The Man in the Black Pyjamas
You know you can’t sing love songs any more since you know so much about natural selection. The DJ is playing ‘Thunder Road’ as you leave the office party early and dip out into the soupy end-of-summer night. You are reminded, as you move with the music through the squashed heat, of your old trick of using lines from ‘Thunder Road’ when hitting on someone.
You know you got it from a forum and despite that you know it works on account of the same biological urges which send you out to do it in the first place. ‘Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,’ you might say as you and the target stop to kiss in the lagoon of a summer morning. You know to turn on ‘Thunder Road’ then when you get home and know to close too, showing dominance, on the couch before the song has finished.
You know about women. You know to get their full name, as you did with Susannah, and know to use your phone to Google them and build rapport and comfort with the certainty that knowledge gives you. Susannah, you found out three and a half years ago in the toilets after an open-mic night, was trying to be a singer, as you were too then but have given up since.
You know about giving up. You know that you and Susannah, after all those weekend-less months of trying to make it together, had to get jobs your parents understood. You know that she is still trying to believe and you know it must be harder for her now as she falls, eyes closed, towards thirty. You know that she will soon no longer have the excuse of youth, of all this being the prologue to something big, to her making it in the life-defining way that Rob’s girlfriend Esmé has made it.
You know that admin – where you both started and where she remains – is the right place to give up, though Susannah and Rob and four or five of the others you started with haven’t yet. Rob, as he left to begin recording his crowd-funded album, tweeted that today would be his last Friday ever, and though you retweeted it you know that this will be Rob’s specific tragedy.
You know that Friday is Susannah’s favourite day of the week and for everyone in admin it is, in the moments of walking from the office to the street, the time to shake off the dust of work and of failure and of being the wrong person in the wrong place. You know that for them, it is the time to become again the writer or the actor or the sculptor or the painter or the cello player they always knew they were. There is, you know, a sadness in a Friday too. You know that that moment of release, of putting earphones in, of texting to arrange the night or of taking off their work clothes is the best that most of them will feel all week and after it’s passed and the possibilities it seemed to have held are gone with it, they will have lost that chance to be themselves again.
This is why, you know, that tragedy attends at all your office parties, which is one of the many reasons you left Rob’s leaving party early as the rock was being lifted and the little red dots of what-we-really-think-we-feel moved everywhere and made everyone believe, if just for tonight, that everything – their lives, the way they walk through the office – had been changed for the better by the lifting.
When you were still down in admin you once tweeted ‘Friday is the only day of the week’ and you got two retweets, which seemed a lot then though tonight it doesn’t, since now you know exactly how to time and word your tweets for the biggest impact. As you left Rob’s party – walking outside into the humid night that keeps threatening a thunder storm which hasn’t yet come – you rubbed out a witty and angry tweet about the differences between private and public sector pay and conditions. Now, as you watch for her from your third floor window, you rub your phone and it magics up little hits of joy with every new favourite and reply and retweet. You know that Susannah hates twitter and can’t attach pictures, though twelve seconds earlier she tweeted ‘The lonely cool before dawn’ and a link to an unfiltered Instagram picture of an empty park with purple clouds boiling above the trees.
You know therefore that Susannah is with Rob in Fitzwilliam Square, which you know too is a private park that Esmé’s family have had the keys to since they built up the wealth that sustains her today. You go there, you and Esmé, while Rob and Susannah are at open mic nights in the upstairs of sadly carpeted pubs, and you lay down on the cool grass under the cover of a tree or out in the open as the clouds move busily along, and, when she comes and makes nail prints in her palms and curses you, you know you’ll never not know what it means to be an alpha male.
