I had never actually tried to seek him out before, he had always found me, and if I’m honest, I had no real idea of where to start. I wandered the streets for days, sat on buses, drank in pubs. I retrieved his petrol can from the back of the shed, but it held no clues: it was rusty and the last few drops of the petrol it had once housed had long-since absorbed into the softly rotting floor. I couldn’t remember the last time I had even seen a metal petrol can. ‘Only him,’ I thought. There would be a reason for it of course, some kind of message about strength and fragility. I would ask him – if ever I found him.
More than a year had passed since the last time we spoke and much had changed – and yet it was the same. I had made contact with my soon-to-be ex-wife and we had spoken, almost exclusively without rancour. Well, she at least, had spoken without rancour: I had been my usual petulant self, but against all odds we had managed to remain in one another’s company for more than an hour without once resorting to violence and name-calling. It had not physically changed anything: she was still well on the way towards becoming my very ‘ex’, but the absence of desire to kill after our encounter was exactly the kind of progress I thought that I should report.
Also, I now had friends – even if I wouldn’t want to be seen out with them in daylight. We went out together, or more precisely, we met up at the same place every Friday night in the bar of The Harrows for a few pints, a volcanically microwaved prehistoric meat pie and a quiz. We never won, but we always got through the evening without major ructions and, as loathe as I was to admit it, I looked forward to the occasion, even if the quiz master did insist on calling us ‘the sad bleeders in the corner’, when our actual name “Archimedes’ Crew”, was quite clearly written at the top of our answer sheet. More progress to report. My life had become, if not exactly good, then at least bearable at times. Never-the-less I knew that there were still pieces of the jigsaw missing and, instinctively, I felt that he had them.
So it became my habit whenever I had the opportunity to sit for a while, empty my brain (a frighteningly simple exercise) and then just see where my legs might take me. I did things. I did theatres, museums, football matches, bus trips, weekends away – all alone, all in the hope of being found, and as each day, week and month ticked away I became increasingly convinced that my final meeting with Lorelei was already in the past. The little diversions became a way of life – just something I did – but as they became more and more habitual, the feeling of emptiness and disaffection began, once more, to chip away at my soul…
…The rain, although not heavy, was as persistent as a text-message reminder from the dentist and more than a match for my cheap, EBay kagoule. I couldn’t tell you why I had chosen Newark to visit: it was easy to get to on the train and it had a castle and a river, but as the icy cold precipitation soaked through every one of my manifold, yet inadequate, layers of clothing forming a puddle in my crotch that, despite its location, still succeeded in being a good ten degrees colder than the surrounding temperature, I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I less wanted to be. I picked my way across the market place, along the glistening cobbles, sensing the slick, unsteady surface through the wafer-thin soles of my saturated Converse, towards the dim yellow light that beckoned me from the windows of the pub in the corner, when I became aware of a small crowd gathered around a figure on the floor. Instinctively I pushed my way in, feeling the burning imperative of the recently acquired St John’s First Aid badge in my pocket and found myself looking down on a familiar, bearded face. He looked up and beamed a greeting smile. “I knew it would be you,” he said. “Thank you everybody. I know this man. He has training. He’ll help me across to a seat in the café there. I’m sure I’ll be fine after a few minutes in a chair. I’m so very grateful for your help. Thank you.” And all I could do was wonder why on earth he wanted to recover in the café instead of the pub.
I helped him to his feet. “How?” I asked.
“I just slipped on the cobbles.”
“I mean,” I said, “how did you know it would be me?”
“Well I don’t know anybody else here,” he said.
“But how did you know that I’d be here?”
“I didn’t… Did I?” He looked confused. Painfully aware that the pub was just next door, I led him into the café and sat him at a vacant table. The waitress was with us almost at once. She was all concern and fret.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked. My companion assured her that he was. “Okay,” she said, finally content, “As long as you’re sure. I’ll get your tea. What would you like love?”
“Coffee please.” The waitress bustled away. “Do you come in here often?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
“So how did she know you wanted tea?”
“I always have tea. Now,” he said, “why did you want me?”
“I didn’t! Well, I did, but…”
He was looking around the room, breathing in his surroundings, reading the walls like he was in a museum. “It’s so important to be open to the new, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I cast my own narrowed eyes around the twee yellow chintz palace, “but ‘the new’ can be pretty boring as well, can’t it?”
“I suppose so. I always think about see-saws. You want excitement on one end, then you’ve got to put excited on the other. If you want to sit at the bottom end just staring up at nothing happening, then it’s best just to stare. If you’ve got nothing to contribute then you can bounce as hard as you like, you’re always going to end up on the ground with the business end wedged under your chin.”
“So you’re telling me that I can only get out of life what I can put into it, right?”
“Am I? Oh…”
The drinks arrived at the table and, having poured Lorelei’s tea – milk first, one sugar – the waitress fussed away to her romantic novel behind the till.
I sipped at my coffee, which smelled great but tasted like it was a virtual stranger to the coffee bean. “I don’t think I always try very hard.”
“I don’t think you have to try too hard,” he said. “Just try.”
We drank in silence. Somewhere unseen a cuckoo clock marked the hour and, instinctively, the waitress, Lorelei and I all looked at our watches.
“Well, I suppose I’d better get going,” said my companion, rising slowly to his feet. I noticed, for the first time the bruise on his head.
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“I think so,” he said. “But it wouldn’t hurt to check on me now and again, would it?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s easy enough. You can let me have my petrol can back some time.”
In case you want to catch up on the rest of this tale, the first Conversation with the Bearded Man is here.
The previous conversation to this (#5) can be found here.