by Jack Kendle
The man sat at his desk, head bent over the paper he was writing upon. In his early fifties, still slim, his dark hair streaked with grey, gentle brown eyes now needing spectacles, he sat, waiting.
The door to the room was closed, the window also; the autumn sun kept out behind the drawn curtains, suffusing the room with a gentle light. He was aware of the faint sound of the traffic as it rumbled by on the road outside and the distant piano scales and sweet high notes of violin, flute and voices in the other rooms of the school only highlighted the deep silence of the room.
He waited, outwardly calm and composed, yet within, his heart beat a rapid tattoo, his breathing shallow, his excitement showing only as a slight tremor of his hands as he wrote on the page. The moment was fast arriving; one hour a week upon which his whole being focused, around which, it seemed to him, his whole life revolved.
For his age, the man’s face still looked reasonably youthful, yet a few creases were now beginning to show about the dark-ringed eyes, proclaiming perhaps a tiredness, anxiety even, which had become his constant companion. He was a man used to disappointments born of circumstance. Choices he had made many years ago now hung on his shoulders, their very weight seeming to give him his slight stoop. Life had made him wearily accept each new setback, each disappointment, which to him was a crushing blow, but which he could never outwardly display, except in the privacy of his own mind when he was alone. His lot was to accept. Accept each and any tiny crumb which might come his way, but more often, accept the disappointments which, although never maliciously intended, cut him to his very soul. Outwardly unflinching, he bore the barbs, whilst inside, his heart bled.
As he wrote and waited, his mind wandered; conjuring images and scenarios, some real, most imagined. As a backdrop to the shifting and shaping pictures, the music he was writing sang in his soul, soared above his mundane existence, colouring the imaginations of his mind’s eye with a lustrous, rich harmony, an arc of sound, echoing in beauty. These imaginations were, for the man, as if he were a traveller in an unknown and exciting land; each experience invigorating, new, marvellously beautiful. What a difference between the world within and the one without! How often had the man caught his breath with the beauty of his waking dreams only to come back to reality and look about him at the drab, uncaring surroundings he lived in. The resounding notes which accompanied these visions could sing of his soul, his loves, his hopes, his dreams. Notes could say what he dare not. Music was his confessional.
He paused, looked at his watch. Any minute now would come the gentle knock on the door. The knock for which he had waited for a week – no, it had been a fortnight since the last time – two weeks of anxious waiting. The man knew, however, that nothing could or must be taken for granted. There was an even chance that the long awaited knock would not come, as last week. Yet another barb in his flesh. The man knew not to believe anything until he saw it. He had had too many hopes dashed by believing that what should happen, would happen. He had learned not to hope, not to have any expectations. It was better that way, he had learned. Better to hope for nothing than to hope for too much and, all too often, be cruelly disappointed.
What had led him to this moment in his life? What intricate, convoluted web of circumstances had run their course, leaping from node to node like a gigantic join-the-dots puzzle? How had each and every minute decision he or someone else had made, led to the here and now? Where to begin the process? He contemplated the complexity, overwhelmed by it, unable to unravel the myriad tiny little things which had all conspired to bring him here. How far back had he to go? His birth, or his father’s? Then why not further? All the way back, back, even to the Big Bang? Beyond? He could not know. As he waited, the man laughed a hollow laugh to himself; he was not, nor ever had been, the master of his own fate, the captain of his soul. He had been manipulated, coerced, cajoled – fooled even – all along the way. He had no free will. No choice he had ever made had ever been totally free. Every time he had a choice, he had been dictated to, directly or indirectly, it didn’t matter. He saw now, he had no more say in his life than an ant in a colony; his life and his place in others’ lives was predetermined, expendable.
So why keep up the pretence? What made him think he could break the shackles, shake himself free? There was no ‘free.’ Like a fly in a web, he was caught, immobilized, bound. Bound to behave in a certain way. Bound by convention. Bound by law. Bound to be…
He looked at his watch again. It was as if the minute hand had not moved since the last time he had looked. He glanced toward the closed door. No sound of approaching feet, no knock. Not yet, it wasn’t time yet. Not yet. Not ever?
