And the problem is not being sure as where is best to start. Before at least, I have always liked, or at the very least been almost comfortable with things running in something close to a natural order. As they transcribed, occurred, were placed before us as it were. To scramble it awkwardly just for the sake of doing so has always seemed pretentious, clawing and knowing, and not a little mawkish for my taste. And yet so then why do I feel such trepidation here, now in the telling of it. It’s not that complicated really. It doesn’t have to be. So we can at least begin by saying that the breadth of Charlie and Richard’s engagement, the sole culmination of their knowing one another in any real and tangible sense, would last exactly four times and four times only and then that would be it. That would be the end of what they were to share. They would never meet again, nor feel any of the sorts of inclinations that have one sitting up at night, composing lengthy and unreadable emails at two in the a.m. or running various online searches engines to the bone to see what the other person was filling their hours with, where it was that they were existing, how out there in the world otherwise unoccupied by yourself it was that they were living, contained in their own and private lives.
The cap to their engagements was one not out of a prescribed choice or any real conceived avoidance; at least I don’t think so anyway, from why both have told me, discussing one another at separate places in their own various expository revelations. Their time together was simply up, had run its emotional course. And so if not too trite and obvious an approach, it seems only pertinent to begin with their first encounter, which if you’ll allow me to side-track myself for a beat here, took place in a house that may or may not have been abandoned.
That the family had moved out was true. That they had left two sets of identical keys with their neighbours and never come back. The house was small, but fairly clean, its window frames perhaps not painted, yet had not splintered either. It contained all of the necessary parts that a school assignment pictured house might well contain, in that it had symmetrical windows and a door, all topped off with a gently pointed, slanting roof. It contained all of these things, but little more. Within the immediate weeks that followed, different groups of socio-culturally-similar kids came over and occupied all of its rooms, used it to party in, stay over and crash. They slept in its beds and emptied the rest of the furniture out onto the backyard’s pawed over soil where it became rain damaged and gradually developed its own constellations of rich, teal green mould. The house soon began to look dishevelled and tired, now resembling the kind of school-assigned picture that leads an emotionally nurturing, if not a bit too fragile in their own personal self, teaching assistant to call the young artist’s home, just to check in and to talk.
Charlie’s mother had been given one of the spares to the front door, a rust coated pin tumbler of a key, whose spiral link was personalised with a small red plastic lion suspended in a dome of translucent gel. Within in a week the key had become obsolete, a purposeless thing, for the lock was broken from off the door and the hallway left open to the elements and anyone who wanted a place to sleep in or just to hang. That she made a comfortable profit from selling small cling film wrapped blocks of gummy hash to the steady incoming stream of teenagers made her less inclined to interfere. The smell of these small brown stock-cube sized bricks patterned the house’s now mostly empty rooms, while the charge on the electricity card was rapidly run down, while the more entrepreneurial visitors began to remove anything valuable still left in the walls.
It was with one of these roaming parties, late on a Saturday afternoon in early June, that Richard came out to the house, amid the stoned complaints of his friends for having been dragged so far out from the city. Having had to leave their centre, taking a bus and then not too short a hike into the suburbs, they had been lured so far away from their usual spot by the promise of a place to stay where they could smoke and drink and generally be left alone. But I’d like to pause here and, I don’t think that he would mind me telling you this, but so then at this time Richard was not the most extroverted even within his small, contained party of friends. It would not be untrue to say that adolescence had not been kind to him. That it had decorated his face more than most, proscribing him with a seriously heavy dose of clinically threatening, social awkwardness. That he was a little too heavy set, more fat than round around the waist, had also left him with the profound desire to remain comfortably in the vague middle distance when out on the weekends with the others, in someplace partially out of focus and that not that much in the central spotlight in any presentable way. That the cream he used to use to try and hide his scars gave his completion an unhealthy, Edwardian milky pallor that would reflect light not dissimilar to rough stage makeup when seen too close. Even then, as his acne continued to pulsate underneath, the blood pumping underneath his skin in its rhythmical, two-step beats, would remind him of its being there with an uncontrollable itching that would only be soothed and leave him alone when he had washed off the sweat-rich paste and was of course by then far from the company of others, free once again to feel less concerned with how he might be seen.
