"Why am I here?" Paul wondered.
On the grand scale of Destiny this had always seemed a strangely pointless question. Around ten o'clock every Saturday night, however, it was a question he mused over in the context of the Cromwell pub.
"’scuze me mate."
Paul leaned back to make way for the pool cue. The drunk playing the shot had to lean awkwardly, but Paul was determined not to stand. A smell of rank armpit, a growl of frustration with the miscue and Paul bobbed upright to a hostile glare. "Tough," he muttered, quietly. This seat was his most precious possession; he'd waited long enough, and now it was firmly beneath his buttocks there it would stay.
The drunk having retreated, Paul resumed a distracted perusal of his surroundings. Glancing from group to group, person to person, he felt alienated from their desperate hilarity. The malaise of the English drinking; the edginess of voice and laughter raised against the onslaught of the juke box; the pent up claustrophobia of a small space filled with people filled with alcohol, tension that could burst into tears or violence.
Wistfully, his mind drifted to the Saturday nightlife of continental cafes; the smell of coffee, happy conversation, relaxed laughter -
"’scuze me mate." It was the drunk's opponent, equally drunk. Paul leaned to the left.
Christ, he was sick of England.
Upright again he saw Linda smile across the table, the chop-and-change of conversation having momentarily abandoned her. Paul smiled back, wearily.
"Penny for them?" she shouted over the noise.
"I'd be ripping you off."
"Then I'll take a free sample."
"OK then - why do people go to the pub to escape their homes and then get drunk to escape the pub?"
"No - quite right; that wasn't a penny's worth."
"’scuze me mate."
Paul leaned to the right. "Any chance of you budging up?" he called to Linda as the cue knocked the side of his head.
Linda glanced along the seat then spoke to the bespectacled youth next to her. He, in turn, spoke to the woman next to him, the message was passed and bottoms shuffled. A narrow gap opened clearing just enough seat for Linda's hand to give it an inviting pat.
Paul rose and squeezed between tables, then squeezed between Linda and the bespectacled youth to settle precariously on the edge of the seat. He glanced up to see his former space taken by a grim-looking youth who, unwilling to lean for anyone, had become involved in heated altercation.
Paul sighed. "Why do we do it, Linda?"
"Do what dear heart?"
"Subject ourselves to this every Saturday night?"
Linda clouded with thought then lit with revelation. "Because there's fuck all else to do."
Paul sighed and sought his drink. It had gone. In the hand of the grim looking youth was a glass looking suspiciously - oh hell, there was only a bit left and he didn't care much for drinking anyway. He leaned back in resignation as far as the shoulders of his neighbours permitted.
There was fuck all else to do.
Linda looked him over. “You’re in miserable git mode”, she observed. “What’s up?”
Paul shrugged. “The usual I guess. The demise of the British Empire. The rise of political ideology as the fanaticism of a secular world. Dutch Elm disease –“
“You had Hannah today, didn’t you?”
“- and I just took Hannah back to her mother, yes.”
"Hence the mood?"
Paul grimaced. "Maybe. I don't know."
“Any more second-hand feminism? That one you told me last week was sweet.”
Sarah, Hannah's mother, had very definite views about men; the only ones she had time for were lovers. While they had her interest her lovers were accorded honorary female status; as interest waned they sank back into the general morass of male bastardy. His own fall from grace had begun some three years earlier when the two of them were trying to make a go of it in the wake of Hannah. As he’d declined, so Sarah began praising an old college friend, Keith, for being ‘… not like other men’ and Paul knew the relationship was over.
Recently, Hannah had been picking up on Sarah’s ideas. "Men are nasty," she'd told Paul the previous weekend.
"Yes. No. Keith's nice."
Hannah was puzzled. "You're my daddy. You're not a man."
"You've gone again." Paul looked up and saw Linda’s sympathetic amusement.
"Sorry, you’re right. Post-Hannah brooding mode."
“For a guy who loves his daughter as much as you do you don't half get moody when you've had her for the day."
“Oh, it’s not Hannah. It’s me. I’m a childless father. I'm a writer who doesn't write. I'm a traveller trapped in familiar territory -"
“You love your daughter.”
“Oh yes, I know, I know.” He shook his head. “Unplanned fatherhood. Can you think of anything else you’d bust a gut trying to prevent in the full knowledge that if it were to happen it would be the highlight of your life?”
Linda was surprised. "Hannah wasn't planned?"
“I thought I told you. Not by me. The planning I mean. ‘A couple of missed pills’ Sarah told me, but she’s not one for forgetfulness.”
Linda frowned. “I didn’t know. How did you take it when you found out?”
