Crichton had been smoking that cigarette for hours, or so it seemed. Trying not to move too much, he reached into his pocket and fumbled for his lighter again. Everything was happening in a kind of muted slow motion. In and out of focus, the flame inside his hands was an intermittent addition to a myriad of orange lights struggling with the softening dark. He must have been asleep. It seemed like the only available explanation. In the uncertain period of time he had been sitting there, more or less conscious, nothing else had presented itself. The sky loomed large and dim through his scratched lenses, full of an absurd squealing recognisable as the effect of wind among the shapes of machinery. Crichton nervously pulled out his phone. It was, predictably, dead. When he tried to turn it on a second time a familiar sad face flashed up on the screen. He sighed, pulling bruised knuckles over his brow, where a film of sweat was encamped. While he contemplated his next move, a puckering sound from his lips announced that the cigarette had gone out again. This manifested itself as some kind of last straw.
Clambering awkwardly onto all fours, Crichton peered over the edge. The gathered forms of the Clyde waterfront stared back with mocking, squat permanence: the Rotunda, the Armadillo, the Squinty Bridge. He snapped back, having proven an unattractive hypothesis. ‘For crying out loud,’ he muttered alongside the yellowed cigarette: he was stuck on the top of the Finnieston Crane, apparently. He began to work through a hazy mess of images, trying to put together some explanation. The process was slow and a touch reluctant. After all, there was a chance he did not really want to know. He slouched and pulled up his fly, closed his eyes and fiddled once again with his lighter, which now had a jammed flint. There were a couple of seagulls floating up there, enjoying the morning breeze. Crichton watched them suspiciously, readying himself.
As he remembered it, they’d been walking the few hundred metres from the subway to the first stop of the night, when Guy Wilson had begun to make a distracting noise. It was a kind of dehydrated, inverted smoker’s cough. Each hacking version started somewhere in the nose, reverberating through the looser parts of Guy’s face: his nostrils, his outer cheeks, his lips …
‘That really is charming, mate. I hope you won’t be stopping it any time soon?’ Crichton asked, brought out of an interesting train of thought.
‘Purely, ah, functional and … will cease as soon as is appropriate I assure you,’ replied Guy in his tipsy university impression.
‘Good, good, good.’
‘Grumpy I see. You’ve been sleeping too much again,’ Guy pointing for some reason at Crichton’s shoes, like they were a dead giveaway.
‘Come on, it’s disgusting, there are people around,’ was all Crichton said. Guy looked back with a placid, obstinate gaze and continued making the sound. There were, indeed, a few other people on the pavement, but they were all too far away to be bothered by some snivelling. Mercifully, moments later the offending article was dislodged and swallowed.
‘Well thank Christ for that.’
‘So what’re your thoughts on tonight?’ asked Guy.
Crichton paused for a few moments, thinking about Helen, noticing the rhythm of their walking, noticing the splashes of brown sauce on his shoes. A square sausage roll for breakfast. Clumsy. This Guy is right, I have been sleeping too much. ‘I imagine it will be the usual Saturday night,’ he replied, reaching into his pockets and fishing around for cigarette materials. ‘Got any skins?’
‘Is anyone else around?’ probed Guy, handing over some rolling papers.
‘Is Helen around?’
Crichton had obviously not done a very good job of keeping cool. The last few weeks he had barely thought about anything else.
‘Might be, later on.’
‘Is that a good thing?’
‘Time will tell.’
They had reached the door of the pub, a faux-Tudor affair with flaking paint and good beer. They hung around for a while making cigarettes, Guy remarking on the evening weather.
‘Got any baccy?’ Crichton asked after a while.
‘What? Eh, yeah, sure. Don’t you have any? What’ve you been doing for the last five minutes?’
Crichton said nothing and focussed on his now-sweaty roll-up. He was a bit like that. Dreamy. A sensitive you could say, a mystic, also kind of a schlemihl.
‘Ok then, tell me about her again. I can tell you’re desperate to.’
‘I am not.’
A moment passed.
‘Right fine then … Helen’s … well … I don’t know really. I’ve only met her once. She’s amazing I suppose. She’s everything. Mysterious. Sexy. Intelligent.’
‘You can’t just list words Crichton.’
‘Ach you wouldn’t understand even if I could explain her properly. Have you got a lighter?’
