James Meredith

‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’

James Meredith

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One.


The moon's glow bleeds through the curtains, cutting a slash of silver across the bed. Caroline lies staring into the darkness above, trying to fight the feeling of emptiness inside. She presses her weight down into the mattress to prevent her body from rising, lifting from the bed and floating up into the night.

Geordie lies sleeping beside her. She listens to his breathing, hangs on to his reality. Beneath the heavy winter quilt, his back is turned to her. She moves in close, fits her body to his. Her arm reaches over him and her hand touches his, joined as if in silent prayer.

“Don’t,” he says, loud and alert, as if he’s been awake all along.

“I only want to hold you,” she tells him.

He moves away, the sheets twisting under him. Caroline stays where she is, pressing her weight down into the mattress again. She closes her eyes and wishes away the distance between them. It’s been four weeks now.

Two.


Geordie unzips his sports bag, pulls out the contents and dumps them onto the bed. He’s forgotten to wash his football kit again. He lifts his Manchester United top and sniffs it gingerly. It smells of damp and stale sweat. He sets it aside. He does this with each item in turn; socks, shorts, underwear. All but the underwear he returns to the bag. Throwing the pants on the floor he lifts a fresh pair from the chest of drawers and checks the clock beside the bed: three forty eight. He has to leave the house by half past four.

The five-a-side football match is the highlight of Geordie’s week these days. That precious hour from five to six on a Thursday evening is the only time when he forgets everything that’s happened in the past month. He doesn’t think about Caroline at all. He’s entirely in the present. He is playing the game.

She’d woken him early that morning, getting dressed to go to work. Geordie had pretended to sleep on, though he could feel her watching him. After she left he stayed in bed until after twelve. Geordie’s weekdays have been like this for almost two months, ever since he was made redundant. He lies in bed as late as possible and then potters around the house. His redundancy money would cover his half of the rent for a while so he didn’t feel as if he had to rush out and find another job. He enjoyed lying in, took time to catch up on his reading, went out each day to shop for groceries and made sure that Caroline had a good meal to come home to each night except Thursdays. But that was before, now things were different.

Three.


Caroline stares at the small digital clock on her computer screen toolbar and watches it move from four forty eight to four forty nine. She has no desire to go home. She can’t remember how long it has been since she walked into the house feeling anything but dread. It’s the waiting that hurts her the most. Waiting to see what Geordie will do.

He’d told her that he had to think things through. He’d told her that he didn’t know what he thought of her anymore, whether he could still love her after what she’d done. But it’s been a month now, a month of barely speaking except to ask or answer the most basic of questions: What do you want for dinner? What do you want to watch on TV tonight? It feels as if she’s been holding her breath for a month. She’s afraid to say anything that will upset him or help him decide that he doesn’t want to be with her anymore.

If only she could scream at him: I’m hurting too! She feels like falling to her knees and begging him to make up his mind, one way or another, before she loses hers.

At five o’clock, Caroline shuts down her computer and gathers up her things. She says goodnight to the girls in the office.

Outside on Great Victoria Street, a light drizzle begins to fall. Caroline unfurls an umbrella and waits at the curb for the lights to change. On the pavement opposite, a young woman squats beside her son as she struggles to button up his coat. She finally manages to fasten the top button and fix his hood. The boy, no more than four years old, pulls the hood down again. His chubby cheeks are bright red with cold. The boy’s mother stands and takes his hand in hers, ready to cross the road. The green man flashes and Caroline and the mother and child pass each other as they cross the road. Neither of them notice the tears streaming down Caroline’s face.

Four.


Geordie turns onto the Shankill and begins the walk up Peter’s Hill. UDA flags hang wet and limp from painted lampposts. His head down against the stinging rain he almost collides with a girl wheeling a baby in a buggy coming in the opposite direction. “Fucksake watch where you’re going,” she spits as she swerves around him. She can’t be more than fourteen, Geordie thinks. Everywhere you look these days there are girls wheeling babies. It’s one of the few things people do well in this place: get pregnant or get someone pregnant.

