Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Insecurity - Short Story

After I left Norwich and struggled in two civil service jobs interspersed with an attempt at becoming a teacher, during which time my writing efforts were spent on producing 'His Majesty's Dictator' I did no more short stories. It was only when, living in Oxford, and well established in my long-hours civil service job (which made me stooped and so stressed that I acquired a facial twitch) that I got to writing this kind of fiction again. I loved living in Oxford, despite the fact that I was witnessing its mundane side rather than simply on golden afternoons of daytrips, but I felt content there. There was lots to do, nice cafes and restaurants, live music, debates and cinemas. I got back into cycling the Oxfordshire countryside in a way that I had not since I was a teenager. Anyway, in many ways life did not change and I continued to fail to have a relationship. I was a bit bolder than I had been but it seemed that as a consequence the knock-backs were harder. One woman rejected me because of the job I did (she was an assertiveness trainer) and another was so offended that I could consider myself worthy of asking her out that she demanded an apology. I had hoped that I had shaken off that situation where I was seen as naive and lacking in world knowledge, but even in the clubs I joined I was seen in this way. Some people would be flattered to be considered younger than their years, but for me it seemed to still exclude me from the truly adult world. I only really realised how far this assumption had gone when a colleague I had worked with for many months said they thought I was 19 and were surprised to hear that I had a degree and was a failed schoolteacher. This was 1993 and I was 26 going on 27 and the bulk of my friends were married; by 1996, 95% of my friends were.

Anyway, aside from the two women who spurned me, the first and strongest focus of my affections in Oxford was on Kate, a colleague. Perhaps I misread her signals, but she took me to lunch on my birthday and we seemed to hit it off. I struggled to find the right occasion to ask her out. I do not know if she was simply being friendly, looking back I guess she was. Knowing she spoke French I sent an anonymous Valentine's card with a French poem, 'L'Amoureuse' (translated as 'Lady Love' or 'The Beloved') by surrealist poet Paul Eluard (1895-1952) a copy of which I found again when seeking out my stories. I found an online translation and am quite chuffed that I translated it pretty well. It runs (Samuel Beckett's translation next to it)

Elle est debour sur mes paupières (She is standing on my lids)
Et ses cheveux sont dans les miens, (And her hair is in my hair,)
Elle a la forme de mes mains, (She has the body of my hand,)
Elle a la couleur de mes yeux, (She has the colour of my eyes,)
Elle s'engloutit dan mon ombre (In my shade she is engulfed)
Comme une pierre sur le ciel. (As a stone against the sky.)

Elle a toujours les yeux ouverts (She will never close her eyes)
Et ne me laisse pas dormir. (And she does not let me sleep.)
Ses rêves en pleine lumière (And her dreams in the bright day)
Font s'évaporer les soleils, (Make the suns evaporate,)
Me font rire, pleurer et rire, (And me laugh, cry and laugh,)
Parler sans avoir rien à dire (Speak when I have nothing to say)

As often happened with anonymous Valentine's cards I sent the woman in question usually (well in fact almost always) assumed it was from someone else, in this case a French client of hers. It did impress the staff of the office where we worked which was some consolation. When I did finally ask her out it was almost a year later and she was despairing of the civil service and probably like those other Oxford women, thought little of the men who worked in it.

Kate lived on a canal boat and with another colleague who was training to be a clinical masseuse, produced hats and bags from left over rags they picked up from some clothing manufacturers'. These sold incredibly well, and just before I left Oxford, Kate designed to resign her post and began travelling Britain's waterways in her canal boar (equipped with an Aga wood burning oven on board) selling her bags and hats. It was a hard decision for her to make, to through in the regularity of the civil service and I knew (as I had explored in earlier stories) that I could never do anything like that even for a woman I loved. Partly this is because I have no skills beyond working in an office, I cannot even teach, so I am shackled to offices however insecure that environment post-1979 has been.

This story was originally entitled '30 Years On' and it envisaged the paths that my and Kate's lives were likely to take from that point onwards. I last saw her in 1994 so thirty years would make this story be set in 2024. However, really it is set in the 1990s, perhaps even earlier. Like a number of my stories of the time, it has a nostalgia for things of the 1970s an era when self-sufficiency was popular along with folk music and the reconstruction of much of Britain's canal network often by volunteers. It also reflected the country fetes I would visit when living in Oxford which showed that some of those 1970s fads had been far more enduring that I had realised and Kate could easily slip into a world that would suit her mode of life.