You know which shirt Susannah loves most (for it brings out your shoulders) so you put it on and stand in your socks and move – shoes on – into the hallway and the lift and then the muggy almost thundery night to go to the park and bring her back. You know that she will walk back silently with you and that Sunday will follow Saturday, and Monday will come and soothe her with the soft anaesthetic of routine and together you will put tonight away with the other things you don’t talk about, with the fingernail marks Esmé likes to leave on your forearm and with the texts you get when you’re pretending to be sleeping and with the night you misread the signals trying to be alpha, and, though you know it was only two thrusts, Susannah scrunched herself up like a bobbin and sat in the shower long after the water went cold singing, ‘It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win,’ in a voice so low you had to put your ear to the bottom of the door to hear.
You know that Susannah and Rob are somewhere in the park so you listen closely as the trees inflate and deflate in the hot breeze. You know they are sharing the quiet sounds of the warm city with you as you circle the park. You know they are breathing and listening too to the taxis cooling in neutral and to tired footsteps and the far off sound of roadworks coming through on the thick air and to the passing cars humming a lullaby of late August football analysis.
You know that, to know as much as you can, you once calculated the chances of something happening between Rob and Susannah and found them to be slim, due to (among other things): the weakness of Rob’s chin; his average height; his beta way of being overly polite; his lack of money; his politically correct support of feminism. You know too, of course, that an admin office is life squeezed, that the normal rules of attraction and seduction can sometimes be circumvented there. Down in admin, you know, they mark the time by the way the walls they stare at stare back – a hot shadow in summer or tinsil and cards at Christmas or the glow of bright rain in winter and one seeming to follow the next into eternity.
You know, as you stop under the sprinkled cool of a tree, that Susannah has to remind herself she doesn’t like it by keeping a sign above her computer which reads ‘This is not my life’. You know it is her life however and you know that time in the admin office pools into a hot, stagnant puddle. In afternoons, you know, they wade through that thick soup and hope for something to happen. You know, for you saw it once and noted it for the warning sign it was, that Susannah and Rob, to pass the time (she says) make up love songs for the stationery on their desks. You know they once dueted to the tune of ‘Thunder Road’, with her in the role of stapler and him as the puncher, and, you know, the office pulsed with electric feeling when at the end of the song she pressed her stapler against his puncher.
From the park you hear what you know is the sound of bare feet ssh ssh sshing across the night grass and what you know too is the sound of Susannah’s bracelets clinking together. You listen closer still but the closer you listen the quieter it gets until all you can hear is the far off sound of the clucking green man calling across a street. You know you should have listened as closely when, before you both left for the party, she sat on the bed with her hair wet and began to tell you again the story of where it all went wrong for her, the story of how she wishes she could be like you, how she wishes she could imagine a time when she doesn’t believe it could happen, how she wishes she could know, as you say you know, that she won’t be paralysed by regret if she gives up now.
You know, though, that it was your life before giving up that first made Susannah fall in love with you and made her believe that together you could be something in the world in the way that Esmé and Rob are now. It is the difference, you know, between the future Susannah imagines and the one you are readying yourself for which often makes you agree with Esmé, when, with your time together in the park running out, she turns her hair to you and says, ‘This can’t go on’.
You know Esmé is in London this weekend, retweeting compliments from people who saw her gig last night and not responding to either of your cocky/funny texts. Last Saturday, you know, she was in your apartment with you. Susannah was back at home with her parents and would be gone until late Sunday evening, when she would get back up and feel, you know, like crying. You know that those hours between Esmé leaving and Susannah getting back is just enough time to wash the glitter from the sheets and hoover up the tiny slivers of condom wrappers and find by accident, in the way you know she would have, the bracelets and the single earring and the eyelashes and the long dark hairs on the couch and the rest of the clues that lies leave.
You know, as the faint tune of ‘Thunder Road’ circles the park in trying-to-not-to-make-a-sound steps, that you should be alpha and do something. You know that while you rub your phone and check her twitter again the things that aren’t the internet tap too heavily on the foaming night sky and make the trees shake and the squares of path around the park beat in the streetlight. You know, as the tense sound of one material whispering against another drifts towards you like gas through the trees, that it all makes it hard not to believe, to ignore the mysteries you know you have to ignore to live in the certainty that you do.
