fiction, photography

HIS NEIGHBOUR

Chris R-0957 Image by Christine Renney

It struck Thomas as odd that he wasn’t repelled by his newest neighbour, who was very eccentric and extremely loud, the type of person Thomas had always gone out of his way to avoid. Strangely, he found himself drawn to the man and didn’t mind getting caught out on their communal landing or on the hard standing in front of the main entrance doors.
Thomas would happily stand alongside this man and talk, although he wasn’t required to do much of that. All he really needed to do was listen and nod along, getting the occasional word in whenever he could and often he would laugh because his neighbour was funny. Thomas had decided it wasn’t so much what the man said but how he said it. He had a gift for language, a way with words. It was as if he were reciting dialogue written by a talented playwright. And his outlook was slightly slanted and a little anarchic and Thomas enjoyed listening to him and looked forward to their encounters.

His wife had always found time for people like this man, the loners and misfits, the one who stood apart from the crowd. She had been more than polite, taking the time to talk and engage with them. Time and again, Thomas had found himself trapped alongside her, uncomfortable and mute. He had started to wonder if she wasn’t becoming a little eccentric herself and was readying to join their ranks. He realised now that he wouldn’t have minded if she had, that he would in fact have embraced it. And here he was, once again, standing with his newest neighbour, listening and laughing.

Thomas decided it was time to move this relationship, their friendship, to the next level. Half turning, and motioning toward the door to his flat he said, ‘Why don’t we go inside and I’ll get us some tea and we can make ourselves more comfortable.’
Turning again he realised that his neighbour had stopped talking and that, amazingly, he was lost for words.
‘Oh, ah,’ the neighbour spluttered, ‘that’s very kind of you but I’m far too busy. I have things I need to do.’
He was backing away and delving into his pocket for his key. Reaching his own door he looked back.
‘Thank you but no,’ he called, ‘perhaps another time.’

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fiction

STASIS

Chris R-0352 Image by Christine Renney

On the day that she left she took only her clothes. She pulled our long unused suitcases from beneath the bed and I was impressed by how swiftly she managed to empty her wardrobe.
As she began to pack I didn’t doubt that everything would fit. She wouldn’t leave anything, only the discarded hangers, which she threw into a corner, a pile that grew ever more twisted and tangled.
I noticed her watching me as I watched her and I stepped back on to the landing and waited for her out there.
She struggled on the stairs with the first case and I follow her with the other. I set it down on the front step and, closing the door, I waited, watching through the frosted glass until she came back for it.

Over the course of the next few months she took back the rest of her belongings, just a few at a time. I have pondered over the years as to why she did this, if it was a misguided attempt to be gentle or out of necessity. Anyhow, she visited the house during the day whilst I was at work.

I imagined her, I still imagine her, deliberating over a particular picture on the wall or an ornament on a shelf. Sorting through the books and records and, although she took her time about it, eventually she had taken everything and I am now left with just the basics.
There are curtains at the windows and carpet on the floor. I have cutlery, crockery, pots and pans but no kettle. I have the cooker, fridge freezer and washing machine. There are sheets and towels in the airing cupboard and I have a bed for sleeping and sofas to sit on. The stereo and the television were hers and these were the last to go.
When she was done she posted the key. For weeks I left in on the mat, moving it around a little each time I collected the mail until, at last, I placed it at the centre of the mantle, above the electric fire and there it remains where the carriage clock used to sit.

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fiction

Stranger

Is this your girlfriend? The guy at the next table asked me loudly in one of those booming broadcast voices, pointing at her, as if she couldn’t answer for herself and was some kind of stranger even though she was clearly sitting with them, clearly sitting and smiling, and clearly smiling at me when I looked at her not so clearly like he’d asked me to identify a set of keys he’d found on the floor. She had blondish hair, soft features, a sweet smile with slightly too-big front teeth, and classic curves, I remember thinking, odd thought, thought it just like that, classic curves, and I was pretty sure she wasn’t mine, but she did look like a girl I saw in a dream one time so I took the bait and told him so.

