work, with everyone else, but what made him different in his search for a better world was he wore a suit. Although the style was casual, and the dark material faded, it made him look more thoughtfully dressed than most. “Smart casual”, the people who copy him call it now. With the suit he wore a grey shirt open at the neck, and carried a briefcase.
One day he and I caught the same bus.
I got to calling him my 21st-century intellectual. He was tall and limber, striding down the long hill at twice the speed I could manage, as I was coming home. I never minded when we overlapped. He had what people call a leonine head, with a sweep of thick grey wavy hair that never moved in the wind. His facial features were all perfectly proportioned.
I wondered where he lived.
I went out and bought his latest book. But before I began I wanted to see into his eyes.
I noticed it that first day when he was coming out of the luxury greengrocers and I was buying my pint of milk. There was something about his eyes which made me feel I couldn’t actually see them; that they were somehow growing ever paler and vanishing into his head.
By plotting the course of his two routes home, the route on foot and the route by bus, and the location of the shops, and seeing where the lines converged, I could work out more or less where he lived, although I was too respectful to go there and knock on the door.
I turned instead to his book, which I opened with the feeling it had been written just for me.
He been brought up and educated in a still Christian country, that I knew, and I wondered whether he believed in God (my own atheism notwithstanding). Had he willingly joined the millions who’d deserted the church, in our lifetime, or had it all remained vague? Today, asked a fashionably phrased question about faith, I suspected he would tell the newspapers he didn’t mind one way or another.
His latest stories were frankly rather boring, so I wondered about the characters he created. They were all men. They interacted with women, but mostly they were men alone, alone again perhaps, mostly getting the blame, taking the rap, and retreating into themselves. Their remaining energy they used to cast a cool, critical gaze on life around. Husbands and partners phoning home from the supermarket to check the shopping list. Teenage girls endlessly taking photographs of each other, preparing for a phantom career in the media. Mothers phoning over the heads of their under-stimulated children. Conversation at an end. People converse electronically now. The keystroke and the click are how modern man makes his marks.
In the book I was reading so carefully, actually a rather slender book, which the publishers had eked out with lots of white space, there was more than one story about that old-fashioned solitary pursuit, walking. The target of my gaze walked everywhere, which is how I knew him. Reading him I found the comfortable stretch of his sentences resembled his long easy stride. The writing about walking was actually lazy, mainly just a list of routes taken, and pubs stopped off at. It was as if, in that last book, his imagination had switched off its engine.
He had a dog. The dog was grey round the muzzle and no longer as handsome as its owner. Not only do dogs age but they show it, just like us. The old dog waddled and pootled along, always four or five paces behind, on a lead, but that was just habit. They didn’t talk either.
Not so bad, I suppose, for an old old love: this just pottering along. The dog’s grey snout, finally tired of sniffing, matched the grey brows leaving just a patch of grey skin between his owner’s eyes. Leo, I’ll call that owner. It was as if someone had taken hold of Leo by the skin between his eyes, and the skin didn’t spring back.
I read some reviews of his book in the newspaper. They praised him for being, well, they didn’t say it, but being a sort of newspaper himself, just recording what happened. If he was asked in an interview he would say his domain was realism, and they would let him get away with it.
When the summer came he changed his dark suit for jeans and a jacket. Like me one Saturday afternoon he was disappointed to find that the Post Office was closed. The Post Office is in terrible decline, and so for that matter is the Church of England, and one doesn’t know what to do about either of them. Both maintain fewer and fewer outposts, the only successful ones merged with grocers’ shops and newsagents and children’s nurseries and clubs for the elderly.
I saw him on a hot day with a chance of a thundery shower, pootling with the dog, but now wearing the most extraordinary clothes: a huge cape of waxed cotton hanging high off the ground thanks to his height, and falling like batwings, thanks to his broad shoulders. And then beneath the cape a pair of shorts to just above the knee. He looked like Sherlock Holmes going to the beach. He would combine deerstalking in the north of Scotland with coping with a hot climate in Imperial India.
And only the previous day I’d seen him in his jeans and blouson jacket! Poor Leo!
His last book was rubbish. But who was I to go up and tell him that? I wanted to say, Leo, tell us about what it’s like to keep changing your clothes, at the age of 70, and not to know what to put on. Leo, tell us why you’ve nothing to say even to your dog these days. Tell us, Leo. I know writing is a prison, but only you can tell us what happens when that prison extends to the whole world.
As soon as I googled him of course I knew why, and I found the passages that corresponded. He wrote about grief snatching him away, like the death that used to ride off with a young girl on a bony horse, at dead of night, long ago.
One day we coincided on the bus again. We arrived at the terminus, the driver killed his engine, and half-a-dozen passengers poured out into the fresh air. Leo just sat there. He just sat flipping through the garish free newspaper. His journey was ended. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“The passing of time,” I cried, through the window, from the pavement where I was staring in at him. “The passing of time is what hurts. That’s why people believe in eternity.”
“Perhaps,” he mouthed, from under his pinched eyes. “Perhaps that’s why.”
All he could say, or write, was “Perhaps.”