It was just getting dark as Phil fumbled for his keys and attempted to kick the gate shut behind him; an almost balletic manoeuvre he’d never quite perfected. Each and every time Phil reminded himself that the process would be a lot less troublesome if he’d just close the gate in a more careful fashion before reaching for his keys. But each and every time Phil tried to emulate the one and only time he’d successfully completed the routine. On that occasion he imagined that to the casual observer (or even a rapt observer, he didn’t mind which) he would have appeared to be the kind of dexterous, athletic and cock-sure kind of man he’d only ever really seen on television. He’d even ended with a flourish, twirling his keys on their ring around his index finger as, say, a sunburnt and hard-faced cowboy might have done with his six-shooter. “Kapow!” he almost said. But he didn’t. Because nobody saw it happen.
Unabashed, Phil still tried to return to past glories as he made his way into his house, and unerringly failed to pull it off. On more than one occasion, there had been a spectator present to enjoy the show, and not one of them missed the opportunity to remind Phil of it whenever they saw him.
“Whoah, steady on there, mate!” One would say, whilst mimicking an exaggerated (Phil thought) impersonation of a man ungracefully losing his balance.
“Fallen into any nice rose bushes recently?” Another quipped.
Izzaaak, who lived two doors down with his parents, would bray, “Bah-hahahahaha LOSER!” with the kind of cruel derision that can only be mastered by an eleven year old. Phil would console himself on these occasions by noting how Izzaaak would hold up his left hand with thumb and finger forming the letter “L” on his forehead, and that this was wrong and made him look foolish, because to everyone else the “L” was back-to-front.
This time Phil at least managed to stay upright and out of the foliage, and upon regaining his balance closed the gate carefully and opened his front door. Of this he was grateful, because this evening was no ordinary evening: He was expecting company.
Of the female variety.
It’s probably a little unfair to imply that Phil’s interactions with women were infrequent, because he worked with several women (all of whom despised him in an utterly irrational way, as you may recall, for simply being competent and totally unconcerned with them) and also visited his sister and her family every so often. He thought the lady at the shops was quite nice and they would chat about trivial things like what her husband might have been up to because he came in late last night and don’t even get me started on those bloody kids! In truth Phil found those conversations quite terrifying and often felt his participation was due simply to the fact that he was paralysed with fear. He certainly didn’t do much of the talking. This led the lady in the shop to conclude he was “a good listener”, although he secretly wished her impression of him was more that of “a fast runner”.
Anyway, tonight Phil was playing host to Phyllis, a woman he’d met under circumstances that she had likened to the kind of kooky plot lines one found in Hollywood romantic comedies (or rom-coms, as Phyllis had said, to Phil’s instant distaste) and she would often re-tell the story to Phil as if he hadn’t been there. What had actually happened was this: Phil was sitting in the park a block down from his office, eating a sandwich (egg and lettuce) and wishing the stray dog that had sat at his feet would go away and stop psyching him out for a bit of his lunch. Phyllis happened by at that moment and mistakenly thought the dog belonged to Phil. She remarked upon how “cute” and “sweet” the dog was as Phil smiled uncomfortably at her and nodded. Some time later, when he felt Phyllis had stopped talking for longer than it took to draw breath, Phil was at pains to explain the mix-up, that the dog wasn’t his and in fact he would rather it hadn’t chosen him or his sandwich as its prey that afternoon. Phyllis listened and when Phil had finished she laughed good-naturedly at length about the humorous nature of the situation. Then she told the dog “shoo!” and it dutifully trotted away, much to Phil’s relief and astonishment. After they had parted Phil pondered briefly how out of the ordinary this encounter had been but by the time he had returned to his cubicle he was once again focused on his windows.
“What a wholly uninteresting Hollywood rom-com that would make,” one might surmise, and one would undoubtedly be correct. But that’s not the end of the story. Later that evening, after lengthy deliberation and several false starts, Phil signed up for one of those online dating services he’d heard so much about. It took an unspeakably long time to fill out the various questionnaires and endless forms but he persisted and after a time was browsing through prospective “dates” like a seasoned professional. For a moment he considered that being a seasoned professional at browsing online dating websites probably meant you weren’t enjoying much success in the actual dating part of the process, but he shooed that thought away much as Phyllis had with the dog earlier. After a few evenings spent in pursuit of a suitably compatible woman he plucked up the courage to make arrangements with someone who seemed very nice. They were to meet at a local cafe for a coffee and chat, which seemed to Phil to be suitably innocuous, and public enough to ensure a swift exit was possible should things not work out. At two o’clock on that Saturday afternoon Phil went to Café Frappé and chose a seat outside, under an umbrella. After a few minutes he remembered that sitting outside a cafe was a singularly unpleasant experience and found a table just inside the door. He sat there for what seemed an age, politely deflecting the serving staff until they politely offered to show him the door unless he purchased something. After an hour had passed he began to suspect that perhaps this date wasn’t going according to plan. His mind began to conjure up images of what might have gone wrong, why Leanne – his date – hadn’t shown up or called him to say she was running late.
