55 minus 06: Important people

Posted: 11 August 2019 in 55 minus, fiction, writing
Tags: , ,

There’s a lovely exchange in the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special

The Doctor: [Pointing to frozen Abigail Pettigrew] Who’s she?

Kazran Sardick: Nobody important.

The Doctor: Nobody important? Blimey, that’s amazing. You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.

The exchange occurred to me when looking around for something to write about today and not coming up with anything. I’ve six days’ – including today’s – worth of posts to complete this fifty-five day run of blog posts, and I already knew what’s going to be in four of them.

Which left me today’s and one more day. And… I blanked.

Had to happen sooner or later, I guess… and although I started a post, I quickly realised that it needed a bit of research to do it properly (which I’ll do tonight and tomorrow morning) so that’s tomorrow’s post taken care of.

(Just in the causes of housekeeping and transparency, what I have planned at the moment:
Monday’s post will be on UK politics, particularly why I’m dreading a general election, which I promised at the end of last Monday’s post
Tuesday’s will be the final couple of fast fictions from the vaults
Wednesday’s should be about podcasts
Thursday’s is planned to be the delayed ‘part the fourth’ about antisemitic imagery
Friday’s… well, that’ll be the final post in the run, and will probably be a hotchpotch: some thoughts about blogging in eneral, something about Edinburgh, and something… well, you’ll have to wait and see.)

But back to ‘important people’.

I promised you way back – when I started this run of entries – a new story, a new piece of fiction.

I’ve never delivered on that promise so far.

So here’s something new. A story barely anyone has read before.

Here’s a story about someone important.

Kind of.


Goodbye, and Farewell

“Do you mind if I sit?”

I looked up under the brim of my cap at the woman who’d asked the question, then lightly waved towards the empty chairs.

“Is that a yes or a no?” she asked, tilting her head slightly to one side.

“Feel free,” I said

“So you don’t mind?” she concluded, “I have your permission?”

“Sure,” I said, and gestured to the chairs again, noticing for the first time that several of the other tables outside the coffee shop were free. Oh great, I thought, she wants to talk to me.

“Why thank you,” the woman said, then carefully positioned her cup of tea on the table, placed her full shopping bag by the side of the chair – her chair, now – and hefted herself into one of the chairs. There was an audible sigh and then she smiled at me. Some smiles are pleasant, some unpleasant, and their nature has more to do, I’ve found, with the person upon whose features they are laid than the matter at hand. This woman’s smile was… empty. There was no emotion there, nor in her eyes. Or at least in the one of them, as the other was milky. The smile slowly faded and what was left was equally bereft of meaning.

“And here we are,” she said.

I offered what I thought was a polite smile and returned to my paperback. For a few minutes, I was aware of her breathing and the occasional slurp of liquid. Then, “good book?”

I raised my eyes from the book, glanced in her general direction for a moment, but only for that long. “Yes,” I replied, “yes it is.” Then looked away quite deliberately.

Silence again, then, “Oh good,” followed by “you should always have something good to read, don’t you agree?”

I folded the book over my finger and said “well, yes, it helps if one has something…”

“I didn’t say ‘one should have something good to read’,” she interrupted. “I said ‘you should…’ And I’m pleased you have something to read. Very pleased. Oh yes.”

“I’m so pleased that you’re very pleased,” I said without looking at her, not quite irritated but enough to edge the words with a patina of sarcasm.

“Oh you are, are you?” She asked. Her voice was flat now, but I didn’t care. I just wanted peace and quiet and I was achieving neither.

I opened the book again, noted the page number and closed it. I drained my coffee and pushed my chair back. OK, enough, I’d find somewhere else to read. Then a shadow fell over the table and an old large man, in that way buildings have of being old and large, was by my side. He was tall and wide, his complexion that of a drinker, pale red which I guessed matched the original colour of what remained of his hair. Almost entirely white now, there were faint stains of ginger.

“May I sit?”

I almost said I was just leaving but caught the sudden look of intense interest on the face of the already seated woman and paused, unsure why. “You may sit,” I said after a moment, feeling foolish, and watched the man somehow fit onto one of the chairs, next to the woman.

“How are you?” the man asked the woman, his deep brown eyes moving away from me for the briefest of moments before returning to focus on me. His head didn’t move during this, just his eyes; neither did it move even the slightest in acknowledgment as the woman in a barely animated tone complained about the cost of hot beverages and the difficulties of finding a good book.

“That’s good,” the man said when she had finished, or at least paused for breath.

“That’s good,” he repeated.

“Mmmm,” she said.