Guy’s face was catching the passing twilight, his worn shirt-cuffs scrupulously clean. Crichton had come to believe that his friend was an extremely normal guy. So much so that his personality flickered between eerie familiarity and invisibility. Guy nestled in the centrepiece of some conceptual map, from where he could easily disappear. There was a sinkhole of mediocrity right in the middle of things, a weird place to be.
‘What do you think you know about women anyway?’ asked Crichton, now fighting with the lighter. It was a familiar state of affairs.
‘I don’t think that I know anything at all,’ replied Guy bluntly. ‘I see women as people. Your hoodoo’s a handicap, in the real world.’
‘How uninspiring of you.’
‘Convince me otherwise Crichton; I’d love you too. You’ve got all night.’
And so a challenge was set.
‘Anyway, I’m Greek Orthodox way back you know, so I could hardly expect us to share an understanding,’ said Guy. ‘You with your Latin dogma.’
Greek? Greek Orthodox? Crichton was taken-aback. But such was the nature of the normal, tending always to reveal itself as odder than expected sooner or later. ‘I haven’t been to church since I was a teenager, Guy,’ he said after a moment’s processing, ‘and … I probably never paid much attention anyway.’
‘Aha,’ said Guy, having always seen through Crichton’s bullshit.
‘Well, ok, maybe I owe something to Catholicism, but on this particular issue, women that is, I’ve trodden my own path.’
‘Aha,’ said Guy.
Crichton just grumbled and went on trying to light his cigarette.
Suzanne came stumbling out of the bathroom to the shimmers of some or other trance classic being played quietly so as not to scare off early-evening guests. Her gait was currently a kind of drunken stagger, close to a permanent fall, the subject never quite in control as they catapult from one foot to another. This sashaying brought her to a halt somewhere near the fruit machine. ‘Barman, a pint of lager,’ she announced from behind a crowd of people. Bold tone notwithstanding, this was ineffective and Suzanne began to muscle her way through. Among those flung aside were two men standing in close conversation, each with a beer in one hand and a whisky in the other.
‘Whoa there!’ they objected, almost in tandem. The one with brown splashes on his shoes rose up to his full height. His friend looked less annoyed and may even have rolled his eyes in preparation of the following outburst:
‘I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it’s hardly becoming,’ said Crichton, enunciating, something he’d picked up in the years of hash-pipe scholarship.
‘Don’t mind him, sweetheart,’ stepped in the other, Guy, ‘he’s got a flawed view of women that is at best binary and at worst prejudiced.’
‘Don’t mind him!’ Crichton started to bleat. Guy moved back into the crowd and made a hacking noise something like an inverted smoker’s cough.
‘Get in there and buy us a drink will you, in the name of Christ,’ said Suzanne, holding out a fiver, ‘and shut your fucking noise.’
This had the desired effect and the two disappeared, returning what felt like only seconds later with a pint and a whisky for Suzanne. ‘Cheers,’ the three of them agreed, having now bonded.
‘What’s yer names?!’ asked Suzanne, miscalculating volume. She threw out a conciliatory hand gesture. ‘Guy? Crichton? Good lads I don’t doubt, I don’t doubt,’ now growing into her role as the resident big personality.
Above the sound of general pub chatter and restrained dance music, there was breathing space for an awkward silence to ensue. Crichton in particular felt the silence as a reproach and finally just said the first thing that came into his head:
‘Shall we go somewhere else?’ this happened to be.
‘Why the hell not?’ said Guy.
‘Dead on, fellas,’ chimed Suzanne.
‘Can I borrow another cigarette for the road?’ asked Crichton, who was like that.
A few steps and sashays up the street and Crichton started to get an eerie feeling around the back of his neck. Now bound to travel at the pace of the slowest member in the group, Suzanne’s controlled falling provided ample space to soak in the evening’s vibe. Something wasn’t quite right, it appeared. The hairs on Crichton’s arms were now joining in with his bodily alarm. He darted some eyes around the streets opening up ahead, finding nothing out of place. The city had its usual rollicking Saturday-night glow: provisionally chic, boisterous, a faint sense of danger; nothing suspect there. It was only when he glanced back the way they had come that a figure in a polo shirt and dark trousers drew his attention. To make matters worse, the man paused and pretended to fiddle with his phone on being spotted.
‘Guy,’ Crichton power-whispered. ‘Guy,’ he tried again.
‘What mate?’ Guy perked up, having been helping Suzanne administer her gait.
