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Nigel Jarrett
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Lovey-Dovey

 

by Nigel Jarrett

 

When Kate's mobile rumbled into life on her bedside table, it briefly entered her dreams as a burping frog that someone was daring her to pick up. She looked at the time: it was ten past three in the morning. The number wasn't one she recognised.

     'Hello,' she half-whispered, as if there were someone else in the room who was not to be disturbed. There was no-one. There hadn't been for a while now.

     'Lorna?'

      It was a man's voice.

     'No. This is Kate. Kate Griffiths. Who's this?'

     'Katie?' A pause. 'Oh my god!'

     It was a long while since she'd heard him speak—almost two years—but she knew who it was.

     'Guy?'

     'Yes, Oh, this is awful. I'm so sorry, Kate. I'll let you get back to bed. Were you in bed?  Were you asleep? Did I wake you?'

     'Wait. Why are you ringing anyone at this hour of the night?'

     'It's not night; it's morning'.

     She sat up and smiled. That was Guy Morris all over: full of questions and pointlessly precise. Infuriating. She put the light on.

     'So—what's up?'

     There was a sigh at the other end of the line, the prelude to a gathering of his thoughts, or annoyance at his stupidity.

     'It's about Mike,' he explained 'Mike Johnson. You remember Mike.'

     It was Mike, or an amalgam of Mike and others, who appearing as a child she could not possibly have known had dared her to close her fingers around that slimy amphibian. No, not Mike; if there, he would have stood back, to observe the others with a certain amount of disinclination and distaste. Frogs were not slimy or wet, anyway. She'd learned that, like a lot of other things. But the dream was already fading.

     'Yes.' She said it in a way that meant 'Of course'.

     'He's...oh, look. I'm sorry. I should go. I'll get in touch and tell you everything. Bye'.

And he rang off.

     Still clutching the phone, she swung out of bed and walked to the window. The street was deserted, an orange-neon expanse, except that trotting down the pavement on the opposite side of the road was a fox. The lurid lights made it look grey, wolf-like. It reached a skip parked outside the flats across the way, rose on its hind legs and began to paw at the overhanging rubbish. She aimed the phone to take a picture but, as it clicked and flashed, the fox dropped on all fours and continued on its way.  She didn't delete the picture, an abstract smudge. She rarely deleted anything. Deep in the phone's cavernous memory there was probably still a picture of Guy. And Mike. All of them together in happier times. No, not happier times; careless times. A combined selfie. She remembered Lorna as someone pretty who briefly flickered moth-like into their circle. Perhaps Lorna was next to Kate in his contacts list and he'd dialed in error. But that would mean she, Kate Griffiths, was still in the scroll.

     With Guy things had become serious. The two of them used to laugh at that expression, as if love, or whatever it was, no longer had room for jokes and levity but was ever ready to cope with bad news, with tragedy. Perhaps 'tragedy' was too strong a word and 'serious' was OK, meaning both were prepared to put themselves out for the other. They just hoped that personal misfortune would pass them by. Why wouldn't it?  Awful things were bound to happen, but they'd be ready for them. One Christmas, he'd sneaked from an album the head-and-shoulders photo she'd had taken at school when she was eight, and had it framed alongside his, taken at the same age but in a different place. She'd kept the double portrait until they broke up, when she tapped it gently, retrieved the pictures and thrown away the glass shards and the frame. She'd returned his picture to him but he didn't reply. She wished she hadn't. She wondered if he'd received it. Mike Johnson, though—he was an intense, brooding sort of chap, a so-called 'silent type', unluckier in love than she was, and more likely than Guy to have thought of that twin portrait idea. Perhaps he had.

     In work several hours later, she couldn't concentrate on anything except Guy's call. There'd been no reason why they couldn't have remained friends, but it never happened. She'd had little contact with Mike, and she wondered what was up. Memories began leaking back; of Mike, for instance, always vaguely seeking something.

     A couple of days went by without a follow-up call. She delved into her Gallery. No Guy. There was one of Mike, in the rear and gloomily half-grinning with her and a couple of friends on a night out. Perhaps she'd got rid of Guy's after all, in a furious aftermath that had lost its detail—the woman scorned by men, all men. She'd done a lot in anger at that time, a lot she'd forgotten about. She couldn't have made a fresh start without ridding herself of the bitterness, the memories that had turned bad. It had been like weeding a garden, she remembered, a small corrupted plot.

