Keeping Time: Part Two
Superstition Synonymous with Solicitude
The blank page is menacing. Terrifying in fact, but as I write these words, the unblemished perfection is broken, and my thoughts may flow free.
I did not fall for half empty ball point pens and pound-shop notebooks. I was seduced by neither companionship abandoned, nor empty bank accounts. It was not emotional instability or self-loathing that first made me write down words. These things came later, these things came to be the life which I live, not by choice, but by happenstance. I once fought with my father, in an inspired fury, insisting that I would prefer to a live a life as a broke writer, sleeping under a park bench, than as an accomplished anything else with a societally acceptable life. That argument was not fueled by a desire to seek a romanticized version of a bohemian lifestyle. It was not an intention to live at the bottom of double whiskeys and wander sleepless and directionless through urban streets. It was fueled by an uncompromising passion that has no comparison; a burning desire to present perceptions I knew were unique to me. I fought not for excuse to be broke, but to explain the indifference which poverty holds when the power to compose is so paramount.
London was a city of marvelous possibility; its streets a garnering of potentiality and prospect. It only prevailed as a port of pauperism and emotional paucity after I had partitioned off any passion from the pursuit of my pen’s potential productions. I did not fall for the labyrinth which now held me captive, but it was built by my own hands as my struggle to create words, and more common struggle to sell them, guided me into a disdainful compliance with my day to day dissatisfaction.
Despite everything a pen and notebook has come to mean in my life, that original lust for substance created by mere ink on paper still supersedes every issue I unfairly weight the pages with.
Back before page one, I fell for words.
I fell for the weight of words, their capability to hold meaning and power entirely on their own, even without context or presentation. Connotation enchanted me, diction enthralled me and my pen was no longer bound to the page as it’s tip pressed through it endlessly, it’s ink forming the basis of entire worlds between the lines of the tale. I fell for the story; any, and every story that I could ever come to tell. I fell for my capability to create them, which even the most cynical reviews, still admitted I possessed.
I fell for the way the world falls away as if time itself stands still as I write.
For the first time, in my willfully compromised memory, my pages were no longer so heavy, and my words seemed to once again, hold weight.
I had my notebook laid on the edge of the bar. I scribbled in it occasionally, quick notes, independent thoughts that did not demand careful consideration, nor crude emotion, to construct. I sat in a pub I knew well, and one which knew me even better. The formal layout and unnecessarily ornate interior design had long been planned to be stripped back. Although that intention seemed all but forgotten, even to this day someone would suggest that a refurb was coming soon. The regulars of the pub knew better. What was once formal had long since been overlain with the quirky, with moments in time tacked to the walls in form of posters or stickers, with damages or issues patched over in a manner deemed ‘temporary’, but now accepted as permeant. The pub was a patchwork quilt and in this way it matched its patrons, leaving us somehow proud of the badly plastered hole next to the gents, and the bright new taps of the only sink that doesn’t work. A perfectly functional, and unapologetically abused mosaic of all that had come to pass.
“Are you sure he was fast?”
I looked up from my notebook at the bar owner looking down on me. His arms were spread wide as he leaned on them, showing the tight stringent muscle barely hidden beneath dark brown skin. I raised one eyebrow in question.
He drank deeply from his pint of cider as sky blue eyes evaluated me. “I mean, are you sure he wasn’t just a brick wall?”
I held back a smirk and swallowed the last of my whisky before holding the chilled glass against the side of my head.
“And the ‘fast’ part wasn’t merely the speed at which you ran into said brick wall?” He drank again from his cider and looked at me as if he legitimately expected an answer.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure, Dan.” I held out my empty glass, he took it from me, smiling and shaking his head as he walked down the bar to refill it. I maintained an air of annoyance with his teasing until he turned away, despite knowing that many years of friendship let him see through my façade all too easily. I smiled at his back as he poured my whisky without measure and made idle small talk with one of his patrons. He was a character as unique as the pub itself. A silk shirt with complex design hung loosely from his broad form. Even being the length of the bar away I could still see the intricate images woven into the shirt. It surely had a story, like everything he owned: handmade in the midst of a mountain range which held some mystical force, designed by a shaman or figurehead of a religion which the rest of the world had forgotten about, or perhaps sewn by a friend who used as much love as they did talent. What appeared to be the outlines of demons colliding with angels were back dropped by scripture, perhaps written in Latin. For every ounce of intelligence, which was considerably more than most people I’ve ever met, he had twice as much superstition. One could find that vexing when trying to maintain intelligent conversation: but Dan never pressed his beliefs, despite their vastness, their complexity, their diversity, he kept them to himself unless asked to share them, and even then it often required convincing.
I was writing another thought, it may have been a fleeting consideration, or a single line that described a perception accurately. Maybe it was a potential plot point that was briefly holding my attention when he came back over, regardless, it led him to eye the notebook carefully. I looked between the page and his worried expression before smiling at him reassuringly. He held the whisky in his palm and handed it to me with his forearm facing up, the intricate pattern of scarification exposed along the inside of his arm before it ran beneath his rolled-up shirt sleeve.
He was not accustomed to me having a notebook out in this context. Writing was something I did huddled in the back of his bar on quiet nights. Drunk, disdainful, and anti-social, were usually the only adjectives on hand when my pen was in hand. Presently, I was none of the above, although I was working on the most former. He didn’t mention it, but it was clear that he was suspicious of the change.
He held a bar towel in his hand, absent mindedly soaking up a patron’s sloshed pint with limited concern as his bar staff kept the small crowd of drinkers served. He shook his head again, the beads woven sporadically into his braided hair clicked against each other, I crossed my legs and sipped the fresh whisky he had not asked any payment for, waiting for him to speak.
“I just don’t get it, August.”
“I lost a fight Dan, there’s not that much to get.”
“No mate, it doesn’t add up. For one, I’ve only ever seen you bested one time.” He leaned forward onto his elbows as he said this, freeing his hands to be used as accompaniment for his words.
I wiped the smile off my face and laid down my glass. I glared at him.
He eyed me back.
I opened my mouth.
He pointed at me and titled his head.
“I still don’t think that counts.” I said in resignation and returned to looking at my whisky.
“Aye, well you certainly didn’t come out on top.”
“There were three of them.”
“I know. I had to drag them off of you.”
I grimaced at the memory, unsuccessfully oppressed, and he continued.
“But still,” he continued after looking with satisfaction at my facial expression. “I’ve not seen a single bloke get the best of you before, not like this at least; and admit it Aug, I’ve seen a few.”
I shrugged and drank from my whisky. “He was fucking fast.”
I could see his elbows unmoving on the bar top and I knew he looked at me as he leaned forward, but I kept my gaze locked onto my whisky.
“But, what makes even less sense than that, is that this barman, a bloke who you seem to think owns the joint, kicked out, and barred, his regular patron instead of you.”
I met his gaze now, wearing an exasperated look, “He swung at the girl.”
“Aye, and she got out of the way easily you said, sounds like the girl could take care of herself. You swung at him, that’s how the fight started.” He looked down the bar, away from me, for a moment. “How many blokes have I kicked out of here after scuffles with you?”
“And how many were your bloody fault?”
“That’s not fair, Dan.”
“But, it’s true mate.”
I gritted my teeth and downed the last of my whisky. “Yeah, but you like me.”
Dan shook his head and laughed, “Yeah, sometimes.” He laid my freshly emptied glass next to his own finished pint glass, one of his barman was walking over.
The barman took up both our glasses without needing instruction and then looked at me. “You look like shit, Augustine.”
I looked at him blankly, “Thanks mate, real nice of you to say.”
Dan waved his hand at the barman, smiling while wordlessly telling him to go get the drinks.
I glared at Dan, silently asking if he would reprimand the barman for being rude to costumers, without any real desire for repercussion.
He shrugged back at me, “You do look like shit. You want me to get some ice?”
I gingerly touched the side of my face and then nodded.
I scribbled in my notebook again as I was momentarily left alone. The barman returned then with both our drinks, he handed me a pint of ale as well, a peace offering for his comment.
“So what happened?” he asked, looking at me with an expression somewhere between amused curiosity and legitimate concern.
“Ah, you know how your mum gets kinky, mate.”
“Weak.” He responded.
“Comedy isn’t my strong suit.” I shrugged. “But, neither is fiction.” I winked at him and drank from the pint he’d given me.
He shook his head, disappointed by my poor attempt at banter, and walked away, pretending to work as Dan returned. Dan threw me a handful of ice wrapped in a cloth.
“Alright, so you happened to pick a fight with the least liked regular in the bar. And he also happened to have a hell of a right, and left, hook?”
“That’s about it.” I shrugged for the hundredth time since I’d begun explaining the disastrous state of my face.
“Well that’s another place added to the ‘Do Not Return’ list.”
I smiled, and then opened my mouth, hesitating for a moment, and then closed it again as Dan looked at me. He brought his pinky up to his face and chewed on the corner of his nail, waiting.
“Actually, I think I’m left more than a little curious about the place.”
He drank from his pint, but said nothing, wearing a neutral expression, waiting for further explanation. Waiting to determine whether he should reprimand me for being a glutton for punishment, or actually consider what I would suggest.
I exhaled, I hadn’t decided whether or not I was going to explain to him a phenomenon which I could not explain myself, but now that my admission of curiosity was on the table I knew it was a matter he would not drop. A penny became a pound as the cost of being ‘in’ demanded full disclosure.
“Leaving the bar is not quite the end of the story…” I slipped the only tangible proof of my night after I’d left Tim’s Bar from my pocket, and slid it across the oak to Dan. Part of me expected the note to have turned blank, perhaps to have just evaporated all together, leaving my pocket empty. But, the piece of thick sketching paper did not revoke its existence on me. The elegant fold of pristine white paper looked out of place against the bar, it seemed unsuited to Dan’s ringed fingers as he picked it up. Sharing it felt wrong for a moment, like a dirty detail of a dream that should never leave the confines of one’s mind. It felt crude to be letting another read this note which seemed to seal a secret between me and her, yet sharing it was necessary to even begin to fight off the looming possibility of my insanity.
An experience which already threatened to be a dream, seemed, even to me, to be fictionalized as I spoke it aloud. It felt like I was reciting a fairy-tale, not recapping an evening. Explaining to someone something which you yourself doubt the reality of is an unsurprisingly difficult task. I walked him through the bottle of wine and the strange tongue being spoken, details initially unimportant to explain a blackened eye. I used the most concise words I could find as I described it to him, the story already seemed fanciful, it did not need floral adjective to make it sound more intriguing. I talked him all the way through to the bolted door, and the inexplicable note.
I looked away most of the time that I was explaining it, studying the bar top with renewed fascination, struggling to look an old friend in the eye as I laid out to him the impossibility of the night prior. As I spoke the words I felt as if I should be smiling. The story seemed like it should be accompanied by happiness, an excited tone as I alluded to, but didn’t speak aloud, details indifferent to the plot but ripe with pleasure. A night riddled with emotions I had forgotten, catalysed by pleasures I had long since denied myself, surely there is nothing more positive to tell a good friend. But, it was not happiness that found me as I recited the events. Cruelly, I found myself growing unprecedentedly discouraged. Less than a full day had passed since she’d appeared in my bedroom, and already I was bracing for the emotion that would accompany her absence, preparing myself to accept her inexistence. It was with despondent anxiety that I finished my description of beautiful, already reprimanding myself for being so affected by a fleeting evening and a woman whose only intransient quality was her desire to walk away.
I finally dragged my eyes across the bar top and up to his. I do not know which emotion I hoped to find him wearing, any would have been justifiable: happy for the joy I had, sad for my feeling of loss, amused by the absurdity; yet I did not anticipate the concern which he wore. He looked at me with empathy bridging on concern. I remained silent, fearing it was worry for the beginning of my madness, sympathy for the loss of my mind.
Neither of us said anything. He took a drink from his pint and broke eye contact with me, looking down at the bar not in embarrassment, but in distraction. I continued looking at his downturned eyes almost pleadingly, as if begging him to have faith in my words. Without looking back at me he walked a couple steps down the bar and retuned with a piece of paper and a pen. He began transcribing, word for word, with identical spacing, the note I had handed him.
“I don’t recognize the tongue. I’m not entirely sure that it is a language of its own, to be honest.” He said, looking down at the words he had just written out.
I felt tension in my body slowly be released as I watched him analyze the words. The light hearted bar owner giving way to the unsuspected scholar. A pleasant reminder of how we came to be friends washed over me, my appreciation for the beer he sold had come after my need for his insight. Part of me still wanted to ask him if he believed what I was telling him, if he had faith in my story, but the rest of me understood that I did not need to. He believed that I was offering him the truth in so far as I knew it. He surely had scepticism over the story, questions about the possible explanations, but he believed my observations, my perspective, at the least. He was taking me seriously; his actions were proof of that.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, the similarity to the translation, assuming that’s what’s in English. The words don’t seem entirely their own, the phrase sounds almost like it was derived from the English.” I watched him as he scribbled the phrase out in different orders. I tried to keep up with the speed at which he was considering each aspect of it. I used to believe that the walls of that pub kept him from embracing the depth of his intelligence. I’ve since learned that the bar top is just a buffer; nothing inhibits the capabilities of his mind, but the pub lets him pick and choose when to exhibit them.