Picking up his pace as the rain falls harder, Geordie passes a mural of the crucifixion at the corner of Townsend Street, the one that promises NEW LIFE in bold, bright colours. Checking his watch, he sees that it’s five to five so he runs the short distance remaining to the Leisure Centre.
Out on the court, two men, John and Cameron, stand close together deciding on the teams. Geordie looks around at the others: most in their mid-thirties like him, a few younger. The men his age are either wearing Manchester United or Liverpool tops. Strange how the team you support can give away your age, Geordie thinks. When he was young, most of the ones he ran around with supported Liverpool, at the time when they seemed to win the league every year and had won the European Cup a couple of times. He himself never had any choice in the matter, his dad made sure of that. There exists a photograph of Geordie in his pram, a Manchester United rosette pinned to his bib so big it almost obscures his face, taken the day of the European Cup Final against Benfica. He is barely a month old.

Geordie has gained so much more from United than being named after Geordie Best. Towards the end, when his dad lay wasting away in the hospital, and Geordie found it impossible to say to him what he really wanted to say, they were able to talk about how United were doing. Sometimes, if his dad was feeling strong enough, they would listen to a match together on the portable radio Geordie brought to the hospital. His dad died just after Christmas, four months before United finally won the league championship for the first time in twenty-six years.

Half an hour into the match Geordie decides that if his team is going to get anything from the game then they’ve got to stop John, who seems to score every time he shoots. Cameron, who’s playing in goal for Geordie’s team, can’t seem to get anywhere near the ball. Geordie moves in close to John, marking him, keeping not more than a yard between them. Two players scrap for the ball and it breaks loose. John moves onto it. Geordie is two yards away. As John pulls back his foot to shoot Geordie struggles to make the block. John’s foot connects with the ball just as Geordie, his left leg overstretched, blocks it. Geordie feels a searing, twisting pain in his knee and falls to the floor with a cry.

Five.


Caroline sits at the kitchen table, her hands cradling a cup of tea. The oven has been heated to the right temperature and a frozen pizza is ready to be put in as soon as Geordie gets home. She checks her watch again: five past seven. He’s late. He usually makes it in by a quarter to at the latest. Perhaps he missed his bus, she thinks. She walks into the living room, snaps down the Venetian blind, and peeks out into the street. No sign. It’s still raining. The silence of the house envelops her. Caroline turns to the stereo and flips through a pile of CDs lying scattered on the floor beside it. She selects a disc and puts it on, before returning to the kitchen and putting the kettle back on as ‘Into Your Arms’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds begins to play.

Geordie had put this song on a compilation tape he’d made for Caroline not long after they met. The tape was a collection of ballads. Songs by Nick Cave, Scott Walker, and a load of country singers whom she’d never heard of. She’d hated the tape at first, thought it was a strange gift to give someone, especially someone you were trying to woo. The tape made her feel depressed. But the more she listened to the songs, the more she got caught up in their narratives. They were all romantic songs in different ways. The underlying theme seemed to be the importance of love, whether it lasted or not. She’d played the tape to death until they’d moved in together, and then had somehow forgotten about it.

Caroline sits down in the living room listening to the music and drinking her tea. She checks her watch again. If he’s not home in fifteen minutes I’ll put the pizza in the oven, she thinks. She can’t wait much longer to eat. 

An hour later Caroline sits down at the table. She had waited fifteen minutes and then given him fifteen more. At eight o’clock she put the pizza in the oven. He should’ve been home by then. If he’d missed his bus, he’d have surely caught the next one. At the very latest he would’ve been home half an hour ago. He isn’t coming home, Caroline thinks. She has dreaded this moment; the moment when she realises it’s over, that he’s gone.

