Archive for March, 2011

Weight-training

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

During a clean up at home, I came across this short story I wrote decades ago. It seemed to follow on nicely from my last post, so I thought I would share it.

I hate it when I’m in a strange town. All the people look ugly or criminal and as though they’re out to take advantage of you any way they can. At least that’s the way they look to me. And they always seem to know when you’re a stranger – I think it’s the way they look at you, or rather, they way they don’t look at you, that makes them look so mean. And just so you feel worse, all the normal, friendly people seem to keep out of the way for the first few days. Or perhaps it’s the uglies and criminals looking more familiar who become the normal people, who knows?

I was walking along by the sea thinking about it. It was all right walking by the sea, listening to the roar of the waves and feeling the light rain on my face, but I felt guilty about it… I felt guilty because it was so corny. I mean, it’s corny now because all the crumby love stories have sad lonely figures walking on the beach and rain mingling with their tears. That’s really corny. But here I was, walking in the rain, at night, alone, on the beach. I was all upset about it being corny but I thought, what the hell, it’s okay if you’re actually doing it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so good in a story though.

I left the beach and started to walk into town along the front. All the streets were deserted; I had the whole place to myself. It was kind of eerie, like I was the last person left on earth. This made me want the company of people, even if it meant they were going to be ugly.

I couldn’t go into a pub though. I’d tried that earlier. It was horrible. When I went in, the few people in there stared at me, sort of telling me to get out. They were mostly old blokes, sitting at tables with full pints and cigarette butts stuck in their bony fists. They were waiting for me to turn around and go back out, but I didn’t. I walked up to the bar and ordered a drink and when they saw my defiance of them they went back to their own stupid conversations and completely ignored me. I didn’t even bother to sit down to have my drink, I just wanted to finish it as quick as I could. When I left they stared after me again and it all went quiet until I’d gone out the door.

I passed a small cinema and thought maybe I could go in and watch a film. I studied the black and white photos of the actors, pinned up in a glass cabinet outside the entrance. I didn’t recognise any of them and I hadn’t heard of the film, but I didn’t care, at least they would be some kind of company. The cinema itself was falling to pieces. All the paintwork had long since peeled off and some fancy pieces of stonework on the outside of the building were crumbling away. It looked too much of a dive for my liking but my shoes were killing me and I had to sit down somewhere so I could take them off.

I felt pretty bad about my shoes. They were new and I was supposed to be breaking them in, only they were breaking my feet in. They cost me a small fortune too. I didn’t mean to buy such an expensive pair but the old lady in the shop must have guessed I was a sucker for quality and she showed me the best pair she had. They were solid, hand-made shoes with the finest leather and immaculate stitching. The leather creaked like a comfortable rocking chair and they smelled beautiful. If she’d told me the price beforehand I would have been scared off but some of these harmless looking saleswomen are cunning that way. Anyway, I tried them on and it was like Cinderella and the glass slipper, so I bought them. They were already built to last but when you pay so much for something you don’t want to take any chances so, like a fool, I stuck an extra heel and sole on just to make sure. That made them tougher than I expected and after walking about in them all day, I was damned near crippled.

I figured the inside of the cinema couldn’t be as bad as the outside and even if it were, it would be too dark to see. And anyway, I could dry off from the drizzling rain.

I walked up the couple of steps, went through the shabby, glass panelled doors and to the box office where a bored looking, middle aged woman sat behind the counter reading a paperback. She had on a pair of those awful, ornate, devil-horned spectacles that had a gold chain dangling from them and went round the back of her neck.

“Stalls, please.” I said, pulling a one-pound note from my pocket. She never bothered to look at me once when she gave me the ticket; she was part of the machine that coughed it up.

I limped into the auditorium and gave my ticket to the wizened usherette – even the staff were falling to pieces. She waved her torch airily into an empty seat in one of the back rows. It would have probably crippled her to walk any further than ‘D’ row.

I sat down and from the light coming off the screen I could make out the rows of empty seats and the isolated, shadowy figures that occupied a few of them. I liked it in the dark and my mood lifted slightly but the seats were cramped and uncomfortable and hardly gave any legroom. I was about to take off my shoes when I thought, ‘if I take a seat on the front row, I would be able to stretch my legs.’ So I went to sit at the front.

