Monday Morning

This is a story that was published in the “Just Met 2013” writing anthology by London Metropolitan University and also won a prize for best fiction. Judge & Poet Catherine Smith: “The twist at the end is heart wrenching. A really well-realised story, perfectly framed.”

 

Monday Morning

By Sean Cleaver

It’s a damp, muggy Monday morning. You just missed your train by seconds. Already you are irritated. The day has hardly begun and you’ve successfully pissed yourself off. The weekend ranked between a failure and a casual relaxing event. You stomp up the stairs to the platform and decide you want a coffee.

When you enter the little coffee bar, you see a girl who’s just packed her big flowery bag on the side table. She’s in your way. You start the process of hating her until you look up and realise that she is very pretty. Not only that but she is smiling at you. Not a smile that’s a general “sorry, I’m in your way” but more of a coy “I’m sorry, I really like you, you seem different. But it’s Monday morning and I look like shit, so don’t take it personally. I hope I see you again soon or I might curse myself for missing this chance.” You reply with a smile that says “it’s ok, I understand” and walk to the counter.

You order your cappuccino and take stock of your situation. The pretty girl has moved down the platform now, so it’s safe to evaluate things. She had straight, very light ginger hair, red trousers, pretty grey eyes and a Cath Kidston pink flowery bag. She was shorter than you, about shoulder height, and slim. Not athletic but nice. She’s exactly your type. You look to see you are the only person wearing jeans in a sea of suits and in spite of your messy receding hair and unkempt stubble, you do look younger than most people on the platform. You are the epitome of casual in your jeans, leather jacket and Star Wars t-shirt with the Millennium Falcon on it. You are cool? The question is too big a concept to consider and you quickly discard the t-shirt as being a deciding factor of coolness as your coffee is ready. The person serving you is griping to her colleague about the “crap” on the radio. Some cover of a decade old pop song, sung by a girl on a piano, is playing that you recognise from a television advert. “How many times is this guy going somewhere for her to go? It’s too bloody long if you ask me.” You laugh in appreciation at the effort of the person serving you, even though you don’t really care about her opinion at all and you make a mental note to search the internet for the song when you get home.

You get on the train and open your book, Bright Lights, Big City. There’s nowhere to sit so you stand in an awkward position beside someone’s fold-up bicycle and obstructing the First Class doors. The compartment is almost empty and inviting. You notice that a man is asleep in there and wonder if he’s paid extra for that privilege. Adopting the most uncomfortable position you can, you lower your head try to read as the train departs. You quickly lose all conviction to read as soon as you finish the first few lines. After fraudulently turning a few pages, you look up and see the girl again. She is right next to you. The train moves a little too violently and knocks the unprepared girl into you.

You both smile at each other and have a little laugh with yourself. “Sorry,” she says.

“It’s ok,” you reply, “it’s a big bag! Cath Kidston, yeah?” This is the first time you’ve spoken to a girl like this in two years and there’s a very good reason why you don’t do it. You’re fucking terrible at it.
“Yeah it is,” she looks pleasantly surprised and a tiny bit suspicious. “How d’you know?”
Stop. The next answer could end the conversation and your chance to impress this girl. You are either one of three things: Into fashion (which is unlikely as your t-shirt proves); Gay; A well-researched present giver. You go with a joke and hope for the best. “I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re thinking.” You both laugh.

Stop. You realise that you may have got away with that one but it’s only temporary, and you now have to explain how you know this. The truth is that an ex girlfriend liked it and you brought presents for her. Answering this truthfully, specifically the word “ex” will end this straight away. You compromise. “I used to know someone who liked it.”

You quickly change the subject. “What do you do?” Well done, you sarcastically tell yourself in your head.

“I work in accounts, you know, boring stuff.” Her reply is wistful like she knows she can do better and her eyes open a little wider. You wonder what she is thinking. “How about you?”

“Oh, this and that.” You say with a smile so it sounds rather more mysterious than it is. “At the moment I’m studying but I do a few odd jobs here and there.”

