The evening peels the day away – black, empty trees imprint charcoal veins and scratches against the granite sky. Anne walks with an effortless poise and upright posture – a candle in the stillness. She glides by him stoned and stinking of weed. As with those born petite and slim, gravity’s paternal hands rest easier on their shoulders – careful not to ride to much weight on one of nature’s more delicate creatures. She walks knock-kneed, sockless in slip-ons, occasionally scuffing the pavement beneath her as if it something foreign and should not be there.
He turns to watch her pass him.
Tom left Melbourne behind like a window shopper and followed the deep, worn passage of nurses abroad. Tom was left behind first. His occupation guided him to Manchester – land of the sick, crazy, homeless, suicidal, terminal and damned. Agency work had him trapped in the psych ward at Withington Hospital – one-on-one, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms length with the death addicts, ten hours a day, twenty minutes for lunch, five minute bathroom breaks and no tab breaks. A real brain-fuck – seriously. And the remuneration of cigarettes and money for booze Tom saved by the long hours, he consumed two-fold after work in feats of nihilistic revenge against his own mind to forget time he ever spent in the hospital.
Anne was a ghost like Garbo through West Didsbury streets. Tom started seeing her with regularity in phone boxes in Withington Village and along Burton Road. He spotted her at the bus stop by the old NatWest Building and around the corner from what was Pleasure on Old Parsonage Road, outside Blaggs hardware store on Cavendish Road opposite the Met in West Didsbury and in front of the local Post Office.
On days off work, Tom liked sitting against windows of local cafes and bars and staring out on sidewalk – documenting the life that passed his narrow lens. He alternated between the Railway and Solomon Grundy’s, nursing warm sour pints of Guinness and IPAs depending on the weather, and with increasing frequency saw her walk by. She cut the air with a vacuous lilt and silent voracity the way wanderers and the haunted do – and Tom turned sightings of her into a game of sorts.
Dope curls up in Tom’s eyes. The spliff he smoked before leaving his flat had since wrapped his brain in a pelt of languid fur. Traces of incandescent light fizzle and pop in Tom’s vision when he rises to go to the toilet. He also realises his legs have turned to wooden stilts. So he decides to stay at his table a while longer. Anne passes the glass front of Solomon’s looking lost. But lost is a state of mind. She needs a direction first before she can lose her way, Tom concludes to prevent himself going outside and making a tool of himself by offering assistance.
Anne wasn’t her real name. Tom didn’t know her and another wasted chance to speak to her rattled him. He once heard Lizzy call herself Anne. Jane might fit, Tom thought, but Anne suited her best. Tom recalled Lizzy’s slender face. It was flawless, indistinctive and stunning like Anne. Her skin was lightly toasted like a cream cracker and the fading memory of a summer trip to Barcelona. Her steep brown eyes were softened by an ancestry of settlers and their colonial sons. And he pictured her black hair, laddering the side of her face in comely layers, which ended up short at the back, and exposed her long cold neck dotted with chocolate freckles.
Tom admitted Anne wouldn’t have worked in Australia like Lizzy. Her skin was peach yoghurt. In daylight it would broil to the colour of looking-through-eyelids-at-the-sun. Even in the shade her insubordinate complexion would blush like ruby summer punch. Her calcium phosphate hair would turn green in chlorinated pools and stick to her sweaty brow. And her nation blue eyes would fade in the light, and bake grey and lifeless like the unending glaucous highways that connected his vast homeland.
In Manchester, the saturated gloom cosseted her like she was an ephemeral satellite, a beacon all white and luminous. And she always appeared unexpectedly and briefly, like a vegetarian predator flashing its ivory grin, before disappearing down an alleyway or side road, obscured by the camouflage of inclemency, concrete wasteland and terminal rain.
Lizzy was an immaculate host. ‘I’m only doing this because you’re the guest,’ she would say. Tom lived with his parents so he was always the guest. And with delicate precision and professional detachment she neither overcompensating his ego nor insulting his manhood. Tom noticed she used the same technique with her thumb and forefinger when stripping the cellophane wrapping on a cucumber so she was able to twist-tie the open end close. Their love was convenient – they never gave more than they took. Lizzy’s thoughtfulness warmed Tom. Every time they were naked and she had stapled him to the bed with her legs she politely asked him if he minded. The lubricant lid would click like a cosmetics bottle and made Lizzy laugh because it injured an intimacy other lovers’ would condemn.
Tom enjoyed that they handled it with comedy and games. He thought they were special by respecting a ritual – a covenant made inimitable because only they shared in it. It was owned by them and existed only between them. It took Manchester and experience to realise he didn’t do enough and enough for her.
Tom met Lizzy through Derek, who took an office invitation to her housewarming party at higher worth than it was offered and invited Tom for support. They don’t talk anymore.
‘Can you take a look at something?’ Lizzy asked Tom, swooning by the top of the stairs at the end of the evening.
Drunk on red wine and black sambuca she drew him by the hand into her bedroom and exposed her upper body – gone her white bra and tight, elegant black cotton turtle-neck that accentuated her slender neck into the graceful cradle of her face. Her small body and breasts that Tom expected to shiver in the naked air, stood proud and frightened and beautiful. Lizzy’s breath was warm with the sweet taste of liquorice.
‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’
‘Even when you had all your clothes on.’
‘Good answer,’ Lizzy smiled.
And it was true. Her grey skirt and black stockings melted into her hips, lower back and thin-lipped stomach, and Tom never wanted to hope to see more.
Lizzy put her hand on Tom’s crotch.
‘I’d hoped for a better response.’
‘I’m concentrating very hard.’
And all Tom wanted was to feel Lizzy’s body hard against his with arms wrapped around him like a survival blanket. And she did, taking Tom’s left ear in her teeth.
‘Can I have a look at you then?’
Tom looks up and realises he’s been staring vacantly into the hibernating blackness of his tired old Nokia in standby mode. He had been drinking the mild Indian summer evening away at the Victoria and Albert before an inevitably transition across the road to Solomons. He gets to his feet. Tom’s head sloshes with the same tired, sea wrack confusion that caught about his feet as he ambles back along Burton Road. His stoned eyes, furry and bloodshot and from lager and cigarette smoke thread street lamps with luminous banners and lancing headlights from oncoming traffic, which follow through like bullet trails.
Tom is happy in his drunkenness. He has reached oblivion which clouds his impending shift in the morning. He is deliberating if it is absolutely necessary to wear a jumper in the temperate night. Then he sees Anne alone in a public telephone outside the Withington Pools and Fitness Centre. The red brick Victorian building and industrial chimney at the rear looms in the darkness.
Anne’s body huddles like a garden slatter halfway up the phone booth, pushing her legs and back against the glass to keep her body off the ground. She cradles the receiver like the forearm of her lover as he’s walking out the front door. Still she does not speak, she does not react. She is lavender preserved in the vacuum of a funeral glass ornament. The night throws a dolorous woollen blanket over the street. There is no noise or movement in the air the quiet street breathes, begging the question for the telephone’s existence. The luminescent plastic hat advertising the public telephone like an expired shipping beacon cuts the cold wet stoned gloom. Her eyes flicker as if catching the movement of a winged shadow slowly gliding down the shop fronts.
Tom freezes in a stare. Anne dissolves back into her space-her bubbled gaze where she is searching behind the eyes of her mind for something worth saying.