Archive for the ‘Stories (mine)’ Category

The Border

21/11/2014

An autobiographical piece about my visit to Prague when Inter-Railing in 1991

Maudlin-drunk in a hotel in a strange town, he dreamt of her thighs that night. Why her thighs, as opposed to any other part of her anatomy? Who knows. It was a dream, and unless you’re Freud, unknowable (though who’s to say the Freuds of the world have a monopoly?) Her thighs, white and plump (not fat), thighs he had never seen, except in some photo of her in shorts years ago. Plump and pale, unmarked, fleshy, lightly covered in downy hair. Nice to feel? The dream thought so. The thighs next to his on the strange bed, the warmth of her, and the feel of her breasts against him were a comfort. In the anaemic light of morning, he felt mildly sick. Maybe hungover; not that her thighs sickened him, just the way they had appeared, unbidden, and how he had called out to her in the darkness, and she’d ignored him. The thighs ensured that he woke with an erection, but he didn’t do anything about it. He swung his legs out of bed, and stood slowly, blinking at the mild dizziness. He splashed cold water on his face, and looked out at the sunless, grey Bratislava morning. The icy slap of the water revived him a little, and he dressed. There was a westbound train at eleven and he thought he might as well get it, though how far he hadn’t decided.

As he breathed in the coffee fumes and greedily drank down the bitter black liquid, he began to feel more awake. The dream faded from nauseating immediacy and became a bad memory, not yet quite forgotten. He thought about it as he chewed his toast. He hadn’t seen her for a few weeks, and seldom thought of her anymore. That made it more surprising. Or did it? He had felt a creeping loneliness in the travels of the last few days, and it seemed to come to a point yesterday. Alighting from the train, he was soon helplessly lost in the city streets. Several local people had tried to help, but their scanty English, and his non-existent knowledge of their language had rendered it useless. He had finally found his way to the accommodation office, then he bravely (or stupidly?) opted to walk to the hotel they had arranged. It was at least two miles, and needless to say, he was soon lost again. Eventually, he got there, thanks to a rather matronly woman at a bus stop who had pointed him in the right direction, over three hours after he had got off the train.

After a meal, he drank several bottles of beer, but instead of lightening his mood as he’d hoped, it had the opposite effect. So perhaps it wasn’t that surprising: she was something familiar, reassuring to think of, and the flight into lust had provided an escape. Not that he had ever seen her body in reality, though now he didn’t see her any longer, he didn’t feel as guilty about it. He’d been curious about her body when they were friends, and had enjoyed any chance glimpses of it: down her cleavage, or up her skirt, but he always felt bad about it. When they had parted on such unpleasant terms – he hadn’t taken the news that she was getting married very well, and a lot of hurtful things were said – he found that sexual fantasies were a way of erasing the hurt, though he still felt residual guilt. Even so, it had been a while since he had last thought about her, even as an object of lust, and he regretted his lapse, his weakness in calling out. He thought he’d been granted an exit visa from that state some time ago.

His spirits lifted a little as he shouldered his pack and set off down the long hill towards the railway station. Could this really be the same town as yesterday? His hangover had withered to a faint, occasional throb in his head, and the cool breeze was pleasant on his face. He had over an hour to wait, but it didn’t seem to matter. He sat and read the Kerouac paperback he’d brought. Very soon, he was absorbed in its story of hitching and hoboing across America, or living in a hut on top of a mountain for months as a fire warden. Every now and again, he looked up, but the station was quiet, and there weren’t many people about. After a couple of chapters, it was near eleven, so he put the book away, and stood expectantly. Shortly, the train snaked its way slowly into the station. He found an empty compartment near the front, and settled himself down for the five hour trip to Prague. One thing he had enjoyed about the past days travels was the consistent punctuality of the trains: it made a change from home.

The train set off, and he was content to merely sit back and stare out of the window. For the first couple of hours, the landscape was mainly rolling and agricultural, with plenty of trees. The train was an express, but ambled along at under 60mph most of the time, and ignored the numerous small stations. Gradually, it became more wooded and hilly, and the speed fell to a leisurely 40-45mph as the train crossed into Bohemia. Time was passing quickly, and he was enjoying the scenery and the solitude of the compartment. He seemed to become more anonymous; just sitting on a train somewhere, it didn’t matter where, and forgetful of everything else.

Along the more level ground of Bohemia, it began to rain. Perversely, this cheered him, and reminded him of home. During a station stop, he watched it flood out of the sky, pouring down the glass, and hammering onto a line of coaches parked in an adjacent siding. It bounced off the roofs with such violence it formed a cloud of mist above them. He wound down the window slightly, enjoying the crisp smell of the damp air. It was a relief after the heat of the previous days.

