There was something queer about his mouth, too. Not to say that I didn’t like it, but then I always liked a few flaws in a fella. I think I got it from my old mum – she was always after a bastard so I grew up around them, and look what that lead to. Attracted to what I was repelled by. I don’t think that makes sense, does it, but it makes the job easier. I once tricked a fella from Lincoln with warts on his hands. He called it a condition; I called us a cab. Is this being recorded?
Didn’t one of you say I could have a Coke? No, no one brought me one. Hang on, let me get my lighter out. Now, where was I? Yeah, so there was that thing about his mouth, the way he had this habit, yeah, of snaking his tongue out – like this – when he wasn’t talking, not thinking like. Couldn’t stop looking. And he was older. White male and fifty, did you say? 5 foot 8? Sounds about right. Quite a bit older, then, if I’m honest. Didn’t mind. Daddy issues they call that, don’t they? I bet you lot do. Well, answer me this then. How can I have daddy issues if I ain’t got a daddy? I don’t blame you for thinking it. See it all the time, not just with people in my line of work, I bet. Shit goes on at home, and next thing you know you’re picking up some lass for trying to shackle a midlife crisis with a bad dye job and a Jag – trainers too young for them, and all that. You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. They say that too, don’t they? Do you like mine? Heel’s coming off this one a bit. Is that Coke still coming?
Welcome to the city of soft-focus. Blink once and miss nothing. The brick-and-slate vista forms a dingy skirting board below the rising fog. Can you taste it yet? Wait for it, it’s coming – and once the acrid twang of fag ash and river sludge begins to probe the meaty paunches of your mouth, you’ll know you’re here. I watch it smudge past me, from outside the taxi window. I wait for the sign, as if I need reminding. As if this place needs announcing. I can be nowhere else.
The taxi man is chewing a biro. He is an old hand, but he’s not actually as old as all that. Perhaps he’s fifty – fifty-five tops. Some of his back teeth are missing, and his fox-like grin pulls far towards his ears. He begins his patter. He asks me if I’m here for the holidays, his head cocked up towards the mirror. I meet him. I start to explain that I don’t live here anymore: that I’m here to see my brother. Asks me if I’m at yooni, if I like what I’m studying, and if I miss home. I say aye so many times it starts to sound like eye, and I wonder if I’m having a stroke. I ask him if he lives local. Oh yes, he nods. All me life.
Hey listen, here’s one for you: what do women and hurricanes have in common? They both start off a breeze, but then they destroy everything you have! Always liked that one, but can never remember where I heard it… Jim, maybe, or Andrew in Marine Forecasting? Or perhaps just a stranger on the bus, which is equally plausible because – and I’ve always liked this – weather has a place in everyone’s daily lives, not just ours down at the Met Office. You hear it come up in all sorts of conversation. In fact, just the other week, an architect friend of mine met the Queen at the opening of some war memorial, and you’ll never guess what she said to him. One’s hair is being drizzled on. That tickled me pink.
Of course, in my line of work we’re not so focused on your everyday downpour. In Paleotempestology – that’s the hurricane business – you’ve all sorts of meteorological implications to consider, not least of all the official naming of storms. I bet you never thought about how they do that, did you? Well, someone’s got to. I often think back on my career and wonder what prompted me to classify them as I did. How I managed to choose names to summarise each cyclonic thrill. Of course, I realise now that the inspiration was clear all along.
My first was Lisa. Gale force two, if memory serves. Winds of about nine kilometres per hour, fingernails bitten down, and sparkly polish on the nibs, short wavelets with no breaks. Some airborne spray. To be honest, tame, and pretty unremarkable, but there’s a first for everything, isn’t there. It was middle school, after all. Followed swiftly by Monica. Gale force three – a definite let down, with very few scattered whitecaps. Freckled, too. Some experts in the field had said she’d go anywhere, do anything, but no more than a slight draught and flutter down by the football fields and it was over.
Gunther did not remember much about his death. In fact, the moment had passed somewhat uneventfully and, had it not been for the audience’s few gasps of surprise and an ill-timed giggle, he might have thought he’d dreamt it up altogether.
