Fiction

The Lingering

By: Anthony Ward

The moon sanctioned itself upon him as he stood defiantly against the wind, watching a moth drawn to the light of the bedroom window where she slept. He wondered whether the seemingly insignificant impulse of its fluttering wings would have a detrimental impact on the future. He cautiously ignited the cigarette, not knowing at the time that he was setting alight his marriage certificate. Exhaling the years that had passed and were yet to be. He’d been quit for nigh on three years, only to become a quitter for the unforeseeable future.

            As Alex inhaled, he felt drawn back, imagining stars born out of the nebulae as he reminisced forgotten moments. Though, were they ever forgotten, he thought. You wouldn’t say a book on the shelf wasn’t there because you’d forgotten about it hidden behind other books. Forgetting your birthday, or forgetting to act on a promise, is forgetting, but saying you’d forgotten something that you remember as soon as someone brings it up, is that really forgetting? Or just that it remains on the shelf. Out of sight, out of mind.

            Alex often thought like this. And often fought with himself. He could never rest. He was always trying to get everything done at the same time or there was always something he could have gotten done. He could have read that book or painted that picture. Gone were the days of his youth when he could lay in bed until lunch would break his fast. Now when he awoke, he was too restless to lie. His stomach was too full of stones. Weighing him down. As if he were on the bottom of a river, drowning. Mornings were now a start rather than something to skip. Instead of stretching out and relaxing he would find himself constricted by a nervous energy that he needed to shake off, brought about by being both a cynic and a sentimentalist. On the one hand he was the type of pessimist who couldn’t wait to return from holiday before he’d set off, and on the other hand, he could get so sentimental about what day a tv programme was originally broadcast he would drive himself mad.

             There were many things he wanted to do. Walk the entire coastline. See the Northern lights. Camp out beneath a dark sky and determine the stars. Instead, he occupied his time watching the lives of others doing what he should be doing. Those who can do, do. Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, learn. But what’s the point of learning to do something you can’t do? he would say to himself. He tried to learn as much as he could about the world.  He would read voraciously but forget what he’d learned. Then reassure himself that he had absorbed it and it would become imparted in his wisdom and understanding.

            Alex thought nothing of it when he fired up that cigarette. The first cigarette since the blacking out. But the smoke would linger on him and would lead to many more building up over time. Lighting up on a night out. Having to have a night out just to satisfy the cravings. Then smoking on nights in whenever he was having a drink. Having to have a drink just so he could have a smoke. Leading to another drink for another smoke. Until it got later and later into morning before he’d finally set his head against the sunrise.

            “What song would you like played at your funeral?” Evey had once asked.

            “I don’t know,” Alex would shrug, his thoughts an allegretto of Beethoven’s seventh. Thinking, maybe, Piece Peace by Bill Evans or St Louis Blues. But he couldn’t make up his mind to commit himself in case his choice wasn’t perfect. He compared his life to movies, reliving the memories in his head until they felt right, trying to set the scene perfectly.

            He remembered her in denim overalls on that late summer’s day, not long after they were married, applying beige to the brown walls of their new home, chasing after the paint with the roller as it ran down the skirting. She kept looking over at him, smiling, with her limpid eyes reflecting the light of life as the sunlight splashed her face. Their honeymoon was spent sailing down the Seine spotting landmarks they had either visited or were going to visit. Like the iron asparagus De Maupassant loved so much. Climbing the hills of Montmartre, passing the ghosts of romantic authors that may have frequented the inclining book shops. Whose bodies lay in the graves they toured.

            After the honeymoon they moved to a picturesque village that was divided by the council and the private estates. The privates rose up the hills, looking over the tops of the council tiles, like a teacher looking over the top of their glasses. It was the type of village that had its own restaurant for the over forties. And for most of the year, the public houses were frequented by those from the council’s getting in a state. But at Christmas and New Year you couldn’t get to the bloody bar for the privates.

            The night of the first black out was a Boxing night. Alex and Evey had been out, as was usual on Saint Stephens. They had met up with Evey’s friends, Greg, and Amy, in the Brown Jug. Alex felt uncomfortable to be in their company. Though he felt uncomfortable being in anyone’s company.

            “Why’ve you got an extra drink?” Evey asked when Alex returned from the bar.

