"I just don't want to be in this... anymore." Her head bowed, she rose from the chair. "I'm sorry." Her face hidden behind tangled, golden hair.
Was she crying when she said that? Joe thought numbly. He briefly considered asking "Why?" again, but instead he watched passively as she turned to leave. Like watching a scene from a movie: for a moment, she appeared to be moving in slow motion as she stepped into the small lobby, reaching for the front door.
Quick, Joe, do something!
"Wait!" He rushed across the room, slid between her and his flat's only exit, placing his hand on the handle, his foot against the bottom of the door. "Linda, I..."
He saw her in soft focus: Linda's head lifting a fraction, tilted slightly, hair parting to expose a single determined eye. Joe forced a smile, let his hand fall to his side and dragged his foot away from the door; then he tried to figure out what his lines should be for this scene. Linda did not move, breathing silently, her breasts and shoulders gently rising and falling under his borrowed, cream cotton shirt. She stared at him, and he could hear her heart beating inside his head. He slowly raised his arms to embrace her.
"Don't," she said.
He ignored her, knowing that she did not really want to leave. It was a threat, not a statement of action. This was her way of gaining his complete attention, a recent and now familiar game. And this was a part of the game, pretending to put up a fight. As Joe moved closer, Linda found herself backed against a wall. His hands were inches from her shoulders. She lashed out, brushing his arms away, then she flicked her hair, revealing her face and an emotion: hatred?
Joe raised his hands in surrender. Her game, her rules. "Someone else?" he said without proper thought and instantly regretted.
"What?" she spat.
"Is there someone else?" he said slowly, deliberately.
"No," she replied immediately. "Now let me get past." Linda chewed on her bottom lip and glared at him. Joe stared back. What was he supposed to do, to say? Her nostrils flared and her eyes turned into narrow slits. "Let me out or I'm going to scream," she hissed through clenched teeth.
Joe glanced away for a second. Linda's expression had not changed when he looked back. He paused, his mind racing, then he moved out of the lobby, back into the living-room. Linda opened the front door and then stepped outside. Cold air sneaked in, rapidly consuming the room's warmth. Joe shivered. "And don't follow me," her final words. She shut the door behind her. He watched through net curtains as she marched down the path, then out of view behind the next block of flats. Joe grabbed his jacket from its hook, and then he pulled the front door open. A startled sparrow took to flight. The ginger feline, that had been stalking the bird, looked across the flat's car-park at him accusingly.
"HA!" Joe shouted, slammed the door shut. He threw his jacket across the room, and then kicked the dining-chair that Linda had been sitting on, which fell over onto its side. He lifted a hand to his forehead, ran it back through his hair, caressed the tension in the back of his neck.
On top of the bookcase in front of him, next to an empty glass decanter, stood a greetings card. On the front of the card, one of the Forever Friends was smiling at him, its cartoon arms held out, asking for a teddy bear hug. He picked it up, and then slowly read the handwritten words inside.
Joe, I just can't wait to be alone with you. Everything will work out with the flat. And it's only the beginning! I love you always. Linda XXXXX
Joe carried the card through to the kitchen, where he dragged a frosted, half-empty bottle of vodka from the freezer. He returned to the living-room, righted the fallen chair, then sat down on it. He twisted the top from the bottle as he reread the card. Her last written message to him, it gave no indication. Joe placed the card face down on the table, taking a gulp of the freezing liquid, the vodka warmly flowed down his throat. Ticket to oblivion, he hoped.
Joe bumped and bruised his shoulder on the door-frame as he entered The Angel. Blake Southgate was standing in the hallway that leads through to the main bar area, wearing his famous red leather biker-jacket, smoking a Marlboro and pinning a poster to the notice-board.
"Hey Joe," he said.
"Alright Blake," Joe replied, stopping to look at the poster: ARKHAM ASYLUM written in big, black spidery letters. "Your band, yeah?" Joe was surprised by how slurred his speech sounded and by a sudden craving for a cigarette.
"We're playing down here Friday night," Blake told him, pointing at the time and date written in smaller, less chaotic lettering at the bottom of the poster. "And man, we're gonna be mungus. Won't cost nothing to get in, so make sure you're here and bring as many people as you can, and hopefully the landlord'll book us again. I gotta run," Blake said, moving towards the exit. "We're rehearsing tonight and I've still gotta put some more posters up around town."
"Okay," said Joe, a little overwhelmed by all this information.
"See you Friday!" Blake emphasised as he headed out into the bitter night air.
As Joe entered the main bar area, he was enticed by the layer of cigarette smoke hanging in the pub's warm, moist atmosphere. It led him straight over to the vending-machine. He fed some coins into the slot, claimed a packet of Benson and Hedges. Then he stepped up to the crowded bar.
"What'll it be?" the barman asked.
"A neat double vodka, please Pete," Joe said, making an effort to sound sober. "And a box of matches."
"No girlfriend tonight?" The barman took the note that Joe offered.
"Eh?" How did Pete know? Joe quickly looked around. A few people he recognised nodded at him, smiling. He nodded back, blankly. Did they all know? The word paranoid sprang to mind. Girlfriend? "No." No girlfriend. "Not tonight."
"Joe! What's up?" someone to his right asked.
"The opposite of down?" Joe suggested.
A girl standing beside Joe laughed. "Yeah," she agreed, picking up the drinks that had just been served to her. "Where'd you buy your brain, dickhead? I hope you kept the receipt," she said to the person sitting on the barstool at her other side.