You know you are pressed most by these mysteries on nights like tonight when you lie in bed picking through them on the way to sleep. You know, as the soft mumble of conversation floats up from the street below, that you were right not to climb the gate into the park and right not to try to know exactly what she was doing and what she was thinking and what it was, precisely, that led her there. You know you were right to go home and wait, in the sea-grey glow of her laptop, for the tick tick of her key at the door. You know, as you restore her deleted internet history, that she is thinking of leaving. Last week, you know, she searched: ‘best cities for artists to live in’; ‘cheap bohemian cities’; ‘how old is too old’; ‘Can you love two people at the same time?’; ‘chords for Thunder Road’.
There is the sad sound of her feet outside the apartment and then of her jingling search for her keys as you shut the laptop and lie on your side pretending to be asleep. You know, as you breathe rhythmically enough to make it seem like you’re snoring and listen as she takes off her clothes and opens and closes drawers, that Rob must have walked her home the same way you came half an hour before when you felt yourself dissolve into everything. You know it must have been shock, but as you walked from the park you were the lights in the glossy late night offices, you were the leaves and the wind that moved them, you were the smell of the humid canal; you were all those things and nothing too.
With your eyes closed you can smell the night from her as she brushes her hair more frantically than usual. She smells, you know, of wine and beer and damp grass and sweat and perfume and other things too that you don’t know. You know if you open your eyes now you will be opening them to the unknowable night and to the unknowable lives that swirl around in it. You know you will be opening them to the life-pausing admission that Susannah – and by extension, everyone else – is more mysterious and more complex than you could have known. You know that facing her now would be facing again the kind of regret and confusion you spent so long trying to never know again. You hear her unzipping her wash bag and pausing as she looks in the mirror or over at you or out the window at the purple sky.
As you listen for her to move, the sound of a guitar strumming seeps down from upstairs as a bike hisses by on the murky street and the shower drips into a still-warm puddle – with your eyes closed it is a world of seconds and in these seconds you feel the years roll over you as if you had been treading water all along and had finally given in and gone under and found peace under the wash of everything you’ve done and everyone you used to know. You open one eye to come up for air and watch her back and her hair as she creaks into bed and wipes away the last of her mascara as if wiping away a tear.
These are the seconds, you know, when it’s hard to know if every calculation you’ve made was right or wrong. You know it was emotion that night when you went too far, after Esmé had spent the evening playfully rejecting you and you came home to find Susannah doing the same. You know, from checking her phone, that she saved the message you sent her the next day saying you loved her – the first time you said it – and reminding her it was only two thrusts and telling her you knew it was wrong, that you would know what to do in the future. It was those seconds of not knowing, of thinking she wanted you to force it (since sometimes she does) which you know has brought you to here. It was a miscalculation to be so clingy with Esmé, a miscalculation to not know what Susannah was saying when she said, ‘I’m serious, no,’ and it was the regret, you know, of so many miscalculations which made you make so many more.
When you know she has fallen asleep you take out your phone and Google her name and find only what you found the first time you did it. As you ask the internet ‘What is she thinking?’ ‘What’s the right way of getting her back?’ ‘How should you feel on Friday?’ ‘How do I know my girlfriend is cheating on me?’ ‘What can you tell by the way someone sleeps?’ ‘How late is too late to start again?’ the light of your phone attracts a moth and it lands on the glowing screen and beats its wings and then slants off towards the window and the light from the street. You take out your iPod and put in your earphones and scroll to ‘Thunder Road’, as if the answers might be there, though they aren’t and as the song ends and silence beats again you hear her blinking in the dark and so you replay ‘Thunder Road’ and sing along under your breath as if to say to her ‘I just can’t face myself alone again’ and as you whisper-sing you rub your phone and ask it again, as it lights up in response, all those questions you know it can’t answer.