The Cupboard to be Opened in the Next Life
Luke reflected that, if he were dark angel, as she had claimed, and had claimed many times – a soul mate, no less – if he were this angel, well he might just go to the top of a mountain and jump - just to see if he could fly.
Soul mate, or cell mate? He cared less.
Anyway, the court was in hot session, so Luke settled back to watch in some amusement, even though he was the one on trial. Occasionally blinking away ripples through watery, rasping, sand-dune eyes as some new piece of evidence was brought forth that he had scant recollection of.
At his age.
Had he really dressed in woman’s clothing and become sexually aroused as a teenager? No, surely the lyrics from a glam-rock tune he’d loved back then. Bowie probably. If Bowie had been present, he would be standing alongside him in dock in defence.
Even if this sordid cos-play had occurred at the age of 18, he felt no shame – whereas he was quite sure back then, he’d have felt mortally embarrassed at the sentence of being exposed before his peers.
Was that yet another tune?
Focus. Must focus.
Luke screwed up his ancient face, wishing he had a monocle like that fucking stupid ventriloquist’s puppet from decades ago. He tried to focus on the large viewscreen that dominated the court, where some more video footage was about to be rolled.
No, not rolled, that was film. What did video footage do? What was the verb?
Yes, yes. Of course. First there had been black and white TV. Then colour. Remote control. Those bulky square plastic tapes you shoved in the letterbox slot with a clunk, DVDs that sighed as they swished inwards, then finally…complete control. Innocence to experience, my friends, innocence to experience. Cameras everywhere…autotuned crowd control.
Until the plague came, of course.
A game changer.
The huge video screen in front of him, dominating the courtroom reminded Luke of the bridge of Starship Enterprise, the Captain Kirk one, from his boyhood days with its utopian ideals. Well, utopian apart from Janice Rand in her blood red skin-tight, busty tits-hugger and stocking top pink thigh panty miniskirt.
“He’s thinking impure thoughts again, M’lud”.
Bloody churchies. How did they know?
“No, I’m not,” grumbled Luke, apathetically, in his thin, reedy voice.
Members of the court – judge, jury, practitioners, the audience - swivelled heads to look at him accusingly because Luke was a name that belonged to a much younger man than this.
“More evidence, M’lud.”
The court turned back. Luke wondered if the Klingons would decloak in front of him, but instead, all he saw was a bar full of pissed people singing tunelessly. Scattered amongst the drinks and debris of consumed food were battered facemasks and Luke could just about see that there was a still semblance of social distancing. Ah, the early days of the plague, then.
Yes, definitely early days. How could he tell? Well, there were some of those masks that had been designer made by entrepreneurs hoping to cash in; seeing a money making opportunity. They were tossed off amongst the blue, 50 in a packet elastic strapped ones that had so stung his ears back then.
The fad for designer masks hadn’t lasted long. They were deemed tasteless after the vaccines had failed and the death toll had reached ten million plus. In fact, Luke, recalled, he’d heard that some of those creative individuals were first against the wall.
Now, look here. Yes, that could have been him. It was difficult to be sure, given the camera angle. But if it was him, why was he was sitting opposite a very busty, blonde haired lady of about his age? The lady’s face was twisted into a sneer. Was it Junie? No, surely not. Junie! How could he have forgotten her?
He’d had a thing for Junie. It was big boobs. Always the boobs with him.
Anyway, if it was Junie, and it might have been, she was offering him the loan of her designer mask.
“I need a pee,” could’ve been Luke was saying, “and I’ve lost my mask.”
“Well, borrow mine, then.”
Now, borrowing plague masks was against the rules of common sense as well as the establishment, but as hers looked to have been knocked up from a pair of pink, lacey panties, well it would have been ungentlemanly to refuse. Wouldn’t it?
Could’ve been Luke gladly accepted and scuttled off, urgently holding his package with his left fist like a little boy would. The camera followed him to the door, cut to the lobby, then a marbled passage leading to toilets and finally crash-zoomed into the urinals in order to catch the reveal - an unzipping in as tasteless a way as the director could have conceived.
It was torture porn of the most exploitative kind; Luke fervently wished could’ve been Luke didn’t snag his tackle in the zip. He had rarely worn underpants, in those days, preferring to go commando. as it were.
