The Things in Between by David O’Neill
His hair is too short. It is harsh like thousands of tiny needles and paired with a balding suit that flaps helplessly on the shoulder, he looks somewhere between nearly beaten and very beaten. The floor length mirror makes his body seem misshapen and crooked too, like a hanger. There is nothing concrete about him today, no stoicism or velvet warmth of breath or blood or skin. He is air. The room is cramped and low lit with an orange bulb and although morning is knocking at the glass outside, blinds are pulled low. He straightens his tie and tightens the knot against his throat. This isn’t about bulbs or blinds or knots though.
This isn’t about the suit he bought in a charity shop just outside Auckland two hours before his flight home either.
He doesn’t have one, a suit that is, because management did away with formal wear three years ago to keep staff from taking better jobs in fresher offices and it must have worked because the leaving dos were replaced with summer BBQs served on greasy foil platters and the thick air that rose over Harcourt street reeked of sambuca and overdrafts. He spent more than too much on clothes, hoping she would notice, but subtly. That was what he had read anyway, that the secret was getting her to notice without realising, un-noticeably notice or subconsciously notice or some other way of noticing that left him feeling confused and tired and older than he wanted to feel. (Buying the suit in a charity shop might balance some cosmic scales for the rent money he blew in Topman, he thinks).
Conversation was still in that first hour after work place where people carried office grumbles as closely as their pints and the mix of the two made voices loud and opinions sharp enough to hurt your career progression. Staying close enough to their chatting to be polite was all he could do. By eleven, plans had started to tumble outwards and he had drunk enough to put his faith in the wide black night. Subconsciously or not, he wasn’t sure if he had given her enough time to notice his clothes but when the voices lulled for a moment, he asked who her favourite writer was. She didn’t answer. Instead, she gave him a look that might have meant amusement or sympathy. He didn’t know her well enough by then to judge so he wished his words were rope tethered and that he could pull them back and chew them down as if they had never happened. In a smoking garden which shook like a riot, he felt his cheeks burn and was relieved when a friend of hers tugged her attention away.
This isn’t about walking down Baggot street eighteen months later under a cheap umbrella, or about the townhouse windows that sparkled like fireflies as taxi drivers laughed and pushed their fares higher, not needing to stop. This isn’t about the sounds her shoes made, squeaking on the tiled path that reflected neon and how he worried she might slip so he linked arms with her and tried to ignore the roar that grew in his stomach when her arm pressed against his side.
Their hair had started to dry a little by the time the beers arrived. He drank from the bottle and she used a glass. It was a cheap sushi place and wasn’t worth waiting for a table but their faces were wind scorched and she didn’t seem to mind the dated tinsel that flickered from the rising current of the radiators so he kept quiet and threw his coat over the back of the stool. By then, they had worn each other down, which was a less than romantic way of saying that they had tripped and settled into each other’s daily routines and grooves, circling the others thoughts. Intimacy by proxy.
Excluding the three days they had spent in her flat, cooking for each other and kissing like they meant it and pretending to be grown-ups which she sometimes referred to as the failed experiment and which was now out of bounds for discussion, there was an openness that passed between them. Those days hang around though, like when he mentioned a recent (fourth) date he had been on and her mind wandered back to the feeling of his chin between her shoulder blades and how the sunlight had felt like honey as it reached lazily out over their entwined feet. He was a sort of balm that morning and, even though she never did, she occasionally reminded herself to someday thank him for that. Later, when they drank miso soup and the rain has settled to a fizz and she told him about the guy she had met and kissed at a 90s themed bingo night (their second time, and planned, but she didn’t mention that), he remembered how the plants on her balcony had smelled like oranges. He asked about her cat to change the subject.