I looked down at the original note, now handed back to me, and quietly recited the words. I understood what Dante meant as I rolled the syllables around in my mouth. I wondered if that was why the language had sounded so familiar in the Tim’s bar.
“So,” I said, attempting to lighten the mood, “a mysterious, Pig-Latin speaking, albino woman, to whom bolted doors are no obstacle, gives me the most passionate and magical night of my life, in less than a minute…one hell of a night, hey?” I finished the diminishing whisky I had been staring at in my hand. I looked up to him and tried to force a smile but only managed to raise one corner of my mouth.
He did not smile back. His expression was neutral, it was clear that he was deep in thought, wheels were turning behind his eyes. “Yeah, quite a night…”
I sighed, “I know, it’s absolutely absurd. I wouldn’t even have brought it up, I’d be convinced it was just a dream, but the note… The note confirms that it wasn’t just my imagination, surely?”
“Relax, August.” Dan took out a pouch of tobacco, I didn’t recognize the orange label of his flavour of the week. “I don’t think you’ve gone mad, mate. No more than usual at least. And I mean, even if you had, your handwriting isn’t this good.” He gestured to the note and smiled at me. It was a warm smile, yet there was a reservation in his eyes. “If it’s all a deception, it’s one that stretches beyond the confines of your own mind.”
I take out my own tobacco, following his lead. Dan offers me his papers, I grimaced at the light green colour they held, idly I wondered what exotic taste he was choosing to smoke today, but my curiosity was not deep enough to lead me into trying one.
He nodded towards the door and I stood up, gathering my notebook and jacket. A shrill and short bell sounded through the bar announcing closing time. Dan looked to one of his staff members and then pointed to our drinks, making a circular motion with his fingers, before walking around the bar and towards the door.
I followed him to the front of the pub where the quiet crowd of a weekday night slowly made their way into the night air. We both lit our cigarettes and said nothing. He stood looking up the street at the patrons who were departing, facing away from me, hiding his expression.
“So,” he said finally, “Are you telling me this as a friend, seeking compassion and solace, someone to share the inexplicable with? Or are you speaking to me as a source, an inquiry to contact in a related field?”
“Well, both I suppose.” I proceeded tentatively, confused by his new mannerism, “I was hoping that you might be able to look into it, yeah. But, I would have told you regardless of your background.” I spoke to the back of his head, willing him to turn around and at least let me see his expression. “I told you as a friend, because that’s who you share an inexplicable experience with. And I ask for your insight as a friend, it’s just my luck that you’re a friend well versed in the unexplainable.” Silence hung. “I know it doesn’t fit in with your regular area of expertise Dante, but there was an exclusive familiarity to the patrons, I thought you might-“
“You wanting to know more about that place doesn’t bother me, Augustine,” he cut me off. “it’s the reason that does.” He turned towards me now. His light blue eyes meeting mine with a focused stare that demanded return. “We’ve freely spoken about many of the unspeakable beliefs that this town hides beneath, and between, its streets, but, it’s always been for something you’re writing. Something you’re investigating to write about. It’s always been about a story you’re trying to tell, not your own story that you’re trying to make sense of…” He turned as if to look back up the street, but his gaze passed through the furthest buildings. “What is it you said to me when you first walked into this bar?” He asked rhetorically, taking a pause to suck on his cigarette, “Writing fantasy is not an excuse for inaccuracy?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“I was willing to help you then, and I’ve helped you many times since because you were always writing fantasy. At the least it’s been fiction, but…”
“Well, there was that Cartier mini-series, for Black Pen.” I cut him off, mentioning a failed mini-series I’d been contracted onto about a very non-fictional occult leader.
He glared at me, “Cartier was a biography of a man who believed a lot of things you did not begin to take heed in.”
I looked away, knowing that I was being pedantic in an effort to skew his point.
“You have never believed a word of the doctrines that your characters, fanciful or otherwise, held faith in. You’ve always been skeptical, many would say to a fault, about every faith, every legend, every story, every rumour that this city, or I, have exposed to you.”
I clenched my jaw growing frustrated with his indirect speaking. “So what, Dan? Shouldn’t you be happy that I’m biting on the possibility of something being in disarray.” I shook my head at my own words. “You’re jumping the gun here, mate. I’m still not even sure that I wasn’t dreaming the whole thing, let alone chalking it up to something… extraordinary.”
“Dreams don’t leave notes August, don’t pretend you’re still considering that.”
“Fine, so I’m looking for an explanation with a more open mind than usual. I’ve had a revelation. Happy?”
Dan’s eyes bore into my own until I had to look away. He flicked his cigarette to the pavement in front of me, the embers tumbled and danced over my shoes and into the building’s side. “Why, would that make me happy?” He said slowly, emphasising each syllable.
I did not look up to see him shake his head, but I heard the clicking of the beads in his hair as he exhaled harshly. “The western faiths of modern day have softened you, have softened many. This revelation you speak of so casually, this exposure you think you may have had, it is dangerous to be treating it so lightly.
“People have come to think of miracles as positive things: they treat only the unlikely accomplishment, the improbable rescue, the impossible salvation; as the hand of a God.”
“The hand of God, Dante? Just because the ‘how’ isn’t clear doesn’t mean that it was a mirac-”
“Still your ignorance persists.” he cut off my cutting him off, “The inexplicable is not confined to the God you are most familiar with, nor the miracles you have come accustomed to hearing of. The touch of things which supersede our understanding are not confined to the good, that is the greatest lie that the faithful of today hold onto. If we are to accredit the positive to a greater power, then we need also attribute the negative. There is much evil without accountable source. So easily we forget that.”
His eyes seem to glaze over as he no longer looked at me, but through me, as if looking to a place locked in memory. He shook his head, “If logic grows exhausted, if only the most improbable comes to be all that is possible, then your experience should frighten you. If your night was the product of something more than the world which you know, then you need to consider the possibility of what other power it could hold.”
He breathed deeply then, calm returning to his tone now, the change in his voice somehow making me more willing to look at him as he spoke. “It is only new faiths that suggest ideas of salvation, of redemption and forgiveness. The old Gods, the old powers, were vengeful things, they were feared and with good cause. A beautiful girl without pigment and eyes that threaten to turn red, appearing whilst you sleep without invitation or explicable means, speaking in strange tongue and taking your body and your heart… an experience just like yours, would once have kept good men awake at night. Dancing with the devil is a story older than any devil you’ve heard tell of: you would be foolish to not proceed with caution.”
I felt a cold shiver run its way across my skin, I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets and tightened my arms against my sides, as if only now noticing the chill of the night. “Yeah,” I tried to begin cheerily but my voice came out hoarse and vacant in the darkness, “well, I’m still hoping I was just too drunk to remember inviting her back to my flat.”
Dan gave a half hearted laugh in the form of a huff, “I’m only warning you August, as I have done many times before. This is just the first time you have reason to be mindful of what I’m saying.”
“Yeah… Can we go back inside now, it’s fucking cold.”
“Pubs closed, mate.” He said with a dismissive shrug and no hint of a smile.
I looked at him blankly, unimpressed with his teasing and knowing, after many years of friendship, that closing times would never quite apply to me as they did the others.
Dan smirked as he reached for the door we stood nearest, the only one left open as his staff waited for us to come back in.
“I was meaning to mention, about tonight, after closing…” I said as I followed him in.
We returned to the same place on the bar, fresh drinks waited for us, Dan sat on the patron’s side now as two barmen and a barmaid cleared away glasses and bottled up fridges. Dan took a deep gulp of his pint before responding, “Aye, I was expecting you to mention that.” He said as he reached into his pocket and picked out a pair of keys.
I smiled as I took them from him, content with my plan of writing through the night in his empty pub. “So, warning aside, is it mission accepted? Do you think you can look into the place for me?”
He sat on the edge of his seat with arms crossed, one hand tightly gripping his pint. “Is it the place, or the girl, that you want me to look into?”
I raised my eyebrows at him as I drank from my own pint, “I’m a writer, not a stalker, Dan.”
He continued looking at me, not appearing to be satisfied with this answer.
“The note that she left doesn’t exactly read as enthused to see me again.” I said honestly, “But, that doesn’t change there being a story to be told. Names changed, and fictionalization prevalent of course, but…”
“Fantasy is not an excuse for inaccuracy?” he suggested with a simper that wanted to be an eye roll.
“Precisely,” I smiled back. “I mean, there may not be anything: the place didn’t scream cult, nor occult, there was nothing that obviously declared fraternal order or clandestine, or anything. But, I’d be shocked if there isn’t something arcane, something mutually known and hushed binding that place together. If there is something, I’d appreciate knowing more about it.”
Dan nodded, “I’ll ask around, sounds like it’s half local, shouldn’t take long. Now,” he said as he picked up his tumbler of brandy that sat next to my whisky, “the matter of what will be the exchange.”
I didn’t hold fear over cost, Dan had known me too well, for too many years, to ask for anything beyond my means. In this instance, however, his price surprised me.
“Write.” He said, simply.
“Well, that’s kind of what I do.”
“No,” He said, nodding to the notebook on the bar, I had not even realized I’d taken it back out, nor that I’d opened it and hooked my pen onto the next fresh page. “you sit huddled in a corner bitterly scribbling a story you don’t care about to try and cover rent that you’re already a month behind on.” He said matter-of-factly. “That’s not you writing, not like this is. I haven’t seen you enjoy putting pen to paper in years. I want you to write. Keep writing like you are now, and consider us even.” He nodded and drank from his pint again.
I couldn’t help but smile, “So, do myself a favour and you’ll do me another?”
“Well I’m not that noble,” he snorted, “I’m just hoping this one won’t be quite as shit as the last couple, so that you might manage to pay off your bloody bar tab.”
The weight of the words leaves us weightless.
I finally scratched out the tally of the whisky I’d poured myself since Dan had left me to his bar. In place of the tally I scribbled a note promising the replacement of the bottle of Oban sometime in the near future, telling myself that Dan’s parting words, ‘try not to drink all of my scotch’ were meant as precisely that: try. Decision of insolence finally embraced and admitted on paper tab, I took the remaining half a bottle back to the table at which I was sitting. My common use note book was open but set to the side, a stack of lined sheets was my current canvas. It had taken me longer than usual to find them beneath the bar. My medium being moved from where it was usually kept was a silent confirmation that it had been too long since I’d devoted a night in the pub to my pen.
The words did not flow as I had hoped they would and so the whisky did instead. Whether I searched for inspiration at the bottom of the bottle, or solace for having none, was both unclear and indifferent. I drank anyway. My pen found its groove just as drink pulled away the legibility of the words I wrote. I don’t know if it was in acceptance of my efforts being futile, or simply succumbing to the isle of Islay, but before sun broke its way through the smog of Farringdon my head rest upon my pages and my eyes closed.
It was Dan’s earlier warning, not his proposition of leaving his scotch bottle unemptied, that found its way into my dreams.
I was tired, even as I slept. In my dream I struggled to raise my head, a force not aggressive but consistent pressed against the back of my neck, holding my forehead to the pages. Gravity seemed stronger than usual as even my eye lids fought to open and observe the room which my mind had taken liberty with. I still sat in the pub, but the pub was not the same. The dark wood paneling and exposed brick work had given way to white stones. The stones stacked upwards growing continually narrower, giving the illusion of height increasing more quickly than was reality. I could not look to the ceiling, it was too difficult to turn my head that far, but I knew, in the way that only dreams allow, that it was a vaulted ceiling which loomed over my head. A Victorian pub turned into a Gothic cathedral.
The table I had chosen to write at remained unchanged, solid oak with the stickiness which only ageing varnish offers. My stack of finished pages was shifted from its usual place on my left and moved instead to the other side of the table. It was flipped over with the apparent intention of being read in order.
She sat across from me.
She had not been there when I had first forced my eyes to consume their surroundings, it was as if the thought of someone intending to read my words had made her appear. Now she sat there, with ballerina’s posture, leafing through the pages I had scribbled upon, earlier in the night. She did not seem to notice me, and in my dream I was glad of this, not because I wanted to remain unseen, but because I feared the colour of the eyes that would look at me.
Her lips moved, she was speaking, but I did not know if it was to me. The intended recipient of her words was indifferent for her mouth made no sounds. She continued silently speaking, even from the side I could tell that a range of emotions passed over her face as she spoke. I realized then, that she was not speaking at all, merely moving her lips unselfconsciously as she read.
I didn’t try to find my voice, I stopped even attempting to move, I was content to watch her read. Page after page she flipped through, until I knew that she had flipped through far more pages than I had written. I somehow accepted, with the ease that only dreams allow, that she was reading what I would come to write. Finally, there was only a single page left in her hand, as she reached its bottom I saw her expression grow increasingly angry. Her profile revealed one side of a tense frown and an eyebrow furrowed in frustration. Suddenly she moved unnaturally quickly, the page seeming to have gained an impossible rigidity as it did not bend against the motion.
