Since his last appearance on the blog, the bearded man has fitted himself into quite another story. Consequently there is a little more substance to what is going on around him, but these little conversations still fall into place and they retain a slightly ethereal feel, which I like. This snippet is quite a long one. I deleted a long introductory passage, but I couldn’t quite find a way to make this segment shorter. I hope you can find the time to read it…
…And that was the fourth time I met him. He was sitting cross-legged on the bonnet of a car that I did not recognise. It was parked at a slight angle, roughly adjacent to the curb, thirty metres from a very busy junction. Traffic backed up behind him, but strangely nobody took to their horn. They queued, silently and filtered by as the approaching traffic allowed. Many wound down their windows for a better look; some smiled, others waved. He seemed to be listening to music. His head was tipped back slightly, his eyes were closed and I thought I would be able to slip by un-noticed. I had very quickly grown accustomed to not thinking about my life; I was happy to just drift along on its current. I didn’t want my eyes opening, so I kept them down and hummed to the music in my head.
He was speaking to me. I could sense his voice rather than hear it, but I couldn’t ignore it. I removed just one headphone, as if only half-hearing him would allow me to retain some degree of disassociation, and looked towards him.
“Lorelei,” he said. “Great track. I heard you coming.”
“You can’t have done,” I said, as if it made any difference. I was certain I had expunged all Wishbone Ash from my ancient i-pod, although to be honest, it always had a mind of its own, but I had somehow been totally oblivious to what I was listening to until he spoke.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got my petrol can with you,” he said.
“You’ve run out of fuel?”
“I guess so. The little hand is pointing towards ‘E’.”
“Well, as you can see, I don’t happen to have your can with me now…” I was aware that I was sounding like a precocious child. Mentally I slapped my own face and reminded myself not to be such an arse. It didn’t usually work, but it was worth a try. “You’re right outside a petrol station,” I said. “We can get some there. They’ll lend us a can I bet.” He jumped down from the bonnet and together we walked towards the petrol station kiosk. It was then that a thought struck me. “It is your car, I suppose…”
“What?” He looked at me as if reflecting on a question he had never been asked to consider before.
“The car,” I looked over my shoulder. “The car you were sitting on. Over there. You said you had run out of petrol. It is yours I presume, the car?”
“Of course.” He looked hurt. I relaxed. “Well…” I tensed again. “In as much as anything can be said to truly belong to anyone.”
I turned to look directly at him. “Do you actually own it?” I said. “Is it yours?”
“Yes,” he said. “Almost certainly.”
“To all intents and purposes.”
“Look, before we go in there – it is surrounded by CCTV cameras by the way – and ask to borrow a petrol can in order to buy some petrol and put it into that car, I need to know that it is yours to drive.”
“Why would I buy petrol for a car that isn’t mine?”
“Is it yours?”
I started to walk away.
“But it’s mine to drive. I have all the paperwork, insurance, all that kind of thing. Would you like to see it?”
“Is it yours?”
He stroked his beard with his hand, ruffled his hair a little, pulled on a twisted cuff. “If I say yes?”
“I would ask to see the papers.”
“Ah, I have those.”
I turned to walk back towards the car.
“But I don’t have them with me.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Is this some kind of set-up? Am I going to be arrested as an accessory? Is the car full of drugs or something? Just tell me whether it’s yours to drive… legally.”
“Legally it is mine to drive. I have a licence, I have paperwork, I have insurance, I have keys.” He showed me the keys. “I have run out of petrol – you know what that’s like – but I don’t have a friend with a petrol can.”
Shamefaced I pushed open the kiosk door and he followed me through.
“…And I don’t have any money…”
It didn’t actually matter. The tooth-picking, spot-squeezing little shit behind the counter wouldn’t lend us a petrol can and he didn’t have one he could sell us. “The car’s just there,” he said. “Why don’t you just push it in?”
The bearded man smiled at me and without a word we left the kiosk. Back at the car he climbed into the driver’s seat and I was relieved to see that the key fitted the ignition. “Will you be ok to push?” he asked. I nodded and pushed. After a few yards I had gained enough momentum to trundle the car up the slight slope and onto the forecourt, from where it coasted down to a pump. He jumped from the car and I felt that little prickle of doubt again as he searched for the petrol cap.
“The other side,” I said.
“Of course.” He shook his head. “Never can get used to that. How much should I put in?”
“Fill it up,” I said. “I still owe you.”
The youth in the kiosk did not look up from his paper. “What pump?” he said.
I looked through the kiosk window. There was only one car on the forecourt. The driver had holstered the pump and was climbing back into the driver’s seat. “Three,” I said.
“Ten pounds,” he said.
“Ten pounds? Are you sure?”
“Pump three?” he asked with exaggerated patience, as if he was speaking to a child. I nodded. “Ten pounds,” he said.
I gave him a ten pound note and went out to the car. The passenger side door was already open for me. I climbed in and we pulled away.
“You hadn’t run out of fuel had you?”
“Apparently not,” he said. “Gauge must be faulty or something.” He flicked it with his finger and it twisted round to ‘F’. “There,” he said. “I’ll have to get that looked at.”
“But the car wouldn’t have stopped just because the petrol gauge said empty,” I said. “I mean, if there was still petrol in the tank, it would have still been going, so why did you stop? Why were you sitting there?”
“I was waiting for you.”
“But you didn’t know I was coming. You couldn’t know I was coming… How did you know I was coming?”
“‘Lorelei’,” he said.
“You couldn’t have heard that.”
“I had it on the car stereo. It made me think about you.” He pressed a button and the song filled the car.
“But you said you were waiting for me. Why there?”
“If I’d waited somewhere else,” he said with infinite patience, “You wouldn’t have been there. Besides, you were looking for me.”
“No, I wasn’t… well, I was… for a while… but then I wasn’t. I was going to return your petrol can, but I never seemed to see you. To tell the truth, things have been a little strange. I threw it in the shed…”
“Oh well,” he said. “Never mind. There’s always time. Sometime we’ll all be together, same place, same time; you me and the petrol can.”
I suddenly felt very sorry for myself. “Things are just… difficult sometimes,” I said.
“Things get better,” he said. “Mostly.”
“Some things are just destined to be broken,” I said.
“Can’t always mend the things we’ve broken,” he said. “But we can learn to live without them and in the end we learn to live with the knowledge that we at least had them in the first place. Sometimes you just move on. Where you heading?” he asked.
I wondered if it was some deep, philosophical enquiry.
“Just wondered where you wanted me to drop you off.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I was going to work.”
The car stopped. I didn’t have to look to know where I was.
“How lucky was that?” he said.
“But how did you know that’s where I was going? How did you even know where I work?”
He shook his head as if bemused. “I don’t.” He said. “How lucky was that?”
I stepped out and he started to pull away at once. I thought of all the things I wanted to ask him: every single one forgotten. Oh well, they could wait, I suppose. Until the next time. Except…
“What’s your name,” I shouted through the open, departing window. “I don’t know your name?”
“You do,” he said as he slipped away into the traffic wafting ‘Lorelei’ behind him…
You shone out of the darkness
The light in your eyes.
I could not help myself
I did not want to try.
(‘Lorelei’ – Wishbone Ash – Written by Leiber & Stoller)
There are three previous ‘Conversations’:
Part One is here
Part Two is here
Part three is here
Part five is here: A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 5) A Pre-Christmas Exchange