“Hey, that’s not right,” he grunted, outraged, “invasion of privacy. Those could be my privates.” Well, anything was possible. Luke strained his eyes, noticing most of those in the courtroom were doing the same.
Ignoring him, the official presenting the video evidence, cut the pictures and an audible groan of disappointment emanated from the auditorium. “What follows is too disturbing to see, M’lud, but I am happy to describe it to you.”
The judge was having difficulty keeping his eyes open because the trial had lasted a lifetime. “Proceed.”
“Well, M’lud, not to put too fine a point on it, the evidence shows that the accused may have…er…thoroughly cleaned his…ah…John Thomas…with the mask…after his visit to the…urinal…”
“John Thomas? Who’s he? Oh, for heaven’s sake, spit it out, Perkins,” snapped the Judge, jiggling his gavel and swiping it on the desk in an irritated manner.
“Well, M’lud, I imagine that is what the owner wishes she could have done after putting that very same mask back on later that evening.”
The Judge had heard enough and rose from his throne. “You filthy pervert, Mr Luke,” he growled, savagely.
“I was confused,” blustered Luke. He now recalled the incident and was having difficulty trying not to snigger.
“Confused?” roared the Judge, who now appeared to fill the entire courtroom in rage, “Confused? Pathetic!”
Luke couldn’t help it. His face convulsed. He began to shake with laughter, recalling the whole sorry afternoon and how he’d tried to keep a straight face then too, as he’d passed the damp pink sequined cloth back to Junie, being so pissed she didn’t notice. Oh, it had kept him entertained for many subsequent nights, recalling that one. “Sorry, M’Lud.”
“You will be,” said the Judge, grimly. “You know what this means.”
Luke’s community service began, appropriately, at a service.
Her funeral in fact and he, like many others from his old school, stood around her graveside and mourned, cowled and darkening.
Luke wondered if he should take some dirt and sprinkle it onto the coffin. He’s seen that in films, but never in real life. Sometimes, the director positioned the camera so it appeared to be looking up from the bottom of the grave at an oblong of sky and the dirt would scatter over the lens.
Surely, that would damage the camera? In any case, since none other of the spectators were doing so, he left the dirt be and tried to remember her. Recall some of the magic she had probably bought to others during her brief stop-over on Earth.
Of course she had cut out his heart, sawn off his limbs, bit through the umbilical that joined them. Soul mates. Cell mates. Why it was a good idea to do this befuddled him…it seemed like the height of stupidity and self-abnegation taken to an irrational degree. “She is not the boss of me,” he muttered.
But a wonderful day. If a sun could bless, without being either fallible, or indeed, in any way pathetic, it would have done so, Luke thought to himself. Roger the vicar said all of her delightful words – Rogerina, as she was known, nowadays, after the gender reassignment – and hell, why not?
Faustus, had he been there, feeling Mephistopheles hand on his shoulder, would simply have shrugged and it would have slipped off and fallen. All Angels fall because if anyone with just impediment or too much alcohol holds their piece then most will do that, anyway.
Many had fallen during the plague. They continue to do so but now there’s herd immunity, so that’s all right. Luke looked at the mourners and suddenly realised, with a shock, there were none of his colleagues there, none of his co-workers, his contemporaries from the school.
“Are they all dead? Am I the last?” he asked, but this elicited a scowl from the sombre gathered and Roger ignored him, continuing her speech about truncheons.
“For did our Lord not say that truncheons were perfectly acceptable when inserted into the bottom – or indeed any welcoming orifice? ‘Go forth unto others and insert a truncheon’ was indeed written and so shall it be.”
Luke hadn’t a clue what the old dame was wittering on about. He preferred their discussions about Shakespeare, to be honest, back in the days that she’d been his boss; a damned fine head of English, too.
He felt suddenly angry that nobody he knew had turned up, just young faces – possibly he had taught them. “Where’s her fucking wife?” he asked out loud and was glared at again.
No answer forthcoming, Luke closed his eyes and now he remembered so vividly that she was standing next to him and smiling that sultry smile. “I was abroad,” he said, “It was nap time. I wrote to you. Asked why you weren’t here. You told me, if you were, then I’d get no sleep, well I believed you. You sent a tiny ‘x’ which is by no means a kiss. It would register Mr Floppy on the Kisster Scale. No earthquakes there.”
She squeezed his hand. “Maybe in the next life, because I am betrothed.”
