Eric Alabaster looked at the doctor. Why did they always make these places so hot? Small wonder people got ill. It was going badly. He’d told the GP about the sleepless nights, the relentless buzz of worry, the rituals he could still just about think of as his ‘odd little habits’, but that wasn’t what he’d come for.
The doctor let the buff envelope containing Eric’s notes drop onto his desk with a small thud. He viewed Eric with a level gaze, and in a level tone said, ‘We must remember that some things are a natural response to circumstances and not necessarily a sign that we’re ill.’
The doctor continued. ‘You’re separated now, am I right?’
It had been eighteen months. The day after Kate, their youngest, graduated, Marion told him she was moving in with her keep-fit instructor. Eric asked why. She said, ‘I don’t love you anymore. And besides, we never really got on.’
The GP read the front of the buff envelope. ‘You’ve changed address,’ he said.
Eric nodded again. ‘I got the council to shift me somewhere smaller. No point rattling around on me own in a three bed place.’
‘How’s that been?’
It had occupied him for a while, the decorating and so on. But it wasn’t enough.
The doctor wrote something brief, placed the notes in the envelope and tapped it on the desk as if tamping a cigarette. ‘Think you can fight your way out of these feelings?’ He mimed the guard of a boxer. Not waiting for an answer he said, ‘I think you can. Get busy. Have a holiday if you can. Or at least the odd weekend away. That possible?’
If it had only been the worry worrying him, Eric would have just walked home muttering about how he could have got advice like that down the pub. Instead, he saved his anger for himself. He slammed his flat door so hard that his winter coat fell from its hook. In the bedroom he opened the wardrobe door. He dropped his trousers and pants to his thighs, lifted his penis and stretched the skin of his scrotum tight. Miserably, he examined himself again in the wardrobe mirror. He wasn’t imagining it. There were lumps; one small, one larger. Lumps.
Begrudgingly, he gave the doctor’s advice a try. He didn’t so much choose Aberystwyth as Aberystwyth chose him. It was the first destination on the drop-down list when he booked the coach ticket online at the local library.
Come the Saturday, he arrived too early at the coach station, so he killed time in a café called Il Trattoria, on Elizabeth Street. Light spilled from its plate-glass window into the gloom of the morning. Something about it drew him, as if it offered a kind of comfort, like a late-night off-licence on a deserted street. He ordered bacon and eggs from the dark-haired woman at the counter. No point worrying about clogging his arteries now.
On the coach he worried whether he’d locked the flat. He visualised himself checking the door handle the usual six times, but it didn't reassure him. He rubbed the callous on the side of his index finger. He remembered that in the first weeks after moving in he’d developed a fear of being burgled. He’d phone home every few hours and listen to his recorded voice on the answering machine. He’d hang up, muttering, ‘At least they haven’t nicked the answerphone.’
In Aberystwyth, he mooched around the shops. He ate a pie on a bench. He sat in a chain pub and tried, unenthusiastically, to get half-cut. He was left with a familiar emptiness, a sense of having had no clear expectations but that still an expectation had not been met.
But then, in the evening, he told the first lie. It was an accident, a fluke, a gift almost, he later thought. In the draughty hallway of the Bed and Breakfast, he heard himself say ‘Yes,’ when the landlady asked, ‘Are you one of the kitchen planning lot?’
She nodded. ‘I can always spot them.’ She smiled, satisfied. ‘Let me guess. Firm won’t cough up for a Travelodge. Bet you’re not even getting double bubble for working the weekend.’
Eric, guessing what was expected, nodded, then tutted once with a flick of the chin.
The woman looked at him. ‘Not being rude, but the chaps who do the course are usually younger.’ She whispered, ‘Redundancy, was it? Beggars can’t be choosers.’
Eric took his cue. ‘Never too late for a second chance is it? Learn something new.’
The sole guest, he ate dinner alone in the dining room, with the landlady throwing occasional glances through the serving hatch. Collecting his empty plate, she said, ‘Come through and have a look. You might have some ideas.’
He followed her to the kitchen with butterflies in his stomach. She slapped one of the tatty melamine kitchen units. ‘Any suggestions?’
