He kept dreaming that he took a wrong turning onto an empty motorway, and was sucked forward by the emptiness, faster and faster, a danger to no-one because no-one was there. The dreams stopped when Jackie appeared. She wasn’t jaywalking in his dream. Actually he’d been drinking alone in a bar again, not bothering to pace himself, no thought for the future. “Is it free?” she said, nodding towards the stool. He looked up at her – he’d seen her around the campus – then down into his pint, so she sat down anyway. “I’ve seen you here before. Wanna buy me a drink? Anything will do. Tell you what, I’ll share your next Guinness. Just ask for a straw. I’m Jackie by the way.” She held out her hand. When he didn’t shake it, she slipped it down his trousers.
They started hanging around together. He couldn’t really work her out. She knew so many people, yet she’d chosen to go around with him. Did she feel sorry for him, sex just an act of kindness? She said she was doing a multidisciplinary degree, which sounded more exciting than his geography. Did opposites really attract? She was full of enthusiasms and surprises. One night she said that her favourite Irish author was speaking in Nice. She’d never heard him talk about his works in French, she simply had to go. She asked him if he’d hitch-hike over with her. “Aren’t there cheap flights from Bristol?” he asked. “It’s not to save money, silly,” she said, “there’s the environment to consider.”
They got there after 6 rides, she chatting to drivers in French and German while he stared out the window. He was relieved when they booked into a hotel – he feared they’d end up on someone’s floor, or behind a hedge. The famous author spoke to a hall of about 20 through an interpreter, mostly about the IRA. After, walking through dark streets she picked up a traffic cone, held it to her mouth like a megaphone and spun round singing “All you need is Love.” She bought a pizza but wouldn’t let him eat it – she wanted it cold the next morning – they’d not paid for a breakfast. Cosy in bed that night he plucked up the courage to say that he wanted to learn more about her.
“So what do you want to know?” she said, rolling a cigarette with papers and tobacco she’d just bought. He’d never seen her smoke.
“What you’ve done with your life.”
“Oh, life model, blood donor – I’ve got special blood you know, – water diviner.”
“I only tried it to see if I was any cop. You never know until you try. If you can’t be beautiful at least be different.”
“But you are beautiful.”
“Tits like fried eggs. When I got fed up with pimply art students asking me out I worked in an Old People’s Home on Saturdays. Oh what fun we had. Snakes and Ladders, me rolling the dice for them and moving the pieces. And we played Hungry Hippos. We put 4 of them in wheelchairs head-to-head in a cross shape, gave them each a broom, and they had to drag little multi-pack cereal boxes from the middle. We were doing the pushing and pulling of course. The most exciting thing they’d done for yonks. Oh, I’ve done bucket-loads of things. The past – you can drag it along like a snail carrying its shell. I prefer to frisbee it away.” She picked her pillow up to show him what she meant, hurling it against the door.
“What do you want to be?” he asked. “Heard of Chaos Theory? They do it in maths. Small causes, big effects. Butterfly and hurricane.” She flapped her arms, blew in his face. “I go where the wind takes me.”
But he already knew that was a lie. He knew she was always heading for the borders, the grey zones, not to challenge simple rules (not speed limits – she couldn’t drive anyway) but the unwritten ones.
“Now I should ask you the same questions,” she said, “because that’s why people ask questions, isn’t it? But I won’t give you the satisfaction.”
After returning to Uni in one piece they didn’t see each other for a few days. He felt he’d come off a motorway and everything was in slow motion. He felt he’d gone from loner to socialite without the slog of finding friends. She’d introduced him to so many people – only a few words, but that was the hard bit. He could build on that. He nodded to people he recognized as they passed.
He had a cousin, Sue, at the same university. They met once a term to keep their families happy. They found an empty table in the Mandela coffee bar, she talking about her boyfriend John, he about his latest essay. Jackie suddenly appeared, sat on his lap, “Glad you got coffee,” she said to both of them, “Tea is for mugs.” She lap-danced, kissed him and walked out.
“That was a joke,” he said, when Sue said nothing, “Tea comes in mugs.”
“She’s on my course,” said Sue, “Sort of, anyway. She’s not allowed into lectures or seminars, she has to do everything by email.”
“She tries to sleep with lecturers. With anyone really. Are you two just friends?”
“We go out together sometimes.”
“Mum thinks you’re gay. Are you?”
He couldn’t sleep that night. Why him? he wondered again. To remind her that there’s always someone worse off? Just as he thought he’d understood her, she changed. She wore her life like a model the latest outlandish fashion, a different one each day. Holes where no holes should be. She was on the spectrum then slid off it. Everything – the motorways, the holes, the frisbees – were metaphors then real, his then hers. “It’s like a Mobius Band,” she’d told him once, “If you follow the surface you’ll end up in the other side. There’s nothing behind, nothing deep, nothing hidden. They do it in maths.” Could he spend his life with her? It would be like a game of draughts at first, her white pieces on white squares and his black ones on black. They could work things out eventually. Couples do. His parents would hate her though. And would Sue manage to keep quiet? No.
He and Jackie planned to meet on Friday in the campus plaza. He got there early, sat in his usual place under the clock. He watched her as she approached from afar. When she touched people’s shoulders they looked up, then away. When she greeted people, mostly they ignored her – even the boys. She reminded him of a beggar working through a carriage on the tube.
She sat beside him. She nudged him with her hip. “You don’t talk much do you? What’s up?” she asked.
“Got some bad results. If I don’t get the grades I need for the PhD I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“You’ll be ok,” she said, kissing him. “Don’t you ever worry about your work?” he said, “You never mention it.”
This was his plan. Either she came clean, or he’d end the relationship then and there. Even with his limited experience he knew that it wasn’t good for one person to be in complete control. Was it so wrong to want to know more about her? Didn’t he have rights? Could he cope with being alone again, just as he’d sorted his life out?
“Hey look, if it’s about that girl, don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not the jealous type. I’ll warn you though she’s going out with John the pile-driver.”
“Pile-driver?” “If you slept with him you’d understand.”
He’d expected her to do that – change the subject. She was going through a bad phase. He should be helping her, not thinking of dumping her before he became the laughing stock of the campus. “So what shall we do?” he said. “Tonight.”
A tedious Greek masterpiece put on by the Film Soc that night ended their affair. He couldn’t believe it had lasted only a term. For the rest of his life he remembered to talk more. He remembered to ask people the questions he wanted them to ask him. And holding his dying wife’s hand he remembered that there was always hope, that being alone was nothing to fear.
About the Author
Tim Love’s publications are a poetry pamphlet Moving Parts
(HappenStance) and a story collection By all means (Nine Arches Press).
He lives in Cambridge, UK. His poetry and prose have appeared in Stand,
Rialto, Magma, Unthology, etc. He blogs at http://litrefs.blogspot.com/