“Don’t do it. I should have said that. Don’t do it.”
“You were too far away. That path before us is long behind us now.” And she was gone.
“Come back,” called Luke. “I’m a dab hand with a truncheon.”
Roger passed him a cup of tea as they sat on her old, comfortable, dog chewed sofa that she’d had ever since that day he’d made gazpacho soup when Luke had first accepted the post of English teacher. “Now, Luke,” she chided, those old, warm eyes crinkling into a chuckle, “do you regret saying that?”
Luke smiled, shook his head and sipped his tea. “Roger,” he replied, “Did Romeo have a choice?”
“Well, there’s a thing,” she replied, “do any of us?”
Luke adjusted his hard hat and moved backwards from the clouds of dust and grit spewing forth like volcanic ash clouds. He was prepared to help, should he be called upon and had a clip board and pen grasped firmly in either hand as he watched the demolition proceed.
“Are they sparing the health centre?” he shouted loudly, above the crunch of metal into concrete, watching in awe as the teeth of the JCB bit into the building like an apple.
The health centre had been last to be built, some time after the main building; had been given an unpronounceable Cornish language name – but nobody really had a use for it after it had been constructed.
Appropriately, Prince Charles had opened it.
Smiling wryly, Luke remembered his senile and pompous father, a goat herder, telling him ‘there’d be snipers in the trees’, and his internet profile ‘would be thoroughly checked out by the secret service’ in case he had links to any Islamic terrorist cells.
So he’d wiped his history the night before the opening, to be on the safe side and deleted the pornography. Which had hurt.
He’d met the Prince, had pressed flesh – he’d been rather proud of that at the time – mumbled some words. But there had been some controversy at the time, too, when the Headteacher had decided he should meet some of the disadvantaged and needy ADHD children from the estate, as opposed to, say, those who had worked hard for five years and were on their way to the red brick universities. Parents had muttered unpleasant things along the lines of ‘in the next life, I’ll instruct mine to throw chairs across the classroom and swear at teachers.’
Maybe that had been the first push towards the cliff edge.
Luke hadn’t cared. He had no wish to meet anybody Royal, but as he was Head of English, he’d been asked to show the old man around his department and get kids to quote Kit Marlowe at him.
The Foreman cared less. “What’re you actually doing here?”
“Community service. Look, I’ve got my clipboard.”
“Call that a clipboard? Where’d you get it?”
Casting a look that bespoke ‘amateur’ and sighing heavily, the Foreman produced his own, like it was a dick measuring contest. “This, my friend, is a clipboard.”
With a quick glance, Luke compared both – just like the aforementioned contest – which, to be honest, he’d never participated in and wasn’t sure they existed outside of cliché. The only difference, as far as he could see, was that the foreman’s had a pen connected by a sort of yellow, curling plastic, not dissimilar to the old telephone receiver chords.
He shouted, above the cacophony. “Odd, Isn’t it?”
“That we used to put our fingers in.”
“Fingers in?” The Foreman looked suspicious. He hefted his bulky stomach over the tight belt that helped his trousers stay up and flexed the muscles in his crossed forearms, just slightly. “Fingers in what? Here, are you looking at my cock?”
“Hell, no,” replied Luke, with an unwanted American twang, like an elderly John Wayne, “I’ve never even been in a dick measuring contest. I was referring to the way we used to dial people up, back in the day, and…”
“Why don’t you go to the site office, mate?” snapped the Foreman. He looked back at his demolition crew, gesturing in the direction of the health centre.
Sighing, Luke picked his way across acres of rubble towards the portacabin. He noticed that the English department and its neighbour, French had not yet been touched and was tempted.
It had been years since they’d kicked him out with a sweetener of 20 thousand pounds, because ‘otherwise there’ll be compulsory redundancies’ and burning against his thigh, something in his pocket that he’d never returned. He reckoned he’d earned the right to keep it.
In front of him, the portacabin and some hot, sweet tea. To his left, the crumbling English department.
Sinister, dexter, sinister, dexter.
Reaching into his pocket, he felt the smooth warm metal keys, unused until now, and he bit his lip. Only thing to do, sometimes, Luke reflected, pulling them out, holding them up to the light, feeling his eyes water slightly. Three keys: The office, the classrooms, the cupboard.