‘Guy … behind us,’ continued Crichton with wide eyes.
Guy took a look behind. ‘What about him?’
‘Just … look at him. I think he was in the pub.’
‘Yeah he was at the bar,’ said Guy.
‘Look at the way he’s dressed,’ insisted Crichton.
‘Badly, you mean?’
‘Wait, like … undercover badly?’
The three of them darted down an alleyway, Guy tugging Suzanne along by the arm to produce a kind of hyper-limping. They ranged themselves beside a large wheelie bin and started pretending to look at phones and fiddle with cigarette materials, Suzanne reading graffiti out loud and sniggering.
‘Got any papers?’ asked Crichton.
‘Just pretend,’ snapped Guy.
The off-duty policeman sauntered past the entrance to the alleyway without so much as a casual glance.
‘Phew,’ they said, abandoning the construction of imaginary cigarettes. Now, while the state of Suzanne’s conscience was currently obscured behind a thick wall of early-evening tequilas, neither Crichton nor Guy had any particular reason to fear the police. Yet given Crichton’s relationship with the cosmos, authority was best to be distrusted and ideally avoided. He had a history of minor mishaps: petty crimes, unintentional vandalism and cases of mistaken identity.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Guy, sensing his concern, ‘there’ll be no nonsense tonight.’
Crichton’s muttered something, his eyes gleaming with mystery and apprehension. A moment later, the two men looked around the alleyway to find that Suzanne had disappeared amongst the excitement.
‘Shall we then?’ asked Guy.
‘After you, my good man,’ responded Crichton, seeming to take heart. ‘To the next hostelry.’
They were in a Gothic quarter of the city now, all arching gates and hidden gargoyles. The icebreaking half-bottles from late afternoon were adding to a sense of dramatic foreboding, but it was there nonetheless. Bakery steam rose from a grating in the pavement, the city spreading its tendrils into the night, overpowering and volatile. Neither being natives, both Guy and Crichton had strange ideas about Glasgow, ideas that blurred whenever they were examined too closely.
‘What time of year do you think it is?’ asked Crichton, staring upwards at the orange light reflected on patchy cloud.
‘Eh …’ began Guy.
‘You’re not sure, are you?’ he interrupted.
‘What are you talking about? It’s the first …’
‘Aha. Stop right there. What I’m asking is do you know what time it is?’
‘Oh,’ said Guy.
There was a pause.
‘I suppose we’re in some kind of special moment?’ Guy continued, suppressing a grin.
‘You needn’t bother trying to patronise me,’ said Crichton. It was difficult to tell when he was being ironic and if so, how much. ‘I know that you’ve no grasp on the big questions.’
‘If I make you a smoke will you shut up for a while?’
Crichton’s phone beeped with that strange attention to timing reserved for certain objects. The pair had now reached the second pub of the night and were beginning to feel a proper thirst, the kind of thirst that is only condoned by the night-time air and a solid start, a moment without season in the liquid dark.
‘Who’s texting?’ asked Guy, putting his tobacco away. Crichton did not reply, but the rapid eye movement and acute tapping of his fingertips on the touchscreen could only mean one thing: Helen.
‘What’s she saying?’
‘She’s not far away. I don’t know if we should wait here, or maybe go somewhere a bit nicer, or meet her up the road …’
‘We’ll have a beer or two and wait for her,’ announced Guy. ‘Man, the way you get flustered … Think of her as an equal, a sister.’
‘What?’ asked Crichton, who hadn’t been listening.
‘Nothing really. Shall we go inside?’
William didn’t feel comfortable at the bar. The stools were made of a black faux-leather material that was slippery against his trousers and he was getting funny looks from an old guy a few places along.In between gulps at a pint of stout the man was glancing over to make tutting sounds.
‘Well then Bill, how the hell are ya!’ came a voice from behind William’s head.
He turned around. ‘James!’ he returned, putting more enthusiasm into it than he really felt. There was something embarrassing at being found in a pub, off-duty and alone. James looked to be returning from the toilet so this might be only brief small talk.
‘You have to come over and meet my new woman,’ James insisted, dropping the preliminaries. There was an intense glow in his eyes.
‘Oh, do you know, I’m really just getting finished up here before heading on,’ said William. ‘A new lady did you say?’
James could hardly contain himself. ‘That’s right! That is right!’ he squealed. ‘You absolutely have to come and meet Helen.’