She begins to look down slightly and you hope she doesn’t ask the most cliché over-asked question you always get asked and are bored of replying to.

“What are you studying?”

She’s asked the most cliché over-asked question.

“I’m studying books, writing, that kind of thing.” You hope this sounds more interesting than giving a straight answer and she looks back up again. You appear to have survived negative judgement for the moment.

You both exchange some small talk about how busy the train is, what books you like and even talk a bit about Star Wars, including making the Wookie noise you’re good at doing. You make each other laugh with little quips and are getting on very well. The conductor announces that you’re nearly at your destination. “Well,” you croak slightly losing the confidence your voice had. “Would you like to meet later? I mean here at the station. You know…” She is laughing a little at your stumbling and smiling. You have succeeded in being the correct kind of cute. “We could get the train back together, or maybe a tea?” In your mind you are like a Hollywood movie star appearing tall, gallant and oozing sex appeal. In the reflection of the glass in the train door, you see that you look on the verge of a panic attack.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” she replies.

You agree to meet and swap numbers. As you do, you realise you haven’t asked her name. As you go to ask, the train moves violently again, throwing you in her direction. You crash into the bicycle and look around to hide any embarrassment from the other passengers. The girl isn’t there. You’ve day dreamed through your entire journey after losing interest in the page you were pretending to read. You feel a small bit of pressure underneath your ribcage and consider yourself a complete fool for imagining yourself being cool and not looking like a complete bum.

As you get off the train, you look ahead to see a way through the crowd disembarking and you notice the girl and her bag. You wonder if you can go up to her and be the man you imagined you could be, but you decide not to embarrass yourself further. After all it is Monday and you look like shit, so you don’t take it too personally.

The Record Player (Short Story)

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He sat down with no one except the spectre of what used to be. Surrounding him was a record player, the kind of one you find in the shopping sections in the back of Readers Digest magazines, a pair of headphones, an old vinyl of Hotel California and half a bottle of Jack Daniels next to a glass filled with some ice. Some might call it a ritual, but for him this was a retraction, or an expulsion, of what was stuck in his head.

Memories have a strange way of making the past recur in the present when it really shouldn’t belong. Much like listening to a band like the Manic Street Preachers or Smashing Pumpkins now when you used to listen to them in the 90s. Are you listening to them now because you like it, or because you’re living in the memory of when they were at their peak of musical creation? All those bands that you hear a new song from on the radio, or you get on CD as a birthday or christmas present because someone remembered you used to like them and it just seems like the right thing to have; they all get old. They all change. They all remove themselves from what they were because there comes a time when you simply cannot live there anymore.

He poured the first measure of his whiskey. It was a little stingy so he added some more. A bit too much. I can savour this one, he thought. He dropped the needle before quickly realising it needed a bit of a blow, to shake off the dusty collection of fluff. Then he dropped it again and the opening bars of Hotel California rang in his ears like an old friend that had come to stay and chat about old flames, lined up in perfect chronological recollection, like pretty maids all in a row. He ran through them all: the first, the other first, the one that should have been first, the one that came after, the one that stayed, the one that left, the one he left, the one they both walked away from, the one that hurt and the one that stung. Those were the memories that needed to leave.

The problem, his old friend sagely advised, was that there was no new kid in town. There was no way to stop that memory creeping in. The present wonderfully suppresses the past like the bourbon suppresses the clouded thinking for truth. It wasn’t the last resort to invite the friend in but it was needed, that clarity. The memory is like that old band, it hangs around waiting for the appreciation it feels its earned but all it does is outstay its welcome and give you heartburn. Acidic stinging making him drop his shoulders more than he comfortably should be and keeping him rearranging his pillow at night before his body is too worn out or just too drunk to stay awake.

“All of this time with the memory is wasted time,” the friend said. “You’re sitting here for what? A chance? A slice of that past? Well it doesn’t work. You don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or any of that fluffy pop crap. You think you’re sitting here pretending to be a victim of love, but you’re only the victim of your own ego.”