She slammed the page onto the table, it clattered like dishes being thrown into a sink and jolted me awake.
I snapped upright into wakefulness, and I immediately regretted the speed with which I moved, as a feeling, describable as nothing short of pounding, filled my skull. I blinked long and hard a couple times, wanting to shake my head but fearing the repercussions sudden movement would cause. The bright light of what was no longer early morning filtered through the grimy windows of the pub. A cup of coffee let off steam gently in front of me. Two unmarked pills lay next to it, assumedly ibuprofen or paracetamol, I didn’t bother to question which before swallowing them and gulping down a couple mouthfuls of black coffee.
I rubbed the bridge of my nose and made my way over to the bar just as Dan stepped out from around the corner, drinking orange juice from a disposable bottle.
“Morning sunshine,” he said smiling.
“Fuck you.” I replied pleasantly. “Thanks for the coffee.” I added genuinely.
“Ahh, no problem mate. I saw the state you left the Oban in and figured you’d need it.”
I nodded wordlessly and looked to the table. The bottle and tumbler had been cleared away in preparation for opening. I noticed the stack of pages I had written, although considerably shorter than my dream had suggested, remained where I had dreamt them to be.
“You fancy some breakfast?” Dan asked to the back of my head.
“Funny.” I said, in sufficient response. “Dan,” I then said, turning to him. “were you reading some of my stuff before I woke up.”
He hesitated, leaning forward against the bar. “Well, that depends, would you be unhappy if I was?”
I gave him a half smile and shook my head, “Thoughts?”
He smiled back, “It’s a hell of a lot better than the last couple.” He tilted his head to the side slightly and then nodded. “And perhaps the couple before that too. I’m curious as to where it’s going, though.”
“Yeah,” I offered a half laugh, “me too.”
I looked around the pub, comfortable with its return to being my familiar local after my dream’s unwelcomed redecorations. I looked closely at my finished pages, considering the way that reality had infiltrated my dreams to tell me someone was reading afore me. I pushed away the thoughts of a faded dream world and wandered my way back over to the table. I felt more than refreshed enough to continue, I felt focused, I wanted to keep going. I shifted last night’s words across the table and in front of me, I began reading through them, trying to gather together the thoughts which sleep and drink had scattered.
“August, I’m about to open, so you’re going to loose your peace and quiet.”
Although he didn’t say it directly, I knew this meant that morning radio would be spewing the current hits into the pub, a phenomenon far more disturbing than any patron and their pint. “Damn it, man.” I said in only partially faked anguish.
“I expected that reaction.” I heard from closer behind me than I expected, “So here.” He handed me a first generation iPod Nano. Obvious plentiful use tarnished the once reflective back and stained the white ear buds.
I looked at it with some surprise. “Dante, if you continue being this nice to me I’m going to start coming here more often.”
He shrugged, “I just don’t want you to hear me when I complain about you to the paying costumers.”
“Oh, that’s never stopped you before!” I retorted as I unraveled the headphones.
To my further surprise the iPod powered on to reveal a playlist titled with my name. I opened it up to find a long list of ‘untitled tracks’. Ambient instrumental music flooded my head when I inserted the ear buds, pleasantly unexpectedly the louder than intended music was not exciting the throbbing in my temples, nor threatening to break my concentration.
I lightly licked the sharp tip of my pen, left uncovered before I fell asleep a few hours before. I placed it against the paper before I was entirely sure of what I would write, my mind still catching up with the words that night before had produced. I found my hand moving before I could provide any further contemplation. Black ink smeared at first, as my hand was too heavy, but the line quickly thinned as the deep slant of my cursive writing began to take hold.
I didn’t write about her sitting before me, I didn’t write about her as I knew her, I wrote about an old version of her in an entirely foreign context. The origin of the idea I could not correctly place. The stone walls of my dream came first, the rest of the setting began to fill the page as fast as it filled my mind. Dan’s music lulled on, encouraging my concentration as pen left the paper only long enough to sip from the coffee he occasionally replenished. I wrote furiously, scribing the words as they came to me, not giving my mind the opportunity to reconsider nor question what I was penning, instead I just let it move forward with momentum of its own. The passing of one hour turned into two, and a sensation once so familiar to me found me again
Everything began to fade in a way that is impossible to notice, my thoughts grew focused, my words intensified, the world grew clouded. Concentration which can only be broken by being noted, and can only be maintained by not being realized, consumed me.
My mind finally caught up with my words and the next line was being formed as I wrote the last. I came to be thinking two sentences ahead of my writing, my hand found a rhythm that was steady instead of violently scrawling. The pen itself no longer touched the page, it grew infinitely longer in my hand as it spanned outwards into the world I was creating. The story of a girl within a room she did not recognize began to take form, the details of her and her equally confused companions began to be filled in.
The pen careened across the paper, its velocity matched only by the progression of my thoughts as I composed the background whilst writing the foreground. A page and then pages were completed, words filled lines as the sound coming through my headphones slowly grew forgotten and then disappeared entirely. At the time it was impossible to notice, but everything beyond the page itself had come to be lost from focus.
All motion in the room around me came to a halt, only my words continued. Only my pen was in motion as it continually raced against the cogs of my mind. With what seemed to lack any warning, I reached for the next long-lined-page to find my pile exhausted. The feeling of my fingers against wood instead of paper broke my trance.
I halted the pen at a full stop on the last line of the last page and I look to my outstretched left hand. I drew my fingers back and felt something accumulate beneath them as they moved. I pull my hand from the table and look at it curiously, thick dust coated my finger tips where they had reached for the next page. It was only after I had rubbed the inexplicable white substance between my finger and thumb that I noticed it elsewhere. I looked beyond the small section of the table that had so deeply consumed my attention and saw that the dust was not limited to where my next pages should be. The entire table was coated.
It was only as I straightened my back and looked out across the neighbouring tables, all covered in the same layer of dust, that I also noticed the stillness. The absence of motion that was far more inclusive than any moment should offer. Through the pub window I saw a vehicle parked still in the center of the road. Fascination quickly filled me and I turned in my chair, looking across the now lightly occupied pub. I hadn’t looked up in hours, I’d taken no notice of the few patrons that had found their way in, now as I looked across them however, their forms each seemed to have been there for years, the same dust that coated my table covered their bodies.
Fascination began to give way to confusion and confusion to alarm as I stood up. There was absolute stillness. The people within the pub were caught mid word, some with pints held to lips, even the liquid in their glasses was impossibly frozen in place.
I strode through the pub now, eyes sweeping over every detail of every person. All of them were statuesque. I looked across the bar to where Dan stood, his hand on an ale pump, his dark skin seemed to have offered less ground to the white dust, yet he was still glazed with the same powder that covered the entire world around me.
I took notice of the beer on it’s way out of the tap. The thick strand of ruby ale perfectly frozen. I walked around to the other side of the bar, looking down as I did so, watching as my footsteps seemed to disturb the dust only momentarily before it gathered again in the places where I’d stepped. Even the beer which had been splashing gently into the glass was frozen in place and masked in white, individual droplets held in the air. Dan looked down to where the beer left the tap. His gaze was not vacant, his eyes were focused, yet my actions had no influence on his stare. I waved my hand back and forth in front of his face futilely, before abandoning my attempt at garnering attention. I was too confused to be concerned, the situation too strange for me to even find an appropriate emotional response. I reached out to where the beer flowed from the tap. I expected it to be hard, as if some freak frost had frozen it into its place, but as I pushed against the stream it had a strange elasticity to it. It was not like fluid, it was somehow firmer than that, a strange rubbery substance that bent to the will of my finger but only after I’d applied far more pressure than should be necessary to alter a stream of liquid. It held the influence of my finger then, like molding clay in the air. I moved my finger back and forth through the stream, turning it into a wavy line. Only after I’d rearranged the entire stream, from glass to tap, did I notice that the dust over the liquid fought against me. The white powder attempted to undue my actions, succeeding in the slightest shifting of the ale back towards its original place.
I stepped back. Wondering suddenly if it was dust at all, wondering why I had so casually accepted that conclusion despite having watched it refill my footsteps. I moved away from the beer being poured, almost frightened by the movement of the white substance, filled with concern for the fact that I had disturbed it.
I backed out from behind the bar with caution and scanned over the pub once more.
My eyes fell on my seat and stack of pages. There was inconsistency there, something out of place. I moved back to the table and inspected the page I had just been scribbling upon. At first my pen and the page all seemed to lack any dust at all, it was if it hadn’t come to form in the space in which I sat, but then I noticed the air.
I changed my angle and crouched down, letting the light from the window catch the space in which I had been sitting. Hanging there without influence of gravity, was the lightest shell of my form. The faintest outlines of dust seeming to float exactly where I had been sitting. Everything from the curls in my hair to the tips of my fingers were there in the ghost of a form, faint but unmistakeable.
On impulse I sat back down, trying to see how exact the dusts imprint was. I began carefully placing my fingers in just the place that their outline remained when I felt a pull, as if my core was being tugged. At first I fought against the strange sensation, until I realized it had no affect on my fingers which were already returned to their dust cocoon. I gave into the tugging sensation then, I let it guide my body perfectly into the position I had been sitting when I’d noticed the world around me was still.
My previous position was matched almost perfectly when I felt an emptiness at my ears, like a breeze ran across them despite the air of the room being still. I looked down to see the headphones I had worn hastily pulled out and allowed to fall tangled across my page. I was going to put them back in to perfectly replicate my position of before, but with the slightest tilting of my head I inadvertently gave one last inch to the tug of my old position, the roar of the world suddenly reignited.
Casual sounds boomed louder than I had ever imagined possible, the words of each patron, paused mid-syllable, finished with what seemed like a great bellowing. The creaking of the floor beneath their feet sounded like the splintering of a falling oak.
A twisting caught my stomach and I pressed my tongue against the roof of my mouth to keep myself from being sick. The whole world seemed to suddenly start moving again, like an amusement park ride had been turned on. With strange, stuttering force everything around me reanimated. My body felt like it was still in motion, as if I’d been hurled in countless circles and then suddenly dropped.
I heard Dan yelp in surprise and I snapped around, “Sorry about that.” I heard him say as he reached for a bar towel. My senses adjusted to the barrage of fresh input, my stomachs twisting slowed, dizziness left me, and the world seemed manageable once more.
“There must have been air caught in the line.” he tried to explain apologetically to costumers, who themselves were gently sprayed with frothed beer. I watched silently as Dan mopped spilled ale off of the bar.
How fast does thick blood flow
The following chapter is composed in accordance with the contents of a rose petal-sealed letter. Details were added at a much later date than the sequence of events allows me to currently explain.
Large wrought iron gates swung open as Val approached, unseen eyes recognizing him. The deep tinting of his car’s windshield lacked any purpose as he drove through the gates with the top down. He knew that he was expected, he knew that it was impossible to arrive at this place in any other way. Val shook his head at the spectacle provided by the gates, they were decoration at most, anything that brought fear to the residents of the Tudor home he approached would not be hindered by embedded iron. The true fear produced precautions were far more discreet.
Val did not wait for the gates to swing closed behind him, he revved the engine of his Veyron as he approached the front of the house. When he pulled up to the shallow stone staircase the large arched doorway swung open with as much excitement as can be shown through an inanimate object. A young girl, no more than 12, stood wide eyed as the car stopped. Her deep brown hair was tied in a tight braid; her trousers were tucked into tightly laced high boots. She looked like more of a stable hand than a respectable lady of aristocracy.
“Val!” The young girl squealed, as he stepped out of the vehicle, throwing her arms around him.
“What has au-pair done with your hair baby sister?” Val asked beholding the loose braid with tentative disgust as he squeezed her in return.
She looked up at him with an apologetic yet dismissive smile, before grabbing her hair and pulling it over her shoulder. “Is it fast?” She asked, her attention now consumed by the car. She peered over the driver’s door with unmasked curiosity.
“0-60 in two and a half seconds.” He said smiling, satisfied that his latest toy impressed her.
She looked up at him with a blank stare, not hiding the fact that his words held no meaning to her.
“Very fast.” He explained, smiling at her again. “Do you know where father is?” he asked, trying to keep concern from his tone.
Her eyes reluctantly pulled from the car at this question. She looked up at him with precisely the concern he did not wish to show, “He’s waiting in the library.” She bit the inside of her cheek and looked down, “I don’t think he’s very happy with you.” She said more quietly.
Val faked a smile and rubbed his hand over the top of his half sister’s hair, an action instantly regretted as he felt its greasiness, “Father will cheer-up, don’t worry little’un” he said, wiping his hand on his trousers as he walked away.
Val walked up the short stairs to the front hall of the massive 16th century home. The door was left wide open, in annoyance he glanced around for a servant, clearing his throat and then snapping his fingers. When this proved futile he gave up and made his way upstairs to the library.