I pushed the chair back into place, my mind already on other things. “OK, goodbye,” I felt obliged to say before I left, and was surprised when they both expressed apparent astonishment at the words, each for different reasons.

“Are you leaving? So soon? I’d hoped…” the woman asked.

“Are you sure you don’t mean ‘farewell’?” the man asked.

“Yes” and “if you prefer”, I replied to each in their turn, almost but not quite shaking my head.

“It’s not what I prefer, no, no, no.” the man said, his voice calm but determined.”But they would be the right words to use. Yes, yes, of course yes. Wishing us ‘goodbye’ is… inappropriate; surely you of all must know that.” The man’s ruddy face had coloured, darkening, and I was sure I’d offended him somehow, but could not imagine how.

“All right.” I said, “Farewell, if that’s what you think is… appropriate.”

“What would be appropriate would be for you to sit down,” came a new voice from behind me. I turned my head and saw a young man, maybe a teenager, possibly slightly older, was standing there. He was taller than me, a little, and shared that same look as the others, one of polite interest that meant nothing, before I had in some way or another upset them.

“Thank you, but I think…”

“No, thank you,” he interrupted me and smiled a meaningless smile at the others who in turn reflected a smile back at them. “I take it that I can sit…” And he did so, without waiting for me to reply.

I tried to leave or at least I thought I did; instead I pulled out the chair I’d recently occupied and was soon sat again.

“That’s fine, just fine,” the newcomer said. “Now, introductions, I think…?” He nodded at the woman.

I opened my mouth to object but for some reason heard myself saying, “All right, if you insist”.

Again, the younger man nodded in perfect agreement. “Yes, just fine. You should know who we are at some point, I suppose.”

The woman lifted a hand to her ear and scratched it before sighing and lifting her teacup to sip at it. “Livvy,” she said. And sipped again.

There was silence for a few minutes then the newcomer, with a good-natured tone in his voice that sounded entirely temporary, prompted her further.

“My name is Livvy,” she eventually continued. “And many, many years ago, so many years ago, I lived in a garden.”

There was silence again, and I desperately wanted to leave these three strange people, but all I could do was listen, and watch and occasionally make a sound of polite interest.

The old man scratched her other ear and said “Go on, Livvy. You know what to say. Come on now.” His tone was kind but firm.

“I know,” the woman said, batting his hand away. “I know.” She looked at me, her milky eye pulsing slightly. “I had to leave home. You know how it is.”

I did. I’d loved my family but there was never any true affection between us. And I’d been bored with my home town. As soon as I’d been able to, I left for the city, and when I’d had my fill of that place, I moved onto another, and another.

“I couldn’t stay,” she said, her voice growing quiet, but more confident. “I was his first, you see, and when…” She shook her head, “well, things were never the same after that.”

“What happened to the father?” I heard myself and there was a moment of genuine laughter from all three; unpleasant, harsh laughter that cut through me.

The younger man patted Livvy’s hand. “Tell us the rest,” he said. ‘Tell him the rest.”

“I had it hard after I left. Things were never the same.”

“You already said that,” the large man said and was rewarded by a look of spite from the woman. “Yes, I know. I have to say it again so he’ll…” she pointed at me. “After all, you never listened to me.”

“Yes, I did,” he said, after a long moment.

She lifted her hands to her mouth, then swallowed. He looked back at me. Then she said, “We had children, who loved each other.”

That must have been nice, I thought; I had a brother. He was ok, but a bit of a creep. Anything to please mummy and daddy. You know the sort.

“And then… I lost them both.” A tear rolled down her cheek, then another. She wasn’t sobbing; this was a pain from long ago and while she mourned, she no longer grieved.

There was a polite cough from the younger man sat next to me. “Yes, well, that’s all well and good, but…” He ignored a sudden look of pure hatred from the man. Interesting, I thought, and wondered why it would be so.

The older man moved about on the chair as if suddenly uncomfortable. “Red,” he said.

“No,” the younger man interjected, “your real…”

“Red will do for our purposes,” the old man said, firmly and his tone brooked no dissent. His rheumy eyes focussed on each of us in our turn, daring us to disagree.

The younger man looked almost amused at this, but then waved a hand in his fellow’s direction as if it was no longer important.

“I too had a family, once. Until I threw them away.”

The bluff matter of factness of his statement was shocking given his kindness to the woman as she had struggled to speak.

“I care for no-one and want nothing other than.to forget. I tried…” His aged voice faded for a moment before regaining some strength. “I tried, Lord knows I tried,” I possibly might have imagined a momentary smile then, “until they snuck back when I least expected them to.” He stared at me, a deep long stare. “That’s the thing about memories, you see. They never leave. They hide, waiting for you in the darkened alleyways of your soul.”

