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Hidden Disparity
Robert Cooper

She wasn’t in the mood for anything much, even conversation was proving difficult tonight,

The carriage felt damp and clammy, the green faux velvet material of the seats adding to the cool mossy feel. Out side the low cloud was unbroken and varied only in tones of steely grey. Large dark blue patches loomed, glowering overhead. They were moving fast and were slanted upwards in the direction of travel, pushed around in to bumpy uneven clumps by high gusts of wind. The rain had ceased briefly but could fall heavily again at any moment, and so it would continue all day. Large lakes of water that were not present the night before, now lay in furrows all around the landscape.
Gazing motionless out of the window as the landscape sped past, Jack felt it had a beauty about it even in this weather. It seemed so alive and animate and he would find just as much pleasure in this as he would if he were soaked in sunshine without a cloud in sight. The weather enlivened an emotional state of mind in him, he felt the external environment more and so became more aware the world in side him, they became distinct because of their heightened dual presence. Jack saw the urban landscapes that passed the window were set in contrast to the unspoilt landscape before them. Everything looked grey, dirty, downtrodden and very depressing; he noticed the brown mist of dirt that coated the window evenly from top to bottom enhanced the effect.

Outside the window he could see built up urbanised areas. He looked across a hillside littered with houses in neat rows all of the same appearance, a depressing site that conjured up images of boring couples and their boring lives. The thought of being in their shoes was suffocating; it felt like an early death and the demise of a possibly interesting life, not a way forward.

It somehow looked primitive; it was a modern day settlement, not so different from those of thousands of years ago, but with the mud huts replaced by baked-mud brick houses. Families still dwelt in them, separating themselves from the other like-minded groups of relatives. He had heard that apparently humans have only been living together in large communities for maybe ten millennia or so. Yet it occurred to him that the materials used had advanced little and the scenario they encapsulated no more. Thousands of years of evolution and still the driving force and desire for most of humanity is to find a partner and settle down, and then forget about the rest of the world. It seems we do so instinctively he thought, without consideration of an alternative.

Jack believed himself to be on the fringe, giving consideration and due contempt for what he saw, just dipping his toes in now and again to test the water, but never diving in. At times he knew that he was probably just a part of the whole like everyone else, and his part, though different, played just as an insignificant and complementary role as those couples living on the estate, one hundred yards from his window. That said he still had no desire to join them, moving past them at one hundred miles an hour was as close as he wished to get. To subvert this noisome behaviour Jack, although living in London, had decided to take a job outside it, that meant he had to commute a few times a week. He delighted in going the opposite direction to the masses as they poured into London in the early hours, and passing them all once more at the end of the day. He would walk by them with a smirk on his face, delighting in anyone who looked upon him and his direction of travel curiously. Satisfied with his reflections, and his reflection, he had been looking at himself in the window now for some time, he returned to his book.

The train slowed and Jack instinctively looked up to see where he was. The train drew into the station, a simple affair with an open platform on one side and green fields as a backdrop, one of the many small towns in-between the major stops. The automatic doors hissed and slid open to let people on and Jack watched with intrigue to see who would join him. A young girl alighted the train with her head bowed and long hair covering her face, she walk towards Jack but he couldn’t see what she looked like. She snivelled hard and sat on the left, across the other side of the carriage against the window. They were both facing the same way, the gangway separating them and in his periphery vision he could see her fleeting glances through her long hair as she took some belongings from her bag. She sniffed hard again, and it now seemed to Jack that she may have been crying, which would explain her shy demeanour and careless manner in which she had left her nose running. At first he thought it might have been a cold, but now there was a story developing around his new travelling companion. Perhaps she had just left a loved one, maybe for the last time. She reached for her mobile phone, which seemed to confirm his supposition, and started to type out a text message. He imagined the contents as she typed: ‘missing you badly already, I’m sorry the way things have turned out, but we must try to move on, it was the right decision to make, I’ll love you always…’.

