The Derby Arboretum bubbled with lovers strolling hand in hand and sitting on the wooden benches. Families came to picnic, and children cavorted under the watchful eyes of their parents. Amidst all these excitements, Abbey sat alone under a magnolia tree, her hands held loosely in her lap. For six years, since she’d come to the UK, she’d been a regular visitor to the park. But she’d never found herself so lonely here like she was today. The breeze’s spindly fingers, rich with an earthy fragrance, grazed her cheeks, but this did nothing to ease her clenching stomach. The wind rustled the tree branches and tugged at the leaves, which floated like giant confetti, joining a mosaic of reds and browns that quilted the earth.
An unkindness of ravens circled, their black plumage set off against the mauve sky. She recalled fascinating bedtime Bible stories involving ravens her mother had told her as a child. The thought of her mother’s storytelling theatrics and the echo of her soothing, long-ago voice in Abbey’s ears made her smile. She wouldn’t mind reliving those days in Ibadan, in her mother’s bedroom with its perpetual camphor smell.
Taking her phone out of her purse, she walked toward the ravens to take their pictures. Two tanned girls—brunette and blonde—snuggled up to each other on a mat. Her insides tightened again, and she clutched at her purse. The brunette stroked her partner’s hair and kissed her forehead. Leaves fell and fluttered around Abbey’s feet, slowly leaving the branches unclad.
She slumped down on a chair to her right. The naked limbs reminded her of the approaching winter. The three previous cold seasons had been depressing. It was killing her not to have someone to spend her time with, someone to cuddle with under blankets in the long nights or binge Netflix with her. The dead weight of loneliness was more crushing than the despair of a broken relationship.
She’d had three dates. The first was a building engineer who walked with swaggering ease. He lived in the blue half of Manchester—that was how he described the location of his beamed-ceiling apartment, which was also an orgy of blue—but he didn’t understand a woman’s love language as much as he understood Pep Guardiola’s tactics for Manchester City.
The second had been a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike, whose refrigerator held bruised peaches. He was a business development manager in an insurance company listed on the London Stock Exchange. But he worked long hours, often through weekends and holidays. No time for her.
The third was a slim Zimbabwean, a doctor at the same hospital where she was a nurse, who hung chrome-framed pictures of Robert Mugabe in his house. How could a person adore a sit-tight leader, a man whose administration had rendered his national currency worthless, to the point of breaking the very first of the Ten Commandments?
While the dates hadn’t gone well, Abbey had vowed not to whine about her experiences. She couldn’t really because every subsequent date had been in her imagination. But the dreams had taken root in her mind; the line between her fantasy world and reality had blurred. Sometimes, she unconsciously searched for something one of her three suitors had left behind in her apartment.
Abbey’s phone beeped: a WhatsApp message from Leila. She’d encouraged Abbey to try online dating. Abbey had the impression it was for losers, those who’d lost hope of meeting a partner in real life. If you couldn’t strike love in the physical world, what was the chance of striking it in the virtual space?
But Leila had met Gustav Svensson, her Swedish boyfriend, on an app called Romance Fest. They’d been together for eight months, which was the longest time she’d ever dated a man.
Abbey had already installed the app and was considering when to start using it. She opened the app, then closed it. Logging on to Netflix, she renewed her subscription and watched a romance movie about a trans woman dating a trans man. It was comforting that no matter who you were, no matter where you found yourself, you could find a love who shared your identity. She stuck to the movie until the sunset paled on the horizon.
* * *
Abbey took a bite of her fettuccine, but it tasted bitter. She often came to Casia—this mid-priced, family-run Italian restaurant bordered by a bookstore and a florist on a tree-lined street—to give relief to a mind laden with terrible pictures from the hospital. When she used to drive straight home after work, the patients she’d nursed would appear in her dreams, their moaning and anguished faces haunting her. It was a worry she’d divulged to Rabiot, a French-born psychologist she’d met several times in the hospital cafeteria.
Rabiot had listened to her, his eyes unblinking, his elbows on the table, and his fists propping his chin. Then he’d said, “Perhaps you should find somewhere else to go first—a restaurant or a park—before you head home. There you can relax and free your mind of the burdens that it’s picked up around here.”
Since then, Abbey had let the sights and sounds in this restaurant—the arrivals and departures of patrons, the laughs, the patter of feet, and the samba of mastication—distract her until she could no longer feel the imprint of her patients or hear their moaning; until she’d had their images replaced with scenes from the street.
She sat at a table outside but lost her appetite as soon as the waitress, Danielle, placed the food before her. One patient weighed on Abbey’s mind—a middle-aged woman who’d been flown in from Lagos after her family had paid for her treatment through a crowd-funded event. Abbey had been working her ward this afternoon when the woman died.
She’d always felt the demise of a patient as a personal loss, but something about this woman’s death had impacted her emotions harder: the shattering of the woman’s unusual hope of survival, a hope anchored on her faith, resonating in her splintery voice—“I’ll survive this in Jesus’ name. I’ll return home with my health completely restored.”
The patient’s subsequent death in the face of such hope reminded Abbey that time flew, so one had better not wait to fulfill one’s dreams. She’d trudged to the nurses’ changing room, feeling as though her breath were being drained from her. There, she’d dropped into a chair and, teary, scrubbed her hand over her face.
Abbey’s throat grew shards, and it hurt to swallow. She glanced about as she played with her fork. The evening sun was a primrose yellow in the Derby sky. Two guys rode away carefree on their bikes. Then she saw the rangy man in a tweed blazer who’d become an everyday sight. He was pushing his baby in a buggy down the street. She’d always wondered where his wife was, or whether he was a full-time dad. She couldn’t think of herself having a man like that. A couple stomped past him as though hurrying to an emergency.
At the table next to hers sat a gray-haired couple. The woman laughed, tipping back her head. What had the man said that elicited such a hearty response from her? Could Abbey find a man to make her laugh, too? Could she survive another lonely winter? A sob rose in her throat. She didn’t realize her eyes had misted heavily with tears until the waitress came by.
“You’re crying?” Danielle said.
“Oh, Danielle,” she said with tremor in her voice, “I lost a patient today.” It was easier to tell the waitress she was grieving over a lost patient than to tell her she was in despair over her loneliness.
Danielle, eyes crinkling, put a hand to her chest. “I’m so sorry, darling. Please accept my condolences.”
Abbey choked on the ice-burn of the sob. “Thank you.”
It was a consolation she needed, but she had a sense that she could get much more using Romance Fest. It was as though finding love would compensate for the woman’s death. Or even just finding a man for the short term. A partner to satisfy her skin hunger, her craving for sensual touch during the freezing weather—those feelings the silver vibrator she’d named Ben couldn’t rouse in her.
She ate her fettuccine again, opened the app, and created her account. At first, when she uploaded ten pictures, she thought she was just crazy and desperate. But then she saw other women who had posted twenty or thirty pictures—an entire photo album—on the app.
She typed as her profile headline: Whiskey in a teacup. Then she wrote in the “About Me” space: Am a caring, hardworking and voluptuous girl, I may come off a little shy at first but am really a nice person. I enjoy reading mystery and suspense novels and watching Marvel and DC movies. I love cuddling and long passionate kisses. My love language is important. I desire touch. Am a good cook.
Abbey included this last attribute because almost all the Black girls on the app had mentioned it. They’d written, “I enjoy cooking,” “I’m skilled at preparing sumptuous meals for my lover,” or “Cooking is my hobby.”
Maybe these girls had found that cooking was the way to a man’s heart. Again taking their lead, Abbey added, My perfect date is a romantic walk on the beach/in a park or spending time at a cinema.
I want a Derby-based man that is beautiful inside and out, industrious and capable of genuine intention. She wrote, I want a God-fearing man, but deleted it because that would make her sound self-righteous or too religious (even though she had been raised by a mother who was a devout Anglican) and like a typical Nigerian girl looking for a husband. In its place, she wrote: I want a man that will not abandon his family, that will treasure his wife and children forever. Am not for bedroom fettering and binding. Only demons should be chained. Am not a demon. LOL!
She guzzled her wine, relishing its rich cinnamon flavor. Hadn’t she accessed a new universe, where her options on love would be infinite, where overtures would be so overwhelming as to crush the previous uncertainties that had besieged her? The warmth that coursed through her veins must have brightened her countenance because when Danielle came for her money, she remarked, “Good to see you’ve turned on your beautiful face again.”
* * *
Two days later, a Black man with the name Tudor reached out to Abbey on the app. He was thirty-six, three years older than her, and had a long, narrow face. He said she looked cool and gorgeous. He would love to earn a chance to see her beautiful face. The message made her cheeks tingle. She couldn’t have had a compliment more befitting than that. Over the next four days, they exchanged messages, talking about growing up, love, and work. She’d started to feel a connection with him, but then he stopped replying to her.
Hi, Tudor, I hope you had a wonderful day. I hope you are faring well.
Are you okay over there?
