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Short stories

UNDER/COVER.

          To have lived is not enough for them.

In midlife, footloose in a dark wood skirting a grimpen, threatened by grins and snagged by grimgribber densening by the day, I stumbled into the café out of the night rain and sank thankfully onto the banquette, increasingly aware that here the grins were unconcealed and so more treacherous but grateful nonetheless that it was not dark, not raining, the sky indeed a gradated ultramarine, the bog suburban paving and midlife some decades past.

    But the woods get thicker, the traps clap tighter, micturition, that simplest of pleasures, becomes a luxury, and who knows what further indignities await.

    At a far table, a suited group of mixed gender were leaning forward in conversation. A lean man I took for a solicitor – there are coveys of them hereabouts – leaned backwards with a grin. I was from this distance not privy to their legal converse; no doubt of deeds or misdeeds.

    I opened my notebook and made a note. There will be a report at the end of this.

    I was aware, acutely, of acting out that most banal of clichés, the-anonymous-writer-in-the-café, but the compulsion was practical. I needed a neutral space away from the reproach of my desk, I needed warmth, I needed coffee. Those outweighed the avoidance of stereotype and the hazards of the contingent. The avoidance of noise was another matter. In the old days of the Café Mozart I had learnt to tune out the eternal Hafner-loop, but I was young then and not at all Mozart-averse. Nowadays both muzak and newzak grate on my nerves. So caught between confessional silence and the hubbub of the plain, I sit tight and stir my coffee.

    The Moleskine notebook is Bible-black; neither Blue nor Brown. There will be an accounting, recounting, a final report. I slide the silk marker under the page. Concentrate, the blank page insistent.

           keen     a piercing                 joggled at her breast.

              cranes     nodding, turning.

                                      The light           slotted window

            solicitor, voice now raised           aunt   gambling debts    embezzled. Another grin

            scooter against the           shall I open it for you?

    Back to my desk, the page still blank.

    In cobbling together this synoptic C.V., the immediate problem is identifying the salients in order of size; the further one retreats into childhood the larger loom the molehills, but being fictionally honest means working to scale.

    Thus the abduction of my horse, cause of my first experience of grief. That the horse was imaginary did nothing to mitigate the desolation; henceforward all possession was drained of joy by fear of loss. But, a lesson well learnt and the earlier the better.

    The school motto – to move forward in years – reinforced that incipient stoicism. Laboro pro bonum omnis (it being a minor school of dubious standing) was not suited to my now-sceptical nature. Indeed it was pointd out to me by Brattlebury (a name as apt as any) in telling me I was “not a team player”. Beaten by the ball, I was then beaten with the stumps. Yet at the crease I was a fiend, a vengeful bat going hell for leather, belting the seamers. It did me no good.

    I returned to more solitary pursuits. Idle hours with rod and line, reeds rippling in the wind, the ruffled sheen, empty keepnet by my side. Yet even here tormentors found me. Gravitating from the underbrush, one offered to fit me a box despite my abandonment of cricket. I was left enviously contemplating the bobbing float, the ledger in the mud.

    And when the tables, so to speak, were turned, when I was the hapless accoster, the fit of giggles that greeted my dejected member did lasting harm; there was to be, in hindsight, no re-membering.

    Thus began a long half-life of inanition.

    Now, orphaned in old age and facing the body’s prolapsus, the quick attrition, it’s time to draw up the ledger, the double-entry of profit and loss, preliminary to a final report.

    Where to begin?

    With the astronomical odds against my being here, maybe. But on which side of the ledger should that be entered? And the odds against my being the person I am? More clear-cut.

    In retrospective survey of the long attristing waste, at what point did I divine that my character was set, my role ordained? Had I always suspected, been subliminally aware of some malebranchian kink in nature’s logic?

    I confess there were occasions in my middle years when I took comfort in the occasionalist view. It justified, to my self at least, my ineffectuality in personal affairs, my failure to act on even the best of intentions, the failure being, on this logic, not mine but God’s.

    But as spritual pledget it now barely serves. Harder at the end to stave off the state of attrition, the not-quite-contrite, the self-laceration with no known unction. For, to put it thus, I found myself deaf to the promptings of reason, God’s whisper in the ear.

    And yet. And so. As the dog returneth to its vomit, the need, the urge, to record it all, in tasteful monochrome if not glorious colour, to relive, refresh the old abjections, becomes the one possible salvation, a self-validation. Once more with feeling. There may have been something I missed.

A great deal has been missed, been suspended, suppressed by that determined prevision, the gnostic choice. Examples: the flash of a dace, roll of a carp heading for the weeds, the rod tensing; the feel of the ball connecting with the sweet spot in a perfect cover drive, an immaculate late cut across the mown outfield.

    What other dapplings of light passed over in favour of an unrelieved penumbra and the stagnant pond?

    For we are now in the Duchampian infrathin, that infinite nanosecond between the shot fired and the bullet in the skull, between the report and the final silence, between the unspooling memory and the zero-point of anguish, the sudden clarity: this was not the life I lived but the life I wrote.

David Rose

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