It was strange at the front. I felt like an insect whenever a big close-up came onto the screen. I slipped off my shoes and started to watch the film. It wasn’t long before I realised that I’d made a mistake coming in.

It was an old British ‘B’ picture, filmed in black and white. The plot was so banal and the direction so stilted that at first, I thought it was some kind of ironic joke. It couldn’t even be excused as a sex film because there wasn’t any. It was so pathetic, I just felt despair all the while I was watching it. It was hopeless, utterly hopeless. Then I wanted to cry because it was such a sad film. I don’t mean the story was sad or anything, it was a feeling I got from watching the actors. They were so bad. I usually sneer at bad actors but these were different, with every wooden line they delivered you could see it was breaking their hearts. They were doing their best and it wasn’t good enough. They were failures appearing in a soon to be forgotten film, and they knew it.

God, it was awful watching them. There was an old actress in the film who must have been a beauty when she was younger but time had ravaged her looks, and in trying to disguise it she’d plastered make up on her face so thick that you could see the brush strokes. The paint cracked around her mouth and eyes when she spoke or smiled. It made it worse somehow in trying to hide it.

Which bastard made it a crime to grow old?

I couldn’t stand it in there any longer, the whole thing had gotten too oppressive. I had to get out. I blew my nose, wiped my eyes and put my shoes back on. I was about to move from my seat, when I couldn’t. It’s crazy, I know, but I started to think that the people in the cinema were watching me, waiting to see what I did. And the more I thought about it, the more self-conscious I became about moving from my seat. It’s just the same on the telephone. Whenever I’m ringing someone I don’t know, I can’t get over the feeling that they know who I am and they’re waiting for me to make a fool of myself. I get so nervous about it, I usually end up doing just that.

I knew if I thought about it for too long, I wouldn’t be able to leave until everyone else did, so I stood up before I could stop myself and walked out. I tried hard not to limp because I didn’t want anyone to see I’d bought an expensive pair of shoes that didn’t fit properly and then have them think I was stupid in buying them.

It had stopped raining when I got outside but everything was still wet and the cars hissed through the water as they passed by. I suddenly needed to call someone, anyone, and I set off down the road to look for a telephone box.

I walked for miles trying to find one. You always seem to pass one in the street when you don’t need it but as soon as you start looking for one, they all disappear off the face of the earth.

When I found one I got out my little diary, which had all my telephone numbers in and went through the short list to see who I could ring. I was shocked when I realised that there was practically no one. Half the numbers I had were useless because I hadn’t seen those people for years and it was just habit that kept them going into my diary year after year. As for the other numbers, they weren’t really my friends, just old school chums I occasionally met in town when I went back home for the end of term holidays. I suddenly realised how few friends I had.

If I was going to talk to someone, it looked like I was going to have to ring my girlfriend. I didn’t really want to, as I didn’t know what was going on with her, but I had to talk to someone.

I picked up the receiver and… bastards! No dialling tone. I jabbed at the cradle a few times and shook the earpiece but there was nothing, not even a bloody crackle. I was so mad I slammed the receiver down on the hook so hard that the earpiece fell off. It made me feel better, busting it up like that. I wanted to teach it a lesson for not working.

I headed for the centre of town after that, towards the main post office where I knew there was bound to be one that worked. When I got there, there were four telephone boxes, all empty. I seemed to be the only person in town.

I picked up the receiver as soon as I got into the box this time. It purred like a fat cat. I got my little diary out again and found my girlfriends number scrawled at the bottom of the list. It was a hurried jotting, done in some disco back home. I say girlfriend, but really it was more casual than that. She was someone I had just met last time I was home. We spent the night necking and exchanged telephone numbers but she seemed to lose interest when I told her that I would be going away to college again, soon after. I gave her my address and I was hoping she would write to me first so I could get an idea of how she felt about me, but I hadn’t received anything from her.

Then I suddenly realised I might not have any change. Damn! Why does it only take the slightest thing to cock everything – but no, I had some. I put the money on the slot ready to shove in and started to dial the number. My hand was shaking and my heart was going like crazy inside my chest. I always have these traumas when I use the telephone, especially public telephones. I mean, you might be asking the, ‘Samaritans’ for help or something when in the middle of a really heavy scene, in come the bastard pips. Jesus, a life hangs on a tuppence!

