6. The Black ForestShe accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love. 'Sorry, sorry. That took way longer than I thought it would.' 'That's alright.' 'I'm going to get a coffee. Do you want anything?' 'I'm alright, thanks.' 'Are you okay?' 'Huh?' 'Are you okay?' 'Oh yeah, it's just... I didn't know that I could fall in love.' 'Right.' 'More than that, I didn't know I could fall in love with the girl in a book.' 'A book.' 'It took less than ten pages.' A book he had read when he was fourteen, then again at eighteen and at twenty-two, a month before his birthday, he lay on his bed and read the last chapter again and fell in love again, with the girl in a book. 'Her name's Lou.' But his friend had gone into the cafe and the pigeons didn't care. The wood of the table was warm in the sun and he slipped his jacket off, hanging it loosely over the bench beside him. He took out his notebook, the same one that, decades later, he would find tucked between two other, bigger volumes, and flick through in the garden, trying to put together the plots and plans squashed into the small, brown card covered book, with the airplane in gold and the one word JOURNAL that began with travel times. Thursday 2nd Flight from London Stanstead to Keflavik, Iceland. (3 hrs) 1hr 40 layover Flight to Newark (6 hrs) Train into Penn Station, walk to 42nd Hotel 2:00am 18.5 hrs Friday 3rd Up 7:00am, walk around WTC, down to Battery Park Grilled cheese + coffee - Cafe Plaza Deli Walk Washington Square Park Stonewall That went on for a week or so, listing names and places in thin black ink until it reached Monday 6th where the word Teal was underlined in teal and it continued in teal for a few days before: Port A 21:00ish Newark express 22:20. That didn't seem to add up. Must have missed a train. The names of bars and clubs didn't mean much anymore, nor did all the bus routes or the times of arrival at museums. There were a few stories in there; Slow start. Worked with Dan, that had to have been one of those early projects, maybe even the first that they'd cooked up over that summer from London and Dublin and here in New York. JAZZ Misty, the time he'd sat at the keys with a band and played a few drunken standards in the back room of a bar with nobody watching. There was the early evening spent sipping, Sangria 241 Cocktails. Cards Against + 2 guys. Him and three friends plus two strangers. One of them had brought a freezer bag full of green fruit and passed them round; they were juicy with thick rubbery flesh that felt like brains around a tough stone. They didn't go down too well so he pulled out a bottle of Jack that had to be put back straight away when he found out that one of our friends worked the bar. Later, when they'd left the boys with the fruit and whiskey, and said goodbye to their friends, the two girls, the young man walked with Dan, the writer, and confessed. 'I still fancy the hell out of her, you know.' Dan had just laughed, 'You didn't need to tell me that. Your eyes already did.' He'd smiled and blushed a little but inside he was jumping up and down and shaking himself silly. It was all very matter-of-fact, the names of past lovers separated by a comma from the guy a friend had been seeing for the summer. Nothing to hint at how special some of those afternoons had been, holding hands under the hot American sun. After New York it was mostly ideas for stories that never got written mixed in with electricity readings, dividing up broadband payments, notes for pizza sauce and dough, reading suggestions, and a whole page devoted to the words Write at it written in small letters in black overlaid slightly to the left in teal so the small mantra popped, underlined, again in both black and teal. Half the notebook was empty of course, he'd never finished one in his life though they stacked in their dozens taking up all his shelf space at home. On the centre page spread was a delicate map of the world in black, drawn out with various locations labelled in teal, 1. London, 2. Warrenpoint... And that was it. He thumbed through the rest looking for doodles or notes. There was nothing but faint ruled lines, not even on the back page where he had always blotted something, a stick figure or a shark or a square that he turned into a cube, then another cube or some circles. There was nothing at all. The back cover was the same brown card, and when he closed the small book: CRANE & CO. in small gold at the bottom. Thanks Crane & Co. he muttered to the pigeons that had settled on the lawn while he read. Pigeon and Co., he chuckled. Pigeons and Coffee? He pencilled the three words under the world map before he could forget, wondering if all the ideas he'd forgotten to write down could have filled up those empty half notebooks. Yes, he thought. And half again, and more. But that was all still to come. Now the young man sat with the empty notebook in front of him as he done for a week or so in various places at various times, staring at the brown inside of the cover on one side and the first blank