Hey, Tudor! What’s up with you?
It was frustrating to see that her messages had been read without any reply. Had she said something rude that made him stop answering her? She went through her messages and found nothing discourteous.
At Casia, over plates of fettuccine, Abbey told Leila about her frustration.
“There are weird guys on dating apps. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that.” Leila was the queen of internet dating and had explored thirty or so other apps. “You might come across some random dude who shows interest at first but later ignores you.”
Outraged, Abbey dropped her fork. “Without giving you any reason?”
“That’s what ghosts do.” Leila chewed her food. “I met a few, too, before Gustav.”
“Ghosts, ghosts,” Abbey said, eyeing the long, curling ribbons that massed together on her plate as though the pasta were strange to her.
“You can also call them ‘sons of bitches,’” Leila said. “You might think they’re into you, not knowing they’re setting you up for abandonment.”
Abandonment. Abbey had known it since she was four—when her father had deserted his family. Her youngest older sister, Rachael, was eight, and her oldest older sister, Rebecca, was eleven. What Abbey remembered of that time was her mother crying day and night, neighbors coming to their apartment to console them, and Abbey longing to see her father return home to comfort her mother.
A flame of pain burst in Abbey’s stomach and spread to her chest. She fought the urge to cry.
“Whatever happens,” Leila said, “I’m still rooting for you.”
Abbey wiped a tear from her eye.
* * *
A second man, named Krull, sent Abbey a “flirt.” His profile read that he indulged in mountaineering. His first photo showed him in his full kits at the base of a mountain. The second showed him beaming atop the mountain, his rope, helmet, and carabiners at his feet. He had a ruddy square face.
A lover of adventure might be an interesting personality for her to meet. She responded with, “Hello, Krull the Everest (three smiling emojis). How have you been?”
Two days passed, and Krull had remained silent. It was disappointing to have met another ghost.
“Hello, babe?” she called Leila. “Guess my second experience on Romance Fest.”
Krull’s silence still hurt. But she laughed to disguise her pain. “Deader than the first.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I love that you made light of it. Another one has eliminated himself.” Leila spoke in the cockney accent she’d been imitating of late since she started attending an evening drama school. “You’re closer to getting a living soul than when you started using the app. You know what I mean by a living soul?”
“They won’t waste your time. They know what they want. Gustav is one of them. He called me the same day we messaged each other on the app.”
“That’s comforting,” Abbey said. Unlike her, Leila was an extroverted empath, and Abbey couldn’t help but love her for that. Sometimes she wished she had Leila’s kind of cross-cultural background. Leila’s father was from Bridgetown in Jamaica, while her mother was a Black American mixed with the Blackfoot and Choctaw Indian tribes.
“Be expectant of another man,” Leila said.
Abbey was hopeful, and within forty-eight hours, another man, Mason, contacted her. His profile revealed that he was romantic, accommodating, and appreciated Black beauty. He might have added the last feature because of her. His marital status read Separated. He left a love-up message in her inbox.
Hey, Abbey. You’re beautiful. I admire your blackness. Might we connect?
She wasn’t excited about his note. Tudor had worded a better compliment than Mason’s, which had led her nowhere. The former’s impeccable use of grammar had made her realize she’d been reckless with her punctuation on the app. Anyway, she was also wary of Mason for not having more than one photo. The image was even a long shot of him wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts on a beach. His hair, which seemed blown, was plastered to his forehead. In an age where most people had smartphones, shouldn’t a profile consist of more than one picture?
In her apartment, Abbey whined to Leila about Mason’s single snapshot.
“Oh, men don’t take pictures as much as we do.” Leila gestured to the several framed photos of Abbey and her sisters on the walls and TV stand. “Do you think they have time for it? It can never be their hobby. Gustav had two pictures when I stumbled on his profile.”
“All right, I’ve heard you.” Abbey raised her hands, laughing. “No more complaint about his lack of photos.”
Leila clapped. “That’s my girl! You should meet him first before you make your final decision.”
Later, Abbey reclined on the bed and logged onto Romance Fest. She found that Krull had deactivated his account and realized that Tudor had only two pictures. Most of the men on the app had only one or two photos, as though it had been a unanimous decision.
* * *
When Abbey’s shift ended at ten the next evening, she clocked out and walked to the nurses’ parking lot humming a song, her sneakers bouncing on the asphalt. One of her patients had regained consciousness, while another had been discharged. What could be more satisfying at a hospital?
The stars twinkled across the night sky like sugar sprinkled on chocolate pudding, and she found it hard to hold back a smile. She got into her car, opened Romance Fest, and texted Mason.
Hello, Mason, many thanks for your compliments. I hope you’re fine.
He replied at once. I’m fine. You?
Had he activated a notification for her message? I’m good. Thanks.
This opening stirred a flurry of messages between them. His real name was Farhad Chekri. He was born to British and Iranian parents and worked as a consultant cloud architect. She admitted she hadn’t heard of that profession. After he sent a lengthy message about front-end and back-end platforms, Linux and Unix, and Google cloud technologies, she realized she wasn’t interested in learning anything more about his work than her present blissful ignorance. She felt relieved when he changed the subject to his love for risotto-and-shrimp dinners—a combination she hadn’t tried, but would like to.
We could have it together. How about that? he wrote with colorful love and dinner emoticons.
It’s possible, she replied with two smiling emojis. The beam of a headlight through her windshield jolted her, and she looked out to see a car reversing away. A uniformed guard patrolled the park. She was safe.
Nice. I’m great company, Farhad responded.
She sent him three thumbs-up emojis. Without missing a beat, he dropped his phone number. As she gazed at it, her blood pulsed. Wasn’t it too early to share contact info? As if he’d read her mind, he asked if he’d been too hasty in sending his number. She answered no, it was all right, recalling Leila’s pronouncement that “A living soul won’t waste time!” When she dropped her own number, he called right away. She was struck by his deep mellow voice, which soothed like a warm caress. It so entranced her that when he asked to meet at the Arboretum on Saturday evening, she said, “Cool. Okay,” without thinking.
“Five in the evening,” he said. “How about that?”
“Yes, five is fine.”
But when the call ended, she gripped the steering wheel and asked herself if she’d been too quick to agree. Her hands trembled. Wasn’t it rushing things to set up a hang out in two days’ time? Clearly, he was desperate for her, wasn’t he? Was there anything off about him—something psychopathic, or who knows what? Had any unsuspecting women fallen prey to his wiles? A few months ago, a young woman’s body was found in an alley near a popular bar, having been stabbed in her crotch. Abbey wasn’t sure if the local Sherlock Holmes had apprehended Kayla’s killer.
She took a deep breath and put the car into gear. Normally, she was a leisure motorist whose driving far below the speed limit infuriated Leila. But this evening, she pressed more gas, cutting through the road as though escaping from Mason or the promise she’d given him.
Back in her apartment, she slumped onto her bed. Could her longing for a romantic relationship turn into something more macabre? She called Leila and told her about her conversation with Farhad, then expressed her misgivings about their date.
“You think he might be a predator seeking his next prey? Yes, he’s probably the person who killed poor Kayla some months back, right? Babe, your mind is running amok.” This was conveyed in her big-auntie voice. “You’ve read too many whodunit books. Paranoia is a toxin. Murder mystery has poisoned your mind with dark imaginings.”
“It has nothing to do with books.” She sat up. Streetlights pierced the gap in the curtains and blond-streaked the third drawer of her mahogany dresser.
“What is it, then?”
Silent, she wandered to the living room. A part of her wanted to keep hoarding her trauma.
“Aren’t you gonna meet Farhad in the open? At the Arboretum, you said?”
“Babe, just look your best on Saturday and be there.” A truck passed outside during the short silence on the line. “Listen carefully, Ms. Paranoia: he isn’t going to harm you in the park. You aren’t meeting in a secluded place, are you?”
“Then just meet him and see if you two hit it off. I’ll be waiting to hear how it went.” A dramatic yawn from her had Abbey smiling. “I had a long day. I’m going to crash now.”
“He might be the one and he might not. Either way, you’ve got nothing to lose. But you’ve got to give it a shot. There’s nothing to worry about, is there?”
“How I wish that was true,” Abbey said under her breath, then realized Leila had hung up.
She could deceive everyone except herself. Her dread wasn’t about the possibility of falling prey to a psychopath—that story was to cloak the secret fear of abandonment she bore ever since her father’s sudden disappearance years earlier. The aftermath of his vanishing had been tortuous: the unwritten rule not to talk about him in the house; her mother destroying all his photos before she turned five; her now-adult mind still heavy with questions about his whereabouts.
When she dropped her phone on the TV stand, she gazed at Rebecca and Rachael’s pictures. She’d been twelve when she overheard them—during a rare moment when they spoke about him in passing—saying that her father had run off with another woman. As she grew up, some questions begged for answers: Why would a father abandon his home? What fatal attraction lured him away from his beautiful daughters? Would he have abandoned them if they were boys? The questions were to remain unanswered; a knotted web that couldn’t be untangled.