How could it have been so long? And now they were pulling the wretched place down with vague promises of a tram stop or even a Stadium for Cornwall.
“Stadium for Cornwall,” spat Luke, surprised that the words had actually issued forth. He looked up at heaven and mentally shook his fist at stars disguised by daylight – but they were there, oh yes. “This was a good place. A good place.”
Would the keys even work?
Well, the entrance was no problem; Luke raised his foot without compunction and smacked it against the glass which obligingly shattered. Caring less, he brushed shards from his overalls and entered.
Inside, it was dark. No electricity. Luke’s eyes gradually adjusted and before him, that corridor he had known so well for some 25 years. On the right, Room 7 – to the left, the sports hall and just a little way forwards, his old office.
It had been Roger’s, then it had been his.
They’d smoked fags in there, back in the days it had been allowed.
Luke pushed the key in, but was disappointed when the door opened anyway, without effort.
The interior was pretty pokey and there was just enough room for a fitted desk, under one window looking out onto an enclosed courtyard where, back in the good days, the teachers would throw boozy barbecues, and students would look in jealous awe. On the right of the office, his old filing cabinet and – yes – the yellow sticker was still there ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers’.
Less welcome were heaps of old papers shoved in by caretakers, forming huge, fetid heaps: it was clear the room hadn’t been an office for some time.
The old phone squatted on the desk – a dial up version – so, sitting on a pile of crap, Luke picked it up, put the handpiece to his ear and jiggled the two black nubbins a few times. Nothing.
Then he took the handpiece and did something slightly strange, he held it to his nose and took a few deep sniffs. His face cracked into a smile. “Musk”.
And she was there, behind him, pushing soft bits of her body against his shoulders, whispering into his ear, so softly the hairs stood up on the nape of his neck. He shivered, deliciously, blood rushing to his groin. “I used to spray that if I visited,” she grinned, full of old, old wicked life, her vivacious sparkle reflected in the window. “I knew, one day, you would link the perfume to me. Every time you used that phone, you’d think of having me.”
“I know,” laughed Luke, “and I did, didn’t I?”
“Oh yes.” She took his hand. “Come on.”
They walked up the corridor, turned sharp right and with another few steps were outside the classroom.
“If I’m naughty, will you give me detention?”
“You’ll have to stay behind after school.”
Luke unlocked the grimy wooden door and pushed it open. “Dusty,” he coughed, his old eyes watering a little. “Been empty for years. It was so full of life, once. Noisy youngsters screaming, shouting, baying for attention…it was hard.”
“You had them in the palm of your hand. You were a great teacher. They all remember you.”
But Luke wanted to cry. He felt his ancient shoulders starting to shake. “Do you? Do you remember me? It really hurt you know…I don’t think I ever…”
Rolling her eyes, she put her finger on his lips, to let him know she understood. “The cupboard,” she whispered. “Did you bring the key?”
Built into the walls of the classroom, it was large enough for two people to easily enter. Luke nodded and turned the metal in the lock. It turned smoothly and the doors swung open invitingly. Not knowing what to do, he gazed inside and gasped. “My posters! They’re still here, look! Wolves, Star Trek, Doctor Who…I never thought I’d see them again.”
She pushed him roughly back against some shelves that still held musty, ancient copies of Romeo and Juliet, and the urgency of her thrusting caused three or four to topple over, hitting them both lightly on the shoulders. She seized his face between her two palms, still pushing against him, her breasts crushing into his chest. Her lips a fraction before his, they now brushed lightly together.
“Oy, mate. I thought I told you to go to the site office. What the bloody hell are you doing in here? The whole bloody lot is about to come down.”
Confusedly, Luke stared at the Foreman. “You can’t,” he cried, “this was my classroom. It was a good place.”
“And it will be again once the Stadium for Cornwall arrives. Now beat it, you bloody nutter.” The Foreman, as an afterthought, picked something up and chucked it at him, somewhat violently. “Here. Souvenir.”
Luke caught the old copy of Romeo and Juliet and stuffed it into his pockets.
“And don’t forget your fucking clipboard.” The Foreman shook his head in disgust. “Poundland.”
Stars bounced off the ceiling of The Irish Harp bar. Thrown up by a rotating glitter ball, they teased, they tantalized, they undulated, drawing people onto the parquet flooring to throw shapes and dance.
