The fog had crept up the river. It eased its way around the buildings, down the narrow streets before finally pushing its way through the open window of Stella’s flat.
She lived on the first floor above a shop that sold jewellery made from Whitby jet. In the window were black necklaces, rings set with black stones. She began to cough in her half-conscious state. It was Autumn. Until recently the weather had been warm, summer reluctant to leave. The days were long and the evenings hazy, the warm stone of the old town giving everywhere a lazy glow. From the window of the attic room that she accessed through a ladder she could see the rise of the moors through the rooftops. In the late summer the view turned purple as the heather bloomed.
Stella coughed as she woke from a dreamless sleep. Despite living centrally, it was quiet in this early hour. There’d be the occasional pause during the day, even when the street was thronged with tourists, a brief window of silence where she’d sit at her desk and breath in.
The cough was painful, and it rattled. It was a reminder of those months when she slept with her face pressed close against the turmeric painted wall in the bedsit. The smell of the paint couldn’t completely disguise the black flowers of mould that lay underneath. In the room next door Kieran would cough all through the night. It was the decades of cigarettes that had done it. Four and a half years later a friend slipped casually into conversation that cancer had carried Kieran off aged 62. That hadn’t been a bad age they’d agreed. Not for someone who’d lived on the street. The squalid little bedsits they’d shared in the old hotel by the seafront might have felt desperate to a middle-class girl from the Midlands, but to a rambling Irish drunk straight from central casting they were bordering on luxury.
She’d not lasted long there. Young women like her only ever visited these places as tourists. There was always a phone call you could make, services you could access where people behind the desk would find relief in the way you constructed your sentences.
The mould had stuck though. She sat on the edge of her bed. A woman in her mid-forties, masses of brown hair now flecked with grey falling over her face. You wouldn’t guess her age. Everybody said she had a young face. That was despite the sun damage by the years that followed the escape from the bedsit; Ibiza, Goa, the trail into India where she rocked up at ashrams populated by frauds and wealthy wannabes. The love affair with Mark and his motorcycle, travelling down dirt roads along the spine of South America. Just like Che people said when she told them. How romantic they frequently exclaimed. It was different if you were there. Mark was no revolutionary and couldn’t grow a beard even if he wanted to. In all the time they were together she’d not once seen him in military fatigues.
It had all happened in such a short space of time. The collapse, the rebuilding, the adventures of an extended youth, love then a premature widowhood as Mark lay cold through no fault of his own. Where are the breaks she wondered? Why does the karma work its way out like this when the boy had only ever been an average hedonist? Why should someone who had ensured she stayed on the straight and narrow succumb so young to the same disease that killed Kieran?
She thudded out of bed. Margo downstairs would be opening up. She was large, overly proper and too made-up, not yet forty but burdened with the name and manners of a woman of an earlier era. Stella rented the flat from Margo’s father. Stella wasn’t convinced Margo’s business actually made any money. From what she gathered it was a job creation scheme for a daughter who he’d expected to marry off. Nobody wanted her. Perhaps it was the intimidating father that did it. Or the woman’s complete lack of approachability.
She could hear the till ringing downstairs. It couldn’t be a customer. It was just Margo going through the motions, sending out shrill impressions into the expectant silence.
He’d be here soon. He was getting the 7.45 train from Todmorden. Stella felt the familiar pang of anxiety. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy spending time with him. It was just the strangeness of being with a man who wasn’t Mark.
Lonnie had told her to stop being stupid. Mark had been dead eight years. Stella couldn’t spend the rest of her life as a widow. And aside from his unfortunate name Farsley was perfect. A poet. An aspiring academic too, inching towards his PhD at Manchester with the promise of employment in the same department when he finished. His first collection had won prizes. Before he devoted himself to poetry full time he was a youth worker. He had a kind face and eyes that twinkled when he spoke. He was nothing like Mark.
It didn’t take long for the familiar three-part knock at the door to the stairs that opened out onto the street. Stella had been sitting quietly at the kitchen table her eyes looking at the local paper but nothing going in. Every time she opened the door to the street she expected to see a hub of people. Shoppers, tourists, people wandering past in groups, hassled looking men with carrier bags and shopping lists. There was no one apart from Farsley holding a bunch of flowers.
“You said no one had ever bought you flowers before so I thought I’d rectify it.”
“Oh, thank you.” She took them, and then looked at them awkwardly in her hands. There was a pause. Then Farsley asked if he could come in.
“Of course. Sorry.”