Just after four in the afternoon, the train reached the city. The grey sky and lingering drizzle gave it an unwelcoming look. After he had got an address from the accommodation office, he took a tram out into the suburbs. The room was only a few minutes walk from a tram stop, and after he’d settled in, he bought some food and beer. He lounged on the bed and watched some local TV, where he was amused to see an episode of Taggart overdubbed in Czech! Tonight, at least, he felt more cheerful, and the beer had a more positive effect.

He spent the next few days exploring the city, taking a tram from the post-war suburbs into the centre, with its miles of narrow eighteenth century streets and baroque architecture for which it is famous. A lot of the buildings were covered in scaffolding, and a number closed for restoration. Were it not for the noise and fumes of traffic, this place could almost be timeless. He found a path that wound its way to the top of Petr¡n hill, then he climbed the imitation Eiffel Tower that graced the summit. As he reached the observation platform at the top, briefly disorientated by the spiral staircase, he gasped at the view. There, several hundred feet below the city lay, basking in the sun under a blue sky, the river Vltava snaking its way lazily through the middle. The red tile roofs of the older buildings positively gleamed in the sunlight, and the breeze was pleasantly cool. He took a number of photos, then simply stood and stared in awe, scarcely believing that he was really here, in Prague. A city he’d read of, and seen in numerous documentary programmes and archive films. Here was a place where great historical events had happened: people had been flung from windows in the castle, sparking off wars, great composers had stayed here, the Nazi, Heydrich was assassinated here, revolutions had been declared, Russian tanks had gone onto the streets. Doubtless, great events had happened at home too, but he had never felt so close to them before.

There was so much to see, that even after three days he felt he had hardly started: he had seen the Little Quarter, the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, and Wenceslas Square. The sense of history had continually assailed him, despite the mass of tourists, and new trappings of capitalism, the burger joints and adverts for Coke. But he couldn’t stay any longer, to his disappointment: his ticket expired in a few days, and he didn’t want to get caught out. As he packed that night, he felt sad: the prospect of returning home wasn’t an appealing one: his poky little room in a depressing grey town where it seemed to rain nine days out of ten. A town that reminded him of her. It all seemed so banal and ordinary after all the places he had seen. There was a through train to Paris every lunchtime, taking eighteen hours, from where it was a straightforward run to the Channel ports, a ferry, then a series of rattletrap trains to his home town.

He drank a few bottles of the excellent local beer – that’s one thing he’d miss, and it was so cheap – and fell tipsily onto the bed. He didn’t feel too bad, though he was aware of the darkness of the other night drifting somewhere close. In an attempt to keep it away, he deliberately called her plump, white body to mind. She was wearing a thin summer dress, and her legs were bare. He drifted into sleep with her undressed and getting into bed, his moving over her, and making love to her almost desperately, as if he wouldn’t see her again.

He woke, hungover, at about nine in the morning. He’d slept soundly, and no dreams had troubled him. Even so, he again woke with an erection, thought this time he satisfied it to try and get the lingering thought of her out of mind. He breakfasted on coffee and the stale remains of a loaf he had bought the day he’d arrived. The tram was near full, so he sat with his pack on his lap and savoured the journey, even though the seats were only slightly more comfortable than concrete. On the short walk from the Main Square to the station, he had a last glimpse down Wenceslas Square, and he briefly recalled a newspaper photograph of a crowd of demonstrators facing a phalanx of helmeted riot police. He passed into the cool shade of the station by a side gate, pleased to find the Paris train standing at the nearest platform. He found an empty compartment, and waited. There was about half-an-hour before departure, so he resumed reading the paperback.

Eventually, the train set off. It, too, was an express, but like the others he’d been on, it also maintained a leisurely pace through the woods and fields of Bohemia. The passing scene made him regret he was leaving, he felt he’d like to walk through some of the woods and beside the streams. He’d read that a lot of the country’s rivers were so badly polluted they were sterile, and the forests were suffering from the effects of acid rain, though looking at them, it seemed hard to believe.