Paul shrugged. “Badly. I wasn’t ready for it. I’d told Sarah that, repeatedly. Not ready for marriage, not ready for children… but she got what she wanted. Hannah first, then I had to follow. Not duty. Hannah. I loved Hannah from the outset. The first time I saw her…” He smiled. “Well, I don’t remember it, Sarah told me, said I made a glib remark. ‘Oh, that’s what they look like, is it?’ Then I had to sit down. Sarah said I went white, she thought I was going to pass out. From a threatening medical condition – a threat to me I mean – to a daughter. I’ve spoken to other guys about it, that first realisation – true realisation – of fatherhood, seeing your child for the first time. It was the same for all of us. Epiphany. I went into that maternity ward one person. When I left, in so many ways, I was entirely someone else and I couldn’t go back.”
“So you decided to marry Sarah?”
“Not immediately. The problem with epiphany is it’s suddenness. You need time to grow out of what you were before and into what you’ve become. Sarah and I became closer – because of Hannah of course – and the differences we had didn’t seem insoluble, at least not to me.”
“So she managed to get what she wanted.”
Paul smiled, wryly. “Quite the opposite. She trapped me into it and there I was, hers for the taking, the thing she’d wanted for years then she realised… she didn’t really want me after all. Wanting me had become a habit, that’s all. Getting me made it real and the habit broke. She’d trapped both of us. It was a mess. She was irritable from the start. Before too long there was another man in the background. I think she was goading me into walking out on her, she didn’t want to take the responsibility upon herself, but I wouldn’t. While she kept saying things could work I hung on in there. This was me now, Sarah and Hannah; I couldn’t just walk away. Sarah had my future all locked and couldn’t give it back if she wanted, so I stayed. She had to do it, had to chuck me out in the end. It was horrible… for Hannah, for me… for Sarah too I guess. She’d hijacked my life and now she’d crashed it. It can’t have made her feel good. Unfortunately it didn’t make her sorry either. Just bitter and angry. With me.”
“You never told me any of this.”
“Ach! I don’t much like to talk about it I guess. Anyway, I tried to run away from it all, sold up everything and went abroad. My grand world tour. I made it as far as Germany, but I wasn’t going anywhere. You can’t just walk away from your child; the world’s not big enough.”
“So… now you have her.”
“One day a week. Ultra-Dad, turning fatherliness up to max because we have so little time. Then she goes and I have to turn it back to zero just as fast. Access fatherhood is hell. The life of a single bloke and the life of a father are flat-out incompatible. I can’t travel as I used to. I can’t focus on my writing. I feel like I’m marking time six days a week and then, on the seventh, I’m trying to fit in a week of fatherhood. No wonder the majority of estranged dads abandon access after a couple of years. I’ve got a quarter-life where I used to have a life-and-a-half.”
"You're thinking of quitting access?"
"Oh don't sound so shocked; I've stuck it out longer than most and anyway… no. No, I'm not giving it up. I couldn't do that to Hannah. Nor to myself. Anyway, I tried running once and got nowhere. There’s nowhere to go."
“You say you can’t write. I guess you’re thinking about all this too much. So why not write about it?”
Paul frowned. “You think there’s a market for the self-pitying whine? My guess is much of the world’s writing is in the genre, but not much of it makes it to print.”
“So… adapt it. A man lost, in search of himself.”
“I’m not sure we’re allowed to do that.”
“Men. My understanding is we found ourselves thousands of years ago and have been living it up ever since. Women have crises and rush around all over the show seeking themselves but not us, cherub. We don’t have crises. We’re found. Men don’t do that.”
“Well – maybe you should.” As she spoke the bell rang for last orders and Linda picked up her glass. “Fancy another?"
Paul shook his head. “I didn’t much fancy the first. No… I think I'll just get off."
"There's a party on afterwards - I'm not sure where yet, but we'll find it. It'll get you out of yourself. It beats brooding."
Paul smiled. "I won't brood. Talking's helped - thanks."
"If you say so... look, I'll have to get to the bar. Drop round if you’re feeling low tomorrow, okay?"
"Thanks, Linda. Otherwise I'll see you next week. In here again. I guess.”
“That, my dear, goes without saying.” Then, in chorus with Paul – “There’s fuck all else to do.”
Paul left the Cromwell and into the night in the hiatus that preceded chucking-out time. He took a longer route home than necessary, enjoying the peace of the back streets. It had been a relief to share his thoughts; he tended to shy away from them, feeling guilt at their presence. He and Sarah between them had betrayed Hannah enough in her brief six years.
His wandering took him close to the local cemetery, dead now to burials, barely preserved. It had become a haunt for wildlife, a strange park through which people wandered looking at the shattered gravestones and overgrown mausoleums.