Ah! Dream girl! AHAHAHA! No no, that’s not what I meant, not at all, but he was too full of toothy guffaws and eyeballs to hear my feeble clarifiers so they got left dangling and I gave up and laughed a little, just some, to mold to the mood a bit, I’d say, a little uncomfortable because he seemed a little like the relentless type and I had no interest in being hung out to dry, friendly-like or otherwise and thought that thinking who knows where this might go was nothing but a weary cynic’s rhetoricism.

It was probably 4-ish in the afternoon on a cold, overcast day, at the big café on the corner there, the one where that diagonal crosses perpendiculars to make six and no one knows when to turn or where to look when they do. And when I say cold I mean not jack frost in your face but old man hiver with the north wind freezing you from the inside out with each breath you take through numb lips and stiff nose. North because it’s cold up there.

Four of us, there were, to go with the time, my friend and I and an acquaintance and the acquaintance’s ladyfriend who was more like an acquaintance squared, if I math’d it—we’d just met her, were meeting her for the first time, maybe the last. She wore a pink coat and smelled like marshmallows, I thought, and I wondered how he found her, then thought maybe by scent because maybe he likes marshmallows. How little I really knew about him, faintly surprised at how little I cared.

We’d paid our bill by the time of mr. loudbusiness, as had he and his, and we sat, lingering, talking small-ly, coats on as if in preparation, and the boisterous one just had to jump in and make us nine with his five—himself, a couple other guys who seemed straight out of a clockwork orange, a girl with pigtails, grown girl with grown girl pigtails, and my “girlfriend,” who was by then engaged in an elaborate process of bundling up to what must’ve been twice her actual size and I wondered if she was Russian. Not because of the bundling, though, just because. Maybe it was the accent in her smile and the clockwork boys.

Thing was, I’d just finished getting mad at my friend and our squared acquaintances, so maybe the mouth had stopped talking long enough to hear me, us, and that was his in, when I flipped out in an animated but uncrazy way in the middle of a conversation my table’d been having about not love (in its magnificence) but relationships (in their banality), and he—my part-known friend—had taken to joking and teasing me about my apparent indifference, my unwillingness to Put Myself Out There, which, yes, I heard as a bad title to an even worse book that I wondered if maybe I should write for purposes of fame and riches, to hell with dignity. And I let go of my stoicism and let them have it, tracing my words out angrily on the table like they’d be etched there for the record.

And so we got up to leave and so did they and so we ended up leaving together, the two groups linked by his simple tease, the common bond of banter, and with the subtraction of our head count we all but cleared the place and I realized on our shuffling departure how empty it had been and how much space he managed to occupy with his booming broadcast relentlessness, and how blind I’d before him been with my first silent then outward aggravation.

We stood out front for a moment by one sixth of the corners to say farewells and chat like strangers do, searching the moment for the unsaid signal from the angel of dispersal before he gave me a congratulatory shoulder slap and “eh?” combo and I wondered what I’d won, with no idea what had just been said before. I smiled and laughed again anyway, more freely this time because we were on the outside then and I could run if I wanted, into traffic if I wanted, in front of a bus if I could find one, so I let him have whatever fun he was having while the magnificent nine shivered and shrugged and rubbed their hands and squinted in the wind and coats ruffled and breaths condensed and vaporised and the mumbled talk that we dragged with us from inside had shrunk even smaller with the influx of weather and strange strangers merging two separate into one single midst was chopped through chattering teeth.

The angel did at last descend and he and his mates and I and my friend (our acquaintances had already gone on their way), began to separate, our brief communion stretching like melted mozzarella, making me wish more than ever for a knife, even just a fork, either of which I felt might then and there serve several purposes. But she and the grown pigtail girl—who appeared to know her better than the clockwork fellas did—came along with us, fiend and I. They just came along. No invitations, no acknowledgement, we simply started to cross the street in our direction and they joined. You kids have fun! AHAHA! the boisterous one called out over his shoulder, and I waved a goodbye that was more of a good riddance, even though I kind of liked him when I was leaving.