For years, she’d struggled with the sharp pain of abandonment without telling a soul. Whenever her despair flared up, her desire for a lover seemed frivolous and illusory—no matter how much she longed for romance. She coughed to clear her throat and wiped tears off her cheeks. Her sisters were married with kids. Why was she the only one being haunted by the ghost of his disappearance? Was it because she was the last born and hadn’t had much of him by the time he left?
The tears flowed as her two warring selves—one wanting and the other not wanting a lover—screamed at her. The wanting part insisted Farhad was a good catch. She should wrap her fingers around this treasure and see where it led. The not-wanting self warned that it would be suicidal to end up abandoned like her mother. It was safer for her to open her palm and let the so-called jewel slip away. It was surreal to have a part of her grieve the gain of a good catch, while another part celebrated the loss of this treasure.
Her wanting self desired someone to cuddle under the blankets in the long winter nights. That part had registered on Romance Fest. The not-wanting self had used Mason’s single picture as an excuse not to message him at first. It used Kayla’s murder as a warning to stop her from meeting with him, had been happy when Tudor stopped replying, and was delighted when Krull didn’t respond to her messages. That self kept her away from the building engineer, the business development manager, and the doctor, so she only dated the trio in her imagination, seeing them whenever Ben served her sexual urges. The not-wanting self was the locker that hoarded her pain—the being she hadn’t revealed to Leila.
Now the two voices pushed and jostled in her head, her temples throbbing from the impact. She dropped to the floor and hugged her head to her knees, her tears falling to the floor.
* * *
On Saturday evening, Abbey sat gazing into her dresser mirror, applying makeup, when Leila called.
“Hi, sweetheart. You should be preparing to meet him, right?”
Abbey let out a breath to release the pressure building inside her. “I’ll be on my way in the next twenty minutes.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Not really? You’re sure?”
“Yes.” She didn’t dare admit her edginess. Leila had switched to her big-auntie voice, and she couldn’t bear another of her motivational talks.
“Hey, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be waiting to hear how it went.”
Farhad had phoned about 3:30 p.m.—a video call at his request. His dark, curly hair framed a broad, open face wreathed in smiles, his lips pink, as if moistened with Burgundy wine. Abbey, does this guy look like a killer? Come on, can you identify a killer by their face? He’d said he couldn’t wait to meet her and wished their 5 p.m. date was in Glasgow time as opposed to Derby’s. It would have left them thirty minutes to meet instead of ninety. She’d laughed and promised to be at the park at five o’clock sharp. Still, she hadn’t bothered to add his name to her contact list.
For one last time, she appraised herself in the mirror—her cheeks rouged with dusty rose, her eyes shot into prominence by two-toned eyeliner, her low-cut hair dyed champagne red, and her parrot-green ruffled blouse tucked snug into a modest tan skirt. Satisfied, she grasped her purse and stepped out of her apartment. Her feet grew heavy as she walked to her car, and she plopped into the driver’s seat as though her legs had given out. It was a quarter to five. She could be at the Arboretum within ten minutes. Fierce heartbeats vibrated her chest. Did she really want to go? Should she go? She wiped her moist palms on her skirt and drove out, in spite of herself.
* * *
She found a parking spot, pulled over, and got out. The tree-lined street smelled like the exhaust of a dryer vent. But two blocks to Casia, the smell gave way to the aromatic delights of Paulo’s cooking— layers upon layers of them: Bolognese sauce, minced beef, flavored olive oil, garlic, basil, all tickling her nose, and so lively and refreshing. She took a deep breath.
When she arrived at the restaurant, she chose a table outside. Danielle was attending to a young interracial couple—a Black man and his brunette partner—whose presence hit at Abbey that she should be with Farhad.
Danielle finished and came over to her table. She wore a salmon-colored shirt with the inscription ‘Casia,’ and a peasant skirt. “Hey, nice to see you again.” She ventured a smile that deepened the green of her irises. “Fettuccine and Bolognese sauce?”
Abbey switched off her phone. “Risotto and shrimp, this time, please, and red wine.”
“Trying something new?”
“Don’t we all need to once in a while?”
Danielle nodded and went inside. A gentle breeze swept through the street, bringing with it an unexpected chill. A deep laugh burst from the couple but she kept her gaze averted. Leaves tumbled from branches of nearby trees—red and brown flags bereft of cords—and waltzed across the road.
Danielle returned with the order and poured the wine into a glass. “You look so fabulous today.”
“Do you have a date somewhere? Or are you meeting here?”
Abbey checked her watch. Ten minutes past five. “I was supposed to meet someone.”
“You stood him—or her, or them, up?”
Danielle stayed silent, contemplative, her features solemn. “Why? It’s terrible to be stood up.”
Abbey wanted to say she was afraid to go through with the date but the words escaped her. Instead, she glanced down at her wine, shoulders pulled in. Danielle forced a weak smile past her disappointment and left. Abbey picked at her food.
As if a menu god had cast its enchantment, the restaurant soon surged with patrons. Danielle moved from table to table, and Abbey salved her guilt with the pleasant sights and sounds around her. She savored her wine and had her glass refilled. When she finished her food, it was just about six. The meal had fortified her, and she felt good as she settled her bill.
Back in her car, it occurred to her that the buggy pusher hadn’t passed this evening. Or had she missed him? But what did his passing have to do with her life? Why was she consumed with the whereabouts of a stranger she would never summon the courage to meet? She exited the parking spot.
Farhad? The thought came with a long sigh.
How many times had he called her over the past hour? She imagined him combing the length and breadth of the park like a surveyor on reconnaissance, approaching every Black woman and receiving the same answer: “No, I’m not Abbey Bello,” or “I’m sorry, I’m not the one.” Was he worried, angry, or disappointed?
She headed nowhere in particular. Later, she found herself on a road she’d passed earlier. She followed a cavalcade of bikes and, after a stoplight, veered eastward, passing the sex shop where she’d bought Ben. A southbound turn led through a drive-in cinema where she, Leila, and Gustav had watched a movie two Saturdays before. A short time later, she found herself on the road that led to the Arboretum.
When she pulled over across from the park entrance, she hunched over the steering wheel. An animated troop of picnickers came out of the recreation center. Farhad could be any man there with red lips and dark, curly hair, emerging with a sad countenance. Sad because of her. The guilt returned like a curtain covering her heart. She shouldn’t feel regret. Could she bear abandonment like her mother had? The curtain went down.
She was sure he couldn’t identify her. When they’d video-called, her face had been plain. Afterward, working the magic of makeup, she’d slipped into her other face, which stemmed from human effort rather than Mother Nature. She was wearing this facade like protective gear, and it would see her home safely.
The only man who had red lips, dark, curly hair, and wore a forlorn face emerged with a woman and two teenage girls. He couldn’t be Farhad. His profile had indicated he was separated. The family moved down the street. Then her gaze strayed to some ravens looping in a half circle overhead and she recalled the story of Noah in her mother’s Bible. Didn’t a raven dash his hope when it flew away, never to return, never to meet his expectations? The story unmasked her own behavior and gnawed at her conscience. She bit her lip hard. Why was she even idling here? She wasn’t going to beckon to Farhad even if she spotted him, or was she?
She put the car in gear and retraced her drive back, watching billboards glow and storefronts glimmer through signs and awnings.
* * *
Earlier, she’d tucked the quilt tight as though she’d intended to bring Farhad home. Now she slid into bed and switched on her phone. The WhatsApp icon appeared at the top corner of the screen. She swiped down the indicator. The messages were from Leila and Farhad. As she imagined the texts they might have sent—Leila wanting to know about their outing, and Farhad expressing his displeasure—a cold needle of unease threaded its way through her insides. Anyhow, Leila’s message shouldn’t be too bitter to chew.
Hey sweetheart, I’ve been trying to reach you. Call me asap.
Abbey jolted as her phone rang. It was Leila.
“Hey, babe. Did you switch off your phone?” she asked. “How did it go? Do you like him?”
Abbey hesitated. “I didn’t see him.”
“He didn’t show up?”
“I didn’t go.” She almost whispered it, as though it were a secret.
“What? Did you say…? You stood him up?” Leila’s voice was tight and high, a tone that indicated arduous control over her imminent outburst of venom.
“I didn’t…” Abbey ran two fingers over her brow. “I don’t feel it’s ideal that we meet.”
“Do you realize you’re now the ghost?”
“My mind wasn’t settled enough for me to go there.”
“Bitch!” Leila hissed. The line went dead.
Abbey felt suddenly exhausted. She dropped the phone at her side. It beeped. Farhad was video-calling through WhatsApp. The pit of her stomach froze. She couldn’t stand seeing the disappointment on his face or hearing it in his voice. Why hadn’t she switched off her data? The tooting stopped. A moment later, the phone rang again. She covered her face with her palms. What excuse could she give him without her voice growing choppy or her features betraying her? Her words wouldn’t make sense—not to him, not to herself either. The tension wound itself around her guts like sickness.
