Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Look, Don't Touch

(published 'Not One Of Us' 1991)

William Fitzsimmons sat in the hamburger cafe, scrutinising the other customers bent double over their scratchings.

He speculated on the forces that had brought all these people, including himself, together at this single point in endless time. Why them? Why him? Why now? Why even why?

On the face of it, several people had arrived here to become inextricably mingled in this cheapskate, overlit, uncharacterful spot in the limitless universe. The number of other more deserving venues they could have chosen, for such an important conflux of destinies, was breathless.

William forked up a shy sliver of lightly fried egg and, chewing ruminatively, he tried to concoct a background for each of his companions in eating. But their identities at first escaped his grasp...

The dour-faced lady, with skewed spectacles, had been staring emptily into space, sporadically sipping at her cup of drink: the odd tinkle of less than best china picking itself out from the under-rumble of the cafe.

She sat straight opposite William ... but he was not the object of her gaze. It was something behind him, by the look of it. He turned quickly, only to find a reflection of the back of his neck in the wall mirror. He did not question it: nor the fact that he could no longer see the lady because his own image in the mirror was in the way. When he turned back, she had in fact gone; she had even cleared away the cup and saucer herself: a tidy mind, if even a vacant one, William mused. But surely she'd not had sufficient time to depart during that split second turn of his head.

He pictured her walking along the drab tawdry streets, umbrella unfurled against the endemic drizzle, her tears borrowing sparkles from the car lights. Her flat was a lonely place without her. It needed to be filled with a presence: to allow her meticulously arranged sticks of furniture to rally round and become more than just a soulless space of unassigned reality. For it was, at heart, a home.

She placed a small saucepan of milk on the back burner of the old-fashioned gas cooker: prepared to watch it swell into a mass of tiny cream-frothing bubbles for yet another drink. Almost erotic. But never consummated: she removed the saucepan just before its seething contents reached the boil and poured it sizzling upon coffee granules ... which in turn gave up their ghosts in running smears of brown.

William decided not to follow that train of thought to the conclusion which he feared he might reach. Instead, he turned his attention to another customer ... and this one did not look as if he were about to leave. Nor had the lady, for that matter.

The oval plate was piled up in front of the man with three burgers in their baps, tips of half-raw onion poking out from the sides like tiny children's lisping tongues.

The man had once been a father, but had killed such creatures who had made him such. There HAD been blood on his hands. William could see it also in the man's redshot eyes: evidently couldn't sleep because of the thoughts: those haunting thoughts which, real or otherwise, had used the man's mind as their own.

The man removed the lid of each bap and audibly squirted tomato sauce upon the wrinkled brown flannels within. Then, taking a knife, kindly provided by those that ran the cafe, he surgically separated a large wadge of "meat" and bap from the rest, speared it with the selfsame knife, opened his mouth as wide as it would go, showing a flap of the body which should be heard rather than seen, and enveloped the morsel in folds of munching flesh.

William could now hardly see the man's mouth: the lips were tantamount to a meagre rind of skin and the slit between them closed up like a healing scar. The cheeks bloated in and out. The eyes bulged, pricks of blood at their corners...

William turned away. He could bear it no longer. Staring hopefully at his own plateful as a source of comfort, the coiled frankfurter, with notches cut out along its length, looked almost akin to a diseased body part. In front of his eyes, it begun to unbend, eventually shifting a fresh tomato- half nearer to the edge of the plate. The tiny mound of softened onions weltered.

He could not endure eating any more. So, he looked towards the corner where he had not noticed before a young woman in a smart mackintosh sitting reflected by the interface of two wall mirrors. With a certain amount of relief, he convinced himself she was a nice person. The face was open and innocent, as well as disarmingly pretty, as she returned his glance. Was that a hint of a smile upon those carefully red-painted lips? The eyes, even from this distance, he could discern, were delicate birds' eggshells. The nose completed the inscrutable picture of Mona Lisa's second cousin, with an even more beautiful sister-in-sheen either side of her.

William had fallen in love with her even before setting eyes upon the young woman. It was as if Fate had once given him an advance glimpse, in a dream so readily forgotten as remembered, a memory never experienced until now.

The subtle mutual recognition lasted only for a second or two ... before a sharp-suited gent with a huge neck sat down between them. She spoke to the man as if she knew him and had been expecting his arrival Now, there was no doubting the quality of the smile.

William collapsed in upon himself. What he had previously managed to eat turned uneasily in his stomach, the various odds and ends melding as the chutney fermented.

It was getting late. The other customers had been leaving the cafe in dribs and drabs, without him really noticing. Whatever the rubbing together of various destinies had served to accomplish, it had not prevented any of them from extricating themselves from William's web and taking up their lives from where they'd left off before entering the hamburger cafe.

His last tale, evidently, was to be spun around the only customer he really knew to the bottom.

He pictured himself ambling through the same curtain of drizzle behind which the dour-faced lady had already disappeared. Then, fumbling for his keys which always turned up in the last pocket that he searched: inserting each key into the complicated lock system with which his wife had insisted burdening the flimsy front door: entering the gloomy hall where the dead bulb still faced downward from the dangling flex: keeping watch upon the steep stairs for a sign of anybody or anything waiting to cross down past him as he climbed up: finally, shaking himself free from the drag of the overcoat which, in turn, collapsed to the dowdy linoleum with the whimper of a huge drowned dog.

He saw the bodies of his wife and children lying side by side in the marital bed, their endlessly sluggish blood filling all the crevices under the floorboards: eager to start the sprinkler system that his wife had always wanted. He sniffed. No sign of that smoke needed to hide the ripe sweet savour of bodies too long dead. The fire he had left smouldering on purpose had burnt itself out before catching. The hamburger cafe smelled more like a crematory, in its own way: more like a charnel house than even a charnel house.

William Fitzsimmons came back to himself in the cafe. He had in fact never been a father nor a husband, neither loving nor loved ... with nobody so close to him that he could muster sufficent hatred to slaughter them. The loneliness was more than he could bear.

He may have to kill himself, as some kind of consolation prize in the league of passions.

There may have been no need, of course, if, soon afterwards, all the customers in the hamburger cafe on that particular evening, including him, died in severe pain of complications derived from food poison.

But no such luck, good OR bad, would allow him a way out. Only the ability to wander the city streets, staring at God's children.

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