Emily had been sat in the second row, slightly left of centre stage – not that he’d been able to see his wife during much of the performance itself. The stage lamps had masked the audience from the players with a brilliantly intense void of white light. He had felt the glow draw conspicuous beads of sweat to his forehead almost the instant he had taken his first steps on stage, like the rapid onset of fever. It had felt like being in the presence of a dying star.
Alex watched a large brown fly circle the sticky perimeter of his glass, and wiped the sweat from the back of his neck. The heat was stifling, and his focus had long since shifted from his parents’ conversation to the distant, silver spatter of the municipal fountain on the far side of the smouldering plaza. He imagined himself beneath its aquamarine deluge – feeling the cool water sweep into his armpits, and slick down, across the backs of his knees. He fancied he could smell the scent of chlorine and pennies from where he was sat, but the fantasy soon fell apart in the heat of the airless day.
He turned his attention back to his parents. His father was three minutes into one of his recapitulated monologues on how the game had all changed since the 1970s, and how Alex’s generation couldn’t possibly hope to recreate such a prodigious era. From the bits and pieces that he had tuned into, Alex knew that his father had already covered the problems with digital refereeing, and obscene player pay packets – “It just beggars belief, son.” – and would soon circle back to good old-fashioned love of the game.
The night before, it was supposed to be Lucy’s turn to close up the shop, but she’d had to nip off early because the baby had the croup, and Tim had a work thing to go to. I’d offered to do it for her, because I actually quite liked the silence; the soundlessness of the shop floor as order is once again restored. Like a big jigsaw. In a way, I thought it would do well to prepare me for the following morning. Something practical, to take my mind off things.
At closing time, Arthritic Maggie had said Rather you than me, petal, and asked if I had plans for the weekend. How’s your fella, the one from Hull? She’d asked, and I’d told her he’d gone back home for a while because things around here were too depressing. So, he went back to Hull, of all places? She’d laughed. I laughed too. Why not, I thought.
She had met David online when he, a mutual friend of an old colleague, had sent her a friend request. Following what had been a taxing, if not entirely tedious, day of processing innumerable forms, she had returned home to find the little figure in the top right corner of the home screen was coloured red, proffering a tiny speech bubble containing the single number ‘1’. It wasn’t the case that this alone had taken her by surprise, or had stirred any greatly anticipatory emotions within her. She was used to friend requests, from distant cousins, neighbours, and the like, though most often from middle-aged colleagues who, having recently discovered their own effervescent online presence, would proceed to forward video compilations of dogs falling into swimming pools, and grainy, garish reproductions of inspirational quotations from pulp fiction writers. But David was different: a stranger, a spark of promise amidst the quotidian hum of the everyday. She knew at once that she would accept the request, but humoured her shy sense of dignity by scanning his profile briefly, as if to vet the man at the other end of it, flicking through profile pictures and noting which school he had gone to, before sending her response.
After she had accepted, she fed her cat, folded some laundry, and completed the minutiae of the quiet evening, before getting ready for bed. That night, whilst brushing her teeth, she looked up at her face reflected in the small oval mirror that hung above the sink. She had never been considered a beauty, even in her youth, but she fancied that her face still retained something of the girl that came before the woman. She was grateful for her mother’s high cheekbones, which, even now, seemed to beat back against the inevitable pull of gravity, keeping her jawline from drooping – though her own aging had never truly disturbed her, as it had others.
He had made her a CD. Initially, he thought about making a tape, providing a useful segue into discussions about old sound systems, a topic about which he knew a lot. He imagined how this vintage gesture might be charming, and give way to his being able to tell her things she might not already know, like how hi-fi is an actually an abbreviation of high fidelity, or how to tighten the belt inside a record player. He thought she might like that. She seemed to like learning.
He recalled, on more than one occasion, her having mentioned almost winning the pub quiz at her local, and she had seemed interested in telling him some of the answers she hadn’t known. Did you know that? She had asked. Sometimes he had, but he never let on.