Our house has no windows. On winter mornings, I leave in downpours and darkness at six, then return in the brooding grey of twilight. Sometimes your car is here and sometimes it’s not. On the evenings when you’re around we eat supper in silence, chewing food without flavour. I’m never hungry any more, either. We scrape more food into the dustbin than either of us eat. You take to the sofa behind the barrier of your phone, tapping out messages to whoever. I take the armchair and read books I’ve read before.
I saw two young people today, I’m sure you would have liked them. If you only stopped texting for a second, then I’d tell you about them.
Their names were Tom and Alice. They were sat at the next table to me in the café I visit for lunch. Tom was dark with hopeful eyes and Alice had hair the colour of raspberries and a small tattoo of a butterfly on the inside of her wrist. They were talking quietly and seemed unaware that I could hear them.
“When I was with you on Saturday…” Tom began, as they each offered a hand across the table, their fingers loosely entwined, “I felt like the boy in Summer Evening, the Hopper painting. That was me, stood with you on your Mum’s porch, praying that she wouldn’t open the door and take you back inside.”
Alice smiled and her gaze shifted downwards. She did her best to stifle a laugh.
“What’s the matter with you?” Tom said, nervously.
“You’ve been rehearsing that line haven’t you?” Alice said.
Tom looked uncertain and leant back a little while his eyes scanned the café for the correct answer to appear. Eventually he composed himself, looked straight at Alice, right into the ink spots of her pupils and answered.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I have. And I promise you that on no occasion when I said it to myself, did it sound as awful and as corny as it did in that moment just then.”
Alice threw back her head and laughed. “It did sound exceptionally corny,” she said.
Tom just shrugged, upset that his script was being revised before him.
“So what did I say next in your rehearsed version?” Alice teased.
“You didn’t say anything,” he answered. “You were so impressed with the Hopper line, you just kissed me.”
“Like in the movies?”
“Yeah, just like in the movies.”
They laughed and drew each other in slightly, and there was a second when they seemed uncertain whether to kiss for the first time- whether a moment like that should be kept for somewhere more special than a café at lunchtime in the rain. But I guess they figured that ordinariness in itself possesses a certain kind of romance. Eyes closed, their lips met, and a swelling crescendo of strings may well have played over the Monday lunchtime rattle of saucers and cutlery.
I glanced away, not wanting them to know I was watching, but of course, when I turned back they were gone. Just memories. Ghosts of the past. The table was empty apart from two chipped pepper pots and a misaligned menu.
So that’s what I saw today. But I don’t really know how to tell you.
To be honest, I never thought you’d change, Alice. Never thought your laughter would go. Never thought that what we had would slip away so gradually that, at first, I wouldn’t even notice it had passed. That summer evening is a long time ago. Now we’re more like the couple in Nighthawks- fingers barely touching, both staring straight ahead, resigned to silence.
You move from the sofa and mumble that you’re going to bed. I hear you moving around upstairs. I can’t bear to join you while you’re awake. The way you say goodnight so firmly as I lie down next to you tells me more than I need to know. Instead, I wait a while, then when you’re asleep I enter the room, walk softly to the other side of the bed and quietly slip under the covers.
Some nights I dream about Tom and Alice, and who we once were. Other nights I lie awake in the dark and listen to the rain hit the roof slates.
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7 thoughts on “Our House Has No Windows by Neil James”
Love the use of Hopper paintings – mirrors feelings really well in the piece. You capture the distance between your characters Neil.
“The table was empty apart from two chipped pepper pots and a misaligned menu.” A great line that sums up the situation of times gone by and the humdrum of today.
I like how the tone reflects the sentimental thoughts of the narrator.
It makes me wonder how some people embrace change, whereas others remain rooted in nostalgia. After all, we all love those melting moments of youth.
Neil James, I really enjoyed this.
This piece reminds me of the Louis MacNeice poem “Meeting Point”, the first line is “”Time was away and somewhere else””
Excellent use of the tricky direct narrative. Sometimes the use of it can collapse the story. But here it actually creates the distance felt by the protagonist.
I thought this was great. Sensitive and insightful. Only negative is that I don’t think you needed to say ‘and who we once were’ as its already clear you are Tom and Alice.
I think your story is excellent, Neil, and I am eager to read more.
Melancholy and poignant. Very nice.
Reading this it reminded me of being in many a pub and watching couples sit and stare in opposite directions.
It makes you wonder what has happened to cause such distance. Is it life, is it familiarity or is there blame?
This is a cracking piece of observational story telling.
All the very best my friend.