‘Oh, I really should be getting home. Work …’
‘Come and have a drink, Bill. It can all wait.’
William left his seat and dissolved into the bowels of the pub, Crichton and Guy watching in a kind of brace posture against a back wall. All in all, his departure was felt as something of an anti-climax.
‘About time for a drink then?’ asked Crichton.
‘It certainly is.’
‘What’ll you be having?’
‘Same as you, I don’t doubt,’ Guy acknowledging Crichton’s strange insistence on matching drinks. This, he had reflected, must have been down to a warped sense of ritual.
‘Grand,’ affirmed Crichton. He marched up to the bar and began scouring the shelves for options. This being a large, one-size-fits-all type of place, nothing was very expensive. With the various bits of hiding they had done over the evening, Crichton felt that some serious drinking was now in order as a means of catching up to an imaginary, meridian level of intoxication. ‘Two pints of that stuff,’ he said, pointing at a hoppy summer ale in the beer font. Then, ‘two of those,’ the other arm launching at the malt of the month, ‘and a couple of those, the coffee one,’ right arm switching to indicate a high-up shelf. Enjoying the clock- or air-traffic-control-effect produced by waving his arms around, Crichton began to wonder if the foreboding of before could have been only a passing humour. It can be difficult for the booze mystic to retain clarity of perspective. Crichton had, after all, had a number of false dawns in his existential, weekend ponderings. These were of a fairly uniform character. Reliably, the toxic charge of the night brought a deep underlying solipsism to a head, the iceberg-tip to a clusterfuck of paranoid yearnings. He was, he increasingly suspected, personally the nerve-centre of the neo-imperial impasse, key to the crisis of late-capitalism, but he couldn’t be entirely sure. It was a difficult one.
Fully loaded with drinks, Guy and Crichton loitered at the bar exchanging pretentious banalities and buying further rounds for a good forty-five minutes or so before a ruckus in another room started to become evident. The commotion seemed to be growing closer. Moments later someone – Suzanne? – was visible through a pine archway in a state of what looked like righteous indignation. A disagreement about manners could be discerned among a number of raised voices.
‘Apron-wearing wanker!’ Suzanne screamed, suddenly launching a left-hook banjo towards a barman’s nose. She tore away from the spectators and appeared to consider mounting the bar, before fall-sashaying to the spot where Guy and Crichton were planted.
‘Suzanne?’ asked Guy, coming towards his senses.
‘Lads. For crying out loud,’ she slurred. A wave of self-awareness seemed to descend and she glanced at hands covered in viscous alcohol, muttering something like, ‘not again.’
A hasty exit now seemed advisable from a custodial point of view. Guy took the initiative and made a break for the door, Crichton and a befuddled Suzanne ricocheting off innocent bystanders and out onto the street. Things were going fairly well until the dreaded ‘Stop, Police!’ rang out to accompany their guilty exit, delivered in William’s best crowd-control boom. Parting the crowd, he launched himself at the door and was out on the street in time to see Suzanne’s vacillating gallop disappear around a street corner in the semi-distance.
Meanwhile, back on the Finnieston Crane, Crichton’s recollections were disturbed by the seagulls floating in a new pattern above him. It might have been a random shift or an avian cultural nuance, but the presence of distantly audible voices helped to suggest something more. Life was a bit like that for Crichton, an endless process of wondering whether things really signified in the ways he could imagine. He scratched his back and found a couple of bruises. Was it all just pattern recognition or was the world a subtle, unified network of meaning? And assuming that this network existed, did it have a focus or a centre? Was he himself really only one amongst countless uniform nodes? Being a uniform node might be fine for all Crichton knew, but it had historically made him uncomfortable.
This was mystic hoodoo of a kind, wasn’t it … and not just market forces, with Crichton an end-user hero extraordinaire. The birds now circled above his head like a child’s mobile minus only the strings. Birds were pretty freaky if you thought about them too much. Having said that, everything was pretty freaky if you thought about it too much. The morning was warming by incremental steps and Crichton’s body felt less passive. From down below, where dog walkers or whoever might be circulating, he supposed that he must be a tiny dot in the sky. He needed more answers. He allowed the birds to fly on without interpretation and returned to the night before.