The décor of the home was remarkably unchanged since it’s construction. Val dragged his hand along the banister and wondered silently how much of the old wood was left for its beauty, and how much had been kept only due to his father’s fears. Even the artwork that had come to adorn the halls of the home were at least as old as the home itself; little of it was actually decoration.
Val shook his head at the paintings, priceless due to their age, not their quality. “Tasteless” He whispered to himself as he looked upon an oil rendition of a gruesome Nordic battle scene. Beneath the painting was a helmet in a glass case, a proud description on display beside it declaring that this was the very helmet worn in the painted scene. The helmet was littered with dents and scores, like scars on skin no degree of polish could remove. The damage true use had done. How long had it been since anyone of his family was cut deep enough to be scarred? Now they wore helmets only when they stood for paintings and none of those paintings involved the spilling of blood.
Val silently vowed to redecorate the house quite drastically.
His eyes were pulled from the erratic brush strokes of a painter history had not bothered to remember when a woman in servant’s garb passed by him.
“My things are in the car!” He said as she passed. Each of his words grew louder than the last as she did not stop nor even respond to him; the only explicable reason for such insolence would be that she had not heard him.
The servant continued walking.
Val’s blood boiled, he turned on his heel and opened his mouth, preparing to unleash his fury upon her.
“Valhalla!” His father’s voice echoed sharply down the hallway.
Val closed his mouth and clenched his jaw as he tried to glare at his father through on the partially closed old wooden door of the library.
“Leave her alone.” The voice added, barely more than a whisper now, as if testing how well Val was listening. Or perhaps proving how softly he could speak and yet still be obeyed.
Val exhaled silently and then straightened his already unruffled clothing. He marched forward with his chin tilted upwards, he pushed open the door with his foot, keeping his hands folded behind him. He idly looked around the library as he walked in. He pretended to analyze a book spine, and then turned away from it as if bored and disinterested. When he finally did look towards his father he realized his act had been pointless, the man stood facing away from him, looking out the large paned window to the courtyard below.
“What,” his father finally said, “is that monstrosity?” The white haired older gentleman did not bother turning around as he spoke. His hands were clasped in much the same way Val’s were, right hand gripping the wrist of the left, which was held in fist. Both hands pressed gently against the small of his back. His father’s fingers did not tap against his skin nervously, the way that Val’s did, though.
“It is a car, father.” Val said, rolling his eyes to the back of his head. An action he would not admit he wouldn’t have done had his father been looking at him.
“I think that much is apparent, Valhalla.”
“It is a Bugatti, one of the fastest and most expensive on the market.” Val replied as if encouraging his father to be proud of this.
“The fastest?” The man turned now. He looked at Val with surprise, a bright smile on his face. “You think, that car is fast?”
Val gritted his teeth, realizing his error in word choice.
Instantaneously his father was across the room and directly in front of him, only a few inches away. Val’s head immediately went downwards. Avoiding his father’s eyes, he tightly closed his own.
“That is not fast.” He said into the top of Val’s head. Val could feel hot breath in his hair.
Just as quickly as the words had left his mouth, he was no longer standing there. Through tightly closed eyes Val only knew for certain that his father was not above him from the absence of the man’s breath against his scalp. Val snapped his head up, trying to hide the pitiful cowardice of his closed eyes, only to see his father standing at the window with his back to him once more.
“If you continue considering things perceivable as anything other than standing still, then you do not deserve the blood that flows through your veins.” The man said, still without bothering to turn and look at his son.
“I am sorry, Father.” Val said quietly.
His father said nothing. He stood at the window in his long red robes, the intricate gold threading did not even shimmer as he mimicked a statue. The silence of his father’s figure crept further and further under Val’s skin until at last he opened his mouth to break the silence.
Before Val had the chance to speak, his father suddenly said, “I’ve been informed of the incident at the Slow-Bar.”
Val hesitated. He looked down to the thick carpet of the floor, he closed his mouth, and then opened it again. He looked back up to see his father’s eyes on him.
“What were you thinking? Running in a Slow-Bar? Irrational and daft, do not begin to describe an act so foolish…”
“He attacked me!” Val retorted, finally finding his tongue.
“Because you attempted to hit his date.” His father said with a tone far calmer than Val’s. He put an emphasis on date, a sharpening of the “t” which honed the word to cut as deep as possible, just to watch Val grimace as he said it.
Val bit his tongue as he tried to keep his face vacant.
His father watched him for a moment and then shook his head. He stepped away from the window and took a seat at the old mahogany writing desk, perfectly fitted between the grand shelves of the private library. “That girl…” he began to say as he leafed through a stack of letters on the desk. He shook his head. “Even I grow tired of your obsession with her.” He looked back at Val, catching his eyes and holding them, “She grew tired of it long ago.”
“I am not obsessed.” Val said back in little more than a whisper.
His father made a sound that could almost be mistaken for a laugh, and then looked away, letting Val return his eyes to the floor.
“No,” he said, “You lack the concentration for even that.”
Val clenched his jaw tightly.
“She is of watered blood, a lucky rebirth of recessive traits. She has always been beneath you, yet you’ve persisted after her since your trials. She only ever causes you trouble, Valhalla”
Val’s gaze had returned to the floor but he could still feel his father’s eyes on him. He opened his mouth to speak then, part of him expecting his father to cut him off, part of him depending on it for he had not yet found his words. His father remained silent however, and Val’s throat failed to produce any sound. He stood opening and closing his mouth like a fish drowning in open air.
“Yes? Is there something you would like to say?” His father patronized him with a soft tone, as if he were talking to a small child. “Perhaps you’ll blame it on her again? Is it Eve’s fault, Valhalla? Did she make you break one of the most fundamental rules of the society you’re meant to be leading? Did that peasant, your childhood pet, make you jealous of another boy?”
Val’s face was scorched red now. Anger and embarrassment swelled in him, he felt a tremble running through his fingertips.
“Do you understand the repercussions of your actions? Do you think before you act or do you just blindly swing and hope that your blood clears it up on the other side?” His father stood up again, walking back towards him. “Breaking the very first term of the Greenwich treaty for the sake of a bitch in heat who chose a fellow mutt over a pure bread.” His father stood close to him now.
Val could feel the man’s presence over him, he could feel his father consuming the air around them both, leaving Val with nothing to breath.
“You’re within an age of taking over the house, you should have long ago matured into the Keeper that will carry on this name. Instead you’re still the runt of the litter masquerading as the playground bully. I can’t determine if you lack the brain function to think before you act, or if you cannot comprehend concepts such as ‘self control’ no matter how much thinking you do.”
The shivering that Val felt in his fingertips had turned to a shake, his hands twitching as a rush of cold vibration swelled over his entire body. He was on the verge of eruption, struggling desperately to contain his emotions.
His father leaned in towards his face. He could feel the man’s breath on his forehead, he could smell the odour of cigar smoke “You have long disappointed me, Valhalla.” His father spat the words, moisture landing on Val’s lips as he spoke. “But, it is only now that you are beginning to disgust me.”
Val flexed his muscles against it, he focused on steadying his hands, yet his father’s words pounded against the foundation of the dam as he tried to repair it. Before the last syllable has left his father’s mouth, Val’s hands suddenly stopped shaking. The damn broke and water rushed forth. It splashed over him in one great wave, it felt as if it flushed the shivering from his system, but in reality he was not cleansed of that vibration, he was engulfed in it.
Valhalla exhaled long and hard with the new calm that had now come over him. He shifted his gaze up and looked into the eyes of his father. His father starred back emptily, seeing nothing.
Val studied the expression his father wore: the word ‘me’ still stuck on his tongue, spittle on his lower lip. Val wanted to smile at the frozen expression of anger, no longer menacing in its motionlessness. Despite the stillness that now afflicted his father though, Val could not bring himself to smile at a face which wore that much furry.
Val looked around briefly at the heavy coating of dust throughout the room. He knew he had to break, he could not run away from the conversation for it would always be looming, waiting to happen. He looked into the empty eyes of his father once more, eyes he was unwilling to meet most days, eyes with emptiness that could not be attributed to stillness alone.
Val leaned in closer, letting his lips hover just over his father’s ear. “Pure bred, mutt, it doesn’t matter, we all look the same when we’re being outrun.” He knew his words would go unheard, that they would never be registered in a still mind, yet it made speaking them only a little less satisfying.
Val leaned back again, looking at his father’s frozen expression as his hand gently searched for the dusty form of his previous position, preparing himself to break.
Then, his father’s head turned towards him.
His eyes turned from their blank stare and looked directly back at Val’s. He closed his mouth and straightened his neck, “If you had half as much intelligence as you do confidence I’d be tempted to have some respect for you.”
Val’s jaw clenched tightly, frustrated with himself for not considering that his father faked the stillness. Infuriated with himself for not noticing the lack of dust on his skin.
“I hear that you could barely outrun the leacher at the bar, yet you thought that I hadn’t followed you?” His father asked, leaning back and shifting stiffness from his neck.
“He was not a leacher.” Val said as he turned his eyes downwards once more.
“Do not exaggerate the size of your enemies, Valhalla. Are you trying to impress me by claiming he was a keeper?”
“He was not a keeper either.” Val looked up as he said this, a spark igniting in the back of his mind; perhaps his father did not know the details of the scenario the way in which he suggested.
As if in confirmation of Val’s suspicion, his father looked back sharply, “What, do you mean?”
“He was not a keeper; he wore no watch. Nor did he speak in quick.”
His father shrugged, “Just because he did not speak your abomination of a tongue does not assure he isn’t a leacher.”
Val felt a smile pull at the corners of his lips, the satisfaction of holding knowledge his father did not chipping away at earlier frustrations. “Perhaps, but a leacher would not have been able to run with me.”
His father’s face had lost its condescension, although it was still stern, there was less confidence in his disapproval. “By all accounts, he did not run with you, he merely hitched your increase.”
Val managed to contain his smile as he shook his head, “No. He increased simultaneously, while I was not touching him, it was not staccato and dependant on my touch like a leacher.”
Skepticism now overcame the harshness of his father’s face. “Yet he wore no watch. Are you certain?”
“His watch was stageless, mechanical, made of stainless steel, glass, and leather. It was not one of ours.”
“But are you certain he was out of contact with you, certain that he increased simultaneously?”
Val considered admitting to the strike he took to the top of his head, or the bar stool kicked into him, but decided it was information unnecessary. “I am certain. I would not have run at such a speed otherwise.”
His father’s eyed narrowed, “You should not have run at all.” but, then he sighed. He reached out suddenly and grabbed Val’s arm.
Val’s stomach lurched and dizziness briefly struck him as the dust in the room disappeared. He tried to keep himself from being sick, annoyed at his father’s forced halt. His father let go and walked away then.
“I’ll admit that what you tell me is interesting. I’ll send somebody to look into it.”
“Father,” Val protested once his tongue stopped salivating from the threat of sickness, “I would be happy to investigate this for you myself.”
His father swivelled, looking at him with eyebrows raised, “Do you actually believe that this man will be content to speak with somebody who beat him just the night before?” He shook his head and looked to the window. “No, we do not need any more of your spectacles. I will send a hand.”
There was a brief abruptness to his father’s motion. He suspected his father wanted him to see this, to let him know that it had already been done and keep him from arguing. Val remained too stubborn for this to stop him, however, “A hand? Father how will a hand even get there? Surely someone of more capability is better suited to such a task?”
“Such a task? Do not speak with grandeur over something that will likely still equate to nothing. Something that will probably prove to be a flaw in your observations.”
As he said this, Val heard someone softly knock on the door frame behind him.
“You asked for my presence, my lord?” A slight man in a beige suit stood in the doorway, a bright grin on his face.
“Thank you for joining us, Robin” His father smiled at the man softly, “The details of your task are in the envelope on my desk.” Val had not noticed the new envelope’s appearance. He attributed it to the slight stutter in his father’s form he had seen moments earlier.
Val watched the hand as he sauntered forward and picked up the envelope. Tools which perform with pride were always of a general annoyance to Val. The man’s thin and greying hair seemed to bounce as he walked. His steps were taken with an air of importance so exaggerated from his actual indifferent existence that it made a shiver roll over Val’s fingertips once more.
“My son brought up a consideration, as well,” Val’s father added. Val looked towards his father to see him staring back, watching him, “This matter is of rather timely importance, so in order to make your journey slightly swifter please feel free to take the vehicle outside.”
Val grit his teeth, but let no expression show.
“Valhalla, if you could give him the keys.” His father said, meeting his eyes with a gentle smile.
“Yes, father.” Val said, reaching into his pocket and dropping his keys into the leacher’s hand without looking towards him.
The three stood there in silence for a moment. Val and his father staring at each other, the hand looking back and forth between them.
Finally, his father broke eye contact and looked to the hand, his smile no longer present, “Did you not hear me when I said it was a timely matter?”
“Yes, my lord! Sorry, sir! I’ll report back as soon as possible.” The hand stuttered before turning and quickly striding out through the door and away.
“It will be days before we have answers now.” Val offered as a defeated complaint.
“And yet that did not seem to bother you when you took a day to first make me aware of the situation.”
Val had little to say in defense, he let his head hang down once more.
