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November 2008
NAILED TO THE BRIDGE

Chris Killen
Live in a city long enough, you’ll end up knowing two kinds of people – those you switch streets to avoid, and those you never bump into no matter how hard you try.

I’d finished early for once, and decided on a walk. It didn’t feel right going home, not on a night like this. The air was sharp, the dark like a cloth draping itself in slow motion across the table of the city. The pigeons didn’t move when interrupted. Their shadows were painted on the floor. Everything, I thought, was still enough to take in.

I’d planned a loop of the city – along Deansgate, back up Market Street – but seeing Daniel made me spin on my heel and duck into the nearest shop. I didn’t want the ensuing, predictable enquiries (what’re you up to? how’s it going?) or the gaping fuck-all of my reply.

So in the newsagent’s I killed time up and down the aisles, and at the counter I wished I still smoked. I picked up some gum.

You look frozen, love, the woman at the till told me.

I nodded. It was true. I was deeply cold, right in my bones, at the very centre.

She wore a t-shirt, the sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, as the wind whistled in through the open door. A coin in my pocket, feeling thick and sturdy as a pound, came out a dull 2p.

Forty five for that, love, she said.

It’s my birthday today, I told her, paying, and she nodded and smiled, but I knew how it sounded – like a strange and pointless lie.

Back on the street Daniel was gone and I was able to drift up Market Street and pass two guys playing instruments I didn’t know the names of: hollow, drum-shaped things with long, long necks like distended acoustic guitars. Another man was dancing and a small crowd had gathered to watch. He span on the spot, hands raised above his head, eyes wide and beaming. He kicked himself round with his right foot, as if the left was nailed to the pavement. The music was up-beat and melodic, but it was like the bridge of a song, leading towards a chorus and never getting there, circling endlessly back on itself, bridging nothing and nothing.

• • •

I took a table by the window and got out my phone. No new messages. The rain was hardly trying against the glass. I’d been calling Caitlyn now about a month or two. I knew it bothered her but there was little I could do.

We’d only actually met once, since, when I ended up outside the one place I knew she’d almost definitely be, ringing the doorbell again and again. Then, and on the phone (the few times she picked up), she was cold-seeming – how, I guessed, she must have acted towards other men during our time together. I imagined it like a flower blooming in fast reverse. How strange, to think of Caitlyn as not constant, changed, or whatever. But she still has her memory, I told myself; she never forgets a thing.

I dialled her number, as a girl at the jukebox played a song I’d never heard.

• • •

The first time I called Caitlyn, I wanted to know how we met. Not in a general sense; I wanted the particulars, the things fast disappearing.

It was your birthday, she told me. You were pissed.

What time was it?

It was eight.

And I was already drunk?

Yeah. You were.

What did I say? Was I obnoxious?

You wanted to know how often blokes asked me out at work. You wouldn’t let it go. You kept asking.

So what did you say?

I told you, only drunks ever ask me out.

Was I handsome? I mean, did you like the look of me straight away? Was there a twinge in the pit of your stomach? Or did I grow on you?

Pause.

Andy, I’m going to go now.

Click.

It’s like Caitlyn holds the keys to our relationship and the meaning in it; to her it’s still solid, she can walk around it whenever she wants, while for me it’s falling out in great chunks on the pillow. Maybe this is why I’m demanding to be let back in.

I know she’d told me to come back sober (which I did the next day with a rattling, terrible hangover) and I know we sat talking (about something) and drank cups of tea and smiled at each other. But there are great gaps of nothing around us, too, in parts of her face, in her movements, in my weak-legged trip between our table and the toilet. I’ve had to erect my own false scaffolding – the hows and whens of things – just to keep it hanging together.

The song ends. A clattering silence of glasses and voices and forks in a dishwasher swells up to replace it. Everyone in here is wearing t-shirts, I notice, and not feeling the cold.

• • •

The second time I called Caitlyn – the last time she answered – I felt there was someone else in the room with her. Who, I wondered. Which room?

A new boyfriend, I decided, and her bedroom, lit by her lava lamp and tea lights. She’s answering the phone now to torture him, to have something to say after.

(My ex. He’s nuts. He won’t let it go.)

How are you?

I’m fine. (Sigh.) I’m okay, but you have to stop doing this …

Just tell me one thing. When did it start to go wrong? I mean, where were we? What were we doing? Is there an exact moment you can put your finger on?

Click.

I knew this one, too, but I wanted to hear her say it. Saturday night. The taxi rank. My drunken voice snaking from my throat and shattering in the cold air. The steam hanging around us, afterwards, and beads of glass that clung to her eyelashes. I don’t know exactly what I told her, but I can still hear the reply.

Sometimes (very quietly) you scare me.

• • •

Then I am outside a house, drunk, about four miles from home. The lights are on, but no one’s coming to the door. I’ve been posting things through the letterbox – my jacket, my scarf, my house keys, my wallet.

An icy wind whistles around my body.

Inside, I imagine as I begin to unbutton my shirt, a younger version of me is perched on the edge of the bed, petrified and smiling. She leans over to kiss him, pulling him roughly towards her, toppling him back onto the blanket. She smells of chemical fruit.

The street winds away stilly in either direction, the pavements a glittering black. A sky like a mouth gapes above us, its tongue out and leering. Flecks of spittle spot my glasses. On the lawn, my trousers round my ankles, I’m squinting up at the accusatory yellow rectangle of her window. The curtains are drawn. I know she’s in.

Go on then, go and see, she instructs the younger me, and if he’s there, tell him to fuck off. She watches him go to the window, not casting a silhouette, and pull back the curtains, not moving them. I give him the finger from the lawn. No one there, he lies, wanting to get back in bed with her. You’re imagining it.

He’s scared.

If he comes out, he knows, I’ll kill him. I’ll splinter his teeth and grind his shins against the curb.

An icy wind whistles along the street.

My body winds out stilly in either direction.

My phone has started to ring, but from the other side of the door.




© Chris Killen 2007
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