I’m not in favour, nor am I against. I’ve forgotten why I voted the way I did. Pretty sure I'd vote the same way again, because nothing substantive has changed, although this time my main motivation would be wanting the whole subject just to go away. Whenever I turn on the radio, a voice expresses an opinion about Brexit that I’ve heard before. BBC Radio 4's Today lost 800,000 listeners between April and June 2018, compared to the same period last year. This, said a BBC spokesperson (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), was because the news was more interesting last year. And they’re still talking about Brexit.
Come 2020, we’ll still be however many miles from the mainland. We’ll still be richer or poorer, happier or sadder, wiser or, um, because of what we do and what happens to us, because of the many events, accidents, serendipities, pay rises, broken ankles, redundancy notices, hospital closures, health scares, bad decisions, friends who need to talk, rainy days, alarm clocks failing to go off, doctor’s appointments, celebrations, attacks of indigestion, long walks and visits to the cinema – that make a difference to our lives.
Today’s speech by a politician we’d almost forgotten, today’s secret but copiously leaked meeting in Conspiracy Room A at the House of Commons, will make a slight difference. We’ll get a slight charge from baying for somebody to be sent to the guillotine, or whatever is the modern equivalent, but can you remember the speech that same person made last week about Brexit? Neither can I, but I wouldn’t mind another slice of that cake. None of it really merits the amount of head-space we give it.
I keep having to remind myself that we're living through "austerity" and not "the collapse of civilisation as we knew it." Looking at the state today, I wonder about how easy a certain personality type finds it to apply austerity to other people. And how easily some people can argue that a short-term drop actually indicates a long-term gain. What it is to be human, eh?
It’s a rainy night.
You’re sitting alone at a small table by a tiny front window with uneven leaded panes, in a part of town that you really think you might visit more often, and when you’re not staring out through the glass - weather like this is difficult not to watch - you’re filling the time with your notebook and your coffee, which has a pattern drawn into the foam. You want to be drinking something else, but you know that would be a mistake.
You came in here because you were getting wet and you saw the word “Bar” in red neon. Just that. You came in. You opened your notebook. Trusted the impulse. The bars are different where you live. Not quite so … you can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there. And yes: the stillness after the weather, and the way the door closed behind you with a sound like air being punched - you scribble out that line too - and the way nobody looked up as you came down the steps feeling just a little conspicuous in the big coat and Boston Red Sox baseball cap you’ve chosen for this outing - you like this place already.
Should we say something, do you think? The door - it’s got one of those metal-arm things at the top to close it slowly. It’s a heavy door - that piston could run an engine. Your table is recessed into the space next to the steps down from the door - so you’re in a small space, private almost, with the little window. There’s something odd about the window. You’re looking out at the street, but - you came in off the street, and there are, yes, seven full-size carpeted stone steps down into the bar. Stair rods. This window should be a basement window. But you’re looking out at the street.
You tear open the packet and eat the little pastry thing that came with the coffee, in the saucer with the teaspoon. It’s soft, for once, fresh. They never are. The door: some weird perspective thing, obviously. You’ll check it out when you leave. You pick up the teaspoon and fit it through the pattern in the foam, just neatly, under the top swirly bit. Then you stir it all in, and by a magic that you don’t notice, the coffee becomes strong and dark and hot again. No foam now. You take a sip. Oh, this is coffee. This is absolutely coffee. You’re going to come here again.
Seems to be some kind of writing exercise. Maybe in the morning. Perhaps tomorrow. You’ve been thinking about writing a piece set in a bar. An atmospheric bar. The click of a pool table. Waitresses delivering trays. Food orders ready; line of sight through to the kitchen. Music. People. That kind of bar. You lean back, set down your pen on the keyboard of the Lenovo Ideapad 320S you’ve been carrying for the past few weeks, and look around. You can’t see much, because you’re also tucked in behind the end-curve of the bar itself, which runs the length of the room away from you, down the left-hand wall, but you can see the long mirror, and the panelling, and some of the people at the tables. The place is okay, but – shouldn’t a bar have live music?
There’s a faint tobacco smell to the room, you notice, but unlit tobacco, not stale smoke. You think it’s tobacco; that’s the association that comes to you, anyway. A cigar-box smell, maybe. It’s pleasant. And the sound is just about how you like it. You can hear conversations, but not conversation - you write that down. There’s music, but not so loud that you can make out what it is. And that composite sound of waitresses bringing trays, hey, there is food, forks hitting plates, glasses - it’s all a composite sound, but that’s the part that holds it together - the composite percussion of the composite sound. You pick up your pen again, open your notebook again, and then think: no.
Like an artist’s sketchbook? Only in words not pictures? There’s a man watching you. He’s over there, across the room, sitting side-on to you at that square table. He’s watching you through the mirror. He looks familiar, but you’re pretty sure you don’t know him. He’s somebody you see around on the street, maybe? Or in a shop? Somewhere regular. Your eyes meet and he grins: busted. He turns his head to look at you directly, and mimes: mind if I join you? You shrug in a way that says: sure, come on over. Because you can’t do anything else. And while he gathers up his stuff, you move your coat from that chair to that chair, and make space at the table.
He sits down, a big presence in your small space.
You close your notebook and your laptop.