He had lunch in the restaurant car, which was a novel experience for him: at home, they had become the exclusive preserve of first class passengers. It was very pleasant to sit there eating his Prague ham, and sipping beer, watching the passing scenery. The low speed of the train added to the effect. Three hours after the train had set off, the customs passed through the train, even though the border was still forty minutes away. The Iron Curtain was supposed to have fallen, yet it seemed no-one had told them yet. They strutted about arrogantly, pistols strapped to their waists, peering suspiciously at everyone’s passports. There were three in all, and each demanded his passport. And it wasn’t just the quick glance it got in Western Europe, it was closely scrutinised, looking at the photograph, then at him, then at the photograph, then at him again, before returning the passport with what seemed to him to be thinly disguised reluctance. Are they doing it deliberately, he wondered, to make people nervous? He stepped out into the corridor to go to the lavatory. Immediately, one of the customs demanded his passport again. He sighed.

“You’ve just seen it,” he said in English, but to no avail. The man held out his hand with obvious impatience, and he handed the passport over once again. Oh, he thought, I obviously haven’t been granted a Toilet Visa, now be sure to stamp it correctly now, and when I come back, to make sure I don’t overstay. Unless there’s a shortage of loo paper, and they think I’m going to illegally take some out of the country, or use some of their currency notes. I mean, you’re not allowed to take them out of the country either, so you might as well put them to some use.

After examining the passport with the same suspiciousness, he handed it back with equal reluctance. Thank you, perhaps I can go now. At length, the border was reached at Cheb, where the train sat for thirty minutes doing nothing. It finally set off again and passed into Germany, where it stopped again for a further half-hour. An unsmiling German policeman in mirror sunglasses, hand resting on his pistol, breezed through the train, checking, yes, you guessed it, passports. He had the same suspicious demeanour as the Czechs had, though it was nothing compared to the Hungarians he’d seen a few days ago. They had the same Cold War attitudes, but they went further, armed with machine guns and sniffer dogs. They even opened the roof cavities of the train and peered in with torches, as if they were searching for any potential defectors. Frontiers seem to be more than a mere demarcation between this and that country, they’re places of barriers and seemingly mindless bureaucratic procedures, suspicious men with guns and sunglasses. They give small time officials their own little empires, the power over someone else, whether to let them in or out, or to refuse and turn them back. He remembered the old phrase about giving someone a uniform…

When the train finally did set off again, it went on a lot faster than before, though there were still over twelve hours before it reached Paris. He used the last of his Czech money in the restaurant car, and settled down for the boring part of the journey. He suddenly felt weary of it, and wanted the journey to be over, though there was still a long way to go yet. As the train headed north from Nuremberg, he watched a spectacular sunset fade into darkness. The prospect of seeing his home town again was not a particularly inviting one, yet it was familiar, and he had friends there. He’d probably feel relieved, maybe even faintly glad, when he finally reached home, though how long that feeling would last was uncertain. Once the old routine had reasserted itself, he’d doubtless hate it once again. There’d be reminders of her too, though he felt strangely confident that he could excise them. It suddenly didn’t seem too difficult, and he could see himself finally escaping, the border guard handing back his papers, opening the barrier, and him walking on down the road into the new country.

Twenty-four hours or so later, he finally reached home. He knew he was home, really home: all the trains were late and overcrowded, and the town greeted him with a downpour. He walked wearily through the ticket barrier and grinned at the weather. I could have gone to Mars and back, he thought, but the trains would still be late and it would still be raining. He sighed, relieved, and started the mile-and-a-half walk to the house.

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At The Foot Of The Hill

17/08/2013

When I was at university, I wrote a number of short stories. Looking through them now, I find most of them not really worth rereading so I wouldn’t consider putting them on here. This one is about the best of them, so I hesitantly include it. This was the last one I wrote, and dates from 1996.

Pete stopped the car and switched off the engine. He wound down the window and breathed deeply. The air out here was always fresher than the stale traffic-laden stuff he was used to back in the city. He glanced at his watch: he was early. He smiled. Nothing unusual there, being early was his idea of being punctual, even if it meant a long wait when he got there. He checked the map. Yes, this was the right place, one mile off the main road along the lane, the layby beside the canal. Of course it was right, they had been here once before, several months ago. They had only been friends then, had only recently graduated from acquaintanceship.

He smiled again. It still seemed unreal to him even now, if he stopped to think about it. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to the sounds outside. Apart from the darting swifts and swallows and a few other birds, it was very quiet. It wouldn’t be long now before they all vanished for another year, the first sure sign that summer was over. Already, it was a few weeks past the solstice, and the days were becoming noticeably shorter.

Enough. Enjoy it while it lasts. There were a couple of cottages a little further along the lane, but there was no one in sight. No cars had passed, and there were no barges on the canal. He looked towards the hill about a mile away over the rising fields. There was a village on its slopes, topped by the silhouette of a ruined castle. Along from it was a short array of rocky cliffs, then the land started falling again. The flanks of the hill away to his left were covered in woodland. He remembered walking up there once: the trees and the numerous shrubs were twisted and gnarled, like the fingers of a conclave of silent old men.