‘We’ll lose him in here!’ shouted Guy, pointing out a basement jazz bar coming up on the right. ‘Quickly, before he turns the corner!’ The trio floated down the steps, announcing themselves into the quiet ambience of smooth alto saxophone runs with an almighty slam of the door.
The patrons of the bar turned, heads snapping around like pinball flippers. ‘What the fuck …’ they chanted in harmony, the soloing woodwind of a 1940s standard soaring above with staccato alarm.
‘Somebody get rid of these idiots,’ announced an elderly man in a grey suit as Suzanne tried to pick herself up from an upturned table, a couple of straws and a slice of lime in her hair. Three bouncers moved in, the band playing on unperturbed. Guy, Crichton and Suzanne zigzagged in and around the neat circular tables, smokeless red light catching the faces of outraged jazz aficionados, drunken wheeling flummoxing the security. Customers were trying to get involved – throwing angry limbs at the soft parts of the outlaws – but a kind of wonky Zen dexterity had descended, the threesome’s flopping and jitterbugging evading all but the most determined aggressors.
‘To me! To me!’ Suzanne was shouting in the direction of her comrades as she wrestled against a stucco wall. A snide trip brought Guy almost to his knees and Crichton was forced into the back of him by an oncoming mojito. Vaulting onto his shoulders, mid-leapfrog, Crichton rode Guy up and over the maître d’s podium. Around the third chorus the saloon door swung open again, its slam lost among yells and drum fills. At this point one of the band lost his patience with the situation and, dropping a modified cello, scoured the front of the room for projectiles. A lonely pool cue seemed somehow too medieval so he grabbed up a handful of darts and began hurling these in the general direction of the fracas, narrowly avoiding two ducking thespians sitting over long drinks. One of the arrows hit home, winging Crichton in the left arm just above the elbow.
‘Jesus Christ!’ he shouted, throwing his arms out to the side in an accusatory crucifix.
The three escapees now saw their way blocked by William, who was standing with a smug grin, tapping his watch. Just then, however, a rogue dart from the hysterical cellist struck William a little above the thigh, his hands scrabbling around behind his back to find and remove it. This offered a brief window of opportunity in which Crichton, Suzanne and Guy were able to zigzag back to the front of the bar and make it out onto the pavement once again.
‘That didn’t work,’ said Crichton, feeling it necessary to make conversation.
Onwards past a row of curry shops and closed hairdressers, the sound of shoes and annoyed pedestrians filtered up and around the launching heights of city-centre superstructures. Weaving in and out of bus stops, using alleyways for cover and pausing to check on their pursuer – occasionally visible at a remove – light-headedness began to descend.
Guy and Crichton held onto each other’s shoulders for a minute, panting. The darkness and street-lit sepia of the night being now complete, they seemed to have lost track of Suzanne, who had surely been with them only a few moments earlier.
‘Where is she?’ asked Guy in between hamstring stretches.
‘She’s not … Guy?’ said Crichton, suddenly pointing in the direction of the road.
‘Keep up fuckers!’ shouted Suzanne from out of a taxi window, pulling up her skirt to moon at strangers and disappearing into the black with a reverberating guffaw.
This felt like something of a reprieve.
‘I think we lost him,’ Guy observed, ‘and anyway, it was her he was after wasn’t it?’
‘I’m not sure that matters anymore,’ said Crichton, judiciously.
They pulled into the nearest bar. It was a classy affair with a gleaming anthracite and chrome interior, low lighting and a cocktail list in leather. The brown sauce stains on Crichton’s shoes suddenly felt embarrassing and he tried to rub them off with a shirtsleeve.
‘Two pints of that and two of your grassiest Islay,’ said Guy, orienting himself against an inviting stool. ‘Well, what an evening so far.’
Crichton stared back ambiguously, looking like he wanted to be sarcastic but couldn’t quite. ‘Let’s just have a drink.’
A few minutes passed while they settled in. There was cold music coming from somewhere in the ceiling, hidden speakers voicing the muted sounds of contemporary soft pop.
More time passed and Guy and Crichton found themselves staring through a garden of empty glasses, noticing the sheen on the bar changing. Things started to feel a bit tasteless now that they’d recovered their composure. Having said that, they had drunk rather a lot.
Before this loosening of certainties could fully percolate, Crichton turned to his right and paused, bewitched. There, at the top of the stairs that led to an expansive mezzanine level, was Helen, backlit with a soft pearlescent glow. She was radiant, as per, and Crichton felt self-conscious in putting together a smile, suddenly overthinking the tiniest movement of tendons. Everything was forced and unnatural now, a performance. It was a bit like being really high, in both senses of the term.