But Richard did still manage to be sociable, likeable to most, if perhaps at times conversationally a little numb, but as loyal a listener as to the point of giving way even to overt sincerity. He had a tendency to drink too much and too quickly and was often the first of his friends to fall asleep, yet being for the better part good natured they usually left him alone. He seemed less concerned as the others did, with alcohol as a social lubricant, as a way to continue and to control a good time. Instead he appeared to approach it more as a means to an end, and that end was usually sleep, or certainly being somehow away, separated from some part of himself that seemed to hold him back whenever anybody else was in the room.
So they had arrived at the house, bought two bricks of hash from next door and settled themselves in a room where there was still the wooden frame of a single bed. They had begun to crumble the hash into a joint when Jonny introduced them to his sister Charlie and her friends, who came in and joined them. Jonny had been a member of the group for the only the past few days, but was already becoming well liked, if watched with a little caution. He had taken the end of a ball-peen hammer to a wall of plasterboard in another of the rooms for no other reason than seeming to want to get everyone to laugh. And that his mood could shift with any given and often sudden change of the tide, going at once from gigglish laughter, to looking uncomfortable and pained, kept some of the crew on edge. But tonight he was sociable, and since he had good taste in music they had followed him out to Rodeal Drive where he had told them that there would be a house and a place to buy hash from at a family discount.
as the stories usually depicted him in situations of increasing intimacy, and what had begun as comic monologues, began to feel awkwardly tragic, as seeing himself gradually through the eyes of others, in a version of himself that he had steadily began secretly to wish he might leave behind
Charlie was her brother’s height, with a rounded face similar to his. And yet while both of them had grown out their hair, long enough that it traversed beyond their shoulders, hers was kept cleaner and less knotted than her counterpart, whose tended to tangle up in fraught and clustered waves around his neck. Charlie and her friends joined the group and together they all shared the joint as the electricity meter finally ran out and someone from one of the downstairs rooms was sent to fetch candles. Richard sat with Brian and the two of them told the story again of how they had been at this one particular party when the fixtures bolted to the celling had come loose and how high on hot chocolate laced with mushrooms, Brian had later claimed to have seen the devil and managed to fall into the inner pocket of his coat. The pair as usual exaggerated the story just enough to make it entertaining, yet all the while able to keep it just about believable. At parties they did this regularly, telling stories usually as a means to sit in on others who had weed when they themselves had none. It was a practice that only some years later, Richard would come to learn how Brian had gradually been saddened by their retelling, as the stories usually depicted him in situations of increasing intimacy, and what had begun as comic monologues, began to feel implicitly tragic, as seeing himself gradually through the eyes of others, in a version of himself that he had steadily began secretly to wish he might leave behind.
As the conversation ebbed and groups moved into their own and more private circles, Richard sucked up the courage to talk to Charlie, to ask her about music, what she liked, whom she listened to, to ask her something fairly neutral and bland. He found himself agreeing with all of her choices, even when he did in fact not, and like most of the conversations Richard entered into, he stayed for the better part quietly listening, preferring instead to ask a few questions and then sit back. They talked about Alice Cooper, how she listened to him partially because her Dad had introduced him to her and how then so there was this resonance of something special, of a deeper more meaningful connection there. She expressed that yes sure this was a little corny, to be finding sentimentality in songs so loaded with 80’s innuendo, but that she really did like the hair metal sunset strip era all the same. That yes Jonny’s Roman nose could be argued to resemble Alice’s. Then as Richard began to roll another joint as Charlie excused herself to go and talk with her friends.
On the following weekend, when Richard returned to the house, a stranger would enter through the kitchen’s back door and build a fire on the linoleum floor that would melt the surface and leave the whole house in the smouldering gasp of molten plastic. Around midnight that Saturday evening, Jonny, Brian and Richard would all share a mattress in one of the other upstairs rooms, and after professing his newly found friendship for the pair Jonny, just as stoned as the others, would cry quietly when he believed them both to be asleep. That final night spent in the house would come to an end when the police were called over due to a fight between a couple that resulted in a few loudly broken windows, then Richard and Brian would try to depart as inconspicuously as possible, after having rescued their two grams of cheap, laxative heavy speed from under the bathroom sink. But all of this was yet to happen, and for the rest of the following hour after his conversation with Charlie, he just meandered from group to group, trying to summon the courage to talk to her.