Upstairs she placed the flowers on the kitchen sideboard and looked out the window. Farsley was filling the kettle, and looking in her cupboards.
“Do you ever go food shopping?”
“Not if I can help it. I live in the middle of the city. I don’t need to. I get what I need when I need it.”
“Which in practice seems to mean not having anything in ever.”
She bristled a little but tried not to show it opening the cutlery drawer and finding a pair of scissors. She cut through the bottom of the stalks and took an empty vase from the kitchen window.
“How did you know what to do with them if nobody has ever bought you any?”
“I’ve bought my own.” She looked at him incredulously.
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
They were silent for a moment.
Stella found her shoes and coat. They were going to go for a walk. It was what they always did when he came over. They left the flat and the busy centre of town, heading onto the towpath by the river where the tall willows that clung to the banks were changing colour and readying to lose their leaves. The mist swirled up from the water. A flash of blue out of the corner of her eye signified the familiar kingfisher. Farsley hadn’t seen it, and she wouldn’t share it with him. In the park they visited the cafe where they shared a pot of tea and fruit scones. Farsley talked at her. Mainly about books and his writing. He asked if she’d read this poet or that poet and she repeated the same line that no, she wasn’t a great reader of poetry. He’d said it was good for prose writers to read poetry. It helped them with their style. She said she’d bear it in mind knowing full well she’d never give it a second thought.
She’d dawdled on the way home if only to avoid the inevitable. Eventually it couldn’t be avoided. He was tender and considered and when they made love the act was more enjoyable than the expectation. He was staying the night. They would eat pizza somewhere cheap and friendly, both of them knocking back diet coke. He was ten years into his AA pledge. She was only six.
“You don’t actually need alcohol” he’d said unconvincingly. She’d never lived here with Mark but when she was out with Farsley she was sure people were judging her.
“You should come to my next reading. It’s in Leeds.”
She’d agreed knowing full well she wouldn’t. He was doing a short tour. Across the region mostly with one or two trips to far flung exotic locations like Warwick and Stroud. There was an attempt at meaningful conversation brewing. She could feel it. He was looking thoughtful. When they got back he would begin searching around for the right moment. To guard against this she’d find the tongue that had been missing all day. She’d make inane remarks, try to tell him about what she was writing presently, ask him about his PhD. It seemed to be working. He got talking about her second novel. He said he’d read it while she was visiting her sister in Kent. He said it gave him more of an insight into how her mind worked.
Stella could feel herself wince. That wasn’t how it worked. He should know that. It was creative, done at a distance from the self. You didn’t pour yourself out on the page. Work like that was interminable unless you were a genius. He asked if it was painful to write about addiction.
“No, not really,” she’d responded.
He’d cosied up on the sofa. it was edging towards bedtime. He wanted to pick off where they’d left that afternoon. She’d said something about needing to work. There was a tricky bit of her work in progress that was bugging her.
“That explains it,” he’d said with a smile. “Why you’ve been a bit distant today.”
She’d said nothing annoyed that he’d even noticed.
She went into the small study and closed the door. She could hear him in the kitchen filling a glass of water, then closing the bathroom door. Within minutes he was padding across the landing and into her bedroom. He’d wait there for her. She hoped he was asleep. She wondered if it would be too hurtful to sleep on the sofa.
There was snoring from behind the bedroom door. She closed down the file on her laptop and crept into the living room. It wasn’t cold. She stretched out on the sofa and drifted into a fitful sleep.
Her head was filled with dreams. The usual sort. The ones where Mark was walking casually back into the flat, taking a look around the place, cracking jokes about the bloke in her bed. What was she doing with someone like that?
“What do you mean someone like that?”
“Someone so very like you.”
There must have been a moment when the dreams gave way to deeper sleep because the next she knew Farsley was standing over her with a mug of tea.
“No hard feelings,” he said as he placed the mug down on the coffee table and left the room. She slowly sat up and put her head in her hands. This stuff was impossible. She needed to talk to him. She needed to tell him that she wasn’t ready for any of it. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him. They could get together. They could go to gigs. They could go on bracing country walks complete with sandwiches, flasks and anoraks. They could do middle-aged things like the theatre and discuss the production values, the quality of the acting in the bar across the road afterwards. She’d like to attend one of his poetry readings. And when she finally completed this third impossible novel he could come to her book launch. He could be her most favoured guest. She sat up and took a sip from her tea. She would have the conversation. As she braced herself to stand up and find him she heard the slamming of the flat door, the sound of feet down the stairs. She moved quickly to the window and craned her neck to see the street below. There was Farsley, head down, bag on his back.