“Now, this does not leave you exempt from punishment Valhalla.”
Val’s head shot up, his father still looked out the window.
“Running in a Slow-Bar is not something I will tolerate being done by my own bloodline. You are lucky you were not reported to court. I have assured the slow-bar keeper that you will face repercussions.”
Val looked at his father without contest or challenge, only his eyes silently pleaded for him to reconsider.
“The circumstance, however, are more complex than I originally understood. In light of this, I will stead the more traditional penance.”
“Thank you, father.” Val said genuinely, his heart pounding in his chest.
“Autumn onsets, the climbing roses on the north wall as well as the garden cellars are beginning to wilt.” His father turned to look at him briefly before returning to his desk and sorting once more through letters which sat there. “Place the pedals in stacks of 100 on a table in the furthest cellar. I expect them to be stacked in accordance with their condition.”
Val stared at his father as he pictured the height of the house’s north face and the hundreds of roses that covered that wall alone.
His father looked back up at him, “You are dismissed.” He said, as if there may have been some confusion.
Val nodded and tried to keep himself from looking down before turning on the spot and taking long strides across the room.
Just as he reached the doorway, however, his father spoke once more. “And Valhalla, how we look when we are being outrun makes no difference. For it is never being outrun that makes us pure.”
Desire dilutes distrust
I sat on the window ledge outside of Dan’s pub with my back pressed firmly against the glass. In one hand a tightly rolled cigarette burned, indifferent to the cold, in the other hand a black coffee cooled quicker than I could drink it. November is hard on polystyrene cups of coffee. The pub had not yet opened. I knew I would be early, but I had hoped for one of the bar staff to see me and let me in. To my disappointment, Dan appeared to be the one opening and was therefore less concerned with being in the pub any length of time before unlocking the doors. I resigned to sit on the window ledge and watch mid-morning London pass me by.
Farringdon-market was already long alive and I found a strange unease in walking through its busying stands. There was so much movement, constant hustle as countless people all acted with independent intentions while trying to coexist in cramped space. It was a feeling I was struggling to shake, even now with back against the window, the speed at which traffic moved up and down the street seemed alarming. Ever since yesterday’s dream I felt that I had not managed to catch up with the speed of the world, my mind was still waiting for it to pause and let me pass through. The strange conditions of a sleep-deprived daydream refusing to be forgotten.
I watched a black cab drive by, I stared at the movement of the tires, as if willing them to slow, yet it sped onwards, indifferent to the intentions of my willpower. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the window, questioning, not for the first time, whether or not my sanity was in tact.
I drank deeply from my coffee despite its ongoing transformation into a chilled sludge. I felt that my body’s need for caffeine superseded my taste bud’s protests. I almost craved the anxious shiver of far too many cups of coffee. I felt sleep deprived, exhausted even. I had slept for some 10 hours, yet the night had been riddled with dreams that were better described as hauntings. It was the kind of dreaming that left you feeling more tired when you awake, the mind overworked in its sleep. I drank my coffee in hopes of synthesizing wakefulness, but I was already questioning if wakefulness was the issue. Perhaps, I wasn’t looking on the world with tired eyes, but through a glass of different colour.
In the back of my mind a voice without reason whispered that I was looking, for the first time, without glass at all; reality was not skewed, merely exposed.
I took a drag of my cigarette and found my eyes watching the road again. A sleek luxury sports car swiftly approached. I found myself unintentionally willing it to stop, as if by making that one vehicle pause it’s motion the world would somehow follow suit. I let myself stare harder at the deeply tinted windows. I gritted my teeth at the spinning aluminum rims. The vehicle slowed. In eerie silence it’s speed decreased and I focused harder on the turning of the tires.
From behind me there was a loud clunking, followed by the opening of the pub door, a process that was clearly not delayed in its speed.
The sleek car accelerated audibly, large engine whining with the increased supply of fuel, forcibly reminding me of the stop sign that had made it slow. I watched it drive away for a moment, telling myself to that I need to tighten my grip on reality, before turning around to Dante. He stood with one arm against the door, holding it open, waiting for me to enter.
Dan appeared tired, yet he looked at me and said “You look exhausted.”
I raised my eyebrows for a moment, “It’s a mirror, mate.”
He nodded in acceptance and put the pub door on a bolt behind me, not yet ready to welcome the general public. I had known Dan for the better part of a decade, yet it seemed he’d not aged a day. It was only in these fleeting moments of early morning that years come to pass were ever visible. He wore dark circles under bloodshot eyes, his motions slow and unsure. I wondered briefly if he was high, but I saw the inscribed silver ban still on his wrist. He always took it off for the lengths of his relapses.
He caught my eyes on the bracelet, “It’s the condition of the modern world, mate.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“Exhaustion. We’re all exhausted, all the time. We get eight hours of sleep and we’re exhausted.” He poured us both black coffees as he spoke, “Our minds have become too accustom to reminding us of everything we’re not doing, or not letting us forget the things we have done. I cannot see how anyone can sleep with all that going on. The expectation of rest is a fantasy when our questions are restless”
I smiled at him, it was early to be engaging in philosophical thought. “Yeah. My night was much the same.”
Dan nodded his head, “I was describing your night.”
My mouth made a silent ‘oh’.
“I did not actually attempt to sleep. Not intentionally, more so accidentally.” He drank from his coffee and then picked at unseen things beneath the bar as he spoke, “I’m not sure if you had fallen asleep on what you’d been writing yesterday morning, or if you found some potent Adderall, but there was a lot left here to read.”
He looked at me expectantly, but I had no valid answer to give him.
“More pages than the hours you spent here should have allowed, that’s for certain. Well done, I suppose.” He produced a few letters from beneath the bar and laid them in front of me, all addressed to me or one of my pseudonyms. I preferred to not use my home address for some accounts. “Anyway, you shot out of here so fast yesterday that I couldn’t help but take a look at what you’d been writing after I closed, which ended up taking far longer than expected.”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I offered in regard to my sudden departure.
“Don’t be, I could have stopped reading if I had wanted to.” He took my apology as a reference to the amount composed. “Once I had finished however, I was rather inspired to… look into things, as we’d discussed.”
“Oh.” I suddenly perked up. I drank the fresh coffee happily and looked at him with expectation.
He said nothing however, he just continued looking at me.
He sighed and moved down the bar opening the glass washer and beginning to put away clean pint glasses as he spoke to me. “I asked some questions. Well, I told some people that I was looking to ask some questions. And I let some people talk, not always the most reliable folk, the ones that greet sunrise by happenstance instead of intention, but I listened for the prospect of anything interesting all the same.”
He continued putting away glasses, as if intending not to continue, I sighed, feeling like I was pulling teeth.
“It has been suggested, that in order to get answers, you need to ask the right questions.” He stopped what he was doing and returned to his coffee that sat next to me on the bar. “I believe however, that if the questions you’re asking are really meant to be asked, instead of answering you, people start asking back.”
He eyed me, as if looking for some kind of recognition on my face. “There is intrigue, Augustine. I don’t think it was just me asking that caused it. I get the impression, that whatever you’re looking for, is already looking for you.”
I bit my lip. Dan had a tendency to add augustness to the mundane, I liked to think that I offered him grounding, he liked to think that he offered me enlightenment. “I’m just asking after a pub, Dan, I’m curious about its regulars at the most.”
Dan nodded, “Aye, and they either don’t like to be asked about, or they were already asking about you.” He took an old mobile phone from his pocket and laid it on the bar. “Or, perhaps both.” He slid the phone towards me. “I found it upstairs, one of my old ones, it has a bit of money on it already, and my numbers in there.”
I smiled, “Thanks mate, but I really don’t need one.”
“It’s the modern world, August.” He pushed the phone further towards me.
“What do your old God’s think of you embracing this modern world?”
He smiled, “I don’t rightly know. But, I’m willing to guess that they don’t think of themselves as old, and that they don’t think of the world as modern. They’re just gods, and this is just the world.”
I pocketed the cellphone. “So, what has been said? What are they asking that has spooked you into sleeplessness?”
He shrugged, “They didn’t say anything particularly revealing, nor ask anything particularly concerning. Had they asked me why I wanted to know about that pub, I wouldn’t have been surprised. However, they wanted to know who was asking about it. They assumed quite quickly that a third party was the interested party.”
I gave Dan a blank stare, trying to say ‘so?’ without speaking the word aloud.
He shrugged at my expression, “Just the manner with which they didn’t tell, it’s curious.” He said dismissively, perhaps accepting that he was making it into more than it was. “I did learn though,” he added, “it’s not Tim’s Bar, it’s Time’s.”
I turned my head towards him sharply, the memory of the pub sign growing clearer in my head. Alcohol had clouded my memory; the barman’s name had made inference too easy. “What a disappointingly less ominous reason for my struggle to find it.” I said, as I recalled inquisitively sifting through google results and pub guides in vein for the last two days.
“Maybe, but if you had found it, would you have gone back.”
It was my turn to shrug.
Dan then laid a fresh stack of blank pages on top of the couple letters he had given me. “I took the liberty of replenishing your stock. Your burned through the last ones.” He said and then made his way to the pub door, unbolting it.
“So, you mentioned reading it, but not what you thought.” I probed as I put the letters atop the pages, briefly thumbing through them at the off chance that one contained some royalties. I stopped at one letter, the paper was thick, its colouring uneven, more reminiscent of parchment than letter stalk. I turned it over in my hand. It was sealed with what did not even seem to be wax, but a flower petal.
“When you open that one, let me know.” Dan said as he walked back from the now open door.
I looked at him and then to the letter again. It had no address: the pub’s, nor return. The letter had only my name, written in an elegant script. “No address? Was it hand delivered?” I was increasingly curious.
“I guess so. Not to me though, one of the staff must have taken it.”
I set the letter down then, remembering what I had said before it offered interruption, “I’m not that easily distracted, Dante. The words, what are your thoughts?”
He exhaled and looked me in the eyes, “It’s good August… You’re close to it, but, it’s good.”
I let his words bring about a smile, far more genuine than the one I usually wore. I stood up from the bar with my papers and coffee, his approval acting as encouragement to continue.
Black coffee gave way to a black porter as I found my way back to my unofficially reserved table. Words were put to paper, but my pen did not move with the ease which good writing created. I knew it was entirely fault of my own; part of me hoped not to find yesterday’s flow, and the other part of me hoped for it far too much. Continually I halted my pen and slowly looked around, trying to move as little as possible while checking to see if everyone else was still in motion. I do not know if it was with disappointment or relief that I failed to find myself slipping back into that peculiarly realistic day-dream.
My pint glass found its way to empty again and a fearful thought of the state of my tab made me hesitate only briefly before returning to the bar to have it refilled.
Dan was waiting, he seemed insistent on serving me. He had eyes locked on me as I approached, letting his bar staff deal with the other customers.
I held out the glass wordlessly.
He matched my eyes as he took it before he glanced quickly over his shoulder and then back to me. He stood for a moment longer before going to get my porter.
I tried to discreetly look in the direction of his glance. I didn’t think the look was the product of Dante’s distracted mind, yet everything appeared normal. The bar was busy, I searched my mind in an effort to determine what day of the week it was: Saturday? A weekend would explain the number of patrons. I kept my eyes down towards the bar, glancing to faces only briefly. Nothing seemed out of place, standard pints being consumed by standard customers.
I looked back to Dan, he was pouring my pint incredibly slowly it seemed. As he hand-pulled the ale I saw him glance to me, and then to a patron only a few feet away. He diverted his eyes then, not returning my gaze as he pulled the ale unnecessarily delicately.
I scanned the bar top again. Three people away from me, a cup of tea, on saucer, sat atop the bar.
Although it wouldn’t be the strangest occurrence in your average pub, in Dan’s it was a red flag. I’d heard Dan claim to be ‘out of milk’ and therefore unable to make a cup of tea for one customer, while simultaneously making a white Russian for another. To him this was a drinker’s pub, nothing more, nothing less, after lunch he didn’t like to pour anything that didn’t have alcohol in it. This included what he poured for his own consumption.
Was jest the cause of the sideways glances? Dan waiting for me to be in on the joke, silent mockery of somebody trying to have a cup of tea in the late afternoon on a weekend in a busy pub? I stole a glance at the character: he wore a tan coloured jacket, well pressed and clean over a pastel shirt. Both looked like they cost more than the accumulation of all my belongings. I looked to the man’s face, and saw him looking directly back at me.
I didn’t pull my eyes away immediately, not wanting my stolen glance to be obvious, I instead held his stare for a moment before looking past him, pretending to be equally interested in the patron that was standing behind him. From the corner of my eye I saw one side of his mouth arch into a crooked smile. It was the kind of satisfied smirk that made me think about keeping my hands free.
Dan appeared before me once more, standing closer to the bar than usual as he laid the pint glass down in front of me.
“Cheers.” I said quietly. And began turning away.
He cleared his throat loudly, making me jump a little.
I looked back at him and raised my eyebrows in question.
