••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
It was weeks until I heard him speak more than a couple of words, and by then I had probably told him my whole life story, which he had swallowed whole like a whale eating plankton, with only the occasional “yes” or “hmm” to encourage me in.
Perhaps we all need a listener; someone we can tell all our problems and thoughts to. Someone who does not intrude with their own personality but just seems interested in us; our own private Samaritan. And when that person is our lover then that is all the better. Often Brian and I would stay up until the early hours as I chatted to him between bouts of sex which just emphasised the intimacy we were sharing. But even with sex he was taking all I had to offer and was holding himself back.
I met Brian through work; we were both librarians at the University of Reading; whilst I was Theology he was Anthropology. I noticed how many library users; staff and students alike, would take Brian aside and chat to him and I was impressed that people trusted him so much. Often you would see him stood in a distant corner of the library whilst a tearful student whispered to him frantically. She (or occasionally he) would stop when aware of somebody else’s presence, and then would carry on at a slightly lower volume.
He was always well-dressed; a suit with neat shirt and tie, although nothing obtrusively fashionable. As I discovered later, even outside work he looked smart never wearing jeans or trainers but always proper trousers and shoes, and I never saw him in a t-shirt. He did not smell of anything either; even when he was hot or we had had vigorous sex there was no odour coming from him.
We were introduced by my friend Sally whilst she and I were sat together in the student union cafeteria. Brian sat down at our table and Sally who was on her way to attend a meeting told us each other’s names and then fled.
“You work in anthropology” I told him, although I guess he already knew that. He smiled sweetly and took a mouthful of some disgusting looking pasta dish which smelt of fish, but he maintained eye contact.
“I am Karen” I told him, forgetting Sally had already mentioned this, and then I told him about how I worked in Theology and that I liked it, but felt the other staff rather looked down on me, because I was new to the department and did not have a degree in the subject. Soon I was telling him everything about me. And the thing is
I do not normally talk; I am more the listener, and anyway I do not have that many problems, not really. After all I have a good job and friends, and nobody I am close to has died; even my grandparents are all alive. Yet I could not help myself; rattling on as he sat and listened with just the occasional noise of encouragement. Eventually I looked at the time and realised that I should have been back at work twenty minutes ago and fled with barely a goodbye.
We met again and again; first by chance and then by arrangement; often sitting in coffee shops for hours as I poured out my soul to him, or on warm days (it was late spring when we met) we would wander round the ruined abbey together, eating ice cream and watching the townspeople and students; being university librarians we were not quite either. He would be slightly bent over me so that none of the words I spoke would escape him.
Sally was in a production of “The Caretaker” and so we went to see it. Halfway through the second act he reached out and held my hand albeit loosely but it was good to know that he was there next to me and was aware of the fact. And when we ended up in bed a couple of nights later he held my hand as he went down on me, his tongue deep inside, questing for my hidden self.
We were now a couple; holding hands in public, spending days off together. I was slightly jealous that he still seemed to be the library’s agony aunt, and even in the evenings he occasionally got a phone call from somebody obviously in distress. All I would hear was the odd monosyllable from Brian as the person on the other end of the telephone talked and talked.
But he always had time for me; and he seemed to enjoy nothing more than being next to me on the sofa; often with my head in his lap as I told him more about myself. I could not believe that I had so much to tell; but he was an expert at probing, and the more he probed the more I found to tell him.
We went to a talk by a Conservative Minister at the Student Union. I have always been interested in politics, and had recently become a member of the Labour Party to help elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I dragged Brian along with me and we sat near the front. Clearly the University Conservative party had come out with all the force at their command, but unfortunately for them and their guest, all the force they had were a dozen rather diffident looking students who sat at the back looking rather embarrassed, and thus the minister was given a torrid time by what was a largely hostile audience. I asked a rather pointed question and whilst the minister dealt with it with practised skill he did seem to be sweating and I got a cheer from those around me.
“So what did you think?” I asked Brian as we sat together on his sofa later that evening.
“Yes, you did well asking that question. Were you nervous?”
“But what did you think of the question? Do you think I was right? Do you even vote?”
I had never asked him so many questions, and he appeared flummoxed and at a loss for words. We were drinking wine, and I was a little drunk although Brian being more abstemious seemed sober and in control.
“Come on” I said “don’t you have any political views? What about the present government and all their cuts, you must see the damage that they are doing?”
He shrugged, “I see what you mean, and it obviously bothers you, I know.”
