Ant Smith

All stories

Outside chance

...he changed his mind. Again. Stopped in his tracks, turned around and headed for the place that he had just left. That special place. That place called home.

- I'm leaving.

He had wanted to say. But it came out as

- I'm going.

Going? Going where?

In a little observed corner of room, near the floor, behind the frontier of the television set, beyond which only the seldom half-asleep-gaze can stretch itself, amongst the dust and a slight mildew, there is a gentle peeling of the wall paper, and it is fractionally torn. They had papered only the year before. A little less than fourteen months. And it doesn't have to do anything. It just has to sit there, and stick. It isn't in direct sunlight. It hasn't been washed with excessively soapy water. It has been given the best of care. And still it petulantly curls, and breaks the veneer of a 'good' home. A cared for nest. An Englishman's castle.

- I'm going

Going? Going Where?

- Out

Out?

- Yes. Out.

Out where?

- Outside.

Out there?

- Yes. Out.

Going out.

- Yes. Going out.

One of those blank moments. A moment where everybody in the world takes a timeout in order to register and reaffirm the fact that you simply don't exist.

He had decided to leave. So he stood up and said it

- I'm going

Once, in nineteen seventy nine, driving back from somebody's parents, somebody's in-laws in Todmorden, they'd had to pull over because he had accidentally run over somebody else's cat. These things happen. It had been dark and there was a slight drizzle, making him glad that the cause of the delay wasn't a puncture or a blowout which would have meant kneeling on the damp ground in his best suit. To be honest, he had hardly noticed the incident except for a slight bump - and the delightful way in which she screeched, almost squealed, his name. He'd had to free the body from the axle by the tail, which had almost come loose in the effort. He let the smashed, almost lifeless, form fall into the gutter and backed off for a cigarette. These things happen. She hadn't got out of the car immediately. She had watched him light his cigarette on the third attempt. She had turned the radio off. She had pulled her gloves on first. He watched her walk around the car, pause for a moment at the tail light blinking in a sedate mechanical rhythm oblivious to whatever hazard it may have signalled in the past or present. At first he thought she was stroking it. But after awhile he realised that she was carefully plucking the shards of gravel from the matted fur. He watched for a lifetime. Until the body had stopped moving and they had both started to cry. She for the life that had been extinguished. He for the fear that he might love. Might just, be in love. They didn't talk for a long time. Then, still cold with fear, he quietly asked her to marry him and she had quietly whispered 'yes'.

Twenty seven years later he found himself standing in a shell of a building about whose walls were draped the detritus of fifty four combined years of human effort - over half a century of calendars, clocks, crystal bells, ashtrays, and porcelain horses with plastic drays. He found himself standing and saying

- I'm going

Going?

Where was there to go?

Going where?

She didn't like him to think that she smoked. Not that she did. Not in the way that smokers smoke. In car parks outside of offices, in a hurry before getting out of bed, after breakfast or before lunch, in forced moments between the minutes that make up a day. No, she would, very occasionally smoke a cigarette because she was alone, and because she could. She would sit on one of the units in the kitchen, next to the sink, by the window that didn't open but with the Xpelair running. Looking out at the garden in what she imagined was a classic Garbo or Monroe pose. At the back of the steel draw beneath the oven, amongst the baking trays, she kept a small ashtray that she had secretly acquired from the Cancer Research shop in town - perpetually clean except for the very occasional moments when she would smoke a cigarette because she could. The butts she would bury in the garden, with a small trowel that could have been made for the job. And always, she would wear rubber gloves. She never considered that anyone may think it ridiculous. These were her moments. One thing she would never share. Her own private affair. It was only recently that she had come to realise that nobody cared if she smoked or not; and that realisation had cheated her of her own individuality. So she had taken to playing Jim Reeves in the afternoons and entering competitions to win a weekend in Paris for two. She planned to give the tickets to her parents, who were not quite dead.

Somebody had once told her that 'It's the people that you know, you know that you know, you know'. It had struck her as instant gibberish. But it was a sentence that she had instantly memorised. Like a bad refrain from a popular song, she would sometimes wake up in the morning with the words going around in her mind, and they would stay there all day; spinning around relentlessly until it was impossible to tell where it may have began or finished. Sometimes she believed it profoundly. Sometimes she wondered if she could ever comprehend it at all. Sometimes she smoked a cigarette in order to attempt to forget it. Sometimes she would live without it for months. Sometimes it would dog her by the minute, by the hour, by the day. Sometimes she wondered if she were going mad. Sometimes she knew that she certainly had. Today she felt she had smelt its essence. It's the people that you know, you know that you know, you know. So she thought she knew what he meant when he said

- I'm going

Or rather, she felt immediately the effect of his simple words - a slight intake of breath; hands that in a gritty northern drama might have flown involuntarily to her breast to wring pensively, but rather in the twilight of an English autumn's evening continued to leaf through the pages of the radio times with no discernible agitation; a fleeting impulse to catch a train to Barcelona. Three short beats. Rat-a-tat-tat. She knew him. She knew that she knew him. She knew it. For sure.

Going? Going where?

Curiously, she didn't know that he knew her. Or at least it had never occurred to her that he might.

- I'm leaving.

He had wanted to say. To be clear. To be firm. To be fair. He had thought. Then she would have asked him why. And then perhaps there could have been an understanding. He had thought. As there had been. As before. As things were as he remembered them. As if things were as he remembered them. As if the woodwork in the hall didn't need painting. As if the boxes in the loft weren't rotting. As if. As if. Even though he said he was going he stood by the brass and glass coffee table, for once not banging his shins, and she asked him

...Where?

Not how or when or why but where. She asked him if he thought she believed him or even if he thought she cared, she asked him where. Where could he go? Where do you think you can go. Away from within. Out. Not burning. Not conscious. Not right. But out. Going out.

They live in a place called Phantasmagoria, a small town in the East of England with a booming population of some twenty million plus. He wants out. She wants out. The roof of the house needs turning.

- Out

Out?

- Yes. Out.

There had been no bitter struggle. No years of hardship. No domestic abuse. No emotional stress. No throwing of the eggshell lamps that gather in the corners of the cupboards they put under stairs. No histrionics - on her part or his. No definitive incompatibilities. No precise moment in time. No then. No now. No future.

Out where?

- Outside.

Out there?

- Yes. Out.

Outside. Outside chance. Nothing happened on the day it all happened.

Going out.

- Yes. Going out.

She turns to the crossword. He closes the door. She crosses her legs. He crosses the street. She chews the end of her pen. He takes a few steps. She fills in the answers in numerical order...