“Are you going to pay for that?” He locked his eyes with mine, but there was a certain kind of vacancy to his look that left me knowing he was concentrated on what his peripherals revealed.
“I, uh…” I began patting my trousers and then my jacket, “Next time!” I said with a shrug.
“No. I’ve had enough of your next times.” He pointed at me aggressively. “Pay for the beer, or leave it on bar.”
“Oh come on, I’ve already drank out of it!” I said and then took my first gulp. “You’re not just going to pour it down the sink.”
“Watch me.” Dan growled and he reached across the bar, grabbing the pint from my hand, sloshing it over me as he did. Just as he was leaned in closest to me, grabbing the beer, he looked towards the door on the furthest side of the room and gave the slightest nod. Dan slammed the now half empty glass onto the bar top. “I’ve had enough of your uncapped tab.”
“Oh come on mate, you know I’m good for it.” I pleaded with some genuineness.
“Well mate,” he clicked his tongue over the mate, “come back when you can fucking pay for it.”
“Seriously! Get out! Go!” Dan shouted at me, pointing towards the same door as he had nodded to before.
I stalked across the room, making a point to grumble something beneath my breath. I made an effort to trip on the doorframe as I left, falling forward, looking excessively intoxicated. I kept up the drunken display as I walked down the sidewalk. Maintaining a consistent direction, yet assuring there was inconsistency in my steps. I let myself wander from side to side as I continued down the road, not yet taking any side streets, moving at a calm but steady pace.
My phone vibrated in my pocket, I took it out as discreetly as I could, holding it in front of me. It was a text message from Dan:
“100 paces behind you and gaining. I’ll message again at 50, 20, 10 paces”
I swallowed hard, and tried not to change my walk. There was a side street coming up, a minute’s walk ahead; it was my last chance to get off the busy main street with enough distance to let Dan catch up. I turned the corner and made a few long strides while I knew I was out of eye sight. With the space of a few paces gained I returned to my drunken stalking, hopefully before the pursuer turned the corner.
All too soon my phone vibrated again: 50 paces behind me, it would read. I left it in my pocket, trying to keep whoever followed me from knowing that I was being notified. I knew this street, I knew there was an artillery path to the left, almost guaranteed to be empty. I slowed my pace slightly. I wanted the tail close behind me when I turned, I couldn’t give him time to determine it was a dead end and prepare himself.
My phone vibrated again: 20.
I was almost at the alley, just a few more paces. I faked a stumble into the wall. Over acting as I caught myself. I kept my shoulder against the wall so that it seemed as if I just fell up the alley, a passing change of direction encouraged from my stumble. My phone vibrated again: 10.
I planted my back hard against the wall, fists raised, waiting to blind side the pursuer as he came around the corner. My heart beat was fast but not out of control. I kept my breathing even, prepared for the exertion that was about to come.
I began to feel my fingernails digging into my palms, but I would not loosen my fists. Nobody came around the corner, though. My phone did not vibrate. I held the position for far longer than it should have taken him to catch up. I heard the distant sounds of London proceeding as per usual, the passing of a motor and the rumbling of the tube beneath my feet. Nobody turned the corner.
My concentration waned. I felt my fists loosen as I tested the slightest tilt of my head. I could see nothing more with my back so firmly pressed against the wall, I noticed the loosening of my stance and immediately snapped back into attention. I listened for footsteps, straining as I concentrated, but no relevant sounds were revealed.
I considered the idea of moving back onto the street. Looking to see where this man had gone, perhaps stealing a better look at him, or maybe just discovering that he was no longer there. The imagined image of him tucked against the opposite side of this corner, in the exact same manner as me, quickly deterred this thought, though.
I stood still. I continued waiting. Listening. Minutes must have passed at this point. I continually found myself focusing on the distant sounds of traffic, assuring myself that I had not somehow slipped into yesterday’s daydream and the world was trying to stand still.
Standing there in a state of confused limbo, unwilling to commit to any action, finding safety only in waiting, a fresh odour found its way to me. It was gentle at first, passing by my nose at interval, a smell that vanished as quickly as it was noticed, leaving itself unidentified and its existence uncertain. But, it reached my nose again, stronger this time. I allowed my position against the wall to loosen as I realized what it was that now wafted down the nearly deserted street: pipe tobacco. Cherry pipe tobacco was being smoked no more than ten meters from me, surely just around the corner, out of eyesight.
Instead of stepping back towards the main street, I let my back leave the wall and I tentatively crept sideways towards the middle of the alley. My neck was craned forward as I tried to take in as much of the street as my steps could reveal. Ready to launch backward at the sight of any threat.
Finally, after I had shifted almost to the opposite side of the alley and was reconsidering moving forward, there he was, standing casually, looking down at the cobblestone in front of him. My pursuer was not pursuing, he stood against a brick wall on the other side of the street, casually smoking a pipe. He had done up the top button of his beige jacket, one hand was stuffed into his trouser pocket, the other held the end of the pipe, occasionally covering its top with his thumb. I stared at the man for a long moment. He seemed strangely out of place on the dingy street with a skip just a few meters behind him. The light colour of his suit and the polish of his pipe did not match the dark colour of the walls around him.
He looked up at me. I abruptly felt incredibly foolish, with my hands balled into fists held up before me, while he casually smoked a pipe in a tweed suit. I slowly lowered my fists, becoming increasingly convinced that I had no need for them.
He gave an apologetic smile once he saw me looking at him, “I fear I may have created the wrong impression.”
I met his eyes as he spoke, trying to gauge whether there was honesty in his words or not. His accent was an attempt at aristocracy, but the Northern nature of his syntax still held on.
“That depends, what kind of impression were you intending to make? And more importantly, why do you want to make any impression on me at all?” My hands were open and hanging at my sides now, but I was not willing to move any closer to him. Not yet.
“Well.” He said, pulling the pipe from his mouth. “As far as the impression I would have preferred make: I’d have happily paid off your tab at that bar, had you not left so hurriedly.” He knocked the heel of his foot against the cobbled street before bending his knee and knocking his toe against the stone as well.
He took a step towards me.
I immediately stepped backwards.
He raised up his hands with a surprised expression and stepped back once more. He acted as if I were wild beast, one he feared scaring away. I felt like a wild beast, one being lured into a trap.
“I apologize for having created such alarm, I suppose following you out of a pub is a bit of an odd gesture. I didn’t mean to stalk you, I would have called your name, had I simply known what to call out.”
“I find it rather irregular that you’re following someone who’s name you don’t know.”
“Oh, quite the contrary, I know you by a collection of names, I just haven’t been able to determine which you use. That is why I’ve long had a bit of a distaste for pen names.”
I arched my eyebrows and said nothing, a part of me began questioning if I was entirely overreacting to the situation, if I should have merely spoken to this character in the pub. Yet, the words of a rose-petal-sealed letter tumbled over and over, in the back of my mind.
“I work for Macmillan Publishing, and rather recently I’ve been made aware of your work.” He let that line hang in the air, more than aware of the impact it could have on a sporadically, small-time published, writer.
I offered him no immediate response, so he continued. “I don’t usually approach authors directly, much less try and find them at their place of socialization.”
I nodded and reached into my jacket pocket, taking a pre-rolled cigarette from a cheap plastic case. “Then why have you made an exception?” Curiosity brought the words out, despite knowing I should have further hesitation.
“My level of interest was the differentiating factor.” He smiled at me, the kind of greasy smile only possessed by those in sales.
I said nothing again, doubt filled me once more, I was long since disillusioned of the quality of my previously published works.
“I’d like to say that it stems entirely from what you’ve produced in the past, but to be honest, none of that would warrant a visit.” His smile became slyer, “This latest piece, however.”
I felt my jaw clench involuntarily, “Which piece are you referring to?”
“I don’t believe it has a title yet. I’ve been lucky enough to read the first 50 pages, and to say I am intrigued is a vast understatement. The entire female lead, possibly an angel, possibly a demon, walking through your dreams, very compelling.”
I looked this character up and down again. Did he look like a publisher? What did a publisher look like? I’d met many publishers, but most of mine rented printing spaces, worked out of their homes, at best they leased out a floor of a generic office building. They lacked continuity of appearance. My curiosity was winning out. “How exactly, did you manage to read the first 50 pages of a rough draft I began three days ago?”
He offered a quizzical look in place of his smile, “Well I suppose that’s a question best answered by your agent. Whom, if I overheard the name correctly in the pub, is also the keeper of your tab,” the man looked over his shoulder, down the street we had both walked up, “and was somewhere not far behind us.”
“Dante sent you a copy?” I asked without complete shock, it wouldn’t be the first time he took it upon himself to sell my work. It would be the first time he’d done so prior to me even meeting the half-way point, however. I made no acknowledgment of whether or not he had been following.
“He seemed quite impressed with it, and for good reason.” The smile was back, so confident and practised that its well oiled appearance surely left residue on his cheeks.
He took a lighter from his pocket as he brought the pipe up to his mouth. While he rolled his thumb across the zippo and cupped his hand over the end of the pipe, the sleeves of his jacket were pulled back. On his left wrist, tightly fastened, was a watch with an entirely black face.
He lit the pipe and returned the lighter to his pocket. He looked at me. My eyes remained set upon his left wrist, the watch covered once more.
He smirked when he saw where my gaze lead.
My hands clenched into fists at my side once more. My heart beat climbed, I shifted my weight to my back leg.
He sighed long and hard, leaving a long trail of smoke coming from his nose after the sigh had finished. “Almost.” He said, in an exasperated tone.
I could barely hear him over my heartbeat.
“My apologies, I really did not want to deceive you, it’s just that, this isn’t a conversation we should be having in such a public place.” His London aristocracy accent had almost entirely been dropped, the taint of Norfolk, and something else which I could not place, that had hidden beneath the surface were now undisguised.
How easily we can be fooled when tempted by our desires. How dangerous are those who tempt us with them. I kept my weight on my back foot, I tensed one fist and then the other, back and forth in succession, feeling the rhythm with which I was ready to swing. A rose-petal-sealed letter seemed to hold far more value than I had been willing to believe.
“You and I, are much more alike than you know, Augustine.” The man began smoking his pipe again, a fresh relaxation seemed to have come over him. He used my name so easily now that it was clear he was never uncertain of it.
“The greatest difference between us lies only in upbringing.” He pulled his pipe from him lips and looked at me with eyebrows raised apologetically. “I apologize, I do not mean that as a slight to the past that you have, I mean only that our youths would have been much more similar, had you not slipped through the cracks.”
I ground my teeth back and forth and met his eyes. He returned my stare, but without aggression, calmly waiting. The silence stretched and it grew clear that I needed to say something for him to continue. “I don’t believe I’m aware of what floorboards I slipped between.”
“Hmm,” The character made a great show of thinking as he used his thumb to keep his pipe alive while he smoked. “You did not slip through, really. It was us, who did not catch you. In fact, all of this is of no fault of yours. You see, as a youth, I was quite closely monitored, as many thousands all across the world are. Watched for the signs of any… talent. We are observed because of our blood heritage, sometimes blood that is as recent as parents, but in people such as you and I, it is much more common for it to be an ancestor long dead. For some reason, whether it be: documentation, adoption, a promiscuous relative, or as is the most recent issue, a matter of…biological donation; you were missed.”
I clicked my tongue in annoyance, “You’re suggesting I’m a distant cousin of yours?”
“Oh not necessarily! I’m not suggesting we are leaves of the same tree; I’m only informing you that you are of a very particular type of tree. A leaf on one of the highest branches of whichever tree yours may be, much like I am a small leaf on a very old and dying tree.”
“I’m quickly growing fed-up with your cryptic analogy.”
He smiled, that same slimy smile. “My apologies, it’s a terrible habit. You must forgive me though, there is quite a lot to tell, and I really am not the one whom should be telling you.”
“You’re the one who chose to stalk me, from my perspective, you’re precisely the one who should be doing the explaining.”
“In fact, my true purpose in following you, was to invite you to meet with somebody who is in a much better place to explain this all. A leaf on a much lower, stronger branch, if you will.” He smiled, so pleased with himself it made my stomach turn.
“Who?” I said simply.
A look of disbelief passed over his face, the man’s entire demeanor was so falsified I could not tell if his surprise was faked or merely exaggerated. “I thought surely, after all of the words you have written about her, it would be clear who wished to meet with you!”
“Eve?” I heard the name slip through my teeth, a thought I had not wished to speak aloud.
“Of course, Eve. She’ll do a much better job of answering the questions I’m sure you have.”
I shook my head, I did not want to step into the peculiar trap he was so clearly presenting. The idea of seeing her hooked me though, even if there was only the smallest chance his offer was legitimate I could not help but consider pursuing it. “I don’t know why you think I have questions.” I said non-committedly.
“I was not lying when I said I had read-“
“It’s a work of fantasy, nothing more. You can’t possibly be suggesting there is some truth to the ridiculous story I was writing.” I knew the false backing of my words was probably clear, but I felt more comfortable asserting naivety to this person than blatantly searching legitimacy.
