Time of No Reply



I’ve been living in this town for twenty-two years now. (Pause: That’s amazing… isn't that amazing? Okay, move on). 

In a couple of ways, it’s a dream-come-true for me because, in my London days, I would sometimes think about the possibility of living in a place where I knew loads of people and where I was fairly deep-embedded… and here I am.

One peculiarity of small-town life is that lots of people say ‘Hello’ to you and, generally you say ‘Hello’ back to the lots of people who say it. In fairness, you also institute quite a lot of ‘Hellos’ yourself and, in turn, you tend to get them back. It’s a sort of a ‘Hello-fest’ sometimes and that’s okay with me.

There’s this one guy though… I’ve known him for practically all of my twenty-two years in the town and, at the same time, I don’t know him at all. I don’t know his name, I don’t know ‘who his people are’. I don’t know anything about him, really.

As the local expression goes, “I only know him to say ‘Hello’ to.’ And I do. Oh, God, I do. And, okay you’ve guessed it, he never-ever says ‘Hello’ back.

When I first arrived in town, he was a youngish man. He looked a bit like Dexter Fletcher did then. Maybe that’s why I first said ‘Hello’ to him. Maybe I thought he looked like an unidentified friend of mine rather than Dexter Fletcher. Whatever the reason, I said ‘Hello’ to him and he didn’t say ‘Hello’ back and then we were off and running.

Neither he nor the real Dexter Fletcher now looks anything like Dexter Fletcher did then, if you get my drift. Twenty-two years have passed. Twenty-two years of not being ‘Hello-ed back. Regular meetings on the streets of my town. Never a word. 

This begs an obvious question, I know. Why do I keep saying ‘Hello’ to him?

Let me try to address that.

It’s a very good question and, in fact, I believe the entire crux of the matter lies somewhere in the answer.

The truth of the matter is, he drags my ‘Hello’ out of me. This happened most recently on Thursday afternoon last so I know what I’m talking about. It’s still fresh in my mind and it’s happened so many times over the years that I can’t begin to count them. He drags it out.

We approach each other on the street. I see him and I say to myself, “Nope, no way, nah-hah, I am not saying ‘hello’ to this dude this time. I’ve had it with all that shit.” But, as he approaches, he stares at me. Not in an angry way. It’s more of a mildly quizzical manner. He looks right into my eyes and this engaged expression forms on his face. I can tell, without any doubt, that this time will be different. This time, he has recognised me as the dude he’s being seeing around the place for all these years.

As we get closer, he stares and stares and stares and, much as I hate myself for it, much as I know I must not fall, I do it, I just do it.

“Howiya.”

And nothing. The stare slides away beyond me and I get absolutely nothing back.

And then I’m annoyed for little while. Who does he think he is? Fuck him. If he doesn’t want to say hello why does he keep staring at me? What a prick.

But then I get to thinking, as I occasionally do. What does this exchange look like from his side? “Who *is* this guy,” he might be saying, “what does he want and why the hell won’t he leave me alone.” Maybe he’s just terminally shy and can’t bring himself to respond before I’ve swept past like some swarthy tsunami. Maybe it’s me who is the sinner here and maybe I should learn to recognise that, rather than just eternally pointing the finger elsewhere.

I’ll learn a lesson in tolerance from this, rather than just getting the hump over it. Still, I wish he wouldn’t continue to draw me out like that. Leave me alone and I won’t say hello to you, I promise.

But, anyway, I’ve learned my lesson now. I’m never doing it again.

Nope, no way, nah-hah.

Short Fiction - Grown Accustomed to Her Terror


Peter hit the bedroom at about ten past midnight. He got undressed in the dark as quickly as he could. The light from up the hallway gave him a little dim guidance. He was just slipping his ancient green t-shirt over his head when his wife woke up.

At first, she twitched and mumbled something incoherent but then, receiving some subtle information about a presence in her room, she sat bolt upright are stared dark eyed into the murk.