Stars of all sizes thrown onto surface water of multi-coloured drinks, cast by roving lasers, they perambulated in synchronicity, born as small white dwarves, then cast upwards onto the ceiling as glowering red giants.
Stars reflected in the eyes of love’s philosophers, sitting opposites, sitting at right angles, sitting in closer quarters, mouthing nothings, thinking sultry and lured by fumes of drink and bass vibration of heart thumping tune.
As Luke paid his 200 Riyal and entered, he could be forgiven for thinking he’d somehow been transported to Ireland. But, no, this was Doha, sweating in between the Arabian Gulf and the desert, doing its best to keep the Ex-Pats entertained in typical, hospitable fashion.
Luke glanced around the bar, looking for Junie. “I’m sure I was told she was here,” he muttered to the Ghanaian doorman. He reached in his pocket for his phone but instead found a battered copy of Romeo and Juliet. “Where’s my phone? Don’t you need to see my plague tracing app?”
The doorman flashed white teeth in a grin. “No need, sir.” And then he passed Luke a jacket to put on, over his shirt. “You need tie?”
Luke shrugged and pushed his way through a soused multitude, somewhat blinded by the glitterball’s boundless, eternal star display. Two things struck him almost immediately. A Filipino band was playing a medley of Abba hits to the delight of the dancers, and nobody was wearing face masks. Which was strange because last time he’d checked, live music in bars had been banned.
You can dance, you can sing.
He had already decided not to wipe his tackle on any masks this time round, anyway…but still.
She was sat at a table closest to the dance floor. But, of course.
Junie, surrounded by friends, in one of her more revealing dresses. A gatherer by nature, she was always accompanied by a gang of mostly friendly people – with make up to make her look younger than the last time they’d met – he sidled up to give her a friendly shoulder squeeze, and get a better look but before he got even close was rebuffed by her quizzical tone. “Yes?”
“Nothing,” replied Luke, “just being friendly.”
“Well, we’ll have the same round again,” she replied, her face softening slightly and turning back to those gathered.
Luke stood by her chair, confused.
Seeing that he hadn’t moved, Junie turned back, bending forward to give him a good flash of deep cleavage, emphasising her words on point and gesticulating at the glasses on the table. “Same, same.”
Walking a short distance to the bar, where other waiters congregated, back-channelling orders to those behind it, he gestured, palms upwards, mouth downwards – that typically British ‘WTF’ non verbal expression. Almost immediately he was given a tray to shuttle back.
Luke’s old arms were none too used to carrying a tray with seven or eight drinks on it, to be sure. As he weaved his way back, he noticed a fairly young looking Muslim man, sitting with a fruit juice, scowling at him, beckoning him over.
Changing direction, Luke arrived and placed the drinks on his table, to take a breather. “Yes?”
The young man aimed a fluid torrent of unfriendly sounding Arabic at him.
“English,” said Luke, who had forgotten his babel fish, He wondered if he should try out the few Arabic words he had mastered: ‘hallas’, wallah’ and ‘chub’, but decided against it. Instead he smiled and nodded in sympathy. “Me help you?”
More Arabic, more threatening tone, but Luke discerned the word ‘Junie’ in amongst it and that was enough. He nodded curtly, retrieved the drinks and shambled across to the opposite side of the bar. It was a direct line of sight, he noted, between Junie and Arabic Bloke.
Coincidence? Luke doubted that very much indeed.
Plonking the drinks on the table, he leant forwards and yelled into her ear over the noise of the music, forgetting all about social distancing.
But then again, so were they all.
“Hey Junie, that bloke over there is calling out your name. I’d watch it, though, he seems a tad unfriendly.”
“How do you know my name?”
She adjusted her boobs imperceptibly by wriggling her shoulders until, presumably, the bra was doing what it must do, then rose up and walked back the way Luke had come.
Unsure why, Luke followed her.
It must have taken ages, for when he got there, Junie was in a different dress, modest, with definitely less cleavage - or maybe it was a trick of the light - given that all those stars continued dancing vigorous cotillions brent-new frae France, or something like that.
The two were engaged in a very deep and passionate conversation, so Luke stood just behind her, trying to make sense of what was transpiring. Difficult because the discourse was a stream of softly spoken Arabic followed by Junie nodding vigorously, smiling and saying ‘Yes’. A lot.