That person was Graham, a regular in The Angel. "I see your woman a couple of hours ago," he told Joe, ignoring the girl who was now carrying the drinks over to her friends. "She was walking home, I think." Graham grinned. "I said Hi, but she blanked me." Graham frowned. "She looked really pissed off."
"Really?" Joe responded. "Cheers," he said to Pete when he returned with Joe's drink, change and matches. Joe sparked a match, lit one of the cigarettes.
"Yeah, er... I didn't know you smoke?" Graham sounded surprised.
"I don't," Joe informed him, then downed the double. "Pete, same again." He held his glass out to the busy barman.
"So, how comes your woman's not down here tonight?" Graham wanted to know.
"Maybe she found something better to do," Joe said, wishing that Graham would shut up, or go away, or both.
"You two having a bit of a relationship crisis?" Graham guessed.
"Get the fuck out of my face," Joe sternly told him, then said "Cheers" to Pete as he brought Joe's second double. Joe exchanged the correct money for the drink and glanced at Graham, who was now quietly looking in the opposite direction, then he took his drink and navigated his way through to the pool room.
"Here's Joe!" Duncan exclaimed when he caught sight of him. "Wow, when'd you turn into a tobacco fiend?"
"About sixty seconds ago," Joe retorted and totally failed to avoid bumping into someone lining up a shot at the pool-table. He saw a close-up of a drunken smile on a pretty female's face. "Ooops. Sorry."
"Nevermind," sighed the young woman, and she proceeded to pocket the cue-ball.
"Busy for a Monday night," Joe then heard someone say with his voice.
"Yeah, it was dead last Monday," Duncan's girlfriend said as Joe joined them at a small table in the corner of the room.
"Yeah?" Joe placed his glass down next to a near-full ashtray: a miniature graveyard of tombstone cigarette butts in a battlefield of ash. What was dead? Joe wondered as he flicked his cigarette, adding to the ash.
"Where's Linda tonight?" asked Becky, Duncan's girlfriend.
Why was everybody talking about Linda? Joe thought as he drank from his glass. And how much do I have to drink before my brain stops working? Memories of Linda invaded his mind: the smooth softness of her skin, the warmth of her body, scent of her shampoo, the gentle nasal sound she makes when she is sleeping... "That schizophrenic bitch, she dumped me a couple of hours ago." Just hate her, Joe thought. You won't care if you hate her. "I think she means it this time."
"Nah, you two always get back together, she'll ring you tomorrow like she usually does," Duncan sounded certain.
"Not this time. The way she looked at me..." Joe blinked back the tears he could feel forming in the corners of his eyes. "I don't understand her anymore. One minute she says she loves me... Christ, the other day she was even talking about what names we should call our kids. Then, she changes her mind and decides that she never wants to see me again." Struggling through a stream of negative thoughts, Joe wanted to travel back in time and right all the wrongs, then Linda would be in his arms now. But it was beginning to sink in: She doesn't want you anymore. There was too much to think about, too many conflicting emotions. He tried to focus. "I was even thinking about us getting engaged. I've been looking at rings. I was going to get a loan... She didn't know."
Somebody behind the bar turned up the volume on the jukebox as Alice In Chains were harmonising: "Was it something I said, held against me?"
"I care more about her than I do myself," Joe heard himself saying. He downed the last of the vodka; then he quickly stood up, nearly losing his balance. The room's walls seemed to have shifted, enlarging its dimensions. He looked over at the doorway that leads back through to the bar. It seemed a long way away.
From the speaker overhead: "Could she love me again, or will she hate me?"
"I've got to go," Joe thought he said.
The porch light automatically became alive once he set foot on Linda's drive. It seemed to be a seamless transition: from The Angel to here, no recollection of having walked the distance in between.
Her bedroom light was on. Joe spat out the mint he found himself chewing, then rang the doorbell.
"Is Linda in?" he asked when the door was open.
Her father firmly shut the door.
Joe stood on the doorstep for a moment, listening to the muted sounds of domestic life in the houses around him.
Linda's curtains twitched, then the lights went off in her bedroom as he walked away.
MOVIE ZONE: read the neon sign above a shop in darkness. Linda worked there. It was where they had first met, over two and a half years ago, just after Linda had finished her exams and left school. Joe turned away from the shop and McDonalds came into frame. Haven't I got an interview there tomorrow? he thought absently. And there was the wooden bench that he had sat on so often, waiting for Linda to finish work. The Bistro, where they had lunch sometimes. Goldsmiths, the jewellers; he had been in there this afternoon, looking at the trays of diamond rings...
"Got to get out of this place," Joe whispered to himself; then flinched when he heard footsteps approaching.
A couple walked past hand in hand. The male looked at Joe, and then quietly said something to his female companion. She laughed as they carried on up the precinct.
Joe drove slowly down Linda’s street. The car came to a halt in front of her neighbour's house. He wiped condensation from the windscreen with a gloved hand, and then stared up at her bedroom window. It was nearly midnight and her light was still on.
He had walked about in the dark for more than an hour after knocking for Linda earlier. He did not want to go home. She had helped to decorate the flat when he had first moved in, only a month ago. They had slept, ate, laughed, argued, made love there together. He could not go back and lie in the dark alone. But he was walking vaguely in that direction when he had seen the car, parked against the curb outside someone's home.
The car had been left there for him. There was no doubt about that. Its interior was illuminated, the driver's door was unlocked and slightly ajar, the keys were in the ignition. He had not been looking for it. It had called out to him: Here I am. Means of escape…
Linda's shadow was cast on her curtains for a moment; then her light was switched off. He thought the curtains moved and she briefly peered out at him, but he probably imagined it.
"Sleep tight," Joe said, then he drove off into the night.