Exile in Silence

Black and White Photography by Eddie O'Bryan

The room felt stiff and forbidding. It denied me the luxury of distance and I was glad to have been left alone, if only for a few minutes. I searched for something to distract me and my gaze inadvertently fell upon his coat. It lay on the edge of the sofa, an abandoned shell with a fallen arm extended as if in supplication towards the ground. Lonesome and drab without its owner wrapped in its folds. He wore his clothes like his moods, with deceptive carelessness. 

The edge of a book inched out of the depths of the coat pocket. So this must be his escape. Stooping over aged pages, oblivious to the rest of the world, he would detach himself from all concerns and flee to another world. One of his own choosing. I tried to guess whether it would be a biography or a work of history. Perhaps a novel, although knowing him, that seemed unlikely. Before I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity, I heard the door open behind me. He was back.

I had grown accustomed to his silence over the past few months. At first I found it unsettling. I tried to reach out, make him speak. It mattered little what he would say. No accusation, no reproach could equal this continued absence of sound. I was reduced to searching for pathetic substitutions for our former tête-à-têtes. The  only times I heard his voice these days was when I tiptoed to the door of his office to eavesdrop on his conversation with others. 

He was punishing me. I knew that he would never make me leave, but he did his best to make it difficult not to. At first I stayed because I hoped he would relent, certain that he couldn’t go on ignoring me indefinitely. I was wrong. He had made an art of it and I was nearing the breaking point.

On reentering the room he had settled into the armchair by the window, his body turned away from me so that I could see very little of his profile. Light sifted through the blinds in jagged lines: the portrait of a shadow-striped reader.

“What is it that you are reading?” I asked, cutting through the silence.

He looked up, his expression… he had the look of a dreamer that had been suddenly awakened from their sleep, but upon whom reality had not quite settled. He paused. He blinked. A hand moved towards his hair and ruffled it slightly as if enquiring, attempting to guess what the question had been. I moved towards the sofa and extracted the book from the pocket of the coat.

“Ah. It is Huxley,” I answered for him.

A novel after all. Aldous Huxley. It was a good name. One could not help but be persuaded by whatever an Aldous might tell them. I turned the book in my hands. It was an old edition and looked as if it had been read many a time. The pages had acquired a rusty hue and the spine was not altogether firm. It had a mild scent of tobacco.  

“A favourite of yours?” I asked, turning one page and then another, aware that I was being observed as I did so.

He shrugged noncommittally.

Words swam soundlessly between us. He would not speak. Brave New World. I knew of it, but had never taken the trouble to read it. I wished I had. In my desperate attempt to cross over the chasm, this may have been a bridge. I believed that familiarity with something he cared about would have anchored me back into his life. Just like me… to depend on something so useless and fail even at that.

“What is it about?” I persisted, my eyes fixed on the page before me without being able to take in its contents.

“Inadequacy.”

His answer startled me. Its existence as much as its content. I expected to see a challenge in his eyes when I finally dared look at him, but I could not read his expression. I knew what he would read in mine: defeat.

For an instant only a compact formed between us around that one word. It hurt to hear it. It summed up my present state of existence. Somehow, it encompassed all that I had felt, been, for the past few months. He had made me feel that way without even trying. Did he know it? I looked away.

Moments later he was at my side. Not to embrace me. No. I had lost that privilege. I thought he wanted to reclaim his volume and offered to give it back, but that wasn’t it either. He shook his head to indicate that he didn’t want it and reached out for his coat instead.

At times I wondered whether he planned his actions or whether there was a cruel coincidence to the things he did. He fished out of the coat pocket the lighter I had gifted him the day after “the incident”. It was that clichéd gesture that gave me away in the end. Had I been a man, I might have bought him flowers. He knew me well enough to guess what it meant, and once suspicion found a foothold, it did not give way until he had it confirmed.

He lit a cigarette. It suited him. That vice. I watched him draw in the smoke and exhale it. He watched me watch him. Would that be it… a word once in a while and silence forevermore? Inadequacy. Succinct and to the point.

“It’s a dystopia. Or it was intended to be one. The way we’re going it may as well be a blueprint,” he said.

I waited for him to continue. 

“The main character is an outcast who cannot or will not conform to the happy world of endless consumption and promiscuity.”

A turn of the head, a swift glance and he had caught me out. I wanted to laugh, but did not have the strength. He may be mocking me. It was too painfully close, too coincidental for it to be true.

“And what is his solution?” I asked.

“Exile.”

I couldn’t tell whether he was speaking of me or of himself.