He felt her eyes on his neck, her breath on his cheek, her scent in his nostrils.
Luke muttered. “What do you think of Arabia?”
She squeezed his hand. “You always promised I could come one day.”
And Luke trembled, as he always did, his lip quivering, feeling the warmth and the way she was shaking. “I asked you to come, I wanted you to come.” Then he stopped and refocussed on Junie. “Hey,” he said, loudly, “I know what this is. I know what I have to do.”
Their spell broken, Junie looked up and frowned. As did her companion. “What are you doing?” she snapped, angrily. “We don’t need a drink.”
She was pulling at his hand; at his fingers, one by one, until the tendons cracked; she hissed, “No.”
“Why the bloody hell not? What’s got into you?” His back was aching from standing for so long, yet he pulled himself straight. “Bloody hell, I’m getting old.”
Junie stood up, as did her consort and she was glaring in his direction. ‘What-the-fuck?’ her eyes were glaring and Luke wondered the same. They’d been friends for years.
A friendship consisting of mood-swinging between vitriol about his poetry, marriage and general demeanour, which she deemed either gay or flirtatious or both, and a consensus that they probably could have done more with their time in Doha but for circumstances brutal.
Sometimes, on the good days, they had a right old laugh.
Not today, though. Today looked like it would be a bad one.
“I know what this is,” he repeated, uncertainly, “you must say no.”
Blinking at him angrily, Junie retorted, “I’m taking advice from waiters now?”
“Waiters? Look, you shouldn’t do it. Remember what happened the last time. Why are you doing this again? Are you star-crossed lovers?”
“You’re not young and sweet, only seventeen. It was twins and a fatwa the last time. Listen to me.”
When the punches came, they were hard, brutal and Luke found himself on the floor looking upwards, watching stars dancing across the ceiling.
Then she bent over him, her eyes like rainbows, gazing into his own. “What can you see?” she asked, her fingers stroking his brow.
“White dwarves and red giants,” he replied, before it went dark.
Roger pulled him up. “Why are you down there?” he said.
“Why are you up there?” replied Luke, remembering a tune that declared ‘you keep me running round and round, but that’s all right with me.’ Luke frowned. “Why are you in a cassock?”
“What else would I wear?”
“A dress, usually,” Luke replied.
“What have you heard?” mused Roger, quietly.
Luke passed him a few hymn books that had fallen from the pew. “You after these?”
“Ah, there they are. Let’s get ‘em out.”
“You are expecting many?”
“Men? No, I shouldn’t think so. Well, maybe the father will give her away, I suppose. Possibly. I’m not sure how liberal he is.”
Either the inside of the church was musty, or Roger hadn’t rinsed his robes in a while. Luke looked around and recognised St Clements, just above the Tresillian river. A small church sitting amongst a pleasant hamlet of a few dozen houses. Outside it was sunny and light was streaking in through the stain glass, casting stripes and stars across the nave and transepts. A gay old sight, to be sure.
Busying himself distributing hymnbooks onto those small ledges that are barely big enough, Roger whistled tunelessly and Luke watched him, bemused. Shrugging, he crouched behind a pew and pulled out a hassock, kneeling on it chuckling, remembering all those times, as a small boy, he had mucked about with mates, passing out bubblegum cards with football players on, or scenes from Captain Scarlet.
He glanced upwards at the gloomy, darkened roof and wondered if he should pray. Did it do any good? Did you really choose or was it all an ever-fixed mark?
Feeling depressed, Luke rose and shuffled along the row until he reached the end. Beside the altar and to the right of the pulpit, was a small dais upon which were placed some musical instruments. “Are these sound checked?” he called. No answer.
Luke hefted the bass guitar and switched the amp on, noticing, with delight that, despite his tinnitus, the pickup screeched feedback loudly enough to raise the hairs on his neck. He plucked the E string and it had a wonderfully deep timbre. Tuned perfectly, he noted with satisfaction and played octaves to check.
Running up and down G Major and then the relative minor in sixth, he remembered. Oh, how he remembered. His old fingers were barely supple enough, but he plucked a bassline from some tune or other…what was it? Ah. ‘Wishing on a Star’.
I’m wishing on a star, to follow where you are.
Replacing the bass back in its stand, Luke hooted in contempt at the tune; such romantic notions far behind him now – nature, the imagination, beauty…ah, all dead, all dead, all the dreams we had.
