Image by Christine Renney
The cars are predictable. They crawl through the narrow and crowded streets at a snail’s pace. Searching for parking spaces. As soon as one moves away from the kerb, another is readying to take its place. This battle is almost constant. It is an elaborate board game, play pausing just briefly in the early hours of the morning when a stalemate of sorts is achieved and all of the vehicles are locked in tight and there are no spaces on the grid, on the streets and for a brief spell, at least none of them will move.
I keep walking and I am reassured by the line of cars jammed along the pavements. Occasionally I come across a space and if it is big enough to take a car I feel anxious. I am even unnerved but of course it won’t be long before the players return and the game commences.
I observe the drivers as I walk. They are all so desperately focussed that they hardly notice me. They are usually alone but if there are passengers they are just as centred, just as determined and desperate to find a space.
I am passing alongside a pale blue estate car. In the wintry light it is the colour of cement. The windshield and windows are tinted and I can’t see in. I feel a little uneasy about this but I can see quite clearly that there is a place just up ahead. It will be tight but I am sure that this driver, like all the others, is skillful enough. That he will be able to manoeuvre his vehicle quite easily into position. But he doesn’t.
Perplexed, I step down from the kerb and out into the road. Standing in the middle of the parking space I look back and there are no cars coming. It isn’t too late, he can still back-up but he doesn’t.
At the crossroads he turns right toward the City Centre. I cross at the junction and I stop and I stand and I wait. I expect that here, where the road is wider and there are no cars parked on either side, that he will turn himself around and begin to make his way back. But he doesn’t and brake lights ablaze he carries on, albeit awkwardly, down the hill.
When I start to follow he speeds up a little. I am running now and at the end of the road he turns left, onto the ring road and he is gone, leaving me stranded here at the edge.
Image by Christine Renney
Since abandoning the road I have become more and more pre-occupied with time. The idea that I might, that I will, that I do stop, is constantly lodged in my head as I walk.
I feel now that I was pushing against the road, that the traffic, all the cars and the trucks, were going in one direction and I in another. How did I manage to keep going for so long, without sitting or laying down, without stopping. I must, at least, have closed my eyes as I walked for longer than was safe.
Image by Christine Renney
He trawls through the city, as often as he is able. He carries the camera, although he hasn’t used it in months. It is a prop, camouflage. He lifts it to his face and, pressing his eye to the viewfinder, he gazes off to the side or up above.
He points the camera at the ground, focusing on a patch where the paving slabs are scratched and stained, resembling a map of something or somewhere. Or perhaps it is a river with many tributaries or the roots of a tree delving deep beneath the earth.
It is raining and, crouching in an abandoned doorway, he watches the passers-by, their feet pounding against the rain lashed pavement. Tilting the camera upwards, they appear as a series of frames, a film running on fast forward. And suddenly he realises that he is too close and if he were to lean forward or reach out, just a little, he could touch it.
He stands and, stumbling, he drops the camera. It clatters at his feet and he wonders if it will bounce back or make a hole.
Image by Christine Renney
They were separating, pulling apart. It had been happening for a while, for an age in fact, and yet they still shared a bed and a bathroom and the kitchen stove. In order to end it they needed to talk, to sit down face to face. There was so much they had to decide and she wanted so badly to thrash it out, but the gulf between had gotten too deep, too wide and they couldn’t cross or go around it.
A weekend away in the country, a change of scenery, neutral territory. It was her idea but she hadn’t needed to push it, he had agreed almost instantly and this had annoyed her a little. He could so easily have just said no, asked what’s the point, why would we bother to do that? But he hadn’t and here they were.
She retrieved the key from beneath the plant pot as instructed and unlocked the door. She stepped inside but stopping she stood on the threshold, blocking him.
‘I don’t think we should be together.‘ She shouted it into the empty house. ‘We should be apart, in separate rooms I mean.’
‘Okay,’ he mumbled and put her suitcase down on the doorstep. She turned and watched him as he walked back toward the car.
‘Which of the rooms would you like?’ she asked, trying to make the question sound light and airy.
‘I don’t care,’ he snapped. He could hear his voice in his head, brusque, harsh, blunt, but it wasn’t really how he felt.
‘Well, there are three rooms to choose from so why don’t we go up and take a look and then you can decide?’
‘I want the smallest,’ he said, managing to say it softly, under his breath. And he wasn’t really talking to her, although he couldn’t be sure that she got it, that she understood.
