An extract from ‘Teneral’, a short story by Aidan Maartens.
There, across the street, between the passing buses and cars, looking in at the homeware and summer mannequins arranged in the window of John Lewis, stands Jasmin. She moves her head from item to item, sidesteps. She’s wearing what look like work clothes, a black skirt. The wind blows her black hair around, she tucks it behind her ear. It blows loose again. It’s the first warm day of the year.
We first met last week at a party hosted by Brett, my gregarious Australian lab mate. You’re both new in grinning before going to the doorbell, hair in his wake. We introduced ourselves and she said my name, and then said it a second time, maybe to remember it, but before we could speak properly some others came in and we were subsumed into a larger group. Cue the awkward shared introductions, my stupid brassy voice. The group then splintered around the flat, me on one side, Jasmin on the other.
Later that night, as Brett talked to me about dance music events he’d been to and ones he wanted me to come with him to, I caught myself looking over the room at her, at Jasmin. She was speaking with two other men , who had let their moustaches grow longer than their beards. In fact, the conversation was mostly between these two men, who energised and mimicked each other like a mating pair of birds, grebes or something less elegant. I watched as Jasmin’s eyes darted back and forth between them, her eyebrows slightly raised, one side of her mouth tucked in a half smile, occasionally nodding, or letting out a short laugh. But then something passed across her face – like a cloud in front of the sun – and she disengaged, looked down, relaxed the side of her mouth, picked at the paper label of the beer she was holding. The men continue unaware. I returned to focus on my conversation with Brett, and she left soon after. I got drunk, and had forgotten about her entirely until now, here on the street, again standing looking over at her.
UNWANTED STARING IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT
The line that springs into my head is from an advert I saw on the Tube, the last time I was in London. And so I step into the street, a cyclist yells at me, Jasmin jumps an inch when I say her name. At first she looks confused but then looks at my hair and says yeah, from the party right, William, William, Brett’s mate. She is a little shorter than me. She has a high fringe, her eye contact is unerring. Hazel or green, the colour seems to switch as her eyes flick between mine, as the light changes with the passing people and vehicles. I flare, bite the inside of my mouth. She asks what I’m up to. I tell her I was just at the bank and have an hour spare before heading back to the lab. She says she has the afternoon off. I ask if she would like to go for a drink. She narrows her eyes, holds her answer and my eyes for a couple more elating and excruciating seconds, and then says yeah, she’s free, why not.
It’s been a while since I’ve done this, a drink with a woman. There’s a proud rush of having asked, and of her acceptance, but also an uncomfortable giddiness that risks overwhelming me. We slowly walk in the direction of the river to find somewhere, not saying much, my face numbish, until a pub appears in front of us, set into the side of a sandstone building on the spur of a roundabout. Smallest Pub in Cambridge is cut out of the glass frosting in the door.
Inside, the barman looks up at us from his newspaper, holding a blue betting shop pen, puzzle page in front of him. One low table by the window, three bar stools at the bar. There’s a radio on, it sounds like some kind of play, but then a cow moos, maybe it’s The Archers. The barman is the only one in there. It feels like we’ve walked into his front room.
With pints in hand it’s two steps to the table by the window. My knees knock up against the table’s underside. We say cheers and start talking about where we are with our lives. Like me, Jasmin only moved to Cambridge recently and is still getting to know the place. She started a consultancy job in an institute for environmental sustainability in the centre of town. I tell her I’ve seen the impressive new building next to the hotel that burned down a few years ago. Also, the red paint daubed across its front, with the repeated message, also in red, of No Blood Oil Money. She nods, says not everyone’s a fan. But she likes it so far and has found a good house share with other young professionals (here she uses air quotes, and I wonder how old she is – thirties like me, surely, but early or middle or late?), in a house near Mill Road with an apple tree in the back garden. Cambridge is quiet, compared to London, but she thinks that’s good for her. This afternoon is payday and she’s been looking for nice things for the house, hence John Lewis.
She asks and I fill her in about me, repeating the spiel that I’ve got used to saying recently, since I moved here. It’s like reciting a CV: and then, and then, and then. Cirencester, Brighton, Boston, Cambridge. BSc, MPhil, PhD, postdoc. I tell her what I’m doing now – my research, the flies – and when I’m done she nods and says cool that sounds interesting, but doesn’t ask anything more. She takes a sip and the red-brown beer leaves a tide line on her upper lip. I notice a tattoo on the middle part of the index finger of her right hand. Three circles in blue ink lined up diagonally, the middle one biggest and filled in, the other two empty, like a planet and its two moons.