There was no note in the kitchen. Nothing left in the bedroom, the duvet pulled back into place, the pillows plumped. There was no poetry collection left on the bedside cabinet. The flowers in the kitchen window were showing their ad hoc railway station origins. She was troubled by the usual thoughts.
“It’s why we don’t know for certain if there’s an afterlife,” Mark had once said as they’d shared a spliff on a campsite half way up a mountain in mid-Wales. The sky had been alive with shooting debris, dead rocks and redundant satellites. “Imagine the suicide rate. All those heartbroken lovers yearning to be reunited. All those grieving parents longing to hold their kid again. It’s the reason for the mystery.”
The flat was empty, the city rooftops were lost in mist again. You had to wonder if you could ever love again after one great romance. Maybe that was all you’d get. Perhaps there was something to be said for that leap in the dark. She read in the local newspaper about people who threw themselves off bridges into the river, usually so drunk that people called it an accident, but a brief scan of their past personal history offered a few threads that led to willed self-destruction.
He was here again. She could hear him in the bathroom where earlier she’d heard Farsley. She could hear him in the kitchen thickly slicing through the pesto bread from the artisan bakery down the street, the sawing of the serrated edged knife that he’d never handled in life. This was never his home.
Fresh air was needed. She pulled on a thick oversized cardigan, and pushed her hair behind her ears. The mist was thicker than yesterday, the metallic tang hit the back of her throat as she stepped outside.
It must be morning but when exactly was hard to tell. The street was empty as far as she could see but due to the mist that wasn’t far. Perhaps there were figures out there, shadows moving into focus then out again, faces glancing in her direction, others determined not to look her in the eye.
Why would nobody look at her?
A snick led through to the market. She could see the metal frames of the stalls, their covered roofs, but she couldn’t see traders or hear voices. It was disorientating. Her head was growing as fuzzy as the atmosphere, her legs weak. It would be to fall onto the cobbles below. What would happen then? She breathed in, tried to steady herself. Someone emerged from a side alley. They almost brushed the building as they took the corner, trying to be as discreet as possible.
The jacket. He was wearing a vintage denim jacket with a sheepskin collar like Mark used to wear. She smiled. She’d not seen one in years. She followed the wearer out of the market. His frame was a similar size to Mark too. His legs were long in black skinny jeans. He was moving quickly, so she gathered pace breaking into a half-jog trying to keep up with him. There was a movement in the mist, the man glanced back across his shoulder. He must be aware he was being followed. He picked up his pace too, he started to run. She didn’t hold back now, and no one could see her in this mist.
She ran behind him through the city streets, but she didn’t know why. It was just the jacket. She wanted to tell him how Mark had once wore it.
He was quick though. The gap between them was growing. He looked back again, and her heart almost stopped. The shape of those black eyes in the mist. The full lips, the dimple on the chin. It was unmistakeably Mark.
“Mark!” she shouted. “Mark!”
The figure picked up pace. She was losing him. He was a becoming a smaller and smaller figure, further and further from her reach. It was no good. Her lungs were stinging. The mould spores tightening around each cell.
Her feet stumbled. There was a loud visceral growl from street level. She’d hit something solid, there was a bark and snaffle. A dog was at her feet its owner sitting up in a dirty brown sleeping bag, hat pulled down over his eyes.
It was a man. Not Mark. Not Farsley. Not a man she knew. She remembered Kieran, except when he spoke this man wasn’t Irish.
“Watch where you’re going ” he said.
“I’m so sorry. That man.” She pointed into the mist. “I was following that man.”
“I was asleep. I didn’t see anyone. You can’t see anything anyway.”
She looked around. She wasn’t sure where she was. There was a novel waiting to be completed back home. Her current one sat in the window of the independent bookshop some streets away from where she lived. The local radio had featured her. She’d talked irreverently about people in the news with a member of the Chamber of Commerce and a local special Olympian. But none of that mattered now.
“I’m lost.” She told the homeless man. “I’m completely lost.”
The dog looked up at her, it’s fat head turning coy as she returned its gaze, its tail brushing the floor.
“The mist will clear soon,” said the man. “It usually does.”
She looked up. The sky was there somewhere, filled with dead rocks and redundant satellites, the souls of romantic poets, people she’d once known. She turned in a direction she thought might lead towards home and put one foot in front of the other.
Banner Image: Black Mould Pixabay.com