He sat and pondered this as he realised he needed to top up his drink and would need to flip the record over too. Ego, he questioned to himself? How can he have an ego if he wasn’t good enough to stay with, if he wasn’t good enough to move himself along? Surely that isn’t his fault? He’s no rich kid, or devil may care punk living life in the fast lane way beyond his years. He was distrustful of love by now. It kept bringing all these memories and old records and empty bottles of whiskey.

“Why do you distrust love?” the friend asked in the quiet moment where he flipped the record over to side B. “If you distrust something then it needs to be alive, an animal or something. The only animal in love is the one looking at you in the mirror when you stare too long after a shower and think your hair can do whatever you want it to. Love isn’t alive, love is a choice. It didn’t choose you and your ego took the hit.”

The memory rose to the closest point his mind has with his eyelids as he closed them and replayed a self-edited montage of what he wanted to believe. He took a sip from his glass and realised the memory was over very quickly, as quickly as the sip from his glass, but it just repeated and repeated like a CD that was skipping. “You see this?” The friend made him look at the vinyl. “This is pure. This has no cracks or blemishes that weren’t designed to be there. This isn’t skipping over same things over and over again. Take another look.”

He looked and the memory went a bit further. It looked at moments of silence, of being sat next to a phone or having social media show him everything he never wanted to see. “You chose this,” the friend reminded him. “Now you just need to realise that this is a choice, try and love again, and see what else is out there. The bands were great, but now they’re old. Not forgotten but hanging on before people chose to not to remember them anymore.” He poured his last generous glass and swirled around what little was left of the melted ice cubes. They had degraded to such a point that they almost weren’t even there, but the outline was hanging on to remind you they were.

He contemplated the choice as the last song played its way in to his headphones. It is a choice, he said. I choose… He pondered. He took the remaining bits of ice out of the glass and leaned back on the floor, his shoulders straightening and bringing relief like a massage. It felt like he was melting in to the floor enough for it to mould around him and capture him perfectly. He lifted his head up slightly and drank the last of the bourbon as the record spun around to the end and he closed his eyes. The memory was gone. The edited one, the full one, all of it. “See you next time,” the friend said, “but remember you chose to be here. Don’t choose to go somewhere you can never leave.”

He opened his eyes and put his hand in the slightly damp puddle the melted ice had left. He closed the record player and took his headphones off. He put the bottle in the recycling bin and went to his bed. He spun himself over once and flipped his pillow to a colder side. Then it was morning and the radio woke him up with a new song by an old band. He switched it off, got up and left.

The Piano Man – A Short Story

… May became December
But, even in December, I remember
Her touch, her smile, and for a little while…

The pressure in his fingertips relaxed on the piano’s keys just as his voice began to ebb away. The lyric hit a spot in his body, somewhere he couldn’t place. Between his spine and his ribcage and just above his stomach, but it wasn’t quite there. He clenched his fist and imagined he could fit it right into the spot. “Are you going to finish playing that?” the voice called from behind him.
“How long have you been there?” He kept staring forward at the mahogany.
“Since you started. You’ve been stuck at that part for the past five minutes.”
He looked down and sighed before turning to face the voice. She stood in the archway of the room. All the chairs and stools were turned up on the tables and the brooms were resting against the bar. He had no idea how long he’d been alone in the bar. Even though the light was dim, he could still make out the heels and her dress, a reddish colour, with only one strap over her left shoulder. Her brunette hair was curled and fell to left side starting where the strap finished. “What do you want to hear,” he asked “a little San Francisco?”
He turned around and pushed his hands out, ready to play.
“I want to hear the end of that song,” she replied.
“How about some Moon River?”
“The end of that song.”
“Steppin’ Out?”
“That song.”

