CHRIS & CHRIS
1.2 The Jackdaw
“Nice pad you got here, Nimmywim,” he said, scanning the dinge of my Archway flat, opening my bedroom door, peeping into the cramped bathroom, checking out the tiny airing cupboard. A few months back on a tech gossip website I’d seen leaked plans of the latest proposed campus for a company he funded: a desert eco ranch with three square miles of underground robot labs.
You’re bound to feel a pang, seeing someone like that again, a body you once knew so well, its little forgotten ways.
“How did you find me?”
“Tal. I’m starving. Got anything to eat?” heading for my fridge, stopping by my desk to admire my laptop. “Nice, light,” hefting it, closing it, an American lilt now. “But battery issues I hear? And if you don’t mind,” snapping the tablet cover down over the paused image: “I’m only up to Season Three, don’t want to spoil things.”
The brass balls on this clown. Still thinking his sham worked on me, here for what? Careful Chris, I might bite. I settled in to enjoy this.
“How’s Tal?” I hadn’t seen Tal for ages, was due a visit.
“Fine. Nuts. The usual. Lots of product development ideas. Got any cheese?”
I leant against the window sill and let him find cheese in my fridge. Then he was darting about opening cupboards, locating plates, crackers, condiments, ferreting out chutney. Then he was holding his platter and scanning my bookshelves, admiring my textbooks, impressed I’d continued with the coding.
A slight paunch but still fleet and spry. The casual but luxurious clothes reeking of discrete software zillions. The white face, the bitten nails. The single tear trickling down his face our last day: “Is that what you wanted?”
Time to take charge.
“So Chris. What’s up?”
“Well,” flopping into my sofa with his mini feast. “Nim. Nimmywimmy. Minnymoo. Nim Wynn. Or Nim Burdock, as it seems to be these days. Been a while now. Been thinking of you. Got a few things to say. But first,” balancing plate on sofa arm, running his right index finger down the length of his nose. This gesture meant: focus. I’d adopted it myself after we split, part of my widow’s weeds.
“Nim,” hands spread out in his lap now, staring down, talking in this high holy voice: “I don’t know why it’s taken so long for me to come here and say this. I want you to know how much I love, esteem and cherish you and our long strange history together, and will forever. How much I feel your absence and wish you were still part of my story, somehow. Above all, how sorry I am about… how things were left and how I behaved… at the end.”
He paused, to scan my face and reach for his plate. Over the years a possible apology scene had played out many different ways in my head, but never this… smirking version. In town and curious if he could still twist me?
Go for it, sweet cheeks. You gad away.
“Not a day goes past,” he went on, munching a cracker, “that I don’t think back on our time together, our special cherished history, all the strangeness we went through that we should be so proud of, and so proud of surviving, and know how much I owe it all to you, and would be nothing and not here without you, and how very bitterly I regret my fear and immaturity in treating you as I did. Call it a testament to your very great power over me. Leaving you is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and I knew the break had to be total, so very powerful were my feelings for you. But so deep was my immaturity that the only way I knew how to accomplish this was to behave badly and make you hate me and make you end it, instead of talking it through, honouring you and our time together. And I have suffered for my cowardice ever since.”
This template of a speech, possibly downloaded from the internet or purchased from a therapist, was such a calculated insult that perhaps he was in self-loathing mode and hoping for a rise, a slap across the face. I saw him when he was twelve on top of the bus, throwing rocks at rocks, shouting singsong apologies for deeds he felt no guilt for.
Should have known then. Alan always told you.
Cut yourself the slack. We all learn in the end.
“Thanks Chris,” I said, noting new eye crinkles, clipped nasal hair. He looked very washed, probably did deep whatever high-tech skin treatments. His sweatshirt wasn’t quite grey, it was dark charcoal, an unusual colour that brought out the green-brown of his eyes, probably swatched by experts, a database of outfits. I remembered something I hadn’t in ages: a New York meltdown just after his first big paycheck. Coming home from buying him pricey fashion gear in shops we never went to: he tried the new clothes on again and hated them, and hated me for letting him buy them. And hated me for my high-waisted jeans, not the fashion then: “Don’t you have a fucking clue?”
You let him, my dear.
“That’s the problem with young love,” flicking a large crumb from his lap to my floor, launching into a small sermon about the problem with young love, specially ours: mad pash in the middle of total craziness, the first time those hormones flood through you, us really and truly against the world, feeling it would last forever, all those promises, when in the end we were children, and very sheltered children at that, who didn’t know anything and hadn’t met anyone.
“I’m sure you feel the same.”
I told him I did. Then I moved off the sill, to start escorting him off the premises—no joy to be had in this encounter, that was clear.
But he got in there first: “I’ve brought you something,” before I could stop him, putting his plate back on the sofa arm, standing up, patting some inner jacket pocket, pulling out an envelope, walking the few paces it took to cross the room and hand it over, brushing my hand, returning to his cheeses on the sofa, watching my face.