After the bustle and traffic of the city, the quiet out here seemed almost too loud. It was so easy to just sit there and simply listen to it, allow yourself to just drift off. So much so, that when something did come – a train, car, or plane – it was a surprise. You wondered where it had come from, what its business was, or even what it was.

He looked at his watch again. It was almost time, she would be here soon. He sighed contentedly. This would be the first time he’d seen her for a few weeks. Since her husband had lost his job, she had been working longer and longer hours to make ends meet. He reached into his pocket and took out her last letter. He had read it dozens of times already, and as he again ran his fingers over the paper, he tried to imagine her speaking, the warmth of her touch. He switched on the stereo and put a tape in. As the quiet opening bars of An Alpine Symphony filled the air, he looked in the mirror and finger-combed his hair.

Gradually, the music became louder as it described the passage from night, through the growing light towards dawn in the mountains. The scenery here was hardly Alpine in proportion, but alongside the Cheshire Plain, it was the next best thing. He heard a car and looked behind him and saw her faded blue Honda pull up. He practically leapt from the car and ran over to her just as the orchestra broke into the tremendous climax of brass and percussion – the Alpine sunrise.

She smiled as they hugged. “How are you?” she asked.

“Better now,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed. “It has been a while,” she said.

He just stood there and looked at her for a few seconds, happy that they were together. She took his hand and they walked to the canal and stopped on the bridge. A simple pleasure, he thought, being out in the countryside with someone you care about.

They crossed the canal and started along the path. It passed under the railway and started to rise towards the hill. It rose for about a mile then divided. They took the left fork and were soon climbing through the woods. The path was well worn, but there was more undergrowth than when he was here last.

“It’s good to be able to get out of the house,” Karen was saying, “after working all week I don’t want to be stuck in all weekend.”

“Is it still bad then?”

“Yeah, well, some of the time; Jim can be a bit possessive, asking where I’ve been.”

“Does he know about us?”

“No, at least I don’t think so.” She kissed him, “I don’t blame him really, losing his job and having to stay in all day. He’s a bit old-fashioned, he feels he should be the earner.”

“It sounds claustrophobic,” Pete said.

“It can be.”

“Well, you’re here now,” he said and they kissed again. Somewhere above, a rook croaked.

“Come on!” she said, and took his hand again and walked briskly on. The path soon narrowed, and they were ducking under overhanging creepers and brambles, not to mention the profusion of nettles.

“I’m glad I didn’t wear a skirt,” she said.

“I was just thinking the opposite.”

“Cheeky! You weren’t hoping I would get stung were you?”

“Now, would I?” he said innocently. “Mind you, if you were I could always kiss it better…”

“Yes please!”

The wood was quite dense by now, and were it not for the path being so obviously well-trodden, it would be easy to get lost. The density of the trees made it dark, and he was reminded of Tolkien’s Mirkwood. He almost expected a wood elf to pop out from behind a tree, bow at the ready, and ask what they were doing on his king’s land.

“I remember this place,” Karen said suddenly, “it was where we first, you know…”

He smiled. “How could I forget?”

It was several weeks go already. They had known each other for a few months by then as they worked in the same office. Lunch hours had coincided, and they had started talking. They met up a few times, and got to know each other, and she told him about the problems she was having at home.

Shortly afterwards, he got a better job elsewhere, but they kept in touch. It soon became clear that her husband didn’t like “strange men” phoning her, so they wrote instead.

One afternoon, they met at the castle on the hilltop. It was little more than a ruined tower, but “castle” certainly sounded more impressive. They walked down through the woods, and she told him that her husband had lost his job, so she was starting to work longer hours.

“So I won’t be able to do this as often.”

“I understand.”

“Oh you are good,” she said, hugging him suddenly.

“So are you,” he said slowly, and kissed her. She returned the kiss, slowly at first, then almost violently. He felt her hands moving over his back and legs, could feel the warmth of her body, the softness of her thighs under her skirt. They fell against the trunk of a great oak, tongues mingling. Her skirt was up and he felt the cool air on his legs as she pulled at his jeans.

Slowly, he sat up, watching as she pulled her pants back on and straightened her skirt. It was only seeing her do this, and the sight of her breasts as she buttoned her blouse that it really sank in what had happened. It was true, undeniably so, but did still seem too fantastic. He had never really thought it possible or likely that he and Karen would…Even if, backed into a corner, he might have admitted to fancying her (awful phrase!) Just a little.