The silence that followed tunneled through her ears. Another set of messages dropped. She shuddered as she opened the chat page.
Hello Abbey. I keep wondering why you didn’t come, began the first message Farhad had sent at 6:12 p.m. I went round the park looking for you until I was tired. I was worried when I couldn’t reach you on your phone. Please, call and let me know you’re fine.
She should call him that she was fine? Then what? It wasn’t as easy as he’d projected.
I’m disappointed because I shortchanged my son, the latest series of messages began. The time I should’ve used to walk him in his buggy I wasted going to the park instead.
She could hear his voice in the texts, throbbing with sadness. It broke her heart to think Farhad was likely the rangy man who buggy-pushed his child down the street near Casia. She hadn’t seen him this evening because he’d gone to the park, hoping to meet her.
Things might have happened that you hadn’t bargained for.
We can make arrangements for another day. Possibly next weekend.
Please message me back.
The texts aroused her. It seemed he was saying, I’m an embodiment of everything romantic you desire in a man. I’m giving you another chance to give my love a shot.
Indeed, it pleased her to aim for his love. But they didn’t have to wait until next weekend. She went over to the dresser, pulling at the third drawer. She dug past her crotchless panties and other lingerie to the bottom of the drawer where Ben was nestled in a velvety bag. The craving that followed was one she’d felt after she’d evaded the building engineer and the business development manager; the irrepressible urge she’d satisfied before—which, in turn, had smothered her guilt of ghosting. She slid back into bed and closed her eyes.
In the park, Farhad draped his arm around Abbey as they strolled along the carpet of reds and browns laid out like one for the queen.
“The rangy buggy pusher,” she teased.
“The Black Florence Nightingale scared of abandonment,” he said, and she laughed, tipping back her head.
When they sat on a bench, she burrowed into the warm, exotic smell of his Oxford shirt, unmindful of the leaves fluttering around her feet. The breeze crooned blues in the tree above them. He pressed his mouth to hers, filling her with his peppermint breath. It gave her a sensation that made her breath catch in her throat.
By then, Ben was inside her. ■
About the author
Olusola Akinwale grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria. His works have appeared in the Hamilton Stone Review, Silk Road Review, Prole, Western Post, the Monarch Review, the Cardiff Review and elsewhere. He was a winner of two national essay contests in Nigeria and a finalist for the 2017 Galtellì Literary Prize in Sardinia, Italy. An alumnus of the Fidelity Bank Creative Writing workshop, he can be tracked on twitter.com@olusolaakinwale
A pair of spectacles sat perched on the narrow bridge of his nose as he read. Lauren contemplated clearing her throat or tapping her foot on the floor to gain his attention, but decided against it; her grandfather never looked like he was in good spirits.
“I have found a way for you to be useful,” he finally announced.
“You have?” she asked, confused.
“I am to be called sir,” he stated. “Clearly, your parents did not value good manners.”
Clearly your parents never valued family.
“What is it then, sir?” she ground out.
He was dissatisfied but continued. “You have been here for three months and five days.”
And approximately twelve hours.
“Yes, sir. I am very thankful for your generosity,” she sincerely answered.
“Be that as it may, it is time you should not need to rely on it.”
Lauren waited silently for an explanation.
“I have found you a suitable partner.”
“Partner for what?”
“Marriage. He will, thankfully, accept you despite all the flaws you exhibit.”
“Marriage?!” she said, incredulous. “But I am still in mourning!”
“Yes. But you are no beauty; and frankly, why bother with the expenses for another nine months without hope of a return?”
Lauren would have retaliated, but she knew it was true. She had never been an English rose with looks to inspire poetry. She was pleasant to look at, but nothing extraordinary, and that was not enough to spark passion or longing in a gentleman.
“But I. . . “
“That is all,” he concluded.
Lauren stepped back as if the stern reply had physically struck her, and met the intense glare on his weathered face.
“I think. . .”
“No one bloody cares what you think!” the man boomed. “Your measurements are with the modiste right now. You will meet Mr Atherton tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” she croaked, before his valet escorted her to her chamber.
Afternoon loomed into view, and Lauren was sat in the parlour of Grange Hall, her fingers nervously knotted into the green muslin of her gown. To think, the first time she was wearing colour and it was for her fiancé.
Fiancé . . . Christ, that sounded terrifying.
She stood at the sound of a masculine voice, and swallowed the painful lump in her throat as he entered with a reassuring smile. He deftly pried her hand away from her gown, and raised it to his lips. “You’re nervous.”
“Bit of an understatement,” she said shakily.
“Perhaps I can help,” he murmured. In explanation, his other hand found its way to the small of her back, and he ran his fingers downwards like raindrops sliding on a window pane. Cool and tranquil and scalding rain drops. Like his touch.
What an asinine thought.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
He raised an amused brow, “Soothing you.”
“I do not need soothing. “
“I beg to differ, my dear,” he drawled.
“Do not call me dear!” she tore out.
“You will hear it plenty once you’re Mrs Atherton,” he said, seating himself in the wingback opposite her, an expectant look on his face as she reluctantly did likewise.
Lauren summoned her scattered civility, “I realise, Mr Atherton, that we are engaged but . . .“
“I am dreadfully sorry for making you wait, Miss Walter. I’m afraid my phaeton has been suffering all day!” This came from a newly arrived gentleman. “Lovely to see you, Matthew.”
“It should be,” Matthew replied with a glance at Lauren. “I’ve been keeping your betrothed company, Nathan.”
Her eyes leaped to the gentleman in the doorway.
Just who was she marrying?
“Kind of you,” he said, joining them.
Lauren came to know after much needed introductions that Matthew was not her fiancé. Nathan was.
And oddly, a part of her felt the slightest tinge of disappointment.
Nathan was a kind man with pleasing looks and manners. Why he could not find a better wife had therefore been a mystery. Until they had conversed. He needed a wife who did not mind devoting her time to listening to his mundane lectures and ramblings.
Matthew, on the other hand, was always equipped with a jaunty air and easy sense of humour. Shame he showed no plans for immediate (or eventual) settling. He would have made an interesting companion. For another.
“You will make a good wife, Lauren. Do not be so worried.”
She had not in fact been thinking of that at all. Her worry resided in the fact that she was beginning to bore of his company and seek his cousin’s more.
A tremulous smile touched her lips, “Thank you, Nathan.”
“Of course, you’ll need assistance to improve your etiquette before the wedding,” he added.
“Oh, I didn’t-”
“I’ll find the best to educate you, do not fret, Lauren.”
Lauren suppressed her embarrassment as her fiancé obliviously continued. Never so much had she wanted to shrink into a speck of dust just to be unseen. Her parents had loved her, cared for her, and made her a happy child in a poorhouse. She’d always thought love was enough.
Before this life, she’d thought a lot of things.
Still, she supposed she should be thankful to be offered a chance to improve.
It just stung a little.
“It’s just to quieten the ton,” said Matthew, as she related the conversation to him the next day. “This wedding is driving us crazy.”
Lauren mustered a smile, “And here I thought only the bride and groom suffered.”
“Nothing compared to mine, I assure you. The match-making mamas will tear me to shreds about my preferred state of solitude.”
“Clearly, I’ve been self-involved till now.”
“You have a right to be, Lauren,” he said with the dismissive wave of a hand. “Perhaps I can assist you? Would you like any names wiped off the invitation list?”
“My own,” she said despondently.
He slipped her arm out of the crook of his, and they stopped. A thoughtful silence encompassed them.
She looked up into his eyes, and for once they were completely solemn.
It was chilling. But because her heart quivered and stilled in her chest, she knew she loved him.
“No,” he smirked. “I’d love to see you in a white dress, pouting like an angry child.”
But she was engaged.
Lauren mustered her senses and rolled her eyes, “Christ, what do you think of me?!”
His face hovered over hers, “Everything.” And his lips closed over hers, stroking and caressing with an intensity that stole her breath and shredded her resolve.
She didn’t think she could feel cherished and revered again. Like more than a crass-mannered mail order bride.
She wanted so desperately for it to remain.
But it couldn’t and she pulled back breathlessly, unable to force a voice through her parted lips as his eyes roved over her with an unfathomable expression, “I’m sorry.”
She pressed her eyelids together for a moment, and exhaled a trembling breath. When she opened them, he had gone.
And she was left on the grassy ground of her fiancé’s gardens.
Where she had kissed another man.
A week passed, and Lauren heard nothing from either gentlemen.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“The engagement has been called off!” her grandfather spat out. “You bloody twit! Couldn’t even hold onto a sure thing.”
A string of philippic insults followed; and eventually, Lauren pulled on her cloak and bonnet and left the estate.
She sat in the park, under the shade of an oak tree and sighed; the one time she wanted a rainy English day, and it was bloody beautiful. She half shut her eyes as a few broken rays of light struck her face.
