by | Jun 11, 2024 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Nine

I’d first met Paul going up and down the stairs. He lived on the sixth floor, the same floor as the woman in the wheelchair who thought everyone was a relative coming to visit her (Is that you, Davie? Are you coming to see me?) As we both had toys in our hands, we chatted about kids – the pains and pleasures of them, the wisdom in hindsight, the regrets difficult to articulate. He had what sounded like a soft Geordie accent, but not enough of one that I could quiz him on it. Down on the playground below I saw him while I was with Anthony once, and I made a point of introducing him. After that we chatted often, mostly about football, sometimes about an obscure seaside town up on the coast that we both had a connection to. He had a strange habit of rolling his gaze up and over his head every minute or so as he spoke, as if to check whether anyone in the sky was listening to us. Whether he was looking for drones or gods I couldn’t tell.

“Do you think he’s really got kids?” my wife asked me.

“Of course he’s got kids.”

“Why haven’t we seen them?”

“He talks about Katie all the time.”

Paul had a little girl called Katie who was regularly sick. He always seemed to be going out for some medicine for her. One time he gave me a tenner and asked me to go pick up the prescription for him. I had to fight with him to get him to accept the change. He didn’t ask me inside the flat.

Sharon said: “Not only are people stranger than we imagine, they’re stranger than we can imagine.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to provoke a fight. She usually won our arguments, and the way she behaved in victory always made me love her a little less.

Her doubt was infectious. I watched Paul more closely, looking at his hands, his pockets, whenever we crossed paths on the stairs or in the playground. He always had some sort of toy or package for the child on him. A plastic bag from the chemist’s, a rolled-up children’s magazine, some sweets.

“I get depressed watching the news now,” said Sharon.

“Let’s move to the country,” I said. “We don’t have to live here.”

 “Why isn’t the world getting better? We have more stuff than ever before.”

I didn’t understand the sentence. I processed it twice, then repeated it back to her. She ignored me.

To my annoyance, I started to notice other tenants in our block who sometimes carried children’s things around with them – tricycles, dolls, flags – but whose children I never actually saw. There was a Polish woman I sometimes saw at the corner shop, with deep-set eyes full of history and worry; an old woman in a tweed jacket who looked like Princess Margaret and who sometimes sat by the playground, watching all the little bodies chase and block one another. Anthony offered Her Majesty a sweet once.

“I used to think the world inclined towards good,” Sharon said.

“Please stop,” I said. “I’m literally begging you.”

One day I came home with Anthony and Paul was there, in our living room, drinking coffee out of a cup with a sheep on it and chatting with Sharon like they had been through the War together. I felt threatened in some intimate, primordial way. When I said ‘Hello’ they both looked at me and smiled in unison.

Anthony ran off to his room with a gadget Paul had bought him.

At the time I had a job to finish – an architect’s contract which involved hours of sarcastic understatement on the phone to a property developer in Leeds. It felt like a second, simultaneous marriage.

A month passed. The town flooded in a freak storm. I bought newspapers I never read to roll up and stuff in the gaps of the windows on our balcony; loud waves of heavy rain rolled back and forth against our flat like the shaggy pillars of a car wash. Anthony watched it all, transfixed.

“I met Katie today” said Sharon.

“You’re kidding?”

“In the morning, when you were both out.”

Anthony was there, watching us both. Although he was barely four, he could feel there was something happening, something going on. I waited for her to speak. She just smiled at me.

“So she exists?”

“It’s a doll,” said Sharon. “Just like I said. Don’t ever doubt me again.”

The property developer from Leeds wasn’t happy with anything I did. I concluded property developers are never content with anything in the physical world, that’s why they always want to develop it. We went to court. It was a long month.

Sharon and I separated that year. It felt easy to do, sharing custody of the child – he seemed to accept it all like a law of natural science. We hardly ever met, not even to hand over Anthony – a Brummie girl who blinked too much to be real dropped him off and picked him up. I gave up trying to talk to my ex-wife – she never returned my calls and refused to read my emails. I sometimes wondered whether I was to blame.

A year and a half after our divorce, I was on the upstairs floor café of a department store, drinking a latte and looking onto the high street below. I saw the two of them, Sharon and Paul, walking below, hand in hand. Anthony was running ahead of them, noiselessly giggling, and next to him was a little red-haired girl almost exactly the same size. They seemed to be filled with the effervescence of life, and I watched the four of them as they shrank away from me into matchstick figures, before disappearing around a corner on the very edge of my vision.

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