When Caroline told him what she had done, how as soon as she knew for sure she was pregnant she’d phoned her friend Paula in Glasgow and made arrangements to go visit, had planned everything in advance and made sure Geordie wouldn’t find out; when she told him that she had to go visit Paula because her friend was having a personal crisis; when she told him that when she arrived in Glasgow she’d managed to organise everything in a matter of hours, had withdrawn the money from her savings account and paid cash and by Saturday afternoon was lying in the recovery room feeling nothing but relief that it was over; when she told him that on the way back across to Belfast on the ferry she had decided that he had a right to know what she’d done and the reasons why she’d done it: his redundancy, her career, how it wasn’t the right time for them to have a child but there would be a right time in the future; when she told him all this he stood up, grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and left the house without saying a word. He came back drunk in the middle of the night, vomited in the bathroom and passed out on the floor with his arms wrapped round the toilet. The next morning he refused to discuss what she’d told him, he just said that he had to think about things and he would let her know when he’d made a decision.

That had been a month ago, and each time Caroline tried to get him to talk he had refused. He was punishing her, she knew that. He was punishing her for doing what she did without telling him, without letting him have a say in what they should do. He would’ve wanted to keep the baby. That’s why she hadn’t told him. He would’ve tried to convince her that they’d be alright, he’d get another job and she could go back to work after the baby was born. He would have talked her into having the child. She knew this and so did he.

Geordie is thirty-three and told Caroline not long after they met that he wanted to be a father by the time he was thirty-five. He wants to be young enough to bring the boy up right – it’s always a boy when he talks about it – young enough and fit enough to be able to play football with him, take him out to the park for practice.

Caroline is twenty-five. There is plenty of time to have children. She feels that she’s still living out her youth. Yes, she and Geordie have settled into a sort of domesticity, but there are still nights spent in the pub and weekend parties where they stay up drinking and smoking with their friends until the sun’s just coming up. They still have dreams and aspirations. They’re still in the midst of their lives.

Caroline stares at the untouched pizza, pushes the plate away from her and stands. She goes upstairs to their room andchecks to see if Geordie’s clothes are still in their drawers, his shirts still hanging in the wardrobe. She sits down on the bed. Would he pack his things and take them with him? Caroline doesn’t know. It would be just like him to walk away and leave everything behind. He loves his dramatic gestures. 

She goes back downstairs and uncorks a bottle of wine. She feels like getting drunk. She lifts a glass from the cupboard and goes back up to her room. She pours herself a glass and settles down on the bed she and Geordie have shared for almost a year. The sound of Nick Cave drifts up the stairs and into the room.


Six.


People sit bored and restless in the casualty ward as Geordie limps towards the reception desk with his sports bag in his hand. A nurse slides across the glass partition and asks Geordie what the problem is. She takes his personal details and tells him to take a seat, that there is a waiting time of just under an hour.

He sits down awkwardly at the end of a row of seats, trying to keep his left leg straight. The pain has receded to a dull, throbbing ache. He’d known as soon as he fell that he’d torn his ligaments. It had happened once before, years ago, when he was still a kid playing for Whiteabbey Wanderers. There was the same burning pain, the same dull tearing sound, the same looseness in his leg as he tried to stand; like his knee had a hinge that swung both ways. The first time, his dad had rushed him to casualty and waited as the doctor strapped his knee and gave him a crutch to walk with. That was the year they’d lost their junior title. With Geordie out injured for the last two months of the season, the team had lost their last six games.

At one time Geordie was convinced he could make it as a professional. Well, his dad had convinced him that he could. But after he got injured, he never really got back into it. It was the summer of the Hunger Strikes. He was thirteen years old, and he began to smoke and drink and go out with girls. When pre-season training started, he found he didn’t have the discipline to do what he had to do to keep fit. He still loved playing, but there were too many distractions for it to be as important anymore.

His dad was disappointed of course. He thought Geordie was good enough to get into one of the top youth teams, maybe get spotted by an English scout. When Geordie started slacking in games, his dad would roar and shout at him from the sidelines, frustrated and angry that Geordie wasn’t playing the way his dad thought he should be playing.