            “I got myself two to make up for the time I lost waiting at the bar for all the seasonal drinkers.” Alex swung his gaze passed Greg and Amy.

            “As opposed to the seasoned ones.” muttered Evey with an arched eyebrow.

            As the drink flowed Alex flowed after it. His mind drifting from Greg and Amy’s travelogues about America. He’d always wanted to go to America since growing up watching those wide urban streets stretched out across the screen. He listened, but could not become involved, as if he were looking into a cinema midway through a movie he hadn’t been immersed in.

            “You’re lucky to have gone there,” said Alex.

            “Well, there was a time we had nothing.” Amy replied reinforcing her posture. “But we managed to work our way out.”

            “I wish I could work things out.” Retorted Alex.

            “You make your own way in this world.” Greg said observingly.

            “Helps if you know the way.” Alex considered Evey’s eyes rolled without looking at her but felt compelled to continue. “So, what determines happiness? It seems if your life has been blessed, you don’t think. It’s bliss. If you haven’t been blessed, you need to think your way to happiness.”

            “Take no notice of him.” Said Evey trying to quell any discomfit.

            “I think happiness,” Amy replied taking Alex at his word, “can be obtained by anyone who wants it. They just need perspective.”

            “I guess it all depends on the view.” Alex replied throwing back his drink and slamming the glass on the table. “Who wants another.”

            As Alex and Evey shambled home, the wind waded through their hair, which caused them to huddle together and embrace against it as they sloshed  towards the gate. They talked until the early hours, motivated by the glowing sense of inebriation, lying on the couch listening to Blind Wille Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, imagining the music floating through space in the vinyl blackness.

            At around 3 am Evey went to bed while Alex carried on drinking and smoking. As the smoke swirled a figure manifested into an armchair set adjacent from him. In the dark it was just a silhouette with the complexion of tar oil. A bilious entity lingering like dry rot.

            “Why are you drinking?” The figure inquired with a gargled voice. “Are you unhappy?

            “I’m unhappy because I’m drinking.” Replied Alex.

            “Then why do you keep drinking?”

            Alex frowned accusingly. “I’m drinking because of you. So I don’t have to listen to you.”

            The figure learned forward. Then suddenly shifted position like a glitch. “You’re only listening to me because of the drinking.”

            “Well, I’m tired of listening to you.”

            “You don’t even drink for fun anymore. You’re just melancholic.”

            “What’s wrong with melancholy when its kept to oneself, or when you’re celebrating it with others who enjoy it?”

            “Are you enjoying it?”

            “I enjoy the sentiment.”

            “Where does sentiment get you? It holds you back when you should be moving along.”

            “If you don’t hold your ground then you’re just being swayed and swept along.”

            “At least you’re moving.”

            “Moving without being moved.”

            The figure shifted in his seat. “Every moment spent in the past is a distillation of time. Time standing still like a photograph.”

            “It’s the distillation that gives it the flavour. The maturity of time that distinguishes it. Overwise you’re just consuming it.” Alex swigged his drink. “If you let sentiment evaporate all you’re left with is the sediment.”

            “At least it’s substance. Sentiment is self-indulgence?”

            “I’d say it was appreciation. We are being celebratory when we look back on our lives. Showing gratitude.”

            “Gratification!” The Lingering burbled. “Time is fleeting. Why waste it trying to capture what’s already gone? The past is permanent. Far better try to capture something that’s attainable. Time only moves forward. You can’t defy time.”

            “Our memories defy time so that we recapture those moments. By excluding sentiment we’re merely animals. Only out for what we can get for ourselves. Without it we’re running lives that are already run for us. Never having the time to do what we want . Not even knowing what we want but wanting it all the same. Alex looked at the figure churning before him. “Those who never get what they want, get what they need. Those who get everything they’re after never get what’s needed.”

            “Are you searching for meaning in life?” the Lingering asked.

            “All the time. We need purpose. Otherwise, we’re just drifting through space. Travelling through time for no reason.”

            “Maybe you shouldn’t try to reason life. Just accept life for what it is.”

            “And what is that?”

