Mobile on the 214

Fiction
Tony Press


W151 ULR at Liverpool Street station
Photo Credit: Matt Davis

“Brilliant! When? Did they induce?”

Stephen Keefe folds the Guardian he has already read, has only picked up because it was on his seat as he scrambled out of the sudden summer rain onto the 214 toward Parliament Hill. He sets it down to better concentrate on the monolog in front of him though such discourses ordinarily annoy him. At least twice each week on this very bus he imagines a swift tai chi movement, though he knows nothing of tai chi, in which he seizes and hurls a mobile out an open window. The clatter as it strikes concrete and skitters off poles, now that is a sound he could embrace. But not today. This time he warms to the words tumbling toward him (were his mother alive, she’d brand him a curtain-twitcher, but technology had changed the rules since her time). He’d picked up something from the thirtyish pink-haired girl jabbering in front of him. What had she said? Fortunately, she repeats word for word, as far as he can tell, either for emphasis or from excitement, all that she had already said.

“Just like that? At noon? It came on its own, after all? Bloody hell! After all that worrying, all those scare stories everyone told you, natural as could be!”

Natural isn’t all it is cracked up to be. If Stephen knows anything, and sometimes he wonders, he knows that. He glances at the heel of his right hand, seeking the long-faded tooth marks where his wife had drawn blood, biting him so deeply as to require stitches, during “natural” childbirth. And how relieved he had been to suffer that pain, to transport him from the hollowness of standing like a scarecrow as she writhed and sweated and cried and cursed, standing with nothing to offer. Wretched with responsibility and impotency, he clutched her hand, whispered, encouraged, lied. When he winced from the atavistic cut of her teeth, he rejoiced.

“I love it. ‘Henry.’ That just sounds so right! You’re proper parents, and I’m an auntie.”

A boy. An afternoon boy, like his own son. Early on in the dank delivery room he had commented, deadpan, that he hoped “it would be over soon, because West Ham and Chelsea would be on, and it looked to be a good match.” His wife knew he was joking (it had actually been her joke, originally, spoken at home before coming in to hospital), but he sensed disapproval from the attending nurse. No, “sensed” was inaccurate, too mild. The nurse fired high-caliber daggers, mixing her metaphoric weapons, but striking effectively despite her unjust verdict. Doubtless the bloody hand he received was, to the nurse, appropriate karma. Such a curious calling, a delivery room nurse. You might as well be in a bedroom while two people were having at it, such intimacies and fears and lies you heard. He wonders now how much they actually took in, got right or wrong, and recalled and repeated later, over tea, or in pubs, or in their own beds.

His son arrived at 1:22. Damn. It was either 1:22 or 2:21. He, so good with dates and numbers, yet endlessly caught between the two options, each, on its own, sounding perfectly correct, until he re-considered, as he always did, and tested the other in his mind. 1:22. Yes, it was 1:22.

“Yeah, yeah, can’t wait to see him. And see you guys, too. You both must be exhausted.”

Stephen and his wife were dead tired for a full year. Months and months, night after night, of “sleep” that was too-little and too-lousy. Nothing was wrong, doctors and friends parroted, but no one should ever live that way. He thought of his parents, the little they had told him, and more from the stories he had read and movies he’d seen, of people going about their business during the bombing raids of their war. An entire city sleepless. How did it function? Mustn’t there have been terrible decisions made, in families, in shops, in offices, in spaces packed with short-tempered, over-stressed people? He remembers the first time he had ever stayed up all night. It had been a “sleep-over” at a cousin’s house when they were about ten. When they finally fell asleep at five o’clock the next afternoon, he swore he never wanted that fatigue again. Ten years after, add to that the emotions and worries of an adult. Two nominal adults, that is, with an infant that neither had any idea what to do with. Two adults with increasingly little idea what to do about each other.