For Paul, it was best at night. He loved night's silence. Before Hannah's birth he'd sleep through the day and spend the nights wandering and writing, alone and at peace. It was a habit he often slipped into even now, only now that slippage was accompanied by weekly exhaustion as he struggled to adjust to Hannah's imminent arrival and her more civilised hours. He was tired now, but the long night stretching ahead was too much temptation.
He knew he wouldn't be disturbed in the cemetery. Sometimes groups of drunken youth would invade it after closing time but their racket gave them away and they were easily avoided. The occasional solitary weirdo, weirdos like himself, like himself wanted to be left in peace.
He sat down in a clearing amidst the trees that had sprung up through the years between the graves. An owl hooted, mournful and continuous. Something in the undergrowth nearby crashed and scuttled; there were yelps. Fox cubs perhaps? Paul had seen foxes in here before.
There was a cool breeze blowing, welcome refreshment after the Cromwell's fug. He lay back on the grass and looked up at the stars.
After some ten minutes of star gazing the peace was dispelled with the increasing clamour of group of approaching drunks. Ah well, he was starting to get cold in any case. He rose with a sigh and made for the exit, away from the encroaching reminder of an English Saturday night.
Not far from the cemetery, the house that held his flat was itself a haven for wildlife in miniature. It was an old vicarage, large and rambling, its grounds overgrown. From his window he could watch squirrels in the trees, cats fighting, even the occasional visiting fox from the cemetery itself. But the road was only a few yards away, the residents came and went; peace was transient at best.
The few abandoned, battered cars that littered the expansive driveway epitomised the house itself. The landlord did his best, but the tenants...
He unlocked the front door to the familiar smell of carelessly used lavatories, stale alcohol and sweat. One of the residents, Michael, had started taking heroin some years earlier and the house had been plagued with that and alcohol ever since. From the first he'd been evangelical about the drug, dragging others into his experimentation. Those that succumbed found with their tempter that the initial pleasure wore rapidly thin as the drug became a necessity and more and more was sacrificed to its demands. Since then the house had become a focus for pushers, for addicts looking for somewhere to score or, worse, somewhere to live. The house had developed a reputation, well deserved, for its raucousness, for hysterical arguments out on the street at night, for strange comings and goings. Flats had been broken into; Paul had added padlocks to the lock on his door.
And yet some of the users in the house he'd grown to care for, one in particular desperate to shake off the habit, never quite able to, who would transform day by day from distant and moody through ecstatic to ill as he searched for, took and recovered from the drug he at once loved and hated.
Paul had had offers but never came close to succumbing. He had been wary of heroin before he moved into the house; having done so, it was the very people who tried to push the idea of his taking it that turned that wariness into revulsion. Those that sang the praises of heroin were living proof of its madness. All Paul asked in the end was that they left him to himself and, on the whole, having given up the idea of him joining them, they had. It made the house bearable - even pleasant, as now, deserted. In any case, on income support, he didn't have the money to put down a bond on another flat. The landlord here hadn't asked for one, the reason he was able to move in after his return from Germany. Before he'd moved in with her he'd had a wonderful flat, a flat he'd loved, spacious and cheap. That, along with the records he'd collected from his teenage years onwards, all his books, just about anything he'd owned that had given him a sense of himself were now gone, sold to fund that aborted trip.
Still, he was building again he reflected as he pocketed his keys and opened the door. Things were getting quite homely. No television - too distracting and besides, he couldn't afford the license - but there was the radio, permanently tuned to Radio 4. Posters littered the walls, photographs of Hannah, a few of his own stabs at art which probably weren't much good but of which he was proud. He had plenty of cassettes - mainly spoken word - stored on a shelf to the edge of which he'd pinned notices for various arts events he probably wouldn't get round to attending. On a large shelf opposite the window was a riot of colour - Hannah's toys awaiting the return of their mistress.
But pride of place was taken by the desk beneath the window itself, in its drawers a dozen years' work, much of it unfinished, some still nominally in progress.
In the desk's centre sat the old Remington no one had wanted to buy when he'd sold everything else, his one constant companion on which he'd learned to touch type, through which he'd channelled so many thoughts, so many ideas - his joys in freedom, his fears of impending fatherhood, his love for his child.
On an idle whim Paul sat in front of it, wiping dust from its keys. This - this was the one constant part of him, the one aspect of his identity that had remained unchanged if restricted by the events of the previous six years. The wiping away of the dust became a meditative stroking as he thought of his rows with Sarah, his love of Hannah, the people in the house throwing their lives away. As he thought of it all, a familiar nagging began. Probably another false alarm; still, there was no harm in trying.
From the pile of paper on his desk he took a sheet and reeled it into the Remington.
"Come hither," he muttered. "Come hither Calliope, Thalia, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Clio. Come one. Come all. But for heaven’s sake come."
Expecting nothing, he sat. His fingers fell upon their customary places on the keys and