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#33 Two Human Beings
Happy story day! Today, we meet Clara and James - two human beings who haven’t seen each other for many years but share a fleeting thought for each other.
#33 Two Human Beings
The lights are blinding, as always. And there’s at least 12 cameras in my face. Someone thrusts a microphone forward and asks, ‘What was it like working with Michael Hall? Did you fall in love with him?’
‘How could I not?’ I respond with my sweetest smile. None of it was true. It was just the game, the unending game.
‘I’m sure he fell in love with you too.’
‘How could I not?’ That was Michael. He was speaking to some other journalists behind me. I didn’t know he was there. He leaned over my shoulder and interrupted.
I can picture his face: tanned, white teeth, the wisp of hair dangling over his forehead. He asked me to marry him last week. I haven’t responded yet. He is rash like that, but I’m not. This is the first film we’ve worked on together. Six weeks on set, a few months working on the script. Before that, we’d met once or twice, at awards shows and other parties.
In the dark of the premiere, during the first intimate scene of the film, he puts his hand on my bare leg that’s reaching through the slit of my dress. I swat his hand away and whisper: ‘Stop that’. He pulls back and I can almost hear his grinning.
After the premiere I tell Michael and Tony, the director, that I have a headache and I’m not going to stay around for the drinks reception. I take the car back to my hotel room. Though it’s not raining, raindrops ride the glass from front to back. The streetlights are a hazy orange glow.
I used to walk these streets with James, before I’d done any real acting. We used to struggle so much that we’d share a dinner when we went out to eat to make it cheaper, then we’d wander aimlessly for hours. We’d go and sit on the see-saw in an empty park at two in the morning and talk about whatever was on our minds. We’d look through the windows of the townhouses, at the deep living rooms with old oil paintings on the walls, glass chandeliers drooping from the ceilings. A grand piano on show. We’d talk about what our house would look like when we could afford the place we dreamed of.
James was a dreamer. He had ideas of starting this business or that side hustle, something to make his millions. He had a real knack for understanding consumer behaviours: what tipped people over the edge from seeing a good idea and spending money on it. We both thought if he really had the time and the space to work on it, it was inevitable. He worked in a marketing agency nine-to-five, and spent his evenings, when we weren’t out wandering, building his empire - one tiny step after the other.
The car takes a left and a right, and we stop at some traffic lights, which refract red into the car. Without really thinking, I take my phone out my pocket and scroll through my text messages to look for James. It’s been a long time since we last spoke but I hope there’s a chat to look back at. I scroll all the way to the bottom and remember that I got a new phone a few years ago, which wiped our last conversation. And now I think back, that was just gone eight years ago. We stopped speaking after I moved to LA. I had no choice. I was being given opportunities there I’d only dreamed of. After waiting all this time, what else could I do but seize it?
I switch to the contacts app and find James. Without thinking, I dial the number. After all, I’m back home and he can’t be too far.
It rings and rings, and then a gravelly man’s voice answers.
‘Hi, is James there?’
‘Who? There’s no James here. This is David Walsey.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to bother you. It must be the wrong number.’
‘No worries, darling,’ David Walsey says, and hangs up.
I put my phone back in my coat pocket, rest my head against the window and close my eyes. Sometimes I just feel a deep, aching desire to see James: to walk the streets with him and sit on a see-saw and talk about whatever stupid project he’s working on now.
To walk around town beside my wife is an absolute joy. The streets where I grew up and became a man, where I learned what survival was, what real quality was; where I learned how to ply a trade. My wife, Elena, has a spring in her step as she’s just got a new long coat which she loves wearing (she’s worn it everywhere since we got it). It’s navy and warm and stretches down below her knees. Her dark hair sits over it, shining, and her face is soft and smiling.
‘Why don’t you start looking for a new job?’ she asks. We are talking about my career, where I’ve been stuck as a manager at the same marketing agency for 9 years. Last year, I applied for the director job which had become vacant, but lost out to an external candidate, a sharp Finnish lady who looked like a magazine model for businesswomen.
‘I don’t know. I like it where I am. I like the work enough, and the people. What if I move and they make me work 10-hour days, or I have to log on on the weekends.’
‘But you’ve been in the same job so long. You need to be pushing to the next thing.’
‘It’s fine, I’ll figure it out.’ I hate having these conversations. I love Elena but every time we talk about work I get the sense that she thinks less of me for not pushing to the next thing. I don’t need to be a CEO or a super successful business person. I might have wanted that once upon a time, but now I know how hard a life it is. How unlikely to happen it is. My interests have changed since those days and I know I’m not that person anymore. ‘Can we talk about something else?’ I ask.
‘OK, OK. But just think about it. Promise me you’ll think about it.’
‘OK. I promise.’
‘Shall we stop in the café for a coffee?’
We take the turn and I open the door for Elena. She walks down to a table at the back and I follow. There’s a paper on the table and I pick it up to move it. As I do, the image on the front page catches my eye. It’s Clara on the red carpet, next to some handsome man with long hair and a tan. She’s beautiful, as she always was. She looks like a proper celebrity, with the white teeth, the red carpet glow, the sparkling make-up and the cameras all pointed at her.
I stare at the image for a while until Elena’s voice penetrates my consciousness, ‘James… James, what are you looking at?’
‘Sorry, sorry, I was just reading the front page. Nothing too interesting.’
Elena and I talk a long while and drink our coffees, but in all honesty, most of my concentration is used up thinking about Clara. I can’t help it. She was the one. The original one. But she walked away from me. She got her first job on a soap and had to work in a different city. Then she got another and another, and then she became a real actress and moved to LA. And there I was, sat behind my desk at the marketing agency being undervalued and, for the most part, ignored. It’s funny how your whole life can change in six months, like everything’s on autopilot and suddenly you’ve ended up at a bizarre destination you didn’t choose - and yet you just come to accept it because you’re there, in the moment.
Later that night, when we get home, Elena is doing housework and painting one of the rooms. I sit on the sofa and drift off watching something on the tellie. When I wake up, I instinctively pick up my tablet and search for Clara on the internet. Then I search her name with the words email address in quote marks. The best I can find is an info@ email address from her website. I send her an email hoping she reads them directly, but get an automatic reply saying that this mailbox is monitored by her staff and they will endeavour to respond within 48 hours.
Well, I probably shouldn’t have started it with Hi Clara, I know it’s been 8 years since we last spoke but…
Undoubtedly, I’m getting blocked.
Last year, I went through a two-week period of dreaming about Clara every night. We were standing in a hazy, desert-land, and she was wearing a white dress, tall and beautiful, like at one of her premieres. I was wearing a suit and hat, holding a briefcase, like a James Stewart character. In the dream, I keep running after Clara, calling out to her, but she’s always just out of reach, just out of earshot. I try to run alongside her to get a glimpse of her face, but I get nothing. I see nothing but the long flow of her hair and the back of her dress before I fall behind again.
Eventually, desperate to reach her, I sprint with all my energy against the forces stopping me, and I leap forward to try to reach her. My fingers brush the fabric of her dress, but I can’t get hold of anything and I fall to the sandy earth.
At that moment, just as I hit the ground, I wake up in a sweat, and look around in the dark. It’s pitch black, nothing to see at all, and for a few seconds I have absolutely no idea where I am, and I think I must be back with Clara like I was 8 years ago in our tiny apartment. But I turn around and as my eyes adjust, I see Elena, and the alarm clock and the desk in the corner and yesterday’s clothes slumped over a chair and remember that all of that is gone, never to be seen again.