Of course we don’t believe they’re all dead and gone.
Roger, having finished his hymnal task, watched approvingly. “That’s the way, my boy,” he nodded, “decent of you to accept the office.”
“Accept the office?” quizzed Luke, some way behind the stream of events, front-crawling to try to catch up with the tidal surge, “you mean the one at school?”
“Like in Othello. I like not the office. But I will accept it.”
“Am I Iago now?”
Roger grinned and ruffled his hair. “Good days, eh, Luke?” He reached in his smock for a packet of cigarettes, flicked the cardboard top open and passed him one.
“Sure, it goes nicely with the incense.”
They puffed in quiet contemplation for a little while, enjoying the acrid smoke, until Roger checked his watch. He flicked what was left into the font, where it hissed in satisfaction, then strode to the door. On cue, the organist struck up a few chords, and he flung the church doors open. A handful of people stood outside, peering into the muddy interior.
Suddenly weakened, Luke steadied himself on the pew, for he recognised the couple immediately. No mistaking the voluptuous figure that presented itself uncertainly in the frame. The other woman was younger by some twenty years, slighter, dark of hue and with a face that time had carved into that of a sneering Doberman pinscher. Neither held a bouquet and the two or three well wishers were similarly unadorned. There were a trio of teenagers scattered behind in the wake.
But he hadn’t been here before, had he? Or had he?
As the procession wended its way with solemnity up the aisle to Wagner, Luke felt sick or dying at best. He looked about for somewhere to hide. Or at least throw up into.
“Don’t do it,” he screamed, as they reached Roger, but no words came out, as though he was speaking underwater, gobbing last chance mouthfuls of air. The church swam around him in slow motion. Hand touched hand. Maybe rings were passed, and in panic, once again, “Stop, you fool. Don’t do it, don’t do it.” But there was no sound.
From the pulpit, Roger beamed at him, his eyes twinkling like stars, unconcerned and nodding, as though it was his turn now.
Hs turn now to do what?
He heard the sharp, compressed brass hiss of hi-hat, and his fingers moved down the neck of the bass guitar.
Petulantly, he threw it to the floor. “I will not. You are not the boss of me. You cannot make me some plaything for your idle amusement.”
“Now, then, come on, Luke,” muttered Roger, all flapping hassock and hot dog collar, “you know the regular bassist lost his left hand in that tragic incident with the Flymo last week. And you did agree to play with the band.”
“Did I? Did I? But not for this, Roger, not for this. It’s a mockery. It is not as it should be. We are being made the fools here.”
The keyboard player, whom Luke did not recognise, poked him in the shoulder. “Come on mate. One song for the happy couple, then we’re down the pub.”
Defeated, Luke picked up his instrument. He could see she was looking at him amusedly from behind the crinoline veil, hand entwined in hers, knowing. So, so knowing.
The band struck up and Luke’s hands ran up and down the fret as though it was tied to a puppeteer’s hand. “Don’t marry her, fuck me,” he mouthed, unheard, in time to the tune, because he had no microphone.
The blow to the head came quite swiftly. Doberman had seized the bass and smashed it viciously into his forehead. “We asked,” she spewed, in a gale of bad breath, “for ‘Don’t Stop Believing’.”
And as he keeled to the floor, Luke was somewhat hurt to see Roger rubbing his chin and looking somewhat entranced by Doberman’s dress.
As mountains go, this one was reasonably high. No Everest to be sure, but certainly mid-table, with a chance of the play off places.
Luke wondered how long it had taken him to climb, because he was lying on his back when he came round and possibly faint from altitude sickness. His forehead and chin were throbbing and he gently touched an open cut with his forefinger which he then dabbed upon his tongue.
Would there be a scar?
He lay still for a minute and watched the stars above him, imagining the cosmos wheel around him in slow motion photography, forming concentric, parallel lines until, eventually they would reach their point of origin to become circles, gyring endlessly.
Circles or spirals? It was not his decision to make.
One thing was for sure, he was doing no more community service.
In no hurry to move from his recumbent position, Luke reached in his pocket for cigarettes and his frail hands shook as he lit one. It was a penultimate, he grumbled inwardly, and it was doubtful that he’s find a shop selling any more up here.
Still, anything was possible.
