Pulp.net - Blue Line

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Mark Fleming
‘Still no sign of your friend, Mum?’

Liz shook her head and sipped coffee. She watched the crowds outside the cinema.

On the illuminated sign outside The Cameo she’d read the titles of the films showing this week, trying to guess which one Victor was planning to take her to. He’d announced it would be a pleasant surprise. She hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a film she’d seen before.

Nikki stacked white cups until they curved upwards from her grasp like vertebrae. Finally clutching them to her apron, she rose, exaggerating the danger.

‘Careful with that lot’, Liz told her. She thumbed through a magazine. A Prada jacket costing more than she’d spent on clothes this year. Pandas. There were less than a thousand left. She’d seen more people strolling past the cafe today. She dug into her jacket. The letter she’d written still needed a stamp. She read it again:

Dearest John, I was looking forward to your letter so much that I read it and composed this reply while smoking the same fag! I’ve always believed in fate. You know, before we hooked up, I used to advertise in singles pages in my local paper, once upon a time. I’ve had a few close encounters of the absurd kind!

Guilty using the past tense about the adverts, she folded the letter away. A balding man was lingering at the cinema, wearing what could be the ‘grey bomber jacket’ he’d described. Her initial butterflies faded. Her gaze was drawn to a paunch and sagging chin. He’d lied about his age. That was par for the course. At 38 she still felt young; yearning for new adventure rather than settling for things.

Victor described himself as an IT professional. This meant another office drone who stared into a screen. The wife he said had died of cancer might in fact have absconded with a neighbour due to his uninspired lovemaking. When teenagers flitted past him, he made no attempt to mask his leching at their pert backsides.

‘And any chance of a top-up, please, petal?’

‘This Victor definitely stood you up, Mum?’

‘No. I can see him from here. I’m going to watch him being stood up.’

Nikki served another piping hot coffee.

‘Thanks, petal.’

Liz inhaled the aroma as she peered over at him. Between repeatedly checking his watch he gazed over the traffic and caught her eye. She felt invisible.

• • • 

When she gave John’s latest letter a once-over her hands quivered.

Dearest Liz. Another wonderful day! The sunrise was like Heaven was on fire. It was scary, but beautiful! You know, the robin was perched on my roof again. Woke me at quarter to 5. So I went to my writing pad. How are things with you?

She loved his handwriting, the mixture of upper and lower case rendered in fastidious lines, as if measured by a ruler. Lifting the paper to her face, she inhaled, imagining his palms brushing against the paper. Over the road Ronnie was tugging on a hastily sparked cigarette. Her daughter was serving an elderly couple.

‘Right, Nikki, petal, I’ll be off. Wish me luck.’

‘Oh! Has he arrived? Let me see, let me see!’ Nikki dropped the plate so impatiently the man started. She drew in close beside her mother, resting her chin on her shoulder.

Liz shrugged her away. ‘Polo shirt, dark hair.’

‘Oh, Mum, he’s a honey! Listen, if you don’t get on, send him over here!’

When the lights began dimming, Liz glanced at this young man who had chosen her advert from a list in a newspaper. He was fidgeting with the third finger of his left hand, rubbing the skin. In that instant she knew he was hiding a ring in a pocket.

‘Ronnie’, she whispered. ‘Sorry. I have to go to the loo. It’s come on me all of a sudden’

‘Of course, Liz.’ He placed a hand on her knee, squeezed. She stifled a gasp of revulsion. Stumbling up the aisle she found herself blinking in the foyer. Crowds shuffled towards Cameo 2, everyone gaping at her. Quickening her step, she headed for the exit.

• • • 

She was thinking of the birthday card John had sent her. He’d sketched cygnets. Very different to the Mute Swans she was used to in Holyrood Park. One of them plunging its bill into water, sending ripples towards the edge of the card. When the time came to take it down from the mantelpiece, she would have it framed.

When she tuned in to Gregor again she shuddered. He motioned with his great hands, describing feminine curves. Was he tactlessly enthusing about some ex? But she realised he was purring about his car. Although he was sitting right next to her he didn’t look at her. He was narrating to his pint.

Minutes later he was chuckling about some stunt he’d seen on Top Gear. Obviously he didn’t care he’d backed into a conversational cul-de-sac. Liz took a hefty gulp, grimaced.

‘What do you drive, Liz?’

‘I’ve got a bus pass.’

Liz polished off her drink, crunching the ice cubes. ‘I’ll get one for myself in the meantime, Gregor.’

Clutching her handbag she strode towards the bar, but went past it and out into the street.

• • •

Nikki placed another coffee before Liz.

‘Thanks, petal.’ Liz glared at the cinema’s yawning entrance. It looked as if Tony had got cold feet. A past master herself, she still resented the affront.