            “Being alive in the moment. Does it need to have meaning? Is there meaning to the atom? What if a quark is just a quirk. These ideas of ourselves won’t go on forever. Everything will eventually dissolve. Ozymandias will crumble to sand and no trace will remain as it flattens out. Humanity will not go on forever. History will evaporate and all memories will cease to exist. We’re all insignificant in the grand scale of things.”

            “But when you scale things down you immerse yourself in the intricate.”

            “Are you not in effect scaling them up? Bigging[NW1]  them up beyond what they are? Maybe if we accept our insignificance, we would all live in harmony.”

            “Or maybe it would be chaos.  There wouldn’t be any harmony amongst us. If we say nothing really matters, then what would prevent us not caring about our actions? Religion is becoming redundant. Now, instead of churches we have searches. The more we discover, the more fascinating it is, but the more meaningless it becomes.”

            “Knowledge is power.”

            “But ignorance is bliss. You could drive yourself mad trying to get your head around this. True enlightenment disposes of reality altogether. Taking you into the void of eternal space, where nothingness is everything.”

            “Sensation is real. Being focussed on the here and now. There’s a reality and that is life.”

            “That’s determined by perspective. Philosophy doesn’t take away the toothache.”

            “It can if you have the will power.”

            “Will power won’t cure you of cancer.”

            “Stop thinking in absolutes. Life doesn’t always follow our plans.”

            “If we lived without ambition and purpose, we wouldn’t do anything. We wouldn’t have got to the moon.”

            “Was it purpose that got us there or was it drive?”

            “It was knowledge that got us there. A great understanding of physics.”

            “But overthinking something prevents you from doing it. Have you noticed how you can do things more effectively when you don’t over think? When you’re scaling the heights, you don’t look down.”

            “I’d say if you were really confident in what you were doing, you’d want to admire the view, take it in, otherwise you’re not seeing anything. You’re going on a journey and not taking in the scenery. Only getting to where you want to go.”

            “At least you’re getting to where you want to go.” The Lingering rasped.

            “What good is that if you’ve nothing to look back on?”

            “It’s a waste of time.” The Lingering wheezed. “Life’s too short to long for living.”

            There was a silence, brought about by the ticking of the clock, which drew Alex’s attention.

            “What is time? We observe it in the mechanism of the clock. Where the clock is the machine, time is the soul. Like our spirit, with our bodies as machines. We need to feel beyond the mechanism.” Alex’s watch slipped firmly down his arm, he pushed it back against the flow of his wrist. “Life flies when you’re constantly on the move. You need to slow down so you can savour it. Like a fine wine. You need to sip it. You don’t want to down the bottle. If you want to be always moving, you’ll be left constantly wanting to quench a thirst while surrounded by an ocean of water.”

            “It’s time well spent?”

            “It’s a spoilt child. Always getting and never appreciating.”

            “Don’t you want to feel the wind in your hair? You don’t feel the intensity looking at a photo as you did when the photo was taken.”

            “Looking at the photo makes it even more intense.”

            The lingering chocked on its own breath. “Are you saying that admiring a painting of a boat is more real than being at sea? Getting to taste the salt in your mouth.”

            “You don’t really take things in in the moment. You need a moment to capture it. Hemingway didn’t win a prize for being at sea. He won for writing about it.”

            “But he’d been at sea which enabled him to write about it.”

            Alex cracked open another can which spat over the side. “What is reality anyway?” We’re becoming increasingly more disengaged from it with all this virtuality.”

            “Compared with the past? The belief in unnatural forces? Superstitions that still haunt us?”

            “Those superstitions nurtured our culture.” said Alex sparking up. “Romanticised our nature.”

            “What use is romanticising?”

            “When all that’s left is cynicism, the world will have gone to the dogs. We have all the ingredients to cook something good but instead order out.”

            “You have all the ingredients to cook something good but leave them to rot. Always longing for the past and looking to the future. You’re never here.”

            “If I’m not here now. Who are you talking to?”

            “I’m talking to you.”

            “Who am I?”

            “That’s the question. Who’s afraid of Alex Martin?”

            “I’m not. I know him better than most know themselves. I reflect.”

            “But you don’t like what you see in the mirror. You distort it.”

            “I distort it?” Alex tilted his head as he looked to the Lingering for recognition.