With a slight shake of his shoulders, the man looked back down at the page of music. There, at least, was truth. The truth as he saw it, felt it. The truth about himself. In the notes on the page, the man saw and heard patterns; a name repeated, endlessly. A mantra, a spell to ward off the outside world. The name of love, of peace, of acceptance. The word spoke of beauty, intimacy, one-ness. The dots danced before his eyes, the sounds they represented echoing in his mind’s ear. At least here he could be himself; shake off the shackles which tied him down. He could be free to say what he felt, as long as he hid behind the notes, that is. He knew what the sounds meant, he would let others hear what they wanted to in his music; they could not, must not ever know their true meaning. These notes were intimately connected to that for which the man was now waiting, the person who, he fervently hoped and prayed, would shortly knock on the door and then he could bathe in the light of another soul, another world so different, so apart from this one.
Another glance at the time. The second-hand seemed to crawl imperceptibly round the dial as if reluctant to reach the allotted time for which the man was both eagerly and dejectedly waiting.
What if there was no knock? Another barb, another disappointment in a long line of disappointments, to be wearily shrugged off, filed away in his memory; never mentioned, never referred to. Another emptiness in the void which his life had become, save for this one hour a week, when the light shone and angels sang. The silence seemed to deepen as the man sighed, exhaling a long, slow and trembling breath which pulsed with his racing heart.
The man thought of his life; wife and family, mortgage, annual holidays, work and all the rest of his existence. So neat, all neat and tidy, no surprises. His job, teaching music, trying to instil in young minds and souls the beauty of the greatest and most demanding and mysterious of the arts. The occasional feeling of joy as he saw a young mind finally make a leap, realize a truth, connect with the music he was teaching them, but mostly the boredom in the young faces as they failed to appreciate the enormity of what they were hearing, the pinnacles of mankind’s expression. The man had become himself jaded, numbed to the humdrum existence, going through the motions, both at work and at home.
His marriage, he knew now, was a failure. He knew he had failed with his daughter, who had now left home. He had somehow not shown his deep love for her, had been unable to display his affection for the one other person in his life who meant anything to him. She was now studying abroad, the occasional phone call usually a short, stilted one-sided affair ending with the words ‘don’t you want to speak to your mother?’
And his wife. She now barely tolerated him in her life, no more than that. He had so successfully withdrawn into himself, she had all but given up trying to reach him. They lived together, but not together. Work, eat, sleep. That was what their life had evolved into. The man, using his composition as a pretence, withdrew into the safety of his office at home, more often than not sitting gazing at the blank manuscript paper as his mind wandered. He thought of what he had become and what might have been. He thought of the events which led him to propose marriage, set up home, have a child. It all seemed to him that all this had happened for all the wrong reasons. Had it been love? Or had he bowed to pressure, tired of being alone, lonely, unhappy? It was as if he had been blindfolded and led, like a docile lamb, to the slaughter. Another hollow laugh escaped his lips. Suddenly he was middle-aged, married, a father – and desperately unhappy.
What if, what if? The question was pointless, he knew, but he continued to goad himself with it, imagining all sorts of scenarios, all different from the one in which he found himself now. He had, on a few occasions, got within a hairsbreadth of telling his wife – no, not telling, asking her for a divorce, but had never had the courage. Now, it seemed, it was too late. At fifty three, he had so much invested in his life as it was now. He wasn’t sure if he could survive on his own; reach an agreement about the house, find a flat, furnish it and start a new life. His wife, so capable, so down-to-earth, had been the primus motor in their relationship; he had tagged along, signed on the dotted lines, followed her lead. He was a shadow. Which suited him. He did not want responsibility. He would prefer to leave it to his wife to manage the nuts and bolts of their coexistence. But of course, it left him with no say, no real opinion about anything. In their regular spats, he was never able to reason with his wife; he was purely emotional, mute in the face of her needle-sharp logic. He had, in effect, surrendered himself, his personality on the altar of indifference.