‘He can’t have been meant for you, Mum’, Nikki sympathised. ‘This’ll cheer you up. Sasha texted me some more holiday snaps—Here, check them out.’

Nikki fiddled with her mobile phone, then placed it on the ledge.

‘Thanks, love.’

Her daughter and seven mates had gone to Ibiza. Liz thumbed through a succession of gurning teenagers in bikinis. They brandished unwieldy cocktails at the lens the way Celtic warriors might have done heads. In some shots they were dancing, limbs frozen as if conjuring spirits from the dazzling lights; in others immersed in foam. In one photo Nikki and Sasha were surrounded by shaven-headed lads, an improbable accumulation of bottles before them. The boys either sported Manchester United colours, or were stripped down to chests that were sunburnt and hairless. All were mottled with tattoos that reminded her of mould. Nikki’s left breast was being cupped by someone hiding from view. Liz noticed numbers missing from the sequence: obviously her daughter had censored some.

But Nikki hadn’t stopped gushing about the holiday since returning the previous week. Obviously she’d relished every moment. In fact, the succession of cheeky grins reminded Liz of her own photo albums: Nikki on her garden chute; or in her pram. Her favourite was Nikki blowing out four candles, her face the epitome of innocent joy.

‘You going to show these to Johnny, Nikki?’

Nikki was wiping tables. ‘You mean Jamie? He’s seen them. Pissed himself. I’ve seen his of Magaluf. What happens on holiday stays on holiday.’

Liz smiled. Nikki had brought him round to the house for the first time the night before. Unlike previous boyfriends who cowered out of her way as if she had leprosy, Jamie had marched over, kissing either cheek. Smelling the alcohol and smoke and cheap aftershave, she was reminded of her first serious boyfriend, a shy punk rocker called Davey. She recalled school discos: vodka-fuelled collisions of Northern Soul, disco and The Rezillos. Most of all she remembered numb jaws from being plugged into Davey’s face, like lampreys.

Exiting the photo album she noted the time. This was payback, she mused, for all the occasions she’d peered out this window and opted to stay put.

‘See you shortly, Mum.’

Nikki plucked the phone and stepped outside. Soon she was chattering excitedly and smoking a roll-up. Smoke plumed past the glass. Liz opened her bag’s zip compartment. There was a stack of letters here; she extracted the nearest.

I dreamt last night of where I grew up. We’d swim by Farrar’s Island, searching for treasure. There were wrecks down there. Old gunboats, their cannons rusting in the mud. We’d hold our breaths and explore. Sometimes find bullets. My father once told about a diver, Robert Foster, from the Guinness Book. Who held his breath for 13 minutes 42 seconds. He had to first breathe pure oxygen. Imagine! Sometimes I imagine I’m a dolphin. Swimming through that river. I imagine I can hear the muffled cries we made as we came back for air, our tiny fists around those rusty bullets, our treasure.

I love swimming. I love that moment your ears go under. You can’t hear anything. It’s as if you’re alone in the world. There’s no one else up there. But my eyes are getting heavy, Elizabeth, sweetheart. It was real funny you talking about the party where you ‘broke your cherry’ as you say. I like it you feel you can talk to me about anything. Everything. In some bed piled high with jackets, so drunk you hardly remember it at all. The Cure on the Hi Fi. With me it was The Boss. Springsteen. Music and young love. And whole lives before us. No idea of the twists waiting. You are in my prayers, as always. Love always.

• • •

The rendezvous was in six minutes but her view was obscured. A sudden downpour cascaded off the window. There was a confused huddle over at The Cameo. Simon could be one of many.

If Simon was his real name. If he was there at all.

Her phone rang.

‘Hello. This is Liz.’

‘Oh, hi, there Liz! You’re running late. How are you?’

‘I’m fine. Eh. Nervous.’

‘Never! Flirty thirtyplus?’


‘You advert, Liz? I’ve memorised it. Five eight, medium, curvy, strawberry-blonde, GSOH, cinema, music, swimming...’

The description she’d taken ages to compose sounded ridiculous. And it gave her the impression of having been selected from a list. Although that was exactly what had been happening all this time, her self-esteem plummeted.

Now she could make him out, huddling into the cinema doorway, phone pressed to his ear.

There was something about this situation she hated. Complete strangers adopting a different persona due to the ‘blind date’ scenario. Sometimes, listening to some unknown male describe himself, or embellishing her own qualities, she felt like she was a sitcom cliche.

‘Listen, Simon. I have to...’


‘I’m sorry, my daughter’s sick.’

‘Your daughter?’

‘Bye, Simon.’

After deleting his number, she switched off her phone.

• • •

‘Another one, Mum?’

‘A blind date?’

‘No. Another letter from your penpal?’

