A Thaw for Lonely

She moved to London to audition for drama schools.

She found a room in a flat with seven or more Antipodeans who had transplanted extreme versions of their southern lives to the Northern Hemisphere.

She got a job clearing glasses in a pub at night and rehearsed her monologues during the day.

At the auditions, she met actors and wannabes in hordes. Nerves and ambition were like magnets in those rooms – some bonds lasted only for that day but others moved into get-togethers. And then friendships.

She waited through the months for recalls or workshops. Or rejections. For answers. And she did classes. Voice. Movement. Improvisation. And she felt that she was on the edge of her world. A place that she could see through the glare of a shining window.

The Antipodeans drank. They changed in face and number. Some talked over a cuppa in the kitchen; others were just a flush, a cough or the closing of a door.

The pub was noisy and smelt of smoky staleness. But she liked it. There were regulars and jokes and no one was less than anyone. Except for the angry drunks who were delivered to the pavement with brisk certainty.

After a mime course, she decided to try to make some money busking during the day. As a statue. She made a silver costume and bought silver face paint and stood in the cobbled streets between the station and the market. Mostly motionless, but at the right time, reacting. Following. Tapping shoulders.

The silence was strange. Her silence. Amidst the bustle of sightseers and commerce and urban life. She had always filled spaces with talk and so silver made her a different person. A person of mostly thoughts and stillness. And after a while, she loved to escape into the silver and be simple and clear.

When people ignored her, she didn’t mind. When people tried to tease her into movement, she was pleased. And when people threw money into her silver suitcase, she thought of the irony that the coins were mostly silver – and, in a way, she liked that kind of symmetry.

They were tourists, mostly – the people who paused. They had time for novelty and nonsense. Time to wait her out or watch her try her few tricks on the unaware – the mimicked stride of a self-consciously ignoring busy businessman; the statue suddenly built to loom behind a window shopper. The tickle and freeze. The flash of a smile.

The ones that stopped were people who would never pass again and the ones that passed were those who would never stop.

Then, one day, he was there.

Again.

She remembered him from the week before when he’d stood near a shop doorway, looking out from under his thatch of unruly hair.

His gaze was soft and quiet. And cautious. And she knew not to do her tricks with him. But to show him them with others. At a distance.

At first, he was there once a week. And then more often. After a while, she would pose with her face towards the doorway where he’d stand so that he could catch her eye if he wanted.

And one day he did. For just a second. And then he looked away.

She could tell that no one had looked at him for a long time.

So she did her silver routine. And gave him her face once in a while in case he was ready to meet her eyes with his.

At home, amongst the noise and changing population, she wondered how it was to live alone. To have just empty rooms and silence. To move through the world invisibly and use your voice only with strangers. For those immersed in chaos and clamour, such a thing would be a blessing. For a while.

He was there every few days. Not for long. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. His clothes changed but not really. He was clean but not tidy. And his face was heavy with isolation from the world of real human interaction.

One day he stepped out from under the eaves of the building. He stood beside a lamppost at the edge of the pavement, his bag slung awkwardly over his shoulder, his eyes flicking constantly to pedestrians striding close by. Sometimes he would twitch his body hastily away and cast his eyes down as if he were ashamed of his proximity. But occasionally he would look up and hold off the world so that he could see her there. Standing out in the open.

The months passed. Her rejections arrived on the mat with a light flutter that didn’t match their significance.

Some of her friends got thicker bundles. Bringing offers. Acceptance. And they told her that hers would come too – through the dizziness of their celebration.

The pub regulars told her that one day they’d say “I knew her when …” and one of the Antipodeans began to make extra bacon and eggs for her each Sunday at lunch time.

She talked.

She laughed.

She worked.

And she was silver. Five days each week.

And still he came. And stood. And watched. His eyes could look for longer but his shoulders hunched and when he walked away, emptiness surrounded him.

One day he stepped down onto the cobbles. She didn’t notice, surrounded by an arc of weekend shoppers, but suddenly part of his face was visible between the turning heads and nudges. At the back of the small crowd, he was peering through. And, in the moment that she looked past them back at him, he didn’t look away. Their eyes held for a second. The silver and the grey. Through the clutter of transitory people who vibrated with distractions and plans and partial attention. And by the time the gaggle had moved on, he was gone.