Unfortunately, good weather would not impart any joy in her life; she could practically see her grandfather searching for another ‘patsy’ to trick into marrying her.
“Jesus, Lauren! Could you look any more forlorn?”
“Yes, my dear,” he said, swiftly lifting her confused frame against his solid chest.
“Don’t. . .”
“I will call you dear. Sometimes sweetheart or love. Which do you prefer? I prefer Mrs Atherton. If you marry me.”
“I don’t think marrying one’s cousin is legal,” he replied with a jaunty grin. “And I’d much rather spend my wedding night with you, Lauren.”
“Why did he call off the engagement?” she asked shakily.
“I told him what had happened between us. I apologised, but his trust in you had been destroyed. He must also have sensed my affections for you, because he finally said that while you’d been good company to him, he couldn’t deny a love marriage for his own of convenience.”
He nodded, “Nathan is no fool. So, will you marry me, Lauren?”
“Yes!” she said before he wrapped his arms around her and placed a not-so-innocent kiss on her lips.
“About those lessons. . .” He laughed, noticing the frozen people, one of whom had covered her child’s eyes.
“I’m not going by myself,” she warned.
“That can be arranged.” His eyes glittered with mirth. “Unless you fancy an anvil wedding at Gretna Green?”
The sun was just peeking up over the tallest row of poplars on the edge of the farmer’s two acre yard. Beyond the deep irrigation ditch lay row upon row of apple trees, shaking in the warm summer breeze. I rose up out of the tall grass and shook my head, trying to focus on things as I began to feel a sense of urgency seeping its way back into my mind.
Where was I? Moreover, who was I? The last thing I remembered was hiding in this place as the day turned to night; letting the sounds of the world around me slowly grow silent as I became part of the landscape… safe for now. I awoke with a renewed sense of vitality and near euphoric painlessness, but it was tainted with this overbearing sense of urgency. I think I was being hunted. I looked down at my own hands and saw the blood for the first time. For God’s sake, what have I done?
I stood tall for a moment, peering from the safety of my hole out towards a colonial style farmhouse. It appeared to be nearly vacant, and there were no cars parked outside, which gave me enough confidence to carefully approach, keeping an eye on the county road leading to their driveway. With no dogs present, I quickly deduced that intrusion would be fairly easy.
Still on high alert as I crept inside, I noticed from the sound of water in the pipes that someone was in the shower upstairs, and there was even a plate of steaming food sitting on the breakfast table. An antique television was on in the breakfast nook, and a live newscast was being displayed; so I watched intently, never completely taking my attention off of the person in the shower.
The newscaster was obviously distraught, going on and on about a missing local girl. Feared to be the latest victim in a gruesome string of serial killings in the area was Christina Anne Cahill, the daughter of the town’s Sheriff, and a beautiful young blonde in the prime of her life… 17 years old and the Captain of the local High School’s Cheerleaders. Thus far, all that was known for certain was that the murders had been perpetrated by someone who used a hatchet as their means for killing, and sometimes decapitating, their victims.
All that was found was her necklace, an unmistakable golden locket given to her by her father. It was found outside a local pub where numerous witnesses had seen her waiting for her boyfriend, but she never made it home that night. According to the newscaster, her older boyfriend, a local lumberjack named Billy Gene Tharp, was prone to jealous fits in public, and had been arrested numerous times for assault. He was currently the prime suspect in the case.
I couldn’t be sure exactly why, but I immediately found myself in defense of this man and felt as if I knew him quite well. Her picture seemed so utterly familiar to me; staring at her beautiful likeness on the television, I almost lost track of where I was, and was surprised as the bathroom door at the top of the stairs started to open.
I panicked! Bolting for the same door I came in through, I nearly tripped on the table, and noticed a number of newspaper clippings and photographs strewn about. Several of the pictures I didn’t recognize; but as I stepped away from the table, I noticed an open yearbook with the young girl’s picture circled numerous times in bold marker. I bolted out the door, trying to make sense of all of this as the feeling of being hunted deepened in my psyche.
I quickly sprinted across the field toward the county road. I knew I couldn’t have killed her. It just wasn’t in my nature. Was it? I became dizzy and tripped on something, sprawling across the loose gravel on the side of the road. As I started to get up, I got another very close look at the blood on my hands, and I was sure of it… I had to have killed her! But why? This whole thing was like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. I ran without looking back.
Broken memories started flooding into my head in small, segmented pieces… a chase in the dark… someone right on my heels… a witness. Would I be able to keep myself from killing again? According to the news, I had already killed four others in the same manner! I had to find the time and solace to piece this together.
I paused for a moment, nervously looking back toward the house I had just left. There was someone emerging from the front door carrying something in his hand. I squinted, but from this distance I could not make out what it was… something fairly long, perhaps a pistol or hatchet. He slipped it into some sort of sheath, and opened the giant padlock to his garage; an old, dilapidated out-building beneath a large oak tree with a double door that swung outward.
I felt a momentary tingle of redemption as it became apparent that this might be the actual killer; but it was very quickly replaced with terror as I looked about for a place to hide, and only saw a long building down the road a stretch… much too far to run before he reached me. I watched from the roadside as he walked in, and soon the sound of a very large motor being started echoed in the morning air as a plume of black and grey smoke burst outward from within the garage. A second later, a police car emerged.
I looked around, then noticed a particularly large tuft of weeds and tall grass next to the roadside and dove in, trying to bury myself completely and stop moving before the man gained line of sight. The car seemed to take eons to pass as I held my breath for all I was worth. He finally passed with nary a glance in my direction; and as soon as it was safe to do so, I jumped from my hiding place, vomiting repeatedly as I staggered for the building up the road.
I walked up there, realizing it was a pub, already bustling with locals, in spite of the hour. I quickly washed my hands under a leaky spigot before entering, and looked around for the Sheriff’s police cruiser. It was nowhere to be seen. I collected my tattered nerves and walked inside.
There were people all about the place, drinking and making merry in spite of the horrible news. I came to the realization that these people had to be the patrons from last night. They simply never left, probably due to the dangerous situation brewing in this tiny community.
I looked about, and recognized every single one of their faces. The ostrich-like Mr. Anderson, recently divorced… Caroline McCormick, the pathetic, wannabe psychic who had been scamming the town’s most insecure people for decades… her husband Phillip, who had been cheating on her with the bartender, Miss Chloe Davis, the local-girl-made-good aspiring actress who came back from Hollywood with her tail between her legs two years ago after a couple of commercials and a small part in a failed pilot… the list went on and on. Why can’t I remember who I am?
“Chloe, get me a boilermaker!” I yelled in a husky, demanding voice, starting to get upset in a whole new sort of way. She kept on wiping the countertop and joking around with Earl Tolbert, an out of shape Journeyman Carpenter, who everyone liked, but no one trusted to hire for a remodel. “Chloe!” I yelled again.
She turned her head toward me quickly; but just then, the front door swung open and the Sheriff started walking in. The sun was shining brightly from behind him, making him appear nearly as a silhouette. I cringed, slowly turning back toward Chloe, who was sliding an open beer toward me with a saddened look as she nodded at the Sheriff. She set it on top of a coaster in front of me and turned back around toward Earl. My eyes followed her as she passed in front of me, directly between me and the back mirror.
“Chloe, I said a boilermaker… not a–” My jaw dropped open as I suddenly caught my own reflection in the bar mirror and saw the deep vertical gash in my forehead, splitting my skull open right below the part in my long, blonde hair. I barely recognized myself as I reached for the beer, only to have my hand pass right through the bottle, and nearly hyperventilating, screamed to no avail as the Sheriff sat down on my stool, passing right through me, and gasped to himself as the cold air permeating him turned his breath to fog.
Robien du Lacard (1829-1891) was born into a large bourgeois family, one of eight children. See him sit in the middle of a crowd, appearing withdrawn as if all that went on in the family was being repelled.
He was always very selective about everything: Give him the wrong kind of food or even clothes that didn’t suit him, he’d start crying (as a baby) or complaining loudly (as a child). As an adult, which started on his 21st birthday, he’d plainly shy away from all of the things that he did not appreciate, and these were many.
No wonder he earned the nickname (French), spoiled brat of the bourgeois, which also brought him quite a few fistfights in school. There he held up remarkably well. Although of slight build, he was fast on his feet, quick-fisted, and mean like a mad terrier once attacked. Having discovered his self-defense abilities, a team of five boys ganged up on him, attacking him from out of nowhere and without provocation on the way home from school. It gave him bruises, a split upper lip, and a broken jaw. Given his young age, it all healed rather fast and well, but his jaw never fully returned to its former shape. For the rest of his life, he looked somewhat strained when grinning. Little did it matter for this man, who was serious in the extreme.
He did, however, persuade the family’s doctor to call each of the five boys in for a physical examination, from which they emerged teary-eyed and bald-headed. Ever since the episode, Lacard carried a knife for self-defense, and he was never physically attacked or verbally abused again.