A thread appears before me in the momentary silence. I open my body to the tiny room, clear my throat, and say that I like this place, a proper pub pub. So different to the bars in Boston with their wall-to-wall screens, some showing news but mainly sports, each screen a different game, adverts every five minutes, and me, the lonely immigrant, trying and failing to understand American Football and dreaming of a place like this one, dreaming of England. But as I say these words, I realise it wasn’t really like that: I had known the sport a little beforehand, in fact had enjoyed its stuttering mayhem, and especially liked sitting at those bars alone, utterly anonymous in that foreign city, testing local beers, eating highly calorific bar food, and rarely, if ever, thinking of home, let alone yearning for it. It was England I wanted to get away from, and in Boston I found I loved the You’re all set? from the waiters, the actual snow in winter, the night-time humidity in the summer, pavement soft beneath me, wooden houses ticking as I passed them. The real memory lagged behind the retelling, but before I have the chance to correct myself (a chance in truth I likely would not have taken) Jasmin picks up the thread to say she’s only been to America once. It was a family holiday to Disney World in Florida memorable mainly for the plane journey and the major turbulence they hit before landing in Orlando. As they rattled around in their seats, the pilot over the intercom said not to worry too much about it all. Jasmin’s mum sat frozen next to her, her eyes closed, and Jasmin reached to hold the hand that was gripping the seat rest between them, and telling her it would all be alright, saying it over and over until they landed with a skid on the wet runway. Later, from their hotel, she watched lightning strike the Magic Castle, like in the intro credits, and the storm churned on for most of the time they were there.
When I tell Jasmin it sounds like she was a conscientious child, helping her mum like that, she pauses and then says she’s not sure. She’s recounted the memory to other people, so it’s definitely a stable one in her head, but now she wonders whether it might it be fictional. For the truth was, she continues anxiety had pervaded her younger life, anxiety about a lot of things, but travelling especially. There were the imagined elaborate fiery accidents, of course, but also the rest of it, the lost bags and missed departures and masses of strangers, which led to a state of exhausted nervous energy before and during journeys and holidays. She would grind her teeth until her jaw ached, pick at her cuticles until they bled. And so the one glued frightened to her seat would have been her, and the reassuring one, her mum, or maybe her older sister. She must have constructed it, the memory, or stolen it from somewhere else, a movie or something. But she’s better now with all of that.
I’m about to ask what had made her so anxious in the first place and what had changed in the interim when from over her shoulder the pub door opens. We both turn – the space is so small it’s unavoidable – to see an older man with watery eyes and a pinkish face and long, oddly lustrous blonde hair tied back loosely with a rubber band. Without his asking, the barman starts pouring. He drops a pile of coins on the bar. The barman picks the silver out with one hand as he holds the filling glass under the tap with the other. The man stands and finishes the glass in long deep gulps, nods to the barman, and leaves.
As the door rasps shut, Jasmin looks back to me – again, her eyes, I struggle to keep contact – and says the man gives her flashbacks to working at a Weatherspoon’s in Portsmouth when she was a student. Morning shift, she’d unlock the door first thing and see a line of men like him, always alone and always men, mainly middle aged or older, who’d file in behind her and spend the morning sitting alone in silence with their drinks and fried breakfasts, occasionally looking up to the screens in the corners that played BBC News on silent with the subtitles on. All quite tragic, she continues, but then come lunchtime the place would liven up with women and couples and groups and office workers, and these lone men would blend into the others. The place was obviously important to them, to be somewhere with other people.
I see myself alone at a bar in Boston and say without meaning to: my dad was an alcoholic. Jasmin says she’s sorry and looks confused but doesn’t press. And neither do I elaborate: that we weren’t close, really, that he wasn’t one of your Portsmouth Wethys men, more a functioning alcoholic I think they call it, that I didn’t even really know he was one until I got the call, at two in the morning, the drive across the country, arriving just in time to see the nurses and doctors rushing into his cubicle and drawing the curtains shut behind them. All these things I don’t say flash through my mind in a moment. I follow Jasmin in looking outside, where the streetlights pop on, almost audibly.
Standing up to go to the toilets, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeeze it lightly. I instantly regret it, the act of an elderly relative, or worse, a lech, an unwanted toucher. Fucking Idiot. Down a narrow and steep staircase to the basement that smells like wet footwear, a single urinal and a cubicle with a picture of Marilyn Monroe sellotaped to the door. Hot tap giving tepid water, the surprise of how I look in the mirror. Blue hair looking more like grey in the dim light. Up the stairs and the barman leans down to open the dishwasher, the steam fogs his glasses. A small fly, yes maybe a Drosophila, one of mine, arcs up and down above him. It lands on the domed top of a beer pump, cleans its forelegs as he pours.
As I place her new pint in front of her, Jasmin is looking at her phone. And just like in the party, her face has dropped – it’s as if the tendons holding up have been severed. She looks at me apologetically and says she’s sorry, she’s going to have to go, right away she’s afraid. She tries to hand me a tenner for the drink she can’t drink but I refuse and ask if everything’s alright. She says it’s fine, she just has to leave. I say I’d love to see her again and ask for her number, which she gives me. I stand up and am not sure whether to hug or kiss her and so just put a hand on her shoulder again like a Fucking Idiot. She half smiles and then leaves. From the window I watch her walk quickly in the direction of town, beyond which is her house off Mill Road, the house with the apple tree in the back garden. The wind is still going and her hair is blowing about again. She disappears around a corner.
I look at my watch, take a picture of the two beers and send it to Brett. Write that his is getting warm.