But he came again. Out onto the street. Behind another cluster of people. And then another. And then smaller groups. And one day, he stood at the shoulder of a leisurely couple who had suspended their stroll. And he looked at her silver suitcase. And then her silver shoes. And then briefly up … before he moved back into his sphere of quiet seclusion.

She did one final audition workshop. The last fifty from whom eighteen would be chosen. She sang. She performed. She explained herself. And as they watched, she wished she knew what they were looking for.

And when she left that day, the last waiting began. Only one chance left. And she was closer than she’d ever been … but closer too to nothing.

Her parents said that it was an accomplishment. To get that far.

Her friends said that they knew she’d get in. Just as they had.

The pub staff curtsied and misquoted Shakespeare and she loved them for it.

And being silver was an oasis. A relief. A peace away from expectation and ambition and life-hinging decisions made by others for those powerless in limbo.

And when it rained, he came.

And when it was cold, he came.

One day, when a group of schoolchildren on an excursion being herded past her spot were allowed to pause, he stood beside the chaperones and she could see him clearly, close and open. The cool air washed between them without its winding fingers threading between heads and over shoulders. And it was like an open window letting in the bite of freshness from the morning.

She posed. The children hung through every repetition as each took the silver outstretched hand and tried to shake it … without response. Until a teacher was urged to step forward and was surprised by the vigorous cheery handshake most had given up on seeing. The children laughed. The parents and teachers laughed. And for the first time, under the thatch of hair, she saw a sweet grin allowed to finally break the cautious face.

The days closed in and even at the height, the sky seemed lower and it was grey whether there was rain or not. Sometimes the cobbled street was like a room with a roof of clouds and outside didn’t feel like outside anymore. The street was almost empty sometimes – a few pacing passers-by, some lunchtime errands runners – and the silver coins were few and far between.

But he came.

And in the winter enclosure, close to deserted, he could stand alone. And there was peace between them. Stillness and peace. And communion.

It was an afternoon when a family on their travels had stopped to take photographs to chronicle their time in the iconic place. And when they had moved on to real statues and monuments, he had been standing closer than he’d ever done before.

She didn’t move. He didn’t move. And for minutes each looked at the other without qualms or intent or expectation.

His sandy hair framed a face not fatigued with lack of sleep but with the creases of tiredness from bigger things. Things that lasted. That could not be controlled. He held himself carefully, warding against the unseen – hostility, ignorance and worst, the confirmation of his own invisibility. But still he had pushed through. Made efforts. His hair had been tamed in places, his clothes laundered and folded, his skin and body cared for in the way that most men did. He was ordinary. Not an outcast. No matter what the world had done to him. Told him. Left him.

He was a person. A man.

They stood through the minutes together – and lost the remnants of the street that had been methodically ticking around them. She saw only his face and through that, she saw him.

His eyes were clear but, behind them, there were dreams and ideas and sadness. His lips were closed but she knew they yearned to shout. His skin was pale and he smelt of soap and apples and she could feel him looking right inside her. Until there was nothing left to see.

And though she had loved, she had never felt so intimate. Though she had shared her deepest aspirations, she had never felt so open.

He reached for her hand and her fingers softened. And the touch wasn’t electric but natural. He took her palm in his and held it. And they stood. Easily. Peacefully.

And then the rain began to fall.

And they stayed. Eyes connected, hands together.

The silver began to wash away and soon her face was like his. Pallid and wet. Alive with raindrops.

She didn’t know how long they stood. It seemed like a blink – but one that held off time. An instant stretching through the rush of rain that framed them.

But she didn’t remember any blinking. She didn’t notice wet or cold. It was as if she had stepped through a window into a life she had no reason to know. Into feelings that felt alien at first but familiar as they found their way inside her.

His ache caught in her throat.

His emptiness overflowed and tightened in her chest.

And when she began to wonder what of her had showed itself to him, she realised that he was gone.

And she felt the rain on her face. And it was warm and bitter on her lips. And though her fingers were trembling in the drenching chill, she welcomed the tingle of her skin, the feeling of her hair lankly striping her cheeks and the thick movement of her breath lifting and lowering her in its steady rhythm.

It was dark by the time she got home. But she could hear the warm sounds of laughter and music upstairs as she closed the front door behind her. And when she turned, she noticed a letter on the mat.

But she couldn’t see if it was for her or how thick it was.

So she left it there to wait until the morning.

.

*    *    *


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