As his parents had been predicting, he entered the distinguished college of fine science, from which he emerged with a Masters Degree in Chemistry. He had been spending a significant portion in his room reading books about the topic, and even more in the basement underneath their house experimenting with powders, microscopes, liquids, and tubes. More than once, the household had been awoken by loud explosions – hence, his parents were keen to see him off to a place where he could develop inside a more controlled environment.
His master’s thesis entitled (French) The Big Bang Was Smaller Than the Next Explosion raised a few eyebrows among the academic elite. It postulated, in no uncertain terms, that the anarchist underground movement was acquiring sufficient chemicals, know-how and facilities to bomb the nation back to the Stone Age. His demonstration of these weapons, many of them rudimentary, was compelling but highly controversial, as some speculated that it could well fall into the wrong hands and inspire anarchists to new acts of terrorism. As a result, the Master’s Thesis defense was held in an undisclosed location, and once approved his thesis was never formally published. Today, it is available for inspection inside a thick glass showcase at the Parisian Cultural Center.
Upon having graduated, he changed course, abandoned the field of chemistry, and essentially turned his back on science except in its most abstract forms. What made him even more famous than his forbidden thesis was his first and only published book, Life is but One Moment. This beautifully bound volume, which ran 560 pages with classic typesetting, presented the idea that the meaning of life is a single moment, a single element, or a single event. Hence, all things are preparations for this.
His big moment came very late in life. On December 3rd, 1891, he went up to a beggar on the street and told her that he had decided to donate his entire fortune to her and her starving children, should she have any. “What fortune, Monsieur?” she asked bewildered. “Please don’t humiliate me, can’t you see I’m already on my knees.”
“I never made a cent, Madmoiselle,” he replied, “but my parents were well-to-do. I have been living modestly my whole life, some of the investments paid off, and today my portion of the inheritance amounts to 4.3 million Francs.”
The woman started crying, which brought spectators to assemble around them. They were curious: Was the man harassing the poor woman, or what was his point? The moments of his childhood reappeared in his mind, never again would be allow himself to be a surrounded and then attacked by a mob.
“Here is my card, and my lawyer’s name and address is handwritten on the back. Go see him tomorrow, and he will take care of the rest. Your name and the age of your first-born child, please whisper them into my ear, so that I may pass that on to my lawyer for verification.”
She whispered into his ear that her name was Michelle, and her first-born was three years old. Then he abruptly went away. Having fulfilled his mission in life, he turned a sharp corner, crossed a small park, and wiped tears of joy from his face as he marched along.
Lacard du Robien died within one month from unknown causes. He must have ingested something, a mixture of unknown chemicals perhaps. Michelle and her children moved into his house; eventually, she became an educated woman, who would see to it that her children went to the best of schools and accomplished what so few fatherless children ever accomplished in those days: They were happily married, settled down, and became respectable men and women. Thus, the “spoiled bourgeois brat’s” legacy had been secured.
Through our upbringing and then every so often, most of us have been taught and trained to accept that many of our actions are binding and irreversible. Few are those who have never lost a dear friend over some misunderstanding, miscommunication, or simply as a result of actions that in hindsight that person may have come to regret. Indeed it should be so: If we want to have a free will, and if that free will is to have any real meaning at all, then our deliberate actions must have some real consequences.
Everything I have said until this point reflects conventional thinking, there really isn’t anything new in it. Graciously, not all of our mistakes are irreversible, and sometimes matters can be patched up with an apology or some redeeming act.
Now I’m finally arriving at the gray area that I find to be of interest: Namely, the “irreversible” nature of certain actions are to a large extent the consequence of social convention, not strictly logical.
Black and white
A murder is a straightforward example of an irreversible act. Someone goes to the police station and confesses: “I killed that son-of-a-bitch last night!” Upon further inspection, a body is produced, the poor man did indeed get stabbed 39 times before he bled to death. This action is surely irreversible, no prayer or expression of regret will suffice to get the guy back on his feet. And unless the police officers are on the take, chances are that the confession is irreversible as well. A long married couple had an argument, she lost her temper and maybe overreacted a bit, and now she must face the consequences – et cetera.
If this hot-tempered woman had maybe drunk one less cup of espresso that evening, it is conceivable that she would have stabbed her husband only twice: Once in the left shoulder and once in the chin. Under this scenario, he is admitted to the emergency room, from which he eventually emerges all stitched up, traumatized and unable to smile. The physical scars may eventually heal, but the emotional ones probably never will. How can he have dinner with his wife again and look at her cutting the roast with a knife without thinking: How’s she going to use it afterwards? Is she going to stab me again? Alas, the relationship is most likely destroyed, and this regardless of whether he decided to file a legal complaint against her, whether or not the prosecutor decided to press charges -–et cetera.
But what if she had merely stared at him angrily, looked him in the eye,
waived the knife in front of him and said: “You son-of-a-bitch! I want to stab
you real bad!” Then driven off for a night out on the town. Coming home all
drunk and with lipstick on her face. Most likely, he will suspect that not only
did she harbor thoughts of stabbing him, she also went out and found herself
another man for the night – alas, this relationship is unlikely to return to
normal anytime soon, if ever – et cetera.
Shades of gray
In quite many instances, I would argue, the consequences of our unfortunate actions and decisions really are potentially reversible, as further scrutiny will reveal.
Friendships are a form of social contract, the existence of which requires merely the mutual acceptance of such a bond. Oftentimes, the formation of a friendship involves an explicit declaration of such a desire by one party, then acceptance by the other. At other times, a type of silent agreement is reached quite simply by mutual comfort and trust being built over a period of time.
I would argue that unless something really bad has happened, a broken friendship can quickly be restored by the parties involved. One party may take the blame and offer an apology, which the other party then accepts, and conditions should hopefully be restored to normal – otherwise, one or both parties have not been acting in good faith. The parties may also decide amongst themselves that they both carry part of the blame, and so they split the difference.
In quite many cases, the disagreements that led to the destruction of a friendship is nothing but a pittance. In that case, the parties may agree to treat the matter as a non-event! I mean this quite seriously and literally. If we have a free will, and if a friendship is a social contract among two people based entirely upon that free will, then do we also not have it within our power to decide that certain unfortunate words and actions are to be disregarded altogether?
Friendship Restoration Agreement (sample)
We, the undersigned, hereby agree that certain regrettable events (hereinafter referred to as “the Pittances”) were the consequence of powers beyond our control. Although the Pittances may well have appeared as deliberate words, actions, and decisions at the time they were made, upon further reflection one of us has realized – and the other one now agrees – that these were in fact rendered hastily and/or thoughtlessly, and this to such an extent that similar unfortunate incidents are highly unlikely ever to reoccur.
We, being of sound mind and possessing a free will, hereby declare the Pittances as null-and-void. As a result, our friendship is fully restored to its former condition.
There was no other day like May 15th in B’s life. It wasn’t that he got rich or his fantasies about Pamela Anderson had been fulfilled. Or that, overnight, he grew hair on his bald head, or something terrible happened. Or that he woke up that morning with a full understanding of his life, as he often wondered.
In fact, he was an ordinary man with only ordinary expectations.
Nothing disturbed his morning routine. He had his coffee, got washed and dressed, and packed his lunch. Even his shower thoughts were the same except for an ambiguous feeling that he should have called his mother. Her surgery last year, at the age of 78, threw a bigger responsibility on his shoulders. While the water was running over his somewhat heavy body, he made a mental note to give her a call.
Walking down the alley toward the office building, he saw Pete driving around the corner. He thought he caught a glimpse of Mandy’s hair on the passenger seat. A sharp contraction hit his stomach, even though their relationship was now an old story. The girl he had known since college, with her wild laughter and insatiable lust for life, was now a tamed lady under Pete’s lacquered shoe. But Mandy was already sitting at her desk when he got up to the second floor. He had been closer to the building, so she couldn’t have been in Pete’s car. He found this a comforting thought as he passed her desk, greeting her. Mandy didn’t move her curly head and did not respond. Bent over her makeup kit, she was graciously lining her sparkly green eyes. Besides, the TV in the lunch room was on; maybe she didn’t hear him.
A phone was ringing somewhere. On his way to the fridge, he realized the sound came from his desk, so he ran to pick up the phone. There was Boss, his supervisor. A small, dark haired man with a mean, demanding voice. Nobody liked him.
Boss was looking for the Johnson J. project. Nope…wrong person. Johnson J. was Pete’s. Yep, Pete’s. Before hanging up, Boss told him to stop by his office after lunch.
For a few seconds B stood up, looking at the empty walls of his cubicle. Should he put some of the old pictures back? Maybe he should wear his coat for the meeting. Boss didn’t even wear a tie all the time.
Things went quiet for a while, and he got to concentrate on his pile of crap. Outside, the day grew brighter. The clouds were chased away by the wind, then the wind died down, and the Sun came out shiny and hot on a deep blue sky. At 10 o’clock period, the sprinklers pumped up clear water over the lawn.