He let out a big breath. “I know. Some Lady is a Tramp.” He started playing the song. She walked over and just before he started to sing, she slammed her hand on the high notes. The discord made his hands recoil to his sides. “Why can’t you finish it?”
“I just can’t.”
“Why not?”
“You know what song it is. Don’t make me spell it out,” he became irritated.
“Why?” She became insistent.
He turned to look at her sharply. “Because it’s a lie,” he shouted. “It’s a fucking lie.”
She looked into his eyes and looked right through him. “You know it wasn’t how I wanted it to be.”
“And how did you want it to be?” he sarcastically asked, “Fields of flowers? Weekends away? Or just a quick feel in the back of the car?”
“I don’t know how I wanted it to be. Just not what we had.”
He turned back to the piano and blew out his cheeks, trying hard to vent the fist shaped spot in his body but it wouldn’t budge. “Look, I believe in the songs. That’s why I’m here all the time, playing this old thing. It’s my lot. I have to do it, no one else can.”
“I know,” she conceded, “I wouldn’t change you for the world. But do you really believe that the song is a lie?”
He looked down at the keys in silent admission. She lifted her hand and stroked his hair behind his ear. “Just play the end,” she whispered to him. A whisper that, no matter how hard he tried, he could never refuse. He put his hands back on the piano keys where they had stopped before. He breathed in and realised he couldn’t sing the higher notes and resigned himself to go with a lower register.

… She loves me.

He had to swallow after finishing the lyric. The fist-sized spot grew in intensity.

Once again it’s Paris
Paris on a Sunday
And the month is May.

He finished the song’s final flourish with little effort, relaxed his fingers once again by his sides and lowered his head. She reached over to his ear once again and whispered to him.
“Some lies are worth believing in.”
She gently kissed his cheek and began to walk away. He didn’t look, but he listened to hear how far away the sound of her heels were. They stopped briefly and he knew she was back at the archway. Finally the sound started again and faded into the distance. She had left. He heard a faint tap and looked at the piano keys. A single tear had escaped his eye and hit the middle C. The spot in his body had shrunk a little back to the original fist size. “So that’s how you leave,” he muttered, unsure if he was referring to her or to the spot. He put his hands back to the piano, began to quietly play and sung in his deepest, effortless voice.

… Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

Wave To The Cars

Little explanation here. I had to use some given words twice and in different contexts. The words were: wave, exhaust, cream, surround, cement & pearl. This was for Portsmouth Uni, but I didn’t go there as the big smoke was too much of a lure. So here it is!

“Wave to the cars, Graham.” His mother said to him. “Don’t breathe in the exhaust fumes Graham, they’ll kill you.” “Don’t add so much cream, Graham.” He always grew distant in his hearing when she spoke in that tone, slowly fading her out and replacing her moaning with a song in his head. Usually the last thing he heard on the radio would surround his senses. He never understood that. How the song would cement itself in his head. Her mouth would move and the words would be silent. The pearl jewellery would jangle from her earlobes as her jaw moved more and more furiously as she realised he wasn’t listening. He would be sent to his room and there he would think of all the things he could do when he was older. Get a car, move out of the house and travel away. Just to escape the whining. Eventually he did of course. She would phone after he moved out and he could just imagine her face over the phone as he continued to ignore her, staring at the non-intrusive cream wallpaper he had decorated with. Feeling fulfilled with all the expensive things that money could buy. Surround sound system, widescreen television, lava lamp. He always wanted a lava lamp, but his mother would never let him have one. Now he had one in the cement covered inner-city building where he had decided to make his home. His mother would never come to visit of course. She hated trains. She was always disturbed by the wave upon wave of faceless people milling around aimlessly without any great purpose. Graham would try to make her visit but she would exhaust all the options until he gave in and went to see her. Then he would sit there whilst she whittled on about this and that. Who did what and why they did it. What was on the television that night. Nothing changed and he longed to be away from her again. It’s almost fitting, he thought to himself, that in the end he would be alone with her. Just the two of them with no one else. He drowned out all the sounds again. Except this time there were no songs. Nothing at all except silence. Horror of what he had taken for granted all this time. “Pearl Smith.” He said out loud. “Mother of one, lover of all.” He chose the words without any thought but seeing them in stone hit it home that she was the best thing that happened to him. With a little bit of shame and apprehension, he turned away from the gravestone and walked away and waved at the cars parked by the church. Just like she told him to.