He mumbled that he hadn’t really started his training yet, but he’d later persuade himself he’d done this to buy time to think. Within moments he was suggesting carousel corner units, criticising finishes, singing the praises of Belfast sinks, and wishing aloud that he’d packed his laminate swatches.
When he’d finished, the landlady, laughing, gave a short burst of applause. ‘You’ve got it already,’ she said. ‘You should be training them.’
Later he showered and walked out into the town again. The place seemed changed, as if its constituent parts, every building, every brick, had been replaced by substitutes of far superior quality. Aberystwyth, it seemed, was almost shimmering.
He knew it was the lie that made him see the place with new eyes. The moment had passed, but he still felt the exhilaration. He tried to describe the feeling to himself but could only come up with comparisons. In the slow motion moment of the lie there was fear and there was calmness. It was like navigating an unfamiliar room in total darkness; the mild sense of danger, the heightened attention, the feeling of being properly present. As a teenager, he had experimented with shoplifting and had a similar sensation. But however hard to classify the experience had been, what he knew was that the blunt fact of the lumps hadn’t entered his mind for hours.
Back home, alone again in South London, the truth of his life reasserted itself and stopped him sleeping. He lay in bed, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. He checked again for the lumps, methodical now, feeling with his thumb and forefinger, as if crimping pastry. One of the lumps seemed to have grown.
There was tightness in his chest. Panic swept through him in waves like the effect of some miserable drug. He had failed. It mattered to nobody what he did, or whether he did it. He had two daughters who were strangers to him. He’d been kicked overboard from a marriage that was only sustained by a mixture of desperation and kindness. His wife had left him for a man who shaved his chest. He’d fucked everything up, and now he was going to die. In the past, when hard times came, he’d comfort himself with a line from a Jonathan Richman song; ‘I know one day I’ll be dignified and old.’ Now he couldn’t even do that.
He returned to work on Monday, convinced that he hadn’t slept at all. Throughout his early shift he struggled to concentrate. Ordinarily, he didn’t mind coming to work. He enjoyed the peace of the lost mail section, the sense of being at home. He felt himself to be among his own kind. Something about the work, its association with loss and misdirection, attracted those of a melancholy bent.
There were worse jobs, and he’d done some of them. Like most men of his age, he’d blithely waltzed in and out of jobs in his youth, but then came kids and the oil crisis and he’d known it was time to knuckle down.
But today he was nagged by a sense of having wasted time. He wanted to be able to tell someone this. At break in the canteen he sat with Vic. Vic was annoying but he was one of the few workmates who didn’t act as if Eric was invisible. Only Vic had noticed the change in him after the divorce. He said that after Marion left, Eric permanently wore the look of someone trying to remember if he’d left the gas on.
Eric started telling Vic about his weekend. He thought he might work round to mentioning the lie he told, the frisson he felt dropping into another life for a few minutes. But Vic wasn’t having it. Chewing his sandwich he said, ‘Aberystwyth? Yeah. They’re dirty, the Welsh.’
Eric watched the bolus of half-chewed white bread bobbing on Vic’s tongue, and he hated him.
Vic swallowed at last. ‘Who’d you go with, then?’
Eric lowered his gaze. ‘Went on me tod.’
Vic frowned. ‘What’s the point of going somewhere on your own? Might as well stay indoors; all you’re doing’s wanking in a different sink.’
For a week or more Eric drifted through the habits of his life like a haunted man, dogged by a distracted yearning. He knew what the yearning was for. It was for the feeling he’d had in those brief moments where he’d borrowed somebody else’s life. For the lifespan of that lie he’d felt the warm and giddy glow of freedom, and now he missed it.
Then one day, going down Farringdon Road on a 63 bus, he had an epiphany. It occurred to him that he could have that glow again. He could make it happen as often as he liked, on purpose. By the time he got home he’d formulated a plan. Each weekend he would take the coach to a strange town and try another life on for size.
In Birmingham he was a travelling salesman for a biscuit wholesaler. In Cardiff he was a mystery shopper for Starbucks, assessing customer care. In Dover he was a management consultant. When the owner of the guest-house asked what that involved, Eric joked that he’d have to charge £200 to tell him. In Edinburgh he was an industrial archaeologist.