Am I doing this wrong? he asked himself. Should I be calling her, or would that seem a bit forward and creepy? Phil had learned from reading magazines in the waiting room at the dentist that being “creepy” was something to be avoided. The trouble was that it seemed a difficult condition to define, and seemed rather too dependent upon circumstances and subjective opinion to be something he could be sure of avoiding. What was “creepy” to one person may be “showing some concern” to another. After another half-hour Phil had resolved to call Leanne and find out what the problem was, maybe he could offer to help or something. He reached into his pocket for his phone. It wasn’t there. He stood up and began patting himself down, in case he’d inadvertently put his phone in a different pocket. But still, it was nowhere to be found. Realising it would be pointless to linger, Phil paid for his obligatory orange juice and made to leave. Just as he passed one of the other tables near the door, a man moved his chair out as he stood and Phil’s foot became entangled in it. As he lost his balance he had enough presence of thought to notice that the man was wearing a particularly incredulous expression and was laughing as he said “Whoah! Steady on there, mate!”
Phil performed a kind of pirouette and was fortunate that the glass door was already open as he twirled toward it, and then out into the street, only to then collide with a passer-by. It took him a moment to register that he had fallen onto someone, a moment longer to register that it was a woman and by the time he’d figured out that it was in fact Phyllis, the dog-whisperer from the park, he was on the verge of catatonic shock from the ignominy of the encounter and the bizarre nature of this convergence of fate.
Phyllis was very understanding and barely injured and laughed in her good-natured way about the incident which made Phil feel slightly less than mortified with embarrassment. It was the coincidental, rather than the accidental nature of their meeting like this that made Phyllis draw comparisons with Hollywood movies, which puzzled Phil. Anyway, Phyllis invited him to go with her to see a friend play in her band, who were called The Olecranon Process, at a local venue and they had a great time. Well, Phyllis had a great time listening to the music, dancing and singing along; whereas Phil enjoyed the fact that it was too loud for small talk, so he could have a couple of glasses of house white and not interact with Phyllis beyond smiling at her, more with relief that she hadn’t called the police when he wound up flattening her earlier than with any affection or guile. Phyllis seemed happy with that and at the end of the gig she breathlessly told Phil how much fun she’d had and that if he didn’t mind she’d like to see him again.
Phil rapidly played out a number of possible scenarios in his mind, but his lack of experience in this sort of situation left him at odds with his feeling that he ought to reciprocate Phyllis’ kind invitation and general goodwill and understanding.
“Do you like pizza?” he asked.
As it happened, Phyllis did. Very much.
To be continued…
Phil always took the train home from work. It wasn’t a complicated decision: he lived too far away to walk, he didn’t own a car and he refused to ride a bicycle because he felt it left his elbows unnecessarily vulnerable to scrutiny.
Travelling by train brought with it some difficulties at first, but Phil had learned to overcome them, gradually, through a process of positive self-affirmation and unflappable determination to be left the heck alone. He came to treat the train as his “Fortress of Solitude”, a place not unlike that of the Superman comics, a place in his mind where he could exist entirely separately from the rest of the world, and more importantly keep enquiring minds from attempting to probe his innermost secrets through the arcane and mysterious art of “small-talk”.
Phil was deeply suspicious of small-talk, even the name seemed misleading. The first (and last) time he had allowed himself to be engaged in this activity he had come within a hair’s breadth of revealing almost everything about himself in what seemed to him to be only a few sentences. The instigator clearly knew more about Phil than he was comfortable with, because this individual, whose name could have been “Steve”, felt from that moment onward he could broach virtually any topic with total impunity. But Phil didn’t want to know Steve’s opinions about sporting events, television programming or “women, eh?”, and was intensely relieved when Steve’s attention was drawn abruptly to another office-party-goer with whom he had clearly established even greater familiarity at an earlier juncture, and he went away.
Catching the train home was an activity Phil had made into something of an art. He prided himself on what a symphony of procedural sophistication it had become. The trick, initially, was to break it down into parts. Firstly, he would ensure that the walk from the office to the station took exactly twelve minutes, allowing for the inevitable delays caused by the teeming mass of less organised travellers – queueing, and such – so that he could catch the 5.38pm train. In other words, not the train all of these other people were clamouring to get on. Arriving home 20 minutes later was an infinitesimally small price to pay for a less crowded carriage.
Once aboard, Phil would find a seat and build his fortress. The seat had to be a two-seater, not a three. On rare occasions when no such seat was available, Phil would simply disembark and wait for the next train. It had to be perfect, or it wouldn’t work. Just as a house needed firm foundations, Phil’s Fortress required appropriate seating parameters. The next two phases of the construction involved two props: a device that stored and played music with a set of large headphones and a book. Each element had been selected with tremendous discretion, along with some minor trial-and-error “tweaks”. For example, too-large headphones attracted unwanted stares, whereas too discreet might imply that whatever is being listened to isn’t so important that the listener shouldn’t be interrupted.