Jack thought of his new love and felt that it would be impossible to consider being apart from her, they were so complete, so together. The girls sniffing continued for fifteen minutes or so, at pretty much regular intervals without abate, and so Jack reconsidered the broken heart scenario; she obviously had got a bad cold, and no tissues to hand.

The previously announced drinks trolley never came, and before he had reached the end of the chapter he had hoped to, he arrived at Liverpool Street station. Caught a little on the hop as the few others left the carriage, he quickly stuffed belongings into his bag and left. The masses were now coming the other way eager to get home for the weekend and he swam hard against the oncoming grey tide, pushing and giving no quarter. He didn’t want to be late for his Sarah; he was to meet her after she had finished work and go for a bite to eat together. They hadn’t eaten out much during their relatively new relationship; they both preferred cosy nights in, spending time with just the two of them and no one else. Jack ducked into the tube to take on the underworld bustle, and after the uncomfortable journey soon arrived at Oxford Circus station. He ascended the stairs and stepped into the cold wet air, Sarah was already outside and was watching people passing on the street, standing arms folded. He stood there and watched her for a moment, without her knowledge of his presence; he loved those moments when he could see her as she naturally was. She had a soft shyness about her gaze sometimes and her mannerisms were always very delicate and feminine, accentuated by her slender limbs, he delighted when they were directed at him, but only him. He stepped over to her and put his arm round her back, she turned quickly. ‘Hi how you doing’, he said.
‘Oh hello, fine thanks, bit cold though’.
‘Yeah, lets get moving and keep warm’
‘Sure, which way are we going?’
‘Down here, it’s not far’. They turned and headed off the main busy street putting on a good pace.
The wind was blowing stronger now and although they both wore substantial coats, the cold it carried was cutting through them, finding all the gaps and exposed skin. They pressed along the wet shining pavement with hunched shoulders and tension in their faces to fend off the biting cold. Jack was a pace in front guiding his acquiescent partner into the night, he looked back to see her long brown hair flowing behind her and the frown, that he found so cute, on her forehead. He was leading her on the premise that he knew of places to eat, which he certainly did and the area was so littered with possible establishments that finding one were not to be a problem; choosing the right one might be. He thought about slipping into one of the cheaper places in Soho, which are something of an interesting experience rather than the expected norm, but he was unsure about Sarah, they hadn’t eaten out much and her expectations were still a little unknown.

He took some small back streets leading her off the beaten path, which he thought added to the impression of his knowledge of the area, all the time straining into the inky blackness to spot landmarks he knew; it was too cold to get happily lost tonight.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Sarah.
‘I thought we could try this little place just around here first’ he replied. Jack spotted a run of familiar outlets down the narrow street ahead and in his haste took a few steps past the intended Italian café and glanced back. ‘Here it is ‘ he said and drew Sarah over to look at the menu. ‘Here we go, it’s mostly pasta and pizza dishes, what do ya reckon?’ They looked in, the sparse Formica tables and harsh looking wooded seats we all empty but for one other couple. There was no reply from Sarah and whatever charm had existed in Jacks imagination was fast disappearing. ‘Ok lets try somewhere else’ he quickly perked up.
‘Oh no I don’t mind really’ she replied in a half hearted manner, which he read as the polite way of saying ‘I can’t believe you would knowing take me for a meal in a place like this’.
‘Come on let’s keep moving’ he replied and led her away.

He could feel that they hadn’t known each other long enough, not for him to have to impress her still. It annoyed him as he hated the tradition scenario of bloke meets bird, takes her out for expensive meal in trendy restaurant, spends a fortune, while the less than rich conversation ever dwindles. Then each week the setting becomes more minimalist and sparse, neatly mirroring their relationship.
For Jack the test of a relationship was this: with simple surroundings, simple food and simple atmosphere there was nothing else but what he and Sarah would bring to the place and create themselves. If they laughed and talked the whole meal through with little regard for their surroundings and food, it proved a romantic point for Jack: that they needed nothing else but each other. Maybe at this stage they needed a few more props to help things along, but maybe this stage was the only stage they would ever play on.