And suddenly I realised that I did not know what he thought about anything. Even his music tastes were conventional; a bit of Mozart, U2 and Beatles but he did not seem particularly bothered about them. I had never heard him enthuse about Mozart’s Operas or Bono’s voice, whereas I love The Band of Holy Joy and will bore anybody anytime with how good they are. In fact when did he ever seem passionate about anything?
I leant over him rather drunkenly and rapped him on his head, hard.
“What is going on in there? What do you think about? What do you care about? Why don’t you ever fucking talk?”
I was angry with him, but we still ended up having drunken sex in his bed; partly so I could see if he was passionate when inside me. But as always he was outside it; analytical but not engaged, even his sperm smelt of nothing. I woke early the next morning with a bit of a headache but knowing that it was the end. I dressed swiftly and left him sleeping noiselessly.
Of course I bumped into him on occasion and I would smile and he would ask how I was. He did not beg or even ask me to come back which was rather disappointing. I doubt I would have gone back to him, but it would have been good to be asked.
Brian’s imperturbability bothered me; I felt awful even though the relationship has only lasted about three months; I do not have affairs easily and had hoped that it would last. And the fact that he did not seem to care…. A job came up in the theological college the other side of the town, and I went for it. The money was about the same but I would be in charge of the library and I would be away from Brian without having to uproot and move house.
I enjoyed my new job; I had an assistant called Wendy who was friendly and helpful, and even better was not trying to take my position or undermine me. And the trainee clergymen and women tended to be kind and patient. My atheism did not seem to be an issue and although I did not socialise with any of them I had a few interesting chats at lunchtime. It was true that I had taken the job for the wrong reasons but I soon realised it was a good decision and that I was happier than I ever had been.
Most of my friends in Reading were not connected to the university, and even Sally who I had been close to rather lost touch with me. She had already embarked on a rather angst-ridden affair with a married, female sociology lecturer when I left the university and to my surprise the affair had not ended but on the contrary they were now living together, leaving Sally little time to maintain our friendship.
One evening Sally rang me out of the blue. I was lying half asleep on my settee with The Smiths playing on my stereo and a lavender joss stick burning fragrantly.
“Have you heard about Brian?” she asked.
“Er no. Why what about him, as he managed to get a personality?”
“He seems to have gone to pieces. You know how smart and neat he used to be?”
“Well he has started coming to work with stains on his shirts, odd socks and he hardly every shaves. He looks a mess, pongs a bit too.”
I was shocked, just could not imagine him looking scruffy. Perhaps he had just had a late night but even that would have been odd. I suspected it was a one-off after all Sally was prone to exaggerate, and he could not have changed that much in the eight months or so since I had left him.
“And now he talks to himself” she added; “when he is in the library, stacking books you hear him murmuring to himself. It is really weird.”
“Has anyone said anything to him?” I asked her.
“They have tried, but he just denies anything is wrong. You know how self-contained he was.”
The conversation petered out after that. She suggested we meet up soon, but did not actually say a day.
That Saturday I was in Reading town centre buying a few necessities, when I saw him sat on a bench. In fact I heard him first; he was talking with an old man and it was soon evident that the man was trying to leave without appearing to be rude. Eventually he made his apologies and hastily left Brian on his own. Sally was right, Brian was looking unkempt; not quite like a tramp but he was clearly not looking after himself.
Brian was still talking and clearly had not registered that he was now on his own; he was not loud just his normal conversational voice. I had never heard him talk so much. I was behind him and so walked a pace or two closer so I could hear him better, and then I heard my name.
“And Karen, she was a lovely girl, with her left wing opinions, but in the end I had to let her go. I do miss her sometimes, she was so lovely in bed but she never stopped talking, never listened.”
And he talked on and on, telling all our intimate secrets. I wanted to shake him and shout “Just shut up, can’t you. What has happened to you? What has gone wrong?”
I blushed, even though I do not suppose that anybody there would have known that the Karen who Brian was describing so lewdly, was me. Fortunately he eventually started talking about somebody else; one of the students from the library, who had confided in him frequently. I was very glad that the poor girl was not there to witness her personal life spoken about for the entertainment of any passing shoppers and those who spend their daylight hours in the hell of a modern town centre.
Eventually I managed to walk away, get on with my shopping and buy myself a tuna sandwich for lunch. But throughout that day, and the weeks that followed, always in the background I could hear his voice, talking endlessly into the desert of the world’s and my vast indifference.
Andrew Lee-Hart April 2016
The Woman in the Park
She is sitting on an iron bench in the park. In the distance I can hear horses’ hooves lightly pounding and the sound of carriages trundling down the thoroughfare just behind us.
Play That Thing
I almost walked passed it. A small café, hidden between a newsagent and a kebab shop, on one of the main thoroughfares of Camden.