The envelope was light and thin. One of his top secret machines, maybe, that the internet told me one of his companies was making out of utterly new materials, foldable things as weightless as feathers. Inside though were Polaroids, of me, from Scritchwood and everywhere, as a teen in the hollow, at ten up a tree. New York in the first days, one from the redwoods. But mainly Scritchwood Covert Motorhome Park and the woods and mud of South Bucks where we grew up and all the things I never thought about: me outside Merriweather, the static home I lived in with Ann Wynn and Clarice, me outside the bus Chris lived in with Alan, the broken house, the shed, the washing, me by the gilt quartz carriage clock on the bus mantelpiece. Me on a fallen beech dangling my legs over the water with my hair swept over me smiling at him behind the lens.
“Was tidying up, found them, didn’t know what to do with them. Thought you might want them.”
In the first years of him gone an image would come to me sometimes when I thought of him: he was a white hot metal bar I grabbed for and dropped, taking with it seared pieces of hand.
The squatter. Taint and blight. Using me all those years, stringing me along as a mirror for his preen. Till I saw clear and shone his dirt back instead and was no longer convenient and got bundled out the back door.
Enough. No point thinking I had muscles against him. You wouldn’t want that technology. Let him win, like he had to at all costs. Step away, live free and fine without him like I’d been doing all these years, not let him in next time.
“How kind,” I said, putting photos back into envelope, putting that down on the side to chuck out later, “for you to find these and think of me and go to all the trouble of tracking me down to deliver them in person and say… all this. And now, if you’ve finished your refreshments, I think it’s time to go.”
“OK,” snack done, crumbs gone, plate to floor, running his finger down his nose. “You’re too good and I’ve imposed too long. It’s been great to be here with you and have the chance to say… things to you. But I’d better get down to it. I’m actually here for something. Apart from all the rest of it.”
“Oh really?” I said, very suspicious. “What?”
“Well. The book.”
It seemed weird at the time, so random. “The book?”
He nodded. “All those fun games. The slovenly elephant, the sly magpie.”
“The sly jackdaw.” I couldn’t help myself.
“Right. Always needed your help. Anyway. The book. Turns out I need it. That’s why I’m here. Dreadful I know.”
He waited, for me to ask why he wanted the book I guessed. “It’s a long story,” he went on when I wouldn’t play. “As you know it belonged to my mum and it’s the one thing I have from her and I’m getting married and it would mean a lot.”
Watching me, slipping it in.
Poor woman, if she even existed. But I couldn’t help myself:
“Congratulations. You’re getting married and you want to… share the book with your fiancée? It’s inscribed to me with your eternal love, you might remember.”
“I do. But ink can be removed. Names can be changed.”
I had to laugh. “Romantic.”
But he didn’t seem to share the joke: “I think you can let me worry about all that. I don’t know that it’s any of your business. After all, morally, the book is mine.”
“I see.” I apologised, for thinking it was a gift, for not understanding it as a licensing agreement. Something in my tone must have irked. He got up, started pacing the room, in what looked like real rage.
“Considering who you are, or who you were, or who I thought you were, plus what we both went through and what you know about my mum, I thought you might be a bit more understanding. Plus does it really have that much emotional value to you these days? Apart from the Alan stuff, of course. But you have lots of Alan stuff. Or you did.”
He paused, sat back down, watched me, spoke again, soft and clear:
“It’s a very rare edition though I know. A certain market value I’d be happy to reimburse you for if I didn’t think you’d be insulted.”
This wheeler-dealer. He really did seem desperate for it. “How much were you thinking?”
“Whatever you want. Three thousand, let’s say?”
“Three thousand bitcoins?”
“Very current. I was thinking dollars. Or pounds. Or bitcoins, though I hear there are issues. Whatever you want. Though considering the circumstances I was hoping for a mate’s rate. For old times’ sake.”
“Didn’t one of yours just float for three point eight billion?” Some digital games company bewitching commuters with matching lines of gems.
“Flattered you’ve been following. Three point nine but who’s counting. If you need help, I’m here, any time, it’s yours.”
This suave jousting. How well he’d adapted to the world. How well I had in the end. Perhaps I was being awful to him. Perhaps he actually wanted the book for real. And I suddenly felt sorry for him, this cavalcade of ticks wonking into town.
“I don’t want money. You can have it,” I said.
“Nim. I knew…”
His face changed, he looked genuinely grateful.
“But it’s not here,” I said. “I’ll have to get it. Give me an address, I’ll post it. Now go.”
“So many thanks, you can’t know, but things are actually super-urgent. Tell me where and I’ll go get it myself, or we can go together.”
“It’s midnight. I’ve got work tomorrow. Don’t push it.”
“I really have to insist. It’s… an event I’m planning. Tomorrow. The book… figures. Everything’s… booked. People are… flying in.”