As they passed cafes and restaurants of various culinary origins, he uttered their names in a suggestive exclamation, the cadence of his voice inviting a response. A more and more passed by and they grew yet more cold and hungry, the tone subtly turned to more of a question, more of a pleading, passing the responsibility over to Sarah. ‘I don’t know really’, was the best he could get from her. After what seemed like hours of walking around from place to place, viewing the ubiquitous light box menu that resided outside the front door, it became clear that there was no where and no type of food that Sarah particularly wanted. The basic food was too unappealing, the exotic too risky and untried, and they were now both so cold and miserable that they couldn’t think, and just lying down where they stood to quietly pass away seemed like the best they could hope for.
‘What do you want to do? Jack asked.
‘I don’t know, but I’m freezing cold’ Sarah said, shivering as they stood there. Jack held her close and rubbed her arms. He looked over her shoulder across the street and spotted a familiar looking place that might have to do, and they quickly walked over to look at the menu. There were combination of very affordable and recognisable dishes; there was surely something for every one here, even though it might not taste that nice. Jack noted that it was quite full and that meant a good atmosphere, something that would now be required to get them back on track.
They went in, ‘table for two please’ Jack asked the ‘foreign student’ looking man behind the bar. ‘One moment sir’ he replied, it looked full but the man sounded confident. ‘Yes, downstairs please, to the left’, he gestured after a nod from his colleague. Jack hadn’t seen downstairs and thought it a bit of gamble, but kept his hopes high, he had little else.

They descended the steep, narrow staircase and Jack imagined a dark cold cellar with a couple of tables reserved for the dregs that they didn’t want to be visible from the window. To his relief he heard the chatter of people and clinking of cutlery. It was much smaller than upstairs and rather utilitarian, their waitress pointed to a table against a wall, Jack opting for the seat nearest the open kitchen door. Neither of them was impressed, but they were both too cold and hungry to move on. As they surveyed the paper menu, a cold draft chilled Jack’s back and added to his uncomfortable mood. He looked across at Sarah, as she apprehensively gazed down at the food on offer. She wasn’t in the mood for anything much, even conversation was proving difficult tonight, so he started making suggestions to help her decide. Eventually she came to a decision and they both ordered. Jack noted how unadventurous her choice was, which only added to the overwhelming feeling of the mundane he was suffering.

On top of this he also noted that this was a cash only establishment, and with all the stress of finding a place to eat he had forgotten to avail him self of the necessaries, so another premature trip into the cold was necessary. This would mean leaving Sarah alone at the table for a few minutes, a cardinal sin for any man out with a woman, and she did not look at all happy at the prospect when he mentioned it. Jack had with a past date not left a table for a whole evening of eating and drinking, and had to watch with some desperation as his date for the evening left to relieve herself several times during the course of events, as his discomfort grew into pain and distraction and the possibility of pissing himself. He had considered sneaking off when she went, so as they would not know and be left at the table themselves, but the possibility of returning to find their coats and bags pinched, and the most embarrassing moment of his life, far outweighed his immediate predicament at the time.
Jack had no alternative and bounded from the restaurant and ran down the road. As he collected his bounty and zigzagged through the busy street, he felt a sense of heroism about his manly gesture and the vigour with which he applied himself. Like a knight on a horse returning to rescue his maiden from her solitary confinement, it consolidated his position within their relationship.