Peter sighed.

“It’s okay, love, it’s only me, coming to bed.”

But it was too late, just like it was always too late.

Jennifer turned slowly and registered the short, dark figure beside her bed. She did not register its gentle words. She drew in a rapid deep breath and then released it in a window rattling scream. She screamed in inconsolable terror. Her fear tore into every corner of the room: huge, viscous, unstoppable.

Then, when her breath was practically all gone, she snorted once and was silent. She looked straight at where Peter was standing and glared with pure undiluted hate at the dark space he occupied. Then she launched her head down deep into her mound of pillows and was instantly asleep again. Not just asleep; unconscious, comatose, almost dead… until morning.

So it was. Eleven years of marriage and so many nights had been the same. No matter how silently he crept in - no matter how much he embraced the darkness - she still woke up; she still screamed.

And in the mornings, she remembered nothing.

Whenever it happened in that first year, he would prod her gently after the alarm sounded.

“’Sleep all right?”

“Yes, why?”

“No reason.”

Sometimes he would poke a little harder.

“I woke you last night.”

“Did you?”

“Coming to bed. I gave you a bit of a fright, I think.”

“You should come in quieter.”

“I’ll try that.”

After that first year, he gave up. Sometimes she looked at him funny, in the mornings, perhaps sensing something.

“Do you ever scare me anymore, like you used to, when you come to bed?”

“That seems to have passed.”

“Good.”

And on and on.

If he ever went to bed at the same time as her, there was obviously no issue. But he could not go to sleep early like she needed to. He was a creature of the night and an early riser too. Six hours sleep seemed to be more than enough although sometimes he felt groggy. The intimacies of the relationship quickly evolved to fit into the morning time so there was nothing to do about the evenings.

Nothing at all to be done.

One night in every three, his wife practically died of fright at the presence of her husband in her room. Every morning she awoke and remembered nothing.

And he had grown accustomed to her terror.

Some nights he almost smiled to himself. Some nights he cursed under his breath and raised his eyes to the dark heavens beyond the ceiling.

One night, she threw a book at him. She grabbed it from the bedside table and launched it spinning at his head. It was a library book and the sharp laminated corner had caught him on the forehead and drew a droplet of blood.

“What happened to you?” she asked, the next morning, her mouth full of Sultana Bran.

“Shaving accident.”

One night, they had an argument just before her bedtime. Nothing particularly new, some furrow they had ploughed together many times before. She went to bed angry and he stayed up angry. While she found the oblivion of sleep, he paced the living room and craved resolution, all the time knowing that nothing was possible until at least the morning.

He undressed quietly in the room, despite his anger. As ever, he left the door open slightly so that he could navigate his undressing by the hall light. He kicked off his jeans and left them where they fell on the floor.

She was asleep.

Then she was not. Her eyes translucent in the gloom.

Always, at this moment, he would try to reassure her.

“It’s only me,” he would say, “it’s fine.”

But, on this last night, he was tired and upset.

He said nothing.

She spoke.

“Who’s there?” “Who is it?”

Still he said nothing. He could feel her fear rising.

Finally, he could bear it no more.

“It’s only me,” he said, “coming to bed.”

She stared at him. She wouldn’t remember any of it in the morning. None of it meant anything.

She stared at him.

“Who are you?” She said.

“Who am I?” he shouted, “What do you mean “Who am I?” It’s fucking me, who the fuck else would it ever be?”

She stared at him for a long moment. It was time for her to scream. It was time. But she didn’t. She simply snorted, turned and plunged into the pillows.

In the morning she stared at him over her Sultana Bran, her mouth a thin line.

“You remember this one, don’t you?”

She snorted dismissively, as if it were midnight again.

“I remember them all,” she said.

Girl on a Bus


What can you do? It’s hard to know.