I finished dialling and waited. A ‘no such number’ tone came back at me. I was just about ready to demolish the whole telephone box when I realised I’d forgotten to include the area code before the number. I almost didn’t bother to try again but after going through so much trouble I thought I’d better.

The ringing at the other end was answered almost immediately. For a second I heard a voice strange and distant over the wire before the telephone started its bewildering demand for money. I wasn’t sure if it was her or not, some people sound different when their voices have been turned into electricity.

I shoved in the money. The whirring noise before I was put through seemed to last for ages and I was afraid she might get tired of waiting and put the receiver down.

“Hullo,” she said tonelessly.

I suddenly felt nervous about talking to her. I didn’t really know what I wanted to say.

“Hullo? Hullo?” she asked.

My mind was racing, I felt embarrassed and stupid.

“Is anybody there? HULLO!” Hardness in her voice now.

“Rachel? Rachel, it’s me.”

“Peter?”

“No, it’s me, Daniel.”

“Oh. Hullo, Daniel.”

“Hello, Rachel.”

There was a long pause as we both waited for each other to say something. It was awful. I was about to say something when I heard a voice at the other end asking who was calling. Everything went quiet then as if she’d covered up the mouthpiece with her hand. She spoke after a few seconds.

“I can’t really talk right now, Daniel, you see –.”

“Who was that?”

“Who?”

“That I heard just then. Sounded like some guy.”

“Does it matter?”

“I – I’m not sure.”

“He’s a friend okay, you don’t know him. Did you ring for a reason?”

“Well, no… just to have a chat really. Who, er, who is this friend of yours?”

“Tsk! Is there any point to this? He’s just a friend, okay?”

“All right, all right. No need to be so touchy about it, I was only asking.”

“I was just about to go out so, is there anything else?”

“Anything else? You make it sound like I’m a customer in a shop… what the hell’s up with you?”

There was a silence, then a click, then a purr. The ground disappeared from beneath my feet and I was left hanging, sickeningly, in the air. My god. I listened for a long time to the dialling tone feeling angry, ashamed, scared…

The bitch.

The bitch! The bitch! The bitch! The dirty, miserable, rotten…

In a daze I put the receiver down and pushed a couple of walls before I found my way out of the telephone box. God, that sinking feeling. It reminded me of the day I once went swimming, illegally and alone in a reservoir. It was a hot, summer’s day. There was a red buoy, rocking gently in the water a couple of hundred yards from the shore. I decided to swim out to it. It was cold in the water and I quickly tired as I thrashed my way towards it. It also looked a lot further away once I was in the water and I started to panic about reaching it. I didn’t realise how much of a terrible swimmer I was.

With much relief, I reached the buoy and I threw my exhausted arms over it. To my horror, my arms just slid off the shiny, wet, plastic surface and I slipped under the water again. I kept going under as I frantically searched for a handhold but couldn’t find one. Then, as I was kicking to rise to the surface, my foot got entangled with the rope anchoring the buoy, filling me with uncontrollable panic. I thrashed about wildly, trying to free myself. Eventually, my foot came free from the rope but in that moment, I realised that, exhausted and terrified, I would immediately have to try and swim back to shore…

That was how I felt now. She was like the buoy I tried to cling onto. I guess it was my fault for coming on too strong. A lot of girls don’t like to feel they belong to anybody. Hell! I want to belong to somebody.

I instinctively walked along the forgotten back streets of the town. I wanted to wallow in my own pity and sorrow. I sort of liked it, it made me feel as if I belonged to a select, lonely-hearts club made up of tortured artists and writers. You always hear about those sort of people – beautiful young women fall in love with them and help them through their fits of melancholy by offering them companionship and physical pleasures. I guess I was hoping if I looked moody enough, some beautiful young woman would come and protect me. I knew it was stupid to think like that though… that sort of thing only ever happens in fiction.

I thought about killing myself. Everyone who knew me would then realise how stupid they had been in not recognising I needed help. All my friends and relatives would be shocked and blame themselves for what happened. They’d be sorry for me then, they would see I wasn’t just anybody.