My head was hurting. My body ached, suddenly. My tongue felt heavy and under the cap, my scalp itched. My hand crept upwards for the briefest of moments before I caught the amused eye of the younger man and I placed my hand on the table. I didn’t want to show weakness in front of him. It felt incredibly important that I not do so.

The older man was looking in the distance. I wondered whether it was miles or years he was looking through then a meaty hand slammed down on the table, just missing mine. “This is important, boy.”

“OK,” I said, not understanding why.

“Goodbye? You dared to wish me goodbye?” His voice grew louder and his complexion darker. Even his hair seemed to grow redder as his anger expressed itself. “You?”

“Calm down… Red, he didn’t know,” the younger man said, and the older man’s anger subsided, slightly. “He could have, he should have,” then his upset appeared again, but in the form of irritation. “It’s not fair he doesn’t know. He must know.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” the youngster replied.

The woman spoke for the first time since Red had… the word ‘testified’ sprung to mind, but I didn’t know why. Almost casually, too casually, she asked me “do you know the difference between goodbye and farewell?”

I shook my head then said “I’d have thought they were the same thing. ‘Good’. ‘Well’. They’re the same kind of thing.”

“But ‘bye’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘fare’, does it?” There was a sudden craftiness to her voice I disliked and I turned away from her, back towards the old man named Red.

“Listen to her,” he said, with barely restrained fury. “Listen to…” He caught himself and finished “just listen to her.”

Livvy leaned forward. “Farewell is a wish that the other person ‘fares’, that is travels or experiences, ‘well’, so a hope they experience good fortune. Goodbye doesn’t mean that. No, it doesn’t mean that at all.” She giggled slightly, a jarring sound.

“All right,” I said.

“No,” the young man said, “not all right at all. She’s quite correct. Goodbye is a contraction. You know what a contraction is?”

“Yeah, ok, whatever,” I said and once again tried to leave. The man placed his hand on my shoulder. It burned and I pulled myself away.

“You’re staying right here,” he said, not impolitely but as a statement of fact. “For the moment, anyway. So, you’ve met Livvy and Red,” he said. “I’m Sonny.”

“Hardly how I’d describe you,” I said, surprised at myself.

To my greater surprise, he laughed; he seemed to find it genuinely funny.

“That’s good,” he said, “that’s clever. But you were always so clever, weren’t you? Not sunny,” he pointed at the sky, “Sonny’s my name, well, nearly, anyway, and as much as you’re getting from me at the moment.”

“Let me guess, you had a family as well,” I said. I was angry at him now, angry at all of them. And my head hurt.

“I did.”

“Going to tell me all about them, are you?”

“No,” he said. Just that. “No.”

There was another long pause before he said, “you are.”

He leaned forwards, placing his elbows on the table, and steepled his hands. “Livvy mentioned contractions a moment ago. You’re not an unintelligent fellow. Of what do you think ‘goodbye’ could possibly be a contraction?”

I didn’t know. My head felt like it was splitting open. And they sat there, Livvy and Red looking at me patiently, their demeanour calm, Sonny’s condescending and irritating. I wanted to hit him.

And I didn’t know why.

And then I did. Suddenly.

And I knew who Livvy was. And who Red was. And ‘Sonny’.

“Hello Abel,” I said.

“Well it took you long enough,” my brother said, his condescension in full swing. He always had been an irritating little bastard. Quite literately since our parents never formally married.

My father looked well for his years, I suppose, but I’d never met anyone else as old so who knew? I idly wondered when my mother had lost her eye.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Just to remind you. They,” he gestured around us, “may have forgotten you, but we haven’t. And never will. And neither has He.”

I reached under my cap and scratched The Mark. “I’ve not forgotten,” I said, almost petulantly.

“Sure you have,” he said, “otherwise you’d have realised it was time to move on. You’ve been here too long, and you’ll get caught. You’re getting sloppy, brother.” He looked towards the coffee shop, the empty coffee shop, the one with the CLOSED sign on it. “The police will discover them in the morning, you know. And you can’t get caught. Too much to explain.”

I laughed for the first time. “And that’s why He sent you? Because He doesn’t want me to have to explain why no one can harm me?”

“That’s why he sent me. Mother and Father came…” He paused, and pain flashed over his features “…because they missed you.” He sat back in his chair, the smugness once again radiating from him. “Oh, you can go now.”

I stood and walked away without looking back.

The last thing I heard was my mother saying “God be with you, son.”

I don’t think she meant it as a curse. I’ve already got a bigger one to carry around.

© Lee Barnett, 2019

See you tomorrow, with something else.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

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