Last night, my son was out with his pals, celebrating the end of the toughest exams we ever do in this country. In this town, for better or worse, lots of young people get on a bus to go to the next town to do most of their partying. The bus was due back in town at 3.30 am and I was there, in the centre of town, in my car, waiting to meet it.

As I waited, a bus pulled in but it wasn’t the bus I was waiting for. There are lots of buses that come and go, ferrying. Lots of people got off this bus, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. There was some chatting and hugging and removal of high heel shoes to aid walking and then everyone pretty much dispersed, to seek a taxi or cadge a lift or perhaps to begin a long weary walk home.

The girl was the last off the bus. She was alone. Late teens/early twenties, like the others, but she didn’t chat or hug or take off her shoes. She simply turned her face down the street and headed for home.

She was drunk. She was possibly as drunk as one can be while still remaining upright. She walked in jagged, robotic steps and she frequently strayed from the footpath and on to the road before correcting her trajectory. And ‘trajectory’ is the right word, she moved fast, keen to be home perhaps. Her head projected quite far in front of her torso which gave her walk the impression of someone aspiring to fall forward onto her face but never quite succeeding.

Truth? My heart went out to her. She seemed so vulnerable, so drunk, so alone. She seemed like an accident waiting to happen. If my son had arrived and got in the car, I would have driven after her and asked if we could both drop her home. There might have been some difficulty in figuring out where her house was or even some puke in the back of the car but at least she’d be safe. But the boy’s bus was still ten minutes out the road and 55-year-old men can’t be going around offering lifts to late-teen drunk girls, no matter how well-meaning that offer might be.

So it was with a feeling of helplessness that I watched her in my rear-view mirror as she careened towards her destination. I hope she got there okay. I’m sure she did. There are girls and boys like that abroad on our streets on any given weekend night. Two too many under their belt, sheets to the wind, just trying to get themselves home.

We may tend to think of our grown children as big enough to go out in the world and then make their own way back when they’re done and generally, I suppose, this is the case. But the world is a wonderful place that can turn awfully cruel from time to time and we have to look out for each other as much as we can. As much as we can without becoming part of the problem ourselves.

"I mean well."

You can carve on it my gravestone because it is an indisputable truth about me. I’m not looking to do anyone harm or make matters worse or benefit from anyone’s misfortune. I mean well. But that doesn’t mean that everything I do is right or even for the best.

One simple example. When you drive up the main road in my town, getting on to the street where I live involves making a right-hand turn across busy traffic. It's hard. The drivers who try to come out of my side street also have a horrible time getting into the unremitting stream of traffic on that main road, particularly if they're trying to turn right. I know because I am one of them on a daily basis. Sometimes, as I come up that main road, I will try to help. I will wave a car out from the side road, across the oncoming traffic. 

Yesterday, as I approached, there was a car waiting in my side road. I slowed and caught the driver’s eye and indicated that he could come out when it was clear the other way and I would wait for him. 

Great, fine. Except that’s an awful lot of intent to try to impart with one hand gesture and the driver in the side street clearly got my intentions wrong. He thought my gesture meant, “I’m letting you out now, Go, Go, Go,” and he ‘Went, Went, Went’ without looking to see if there were any cars coming the other way. There are always cars coming the other way. There was much braking and swerving and swearing and, thankfully nobody got hurt or even dented. 

Of course, the driver pulling out should have looked the other way but he didn’t. And if there had been a crash, it would have been largely my fault because it was me who waved the guy out. I assumed he would look the other way but he didn’t.

My fault. My good deed. My fault.

That story might feel like a change of subject but it’s not. Not really.

I’m glad the girl off the bus didn’t appear on the local news on Saturday morning. I’m glad she must have stumbled somehow to her front door, fumbled with a key, and landed rather heavily a couch or a bed.  If she hadn’t, I would have found it hard to forgive myself for sitting quietly and watching her as she got progressively smaller in my rear-view mirror and eventually vanished around the corner down at the priest’s house.

But what the hell could I have done that might not have made things markedly worse?

Something, perhaps.

Something?