Or was that just another facet of his cowardice? Wasn’t he just content with the status-quo and hope that things would jog along with no upsets? But where did that leave him? He knew he was not being fair to his wife, but on the other hand he felt as if he were the injured party, which wasn’t true, if he really, truly faced facts. It was his fault things had come to this, whatever this was. Well, he knew what this was; it was deep unhappiness, a crippling loneliness and a despair so overwhelming he was surprised he got up each morning. Recently, on several occasions alone at home, he had suddenly broken down, the sobs wracking his body. Was he feeling sorry for himself? Probably, but he was also, in a quite ineffectual way, trying to say he was sorry. Sorry for how he felt, for who he was. But he wasn’t saying it to the right people and his thoughts and apologies remained bottled up, kept under wraps, hidden from view deep inside himself.
Another look at the time. Not long now. The man hoped the knock would come soon. He found himself whispering ‘please, please, please’ over and over again, as if the expected knock on the door would be the coup-de-grace, putting him out of his misery, as indeed it would be. But paradoxically it would be like a new lease of life for him; for an hour anyway. A stay of execution.
In the silence of the room, the ticking of the man’s watch seemed to become magnified, filling every corner. He looked at the dial yet again and then up over the rows of tables and chairs, imagining the lesson to come, if it came. He had his notes ready, the music they would listen to together. Music he had carefully chosen in an effort both to educate and to express his own feelings. He rehearsed in his mind what he would say, and how he would say it, each sentence an ambiguity, probing, looking for a way in, yet darting for cover behind the hidden meanings. Nothing obvious, at least not to him, but how could he possibly know how his words would be understood?
Was he making a fool of himself? Most likely. How many times had he promised to himself that he would give this up, ignore his feelings, just put it out of his mind? Yet, like a junkie, he always came back for more, never satisfied with his fix. Further, deeper in, the man knew he would one day go too far, cross an invisible line and lose everything. But this did not stop him. He seemed incapable of being sensible. It was as if he was wading out into an ocean where he knew the currents would carry him away, but still he kept walking, foolhardy. Eyes fixed on a distant horizon, ignoring the heaving waters beginning to tug at him.
Did he want to lose everything, he wondered? Was that what he was trying to do? Push the barriers further and further back until, suddenly, they collapsed and left him exposed, defenceless? Was there, somewhere in his mind a ‘self-destruct’ mechanism, willing him forwards on this path? Did he, in fact, want to be exposed for what he was? Would it somehow make everything alright, his secrecy no longer a burden on his shoulders? Perhaps, he thought – as so often before – it would free him; but what price freedom? Thoughts of his family, relatives, colleagues – how would they all react if they knew what he was really like? He imagined the looks of horror and disgust on their faces. He would be an outcast, despised and avoided. If he was lonely now, how lonely would he be then? Was it worth it? Was he man enough to face the consequences, if his awful secret were out?
Gazing with vacant eyes over the empty classroom, the man knew he would be unable to face his life under those circumstances. He had no choice. He had never had any choice. He would have to struggle on; try to shrug off the feelings which assailed him, hide behind his music, turn in on himself, shun the outside world and continue to live as he had up to this point. What good could ever come of any of this? He had to be ‘sensible’, bury his feelings deep within himself and try to carry on ‘as normal’. Whenever he sat and thought, this was always the conclusion he came to. ‘Keep things as they are’. ‘No good will come of change.’ ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ The empty, meaningless platitudes rang in his ears, deafening him. He covered his ears with his hands, trying to block out the clamorous cacophony.
Was this going to be his life from here on? Hiding his true feelings, locking himself away from his family, the world, until he shrivelled up and died? Who would miss him anyway?