Would it be okay, though? he thought suddenly. Would this moment of erotic abandon spoil things? He felt an abrupt chill at the idea. He looked at her. She was brushing grass out of her hair, her face unreadable.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “I’ve never done it outside before, au naturel.” She laughed. “Jim would have a fit if I ever suggested it, he always turns the light off at home.”

He couldn’t help smiling at this, and she kissed him. “I’m fine,” she repeated, “it was great.”

“You’re sure? This doesn’t change anything?”

“Not for me. Does it for you?”

“No. We’re still friends then?”

“Of course we are!”

“I’m sorry if I got carried away, I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s alright,” she said, “I think we both got carried away, but I don’t regret it. I hope you don’t.”

‘No.”

“Good. Though I want you to know I don’t do this all the time, this is the first time I’ve been with anyone else.”

“Thank you,” he said, “that makes me feel good. That you picked me.”

“I can’t believe so much time has passed,” she said, “that was weeks ago, and yet it feels like it’s only Just happened.”

“Yeah, it’s funny that,” he said, “how so much time can pass, and you don’t notice it, and can’t remember a lot of what you did in it.”

“Though sometimes it’s often not worth remembering.”

“Some of it anyway,” he said slowly, “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed lingeringly, and once again their hands moved ever each other as they slid into the grass.

When they lay still, he leaned back against the tree and stared up at the patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. There were only a few clouds, high altitude stuff, long thin wisps, vague and indistinct. It was hard to imagine these collections of ice crystals were probably several miles up, higher than any mountain and probably most airliners. As usual, he was quietly amazed at the whole process: how water evaporated by the sun found itself in the sky as clouds, high wispy ice trails, or the lower heavy stuff that could easily weigh five hundred tons, yet still stay up there, floating above everything, but inexorably joined to what was happening below. Then sooner or later it would fall back as rain, and the whole thing would start all over again.

He sat up. “You okay?” he said softly.

She straightened her dress, “I’m fine,” she said absently, and picked a twig out of her hair. He reached for it, and held it gently between his fingers, as if it were something very old and precious. He sniffed at it, searching for some scent of her.

“Pete?”

“Hmm?”

“Look, I’ve been thinking: I don’t think we should see each other anymore…”

“Oh.. .what?!”

“Jim and I….I’ve been meaning to say, we’re trying again…”

“I see.”

“We’ve been married for ten years, that means something, I can’t just throw it all away.”

He nodded slowly, but said nothing.

“You do understand don’t you? We’re friends, try and be glad for me.” He nodded again.

“I never meant it to last really.”

“So I was just a bit on the side was I?” he said roughly, “to tide you over a difficult patch? Was that all I meant to you?”

“Yes…no. I didn’t want it to mean anything. I don’t want to hurt you Pete, but it’s got a bit intense.”

“Bit late for that isn’t it?”

“I didn’t want you to fall in love with me, I…”

“What makes you think I do?”

She sighed. “It’s pretty obvious. That’s not a criticism, I can understand, but you should find someone, someone, single.”

“Okay okay, I get the message.”

He walked a short way and looked down the path. He clenched his fists, feeling the points of his nails only dimly, some distance away like the booming of a car stereo at the far end of a street.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, “don’t hate me.”

He turned. “How could I?” he said simply. He opened his fists and saw the forgotten twig, and watched absently as the crumbled fragments fell into the moss and grass.

“Can we still be friends do you think?”

“I hope so,” she said, “but perhaps we shouldn’t see each other for a while…”

He nodded, “you try and sort things out.”

“Yes.”

He squeezed her hand, “I’m going to stay, I need to be by myself for a bit, you know.”

“Okay. I’ll write you in a few weeks.”

“Yes, do that…Take care won’t you?”

“You too. I’m glad we’ve been civilised about this.”

He nodded, but said nothing.

“See you then,” she said.

He nodded again and smiled wryly. She looked at him a few seconds longer, then turned and headed down the path. He watched her for a while, until the flowery pattern of her dress was lost among the trees. He stood there for several minutes more, the bark of a tree rough under his hand. When the sound of her footsteps had faded, all he could hear above the birds was a plane, high up among the cirrus. Just visible above the tree line was the stark silhouette of the castle, gazing out across the plain for an invader. An invader that had come and gone centuries ago, if it had ever come at all. He stared at it for several seconds, then turned sharply, and without looking back, started back down the path towards the canal.

1996


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