Sometimes, early on, he started too soon. He would catch someone’s eye in a nearby seat on the coach and begin improvising an autobiography before they were even clear of Victoria. What struck him at these times was how quickly another life could become boring. He learnt to save the lie for the evening, when he would buttonhole the owner of a B and B or a stranger in a bar. His name, that random, given thing, often worked as a hook. He would thrust out a hand, say, ‘Eric’s the name. Eric Alabaster.’ And already they’d be curious.
In the daytimes he acted the tourist. Sometimes, he’d be struck by something he saw or heard, and would turn, ready to make some remark, to find nobody was at his side. On the hill by Edinburgh’s Waverley Station he listened to the eerie echoing of the platform announcements. He wanted to turn and say how it sounded like one of those blokes standing on a tower, calling the faithful to prayer, and for someone to smile and nod in recognition. Only at these times did he think of Marion.
And so, he added a further strand to his routine. In a corner shop he bought envelopes, paper and stamps. He put it all down; the endless slopes, the Mars Bar fried in batter, the gracious manners. He sealed the envelope, addressed it at random and posted it. Over a coffee he imagined the envelope bobbing along on a sea of other mail like a message in a bottle, to arrive eventually at the door of some puzzled stranger. He wondered if they would dutifully forward it marked ‘not known at this address’, or would take a look up and down the street, trouser the envelope and take it inside for a guilty read.
The constant feature of all his trips was breakfast near the coach station. Ana and Pablo, who ran Il Trattoria, came to expect him. When she had time Ana would come over and chat. She would say, ‘Where you off today?’
He’d answer and she’d break into a grin and say, ‘You certainly get around.’
One day she asked him, ‘What do you do?’
It was now almost a reflex to lie. He stopped himself just in time. ‘For a job, you mean?’ he asked.
‘No, no,’ she said. ‘What do you do on your trips to fill the day?’
He told her about the galleries and museums, the hours spent standing with his head cocked, paying attention and having a proper think.
She nodded emphatically. There seemed something childlike in the way she did it. ‘When I first came here, I couldn’t believe it. All these things to see for free.’ She gestured towards the river. ‘Tate is my favourite.’
Eric nodded. ‘The new one?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Not Tate Modern. Other one.’ She paused and smiled. ‘Tate Old-Fashioned.’
He looked over at the wall. ‘I can see you like your art.’
Ana followed his gaze to a picture of a white horse cantering through waves on a beach.
Eric said, ‘Had the shop run out of wide-eyed tearful urchins?’
She touched her face for a moment and laughed. ‘I know, I know. It was a present from a regular.’
The effect of the lies, it seemed, was lessening, as if he were developing a tolerance. Nothing quite hit the spot any more. The nagging ache in his groin resumed. He decided he needed to raise the bar, be more adventurous. In Glasgow he was one of a barbershop quartet. In Huddersfield he was a film extra. In Ipswich he was an investigative journalist. When asked what he was investigating he muttered under his breath, ‘Myself, actually.’
In Jarrow, Kettering and Leeds, he was a poet in town for a reading. This backfired the last time. He had to feign sudden illness when a Lidl management trainee staying at the same guest-house insisted on tagging along to see Eric in action.
In Manchester, he pretended nothing. For all he thought he was starting to grow free of his need for routine and pattern, one small change showed him how wrong he was. He went as usual to Il Trattoria. No lights shone. In the window was a note saying the café was closed for a week for staff holidays. And it took the breath from him.
The letter he wrote that Saturday was the longest yet. He wrote about the hooded lads on the trams who seemed to only speak in vowels. He wrote how half the city seemed to be on a cigarette break. It had been the workshop of the world and now it had turned into a skiver’s paradise. He wrote of the car-wash he passed with a poster advertising the cheapest hand-job in the North.
He wrote how here more than anywhere he found it hard to imagine the women naked and he couldn’t understand why. And he wrote how, lately, he’d been thinking a lot about what he could’ve done and could’ve been, and found himself faced by a mystery. At fifteen, the future appeared to him as a vast, blank wall with nothing he could imagine behind it. He’d had soppy daydreams like everyone, of what life might be like if he wasn’t himself, and here he was now at fifty two, back in the self same place. He finished the letter, wishing there was somebody real he could send it to.