            “You’re not exactly a people person.”. Alex knew this to be true. He was an ingoing type of person who didn’t get out much. A reticent recluse. Too deep in thought he was sociably shallow, floundering his words with precaution, as if he were a ghost, tiptoeing so as not to be noticed.

            “Do you feel threatened by other people? the Lingering continued. “Do they distort their perception of you?”

            “I’m with Sartre when it comes to other people.”

            “Am I giving you hell?” asked the Lingering with plumes of smoke streaming from its nostrils.

            “I give myself hell.”

            “Don’t you like yourself?”

            “I aspire to be more than I am.”

            “Why?”

            “Alex shrugged. “ I have to become something else to survive being myself.”

            “Maybe you should just be yourself.”

            “Is this being myself?”

            “You tell me?”

            “You’re a figment of my imagination. An undigested thought.”

            “A thought you can’t swallow.” The Lingering broke into a spluttering cough that went on and on as Alex lit up, chocking on tarred breath, as the figure wafted towards him with inky arms outstretched. He felt a sensation of being throttled as the figure blurred into blackness

            Alex felt unprecedented with time, sensing voices calling his name, muttered conversations within an array of kaleidoscopic images prevailing through intermittent frequencies of static.   When he next managed to open his eyes fully, he was blinded by whiteness as a blurred figure slowly came into focus.

            “Evey.” He called out.

            “Alex.”

            “What’s going on?”

            “You’re in hospital.”

            “What happened?”

            “You woke me coughing your lungs up. Then I found you unconscious on the floor. I couldn’t rouse you, so I phoned an ambulance.”

            Alex cocooned Evey with a hug and kissed the top of her head. “What would I do without you?”

            “I don’t know.” Replied Evey blankly. “I don’t know.”

            Life remained good for a few years. The black-out made Alex quit smoking, despite Evey continuing to smoke beside him on the couch as they watched the classics in between the crap. They went on a few holidays. Exploring the cities that had been their favourites before they’d even been to them. Alex found a more fulfilling job. Evey got promoted. But something was missing. Alex continued to exist in the mire. In that place where you hear an answer to a question and exclaim it wasn’t the answer you were thinking of, even though the answer you were thinking of you couldn’t conjure either.

            By now the music for his funeral had changed to Creole Love Call and the 2nd movement of Ravels Piano Concerto in G.  Alex hadn’t smoked for over three years. Not since the black out. They had been to Greg and Amy’s wedding and Alex felt a craving all through the evening reception every time Evey lit up. A craving he’d not had for years.

            “Well, Greg and Amy have finally done it.” said Alex watching them go through the motions of the first dance.

            “I know. They got together before us.” said Evey looking vaguely towards them.

            “I imagine they’ll be together forever.”

            “Feels like we’ve always been together.”

            Alex looked at Evey. The permafrost began to thaw on her face into a radiant smile as tears welled her water-colored cheeks. Alex couldn’t tell whether she was being funny or just being funny or whether he was the one being funny. Was this new, or had it always been there, and he had never noticed it before.

            After they’d gotten home and Evey had gone to bed, Alex took one of Evey’s cigarettes and went outside so she wouldn’t smell the smoke. It was as if those three years without a cigarette had never elapsed. He took his time and savoured the smoke watching the moth bounce against the window. He went back inside and sat down on the coach. Before he even turned his head, he could sense the figure poised in the chair across from him. Firing up his lighter the Lingering merged out of the blackness.

            “Don’t you want to grow old together? The figure asked with its gravelly voice exhaling a cloud of smoke into Alex’s face. “Do you want to die alone?”

            “I’ve lived alone all my life.” replied Alex guzzling a beer. “I may as well die alone.”

            “Do you feel all alone in the universe?”

            “Aren’t we all alone? I mean, do we really share our love of things? Do two people experience things in the same way?”

            “Of course.”

            “How do you know?”

            “You know when you identify yourself with a scene in a movie or recognise a piece of prose in a novel. You must experience a thing in the same way if you connect with it.”

            Alex’s eyes fell towards the floor.

            “I only ever feel that connection from a movie or a book.”

            “You have no connection with real people?”

            “Who’s real. People aren’t even true to themselves.”

            “Are you true to yourself?”

            “I don’t know. But at least I know myself more than most.”

            “Why do you say that?”