 

Daily Prompt: Land of Confusion

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The Aftermath | British Spooks

Daniel-Craig-also-running-in-Skyfall_gallery_primary

Running, running, running… Every time his feet gave up and he fell to the ground, he would gather himself up, stumble forth a pace or two and then gathering speed through some sheer contortion of the will, he was once again running fast down the hill. His cheek hurt, as if the earth had slapped him so that his body might suffer as did his ego. Thoughts, one after another, followed his mind’s eye inwards. Mission unaccomplished.

It wasn’t a first time for things to go wrong. The target escaped unscathed. His partner was nowhere to be seen. She had accompanied him against her better judgement, knowing that there was every chance she would be recognised, her disguise too feeble at short notice. He had failed her and now she was gone. Dead or worse…

He was certain that he would die of guilt before dehydration or exhaustion had a chance to finish him off. What a coward. Yet what could have been gained from staying behind? All had been lost long before he took to the road. He had to survive. If there was any chance of getting her back, he will do so. Time. It was all a matter of time. Hours, a few days at most.

Which hurt more, mattered more: loss or humiliation? Humiliation he could deal with. He had been humiliated many a time in his life. He had learnt to let it wash over, turn every knockdown into an upward step. You did not get into his shoes by wasting time on pity parties. But this he had not expected.

He thought of her name. It was seldom that he indulged in speaking it out. Ever cautious, she had forbidden it, even when alone. She became a number, a code. Just like him. She was little more than a shadow. Her past so insubstantial as to allow her to disappear at will. For a time they had worked the field apart. He didn’t like her restraint. She despised his recklessness. Alaska had changed everything. Too much perhaps. And then came the Game…

“We have to get out of here now. He knows,” she had said. She had meant it. He knew that much. It could not have been all a lie. So where did they go wrong? Had there been clues? Did she try to tell him, did she try to warn him? Had he been too wrapped up in his ego to pay sufficient attention?

Running, running, running… He was exhausted. He stumbled. He fell to the ground. The cut on his right cheek had started to burnt and now he could feel his heart pulsating in the side of his face. No. It was impossible. He must be imagining things. Hot liquid gushed unexpectedly down his cheeks. He tried to wipe them dry, his hands dirtied by the dust of the road. Shaking, he forced himself to straighten up again and looked along the road ahead and then behind him. Alone, he screamed. Once. Twice. Thrice.

It was the release he needed. All of the pain, the dull thumping tension that had been gathering strength in his chest, let out at once. He laughed. A madman, his suit ripped at the knees and covered in dust, his face slashed and bleeding, dirt mingled with blood.

After a while his laughter subsided and he breathed in deeply. It felt that he had never truly breathed before that moment. His eyes had a mad glimmer about them and the trace of a smirk was imprinted in the corner of his face. Limping slightly he continued down the hill, one step at a time, determined yet heavy. The weight of a life to be saved set on his shoulders.

Daily Prompt: The Heat is On

Lost in the maddening crowd

Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889. Detail: Crowd with masks.

Lying on the pavement. Helpless. A leg stuck under the weight of an overturned cart. Desperate. “Eddie! Eddie!” the shout reverberated through the crowd.

***

We had crossed the river in search for a terrace and must have veered off the established route into a side street at some point. We were so engrossed in conversation that the change of direction and scenery were lost to us at first, until we reached a busier part of the road, surrounded by an eclectic group of people. Their appearance and clothing were so strangely out of place that one could easily have believed themselves to have inadvertently stepped into the middle of a carnival or… through some deficiency of the time fabric, into 16th century Britain.

At first we could not distinguish between the disparate elements of that mobile picture to know what it was. A mound of bodies, half covered in dirty cotton, lines of rosy flesh interrupted by triangles of torsos, the  number of which appeared to be greater than it was possible to belong to the number of women and men entangled in wretched proximity.

The day was quickly turning into dusk. Streetlights flared up here and there struggling to disperse the gloom. We were making slow progress up the road, as the crowd inexplicably thickened. We could not walk a pace without having to turn and twist through the anonymous living bodies littering the street, wandering in lowered whispers what all of these people could be doing out in fancy dress.

Cries erupted somewhere in our vicinity. We tried to isolate distinct parts of the picture, differences of size and shape, length of limbs and skin colour before we could only view it all as an endless mass of grey. Turning towards the direction of the noise just in time to avoid the advance of a cart and horse, we were suddenly struck by the slithering movement of bodies and limbs all around us, their faces turned inward, as if ashamed to be noticed. 

Eddie had promised to lead us to the bank of the river so we followed him in silence, taunt faces in an line that threatened to be pulled apart at any moment. The increasing number of people, or perhaps one should rather say men, wearing clothes cut plainly from a brownish sackcloth ought to have worried us, but we were too busy trying to keep our leader in sight to think of much else. However slowly we were advancing towards our destination, we were advancing nonetheless. The crowds were only a background blur.