‘Yes, petal. Any bran scones left?’

‘I’ll get you one.’

Liz flicked the letter open at the second page.

I found a box. Inside there was just grime. Took it to the local museum. They reckoned it would’ve been used to store writing stuff. A sailor writing to a sweetheart. The engraving said CSS Florida. I did some research at that time. Turns out the captain of that ship was Scotch, from a place called Stone Haven. Makes me think of you, my dearest Liz. I think I grew gills when I was a boy. I also think of my own letters to you, now, so far away. What happened in between seems as muddy as that salty river in Virginia. Where do you like swimming, Liz? Do you have a favorite loch? Isn’t that what you call them? Please describe it all to me.

‘Right, Nikki, that’s me.’

‘What? I’m still buttering your scone.’

‘I’m running late. This one sounds promising. Don’t want him to slip through the net.’

Pushing herself away from her seat, she popped into the toilets. Scarcely ten minutes had elapsed since her previous visit: she was nervous about this meeting. Danny had a wonderful speaking voice, and this had formed a mental picture she was obsessing about. The tone was reminiscent of Sean Connery: not the wrinkled guest of honour at Old Firm matches, but the virile secret agent.

When she sat down she noticed fragments of torn paper. The paper hadn’t been there last time she used the loo. The cafe was quiet; she was the only customer; Nikki was holding fort while the owner, Chris, was at the bank. Feeling the need to tidy up after her daughter, she reached to the litter. She furrowed it open. It was a receipt. From Boots. Squinting at the ruined print she deciphered the letters a moment before it sank in. Pregnancy Test Kit £6.99.

Clambering out of the toilet she rinsed her fingers then rushed into the cafe. Chris was leaning on the counter, glancing at a paperback.

‘Chris, you’re back?’

‘Hi, Liz. There was another cheque I meant to deposit. Clean forgot. Nikki volunteered. Any excuse for a smoke, that one! Although she was saying how she wants to give up.’

‘What? Why now?’


‘Oh. Nothing. She’s tried so many times. I see she’s left her phone.’

‘Oh, yeah.’ Chris waved the mobile. ‘She’ll not be long, though.’

‘Listen, I’m meeting a friend to go to the pictures. Can you pass on a message?’

‘Of course.’

‘Just tell her to phone Mum. The minute she gets back.’

‘But you’ll have to switch yours off for the film? Which film, by the way?’

‘The film? Some comedy, can’t remember. Jack Black, I think. Just ask her to phone, Chris. I’ll have it on silent. It’s important.’

‘Sure, Liz.’

She hurried to the pedestrian crossing. She could see the clock by the traffic lights, its huge metal hand approaching the XII. One guy stood out from the knot of figures by The Cameo. He was clutching a Fringe programme to his chest. As she approached he studied her hair. Danny smiled at her. He looked nice, he looked like someone who didn’t need to do this. She marched past.

She gulped air and held this breath. At the traffic lights she waited for the green man, chest welling. Her pulse began an insistent tattoo. Pain originated as a knot in her chest; spread like a web. Her neck muscles tightened. Tears welled. Finally she relinquished. She exhaled.

The traffic cranked up in intensity: beeping horns, relentless Techno beats, exhaust fumes, rattling taxis, blinking lights. Her heart was thumping. The minute hand juddered to the top. She knew it wasn’t the exact time. How could it be when it varied all over the world? There was no precise time; in Scotland, America, wherever. The moment she’d been dreading might have occurred when she’d been in the cubicle with Nikki’s receipt; or it might happen before any of those cars reached their destination. It was all down to those vast swathes segregating the globe into time zones. And yet, paradoxically, everything hinged on the exactness of time. Every countdown. She’d worked out John’s time, 06.00, was noon in Scotland. Who had decided on his time, she wondered. Was there a committee with a minute taker?

She seized another breath. She tugged out her wallet. John’s sparkling eyes watched her. She’d torn this out of a magazine in the cafe; an advert for penpals. In his letter’s concluding sentence he’d said that when the time came he’d close his eyes and become that dolphin soaring over the sunken boats in the James River.

Liz had absorbed so many facts from Google. Don Harding. His last supper has been bacon and eggs, and toast with honey. Picturing his feast made her hungry. It would have had the same effect on whoever had gingerly carried it to him on a tray. In April 1992, he lasted 10 minutes, 31 seconds. When the cyanide reacted with the sulphuric acid in the gas chamber, you would hold your breath as long as you could. Of course you would. Even while all that was going on your lungs would fight for your life. You were only human.

Her phone rang. She felt its vibration; off and on, like a pulse. She didn’t answer; just felt it massaging her skin. They would numb John’s skin before inserting the needle. They were only human.

© Mark Fleming 2007