This is a short story from my archives. It was published as part of the Crossing Borders project run by the British Council. The story is set in Dublin, where I was living at time and brings back some wonderful memories. Enjoy!
Varying Hues of Solitude
8:30 Thursday night: as usual the door opened and he appeared. Tonight’s slight variation was that he carried a little black umbrella that he shook gently, letting the water run onto the floor. He quickly glanced around and then slid into his usual seat where he blended into the shadows obscured in the near dark.
Namu saw him and smiled as sincerely as she could, gripped her tray and walked over to him, her façade impermeable. This stranger always tipped well – at least two euros for the three Smithwick’s shandies that he drank twice a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays, the nights when she was on duty.
After a month, she began to sense that he came to be with her. He seemed so benign, so harmless, that she didn’t worry too much about it. The barman said his name was Michael. That was the only information the barman had learned from him in the few brief conversations they’d had during his first visits.
8:30 Tuesday and Thursday nights: Michael would casually walk into Reilly’s Pub. He’d look around first, inhale the musty smell of polish and spilt alcohol and then walk to his usual seat as casually as he could. He’d pretend to be relaxed, his legs crossed, leaning back. He knew no one would be there in that seat: he had chosen quiet nights that were filled with regulars, of which he had become one. The barman had given up trying to engage him in banter and Michael had only his thoughts to keep him busy and occasional glimpses of Namu to keep him happy.
Michael thought about her hair. He liked it. She’d added an extension that gave her a sophisticated air. He noticed everything about her. She was short, slender and he knew that she always wore the same blue trainers and he saw the way her white blouse stretched across her breasts, the way she balanced her tray, spoke with rehearsed animation and stared at her feet when she had nothing to do.
He couldn’t understand why it was her who captured his attention. She was black, which should have counted against her. He wasn’t racist, he would remind himself, but another waitress was tall and blonde and more the kind of woman he was used to. The blonde spoke, laughed and joked like the kind of women her was accustomed to. Maybe he was fascinated with her foreignness or perhaps because she looked nothing like his ex-wife. Or maybe he’d been alone for just too long.
‘One Smithwick’s shandy?’ she asked and he nodded in reply. He’d pay using a five euro note and she would give him his change and briskly go on to the next table. The first drink would last him about half an hour. When there was a centimetre left in the bottom of his glass he’d give a slight wave as she went past and she would bring another one. The second would last an hour. They would repeat the transaction and the third drink would arrive. After an hour and a half he would stand and put on his coat, she’d come over smile and say good-night and begin to clean his table where the two euro coin would be waiting.
As he walked past the windows he would glance in to see if she was anywhere in sight. She would have forgotten about him until his next visit.
Walking home in the light drizzle of that night, he thought of her hair. ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ he asked himself. ‘All you needed to say was hello, your hair’s nice.’ He rehearsed it out loud to make sure he could still speak. He walked quicker and took deep breaths to calm himself. Yes, he had been alone for too long.
The bar would close like it did every night. The staff would clean up and sit around counting out their change and perhaps have a drink together. For Namu it was good money, even though she hated the work. After her fees and bills were paid there wasn’t much left of her allowance. Just for working two nights a week, she had extra money to shop and entertain herself, the little things that made Dublin city feel a little more like a home. The difference was that back in Zambia after shopping she would’ve sat with her friends in a café and laughed and talked for hours in the warm evening. In Dublin, she’d close the door to the room the college had arranged for her, a house with three other women, from far-flung countries to which she had never been. It was nice to talk to them but it wasn’t the same, there was no bond between them. When she’d get back from work they’d all be in bed, working on essays or quietly reading a book. Namu would go straight to her room and, wearing earphones, would listen to music that reminded her of home.
Michael would arrive home in the evening, even though his wife’s belongings were gone, filling the new apartment that she now shared with someone else, he could still feel her presence. She was still there in the colour of the walls, in the way his socks and underwear were kept in separate drawers, in hardcover books standing on different shelves from the paperbacks and in the way his windows had blinds not curtains. She was there in the tastes he had acquired while they were together in the habits he had learned. In this way he knew she would never really leave him but also he knew the reason he clung so hard to the little things was the absence of a new life to replace the old.
His routine was set; his rhythms unbroken, even his trips to the pub that were meant to be a break had turned into another beat. Even when he sat down to ponder this anomaly in his life it seemed so usual, so mundane, another song in the same tempo, the lyrics too familiar. In the near darkness he played music that reminded him of things he needed to forget. When briefly an image of Namu appeared he said to himself, ‘We would have nothing in common’.