A woman of nondescript age approached us and asked whether she can make herself of any use. She was so tall that we thought she must be walking on stilts, although her maid’s outfit made her look rather matronly: a washed out blue dress set against a chalk tinted apron, the edge of which she kept twisting slightly with her thumb as she spoke. She asked whether we were lost. We were quick to decline her services. There was something otherworldly about her looks. It did not bode well.

Daily Prompt: If You Leave

Let me let you go…

Train station glamorous woman leaving with suitcase retro goodbye mysterious lady

She stepped onto the platform, facing away from him, resenting the inevitable end. She did not want to watch him leave, to have that image of him to the last, stretching the physical distance between them until the cord could no longer resist the tension and snapped free.

Don’t look back. Don’t look back.

The electric glow of lamps, spaced in equal succession upon the high bolted arch, funnelled smaller and smaller into the distance where the tunnels began, theirs curves unseen. A dulled hum filled the space, the synchronic sound of motors. At first it seemed to be a continuous sound, but as she listened in, she began to distinguish the differing overlapping revs. It was a successive buzzing that came in waves one after another, building into one, a noise devoid of music, an annotation to that city’s life. Upon it came the staccato of the hammers. Iron heating iron. Like a heartbeat.

She envied that hollow space that would never be reached by pain or longing. Regret cut through the fullness of her lungs. She exhaled. Everywhere this invisible dust filled her nostrils with the black of its soot. Noise. The air was grey with it. Her thoughts devoid of colour as she walked those last few steps to board the train.

A whistle in the near distance called. Laughter, loud conversation without, drowning out the emptiness within. He was gone. She was sure of it and yet could not help glimpsing back for one last time, even as she berated herself for this show of weakness.

For a few moments her eyes were restless, searching him out. He was gone. Of course, he was gone. Then, just as she was about to give up, she saw him: a wild cloud of coppery locks advancing through the crowd.

The doors closed and the train motioned forward, its bowels shrieking with the effort of movement. Wheels crunched the lines below, another moaning sound and off it went carrying her with it. Away, always moving, motioning one way and then another.  

This was to be her last memory of him: pounding the doors so that they may open, his eyes affixed into hers.

*

Daily Prompt: Happy Endings

The end of an affair

The End of the Affair

Their story would have a beginning and an end. For Lara this much was clear from the very start. She wondered at times whether Adam had known it too, or whether the realisation had crept upon him incrementally, with every forgotten promise, every angry word, every moment of guilt and remorse that went unshared.

She could have borne it all, just about. She would have found the strength to accept it and move on, if only it she could rid herself of that sneaking suspicion that he didn’t love her. Not fully. Not as she craved to be loved. Her pride was hurt by the thought of that imaginary offence alone. If she had made no sacrifice, it would’ve hurt less. But she gave up her sense of self to become his, and to think him indifferent was crushing.

She loved more. She would hurt more when it was finally over. And there was a perverse desire within her to make him pay for the difference. If she couldn’t make him love her, then she would make him hate instead. Anything was better than indifference. If he hated her, she would be remembered. And that was something.

There would be an end. All things end after all. Perhaps for him, who believed in eternal life and damnation, that sense of an ending was more difficult to grasp. But then again, he was unaware of the beginning too, shocked to discover himself complicit in the affair.

She dreamt of making it last once. In her most daring moments of playing at make-belief, she envisaged their leaving together, hand in hand, into the somewhat dreary London sunset. She was almost, almost able to see a couple of blue-eyed lookalikes filling their later years with the clamour of childish laughter. Wasn’t that the greatest proof that there had been love: that desire to authenticate it, to cement it in flesh, replicate it generation after generation?

They were naïve, those dreams… impossibly farfetched. So she let them weaken and die, and with the death of hope, came unavoidably the slow decay of love.

*

Daily Prompt: Obstacle Course 

#BenedictCumberbatch | An Unexpected Meeting

“Sure I came to see your play.”

“How come you didn’t stick around after?” he asked

“Something came up. Sorry.”

“I know exactly who that ‘something’ was. I’m surprised at you, Vic.”

It was Friday. James and I were having a drink at the Lab after work. I hadn’t seen him at all in the New Year, what with his constant rehearsals and my writing commitments leaving little time for social encounters. So when he called earlier that day to ask if there was any chance I may be free that evening, I did not hesitate. Call it a guilty conscience.

“Sorry. What?”

“You haven’t mentioned him in two hours,” James said, watching me over the rim of his Pornstar Martini.

“Is this a guessing game or will you tell me who you mean?”