His smile was different now, he was not slickening a pitch, but instead he was deciding whether or not to swallow one in return. He stepped back and leaned against the dirty brick wall. “It was not just you and her in that pub, Augustine. Other’s saw it too. The probability of reality increases drastically with expansion of audience.”
I hesitated a moment, letting my breathing stay even, I lifted some weight off of my back leg, the distance between us left me feeling more secure. “What is it you’re suggesting could be real?”
He huffed then, quickly and overtly, as if growing bored of the slow back and forth. He tucked the pipe into the inside of his jacket and stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets, staring down at his feet. He looked about to speak, and then he hesitated, he exhaled long and slow, as if calming himself. “I should be more sympathetic, I do apologize. It’s just hard for me to imagine exactly how, surreal, this must be to you. I’ve known since I was a child, as most of us have. A child’s mind is much more open to expansion.” He looked up then, suddenly snapping his head and meeting my eyes with the same fierceness which I had first offered. For the first time since he had opened his mouth I felt like I could believe what he was saying. “You have felt it August, that fist fight was not the first time you experienced it. It’s probably been in the most fleeting moments, perhaps even in a dream, but you’ve seen the world coated in dust before, as few people are capable of seeing it. You’re not as lucky as some, as those like Eve, who can see it whenever they choose. You’re like me, a leacher, a crude sounding term, but it will grow on you. Our leaves are too far out on our trees, our blood too thin to find it on our own, we can only hitch a ride with others. Do not underestimate the power of that gift though.” He pushed himself away from the wall then, he turned and looked down the street, the opposite direction from which we had come. He looked back to me then, “This is an offer you’re lucky to have received, and it will not wait, you are incapable of understanding how long it has waited already. Meet with us tonight, Eve will be there. It’s your choice if you do not, but I assure you, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
He did not need to add the last part of that sentence: however long it may be. That threat hung in the air without needing to be spoken aloud.
“Tim’s bar?” I asked, choosing to repeat my earlier mistake, maintain my projected ignorance. I was about to suggest I did not know where it was, when he cut me off.
“No, not Tim’s bar.” He said, his smile, returning once more. “It’s best you stay away from that place; I don’t imagine they’ll look fondly upon your face.” He glanced at the bruising still prevalent along each of my eyes. “The Shangri-La Suite, 8pm. Do be punctual, moments count for much more with these people.” He looked away from me and began walking down the street.
I stood looking down the otherwise empty street as the odour of cherry pipe tobacco was slowly overtaken by the smell of London. He turned the corner, and I finally let myself breathe more easily. My eyes held on the last place he could be seen for a long while before I was willing to turn around. I did not know if I was afraid of him, but I did know I was supposed to be.
Motivation to make the most of a moment.
I walked back in the direction I had come from, stopping at the side street’s end before turning back towards Dante’s pub. I took out my zippo, first swiping it back across the front of my thigh to open it, and then forward again to light it, holding it against the end of a cigarette I had let go out during conversation.
“You could have been a little less believable in your unhappiness over my tab.” I said to no one apparent as I puffed the cigarette to get it going.
Dante stepped out from the corner, his dark form hidden in the nook of a doorway, “And you overkilled the drunk act. He knew you weren’t that pissed.”
I shrugged, “He knew a lot, it seems.”
“I didn’t send anybody your rough draft.” Dante said as he rolled himself a cigarette. Today’s cigarette papers seemed to be almost translucent.
I shook my head, assuring him I did not believe he had. “So you heard the conversation?”
Dan shrugged, “Most of it.”
He looked up the street, squinting as if against a sun which was not shining, “You shouldn’t go.”
I nodded. “I expected you’d say that much.”
“It was a pitch Augustine, just like any other.”
I nodded again, “I know it was a pitch, but that does not change the fact that there are questions which could be answered.”
“Questions which they have created.”
I began walking up the street, Dan fell into step beside me, continuing his protest. “It’s just like every other group of religious extremists or fanatics, they suggest that you’re different, that you can see the world differently, you just don’t understand it, they can show you how to understand it. I can think of at least half a dozen groups that use the same ploy.”
I nodded again, I knew he was right, but it did not stop my questions.
“The letter warned you of this, August.”
“But, what makes the letter any more trustworthy. The letter offers no answers, it only said someone would come and offer them.”
“And to fear that same person.”
“He didn’t seem fearsome.”
“Which is precisely why you should be afraid.”
“Stop being such a bloody cliché.”
“Stop being such a bloody fool.” Dan stopped abruptly then. He stood in the street, staring me down.
I stopped and looked towards him without making eye contact, looking instead at the pavement afore his shoes.
“What will drive you to that meeting. Is it the girl? Or is it the ‘answers’?”
I shrugged, “Both I suppose.”
“If you had to pick one, which is more important.”
“I think they’re one and the same, Dante.”
“No, believe me, they are not. If you had to choose between seeing her tonight, or getting the answers tonight, which would you choose.”
I hesitated, no quick response came to me. “The answers.” I said finally. “There were things he alluded to which I want explained.”
“The world coated in dust.” Dan said simply.
I met his eyes. We both said nothing for a long while. Over and over I rolled the words of a possible explanation over in my head, yet even before the words came to my tongue I recognized how ridiculous they would sound. I shook my head and looked away, as if the physical motion could help to derail my train of thought, “Answers and Eve aside, the way that his ‘pitch’ was offered, did not suggest that I had quite as much of a choice as you’re making out.”
Dan brought his pinky to his lips and chewed slightly on the nail as I spoke.
“You heard the way he hung on the word ‘regret’, and you know these kind of people, if I avoid this all together they won’t take it kindly.”
Dan shook his head, “No, you’re over estimating it. The encounter may have been intimidating, but there was no threat. He depended too much on your questioning, on your curiosity, he wasn’t strong arming you.”
“Yes, but probably just because they’d prefer me to go peacefully then to need evoke other means.”
“No my friend, not to go peacefully: go without question.”
“Dante, the entire premise of going is based on question.”
“No, its based on receiving answers. They don’t want you to question who is offering them, nor who you should trust. They don’t want you to fear going, they want it to feel like a choice so that you don’t seek the attention or help of anyone else.”
“Who, precisely, would I even receive help from? They’re doing nothing illegal, it’s a cult, it’s some group of spiritualists who fancy themselves dream walkers.”
“Is that honestly all that you think it is?” His eyes narrowed with the fierceness of his voice, “This is all just a group whom think they can manipulate the dreams of others? You think that’s where the world coated in dust, which you hold such interest in, comes from?”
I said nothing.
“Because August, I remember the words ‘it was just a dream’, physically written. A piece of paper can not be the product of night’s imagination.”
I met his eyes with a stern gaze. “I don’t know Dante. I don’t know. That’s the whole bloody point, that why I’m going to go to the meeting tonight, so that I can try to make some fucking sense of it all.”
Dan was silent as he looked at me with a sad smile. He sighed, accepting my stubbornness “Remember August, there will always be a difference between what we desire to hear, and what others desire to tell us. And there will always be a difference between what is the truth and what we desire to hear.” He sucked sharply on his cigarette and then threw it to the ground. With a refreshed confidence in his voice, he said, “Right then, follow the main drag for about 15 minutes back that way” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, “turn left onto St. Thomas, and then you’re third right, it’s only two minutes from that turn.”
I looked at him quizzically.
“If the answers are the priority, go back to Time’s Bar. Ask your questions. That place is where this all began, and his encouragement for you not to return is reason enough for you to be heading there now.”
I opened my mouth as if to speak, I felt my heart thumb against my chest as I looked in the direction Dan had gestured.
“There’s nothing to lose by going there. Worst case, whoever that person with the pipe was, or whoever he was speaking on behalf of, finds out you were asking and it shags up tonight’s meeting. But if that’s the case, maybe you shouldn’t be attending the meeting anyway.”
I bit my lip, knowing that I was considering Dante’s advice despite being convinced I had won the argument just moments before.
“At least this way you have the opportunity to ask the questions on your own terms.”
Hesitation still filled me at the idea of returning there, “What questions would you suggest I ask, Dante? Just walk in and say to whoever’s on the bar: what do you know about ‘a world coated in dust’?”
Dante shrugged, “If you’re still convinced these are some ‘spiritualists who think they’re dream walkers’, then I don’t see any harm in asking precisely that.”
“But if you think there’s any more weight to it, if you think there is something worth being concerned about, even something worth believing in, then ask about him, that person you just met. You don’t have his name, but maybe you won’t need it, maybe having been approached by anyone wearing one of those watches will be interesting enough to someone else wearing the same watch. Like I said, there’s nothing to lose. If no one knows anything, or if they’re not willing to share what they do, then fine: head to the shard tonight.”
Had I told Dante that the tea-drinker had been wearing a watch? Had Dante seen it on him in the pub? Had I told Dan about the watches at all? Had I written about it, perhaps?
“Augustine, I’m just asking you to try to have some reservation….”
“Yeah. I get it. I’m convinced.” I cut Dan off. I took one last drag of my cigarette before throwing it down. I took a deep breath and looked in the direction Dan had gestured. “I’ll see you back at the pub in a couple hours.”
Dan did not smile at my acceptance of his advice. Instead there was concern which would not leave his face. “And if I don’t see you?”
I smiled, it was more forced than I would have liked, but I smiled all the same, “Well then I guess you were right.”
Dan chewed on his pinky finger again, obviously unsatisfied with this.
I began walking away and then stopped, a thought crossing my mind. “If I’m more than two hours, and I don’t answer the phone, then reply to the rose-petal-sealed letter.”
He furrowed his brow at me, “there was no return address?”
I nodded, and swallowed hard, part of me frustrated with myself for what I was about to say, for having even an ounce of belief in my suggestion, “Write on the back of it, leave it with the fresh words facing up, placed next to the envelope with the broken seal, on the table I regularly write at.”
I turned and walked away before he had a chance to question my instruction.
Curiosity cornered catalyzes concern
It was with more familiarity than I could justify that I walked down the steep steps which led into Time’s bar. The wood of the steps seemed unworn, fresh almost, against the antiquated appearance of the pub’s interior. Part of me anticipated that the final door would be locked, that returning to ground zero of the domino effect that’d consumed the last three days of my life could not possibly be so easy as a set of steps and an unlocked door. Part of me almost hoped for it to be bolted, giving me cause to walk away with the simple logic of: ‘I tried.” Of course, it was Saturday afternoon, and when I pressed against the door it was thrown open with ease.
Immediately, just as before, the eyes of every patron turned to me, and the pub hushed to silence. Three nights ago I had sulked to the bar as quickly as possible, indifferent to the questioning glances. This time however, I met the eyes that evaluated me, matching their gazes one by one. I told myself I wasn’t looking for her specifically, that I was looking for any sign of familiarity. Regardless of my intentions though, my wandering eyes found no recognition. Instead, I discovered that the faces watching me held more than just idle curiosity this time around: there were frown’s of disapproval on some, warranted concern on others, and scattered throughout, before the expression was masked, I saw some mouths with corners turned up.
I almost smiled back, but I did not posses that much audacity, at least not in that moment. I walked to the bar not with more confidence than the first time, but while presenting the impression of having more. I tried to keep my back straight and shoulders set slightly back in some primal form of intimidation, as if I were a lion readying to roar. My roar, however, was little more than a meow and my intention of doing either was simply to discourage a repeat of my last experience there. I did not want to appear threatening, I just did not want to become a punching bag for any lingering companions of Val’s.
It was with mixed emotions that I avoided looking towards the bar. A part of me hoped for it to be Tim working, a lingering sensation of companionship existed after one night of being served by him. I feel that all alcoholics have a certain kinship with those who enable them, particularly those who supply them. A more anxious part of me, however, prayed it would be anyone but him. I feared the look of disapproval, possibly even hostility, I would receive as he saw me stepping back into his pub. Even if the altercation had not been fault of mine, I was still at it’s centre, and as Dante had implied: bar staff don’t take kindly to kicking out their regular patrons.
I walked forward with head held down. I could see movement behind the bar’s stained oak top in my peripheral vision, but I refrained from looking up. I forced a neutral expression that bordered on contented, and I took off my jacket, laying it over the bar stall and sitting atop it. I was displaying my intention to stay, suggesting through my actions that claims of the pub being closed would come to no avail, and that at the least, it would take more effort to physically remove me. I felt like a dog circling a patch of grass before laying down, establishing my place and preparing my environment before at last sitting upon the stall and looking up at the looming figure awaiting my attention from behind the bar.
Tim stood with folded arms, his face was not that of hostility though, instead it was almost unexcited amusement which he wore. I met his eyes, anticipating the staring match of a few nights passed, but instead, immediately he reached his arm across the bar and held out his hand.
I was so taken aback by the action that I hardly recognized the gesture. I recovered poorly, and upon realizing it was his left hand he held out, I awkwardly stumbled to complete the handshake. As I tried to return his tight grip I realized why he’d held out his left arm, his eyes looked to my wrist, where a watch like the black faced one he wore, would be displayed.
“I thought that some of the regulars might have scared you off after your first visit.” He said in what was surely the friendliest tone I had ever heard him use. Albeit, it was still little more than a sarcastic grumble, but it was more hospitability than I had dared expect.