Maybe he was on a mountain top above Doha, he could trip gaily down the slopes to one of the million corner shops that sold illicit Turkish fags under the counter. Or maybe he was in his old classroom in Cornwall and he could cadge one from one of the teenage girls he taught, on the way to the bike sheds.
Except there were no mountains in Qatar and his classroom had been demolished.
Shadows shortened and the sun was rising in blessing, warming Luke’s bones as he flung the butt away. It prescribed a graceful, amber arc before it hit rocks he could now see, resolving themselves from shadows.
Then he sat up, pushing sharply downwards with his arms and blinking in confusion. In front of him was a desk, behind which sat an old swivel chair in fake leather. How the devil had it got up here?
Ignoring aching bones, Luke rose then shuffled his old body towards the chair. Upon reaching it, he sat down, pleased to note how comfortable it was and examined the familiar desk in front of him. Very plain, with a flat laminated top, chipped in one corner and two wide but shallow drawers underneath – the very copy of his old Cornish classroom desk, in fact.
No, that was a lie. It was his old desk.
Luke spoke up, for the first time. “That bloody foreman shifted it all the way up here to confound me. Well, I see their knavery. You didn’t catch me out, my friends – let it be put on record – you didn’t catch this one out. Smarter than the average bear, me.”
The sun continued to rise and as it did so, illuminated more and more decrepit classroom furniture, strewn about the mountain landscape like a petulant child’s discarded Lego set. Luke now doubted this had been the foreman’s work. “Must’ve been a team of them,” he grunted, “either that or a freak hurricane carried the whole lot up here like one of those fish rain storms I’ve read about.”
Luke pulled open the left drawer and shoved his hand to the back. Yes. another box of fags and nicotine gum, just where he’d left them. “That last day,” he thought, “I forgot to take them before I slipped away.”
He’d slipped away without saying goodbye, those years ago.
“Oh,” he groaned, remembering, “Oh. But you don’t know. You think you can come back. You don’t know it’s forever until you get to forever and you look back on forever.”
And it was true. Bitterly true. They’d never met again, not once, not properly.
And she was there. He could smell her behind him but didn’t dare look round. Once more, her breath so close to his neck. The warmth…he couldn’t help but feel the warmth, and now she reached her hands in front of his face and with a moist finger, caressed the open wound.
“Did it work out?” he asked, enjoying her touch more than he wanted to admit.
“You know it didn’t.”
“It was bloody painful.”
“What was? My marriage?”
“Being smacked across the head with my guitar.”
“You deserved it.”
“I probably did,” Luke admitted. Then casting caution to the winds, he turned and faced her. And she didn’t disappear. She was as real as the desk he was sitting behind. “You got old, my love. You’re old.”
“Did you make a difference?”
“I don’t think so.”
“We shared lots, though, sitting at this old desk, talking, loving, imagining how we’d put everything right. Put right what was wrong. It’s hard when you don’t have a choice.”
Luke’s voice was a choked rush of words: “I didn’t have a choice. I should have said goodbye. Together. We had to do it together. What went wrong? What happened? How did something so good become so bad, darling?”
“We stopped dreaming.”
And they were both quiet, just for a minute, looking at the sun catching crystal in rocks, all dancing stars, white dwarves and red giants - where far, far below, quenching streams wound into rivers, some like serpents, others like gold chains, released from a child's clenched fists, winding to and fro - meeting and parting and meeting, until all discharged into the distant tumbling ocean, sucked all up into gathering clouds to begin again.
“I can dream,” Luke blurted out, momentarily breaking the spell, “I can dream again.”
She kissed him with old lips, lined and pitted by those bitter years. “Have you got the key?”
“Of course.” Luke wanted to cry but took her hand instead and she helped him up. “You are not the boss of me,” he said to no one in particular.
“I have always been the boss of you,” she grinned as they walked towards the cupboard.
Luke opened the cupboard and was hardly surprised to find that this time it opened onto no interior at all. Beyond was a sheer drop and clear blue sky. “I’m going to say goodbye properly this time,” he said, taking her face between his palms and looking into her soft grey eyes. And they kissed deeply like it was the first and last time – because it was, and both were crying and the world was whirling in time to the cosmos.
“No goodbyes,” she said, firmly, “because we don’t believe in endings, Luke.”
“Will we do it better, next time?”
She shrugged, took his hand and jumped.