I can tell you now that he did finally compose himself enough with the courage post-mustered that he found himself asking her if she wanted to share a joint with him alone. When she agreed the pair walked to the bathroom and locked the door, where they smoked and said very little to one another. When he finally asked if she liked him, asking more in that immediate way when at that age is the only possible way to do it, more of a question based on impulse, on a cavalry charge of blindsided hormonal feelings than any real knowledge of the girl that he was sitting next to on the edge of the bath, of who she was and what she herself might be feeling or experiencing, but still adolescently sincere in feeling it intensely all the same. She smiled with half of her lip and took his hand in his. She told him that she liked him, but was not in any sort of place ready to be with someone, but that he was sweet for asking so nicely. They finished their joint and returned to the rest of the party, where Richard drank too much and soon passed out asleep, while Brian talked with Jonny about what they planned to do after the following New Year.
And so then in keeping with the chronological telling of things, the second time they came to meet, was on a late morning in mid-September two years on, when Richard had just quit his first real job and was enrolling back to education, having to move boxes of semi-finished books and well-worn clothes into Brian’s first story floor bedsit, no longer able to afford the rent for a place of his own. The two of them climbed off the bus and navigated the road leading them into a village that seemed only slightly familiar. When Brian asked, Richard confirmed that they had indeed been out here once or twice before, but that this was not the place, no not the place at all. It happened elsewhere, Richard said, I don’t think that we had ever been there with him. They found the veteran’s memorial statue for the village where they had been told to meet and waited for the others to arrive, smoking cigarettes as they did so, Richard attempting to tighten the dangling cuffs of an obviously ill-fitting, newly bought suit.
Once the others had assembled, they made their way to the church, where they stood outside, allowing the family first inside. They took seats near the back and listened to the eulogies given first by the vicar and then by members of Jonny’s family. There wasn’t a photo up by the podium, but on the back of the photocopied prayer sheets was a grain-diminished picture of what looked to be John in a school uniform. They played a few songs on the Church’s stereo system, songs that Jonny had never told them that he particularly liked, and then it came time for the precession to make its way up the hill and enter the cemetery. The weather that day was cool, not quite damp but dew-clotted, and the ground underneath the procession of formal dress shoes gently gave way, as each mourner made sure not to lose their footing when walking up the grass incline.
By the gravesite there were wreathes and a few postcards. Both Richard and Brian left folded small notes neither read out aloud nor allowed anyone to read. The vicar spoke for a while, then Charlie stepped up and was the first to say goodbye. Before she could, her body collapsed beneath her and she had to be held up and supported by two cousins. And she cried. She would have clawed at the ground if they had let her. The family moved her away as others came past and poured handfuls of earth onto the casket, and then it was done. The precession made its way back down the hillside and towards a local restaurant, where inside they sat down and forgot for a while how to speak to one another.
When the food arrived, people picked at cold sandwiches, ordered drinks from the bar, and smoked cigarettes while standing outside nearby the entrance. Brian talked to Jonny’s cousin, about how nobody ever knows what to say at funerals, so they always just seem to discuss the food. Richard walked across the room to find the table where Charlie was sitting, still supported by her mother and bought her a drink of vodka and coke and the two sat near one another, mostly silent and mostly alone. By the stalls to the restrooms, they hugged and shared a cigarette. Then Charlie left with the rest of the family, separating from the straggling remainders of the group, while Brian and Richard bought a pint of whisky for the bus ride home, and then walked back through the puddled streets, the rain having fallen during the long afternoon spent in the restaurant, with the clouds still somehow managing to maintain. I talked to Charlie, Brian said. They’re planning a reunion, next year. That is, to meet every year I think. We should go. It’s important, I don’t know. But we should be there. Richard nodded and replied. We should.
The job involved the renovation of commercial properties left to decay. The charity would buy up the venues and then bring in a handful of volunteers and some minimum wagers who would then gut, clean and refurbish the halls, bar rooms and hotel suites, turning them into hairdressers, nail salons and art galleries. For Richard, this meant first the removal of all objects left behind; in taverns it would be glassware, stools and circular tables, in hotels books and inventory cabinets. Following this came his most disliked activity; the ripping up of old carpet, wherein the dust would ignite in plumes about the room, and if not 100% diligent in the wearing a mask at all times, he would swallow up lungful’s of corroded carpet matter and his heart would race and he would vomit. Even if carefully masked, the smell of the soiled carpets would stick to him for days. Always while in the initial stages of any site, Richard would wear industrial gloves to search in wardrobes and storage lockers, removing neatly hidden boxes of syringes and cooking kits. By the third stage the walls would be sanded down and repainted, and the occupants of the newly constructed second-hand bookstore were omitted the knowledge of the spewed cold-turkey human excrement that Richard had hose blasted from off the walls. At the weekends, he met Brian and they would go to the regular bars. They drank and moved across tables, occasionally ending up on one another’s sofas sleeping loudly underneath cotton blankets with legs upturned over armrests.