     On the third day she found herself staring at Guy's number in her phone log. She didn't think it was the one he had when they were together. That he hadn't rung again, as promised, posed a dilemma. Did it mean she and the early morning call had slipped his memory? And would a pre-emptive approach by her be the sort of thing he might expect, and begin making the assumptions she was determined to avoid? She gave him the benefit of the doubt after work and rang his number.

     'Kate! How nice to hear from you,' he said. She could hear him zapping down the volume of the TV. She added no more, but waited for him to continue, to explain himself. 'Sorry again about the other night—er, morning. I didn't know what I was doing. Been in a bit of a fog with this and that.'

     'So, what's up with Mike?'  She wasn't in the mood for banter. She couldn't imagine Guy being 'in a fog' about anything, except being spurned by a woman.

     'Well, he just turned up here an hour before I got through to you by mistake. Lorna had ditched him. He didn't know why. Frankly, he was in a state, wanted to stay the night. Bloody suicidal, if you can believe it. You know Mike: head over heels in love but always with someone not half as barmy. He'd been walking the streets. I heard him out—it was all to do with Lorna not being what he called 'responsive'—and got him a taxi. I tried to ring Lorna after I spoke to you; sorry again! I was worried about her because he said he'd chucked something at her and split her lip. Maybe that was a while ago. I was also worried about him, but not to the extent of wanting him to sleep on my settee, though I offered. I couldn't get through. It's great to hear your voice again, really.'

     'Have you spoken to Lorna since? I hardly know her.'

     'Nor did I until we were introduced. I got in touch the next day, or several hours later. She said Mike was too intense. Did you know he sent her flowers every two weeks, on the dot? Well, no, you wouldn't. But he did. Very lovey-dovey. Never says much, then goes doolally romantic.'

     She didn't want to sound as though she'd made more than a courtesy call, a curiosity call: 'Is that it?'

     'More or less. He'll get over it.'

     Another pause.

     'How are you, Guy?

     'I'm surviving. And you?'

     'Fine. Everything's good.'

     'You should have a word with Mike.'

     'What!'

     'I mean, you might be able to help. I'm useless. You know what we men are like; not the amorous types. You were always the sensible one. He'd love to talk to you. I'm surprised you haven't kept in touch with the old crowd.'

     'Perhaps I have. Anyway, now you've bloody well got my number. I should have thought of that.'

    Actually, she hadn't seen many of them. They weren't a crowd anymore. She'd split with Guy because he never understood the important issues, didn't even see them as a problem. He had no right to say she was sensible; she wasn't. Now that Guy had done some mild raking over that corrupted, weeded plot, Mike Johnson came into sharper focus. She recalled birthday parties, hen nights (at which Mike had been mentioned, though not discussed), trips to the theatre, weddings, christenings. At least a few of them were always present, like those dolls that spring upright however much you try to push them over. Next thing she heard, from afar a year ago, Lorna and Mike were together. Mike was good-looking and gallant—chivalrous—in a sweet sort of way. Others had got married and moved off to new lives, new friends, new interests. It wasn't anyone sensible Mike needed now; it was someone who felt the same way as he did. Sensible didn't necessarily mean tender-hearted. Did she square up? Perhaps she did. So he threw things, he could get angry. She grinned. Well, it was better than being uncaring and sullen—and befogged.

     That night, she couldn't sleep. At three o' clock she got up and looked out of the window. The skip was still there, piled even higher with objects unwanted and jettisoned. Nothing stirred. Did the fox follow the same trail every time? She stood there, waiting for it to appear, and the uncommonly quiet city, windless, straight away took on an air of expectancy. Was it a dog fox or a vixen she'd seen after Guy had rung? Were there cubs, being looked after by the mate? She'd read about urban foxes and watched a TV documentary about them. It was as if a new environment had been foisted on them, rather than that they'd entered it of their own accord. Either way, it seemed a dangerous life for a fox, and she thought of the trotting one—yes, trotting—she'd seen before, keen, courting danger, but alive—a true survivor, not like Guy, who said he was surviving probably in order to emphasise a loss still being felt, something missing; namely a woman, she as good as anyone else. No way, as Guy used to say in lieu of debating anything. Why would Mike throw things? Was he short-tempered or exasperated? Not many rows with Guy ended in frenzied love-making. They should, she thought. She'd just finished reading The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray, all four volumes in one brick-size book. The dispersed gang loved the theatre; well, they went fairly often. While smoking in an act of complicity, she'd noted some things, wise or inscrutable, the author had written. Death, he said, was 'a great and romantic adventure'. One of that dreamtime amalgam, watching her as she reached down to touch the frog, was heard to comment, 'Ugh...I'd rather die than do that'. She hadn't touched it or picked it up.