This story reflects the physical damage I was doing to myself in the post I had in Oxford and fortunately I was able to get away, move to London and earn a better salary for working shorter hours and my health improved. My muscles can still remember how stiff my shoulders got from sitting huddled over a computer for around 9-10 hours per day. When I left the job I still had 86 hours of flexi-time accrued and I had never taken a day of annual leave, we were that overworked. I used to lie on my bed and try to stretch myself as if on a rack to try to get the stiffness out of my shoulders and wished I had someone, anyone, to be able to massage my stiff shoulders. Just a brief mention of the room I rented. It was as wide as the spread of my arms, so 1.86 metres (so narrower than Kate's 'narrow' boat 2.13 metres, the standard UK size), I paid £170 per month to live in it and the lock had been put on the wrong side of the door, so it was as if I was outside the door. It was in a shared house with four other people and a chinchilla. I will have to recount more of it another time. Anyway, on with the story of how I saw my and Kate's different lives turning out.

Re-reading it, the clothing reminds me of what Kate wore especially the waistcoats and the pumps. The other thing I had forgotten is the reference to the television. My salary was such (£8,500 in 1994) that I could not afford a television and I rented one, but was in utter fear that I would fall behind on the payments and get into legal difficulties. I was still renting the television in 2003 when I was earning triple what I had been earning nine years earlier. The rental company must have done very well out of me!


Alan turned from his bicycle and surveyed the fete in the field before him. He wandered through the ranks of parked cars. The grass was lit brightly on this clear afternoon. Only occasionally did a swathe of shadow sweep across the land as a cloud passed in front of the sun. As he walked to the body of the fete, around him Alan could hear the bubble of conversation, little bursts of it distinct as people went by close to him. He wandered idly, not really paying much attention to the stalls. He did pause at one selling second-hand books. He looked down at the creased spines, he bent his stooped body over the rows of paperbacks. His shoulders were hunched and his gaze narrowed by years of staring into a computer screen. He stretched slightly straighter as he moved on, but his heart was not in it, too much damage had accrued for any change now.

He reached the side of the field farthest from the road, where it ran down to the canal. A row of narrow boats was moored along the bank. In this stretch of the fete were clothes stalls, the usual hippy stuff he told himself. The rainbow colours, the floppy velvet hats of purple and red, the patterned waistcoats and the striped baggy trousers contrasted with the faded tweed jacket he wore, already too hot for him on this afternoon.

Alan’s eye was caught by the quick movement of a child at the foot of a stall She sat on the hem of a woven blanket draped over a table holding hats and bags. She was probably three or four. The little girl wore a miniature outfit to match that of many of the stallholders. The black velvet hat had been plonked on her head to protect her from the sun. Her dungarees, striped shirt and canvas shoes had been made for her alone, with love and attention.

Then the helium balloon she was playing with came free. Instinctively Alan snatched at it as the girl watched it helplessly drift up away from her. He caught the end of the string, and then took a firmer grip.

“Thank you.” Alan heard the voice of the stallholder, a woman he had not even noticed. He did not have to recognise her to tell who she was, but the way that she rolled her eyes skyward as she lightly joked about keeping her attention on a child and a business just confirmed his instincts.

Alan crouched down to the girl and handed her back her balloon. He was self-conscious, though he liked children, he always feared coming across as weird. He looked at the woman carefully as he stood up again. He half expected her to have changed, that on the second viewing she would be revealed as no-one he knew, and the first face he had seen would turn out as only an image from his wishful thoughts.

It was her and he felt a constricting excitement well within him. He drunk in the sight of her. Much was the same. Time had lined the enthusiastic face but the round glasses were familiar. The dark hair was tied back in the old way, but now it was tinged with grey. She walked around the edge of the stall to check on the child. As she bent over to pick the girl up, he studied her hard. Her body was slim if fuller: free in a loose white blouse and that old waistcoat, and below that a long patterned skirt fringed with tassels. Her feet wore soft leather pumps.

“Jaynie.” Alan said quietly as she stood up straight, the child in her arms.

The woman looked startled. Her eyes locked on Alan’s.

“Alan.” She said simply.

Alan blushed and looked away. In an instant his feelings thrust deep away within him, but not destroyed, burst into his mind. His memories compressed the years between and he felt that no time had passed since she had hugged him farewell in the bar so many years before.

“Yours?” Alan stuttered indicating the girl.

“No. My daughter’s, her name’s Eleanor.” Jane explained. She bent over to look into her granddaughter’s face. “That’s right isn’t it, Ellie?”

The girl smiled, and snapped back a bold answer. “Yes.”

“So. How is life?” Jane asked warmly as if it had been only a few months since they had last met.

Alan shrugged his tight shoulders. “Much the same.” His mind struggled to say something. He knew from experience that he would mourn a missed opportunity. “I’m here on holiday. I’m staying at the ‘Rose and Castle’.”