I smiled more confidently now. “I feared they might have convinced you I was a trouble maker.”
His overtly pleasant original tone was quickly fading, a slight smile remained as he said “Well, they haven’t convinced me yet.”
Only then did I notice the dark brown bottle in his hand. He laid a tumbler in front of me and poured until the couple ice cubes he’d laid in it were floating.
“Oi, I am sorry about that, mate. You shouldn’t have needed to deal with that kind of thing here. Know that he was punished accordingly and that we firmly assert the rules of a Slow Bar here at all times.”
I looked up at him, at first intending to tell him not to worry about it, but as I ran the words back over in my head I was left looking up with poorly disguised perplexity. Tim spoke to me as if he’d given me food poisoning, or I’d tripped over a dangerously ill repaired floorboard. He spoke as if he was personally responsible for what had happened. ‘Slow Bar’ held in the air, it was not the first time I’d heard him use those words, but now I met the term with deeper questions.
I composed myself fairly quickly and politely offered a shrug of the shoulders and a smile to nonchalantly brush of the apology. I picked up the glass and said thanks as I reached for my money.
“I’ll give you the first one on me.” He said with a nod and a slight lifting of his hand that seemed to command I not argue. “I trust you made it home alright?”
I looked up at him quickly, searching for sarcasm on his face. “Yeah, I made it there somehow.” I said, as I realized that Eve had not told him that she was with me later in the evening. I looked back down at my whisky tumbler and gripped it hard as I grappled once more with the possibility that there was nothing to tell. Again, I fought with the idea that it was just a dream.
Tim seemed to assume he had completed his duty of politeness and shifted back from the bar, beginning to move away.
My mind raced as I searched for something to say, some kind of grounds to ask a tenuously relevant question. As if there was a timer, terminating far more quickly than I could think, I found myself grasping at the first possible question, “Hey, Tim, do you know if Eve is still staying in the Shangri-La Suite?” I asked, in a voice that was bluntly more than the idle curiosity I had wished to display.
Before I even received his sideways glance, I was already trying to backtrack, “Sorry, I know that sounds strange, it’s just that she told me where it was that night, but, as you might recall, I wasn’t in the best of condition by the evening’s end.”
Tim seemed to find this more acceptable, he grinned slightly out of the corner of his mouth, “I’m not sure mate, Eve doesn’t tend to stay in the same place for long.”
He said this dismissively, as if it was an acceptable end to the conversation, yet I pushed a little harder.
“Oh? It seemed she was a bit of a regular.”
Tim looked increasingly unimpressed with my questions. “Yeah, she is, but not one with any continuity, she comes and goes.”
I give a gentle ‘oh’ and nodded, not wanting to push my luck any further.
Tim moved to walk away, but then stopped himself, I could almost see the indecision on his face as he tried to choose whether or not to ask me about what I’d said. “You say, that she told you she was staying, where?” he asked with curiosity and confusion that were clearly growing greater than casual conversation had tendency to produce.
I looked back at him with mouth half open. I brought my glass up quickly and sipped as I turned away. The idea of continuing the bluff seemed irrelevant now that I had his attention, “Well, no.” I finally said, “Just, somebody today told me that she wanted to meet up with me, and told me to meet her there.”
My words felt weighted, as though it were apparent that something of grander scale could be hiding beneath them. I looked up at Tim as if I were a child asking an adult the meaning of a dirty word; I felt like I was waiting to see if there would be a scolding or if it would simply be ignored. Despite my statement for some reason feeling inappropriate, it was not with anger, annoyance, or even disregard with which he responded. Instead it was obvious that he now had invested interest in my circumstance.
“Where did this person deliver this message to you?” he asked with a slight lean forward.
“Well, he followed me out of my local.”
“Did this person give you a name?” Tim asked in decreasing casualness.
“No, actually. He didn’t give me much of anything.” I felt the curiousness of that situation reasserting itself as I repeated it allowed. I shook my head, almost in jest of my own naivety.
He shook his head gently with a frown, “Sorry mate, I find it unlikely she’s staying there.” There was genuine sympathy in his voice.
I furrowed my brow, trying to portray the confusion which was growing in me, “Oh.” I said quietly and cradled my drink in both hands.
“She also really isn’t the type to send out messengers.” He added.
“No,” I agree, “she didn’t seem the type.” Her note burned in my pocket as the idea of showing it to him nagged at the back of my mind, yet I could find no justification to do so. Would it be to prove I had a connection with her that was greater than a shared glass of wine? Would it be a request for an explanation? But what even did I desire to have explained? Did I simply wish for someone to remove some of her mystery and give me confirmation that it was not all a vivid dream or break in sanity? Her words stayed in my pocket, there were other questions I could ask, more information I could share, for much clearer reasons.
I wanted Tim to say more. He wanted the same from me. Silence hung in the air between us for a dragged out moment until he raised his eye brows, as if to say ‘come on with it’.
I exhale as I decide to show my hand, “To be honest, mate. That’s kind of why I’m here. I wasn’t expecting to see Eve again.” I let that line hang as I deliberated a final time about showing him the note. Deciding against it with finality I continued, “Nor did I have keen intentions to come back here. But, today, I get followed out of my local by a guy who first claims to be a publisher, and when that proved untrue, claims to be a correspondent for Eve, I felt more justified in coming here to sort of, think out loud…” I finish awkwardly as I accept that none of this has anything to do with Tim. Apart from him being a barman and the natural therapist of the drinker there was no reason for him to be interested in me sharing my plight.
He did not respond as if this was indifferent to him though. His eyes had narrowed slightly. With a cautious tone he asked: “How did you know he was lying?”
It was my turn to be hesitant in response to his words. There was enough suspicion in his tone that his question felt loaded.
It was Tim’s turn to back track now, “About being a publisher, I mean. How did that prove untrue?”
As he clarified the question I grew confident that he knew the answer, or at least strongly suspected it. I nodded curtly towards Tim’s wrist, diverting my eyes to it for only a second.
He looked down at his own watch, and then gave a slow nod, as if I had confirmed his suspicion. He adjusted the strap of his watch absent mindedly and then leaned further forward against the bar, “Did this character say anything else to you?”
I could feel my pulse rate quickly rising, growing nervous for reason almost indiscernible as I met the opportunity to ask the questions which had been consuming me.
“He said something about a world coated in dust.” I held Tim’s eyes with sternness, trying to suggest to him that I had some awareness of what this referred to. “And a lot about being leaves on the furthest branches of trees.”
I watched as Tim’s back straightened.
I tried to find the words to express the strangeness of the conversation, or the even stranger nature of its topic. I wanted to admit to needing answers, yet I wanted him to know that the questions were not a foreign language. “He spoke about a lot of things I don’t quite understand, and he spoke to me as if I don’t understand them.”
“Wasis acthern? Deh kout-ou?” Tim spoke the same tongue that I had heard in that bar before, the same one Eve had written on her note, only he spoke it very slowly as he searched my face for recognition.
I could tell there were questions involved, but I could do nothing but stare blankly back, having no idea what was said.
Tim seemed high above me now, standing straight and tall. He looked down on me not with condescension, nor even curiosity, it was something closer to concern. “This person who offered you the invitation to see Eve, did he have a touch of Norfolk in his accent? And did he seem to know too much about you?”
His questions were so specific they seemed rhetorical. I merely nodded, not knowing what else to say.
Tim watched me closely as I offered the confirmation. He returned a tipping of his head and then quickly scanned the pub. His eyes settled on the doorway immediately behind me. Without looking at me he said, “I think it’s best if you come down to the other end of the bar, mate.” He gestured me deeper into the pub.
I turned around and looked to the door which blocked the steps I’d come down, there was no one there, the door remained closed. I gathered my coat and slung it over my arm, I followed Tim’s gesture and walked further into the pub, to the opposite end of the long bar top. I eyed Tim with confusion as I walked past other patrons sitting along the bar. I assumed that he did not like the nature of our conversation, that he wanted to discuss it more privately, yet the far end of the bar seemed no quieter than the one at which I had been sitting.
For the first time I was offered a closer look at some of the regulars. Most went about their business, content in conversation or simply drink, yet others were watching mine and Tim’s interaction. Some eyes followed me as I made my way to the back and laid my coat over a bar stall once more, but the majority of those distracted from their regular activity had their eyes on Tim. They watched as he took backwards steps, moving in the same direction as me while looking towards the pub door.
Tim seemed to notice the attention his actions were gaining as well, he tore his eyes away from the door and quickly served a couple waiting customers. I caught him continually glance to both the door and me, seeming anxious about being distracted from either for too long.
I searched the regulars for continuity as Tim served. I expected some of kind of regularity, a class of people whom chose to call this place a local, yet I found anything but. The collection of individuals in the room were as diverse as the city itself. Gender and skin colour showed no majority, clothing worn ranged from fine tailored suits and formal dinner wear, to grease stained overalls and well worn jeans. There was a strange amount of individuality however, multiple people were dressed as if enroute to attend a fancy dress party or masquerade ball. As I scanned the people from this fresh angle, only one thing proved itself consistent: the watches. Every time a left wrist was visible, a black faced watch hung there, the straps and styles of the watches were often different, but the handless black face was easily spotted.
As I analyzed over the edge of my whisky, I realized my observation were being watched itself. A man sitting at a table, now not far from my new position, caught my eye as I looked across the people he was sitting with. I expected some kind of hostility, as that is what I had come to associate that place with. Instead, he nodded at me, and then looked back to the people he was with, rejoining the conversation. His expression was one of curious concern, a replication of the expression Tim had worn earlier. I nodded back in recognition before he broke eye contact, and then studied him briefly once he had. He wore long scarves around both his neck and wrists, loosely tied in a manner that would surely be annoying for most regular actions. Even while sitting, the length of the jacket he wore was apparent, the trench coat was worn atop a blazer, atop a waistcoat, atop a dress shirt, atop a seemingly cotton undershirt. Layers over layers, yet each one undone completely or unbuttoned lower than November would call for.
I was still looking at the scarf wearing character when Tim moved down the bar to me again. I looked up at him in question, wondering why I had been told to change seats.
“Did this person refer to you as a ‘leacher’?” He over annunciated the word, as if expecting it to be as foreign to me as the other language he spoke.
I hesitated a moment before responding, “Yeah. He did.”
Tim had caught my hesitation, “And do you know what that means?”
I chewed my lip. “I only know what he told me. That I can’t see the dust on my own.”
I didn’t need to add the correction nor did I need to explain my hesitation.
“But, you can?” Tim asked, before I could speak.
Tim made a face that was almost a grimace, “When I pinned Val I noticed he was breaking contact with you. I doubt it was as obvious to the others here. You should consider yourself lucky for that.”
I returned only a blank expression.
Tim shook his head while he looked at me, he seemed as confused as I was, “All of this is foreign to you? All of this is new?”
Before I had a chance to respond, the door to the pub came open. I may not have noticed in regular circumstances. I certainly wouldn’t have noticed if I had been sitting on the same stall as previous. But, the anxious nature of my day made the motion catch my attention.
My eyes diverted from Tim’s just as a man wearing a dark grey raincoat entered the pub. His eyes swept quickly across the room. When they met mine, they searched no further. Immediately he pulled up his arm and leveled it at my chest from across the room. A gun held in his hand.
I did not blink. I did not flinch. My lack of response was not product of bravery, but only the result of not having enough time to react. My actions did not reflect my fear, but my body felt the surge of adrenaline, every hair on my stood on end and my knuckles turned white as I gripped the bar top. My breath caught in my throat and my heart pounded against my chest.
Before the gun made any sound, the man who was holding it sat against the door which had been behind him. Then there was a crack, like sickly thunder confined to a cave. The gun was still in his hand, yet blood poured steadily from his neck. It seemed to have already coated half his chest.
It was as if frames of life itself had been removed. He had been standing, he had been alive, he had aimed and fired. There was no time between him pulling the trigger and him sitting, bled out, with half the circumference of his throat separated.
I opened my mouth to gasp, yet my lungs refused to inhale, as if believing, without yet having proof, that a bullet had pierced them. I brought my hands to my undamaged chest, and breathed deeply as I realized that immediately in front of me was the man wearing the scarves. While only seconds ago he had sat on the inside of his table, without me seeing any movement at all, he was now at the bar just two feet away.
He had his hand up in front of him, long scarves dangling from wrist almost to elbow. He held something between his thumb and forefinger, just at the level of my chest. He lay it down on the bar in front of him before politely placing his hands behind his back. “I beg forgiveness for my transgression.” The man said to Tim.
Tim merely nodded, “Exemption granted.” Tim looked at the lifeless form of the would be assassin and then to me, “I’m not sure which one of us wants more answers right now, but I’m going to ask my questions first, and you’re going to respond as quickly as possible. Time, is of essence.”
My mouth had still not remembered how to close as I absent mindedly nodded to Tim, assuring my compliance without even looking towards him. My attention was captured entirely by the bullet placed so delicately on the bar top in front me.