This entitled loon, what kind of ‘event’? Some new Scritch game for his engagement party? Clues in the woods from the book like the old days? Symbols, rituals: always his method. What a freak but I already knew that.
“’People’ might have to wait. You should’ve factoring in a bit more leeway.” The nerve: turning up in the middle of the night for the book on the off-chance. “I might have been out. I might have sold it, burnt it, ripped it to shreds.”
“As usual: correct. But since I’ve planned no leeway and have always relied on you to get me out of everything, I’m begging. I’m down on my knees.
“Except you’re not.”
“If that’s what it takes.”
He got off the sofa, came over and knelt in front of me. Meaningless but strangely satisfying. He really did want that book for some reason.
“Get up,” I said after a while. “Whatever you’re up to I can’t get it right now. Maybe tomorrow. It’s with Flora. It’s hard to contact her.”
“Flora. How’s she doing? You didn’t burn it, did you? Why’s it with Flora?”
Lots of our stuff was with Flora. I couldn’t quite bring myself to burn it.
“Where is she?”
“Wales. I’ll get her to send it. I can’t promise by tomorrow but I’ll do my best. And after that Chris? Never contact me again. Never think of me. Any other skeezy begs, get them in now, cos if you come here again I won’t know you, I won’t answer the door to you.”
“You’re wonderful but can’t you just call her right now, see if I can come over? Wake her up, explain it’s an emergency? Or just give me her address?”
No I couldn’t. It was midnight and even if I’d wanted to I couldn’t contact her. She didn’t have a computer or a phone.
“Oh doesn’t she?” he said, and started pacing the room again, walking up and down in front of my bookshelves, scanning for the book, I now supposed. “She has a landline though.”
“She doesn’t.” Flora didn’t have electricity or running water. “She lives off-grid in the Brechfa Forest.”
“Back to Scritchwood. So how d’you contact her?”
You wrote, or called the farm shop in the village two miles away and left a message asking her to call back from the phone box.
“What’s the village called?”
I said I couldn’t remember, would dig it out in the morning, get her to call back, tell her it was an emergency, money no object, he might send a private jet to Swansea if that was OK. The private jet was a joke but he nodded perfectly seriously.
“Or you could just give me her address.”
I shook my head. “If you turn up she won’t give you anything.”
“Why d’you think?”
“A good friend. Protective. You don’t hate me though do you?” almost batting his eyelashes at me.
“I’m off to bed now,” I said. “Leave me your contact details and go.” I’d email him the next day with an update, I said. Any more pestering and I’d get Flora to feed the book to the sheep.
He hemmed and hawed but that was it. He tried for my whole contact slew but settled for scrawling down his personal email. Then I escorted him downstairs and said goodbye at the front door.
“Nim,” he said there, flaring his nostrils, bending down to brush his lips against my hair.
We’re just animals, slaves to learnt reflex. Even then I had to bolster my innards against his scent. But he helped out: “You can’t know how grateful I am, or how much this reconnection means. I’ll wait to hear tomorrow and then from now on let’s be in touch from time to time, shall we? I’d like that: telling each other the important things, the big life moments. I’m not saying regular contact, my fiancée won’t like that…”
“I’ll email tomorrow. Good luck Christopher. Best wishes for your marriage and… event.”
But I pushed him out the door and closed it behind him. Then I stood on tiptoes and put my eye to the top keyhole and watched him. He stood facing the house for a while eyeing my flat, the ground floor, the basement flat. Then he came back to my door and put his own eye right up to the keyhole too so it went black. I froze and didn’t breathe.
Then he stood back, pulled up his hood, turned and seemed to walk away, up the curve of the road, to some driverless limo lurking there for him no doubt.
He didn’t look back.
Then I was sitting on the floor of the hall with my back to the door feeling the cold draught, hugging my legs. Was that always him underneath? Or was it the ice of the world?
Who cared. Good luck to him. Time for self-care. I should feel proud: I’d behaved with grace and compassion, and that’s all you can do. You can’t best such creatures—if you could you’d be as bad as them. And there was no point kicking myself for falling for it and putting up with it for so long once upon a time. I’d been young and dumb and desperate then, an easy mark, desperate for any crumbs of affection, thinking I deserved no better. Now I was older and over it. It was bound to feel weird for a while, seeing it up front again, but I’d be fine.
In fact I’d been finally set free. That’s what happens when your worst fears turn out true. It was galling but wonderful to have to fess to the possibility of a better Chris I’d nursed secretly inside me for so long. Now I knew for sure forever: he was vaporware.
I’d go upstairs, have a bath, go to bed. In the morning I’d sort my phone, call Flora’s farm shop, speak to her, email Chris, arrange a drop-off point, never see him again, forget about it, focus on my friends and work, feel my feelings, build my new wondrous.
I sat on the doormat thinking about the broken house.
After a while of this it felt like the stairs were watching me and having a laugh. I stretched, was about to get up to go upstairs and have that bath when my doorbell rang: five rings, a pause, six more.