Helen stood, one hip cocked, beckoning him upstairs. He followed, steps echoing against soft pop that suddenly wanted to mean something, abandoning any attempt to be at ease. It was in moments like this that he felt vindicated in his mystical outlook.
‘Hello,’ said Helen.
‘Good,’ said Crichton, leaning in for a kiss on the cheek, ‘eh, I mean …’
Helen turned away and left him hanging in the air. She swished a few steps ahead to a small booth where there was, miraculously, a pint waiting for him opposite her untouched Cosmopolitan.
‘Please, sit down,’ she encouraged him.
‘Sure,’ said Crichton, sure of very little.
‘And how have you been?’
Crichton tried to shift himself into a more comfortable posture. ‘I’m lovely,’ he said. Under the table his foot struck against something which did not retreat. It felt like a … surely a high heel or an elegant female boot. He rested against it, feeling a rush of endorphins. ‘I’ve missed you,’ he said, looking directly at her face now. Growing bolder, he stroked the boot a little, smiling with lips pursed down to his pint. It was still cold. How wonderful.
‘Have you been exercising?’ asked Helen.
‘Ah, cheers,’ said Crichton. Then, ‘Oh … no, not really.’ He squirmed, trying to smell himself. ‘Just …’
‘Just gallivanting,’ she interposed.
‘Yes, that’s it.’
‘I expect nothing less,’ Helen laughed.
There was a silence, soft pop aside.
‘Aren’t you going to talk to me?’ asked Helen.
Crichton looked up from the table, enjoying the feel of her shoe and disappointed the silence was over. ‘Yes. How are things?’
‘Oh really,’ she scoffed, performing an extravagant hand gesture. ‘Leave the nonsense please. What’s happened to the philosopher in you?’ There was a sneer there, threatening to infect the mood.
‘Ok,’ said Crichton, sitting slightly more upright. ‘To be honest, there is some stuff I’d like to talk about.’
‘Well, this evening has been … geared, somehow. There’ve been mysterious forces at work. You don’t know how unusual it’s all been, finding you.’
‘Don’t I?’ queried Helen. The light in the room kept changing and catching her from different angles. Alternating, gaudy colours overlaid her skin and hair.
‘It’s all pretty confusing for me, a bit overwhelming. Somehow the whole city, this whole night, has been working to bring me to this point. I am almost sure of it now.’
Crichton was not sure of it at all and was talking as a way of ordering his thoughts, rather than the other way around. It was one of his worst qualities.
‘I see,’ said Helen. Her accent was there, and yet not quite there. It was tangible from a certain position but also a smooth part of the fabric.
‘I wish I could explain myself,’ Crichton continued, aware of beads of sweat popping out onto his forehead. ‘You’re more than just a beautiful woman and … and I feel that you’re my chance of being more than just a drunk man.’ A drunk man with brown sauce on his shoe, he could have added, but didn’t. ‘You are … the city, I think.’
‘Oh,’ said Helen. ‘Oh …’
‘Is that not … Oh,’ said Crichton.
‘I am not the city,’ said Helen firmly. ‘That’s not how it works. I’m just … alive.’
This was disappointing to say the least. More sweat started to peep out of Crichton’s face, his hands also growing marshy. ‘I’m such a nobody,’ he moaned almost to himself.
‘Jesus,’ said Helen, who had clearly overheard. ‘No you’re not. Get a grip.’
‘A special nothing is nothing special,’ muttered Crichton, as if it was some kind of weird little mantra.
More or less ignoring him, Helen continued to correct: ‘You’re just a person like us all. Loved, if you’re lucky. If not, then at least surrounded.’ Come to think, this stuff sounded a bit like it was her weird little mantra.
Things were not going exactly to plan. The conversation was pretty forced. Helen was not quite right, not quite playing along … no, it wasn’t a case of playing along … she just didn’t quite understand. Yes, that was it.
Then again, maybe Crichton was being unreasonable. Of course, Guy was right, up to a point. He did struggle with his place in the world. But … but when you looked at it, everyone was more or less clueless, weren’t they? Sure, an existential metronome, passing from self to other, ticked at the back of his mind, one element in a larger puzzlement. And well … course he did occasionally suspect that mysticism might be cowardice under another name. But it was a difficult balancing act and broadly speaking, this viewing the world as alive, as a story, was a clean kind of crazy. At least he wasn’t fucking normal.