They would probably forget about me in a couple of weeks, the bastards! That was the trouble with suicide, it was a gesture you could only do once, and then if it worked it wouldn’t do you any good… No, I needed to do something that would really make them sit up, like kill someone.

In my mind, I was ready to become an existentialist hero in an unsympathetic world, absolutely reckless and unpredictable. I’d do anything I wanted without thinking twice about it, I’d…

“Excuse me.”

The voice shocked me back into reality. I was annoyed at that. I was really somebody in my reveries… boy was I big when I thought about it.

I tried to appear annoyed as I looked up at the man who had stopped me but I felt awkward at being angry with a stranger. He was a middle aged guy, about forty five, with black hair twisted into tight curls and so glossy, it looked like hundreds of clock mainsprings had been dumped on his head. His clothes were mud coloured and my eye travelled aimlessly over them, looking for something significant, but not finding anything. He said,

“Are you local?”

I figured he wanted some street directions so I shook my head and started to backtrack into my reverie but before I could move off, he stuck his arm out to stop me.

“Do you mind if I have a word with you round this corner?”

That stopped me cold. I looked at him again but he turned away from me and moved off into a shadow. I was a bit scared, but like a rabbit hypnotised by a snake, I followed him into the darkness anyway. He stopped suddenly when he thought he’d gone far enough and turned on me unsmiling. Through the gloom I could make out his haggard face. I just gazed at him with frightened eyes, wondering what the hell he wanted.

“Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to be funny or anything but I’ve got to tell ya what happened. I’ve been wandering about the streets all last night and all day today getting as depressed as hell. I had this big argument with the wife and we started fighting, you know how it is, and I just took off into the night tryin’ to get away. I’m not trying to be funny now…”

He nailed his eye onto mine and wouldn’t let go. As he spoke, he brought his hands up jerkily and used them to emphasise his words.

“I’ve been walking about the streets and I don’t want any hassle see, all I want is a packet of fags. I’m not tryin’ to be funny…”

I could see his hands waving about out of the corner of my eye and I kept thinking, “My god, he’s going to hit me.” I thought of running away but my shoes hurt me so much I knew I wouldn’t be able to run very fast and he’d soon catch me.

“Look mate, I’m tryin’ to explain to ya, I don’t want any hassle, I get too much of that from the wife and neighbours, see. All I want is a packet of fags.”

His hands seemed to be waiting to clench into fists and hit me. I got real scared of his hands and I wondered why he was telling me all this crap. My stomach turned, waiting to find out if he was going to hit me or not. I felt so scared, I suddenly started to cry. I didn’t want to, I mean, I was supposed to be a man and all, and I must have looked really stupid crying for nothing. A funny look came over his face then, like he wasn’t sure what was happening and he kept saying, “What’s up, kid? What’s up, kid?” I started to move away from him and he put his hand on my shoulder to keep me there. I shoved it away as if it was burning me, then I started to panic and shout at him.

“Piss off, you bastard! Go on, just piss off!”

“Hey, what’s up kid? I don’t want any hassle see.”

He put his hand on my shoulder again so I started to run. I felt really sick about it, not having the guts to stand up to him and tell him straight. I felt ashamed and frightened as I ran away. He came after me and kept repeating that he didn’t want any hassle and all he wanted was a packet of fags. He soon caught up with me like I knew he would and grabbed me by the arms and turned me around. I kept shouting and swearing at him to leave me alone. I twisted free of his grip and tried to shove him away but he was too big. He must have gotten a bit worried about me then because he stepped back and said,

“Okay, I only wanted a packet of fags, no need to be such a big baby about it.”

Then he walked off. I felt like dying it was so sordid, it made me sick to my stomach.

I wiped my eyes and calmed myself down before I set off walking again. I wanted to cry against the nearest wall until I was empty but I felt ashamed at the thought and held my tears back. My head was buzzing with fear and hate, and hot, angry new tears pricked my eyes.

I didn’t want to feel like this. I wanted to feel like I used to, when I was working out in the gym – standing over the warm bar I’d repeatedly lifted – breathless and proud, tears of sweat soaking my taut vest, my body singing with the pain of effort. And later – after I’d showered – walking out into the streets and the milling crowds of people, feeling like a shining new piece of steel, respecting myself.

Ivor Tymchak 1976