The girls walked with us for a couple blocks before I politely took my leave and drifted off the way I tend to drift away and she gave me a wink that I missed. My friend grinned devilish and we exchanged a quick nonverbal in the midst of audibly saying ok see ya later ok yep and he continued on with the two girls ever so predictably, bundled curves and pigtails, while I went back to the old flat we were staying in, sharing, I should say, sharing so he could look for a job and I could look for ways to avoid one, just around the corner on a street that was almost always perfectly empty, and I thought as I walked both away and toward, chilled but not yet frozen, that the whole scene was like something from Dr. Zhivago, kind of around the beginning, and maybe she was Lara which definitely would’ve made her Russian unless she was the actress from the movie who was probably British or something.

He texted me not long after I got back to the creaky coldness of our beat up flat, probably an hour or so, saying some shit about how he was getting on smartly with her and I felt more stupid than jealous because I knew he was telling me I could’ve been in his shoes if I hadn’t been so stupid but what I really felt stupid for was thinking for a second that he was right. Which he was, but not how I mean it.

He came back late that night when I was taking a hot shower because I couldn’t sleep and my feet were iced. I heard the door slam and knew he’d been drinking and would probably barge straight into the bathroom to recount the tale of the past several wasted hours, hours I’d spent in some roiling combination of tossing and turning and trying to write a story, first on paper, then just in my head, then back on paper again, before my feet got me up. He’ll barge right in, I thought, right in, to make me uncomfortable and give himself something to do, which he promptly did, succeeding on both fronts. I told him to shut the door to keep the steam in and he said She gave you a wink when you left. Really? I totally missed it, trying for an unknown reason to sound like I cared, but for a second I must say I did forget how cold my feet still were.

There’s diversity in the mystery, he said, endless and seeming possible; details get tired, and then you do too. This girl is sweet, pretty, and other. Yes. I’m not thinking now on details. They’re really not attractive anyway, and I mean that philosophically. Not listening: You and I both, attracted to preliminaries and basics, then blanks get filled in and we get bored and/or annoyed, as much with ourselves as with them, he said,

and I knew right then and there that that was it for us, me and he and these non-entities, and all I wanted in the great wide world was to be left the hell alone.

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fiction

RESISTANCE

Chris R-1116 Image by Christine Renney

I make my way through a labyrinthine network of paths and alleyways. The blocks of flats are identical and even the decay is uniform; peeling paint on the weathered boards, rusty stains on the bricks from the leaking gutters, the graffiti repeating itself, the same tags and faded colours.
Most of the shops I pass are empty and no-one is at the centre of the parade. The Advocacy Bureau is closed. There is a hand painted sign above the door and I study the flyers and posters in the windows but none of the dates are forthcoming.
I move on, and walking alongside a wire mesh fence at last I find my way out onto a vast expanse of rickety paving slabs. It is more of the same here but the flat blocks are bigger and taller. It is deserted and desolate. It seems that living here is a covert operation.
The old woman is standing on the balcony and ranting. Her voice croaking and unfettered by humility. She doesn’t trust her flat, not since her husband died.
‘I don’t trust it’, she yells. ‘Not after all the trouble with the electric and the plumbing and the watermarks on the ceiling they remind me you know? All the time, you know what I mean?’
Her granddaughter is clinging to her skirt but now she pulls away, and begins to fidget.
‘He was so ill at the end’, her grandmother continues, but calmly now, and reaching out she places her hand on top of the girl’s head in an effort to still her.
‘He didn’t care, how could he like that?’
She moves to pull the girl close again but her granddaughter has stopped fidgeting and, for a few seconds, she stands firm and won’t be moved.

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poetry

Life in 100sqft

I tell the driver
to go slow,
that I need
his backseat
to use
as a handkerchief.

But he tells me
that we’re right
around the corner,
and this
is the only light
in the way.

“But I can’t cry
at home.”
I say,
panicked.

Because all that’s waiting
are whitewashed walls
that I cannot sink into
and bottles
that refuse
to kiss back.

“Suck it up,”
is his reply,

“That’ll be $50.
Now get out.”

He doesn’t know the people
waiting,
the eyes,
I’ll have to face;
the ones I’ll fall into –
and not because they’re deep
but because they’re empty.

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