‘I can see where you’re coming from, but doesn’t it lack a little bit of … romance?’ Crichton asked her. ‘Maybe if you’d been there tonight …’
‘Naturally,’ she quipped. At this point Crichton remembered that Helen was a journalist of some description. He had suppressed the information, mainly because it interfered with her allegorical status.
A mask was beginning to slip, held up now by only the subtlest threads. Helen guzzled on her straw and peered at Crichton over the top of her glasses. She looked to be sizing him up. His mind was a mess of confusion and lust. This woman, this whole city, seemed to be looking through him. He got a strange feeling in his stomach and decided to check. Shifting backwards he took a quick glance under the table. His fears were realised. It was inert. He’d been stroking a table leg.
‘It’s hard not to love this bar,’ said Helen, who somehow seemed to know.
This whole thing was getting weird. A moment passed in uneasy contemplation.
‘I’m still here you know,’ interrupted Helen gruffly. ‘Fuck it, I’m off for a piss.’ She traipsed off into the multi-coloured scenery.
‘Well then, how’s it going?’ asked Guy, who had been waiting for a chance to swoop in. ‘Are you wowing her?’
‘I … things are more complicated than I might have hoped,’ said Crichton. He sighed. ‘Nice … Guy. You’ve not come to cheer me up I see.’
Guy passed this over. ‘Look at yourself. You’re shaking, you look sunburnt.’
A note of deeper concern flashed in Crichton’s face.
‘Hardly surprising, given it’s your whole worldview at stake. But don’t worry,’ said Guy, patting him on the shoulder, ‘I at least think it’s sort of cute. Here, take these,’ he said, passing Crichton his tobacco and bits, ‘you look like you could use one.’ Guy made a familiar sound from his nose and strolled back to the bar looking pleased with himself.
Crichton’s breathing was getting heavier and faster and he didn’t know what to do with his hands anymore. Man, they were some sweaty. They were just kind of hanging in mid-air. His eyes were starting to snake, rattling from side to side in their sockets. He tried to focus. His feet were tapping on the floor in a wonky double rhythm. Helen had been gone a while. His beer was almost finished. It wasn’t even cold now. He thought about leaving, maybe that would do it, would send the appropriate signal to … to whoever. Fuck. His jaw was clenching and he was uttering some kind of ridiculous glottal stop over and over.
Helen appeared, walking in from a far wall. She stepped lightly and directly, Crichton holding his head still with a considerable effort and waiting for whatever would now happen between them, the climactic moment.
‘I’m sure we can settle this …’ he started to say. Helen walked right past him and took up a position at the head of the stairs. Crichton watched as she cocked out a hip, timing it perfectly so that the lights shone out a warm glow, framing her from behind. Down on the ground level someone was caught mesmerised. They followed her up and through to an unseen booth. Crichton was not sure what or how they saw when they looked at her. He started rubbing the table leg again, trying to recapture a feeling, or maybe just taunting himself.
Something popped in Crichton’s chest. He stood up, eyes racing around the room, all his movements feeling mistimed and reckless. He was muttering to himself, single words and phrases like ‘flawless’ and ‘for fuck sake’. Taking the stairs in one awkward bound, he spent a moment trying to get his balance on the ground floor, moving from foot to foot. Guy noticed him treading water in the middle of the pub, greasy hands patting the air around chest-height. ‘Crichton, what the …’ he asked, more unsure than ever if Crichton was taking the piss.
‘You just keep perched on that … stool,’ said Crichton, shaking, somewhere in the sweet spot between incoherent and infantile. The panic dance shifted into a panic scuttle and he was off before Guy had a chance to say anything further. Just beside the door, everything now slightly blurry, a face caught his eye for a moment. It looked like the policeman from earlier, though Crichton couldn’t be sure. An ambiguous look passed over the face, a look that might have been recognition or just pity. Crichton was out galloping down the pavement before the situation could develop.
