Fiction: Memories of Now
By Robert Scott
It is chilly for inside. A spring morning without the heating on, or a cold-starting summer day? I don’t know which it is. That is odd, but I feel I have just arrived to this place.
I can’t see out of a window to check the season; there is too much going on. Seven or eight young people block my view with their comings and goings. They are a rowdy bunch, teasing each other, swapping chairs, stealing toast from others’ plates. At the kitchen table the chat is books, lectures, and gossip about their final-year literature course. They are full of life, carefree, and happy to be living with their best friends.
The guys all have the same clean-cut look, with floppy hair and side-partings. They wear old-fashioned trousers, baggy and pleated, some have shirt sleeves rolled up, others sport funny woollen tank tops. The girls are in printed dresses and cardigans. It could be a hipster convention.
I don’t know any of their names. I am the newbie. They mostly ignore me, though in a warm friendly way, as if I am one of them. I will integrate before long and run with the herd.
I sit a little back from the table, not joining in. In front of me is white bread, butter, jam, and lots of tea. Where’s the coffee? I don’t bother to ask.
A plump young man stands at the cooker, prodding at two frying pans full of sausages, chipped potatoes, and onions. He has a pink frilly apron over his dressing gown, and could be auditioning as a music hall comedian, except that he is taking his task so seriously, head down, concentrating. Peer pressure, no doubt, because this morning it is his turn to cook for the whole flat. Despite his laser focus on the food, he manages to talk non-stop as people buzz around him. Some wash up, clear the table, re-lay the table, search cupboards, try to pinch food from his pans. There seems to be a tea person, as well. This chaotic breakfast club is, despite appearances, a well-oiled machine with routines and systems as complex as a wartime submarine.
Today’s chef calls, ‘Help, Vera!’
As Vera gets up, she shares a conspiratorial look with her friend, who winks at me when she notices I am watching. Vera’s pal has light-brown hair, and the same side-parting as the others. Her dress is covered in tiny butterflies, the colour of her eyes.
‘Are they Common Blues?’ I ask.
Before she can reply, Vera shouts, ‘Annie, action stations!’
Vera returns and places a small frying pan in the centre of the table. In the scramble of hands, elbows and forks, Annie stabs and claims a sausage, laughing in delight. She cuts it in half and leans over to plonk it on my plate.
‘You need to get up to speed, young man, or you will starve to death,’ she tells me. ‘And, yes, they are Common Blues. I like to think so, anyway.’
A bell sounds. No, not a bell. It repeats, ‘ring’, ‘ring’, like a school alarm.
‘Phone call for Annie,’ someone shouts.
Annie picks up the last of her sausage, winks again at me, and rushes off, a cloud of blue butterflies fluttering after her.
Weeks pass in a flash. Annie and I are by the river on our weekend walk. Precious moments away from the crowd. We stop to kiss under every willow tree. The strands of Annie’s hair and the catkins are indistinguishable as they brush my cheek.
Later, we meet the others in a pub meeting room. The walls are covered in wooden panels. There is an arts and craft fireplace, oak beams, buttons to call for service. Chunky beer glasses with handles sit on sticky tables surrounded by church hall chairs.
Everyone knows Annie and I are experiencing the intense first weeks of deep, solemn love.
We all sit at a table to the right of the visiting speaker, a charismatic American author, who resembles the early television Captain Kirk. He holds the room effortlessly. He is sharp, knowing, and shares his wisdom generously.
I become slightly uneasy as I feel my group isn’t listening attentively enough. My flatmates are so full of it, living by their own rules, self-absorbed, over-confident, complacent.
In mid-flow, the guest speaker pauses his story, excuses himself from the audience, and approaches our table, smiling benignly.
‘Hi there. You’re not really listening to me, are you, guys? That’s all right.’ He delivers this with a combination of a cool laid-back Hollywood LA vibe and a real curiosity in us. He glistens with intelligence and empathy.
The writer notices an old ivy-green cloth-covered hardback book resting in my lap. I give it to him. He checks the title and author. Still smiling, he tells us,
‘To solve your mystery, you need to find a man called John Rippon.’
Returning the book, he glances my way, and makes eye contact. He loses his cool for the first time. He recognises me, as if he has seen a ghost.
It feels like weeks have passed since the incident in the pub. I am at home, enjoying my coffee and creature comforts, as if back from a tough trip away. My phone goes. I left it in the hall. I rush and just make it. An unknown number.
‘Hello, John here,’ I say.
Before anyone speaks, I hear Annie’s voice in the background, ‘Where is he?’, she says, between sobs. I shudder, my eyes instantly water.
Vera speaks. ‘Where are you?’ she asks. ‘Come back to her, John. You must.’
How can I explain? I am here, with my partner. Through the open door come the sounds of the microwave whirring, coffee percolating, Sky News on the TV. I can’t return. I don’t know how, even if I wanted to.
I hang up. It won’t make any sense to them.
Re-living our lives in different eras. Living our same lives over and over, the same inside, with nothing more than the occasional snatch of a memory, a glimpse behind the curtain.
I go to the kitchen. She smiles up at me, cuts a sausage, winks, and passes it over.
Robert Scott lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. He has short fiction in several magazines and anthologies.