     She didn't ask Guy for Mike's number; she phoned someone else for it. Mike couldn't be reached on his mobile, so she left a message. In the evening, he rang back.

     'Kate Griffiths? Hello, Kate. Haven't seen you for a while. What can I do for you?'

     She was taken aback. It sounded like a response from the secretary of a film club she'd joined, long after her membership had lapsed.

     'Well...'

     'Don't tell me. Let me guess. Guy has asked you to ring me.'

     'I...how...?'

     'How do I know? Because you're the third person to phone from our lot. What's he playing at? I say 'our lot' but we are a pathetic bunch these days, don't you think?'

     'I'm sorry.'

     'It's OK. I find it quite touching really. I don't even think it's nobody’s business but mine. It's what friends are for, as they say. Are we friends—I mean our gang, the gang that used to be?'

     'This is embarrassing, Mike. Honestly.'

     He cleared his throat. 'Can I tell you something?' he asked.                                                                 

     'Of course.'

     'In the old days, I spent most of my time summoning the courage to ask you out. I thought about you a lot. Wanted to be with you.'

     'Then why...'

     'Because I don't like uncertainty, the lack of immediate reciprocation.'

     'What can a person do to make you certain, reciprocal?' She wondered if there were such a word.

     'Be passionate, I suppose—about everything. I bet you never spent a minute summoning enough courage to ask me out.'

     'You always intrigued me.'

     'That's not the same thing. Anyway, enough of this. Look, I'm fine. Yes, I did throw a book at Lorna but I meant to miss. Yes, I did go AWOL for a few hours after she said she never wanted to see me again. Yes, I regret all that. Wait a minute—no, I don't regret it. Do you understand me?'

     Kate looked around the flat. Night was falling. The street lights were stuttering on. Everything around her was dissolving in shadow. Only the mobile kept going, like some hospital monitoring apparatus registering her heartbeat, her helpless tremors, her racing blood.

     'I don't know what to say.'

     'Say you'd like to spend time with me.'

     'I'd like to spend time with you.'

     She wasn't sure where the words came from; it was as if he'd drawn them out of her.

     'OK. Look: it was good of you to ring. I appreciate it. Let's allow things to happen if they want to happen. By the way, you should tell Guy you rang.'

     'I will. Are you serious, Mike?'

     'Are you, Kate?'

      She wanted to say, 'I think so'; but she said, 'Yes, I am.'                                                     

      Once more, she didn't sleep well. She found that picture again, the one of a group of them. Mike, with just his head visible and wearing that serious, almost imploring, gaze, is in the background.

     She could see now that in unposed shots of them all he was always the only one looking at the camera, looking at her, the one taking the picture.

     Later, she couldn't remember whether she dreamt that she'd received a bouquet of flowers or that she'd imagined it. She did recall an image from the dream: a toad, full of poison it was said, heaving itself dryly off the stage, into a pile of wet brown leaves.

     Nor did she know if that crumpled ball of cellophane on the floor was part of the imagining or part of the dream. She did know that she faltered when reaching to pick it up, because it began to crackle open, like something exuding a life of its own, a small and slightly disconcerting upheaval that, once grasped, would have to be annihilated.

     Lying on the bed, she loosened her jammies and lay provocatively into the night like someone ready to possess and be possessed in turn, someone waiting for completion and reciprocation.

     At last, it felt right. She hoped it would feel right.

     Outside there was a distant, short-lived clatter, followed ten seconds later by a shout: the fox dislodging something, she guessed, and being scared off by a neighbour. She stretched out at this external event, now rendered more vivid by some internal sense of wonder re-born and radiating through her body, leaving her shorn of sentiment.

 

                                                                    oOo





Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and winner of the Rhys Davies Prize, and, in 2016 won the inaugural Templar Shorts Prize, both for short fiction. He is represented in the Library of Wales's anthology of 20th- and 21st-century short stories and is the author of a novel, a poetry collection, and three collections of stories, all of which have been warmly received, two in the UK national press. Templar this year published his story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy. He writes and reviews for Acumen poetry magazine, Jazz Journal, and several others. He lives in Monmouthshire, South Wales, UK.

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