Sunday, 28 July 2013

A Streetmap Named Desire

Soon it would be the anniversary of Dan's failure. And still he felt his clock had stopped. He'd tried traditional remedies like drinking excessively, visiting his GP. He'd poured his heart out to his friend Keith. But nothing worked. Radical measures were needed.
January 8th. He scanned his diary entries for the two months they were together, and marked the crucial days. In the library he stood at the photocopier for some minutes, flummoxed by the digital display. Defeated, he asked the librarian for help. She explained the controls and watched him copy the diary pages, and a page from the London A to Z. She saw his meticulous handwriting, the proliferation of exclamation marks.
Back at the house Dan inhaled the familiar smell of cats. He sorted the mail on the hall table into piles for each tenant, a chore he always did, always resented.
In his bedsit he smoothed the creases from the map Keith had drawn showing where the party was, then stuck it on the wall beside the photocopies from his diary and the A to Z. He stared at these pieces of evidence as if they were magic eye pictures. If he could concentrate hard enough, remember clearly enough, he could understand.
He remembered everything now. When she arrived at the party, he was just about to leave. And suddenly he couldn't. He lurked near the drinks table, hoping she'd drift his way and it worked. But he could see no clue in that night.
January 15th. At the curved white counter he borrowed the street-map again, and asked for change for the copier. The librarian smiled and said, 'Hello again.' Dan didn't remember her. When she gave him the change her hand touched his lightly.
Dan grunted his thanks and copied pages for Shaftesbury Avenue and part of Camden. For their first date she'd suggested a film at the Curzon in Soho. He waited thirty minutes before buying a solitary ticket under the pitying gaze of the box office clerk. He watched the film, failing to feel defiant and unbowed.
Back home an ansaphone message awaited him in which she apologised, claiming sudden illness. He dialled 1471. The number wasn't hers. It rang for long minutes before a female voice said a curious, cautious hello. The voice sounded young, teenaged perhaps. There were giggles in the background. He extracted from the girl the address of the Camden payphone.
Home from the library he pinned up the photocopies. His bedsit now resembled the map-room in an old war film. He sat remembering that day in all its swallowed humiliation. He felt sure now she'd mentioned an ex who lived in North London. Was that where she'd been? With him? Dan slept badly.
20th February. He'd grown dissatisfied with having the maps on the wall. It made it hard to get a sense of perspective. So, flailing, clownish, he pulled up the carpet and stacked his furniture in one corner. He pasted the maps to the floor and gave them a protective coat of varnish. Night after night, barefoot, he stood, surveying the photocopied city, a Gulliver going nowhere.
The copier's white light swept across the map of Whitechapel. Remembering their trip to Spitalfields market, he considered their parting might have resulted from nothing more complicated than a difference of wavelength. Their relationship had levelled off to a point where Sundays had stopped being a flurry of sex, and become more relaxed, domestic.
Among the stalls they tended hangovers with strong coffee. An adjacent gallery was showing photographs of areas on the Shipping Forecast. She tugged him into the exhibition. Enchanted, she cooed at every muddy beach, every patch of gunmetal sea. Dan was only disappointed. He replayed the litany of the forecast in his head. The names were so evocative, the places so mundane.
Copying completed, he stopped for cappuccino in the cafe near the library. Inspecting his maps he sensed a presence beside him. The librarian grinned and invited herself to join him, indicating the other full tables with a wave of her plastic stirrer. She asked how his project was progressing. He shrugged, snapping the subject shut. He saw her face fall and felt a puzzled irritation.
Later, Keith suggested the librarian fancied Dan. 'Happens when you least expect it. Never know what's round the next corner.'
But Dan wanted to know, wanted to know all the corners, all the streets.
10th March. He lay in bed until evening, tortured with the memory of the night it ended. In the Goldsmiths' Tavern they got drunk. Talk turned to a novel she'd recently read. The title escaped him now, but he remembered it concerned infidelity.
He made some flippant remark. She retorted, 'Have all your girlfriends been unfaithful to you then?'
In anguish he tried to remember her phrasing. If she'd stressed the word 'unfaithful' it suggested surprise that anyone should cheat on him. But if she'd emphasised the word 'all' then surely she was betraying him. Despite his struggle he couldn't settle on a reading of her statement.
He was jerked upright in bed by the memory of her phone call later, her voice flatly saying she didn't 'want to be with anyone right now.' He remembered gulping dry air, and everything in his mouth feeling glued together.
He dashed through the darkness and reached the glowing library just as it was about to close. He fumbled his change into the photocopier, watched the image of New Cross Road slither from the machine.
As the library closed he walked out into the night and down Church Street. He heard crisp steps quicken behind him. The librarian drew alongside. She smiled, said hello.
As they neared a pub she cleared her throat, looking straight ahead, and said, 'I'm popping in for a beer before my train. Fancy joining me?'
He quickened his pace, stared at her. Frowning, he said 'Sorry, no I must get back. I'm right in the middle of something. Something important.'

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