            “I question myself.”

            “Do you question yourself drinking?”

            “All the time. But when I’m not drinking, I’m constantly anxious about things beyond my control.”

            “So that drinking is a way of not caring?”

            “I care. I care a lot. I look after her.”

            “You look after her, but you don’t look at her. You don’t see.”

            “I don’t see what?”

            “What’s in front of you.”

            “What’s in front of me?”

            “A future.”

            “Don’t you think I look to the future?”

            “You look to the past for your future. Why else do you stay up all night?”

            “Because life’s too short to spend sleeping. We’re expected to spend a third of our lives asleep.”

            “You need to catch up on sleep to stop you feeling tired all the time.” said the Lingering sparking up a cigarette that fired its eyes to kiln the darkness.

            “I’m tired of this.” said Alex shaking his head.

            Alex stubbed out the cigarette and rose up from the couch. As he passed the mahogany bureau, he moved the wedding photo back to the wall for fear Debussy would get behind it and knock it off.

            “Who were you talking to last night?” Evey asked the next day pulling the wedding photo nearer to her on the edge of the bureau.

            “No-one.” replied Alex.

            “I heard you talking.”

            “I was probably just talking to myself. You know I like to think aloud.”

            “You spend more time talking to yourself than you do me.” said Evey as if to herself.

            “That’s not true.”

            “You don’t talk to me like you used to.”

            “Ok,” Alex snapped open a beer, “what do you want to talk about?”

            “I don’t know. Just talk.”

            “I can’t just talk. I need something to talk about.”

            “Like, just talk about your day, like normal people do. How was your day at work?”

            “Work was work.”

            “What did you do?”

            “If I told you what I did you wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

            “How can I know what you’re talking about if you never talk?”

            “See! What’s the point?” he replied heading towards the kitchen for his cigarettes.

            Evey found it increasingly difficult to ask him anything, as Alex found it difficult to answer questions about himself or about his day. It was like trying to get the cat to perform that funny trick it only does when it feels like it. He preferred to speak when he was incensed to do so. Then he couldn’t keep up with himself. With the whole knowledge of life spooling away from him just out of reach. All the while the sun in her eyes faded into distant stars as she listened to him going on and going off on one, like a radio not quite tuned in, until it became white noise.

            There was a thud, which  made Alex turn around to find the photo frame knocked off the bureau. He cursed Debussy. But the cat just stared back at him with eclipsed eyes, its fur as black as space, before it skulked off into a shadow. Alex picked up the photo frame, the glass had cracked across the picture where her smile would have been, and that’s when he noticed her eyes. They hadn’t been smiling like he’d always thought. They were shimmering, but distant.

            Not long after, the distance became space, as they drifted away from each other into their own orbits, and all that was left were two points of light inhabiting different times. Evey found someone else. Alex found something else that enabled him to manage to give up downing drink and lighting up. Now he was getting up at the time he used turn in. Going for long walks when mists still hung over the fields concealing the ghostly fauna. He felt much better in himself, being able to see more of the world around him. Although he could still sense the Lingering enticing him to stay up to the early hours.

            One Thursday afternoon when the rain held in the air, Alex saw Greg and Amy sitting on the park bench on his way passed the village green.

            “Alex! How are you?” Amy greeted him.

            “I’m great. How are you two?”

            “We’re good,” replied Greg, “Amy’s expecting.”

            Amy nodded an affirmation by grabbing her swollen belly.

            “Congratulations!” said Alex sincerely.

            “Yeah, so, “said Amy perking up. “What have you been up to. You still get in the Jug?”

            “Not very often. I don’t drink.”

            “You quit drinking!”

            “Yeah. I can’t believe how much time I wasted on it. It was just making me anxious all the time. Now I go to bed early. Get up early. Go for long walks in the mornings.”

            “You seeing anybody?” asked Amy.

            “Me? No. ” Alex snorted. “Just myself.”

            “I still can’t believe you and Evey aren’t together.”

            “Yeah. I always thought we’d go the rest of the journey together but turns out we were only meant to go part of the way.”

            “Sorry things didn’t work out between you two.” said Greg.

            “Well, it’s in the past. It’s all behind me now,” said Alex staring ahead.


Categories: Fiction

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