Order was restored the next Saturday. In Il Trattoria he asked Ana about her holiday. In a spare moment she showed him photos; her and Pablo standing in a square in hats, drinking coffee al fresco, smiling and waving with what looked like extended family.
She asked if he knew Barcelona. He admitted he didn’t.
She said, ‘It’s beautiful. Then, maybe everyone says so about their home-town.’
Eric said, ‘But, trattoria. I thought…’
She smiled and lowered her voice. ‘That I’m Italian? No, Spanish.’
Eric frowned. ‘So, is Pablo Italian?’
Ana frowned too. ‘He’s Spanish too. Of course. It’s for the business. People think of Italian food, they don’t think of Spanish food.’
She left the photos with him and returned to the counter. He watched her swaying hips as she walked, and felt a twinge of a feeling he could barely remember. He looked at Pablo, curious at the way those hips seemed lost on him. There was something strangely sexless in the way he was with Ana, something in the lumpish way he stepped aside when she squeezed behind the counter.
Eric’s dedication grew, but he hankered for something real. Plucking a job title out of the air was no longer enough. He began to do research. Planning ahead for each trip he’d raid his local library for books on the next area of expertise he intended to affect; ornithology, contemporary art, carpentry. In the evenings he’d fill index cards with imaginary biographies and marvel at the detail that went into making up a life. The letters became shorter. Sometimes he’d think of something to write and would decide instead to save it to tell Ana the next time he saw her.
In the café, he’d just finished telling her about Swindon. He’d made her laugh, about how they used to build trains there, and how, if he lived there he’d build a train, or anything else that’d take him away from the place. She sat down in front of him. He’d never seen her sit down before. She seemed small, suddenly.
She said, ‘You know on a Friday when I finish, I like to go to Tate.’
She moved the ketchup bottle. ‘Maybe you’d like to come too, one time. For the company.’
Eric cleared his throat. ‘Not sure I’m much company. I’m a bit of a dull old spud.’
‘Not to me, you’re not.’ She gently punched his upper arm, as a man might. ‘You have a sense of adventure. All these trips.’
Eric looked over at Pablo, then back to Ana. ‘Can I think about it?’
Ana stood. ‘Okay, but don’t take too long. We’re closing soon.’
Eric checked his watch.
She said, ‘Not now. Closing up, selling up, I mean.’
‘Pablo wants to go back to Barcelona.’ She dropped her voice. ‘My brother is quite ill.’
Eric nodded, serious. ‘Is Pablo going to look after him, then?’
‘Look after who?’
Ana looked confused. ‘Pablo is my brother.’
The information caused a soup of mixed emotions to flood Eric. He couldn’t separate the feelings, but he knew they were all real. For the rest of the day he walked around with the strange sense of being himself. It was like visiting an apparently unfamiliar town and slowly realising that he’d been there before.
He wrote a last letter in Taunton. Little of it was about the town. He wrote that all his life he’d acted like there was no point starting anything he couldn’t finish. And that somewhere along the line he’d stopped paying attention. He wrote that he’d never really known what he wanted, but finally it was coming to him. He didn’t want to pretend he wasn’t ordinary; he wanted to be better at being ordinary. He wanted to be ordinary, but really pay attention.
He searched for a post-box, with no success. It seemed less important now. He slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket.
The following Friday he finished work at two as always. On the Tube he realised he had no idea what time the café closed. He hoped he wasn’t too late. In the crowded train he thought of all the imaginary Erics he’d been over the preceding weeks; probably enough of them to fill the carriage. It had all been a bit of a daft idea, he knew, but somehow it pleased him that those Erics couldn’t be taken back or undone. Each of them had a sort of ghost, had left a trace, however small, in the lives of the people he’d lied to, like a passing stranger in the background of a snapshot.
Walking from Victoria he thought of his lumps. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to make something real happen, however short a time it might last. The lights were still on in the café. The windows were blurred with condensation. He put an eye to a small clear patch. Ana was there, lifting chairs onto tables, mopping the floor, those hips swaying. Gently, so as not to startle her, Eric tapped on the glass.