Serenity of a sort arrived the second year, and as the boy was approaching three, but what never returned was the zest of the pursuit, or even the passions that carried into the half year of marriage before the birth. There was no fighting. They were numb, disinterested in the other’s touch, even in the other’s eyes. It had no definition but it was inescapable. Inescapable until Stephen forged a route. Her name was Liz, and she was, until that time, equally close to both of them. On a weekend when his wife was away, he told Liz he was attracted to her. Years later, he realizes how foolish that statement had been, almost worse, really, than the subsequent coupling itself, which repeated itself only as required to explode his marriage. If you tell a woman, one who is already a friend, that you hold thoughts about her in that way, either action, or damage, or both, must follow. It is the kind of thing you shouldn’t say unless you really know what you wanted. He believes it a universal lesson. But the action served him, for it hastened the inevitable conclusion.

His first departure, they agreed, was “temporary,” to give them a chance to think. He was gone four weeks, finances fortunately not a problem for them in that time, thanks to her generous and non-judging parents, living an ocean away. He took a small room on the coast, walking, reading, going alone to a cinema each Friday night no matter what the title. He returned, not sure why, to a week of false starts, strained silences, and fumbling lovemaking, then abruptly left again, a rail pass in his pocket. He would need to resume his own academic career soon, somewhere; on the trains he saw things he long ago should have seen. In one smoky carriage after another he realized he had made a series of bad decisions, beginning with taking on the role of “husband” when he barely felt himself a man. Perhaps some men his age could do it. He could not. Rejoining his wife would be one more such decision, and he was not going to do it.

In Norwich, on the walls of the old castle, he discovered and copied Masefield’s words onto the cover of his notebook:

My road calls me, lures me

West, East, South, North,

Most roads lead men homewards,

My road leads me forth.

He rang home that night. In a long, easier-than-he-had-expected conversation, they reached an accord. When he returned to gather his belongings and resolve the minutiae, he found her more comfortable than she’d ever been in the time he’d known her. A peace was in her face, and her dealings with the boy were effortless (he knew they weren’t, but compared to earlier times, so they appeared).

Their son lost the most, but waiting fifteen years would have been insane for both of them, for all three. Stephen missed the largest part of his son’s boyhood and teenage years, the mother and child returning to the States, to her native Nebraska. With the boy now a man and to Stephen’s good fortune working in East London, they have developed a comfortable footing. It isn’t the relationship it could have been; more importantly, though, it isn’t the relationship it would have been. His wife had re-married, not right away, but successfully, and with the good services of distance and time, she and Stephen had created a state of fond friendship. Stephen failed again at a marriage, having learned too little too soon, but now, finally, he could claim to be in a long-standing mature (he dared use that term) relationship. Each keeps a flat on opposite sides of the Heath, she near Queens Park, he, on Swains Lane, and each intends to maintain the refuge, but they thoroughly delight in and appreciate what they have, and reasonably believe they will enjoy each other for the rest of their years.

The 214 halts suddenly, at his stop, his body recognizing it prior to his consciousness, the mobile and its owner long silent, long departed. He nods to the driver and steps down, and as he does so he smiles at the familiar courtship sounds from the teenagers in the park shadows. He quickly crosses Highgate and strides the short distance to his door, keys jangling and telephone numbers rattling in his head, the August evening skies clear again. The clock in his favor, he will ring his son’s mother in Omaha to thank her one more time. He will see Josh next week, their regular second Tuesday of the month, so he doesn’t really need to push his number, but he will anyway. Then he will ring Anne. Just to talk, their words arcing across the heath, lips to ear and back again, keeping the lines open.

pencil

Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in Rio Grande Review; SFWP Journal; 5×5; The Linnet’s Wings; Boston Literary Magazine; Qarrtsiluni; Menda City Review; Foundling Review; Temenos; Thema; MacGuffin; Shine Journal; Lichen; and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier, and Workers Write: Tales from the Courtroom. Email: tonypress[at]sbcglobal.net

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