Not being an especially fit man, Crichton’s desperate sprint involved a lot of gasping and half-trotting. In relative terms, however, he was now barrelling south through the city, smacking against street furniture and pedestrians as he went. He was craving a cigarette but the speed and the swampy palms made this impracticable. In between small absences of consciousness that launched him forward, strangely fragmented, Crichton’s features were stern in shop windows, his limbs machining in an automatic direction. This flickering self-awareness had an interesting quality like poetic lacunae or stop-motion film that was not entirely lost on him. The heights of the city were claustrophobic and glass, the river veering into view at the back of his mind. His breathing was increasingly pressured and someone was shouting, ‘Run, Forrest, run!’ from a street corner. He was already running.
A split second of volatile lucidity around about Jamaica Street forced Crichton to reflect that this was heroic only by a pretty strained effort of the imagination, a niche brand of heroism. Mercifully, the next moment he experienced another chest spasm, taking him beyond self-reflection and back into the precipitate moment. And then there were only his pounding feet, his unmoving face, the image of lights and faces, yellow and red and a kind of searing non-thought. Finally it all gave way to a sensation of floating, stepping in the air, wings carrying him higher. Feeling buffeted by a Saturday-night wind, emerging, he trod above the night and left it all below.
Crichton gave up and threw the cigarette away. He felt that he had earned a bit of littering. It had been a night of the portentous and the ridiculous and he wasn’t entirely sure which to feel now. He grabbed onto a nearby pole and pulled himself up, imagining that the rising breeze was cleaning his face. He smiled knowingly at the brown sauce splashes on his shoe, somehow at peace with them. The night, his panic, had been to do with a series of questions. Or at least he hoped it had, because otherwise … he shivered at the thought. Of course, he could latch onto some easy bullshit like embracing process. Acknowledge that there were no certainties, only a chain of contingent half-truths. But he wasn’t ready to let go. He could tone things down, that certainly wouldn’t hurt, but there was more to life than finding the comfortable route. In fact, maybe straining against the natural progress of things was all he had. ‘Fuckem,’ Crichton whispered. There simply was no other choice.
There were blue and red lights flashing in the morning haze, now ambiguously fading to clarity. Beneath, the city spread its viral arms, a mass network of people and things. There were suddenly tears in Crichton’s eyes though he wasn’t sure why. Some sort of epiphany? Was this it? He felt the wind thrill around his arms, a rushing sense of movement. There was no emergency. Not any longer. There was only himself, a hangover and the skyline. It was a shabby kind of tableau, but it would do.
Crichton stepped from the top of the crane and felt the rungs meet his feet, strangely unwelcome.
Somewhere near the bottom, Guy was waiting with a glass bottle of fizzy juice.
‘Finished?’ asked Guy.
There was an image of Crichton’s face on the bottle, though it could just as easily have been someone else. ‘I suppose,’ he said, hoping that in coming back to earth he had not missed his chance at revelation.
Gerard McKeever is an author and academic based in Glasgow, Scotland.
He writes in prose fiction and poetry, with particular interests in place, dark comedy, philosophy and the absurd.
Alongside novel writing, he is currently working on a series of short stories, the first of which are forthcoming in 2015, including ‘Why those tears in Nelly’s eyes’, in From Glasgow to Saturn.
For more information on Gerard’s creative work, see: gerardmckeever.co.uk
Gerard is also in a postdoctoral role on the AHRC-funded ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ project in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.
He completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow in 2014.
He is Co-convener of the Scottish Romanticism Research Group at the University of Glasgow, and an Associate of the Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum.
Paul Rudy has been called “The High Priest of Sound” and “Sage.” He has composed for orchestra, film, electronics and guided improvisation; and practices sound sacred sound, sound immersions, and sound healing, and leads workshops. His sonic art plays in the sounds of Mother Earth: balancing conservatory training with shamanic practices, subtle energies, and technology, each of which guide his intuitive performances and compositions. He is a Rome Prize (2010), Guggenheim (2008), Fulbright (1997) and Wurlitzer Foundation (2007 and 2009) Fellow, and his music has won two Global Music Awards (2012, for Innovation in Sound and Mixing/Editing), the Sounds Electric ’07 (Dublin), EMS Prize (Sweden), and Citta di Udine (Prize ex aequo, Italy) competitions, to name a few.
He is a Curators’ Professor and Coordinator of Composition at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Conservatory, where he received the Kauffman Award for Artistry (2008). In 1994 he completed the Colorado Grand Slam after climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 ft peaks. Six CD’s in his series “Aquarian Stories” are available at CDBaby. Infinity (duo with Heidi Svoboda), has been transforming lives since 2010.
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