It was only momentary as all hope left him upon his return; Sarah was on her mobile phone. ‘Ok yeah, well I don’t know. Ok well I’ll see you Wednesday and we will sort it out then. Ok see you, bye.’ Jack sensed her uneasiness at his appearance, and how she had hurried off the phone. He sat back down and she immediately broke into some chirpy distracting conversation that had sadly not been present all evening. ‘What did he want?’ he asked bluntly, cutting her short and barely concealing his suspicion. ‘Who?’ She replied. ‘The man you where just talking to’ said Jack.
‘How do you know who it is?’
‘Well am I wrong?’
‘No’ she replied.
‘Then who was it?’
‘My ex, as I am sure you’ve already guessed’
‘Why does he keep ringing you, is it really necessary?’ he asked.
‘Oh, he wants to know when I’m going to put some money into his account, I keep trying to put it off’ she replied.
‘Don’t give him anything, you don’t owe him anything’ he said.
‘Well, I’ll see, I don’t know’
To Jack she didn’t seem that bothered about the situation, certainly not as bothered and hurt as he was, and this disturbed him more. He wanted to be on her side, and her to be on his, yet she seemed neutral, even happy to be speaking to him, she was certainly more talkative than before her phone conversation.
‘Well I have to get on with him, so he takes my name off the mortgage.’ She explained. This grey area made sense to Jacks mind but his heart saw things in black and white, and this had definitely turned in to a black area.

The food came to the table and not a moment too soon. Jack had something to gaze at and work on, avoiding Sarah’s concerned and questioning eyes, she had sensed his unhappiness. He started eating, though his appetite was long gone, and picked at the overcooked vegetables that required little or no mastication, as he was already choking on the questions he needed to ask her before they exploded inside him.

Sarah was eating too now, but like Jack her efforts were merely a time passing distraction. The situation felt like a film to Jack, two people solemnly eating their meal in silence, avoiding each other’s gaze, unable to converse as the tension slowly builds. He was living that scene so familiar to everyone, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to break from it. He was waiting for a question, he wanted to be invited to express his feelings, he feared the worst for the replies he might receive if he asked any of the pertinent questions running amok in his head, and he would need prompting to stop acting out this scenario.

‘What’s wrong?’ Sarah broke the silence looking at Jack with a questioning frown. He looked at her green eyes, they were kind and soft looking, and it always melted his defences when he saw them. Jack went to reply but the words failed him, he sighed deeply and looked away. He wanted her to know, but preferred the idea of her instinctively understanding how it must feel to him, and to support him in that moment, instead she looked at him concerned but unaware. ‘ I don’t know it’s… it’s difficult to explain’ he said. He paused and lit up a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled with a sigh. ‘I’m fed up with all the interruptions to our relationship from people and situations outside. We get things really nice between us and for a while I believe it’s just you and me and nobody else, and then this happens again.’ Sarah looked at him for a moment longer and then at her food. ‘I know’ she said, ‘but you know the situation it’s nothing new.’
‘Yes but I never thought it would go on so long, and that makes me question a lot of things about us’.
‘What things? What do you mean?
‘Things I took for-granted but now I’m not so sure of anymore’
‘I don’t understand?’
‘Well it’s not unusual for two people to feel differently about each other, it’s just that I thought we felt the same’
Sarah spoke into her food ‘well I’ve told you how I feel about you.’

Jack felt she wasn’t forthcoming with her feelings, not in the way he had hoped, she seemed very cool and unaffected. This furthered the widening of the gulf that was suddenly opening up between them; he was feeling far from composed as he felt the foundations they had built crumbling beneath him. Jack poured himself another glass of cheap red wine, lit up a cigarette and drank from the glass, he felt the occupational aspects of these keeping him together. He drew deeply and looked at her long and hard. ‘It’s just I see subtle changes in the way you talk to him, I hear you say one thing to me about how you feel, and then you seem to do another. I hear what you say but you don’t actually tell me much.’ Sarah hadn’t looked up yet was pushing the food around on he plate nonchalantly. ‘ I don’t see what there is to discuss, what can I say?’
‘How about the way you feel about me, have you ever felt this way before about someone?’ Jack asked finally. The question had been burning up inside him for a while now, and more time that passed the less likely it seemed he would be receiving the answer he hoped for. ‘I don’t know really’ she replied ‘I wish you wouldn’t ask me to compare you to other people’
‘If you have to think about it then I already know the answer. It’s a pity because I haven’t felt this way before’
‘Well I can’t remember how I felt before, I don’t know, does it matter?’
‘I don’t want to be just the next in the line for you, just the next person you live with, if I’m only that then I could be anybody, and I’m much more than that.’ It was too late for Jack, his head flushed with blood and he was burning with upset that was turning in part to anger. Everything came down to language for Jack, feelings are powerful things, but he believed it was words that ignited them or snuffed them out, language that conjured them from nothing and them give them form and direction. They had exchanged many words before, proclamations, and affirmations of love that Jack remembered because of their significance to him. Yet they were inconsistent in their nature, and he could never therefore be sure of them, and anchor himself with them like he would want to.