page on the other, faint ruled lines and all. He looked around the park and frowned, trying to paint what he saw into something worth writing down. There were people sitting drinking coffee, so what? Birds chirped in the trees. Did that warrant describing in print? Birds were always chirping in trees, and he wasn't a poet so he couldn't turn it into something else. Someone was mowing the grass. The smell of freshly cut grass. Novel. Nothing new under the sun he thought, watching the cuttings blow out in a clumpy cloud behind the motor, nothing new on God's green earth. Someone threw a ball. He tracked the curve of the red rubber as it sailed through the air and landed amongst the leaves, shortly followed by the bounding brown dog that clamped its wet dribbling jaws around the toy, giving it a loud squeak, then lying down with its tail flicking, eyes wide and mad, before jumping up to its name and running lollopy back to deliver its special red parcel. The young man sat watching the owner delicately pick up the ball, avoiding the saliva. Did that make a story? Ball. Leaves. Dog. He didn't think so. He cast around for something else. His friend, the one who'd been late. The fact that she was late? That wasn't interesting, or, he quipped to nobody but himself, at all surprising. He chuckled a little. If a pigeon could have raised an eyebrow... But maybe something else about her? He thought about the ten or nearly fifteen years they'd known each other. Over half their lives, all of their young adulthood. The things they had put each through over that time. Would people read that? Maybe. Did he want to write it down? Maybe not. It was too long to be a heady, throwaway romance of a story, where he chased her across Europe, and not long enough yet to be old friends sitting by a nostalgic fire or the pale hospital bed. As she came back out he watched her hold the door for someone going in and smiled. More of an everyday muse. 'When do you go to New York?' She was looking at the brown book that he had closed when she came over, but that was cheap, she knew there was nothing in it. 'Two weeks. No. Next Thursday.' 'Take the journal. Didn't it come from America anyway?' 'It's not a journal.' 'Really?' 'It's a notebook or a pad or something.' She raised an eyebrow. That was it, he thought, perfect. Pigeons might still be learning that skill, but she had disapproval down to an art. 'It says JOURNAL on the front.' 'Yeah but that doesn't make it one, it's just a book.' 'Make it a journal.' 'What?' 'Take it to New York. Make it a travel journal.' There was no use arguing. They'd argued before, countless times. It had mostly been late night texts that went flashing back and forth under the covers till the early hours. That was how kids fought these days. He sighed, 'It does have a plane on it.' 'Exactly. It knew. It's not stupid.' 'It's a book.' 'It'll save you. Slump Under or whatever you said.' 'Unslump.' 'Yep. It'll unslump you in New York.' He thought about it. Actually he'd been thinking about the exact same thing for a while, but he didn't want to admit that. If a trip to the big city didn't unslump him then what would. 'I might see Laura out there.' A flash of something he didn't recognise came across her face but whatever it was, it was gone in an instant. Then the eyebrow again. She didn't need to. Really, she'd given him enough stick for all that. He wasn't even going to mention Laura but she'd have found out somehow. 'I thought she was from somewhere else?' 'Portland.' 'What's she doing in New York?' 'I dunno. Seeing a friend I think. She's got a cousin there too or something.' 'Huh.' 'Sorry. One sec.' Bending down he tugged on the end of a shoelace, the knot pulling then opening. His foot wriggled free and he picked up the shoe, turning it over and knocking out the stone that he'd been poking at all afternoon. He looked at the shoe, put it on the table. Could a shoe be a story? 'Put it back on.' What the hell are you doing, said her face. Apparently a shoe could not be a story. He made a mental note to make a shoe a story, or rather, make a story a shoe. Could he wear a story? He looked up, she looked at the shoe. He put it back on. 'Who have you fallen in love with?' 'Lou, Louise, Louisa.' 'Which?' 'It's just Lou for a while so he doesn't know. Then he reads her name in a book of Tennyson poetry. To Louisa, from a teacher. Or something like that.' 'Why are you in love with her?' 'Because he is, I guess.' 'Who is?' 'Dylan. Or young Dylan. Or not young Dylan but the young man in the story.' 'Dylan Thomas?' 'Yeah, have you read it?' 'No.' 'It's magical.' 'Apparently so... What happens?' 'Well, he's at the beach and everyone's having a whale of a time except him because he's being eaten up by some sort of guilt or something.' 'What did he do?' 'Can't remember. I only read the last chapter the other day.' 'You only just finished it?' 'No. What? I reread the last chapter.' 'Why just the last chapter?' 'I dunno. Thought it might inspire me.' 'Right. So he's at the beach?' 