The nature was in its own world, watching over the neighborhood
B felt like a fat insect trapped in a match box. But things needed to get done by noon so Boss wouldn’t say again that he was working too slow. For the next two hours, he concentrated on his screen, trying to ignore the small talk around him. Once he was done, it was 12 PM and the sprinklers were silent.
It was lunch time. B remembered that he had dropped his lunch bag by the desk in the morning when answering the phone. The food was spoiled now. He would not dare to eat it and have a miserable afternoon. There was a mall just across the street. He could drive there to grab a sandwich or a hamburger. Maybe he would even get an ice-cream on the way back. And so, he quietly left his office.
B just needed to make it back in time for the meeting and show Boss his draft, then maybe the little man would leave him alone for a while. “Why would he call me for the Johnson J?” he questioned himself. Everybody knew that Pete got the best projects because his supervisor was very receptive to public admiration, and loved the way Pete was always kissing his posterior about how good of a leader he was and how great his ideas were.
B got chicken crisps with fries and skipped the Coke. While waiting for his order, he spotted a quiet, out-of-the-way place to sit. That would give him a panoramic view of the whole food court. It wasn’t that he disliked being in the middle where the action was, but he rather enjoyed watching people. The whole crowd was a wonderful view for his isolated eyes. Rushing to his spotted table, he almost knocked down an older couple while trying to avoid a stroller.
He was half way through the meal when a boy passed by. Tall and slim, no older then 16 or 17, he wore a sport top, shorts and white tennis shoes. With his head up and a spring step, the boy passed B’s table, looking straight ahead, knowing who he was and where he was going.
B only saw him for a few seconds, a little from the profile and more from the back. At first, he got startled and stopped chewing his food. Then, as he watched the boy disappearing into the crowd like a ghost that was getting away with B’s life, forgotten memories crushed into his mind in a split second with the power of an earthquake; about his own youth, about his own dreams of growing up and his life having finally started. Or maybe it was his soul that collapsed. “That boy,” he later remembered saying, “that boy was me 30 years ago.” At his corner table, he sat motionless. Years, decades, were spinning back, back to the beginning, then forth and back again, till all the memories, everything, all of that was well blended, till nothing was getting any better and nobody could separate the future from the past, anymore.
He sat still for a long time. Around him, people were coming, eating, talking, laughing, leaving, in accordance with their destiny.
When he got up, it was already thirty minutes past his lunch time. Even though he looked at his watch out in the parking lot, he decided to go back and get that ice cream, anyway.
Back in his cubicle, B grabbed his coat. Before knocking at Boss’ door, he stopped at the bathroom to wash his hands, trying to avoid the mirror, with it’s shiny, spotless glare. B turned on the cold water first, then the hot water… For a few seconds, he let the jet run through his fingers, making sure the water was not too hot, not too cold, just mild the way he liked it.
He soaped his hands all the way up to the wrists, enveloping them with white, soft, slippery foam.
Picking at his fingernails, he cleaned each finger, then the whole hand, scrubbing one after another many times until he got exhausted and thought that his skin was going to peel off. Finally, his hands reached for the water under the jet, exposing themselves, long and narrow, with a subtle firmness around the knuckles, naughty enough to sneak and find “the pleasure spots,” as Mandy put it the night they decided to move in together. He never understood her words or her obsession with his hands or why she fell in love with him in the first place.
She liked to hold hands in public, and sometimes she would get his arm and wrap it around her waist, with his long palm resting on her belly. But he couldn’t stand holding hands in public, he found it almost undignified to bump into people and their belongings because he was attached to another body. Yes, that was it… He could not handle it with dignity, and he was right; even if he lost Mandy, he was still right: “Holding hands in public wasn’t a good idea,” he whispered to himself, raising his eyes to confront the mirror… And there he was, pathetic and useless, keeping his hand for himself forever.
Suddenly, B stopped the running water as he heard noises on the hall. There were running steps, which was weird because usually nobody ran on the hallway. There went one, then another, then a door was slammed open, and this time there were heavy footsteps rushing down. He couldn’t tell where they were stopping, but thought that people were hurrying in the opposite direction of his cubicle, towards Boss’. He grabbed some paper towels while rushing out of the bathroom. B didn’t run, he stood, a little confused, leaning against the wall, watching the crowd gathered in front of Boss’ office. It looked like nobody was getting inside, but everybody was trying to see something. Slowly, B moved forward. Around him, people were whispering incredible things one should never even think about. Even Mandy was there, on the right side of the door, squeezing Pete’s hand hard and too close to her chest, as far as B was concerned.
Not really aware of what was going on, B aimed at Boss’ door, sliding his large body through the mob, gently pushing people left and right, continuously muttering “excuse me!” “Is he dead?” a timid voice asked out loud, and everybody froze. B kept walking till the last two persons standing by the open door made room to let him in. And there was Boss, lying on the floor, with his head on a bunch of yellow folders and his right arm folded over his chest, without a tie, shirt unbuttoned uncovering his hairy chest, as B always suspected. The man was sick and furious. He looked B in the eyes and said: “Where the f*** have you been?” B thought for a moment. “I was at lunch,” he replied, but what he really wanted to say was: “I’m sorry.”
The Father of Deductionism
Beaumont Bouxard, the French philosopher (1811-1865), only had contempt for his contemporaries, whom he considered almost moronic in their inability to come to terms with the core issues of human existence. One of his main theories, as expressed in Le Volume des Lettres I (The Letters Volume I, 1833), was that of deductionism, according to which “A man’s worth is only what he does, says, and thinks on his own merit.”
As Bouxard elaborated, a number of factors others usually take for granted would need to be disregarded, such as: education; cultural status; readings; famous quotes. According to Bouxard, a man who walks for half a mile, then sits inside a stagecoach for 80 miles, has traveled merely half a mile. If he sings a song his mother taught him, he has essentially rendered only the few words that he accidentally got wrong when road bumps distracted him from remembering the true wording.
By his own definition, Bouxard had never made any money. According to reliable sources, none more outstanding than Madame Joli Antoinette, he had “an abundance of wealth becoming of a famous horse trader’s son,” meaning probably no more than the allowances and subsequent inheritance he would need to maintain for 30-plus years his humble existence in the Garrison du Flamboyance, a gated community somewhere in the vicinity of the 14th Parisian commune. Think ice cold water, smelly fireplaces, a stink of horses from the nearby staples, the noise of farmers doing there things early in the morning – then you’ve got the underpinnings of a reclusive man.
The letters were real, however, and they kept flowing from his hand like sweet whispers of comfort flowing from the mouth of a drunken nun. In 1836, he released to an unsuspecting public Le Volume des Lettres II, which is widely viewed as his paramount work. The 840-page book, neatly subdivided into 59 chapters, was essentially one long frontal attack upon society and all of its institutions. None was spared, whether clergy, the business establishment, or the political apparatus, all of which Bouxard contemptuously labeled “les enfants gâtés” (the spoiled brats). The book caused an uproar, one reason being its closing argument:
“Men of so-called wisdom, of class and distinction, of wealth and respect, what have they taught us? What have they done for you an me? Throughout their lives, whatever have they accomplished, except so as to keep reminding us of their own importance? Nothing, my dear reader! According to my Deductionist Theory of Existence, these men never lived at all – whereas the prostitutes on street corners, the beggars, and the workmen are real, their life meaningful in the extreme. At least they sweat, they bleed, and they suffer for our continuing delight.”
The Cray Boys were taking it nice and slow in Sandbar, near the Forth Wolls mountain range. They sat alongside the rails, their mood getting more and more toxic as the day went along. Jump on that train and it’s straight down the wire, due west.
This they did. When Steamy Mary came huffing and puffing from afar, they got on their feet; their undernourished bodies swaying a bit with fatigue under the blistering Sun. The freight train was moving ever so slowly, that’s how it appeared, and they started running in parallel with the tracks feeling pretty confident they’d be fine jumping on. Only when the train passed them did they realize how fit the “bloody Mary” was in her old age, she was rolling about twice as fast as they could run. They jumped on haphazardly, landing themselves shoulders first on the bare wooden floor of one of the last wagons, knees bloodied and pants torn.
Over the next several days, Gregory sits and stretches out besides Wilmar all
the way. They are hungry and sleepy. Sing about every morning and night to hold
hopes up, even play the odd old harmonica as the Sun sets behind these
time-tested mountains. Dusty trails fly by, sometimes slow rivers are
The banker sat out front in the first class compartment, smoking expensive cigars, drinking three-star whiskey, and playing cards with his associates and any well-to-do stranger willing to join. It’s not that he was a better player than most – he wasn’t – but his deep pockets gave him the firepower to go on playing for hours and hours until he won.
Mr. Jefferson despised cheaters, but not as passionately as he hated winners who quit when their pockets were full. “Them venom spitting snakes,” he’d say.