Shaking he reached into his back pocket and placed some money on the table, Sarah watched on with a slow realisation. ‘I gotta go’ he said. She looked at him, said nothing and looked away. Jack slowly got up and reached for his coat, he watched her as he gathered himself, giving her time to say something that might resolve the situation, but she avoided his gaze. He passed her and something bit hard inside him that made him want to go back, but he pushed on up the stairs, past the cheap reproduction prints on the wall and out the front door.

Jack went straight home to his place that night; he was feeling sick and tired. He thought that if Sarah had something to say then she would call, more to the point if she wanted to save the relationship, then she would. Sarah left the restaurant soon after Jack and headed home. She thought about calling Jack but thought he would be too angry and he wouldn’t want to talk to her. If he wanted to speak to her then he would call.

Jack woke early, his eyes were heavy, and his head felt tired like it hadn’t switched off all night. He pulled his curtain slightly ajar and squinted up at the sky, he needed to get out of the city, go somewhere else, anywhere so long as he could rest and think. He headed for a train station once again, and on the way found the enclosed structures, the intrusive language and lights, all competing for his attention, clawing at him and filling his head with unwanted shit. During the everyday, he had adopted a shutting out process which involved looking without the conscious absorption of the matter around him. This technique required practice and concentration, and as such created an unnatural tension in the senses and mind for Jack, but there was already too much tension and it failed him that morning, leaving him dizzy and weak, he felt a victim of his surroundings and just like everyone else.

He reached the station and brought a ticket heading to Brighton, the thought of fresh air, blue sky and sea had an appealing cleansing notion about it, a sort of convalescence. Maybe Jack would wander in to one of the old peoples homes and settle down, it was inevitable, so starting early couldn’t hurt. He settled in to his train seat and felt better already, he liked the fact he was about to travel for some time and that absolved him of all responsibility for having to do anything for that time. The train headed off and he gazed out of the window not really looking at what was passing in front of him, he was instead looking within himself, as he did most of the time. He woke from this state as if from sleep and focused on some houses in the far distance that caught his eye as they moved slowly from left to right. He could feel his eyes stretching like limbs that had been curled up awkwardly for hours. The pleasure that rushed through them was intensely freeing for his mind. He had to concentrate though for his mind was still drawing him back inside himself, but as he registered more of the beauty there, and kept focussing on the distance, his mind stretched with his eyes.

The sun was rising slowly and bathing the train and all the landscape contained in brilliant yellow-orange light. It was still just winter and the coolness of the air was keeping it crystal clear, no summer haze to diffuse the lights brilliance. Everything was sharp and available for his eyes to feast on, which were soaking up the sublime treats.

The sun grazed down the side of the fast moving train, turning the dirty windows into glowing orange light boxes that flicked on and off. He caught that glow full in the face and felt relaxed in its intermittent warmth. The windows were open but the carriage was still warm, the more than adequate heating providing the luxury of fresh air and warmth, set to near perfect ambiance. This gave the illusion of a much warmer day, and combined with the clear cobalt blue skies and lush yellow light, he was taken to a different place and time; Jack forget where he was and who he was, as he sipped tea from his polystyrene cup. It felt like a very English day out, he imagined he was returning from a summer trip out to the countryside, it was still warm, and people were chatting about their experiences as the warm light splashes upon them from outside. For those few moments he was completely suffused with the moment, the pleasure of the here and now and everything it had to offer.

© Robert Cooper September 2002

Beauty and Innocence?

Photographing the commonplace

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