“Oh yes. I know it, we passed there yesterday. We come this way every year, well for the past eight years anyway.” Jane spoke almost distractedly. Alan knew that she was dealing with her own memories, though he had never been able to tell what she had truly thought.

“Why don’t you join us for dinner? We’re moored only down there.” Jane said suddenly, she had always been the braver one. She waved an arm in the direction of the river but kept her gaze fixed on Alan.

Alan shuffled awkwardly. “I couldn’t,” was his only reply.

“Nonsense, Helen and Jack would love to meet you. You can see where we all live.”

She had hit on a point that had always attracted Alan to her. The unfettered life on the water. How many times had he wanted to visit that boat, the one that he had never seen but had imagined himself waking up on, with her, a thousand times.

“Jack’s Helen’s man.” Jane answered the unasked question. “The four of us, but there’s room for more.” She let it hang, not wanting to press him too hard. She remembered he never could make a decision on anything.

Alan said nothing in reply. Before the pause lengthened too much, she spoke again.

“I think they’re over at one of the boats. Jack does painting on them.” Jane said, returning to her social tone, yet again concealing what they were thinking. “What about your painting?”

“Don’t get much time for it.” Alan said, his voice sounding wistful.

“It’s a pity.” Jane meant it.

“God, Alan, I can’t keep this up.” She put Ellie down on the stall. “What have you done with your life? Are you still tied up in your little worries, still bound by the fears that one day you might end up broke, so you have to work and save so hard? So timid that you cannot even accept the praise, the affection people show you?” Jane’s voice rose as she lay the charges against him. Alan shuddered and seemed to be trying to fold in on himself to shut out the words.

“You would not throw up some pathetic job for the fear that you couldn't meet the payments on the television. Christ! What the bloody use was a television anyway? There’s so much more you could have done, like sleeping with someone, anyone.”

Alan blushed deeply, Jane was too painfully perceptive. Despite the discomfort, he felt fixed to where he stood.

“I bet you still work for the same people, live in the same small room. It’s not even the low wages that have done it to you, it, it ...” Jane struggled for the right word in her frustration. “It’s that you just let people use you, crush your spirit. I’m not rich but I live the life I want. Things get difficult but I face them when problems appear, not hide from ones that might just turn up. You do not change anything unless you challenge it.” Jane’s voice calmed and she let out a sigh. Alan glanced around nervously but no-one seemed to have noticed what was passing between them.

“Look there’s only an hour or two of this left. Come back here then, come for dinner, come for the week, finish your holiday with us. Live some.” Though her voice was calmer, her tone was almost beseeching.

Alan looked at her tearfully. Jane took him in her arms and rested his head against her warm shoulder.

“How ever much you wanted me, you were tied to something stronger long before we met.” She whispered in his ear. “But it’s never too late to change, take early retirement. Get some decent clothes.”

Jane seemed enthused, excited but depression drowned Alan’s elation at seeing and feeling her again. Her words, her suggestions had stripped away so much of the protection that he had put up over the years. He knew that she was right about his fears, the ones that made his life so constrained, so wedded to the routine that gave him some sense of security. For a second he was glad somehow that he had kept it to himself and had not dragged someone else down with his worrying, his fear of living life. He made his way through it, taking what he saw as the safest option at each turn.

Jane kissed him on the cheek and on the lips as she pulled herself slightly back from him. Alan relished her kisses, for an instant they burned away the discomfort. Her body was firm and reassuring between his arms. He knew that this was a security he had never known and would never do so. For those seconds there was no-one but them, the full extent of his senses, the whole world of his concerns.

“So you’ll come.” Jane said, feeling that she was winning.

“Vegetarian food.” Alan replied, but Jane knew it was without malice.

“Ha, all the better for you.” She laughed.

“Good,” was all Alan said.

“Later.” Jane said cheerfully, believing she had won the first stage on the road to Alan’s redemption.

“Yes, later.” In this instance, Alan preferred the word to goodbye. He looked back for a moment to take in her and a few details around her, like a snapshot. He raised his hand and waved slightly but turned away before she responded.

The shadows were beginning to lengthen and the sun would be soon taking on the golden hue he loved so much. He glanced at his watch and hurried his pace across the field to the gate. He had to hurry if he was to cycle back safely. He bent down to fix his cycle clips around his trousers. As he left the field, he calculated the time it would take him to reach the pub. He reckoned if he was able to eat his dinner in thirty minutes he would be in time to see that documentary on the Roman empire. He fretted. He would have to pedal quickly and be lucky that that fat woman was not in the dining room before him. Alan reached his bicycle, still resting against the fence. He unlocked it, mounted and cycled away, off into his old life.

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