Not coincidentally, Gregory and Wilmar were headed for the same place as the banker and his entourage: The well-developed pioneer town of Alberqerque, New Mexico. The two drifters had been all ears when they heard about some odd jobs they’d like to look into. Mr. Jefferson resided and worked in the town, where he was a member of “polite society” – a better class of people who weren’t always very friendly or courteous. Had he known the Cray Boys were on the train, he could have changed their lives forever simply by waving of a hand, had he wanted to. He hadn’t a clue how many blind passengers there were on Steamy Mary; his subconscious mind sensed there were at least ten, but he didn’t care either way. The banker rested well in his seat knowing that for him safety was assured.
The Cray Boys weren’t safe. Food was scarce and had been so for a long time, as their marked facial features revealed. How to get the next meal was a joke they could laugh at hysterically for a long time, even though their undernourished bellies kept aching.
“I was really strong once, when I was young!” Wilmar often said.
“Yeah, like 5 weeks ago, buddy?” his friend retorted. “We had it good in them old days, didn’t we?”
“Oh yeah, I guess,” Wilmar would respond without confidence. He was close to giving up hope; if it hadn’t been for his friend, he might well have been dead already. They’d gone four days straight without food, and he had been whining a good deal about wanting to die, except his pal wouldn’t let him and kept slapping his face to keep him awake.
“It’s a chunk of beef, bro!” Gregory would tease. “Right down the hatch it goes!”
“Oh, don’t torment me like that! I’ll never live to set foot in New Mexico.”
“Sure you will, brother. Days getting much better straight ahead!”
Source: By Calistemon
Not really. Money men, very good at what they were doing, had been busy spreading rumors that Alberqerque’s economy was glowing hot, there were lots of vacant jobs for everyone, and those who proved themselves trustworthy could get work in the gold streams for a 50-50 split. Self-proclaimed millionaires were traveling around to major cities, signing up investors and recruits, spreading the word with fanatical energy. They used posters, speeches, demonstrations, mouth-to-mouth to spread their lies. The ensuing gold rush was like a disease which infested a town so recently known for its placidity.
Mr. Jefferson sometimes went to visit the local sheriff at the county jail, where he got to personally meet a good many treasure hunters, drifters, and what he called “cow-ards.” He deliberately put emphasis on “cow,” which usually made people laugh the first time they heard this joke. He also called some men “cowgirls” and “cow lickers” to their face, something the banker felt safe doing because of the thick bars that separated him from them. His deputies had heard these jokes too often, but they looked down on the inmates with a vengeance and happily accepted their boss’ repetitive and inelegant style.
“Darn be them rumors!” the sheriff would say. “When Judge Simmons and I find out who those money men are, we’ll see to it that they are hung by the neck!”
“Humph-yeah!” Mr. Jefferson would laugh, pretty sure it was a lie. The judge and the sheriff knew damned well who was behind the rumors, but were doing absolutely nothing about it, because those two were on the take.
Business was good in the town, because a man always needs a bed for the night, something to eat, and new clothes for the job. There was the county jail for those who couldn’t afford to pay for such things, taking to stealing and robbing instead. Crime had skyrocketed, and Sheriff Karlson’s jail was overfilled with an average of 2.5 men in every cell.
“The scent of the Earth is richer in autumn. The light is tender and sweet, and the Sun becomes golden-white, like an old person, like my grandma. You don’t know what I am speaking about, do you? ‘Cos you grew up on the dusty streets of a city smelling like gasoline and looking like white serpents on the sunset.”
The girl looked puzzled. “No, I don’t,” she said softly, then stopped to pick up a little rock from the dust.
Mom kept walking. “That’s OK, ‘cos the things we knew once won’t come back ever again.”
“Yes, they will. There are still farms out there, and cows, and all that stuff.”
“Yeah, right.” She sighed. “It’s not the same. It’s different. Here, come here!”
The little girl ran fast by her mom’s legs. “What is it?” she asked.
“My father used to make wine right here, right on this spot.”
“Oh, but there is nothing here,” said the girl, looking at the stamped ground beneath her feet. “Doesn’t he make wine anymore?”
“No,” said the mom. “But he still drinks it, hahaha…”
“Yuck!” The girl’s face expressed such disgust that her mom couldn’t suppress a loud laugh, still remembering the time, years ago, when she had given her spinach puree. She was just a baby then – her mouth wide open, her eyes pointed with naive trust towards her mother – nothing wrong could happen. And then the sudden repugnance…such an unpleasant surprise…unbelievable…coming from her own mom…and she was soooo confident; she thought of that sweet mash she always got before nap time.
“Ha, ha, ha,” laughed the mom again. “Have you ever had wine?”
The child started jumping up and down around the small room crying, “Yuck, yuck, yuck, the wine is yuck! Yuck, yuck, yuck, the wine is yuck!”
Her shout was echoing, bouncing from one wall to another, and even the girl noticed that it was a little out of place. “Mom, can we go now?”
“You go find your father, Elena. He must be by the gate with your aunt. I’ll be back soon.”
They had to wake up early in the morning and make a four hour drive from Bucharest to this remote village, somewhere by the feet of the mountains. She hadn’t been back there for 20 years, since the revolution. “I really do not remember that trip,” she had confessed in a letter to her sister, but that was a time of turbulence in which the important things were happening elsewhere. The house, the village, the place she grew up, would be there forever for her to visit at her convenience, she had thought, not contemplating that possibility would be half a world away. Now, when the time finally had come to go back, she could only take 30 minutes to see what remained after all these years.
“I have always been thinking about those poplars by the fence, the rustle of the leaves in the mellow wind of autumn. I never liked the dusk. No light anywhere, because it is too early for people to turn on their lights, and because there isn’t any street lamp. And I hated the sunset. What have you done to those poplars, Father?”
“I cut them down long ago. They weren’t good for nothing. They only made leaves for me to clean. Sorry, I didn’t know you like them so much; I could have sent you a stick. Hee, hee.” Her father took off his hat and wiped his head with his cracked, dirty hands. The fire was reflecting on his shiny baldness. He was making Tuica, a strong alcoholic beverage made out of plum and grape marc. He would be distilling it three times, until it came out of the copper pipe as clear as spring water and as strong as a poison. “Here, take a sip,” he said, handing her a little glass.
The Tuica was like fire, burning down the throat. “Yuck! Jeez, dad, are you gonna drink this?”
Her father laughed; and when he did so, he looked like a goblin that had just played a trick on somebody. Otherwise, he was still a handsome man in his late 50’s, with few dip wrinkles around the mouth and an always fit body.
“I have three customers lined up for it, already,” he said, suddenly serious. “I have to rebuild the south part of the house, ‘cos it is coming down on us.”
He put more wood on the fire, arousing a storm of sparks that floated in the air for a while before vanishing in the bluish light of the evening.
“I don’t like evenings,” she said, looking out through the open door of the porch. “I like the daytime, when the Sun is up.”
“Don’t you worry, girl; there is a place where the Sun never dies. You can go there.” Her father was mysteriously smiling.
“Yeah? Like where? In your mind?” she said.
Her father laughed again like a mischievous goblin, and said, “The Arctic Pole! Have you ever heard of it?”
Standing there, right on the spot where so many spirits had been brewed and so much wine been bottled, she remembered the place where her dad used to store the wine for winter. If she could only find a shovel.
The porch was still standing, although the roof was almost gone. On the walls hung some of her father’s tools. The chimney and the fireplace had been destroyed, but the ground beneath was still black and burned. Across the front door, on that corner, there was a pile of things she could not identify, so she went to check them out. And bingo! the shovel. It was a big rusty piece of metal, which she thought was still smelling like cow dung.
The broken handle was nailed together in a few places, and felt sturdy. She took it and walked outside. Finding the spot took no time at all. Ah, she could not have forgotten the place where she would always dig when they had guests, taking her father’s tasks just because she imagined she was digging for a treasure. There was the corner of the house, and once there were some raspberry bushes a few steps apart. Now there were only weeds.
She started digging. The soil was hard as a rock because it hadn’t rained for weeks. She took off her jacket after a while. Drops of sweat were coming down her forehead, oozing around the ears and face, making her cheeks itchy. “Why am I doing this?” she whispered. She must have been close, because the shovel made a harsh noise; she gave it two more strokes, then threw the shovel and knelt. Her hands reached inside the hole, and one by one brought out the moldy pegs that her father had placed over the hole. The last item she got out was a bottle of wine.
Everybody was waiting for her by the gate. The neighbors were there too. They were all talking loud and laughing. Elena, followed by some instant friends at her age, was chasing some puffy yellow chicks, screaming in plain English, “Get them, get them!”
Only her sister was wandering around with a nostalgic look on her face. She came close and showed her the bottle of wine, hidden in the sleeve of her jacket. “Look what I found,” she said; “let’s have some dinner!” They all left before the dark took over one more time. As far as she could tell, she still didn’t like evenings. “Where was that place that the sun never dies? Oh, yeah…,” she remembered. “In my mind.”