He sipped from his glass, took his time replacing it on the counter and glimpsed around the bar to ensure that no one was listening in.

“Cumberbatch, who else?”

I nearly choked on my vintage Mulata. Just like James to introduce the topic when he knew full well that it would set me off-balance. I had to tread carefully. How much did he know? There were those pap snaps in the Saturday edition, but even if he saw them… My face was out of focus as I disappeared behind Ben’s towering frame.

“You’re getting a reputation, you know. Aren’t you going to tell me what happened?” he insisted, when I pretended to be too busy with my drink to answer.

“There is nothing to tell, James. Honest.”

“I see.”

He ordered another round and changed the subject, but I could tell that he was brewing something. I’ve known him for long enough to be certain that one way or another he would find it out.

benedict_cumberbatch_03

It was James’ West End debut. His first night on the big stage. There was no question about my not being there. When the curtain went down I headed to the stage door to wait for him. I sparked up and was leafing mindlessly through the programme when a familiar voice disturbed my musings.

James was right. The something that came up was Benedict. I did not expect to see him at the theatre that night, nor did I expect to… I suppose all things Benedict do tend to be rather unexpected of late.

“What did you think of it?” Ben asked.

For a moment I thought it was a trick of the light. What was he doing there?

“It was… good I suppose,” I said.

“I didn’t much like it either,” he smiled and asked whether he could borrow my lighter.

“The lead is a good friend of mine,” I said, somewhat peeved.

Alright. It wasn’t the performance of the century, but that is rarely the case on a first night. I was sure that with a little trimming here and there the play would do just fine. In all fairness I felt rather guilty discussing it with anyone, before I had a chance to speak to James about it first.

“I got your letter.”

I froze. Dropped my cigarette. Felt the blood drain from my cheeks. My throat constricted.

“You are mistaken, I’m sure,” was all I managed to say.

I avoided his eyes, lest he would read the truth in mine. Fumbled through my pockets for another cigarette; when I finally found my pack it was empty.

“Have one of mine,” he offered.

I took it. Needed something to keep me occupied. Wished James would hurry the f*** up. Perhaps Ben could sense the disturbance he’s caused, or perhaps he needed some time to consider my answer. In either case, I was glad to continue in silence.

“I know it was from you,” Ben said after a while.

“What makes you so certain?” I couldn’t help asking.

“Every writer has a signature phrase… or expression. It was an easy enough deduction to make.” That knowing smile again.

“I think you’ve taken your ‘getting into character’ a little too far, Sherlock,” I laughed, my mind gone into overdrive. A signature. I had a signature phrase. What could it be? How on earth could I not know about it. I must’ve read and re-read that letter a dozen times before sending it. It was supposed to be anonymous and yet…

“Give us a smile, Benedict!”

Damned paps. Where did this one come from? I pulled the scarf up to cover my face just in time. The flash left me momentarily blind. Next thing I knew I was being dragged away from the scene at full speed.

“Wait! I’m supposed to wait for my friend. Ben, wait!”

“We need to get out of here,” he said, speeding up his pace.

I stumbled and nearly lost my footing, but his clasp on my elbow was strong enough to prevent my falling over. A few minutes later, he was handing me a safety helmet. I was about to protest, but he would hear none of it.

“Look. We have to talk. You’ll meet up with your friend another time. Or do you fancy seeing your face all over the dailies tomorrow?”

Ben got on his bike. I wavered. James will never let me live this down, although… what he doesn’t know…

 

Daily Prompt: Blogger of Repute

On the eve…

On the eveI swerved into the bend of the road and stopped. Completely lost, trapped by a curtain of snow. Four pm and already the scenery was immersed in gloom. It was a guessing game where the road stopped and the fields began. How was I supposed to find the village Emily had anchored in?

I must have taken a wrong exit at some point, but when? The flat light made it impossible to keep my bearings even on busy roads, leave apart in the countryside. Suddenly, surprising my friend with an impromptu Christmas visit no longer seemed like such a good idea.

“Driver takes last breath in the middle of idyllic scenery” was one headline that did not feature in my plans, at least not yet. Certainly not the ‘till death do us part’ I  envisaged when he proposed last summer.

I had to slow down, my vision impaired by a rush of tears. Breathe. Argh! I promised myself to be good about this. Happier thoughts… Think happier thoughts.

George staring in dismay at his shredded suits – George getting a nasty surprise from gelled underwear – George coughing his lungs out after taking a swig from any of the chilli powdered drinks in the fridge – George jumping around the house with bleeding toes after trying to get into his stupid, brilliantly-trapped-by-me shoes – George cheating on me. Merry Christmas to me.