Our spare room is unmanageable. I have been in denial but finally I am prepared to accept it. It has become the dumping ground for the excesses of my obsessions. Mostly books, but also music; my old record collection is shelved here and also CDs but mostly it is the books, everywhere the books.
I have resisted Christine’s suggestion that if I can’t part with them I should pack them into boxes and store them up in the loft.
‘If I do that,’ I argue, ‘I may as well not have them, if I can’t get to them, if they are not accessible.’
‘Then you need to choose,’ she says. ‘I know it is difficult but you can’t and you won’t re-read them all and so you have to decide which ones you can’t live without and lose the rest.’
Of course, she is right but here they are. When the rest of our house can’t cope this is where I bring them. This is where the debris falls.
I have been in here for half an hour at least, searching for a copy of ‘The Great Gatsby’. I bought it two?, three?, I don’t know how many years ago. But I haven’t read it and now I want to and now I can’t find it.
I began by sorting and sifting through the books just inside the room, those closest to the door, slowly pushing forward and piling them on top of those stacked in front of the shelves on the far wall, which are now almost entirely obstructed.
I stand in front of this ungainly tower and desperately scour the spines just in case I have missed it but it isn’t there.
I hear Christine on the stairs.
‘What are you doing in there?’ she calls.
‘Looking for a book.’
‘The Great Gatsby,’ I mumble.
The books are lodged tightly in the alcove. I reach for one, the spine creased and faded and I can’t read it. I try to work it loose and as I do the others begin to topple.
The smell of urine pervades, I grimace and step from the main entrance and out, onto the scuffed tarmac. I gaze across at the towering block opposite.
‘Jordan, get back here NOW,’ a woman‘s voice. I hear but can’t find her, but I spot Jordan striding swiftly and full of purpose. She keeps close to the building and her head below the windows. She reaches a column jutting out from the main block and she stops but doesn’t turn.
Her mum is standing in the doorway of their flat. They have copper coloured hair and are both deathly pale behind the freckles.
‘DON’T make me come out there,’ mum shrieks into the falling dark. ‘Don’t you fucking DARE.’
Jordan moves around the column and stands for all she is worth with her back to the wall.
Mum, in her bare feet, is clearly unprepared and so determined not to move. Nevertheless she leans forward and craning peers first one way and then the other. But to find her daughter she needs to move onto the expanse of patchy grass which separates her block from where I am standing. And this she now does, treading carefully in her bare feet on the hard dirt.
I step forward and onto the pavement so that she will see me and not be startled.
‘Come back Jordan, please,’ she pleads but softly, unaware her daughter and I are there and that we can hear her.
It’s raining and here in the café the windows are beginning to mist. The fluorescent light from the shops opposite is less harsh and it’s all a bit blurred out there.
In the corner, close to the glass, two women are sitting and talking. The tone is conspiratorial and their voices are indistinguishable. Only when I look across at them can I tell which is actually speaking. They look alike, have the same black hair and glasses.
Their conversation is too complex for a casual eavesdropper to interpret and I stop hearing the words and just listen to the murmur of their voices. It’s a little like radio static but not from some tinny transistor. This interference is deep and monotonous. I watch as they lean in close, their faces rapt in the rainy glare.
Across the parade a group of drinkers has gathered. They are sheltering under the canopy with their cans of super strength lager. From where I sit, they appear lumpen, slow moving as if the air is heavy and dense.
The women are still talking and I stifle a yawn. Their impenetrable chatter is a lullaby of sorts and I could easily drift off. But two of the drinkers are now shoving each other and flailing they move away from the rest of the group, stumbling out into the rain.
At an arms length from each other they move in a not so stately dance. It’s funny but I don’t laugh. One of them has a bloody nose and he lunges at the other, and together they tumble against the plate glass.
The women look up at last as their conversation is brought to an abrupt halt and the disruption is complete.
‘I MUST MAKE SMALL TALK’
Christine has written this on a post-it note and stuck it above the kettle. Each time I make a mug of tea, there it is and this morning it has survived yet another steaming.
It is her intention that I see it shortly before setting off for work acting as a prompt. She is convinced I use my shyness as an excuse to not talk and it is a habit that, with a little effort, I could begin to break.
It wouldn’t hurt you, she says, to be a bit more open, a bit more magnanimous, and I can’t argue with that. I certainly don’t want her to write on a post-it and stick it on the tile alongside the other. Trouble is, I haven’t had any practice and I am not very good at it.
I walk to the bus-stop and say the words out loud, MUST MAKE SMALL TALK, I MUST MAKE SMALL TALK. Drawing closer to the stop I chant more softly, the mantra losing its momentum until both I and it stutter to a halt.
I take my place at the end of the awkwardly formed line. No-one speaks, not ever, despite the fact we are forced together as a group almost every weekday morning. Oddly, I feel inspired and determined. Today I will make small talk.
And why not begin right here and now? I’ll make an announcement, say something witty, profound even. But what? In a minute or so the bus will arrive and I need to act quickly. I start chanting again, the words are still lodged crudely in my head.
MUST MAKE SMALL TALK, I MUST MAKE SMALL TALK.
The woman in front turns and stares at me and the others in the line are also peering around at me. I am talking aloud. I close my mouth, clenching it tightly shut and it stops. But I feel like an abandoned hose, violently thrashing, the water relentlessly escaping.
Head down I move amongst the throng in the arcade. I walk for a while, five minutes perhaps, before realising I am caught up in quite a shoal and I am pushing against the tide, all its components moving in the opposite direction.
I stumble to a halt, determined to wait it out. I won’t be spun around and forced in a direction I do not want to go. I watch as the crowd parts, stepping around me, indistinguishable.
Alarmed, I look again as it jostles and shoves. I feel disorientated and more than a little unsteady but I scrutinise the sea of faces. They do not look alike, almost but not quite. There are differences but they are subtle, too subtle.
I spot a girl with red hair and focus on her simply because she stands out and I need an anchor. I follow her but she disappears. I search again, scanning and scouring for someone, something, anything; a jaunty hat, a beard, braids, and there she is again: the redheaded girl.
But it isn’t her, it is another, the other’s doppelganger and there is no difference, nothing subtle and she is heading straight toward me.
But miraculously the crowd thins and I am able to move again, most of the shoppers now going my way.
We yell until each of us is hollow. Christine is sobbing. Her sobs are hoarse and guttural. She is empty and has no more words and I no longer have to fend against them.
She shivers and I touch her. She is cold and I fetch a sweater from the bedroom. With a handful of kitchen towel she mops at her face, at the snot and tears.
The sweater is too big and sitting she pulls at herself from inside. I place my hands on her shoulders and press down gently, an effort to still her.
I feel remorse, it fills the hollow inside, I am full to brimming with it when Christine turns, ready for regret.