In the largest of the rooms she tossed and turned. Couldn’t stop thinking about him. Why had he insisted on taking that little room, the box room. It was like a cell and the thought of him in there depressed her.
She crept out onto the landing and stood in front of the door. Cupping her hands she pressed her ear against it and listened, wondered if he was asleep, if he was comfortable.
She shuffled around, leant against the door and it gave a little in its frame; creaking and straining against the catch. She realised that if he were to open it she would fall through but she wouldn’t move and refused to accept that, however temporarily, this was the door to his room.
It didn’t take long, just twenty minutes or so to say all that needed to be said. They each drank two cups of coffee and afterwards sat in silence over a third. She wanted to keep talking but had to admit that it wasn’t really necessary. They had dotted the I’s and crossed every T, had attended to each and every cliché that concerned itself with efficiency. He, as usual, had been succinct, wasn’t the type to talk simply for the sake of it. They had divided their belongings, had managed to sort through all the baggage that they had acquired during their time together. But twenty minutes? It felt too quick, too soon and again she wanted to keep talking. It was the end and also the beginning of something, something big. Surely it warranted a little more?
She would be able to talk later with her friends, there would be much to analyse. But not now, not here and suppressing yet another sigh she watched him.
He stood at the sink with his back to her and rinsed his cup. He then placed it upside down on top of the empty draining board.
She suspected he would adapt easily to living alone. That for him the transition would be seamless, that it would consist simply of a paring down, a shredding and shaving away until everything was smaller and he had less of everything, except his books of course.
She could easily picture him in his new flat where he would have just one cup, one plate, one bowl.
She was determined now not to talk, any attempt to do so would quickly turn stilted and so why not play him at his own game? She would just sit here and not talk to see how he liked it. She was acting childishly, she knew this. After all they had managed to settle things amicably and both of them were wholly resigned. He had been reasonable and had acted like an adult. She should have been relieved, grateful even and she was, but why did she also feel like this?
‘I’m exhausted,’ she said, ‘I have to go back up to bed. I need to sleep.’
He stood at the door to her room but didn’t step across the threshold.
‘It will get easier,’ he told her.
‘I know,’ she replied.
After all that had been said the thought of being cooped up in this unfamiliar cottage was too much now to contemplate. She decided she would suggest they leave first thing in the morning. He could start making the necessary arrangements and move out. They needed to get away from each other. They needed to be apart.
She began to undress and from the door he watched her. Glancing at him she moved to the foot of the bed. She looked up at him again and, this time, she held his gaze.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘okay. But first will you promise me something?’
‘What is it?’
‘Don’t sleep in that little room, not tonight.’
‘What do you mean?’
She laughed, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t mean you have to stay in here with me but move into the other room, the bigger one. Please will you promise me?’
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘I promise.’
And for the last time he stepped into her room.
It isn’t the most inspiring of views. The flats directly opposite, a rectangular block identical to the others. the scuffed tarmac in front of the entrance doors to each of the stairwells and the expanse of patchy grass that separates that block from his.
The old man leans forward in his chair and from his balcony window on the third floor he can see the road on his right but not the sky above. He settles back and, confronted with a wall of darkened windows, he glances down and sighs. He stifles a yawn and listens to the traffic, is reassured by its constant hum and to this lullaby of sorts he begins to drift. He is always drifting it seems or coming around from one of his many sleeps, the naps that now define his days.
When he opens his eyes he is startled, surprised to see two men standing facing each other. It isn’t exactly the Mojave out there but it is a poor shortcut and although occasionally a group of boys will venture out into the middle and claim the waste ground for a spell at least, it is much easier and far quicker to keep to the path. The men, bloated and middle aged, are almost indistinguishable and he doesn’t realise at first that they are moving. But very slowly they circle each other and the effort this requires is obviously considerable.
The old man can’t even be sure for how long he has been watching but he doesn’t doubt that this slow and not so courtly dance will reach a conclusion. One of the men suddenly punches the other in the face and this man, the victor, can hardly contain himself and, making his ungainly getaway, he strides across the waste ground and begins to laugh. But his laughter dies almost as abruptly as his clumsy departure. It stutters and stalls like a dirty engine.
The old man cannot look anymore, not at the man now standing alone and nursing his bloody nose, using his sleeve to staunch the flow. The old man sits back and, closing his eyes, he waits for sleep, for it to come and steal his sighs.