'Yeah and he joins in with this cricket game with a tray and has a drink and he really hates everyone who's out there in the sun. You can tell it in the writing, he calls them pathetic and stuff. That's it, he calls the husbands pathetic.' 'The husbands?' 'Yeah, the husbands paddling in the sea.' 'Imagine calling all husbands pathetic. You'd have to have a pretty dim view on things.' 'Well he does, or did. The young man does in the story.' 'Go on.' 'So he's leaving the beach and he walks past this girl sitting reading on a bench by the edge of the beach, where it ends and starts being land again.' 'And?' 'And he falls in love.' He gets up from the side of the road and walks past the single lamp that still glows in the dawn light, on and on, out of the town. Out into the fields and across to the woods. 'Just like that?' 'More or less. But he walks away without saying anything. Just leaves. Ends up meeting her again in a pub later with some of her friends and they all go back to her place, her room in this big tenement.' 'Well for some.' 'Not so much. They're all getting good and drunk and he's properly in love with her now. And she is too by the way. He keeps talking about, or thinking about, or like, writing about, you know it's like his thoughts?' He crosses over to where the earth is dry and no grass grows, just fallen twigs, ferns, and needle leaves. 'Yeah, I get it.' 'Sorry, so he's thinking about the future all the time. Like, he talks about her bed where they're all lying about as though it's their marriage bed or something. And the room like it's a room that he'll get to know. It's all future thought, and because it's a retrospective narrative you have to believe him.' 'But he doesn't.' 'Doesn't what?' 'Get to know it, the room.' 'Oh right. Well. He has to leave, he feels sick or needs the toilet and he goes out into this like construction place next door and then he can't find his way back.' He looks up and the stars disappear behind a canopy of trees and vines. He walks further into the forest. The sounds of the quiet night fields die away behind him. 'Next door?' 'He finds the house alright.' 'But can't find the room?' 'It's pretty mad. He's searching in the dark and he's completely fucked by this stage and he's waking people up and shouting Lou, Lou, have you seen Lou? And everyone's telling him to piss off and he ends up leaving without finding her.' 'Shit.' 'Yeah. And that's the end of the book. Just him outside in the night.' The air grows thicker and heavier as he pushes through the dense branches, twigs and dried leaves snapping and crunching underfoot. 'Pretty bleak.' 'The way it's written though, it's like a fever. I read it so fast the first time, I had to go back twice, or three times, and I just couldn't believe it. I didn't want to but there it was. He couldn't find her.' A small clearing ahead. A huge old tree, twisted by the centuries. The floor around is shifting and seething. Hundreds of legs run across the forest floor. 'Right.' She frowned. 'And now you're in love with her?' 'I guess' 'Are you really?' 'Yeah. I am.' 'Lou.' 'I don't know anyone called Lou.' The rats scuttle to and fro from the foot of the tree, up and over the huge roots that stretch out into the surrounding bushes. They begin to approach the forlorn newcomer, begin to crawl over his feet and legs. He turns but there are branches there blocking his path. 'Probably for the best. You might fall in love with them.' 'Very funny.' 'What's the book called?' 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.' 'What?' 'It's a joke. It's originally The Young Man. I think it's a painting, or a different book.' The walls of the wooden prison grow all around him. He struggles further into the trees then stops and listens. But the only sound is his own heavy breath that fills and warms the small den. 'I see.' 'The chapter's called One Warm Saturday. The last one, the one with Lou. Isn't that perfect? One Warm Saturday.' 'Is it?' 'It's like... Just Now, or, An Afternoon. Summer 1967. Swimming in the Sea. Light in the Trees. That Time Then. It's so simple but so sure of itself.' Close your eyes and imagine lifting your arms. In the darkness you can reach forever, there are no walls. Imagine flying up and away from here. Leaving it all behind and just floating up and away till you drift out of time. 'Are you coming?' He jumped and opened his eyes. The woods were gone. Just the trees in the park. The pigeons, coffee, the dog further off. 'Are you sure you're okay?' 'Yeah, sorry. Let's go.' 'No rush. We're already late.' 'Where are we going anyway?' 'I'm not sure. They said something about a new place that's just opened round the corner so thought we'd check it out.' He pocketed the notebook. 'Sounds good.' 'Shoelace.' The light of the one weak lamp in a rusty circle fell across the brick-heaps and the broken wood and the dust that had been houses once, where the small and hardly known and never-to-be-forgotten people of the dirty town had lived and loved and died and, always, lost.
©2007-2021 Benedict Esdale