Not for the first time, the man contemplated a world without him in it. After the initial shock, surely his wife would get over him? Their life together was hardly a bed of roses. She would most likely be angry at him for the inconvenience, the untidy public mess he would make, the man thought bitterly. His daughter would eventually get over the loss; he’d never been much of a father anyway. Who else was there? Who would be sorry if he weren’t there any more? The man could think of no-one who would be overly saddened at his passing. Maybe that was what he could do for himself; shuffle off this mortal coil, end the pain and heartache. He imagined his own funeral: a few ‘friends’ and colleagues, wife, daughter, a sister who lived abroad. That was about it. Not much of a gathering to show for more than fifty years’ existence was it? Would he leave a note? If he did, what would he say? Would he ‘confess’ and come clean about his hidden feelings? Why? What would be the point? Best not rock the boat, try to maintain what little dignity he might have left. There would be no point in telling anyone anything. When he was gone, the ‘problem’ would be gone with him.
And the object of his desires? The man’s eyes watered at the thought before he shook the thought from his head. Best not to dwell on that. However he would do it, he would be gone. Finished. Done. End of story.
The man knew, however, that what he was thinking he would never do. He was, after all, a coward. If he couldn’t even walk out of a failed marriage, couldn’t voice his feelings to someone he loved, how could he possibly put an end to himself? It was impossible and he knew it. No. He would have to go on with his life, somehow muddle through, pretend to the world that all was well.
He looked at his watch; the hands showed the long-awaited hour had arrived. He held his breath, watching as the second-hand ticked away the precious drops of time. Still no knock. He glanced again at the door. It’s shiny brown surface staring blankly back at him. He seemed aware that the traffic-noise outside had ceased, or was that just his imagination? The silence in the room was profound, despite the thumping of the man’s heart. He hovered between hope and despair. Would the knock on the door come? He felt his chest tighten as he strained to listen for footsteps outside in the corridor. Nothing. Dead silence.
The man let his shoulders drop. Another week would go by before he would be in this situation again. Another week of deception. Another week of obsessively thinking about the hour he hoped to spend and how he would spend it.
But this hour would be empty. This hour, so longed-for was now dead time. Sixty minutes to be got through. Sixty long, heavy, sad minutes which could have been filled with light and joy, would be as ashes. He looked down at the paper on his desk. Two droplets of water had landed on the manuscript, distorting the notes beneath. He wiped the tears from his eyes, bitter tears of anguish and frustration. Tears shed for a lost hour. Tears for himself.
Slowly and heavily the man got to his feet and began to pack away his papers. Wasn’t it time to face up to the fact that he should try and forget his obsession? Shouldn’t he try to move on? Perhaps even try and find another job somewhere else? Yet the ghosts would always haunt him. He could never forget and who knows, wouldn’t he just land in the same situation elsewhere? Moving away might solve this particular problem, but it wouldn’t solve him. The man would never change, he couldn’t change. He knew, deep within that events would just repeat themselves, wherever he was.
Suddenly he felt nauseous, the air in the silent room seemed to be stifling him. He needed to escape from here. Get away. He was sweating, yet he felt cold. His actions seemed to be automatic. Without knowing what he was doing or where he was going, he moved quickly to the door, his legs threatening to give way under him any moment. He felt the hot tears behind his eyes. Reaching the door, he grabbed the handle and yanked the door open, almost colliding with the person on the other side, hand raised in preparation of knocking. The man, blinded by tears, collided heavily into the slight figure.
In a blur of action, the man was aware of two startlingly blue eyes wide open in astonishment, flushed cheeks, moist rosy lips over gleaming white teeth, all surrounded by a halo of golden blonde hair. He felt himself career into the slight frame, almost knocking the figure down. He was dimly aware of two arms around him, supporting him, preventing the both of them from falling to the floor. He could not catch his breath.
With the realisation of who it was, the man fell back, grasping the doorframe. He felt himself being supported by the two arms and guided back into the room. He heard, rather than saw, the door being kicked closed behind them. Most of all, he was aware of a soft face close to his, the cornflower-blue eyes wide and worried. He felt the warm breath on his wet cheek. One of his arms was around the slim waist, the other around a shoulder. Reflexively, he pulled the slim figure towards him, holding tight. He felt a head on his shoulder and inhaled the sweet scent of freshly washed hair, still slightly damp. Strangely, it wasn’t just his heart which was beating fast and furious. Through thin material, he felt another one, pounding against the ribcage.
Time seemed to stand still.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry!”
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