It happened the previous Spring when the sky was the sort of sun-flicked blue that children sometimes drew, pillow clouds dotted around for effect. That day, he wasn’t special; she had called others but they had been busy. She was calling because despite the children’s sky and the misty perfume of beginnings that seemed to cling to everything at that time of year, the threads of her life were late-night frayed and she had started to half-forget who she was. It scared her enough to want company. They sat through two and a half hours of a black and white film until his eyes stung and his head jerked sleepily like a ping pong ball so often that she gave him a blanket. When they sat across from each other the next morning on her still warm couch, they told each other things neither of them expected to say. She talked about the ex that had stolen money from her a few weeks before and about the way, though his voice shook with anger and pity and disappointment down the phone line, her father offered to help her with rent that month. He responded by telling her that she was beautiful and that the morning had washed the fear from her skin and then he told her that he wished he had a photograph so he could prove to himself that this had happened and he had felt glad that he had said both of those things. She put on some music and tried to convince him to dance with her. They kissed with coffee stained breath and knew that things wouldn’t go further than this.
This isn’t about the email he sent her when his plane landed in Auckland that almost looked like Dublin through the planes oval window. He arrived on a rain slicked morning and attached a photo of the tarmacked runway to the email because he wanted her to see what he could see. They had moved on by then so he couldn’t say things like that. Instead, he told her that he already felt at home in the green and the damp and the vast carpet of cloud that greyed out the sky. He added a small smiley face to keep things casual.
Just before he booked the flight she had phoned him. Her phone-calls had become less frequent since she had taken the lease on an apartment with a guy she had been seeing and he was surprised to see her name light up across the screen of his phone. He was happy for them in a way. Her skin looked warm and healthy and her fingernails were no longer weak and chewed. She seemed safe and he was glad for that. That day, she pinballed around topics in a jittery voice that set off tiny sparks of electricity in his stomach. She spoke about the party she was planning for her mother’s birthday and the rude email she had gotten from a client in work. She spoke about a programme that was being filmed on the beach near her house and how, despite the temperature barely touching double digits, she had worn a summer dress down there in the hope of being picked up as an extra. She spoke about music she was listening to and things her therapist had said and the local park run and a nasty hangover that felt like a crack inside her that ran deeper than she could allow herself to look. She spoke about online shopping in a way that sounded more like the domestic kind than anything indulgent and he thought then that she might have finished because the line went quiet.
She then said that they were moving to London because a position had come up in his company and there would be plenty of work for her over there and it was less than an hour away and then she really was finished talking.
When, he asked. Two weeks, she said.
It arrived by post and he didn’t need to open it. The handwritten address on a glitter brushed envelope gave it away and anyway, his sister had texted him a few weeks earlier to tell him. He sent his congratulations and thanks and wrote that he would toast them from a distance and after leaving the post office, he went back to the office to eat lunch at his desk. Three days later her email arrived. It sank down the inbox list, bold and demanding attention. He winced when it arrived and tried to guess what it contained. Barely covered sadness or hurt or questions?
He stopped on a park bench after work. Joggers weaved through the pedestrian commuters; the heat of their blood felt clammy as they passed, the slick yellow and red leaves glowed underfoot. It was beautiful here and he didn’t want to leave. Six months had woven around his bones to feel like much more than that. Over here the evening spread out long enough to make night a surprise, the darkness crept up on you. He enjoyed the familiarity of it.
He stood to shake some strength into his legs. It would be hours before he would read the email so he tried to let go of worrying. He was too far away for anything to matter and he would never guess that Anthony had stepped in front of a motorbike courier on the corner of King’s Boulevard and St Pancras tube station. He wouldn’t have known that the courier had broken the lights because he was one late delivery away from the sack and that Anthony’s arms were laid down with dress hire suits and a decorative bag of place mats. He couldn’t know that the place mats danced through the air like confetti and that their faces were on the front of that morning’s newspapers and that in a couple of hours he would be booking a flight straight after speaking to her once again. Instead, he listened to the faint chatter of rush hour traffic that nudged along the city streets before calling his flatmate to ask about dinner.
When he bought the charity shop suit that this isn’t about, he felt guilty paying eight dollars. He didn’t say anything though because there was a slight itch to his throat; an urge to tell the shop assistant why distance and offices and boyfriends and sushi had happened and why they didn’t really matter and that it wasn’t about those things, not really, not ever, but also that they mattered more now than the bones under his skin. He had the thought that once he started he might not be able to stop himself. If he spoke it could flood out, thick and fully formed and tidal until he was hollowed and transparent so he handed the girl a tenner and left without waiting for change.