The choice of book was more problematic. If it was something other people might find interesting then that might encourage unwanted attention. The same can be said for something too uninteresting, which would also promote staring. Phil eventually decided the safest course was to find relatively small books that had nondescript binding at the second-hand book shop. That way he could maintain his focus whilst obscuring the content of the text at the same time. Today’s book was a 19th Century treatise on the nature of creosote.
Once headphones were in place and book open, Phil would adopt an expression he had decided after some practice in front of his bathroom mirror gave an impression of a deep, cultivated level of concentration. He hoped that this would repel small-talkers, either because they might be fearful that he would either fly into a rage for being interrupted (unlikely), or intimidate them with the details of his obviously very specialised and possibly rather occult and unwholesome interests (yes, that seems more likely).
“Seven-hundred-and-sixty-three days since last incident,” Phil reminded himself as he found his seat. Everything proceeded as planned, his Fortress was sturdy, his headphones were in place and his book was open to the last third. He had begun to settle into his fifteen minute journey when the unthinkable happened.
An unkempt man sat down heavily in the seat next to Phil. Although he was no expert on such matters, Phil sensed that the man had been drinking. He was aware of the fact that the man was being studiously ignored by everyone else in the carriage and Phil reminded himself that he was still in his Fortress, that it was impenetrable by all, that he existed in a place where the cares of such men as this could not reach him. The man nudged Phil with his elbow and nodded solicitously at him.
“Eh?” The man said, and then said it again, with another nudge, to add emphasis.
Phil shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment and evaluated his position. He could continue to ignore the man until he went away, but he had noticed on the way in that there were not many free seats. Then, if he continued to ignore him, the man may choose to persist, and escalate his attention-seeking behaviour to truly unacceptable levels.
“Eh, mate? Eh?” Said the man, with much nudging and nodding.
Phil chanced a polite nod and weak smile before returning to his book.
“M’name’s L.P., mate. Wotcher readin’ there?”
Phil wasn’t sure what to call the stage beyond which a cringe ended and the next uncomfortable sensation began, but he’d reached it. He scoured his mind for options and decided his best bet would be a kind of awkward mime he hoped would convey “I can’t hear you, I’m wearing headphones and I’m listening to something I really enjoy and oh, look here’s this book I’m reading and… well, you know… sorry”
L.P. either wasn’t sure what Phil was trying to convey, or didn’t care. He continued:
“Yeah, mate. L.P. Not like the records, ya know? Not like Long Playing,” L.P. drew the syllables of those last words out, carefully. “But Lonely Place.”
That actually surprised Phil, and caught him off guard. By the time he would otherwise have kicked himself for looking at L.P., it was too late. L.P. noted the acknowledgement with another nudge (My elbows! Phil thought) and continued.
“My mum called me Lonely Place, because she said I was born in a really lonely place, ya know?”
Phil allowed himself to consider what sort of a place that might have been. L.P. kept talking.
“Yeah, she was real lonely, in this lonely place. I arksed her once where it was, an’ all she said was that she wouldn’t ever go back there.”
Phil was overcome with a sadness, what he assumed was a kind of empathy for this unusual, most likely drunk man who had intruded upon his Solitude, broken down the walls of his Fortress and made so little sense in the process. Against his better judgement, Phil decided on this seven-hundred-and-sixty-fourth occasion he would break with tradition and engage with this man in some form of conversation. Phil removed his headphones and looked at L.P.
“Did you ever find out where it was?” He asked L.P., whom he’d only just realised hadn’t stopped talking during his reverie and was already changing subject to something someone else had told him the other day. But when Phil spoke, L.P. stopped.
With a wistful look, he said “Yeah. I did.” His expression began to change from wistful to pained and Phil was instantly even more sorry he’d asked.
L.P. gestured to one of the more offensive stains on the linoleum floor of the carriage with a tilt of his head. “It was over there.”
A large tear welled in the corner of L.P.’s eye, then rolled clumsily over the weathered skin of his cheek, magnifying a trail over some of L.P.’s more excitingly broken capillaries. Phil was dumbfounded. Before he’d had time to absorb this bizarre revelation L.P. had sprung to his feet, raised his arms above his head and turned to address all of the occupants of the carriage, most of whom remained in their Fortresses.
In a voice that suddenly took on a tone reminiscent of the most fervent television evangelists that Phil had remembered watching late at night while he couldn’t sleep for the worry, L.P. declared:
“I reckon…. I reckon that we all are s’posed to be here – all of us – right now!”
It was Phil’s stop. He let the nice old lady, who seemed a little startled, get out first.
“Zero days without incident,” he muttered.