One day, his mum found a packet of cigarettes in his bedroom, and, when Geordie’s dad came home from work, she told him. Geordie was sitting in the living room watching Grange Hill when his dad walked into the room and punched him in the face. He grabbed Geordie and pulled him into the kitchen and forced him to eat the three remaining cigarettes in the packet, making sure he washed the foul tasting tobacco down with a glass of water. After this was done, and as Geordie leaned over the kitchen sink vomiting, his dad told him that he was a waster and would never amount to anything. After that day, he stopped coming to watch Geordie play and never asked him how the team had got on. That Christmas, Geordie quit the team.

The clock above the reception desk reads seven fifteen. Geordie has been waiting for nearly half an hour. No one else has been called. Caroline will be waiting for him at home, wondering why he’s late.

He shifts in his seat and carefully moves his leg, trying to shake free the pins and needles that have settled in his foot. He rubs his knee gently. It feels swollen and tender. Geordie wonders if he should give Caroline a call. No, let her worry, he thinks. Let her suffer for a change.

How could they even think about staying together now? How could he put his trust in her again? He loved her, more than he had ever really said, to her or to himself. The pain he was feeling proved that. He hadn’t left her because he couldn’t leave her. He just had to have this time to think. Of course, he’d thought about how she must have felt, how difficult it must have been for her. He’d thought about how lonely that trip across the Irish Sea must have been, how determined she must have been to go all that way knowing that there was nothing at the end of her journey except emptiness and loss.

That’s why he should’ve been told. He should’ve been there to support her, to hold her, to tell her it was alright. But how could he say these things to Caroline when he was still saying them to himself, still trying to convince himself that the next time they quarrelled he wouldn’t use what had happened as a weapon against her like a knife?

It’s a quarter past eight before the nurse calls Geordie. He hobbles along the corridor to the cubicle and sits down on the moulded plastic chair. The nurse tells him to remove his trousers and leaves him alone with the curtains pulled. Five minutes later, a doctor comes to see him. She examines his knee and tells him she thinks it is only strained, that a good tight strapping should be all he needs. He’s to keep off his feet for a few days until his knee begins to feel stronger. The doctor straps up his leg and writes out a prescription for painkillers, then leaves him to get dressed.

With his left knee strapped tight, Geordie has the rolling gait of someone with a prosthetic leg. He moves along the corridor to a bank of phones by the entrance hall. Stickers on the wall advertise the number of a local Taxi firm. As he fumbles in his trouser pocket for change the automatic doors open and a man rushes through carrying a crying boy in his arms. The child is wearing a Manchester United jersey. The man holds a bloodstained hanky to the little boy’s head. He talks to the child, reassuring him that he’s alright. “It’s OK son,” he says. “It’s only a wee cut. We’ll have you up and playing again tomorrow. Be brave now.” The boy makes an attempt to stifle his tears.

Geordie watches the father and son until they disappear around the bend of the corridor. He lifts the phone and drops a coin into the slot.

Seven.

Caroline lies fully clothed on the bed watching the play of shadows on the ceiling as cars hiss by on the street outside. The house is silent. The bottle of wine on the bedside table is empty. She is drifting into sleep. She gives herself up to the lightness inside and feels herself floating away, up into the night. Downstairs in the living room, the telephone begins to ring.


James Meredith


James Meredith’s stories & poems have been published in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the USA, including The Stinging Fly, Abridged, The Honest Ulsterman, The Incubator Journal, Lagan Press Poetry Originals, 34th Parallel, A Hundred Gourds, FourXFour Poetry Journal, Tellus & Black and Blue amongst others. 

A chapbook of haiku, senryu and tanka, a wine cup with base, was published by Pen Points Press in 2016. He is also widely published in translation in Romania. A collection of his poetry, Drawers of Sand, was published in 2014 alongside Romanian poet Laurian Lodoaba by Editura Timpul in a bilingual edition. burnt offering, a two poet collection with Romanian poet Paulina Popa, was published in 2016 by Emia Press. 

He is a past winner of the Brian Moore Short Story Award, and author of three short plays, Shadow & Light: a monologue (LunchBox Theatre), Don’t Get Me Wrong (part of ‘Arrivals’ from Terra Nova Productions), & Secrets (part of ‘Arrivals 2’ from Terra Nova Productions).  

[Photo by William Simpson]


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