So he would spend his evening in varying hues of solitude and loneliness, neither one nor the other. Not unhappy enough to be lonely, not content enough for solitude. He’d gaze staring at the lenses perched on his nose not seeing what lay beyond. He often thought about lost emotions, about passion, about exhilaration, about fear that his lover would leave him. These emotions were now obscured by walls so high with foundations so deep that it felt as if they had been felt by someone else.
It was a beautiful winter’s Saturday morning. The air was crisp, the sky blue with an occasional cloud drifting lazily to a better place to be. He couldn’t believe how mild this December day was as he walked through the Grafton Street crowds, his single bag swaying at his side. Today he had changed his routine again. Instead of the mall nearest his house he’d come to see the city centre which was preparing itself for Christmas. The lights were up already and little choirs sang at the side of the road. Maybe he would be really adventurous and take a walk through St Stephen’s Green and later go to the cinema. In the meantime morning coffee beckoned. He took a side road looking for somewhere with personality, not too trendy, to while away an hour over a cup and read the morning paper. He walked into a little place painted in Mediterranean colours that invited in the unexpected sunshine.
He stopped. Apprehension turned into a painful churning in the pit of his stomach. Don’t let her see you, he told himself, get out of here!
Finally, camouflaged by the crowds on the pavement he dared to look through the window at her sitting in a corner seat. Safely hidden he started to breathe again.
Why? He thought as he settled into a chair at the modish, chrome café across the road. Was it his windblown hair, creased trousers and ill-fitting shirt – feelings of inadequacy? Or was it knowing that she exists in reality, that she lives and breathes in the daytime, that she walks on solid ground like everyone else? How did he find himself cowering like a schoolboy afraid to speak to a woman? He was used to her in the pub, used to watching her move among the customers, wearing blue trainers. Perhaps he’d wait and see what she did during the day.
For a moment Namu thought she saw Michael. She was in a bookshop scouring the shelves of second-hand books, stopping when she found one that brought recollections of home. He looked just like thousands of Irish men, he could pay more attention to his clothes. He must be lonely, she had concluded, maybe things aren’t going well at home. But it was no more pathetic than her Saturday mornings spent in cafés and coffee shops, on park benches, on her own. She had mastered the art of extending the lifespan of a cup of tea for as long as possible so that she didn’t have to drink pots and pots of it in a morning. How did the staff of all those shops see her? Could they see her drifting instead of swimming like she should?
There were plenty of others like her and they didn’t need to be far away from home. They filled the cafés and bookshops, their heads buried in novels with pretentious titles. For every paragraph read, a glance around the room. Has anyone noticed me? Isn’t my intelligence and sophistication evident? Look at me please!
‘I just stay in the house,’ said Indrani, one of her house-mates, when they talked about how it felt being so far from home.
‘But how can you, there is so much to see and do?’ Namu replied.
‘It’s not so amazing when you have to do it on your own.’
Doing things together was not an option, their interests were completely opposed. That and Indrani’s boyfriend constantly called from India and everything would have to cease while the two of them talked. Namu could feel their intimacy in the way Indrani spoke. When she’d hang up, the longing in her eyes would turn to tears and homesickness and she’d be inconsolable. Namu needed someone to call her; she felt abandoned. All the friends she’d left behind seemed to have moved on. Her e-mail inbox was always empty unless she prompted someone to respond. She called her family sometimes but they all seemed to have so much to do, they were so busy living without her. In voices garbled over the telephone they discussed trivia that left her longing for more.
That was him, she thought as she stood in a bus queue. He was engrossed in a magazine in the shop across the road. Should she go and talk to him? And say what? Hi! Remember me from the pub? He probably wouldn’t recognise me in the daylight.
The bus rolled in to the stop, cutting her off from him, the opportunity lost.
8:30 Tuesday night, Michael walked into the pub. Saturday was an exercise in stupidity, he reminded himself, he now knew what she was like away from this place. He knew the way she walked down a street, how she crossed her legs when she sat, and rubbed the back of her neck as she read. He wasn’t supposed to know this.
‘Hi! One Smithwick’s shandy?’ Namu smiled as usual. Did he see me on Saturday? Will he say anything?
‘Yes please.’ Don’t say anything about the other day. It will look as if I’m stalking her.
The night passed as usual to invisible watcher. Michael decided the tension he felt between them was his imagination. He stood up after three drinks ready to go. ‘Order another drink, say something!’ he told himself as he picked up his jacket.
‘Tell him something, anything.’ Namu placed his empty glass on her tray.
‘Don’t go.’ He tried again as he gripped the handle of the door.
‘Don’t go.’ Namu thought.
‘Idiot!’ he said as he left.
‘Stupid,’ she said as he left.