“You’ve got that book coming out soon, haven’t you?”
You’re surprised by the question. But then he looks at you, direct, eye to eye, and all of a sudden, you know who he is.
“The compilation? Yes, I-”
There’s the tiny fleck of black in the iris of his eye, on the left, just below the pupil. Not big enough to be a flaw.
“No, I meant the other one.”
You sigh. “Yes. At last.”
But he doesn’t want to hear whatever you’ve got to say about “at last” and how long it took.
“What about the other other one?”
This is the question to which you don’t know the answer. You don’t reply immediately, and when eventually you do, he just nods a couple of times. He’s been watching your body language, you realise, and now he’s watching your hands form mudras over the table. You’re sitting face to face still, although you’ve pushed back your chair.
Then he says, quietly, “It’s the whole thing, though, isn’t it? The yin or the yang or the other thing. It completes the mystery.”
Nothing for us here. He's just talking to himself. You run your hand back over your hair and then take off your glasses and inspect them. It’s a composite move you’ve made so many times that you’re not aware you’re doing it, and what it tells him is: you don’t know; you suppose so; you don’t understand it but you’re going along with it. Somewhere in there is also: you’re tired. It’s almost done. But you don’t know if you-
He leans forward. “Do what comes next. That’s all there can be. No explanations.”
“I’ve been writing a lot of blog posts recently.”
“I’ve been reading them.”
“They’re fun to do. They come naturally. But – what are they?”
He takes a sip of his drink. It’s whisky-brown, with ice in it that clinks in the way that ice should, and although he’s been sipping at it all evening, it’s still the same double-on-the-rocks that he ordered.
He puts the drink down. “No explanations,” he says. Then, “Is there a moral to this one, by the way? There usually is.”
You relax. You’re off the hook. “Just the punchline. Which is obvious by now.”
He laughs softly. “Getting in touch with your imagination. Right.”
“But I don’t know…”
“You’ve got twice as many unique visitors as when you used to bang on about that EU vote and the US President. And in your case – you can have this for free – finish things. You’ve got a lifetime’s work that you never-” He shakes his head. “You’re hopeless at that.”
“But…” There isn’t a but.
He’s shrugs on his coat,
“I like the way you did this. Out in the open.”
“I’ve been thinking about it. I wasn’t well, you know? Thinking time.”
“Plus, you even talked about the books.”
“All three of them.”
“Although we both know... You do have to talk about them, you know.”
He laughs. And then you’re alone.
You sit there for a while, thinking about new beginnings and the unfinished past, and while all that’s going through your head, the life of the bar goes on around you. Live musicians appear, and there’s laughter, and then there’s a wild-looking gypsy woman – you just know she’s a gypsy woman, and boy, she looks wild – playing some crazy fast lament on her violin that runs up high and drowns out the four guys in sombreros playing their banjos, A full-grown tiger ambles past your table, glancing at you incuriously as it goes, and then a stiletto knife whizzes past your ear, hitting 180 and splitting the dartboard in two.
This bar is so very you. But it’s time to go.
When you emerge onto the street, you find that the rain has stopped, although there’s still a wet clarity to everything. You pull your coat around you, and it’s not until you’re almost home that you remember you were going to check that thing with the window.
But does it matter? You shake your head, wondering if you’ll ever find that bar again.
You leave your bag by your desk, pull off your coat and your jacket, and go through to the kitchen. The floor boards creak. They didn’t used to do that, but we’re close to the end now so obviously they would. You notice that the door across the hall – you’ve got a hall? – has been left ajar, although you’re sure you closed it before you went out. Inside, in the gloom, you can see a rocking chair, rocking. What do you mean, you don’t own a rocking chair?
It is, of course, pitch dark at the top of the stairs and the door to the cellar is wide open. Luckily, your bedroom and the bathroom are on the ground floor. The end is nigh, and you’d take so long getting up those stairs, testing every creak – there just isn’t time. Sorry, I know you wanted the room at the front with the en-suite – never mind.
You were going into the kitchen, remember? You go into the kitchen. You’re not going to be in here long enough to light the candles, so you switch on the ceiling lights and never mind the hum.
You stand in the kitchen doorway with a mug of – I don’t know, what do you like in the evenings? – camomile tea, and look at your work-table, the bay window and the night beyond. Streetlight has a forgiving quality, you decide. But if that’s worth writing down, you’ll remember it in the morning.
You turn off the kitchen light. What’s left is the yellow light from outside.
It’s a good light for this late - you check the time. You leave the rest of the tea and kick off your shoes. Usually you take off your clothes as well, before going through to the bathroom, but there are people reading this blog post who don’t know you, so we’ll jump-cut straight through the costume change - now you’re wearing a truly voluminous dressing gown made out of curtain material lined with velvet and a fez with a tassel (don’t ask me; I just write the stuff) - and you’re ready for the punchline - in fact, you’re wishing it would hurry up and come so you can get some sleep.
You go through to the bathroom - what do you look like in that ridiculous dressing gown? - and barely controlling your patience, you brush your teeth.
Then, finally, it’s time. You take off your glasses and lean forward to the mirror. There, just there, below the pupil, the flaw in your left eye, on the left in your reflection.
He winks at you. “Good talk,” he says, although no sound comes through the mirror.