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#53 Fragments of life
Good morning friends. This is Story Press 53 sliding into your inboxes! Today, we pick up fragments from the lives of Clara and Michael, who think about each other a lot.
Your accompanied listening this week is a fab up-and-coming band from Leeds called English Teacher. Their song A55 is mesmerizing.
For more stories by me, surf the joyous waves of the archives.
#53 Fragments of life
She was walking in the fields at her sister’s husband’s family home, nestled into the hills of Montana. They were there for a wedding party, but she had the opportunity to stay a few weeks as she was between jobs.
‘Clara, when are you going to get married?’ her sister, Mel, was asking. ‘You’re old enough now.’
‘When I can be bothered.’
‘That makes perfect sense.’
Mel bumps into her and says, ‘We’re so different.’
‘Maybe you should move away from London. Move here permanently. You’re clearly not meeting anyone there.’
‘Look around, Mel. There’s quite literally no one here. There’s 7 million people in London.’
‘Actually it’s about 9 million.’
‘That only reinforces my point.’
‘Maybe you’re just not what the people of London are looking for.’
‘All 9 million of them?’
‘Yeah. What’s wrong with you?’
Mel starts laughing and then they go quiet as a breeze rustles up through the grass. The sun is dimming, leaving a golden syrupy drizzle draped over the grass. A single cloud hangs low over their heads and breaks into scattered fragments, like a snowball that’s dropped to the floor. Parts of it have soaked up the sun and sent the light onwards, while other parts were mired in shadow. The moon was a distant thumbnail, a white speck on an otherwise space-dark sky.
Mel couldn’t see it, but Clara’s heart was fluttering. She took in a deep breath and her mouth worked as she bit the inside of her cheek. She thrusted her hands into her jeans pockets and asked herself what she was doing with her life.
It’s not been so long since she was with Michael, she thought. Well, actually, it’s been three and a half years.
The click of the shutter was his favourite sound. He got the Canon that squeaks, the one that everyone complained about on Reddit, but he liked it. It made him feel like he was working a proper piece of machinery, with mechanical quirks and failings.
‘Can we stop soon? I’m freezing,’ Lina asked, grasping the lapels of her trenchcoat and wrapping them tightly around her.
‘Just two more minutes, I need to change film.’ Michael replaced the film in his camera, and snapped her again. She wasn’t wearing a lot beneath the trenchcoat and he didn’t blame her for feeling cold. It was supposed to be warm this week in Berlin, but the weather was only as he’s ever seen it: wet, cold and grey. Even the pigeons looked disappointed.
They were under a passageway and Lina rested a big umbrella over her shoulder, the light of a streetlamp creating an almost-silhouette of her figure. She was a German model he met on a shoot in Palm Springs. It sounds glamorous and he was desperate to look professional but it was his first shoot outside of England. Without telling anyone, he revelled in the small pleasures of how they paid for his flights, how he got to claim the air miles, got his food paid for and dined on the magazine at what he’d call a fancy restaurant.
Not only was Lina beautiful but she was - much unlike her behaviour on this day in Berlin - not much of a complainer. In Palm Springs, she followed his every order about how to pose, which way to face, teeth or no teeth, head down or up. And those photos, the ones she was in, were his favourite from the trip. She called him up a few months later and said she’d got a job in Berlin and they were looking for the right photographer. Did he fancy it?
Did he fancy it?
So, of course, he went to Berlin.
‘Let’s stop. We’ve been out all day, and I fancy a drink. We’ve earned it.’
‘Let me pack up my camera.’
She took him to a bar and she told him about how she got into modelling and how, she knows it’s cliché, but the job she really wanted was to shoot in Bali. She’d never been. All she wanted was to sit in a bikini for a week, drink pina coladas and to go diving in her spare time.
Michael entertained her and laughed at her little smile, and who knows, maybe he did actually find her funny. After they finished their drink, he checked his watch, but Lina asked if he wanted another one and, well, it’s rude to say no, isn’t it? So there she went, and here she came, another drink in hand.
This went on and on, until she held his hand and led him back to her hotel room, which was weirder than it was romantic as the room happened to be next door to his room, and he spent the whole time wondering whether she was leading him to her room, or delivering him to his.
Later that night, she was fast asleep the way he imagined all models sleep: serenely, facing away from him, her long dark hair drifting back onto his side of the bed. He stared up at the ceiling. Resisting the urge to move, his heart fluttered and he was attacked by a quite violent feeling of anxiety, the subject of which he can only identify as loss.
Why was it that, now, after he met perhaps the most beautiful woman he’ll ever meet, he thought about Clara? It had been so long since they were together. So long that he ought not to be able to remember her face. But he could, and he was thinking about the freckle on her cheek, and the birthmark on the back of her thigh, and the slightly crooked tooth that, if anything, added to her beauty.
He put a hand to his heart, looked at the clock, and despaired at how long this night - this night he suddenly considered unbearable - would go on for.
They met at a birthday party. Ten people weary from overpaying for 25 minutes of shuffleboard, and only two of them were single. She was weirdly good at it, caressing her little discs and watching them settle into the highest scoring triangle. He watched her as she jigged with joy after scoring so highly each time, and the smile on her face was one of total elation.
When it was his turn and he slid the discs too harshly and they went careening off the end of the board into a wall, she laughed at him. He was clearly trying to impress her and overcompensating, and he never learned his lesson. Each time, they’d tell him to be lighter with it, to let the disc do the work, but he just kept making the same mistakes over and over.
‘I’m going for a beer,’ Michael said, after one such failure. ‘Call me when it’s my turn.’
His friend Andy nodded.
‘I’ll come. Need a top up.’ Clara held up her empty gin and tonic, and shook the ice.
As they walked, he said, ‘I don’t think we’ve met properly before? I’m Michael.’
‘We actually have, once. At one of my sister’s parties. But it was just in a big group. Anyway, I’m Clara.’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you...’ Michael bought Clara’s gin and tonic, took a sip of his frothy beer, and watched the drips of condensation run down her glass onto her fingers as they talked.
Later that night, they’d long since moved on from shuffleboard. At one moment, walking between bars, Clara and Michael were left chatting at the back of the group who’d turned a corner or two out of sight.
‘How’s your night going?’
‘How’s my night going? Who asks how the night is going on the night itself?’
‘Well, apparently, I do.’
‘It’s terrible, Michael. Truly terrible.’
‘No, but I feel forced into saying so. Because saying it’s good or it’s fine would be too boring, wouldn’t it?’
‘I suppose it would.’
She smiles at him. ‘You’re weird.’
‘No, I’m just a bit stupid. You’re weirder.’
‘We make a right combination then.’
‘Do you know where we’re going?’
They looked up and around. They were down some dark street somewhere in Shoreditch. A streetlamp lit the path. Murals of graffiti were all over the walls. There was a group up ahead, but not their group. A fox slid under a fence onto the road, stared at them, and then disappeared through some hole they didn’t know was there.
‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah… What are we going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you want to keep walking?’ Michael rubbed his nose and his eyes, as though affecting nonchalance.
‘Sure…’ she said. She looked at him for reassurance, as though this was totally normal, and he chuckled at her expression, and she cracked a smile.
The night seemed never to end, and they walked down towards Tower Bridge and over it. The scale of it was suddenly overwhelming to Michael, and the lights were so bright. They wound up sitting on a bench somewhere overlooking the Thames and talking.
He looked at her and thought how he could sit here talking forever, and maybe he’d have the courage to ask her out, and he wondered what they’d be like as an old couple together. He wrung his hands and smiled before taking a deep breath.