They talked of ambitions failed, or of those that were never undertaken. They discussed their hopes for the future, all of which I feel would be too imitate and personal to every mention here, and I’d rather do them the curtsey of leaving those conversations private, allowing them to have that, even if failing in my task here to you.
So then, the third time came as he was sitting outside by the smoking section door, resting on the steel staircase, breathing momentarily from the generic
heavy metal sounds that reverberated from inside, and she came and sat by his side, pinching his arm. You look different, she said and he smiled. They sat and brought out new drinks. And when the rain came in they moved indoors and stood against a wall, the conversation thinning against the music. She was, even still, a head and a half beneath him, seeming not to have grown much in the intermittent years. And while the two of them had both filled out with the weight that comes with years of growing older, she had held out against it better, letting it cushion her thighs, her chest less visibly swollen and protruding like that of Richards, whose gut even when layered up underneath a t-shirt, hoodie and jacket still lurched forward, embarrassing him every time he moved in public spaces.
They met the following week in a different bar and talked mostly of similar things. That spoke on inconsequential things in a conversation that both of them had looked forward to for most of the week. As they imbibed, they began to discuss the years in which they had not seen each other. They talked of ambitions failed, or of those that were never undertaken. They discussed their hopes for the future, all of which I feel would be too imitate and personal to every mention here, and I’d rather do them the curtsey of leaving those conversations private, allowing them to have that, even if failing in my task here to you. I hope you understand, and if so do, forgive me. The third week they met, after drinks once again they climbed into a taxi together and went back to Richards, a bedsit located in a neighbourhood lived in mostly by students, the era dominated by Victorian townhouses cut up into small, one-person rooms, each with a bed and a sink and sometimes a mirror. Here they poured drinks that they drank from rinsed porcelain mugs, till eventually they fell asleep on the bed fully clothed. In the morning it was she that awoke first, but as to who it was who kissed the other I am unable to say. That they did so tentatively and with not too little trepidation, and that when undressing in front of each other both of them felt more than physically naked and for brief fleeting seconds in the moments that followed ashamed, I am able to state, for again both have been candid and so it seems the feelings were mutual if still ever so slightly protective. They made love twice on that Sunday, with the hours of morning undisclosed behind curtains. It was around eleven in the late morning, when she reached over for her cigarettes and began to roll them both a joint from a small brick of stale and overly crumbling hash. Your mother still sells that? He asked her. Sometimes, not so much, have you seen Brian? He’s selling industrial scaffolding. Says his boss is a crook. That doesn’t suit him, she said, handing him the joint. You never came to the anniversaries. I saw him there, but never you. It didn’t feel right. I’m sorry. You’re allowed feel confused, she said. So do I.
They lay in bed together, their breathing almost aligned. When the afternoon came, she got dressed and he followed. Her shirt was stained from the night before, so he gave her a plain white t-shirt to wear. She placed it ill fittingly over her head, as her elbows disappearing almost up its sleeves. I haven’t had this in a long time, she said, this was nice. It was, he added. I think so too.
And then so it leaves me only the fourth time that Charlie and Richard met left to discuss, but in that there is little to say. I’m not even sure that I wish I could offer you anything more, in the way of a coda, a closing line, a reprieve from where it is that you are, or why you’re reading this. Why you’ve stuck it out this far. What I have is what they have both told me, nothing less and of course, with no fiction added and therefore, nothing more. The pair came across one another in passing on the street, in the middle of a day the date of which neither could remember. Richard’s eyes he believed were faced downwards, focused on rolling a cigarette, and when he looked up he saw Charlie, her arm interlocked with another of their mutual friends. He felt no animosity, no envy, no upset. And nor did she, from what she told me, she just saw him as he saw her, and so they hugged and paused for a moment to give one another. I think I have your watch, he expressed after asking how she had been. Your t-shirts ready for whenever you want to drop by. We’ll all be meeting up; this year once again, will you make it? I’ll try. It was good, seeing you I mean. It reminded me of something that I’d thought it’d lost; I had wanted to tell you that. And with that the pair had separated, each smiled and waved and walked on apart down the street. And though I’d like to manufacture something more here, as way of a tighter ending, a more fitting end stop line, what more really is there that I could say. This is all that each one of them ever told me, and both preferred to finish at this line. And so with that, I’ll honour them, and ask for no more of your time.