Crossing four lanes to the cafe, Guntarc’s friend was indistinguishable from the downpour until traffic was already on her. A spray of horns and bright commuter panic broke on the woman’s weary indifference, although she seemed to wash up on the pavement ok. Further stoking their ire she stared stonily through the shouting, but smiled faintly up at the architecture like they were old friends.
No observer would believe that in their teens that same figure had dandied about like gay pride come early. Hell, Guntarc thought, what were we even going to be back then? With our top dollar school, dutifully attended seminars on leadership, golden promise of glory; but not a single damn course gave tips on how you coped with ending up just like everyone else. Now that would have been an education!
The door banged, dispersing nostalgia’s thick fug and Guntarc raised his hand – classroom days again! His friend saw and brought the weather squeezing across to their table like a wet dog. They always met at the same table. Guntarc could smell her coming through the grey morning long before she sat down, and wondered what she’d been getting herself into this time. Beneath the bitter roast and cookie yeast in the air she stank of sour dreams, of an impotent exhaustion that hadn’t washed from her skin or hair.
She contorted free of a bedraggled chrysalis of bag, gloves and a perilously long scarf that was sure to snag a travelator some day and twist her head off. This cafe was strict counter service territory, but bringing the mountain to Mohammed was an obstinate war the friend had won many times before. The staff merited even less of a nod from her than they gave. They’d come around.
Finally divested, she perched herself opposite with the skittishness of a woman stealing this sip of time on the side. ‘Well, look at the state of you!’
And this was what he got after serious effort to scrape things together. ‘I suspect that ought to be my line this morning.’
Piqued, Guntarc sipped his coffee, richly contaminated with sugar, took out his mobile phone and laid it on the laminate between them with a faint grinding click.
His friend dabbled nervously in the spilled sweetener. ‘Not this again! Seriously, Guntarc, I. Did not. Call you. Not last night, or the night before, or any night.’ She rubbed her eyeballs, experimenting with their gravelly texture. A burned sensation scraped inside her throat, and there was the glass uncertainty of the hands themselves. She tried for forcefulness. ‘Really, I already get enough crazy from my two year old without this.’
Her performance reminded Guntarc of mules he’d seen, their legs planted and ears laid back. He set the phone to spinning lazily. ‘That’s interesting. And by “interesting” I mean, a great big pile of crap. You see, I went and recorded it this time.’
The cushion behind her sighed out its mustiness: the friend had cringed back, as though rather than offering the phone he’d lunged to stab her with it.
Sighing, Guntarc slipped it away in his pocket. ‘You really ought to listen to it sometime. We both know something’s not right!’ At her nervous, irritable gesture he reigned in with difficulty and ratcheted himself down a level; they were attracting dully curious stares. ‘Just listen. You sounded hysterical.’
‘Just something saucy the hubby and I cooked up in the privacy of our own home,’ she tried weakly. ‘Don’t judge us.’
‘Ha har, nice try. Your Peter was all tucked up and snoring, right where he should be, but you weren’t there.’
Rage and resignation were having a hard time coming to terms on her sparse, pale mouth. There just wasn’t enough to work with. ‘My neighbours are going to have your ass hauled off by the cops for sneaking around my roof in the middle of the night. And that’s assuming you don’t slip and break your damned neck first.’
‘Fear of falling’s never been my thing,’ he said smugly.
‘I know, what do you think scares me so much? Fear exists for a reason, Guntarc; it’s supposed to keep you alive! And why not just knock on the door and wake Pete like any other paranoid fruitcake?’
‘Because ...’ Because you called me, not him. Pete was right there, and you called me.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Don’t you see? It’s because Pete would prove you’re hallucinating or whatever, I’m right where I belong, and “poof!” go your weird conspiracy theories.’
‘Where do you go in the night when everyone thinks you’re asleep?’ Where are you calling me from, crying and whispering that you can’t breathe, demanding I come and save you?
‘Face it Guntarc: you need more excitement in your life.’
He leaned forward, hands on the table, almost vibrating. ‘My bird’s ready to fly,’ he whispered.
‘Oh no – I take it back!’
‘Seeing as you had me out of bed again last night, anyhow ...’
‘I did not!’
‘... I pulled an all-nighter. I’ve finished the beautiful bastard.’
‘You haven’t been to bed at all? That explains the hair. Call this a wild and wacky long shot, but it just might have something to do with your caffeine intake.’
‘The cancer sticks doing you any favours ..?’
With a fine instinct for timing the barista had crept into their argument to sulk at Guntarc’s elbow. He was a barista! He didn’t go to Barista School to end up waiting tables.
Ignoring the kid’s martyrdom the friend caught at his slat-like arm. ‘Hey. What would you say if I told you that someone had built an airplane in their garage?’
Bright, childlike wonder shone for a moment. Just as hastily shrouded, but that glimpse of the stars made even this baseline specimen briefly beautiful. He responded slowly. ‘Wouldn’t people notice?’
‘A small one.’
He chewed his lip anxiously as though they’d be grading his answer. ‘Ordinary people can’t fly. Terrorists fly. And the police, to catch them. If there really were an airplane, somebody would have told the cops by now.’ He retreated to safer territory. ‘You guys want coffee?’
The friend leaned back with satisfaction, as though she’d won some critical point. ‘Black, strong. Two muffins and a cookie.’ The cafe’s warm yeasty air was driving her to either distraction or extravagance. ‘Guntarc?’
‘Sure, another top-up won’t kill me.’ He was little more than caffeine and nervous twitches anyhow. Had that look, like nobody had ever fed him.
The barista was off and back quicker than it took to do the job right; smeared saucers rattled on the table. But whatever the quality the liquid was still heartblood going down. The friend took it like medicine, a drink that promised forgetfulness, an end to everything. Chipped scarlet nails skittered around her cup and Guntarc grimaced; he’d never liked her affectations.
He bridled impatiently until their new mate had re-established himself by the counter, safely beyond earshot. However, he couldn’t help but notice how the kid’s face had lost its dull slackness of expression, become thoughtful.
Guntarc rapped his teeth. ‘Ten bucks says that little weed won’t be sleeping tonight, either. You should start an insomnia club.’
‘You can’t go around giving folk the suspicion that there might be something else out there, beyond the next wage packet or nice shiny bauble. It’s a sickness of society, that kind of thinking.’
‘So’s sitting up all night in your garage. Why can’t you take nice girls out on dates? Get your mind off things.’
‘You meet a girl who wants to hang out in my garage, you let me know.’ He shifted in his seat. ‘Are you coming tonight? I reckon the rain will give me my best chance at staying hidden. It’s like the skies want me up there.’
‘Guntarc, a thousand monkeys could not express my lack of interest in watching you kill yourself.’
Blunt fingers rasped across his chin. ‘Nobody says I have to die.’
‘But you could! You probably will! Why do it?’
‘Because ... because!’ He was just as exasperated. ‘Because I can! Because they shouldn’t make people not want to! They shouldn’t keep us feeling scared and trapped all the time.’
The friend glared, and the tone could have gone severely south, but then she burst out laughing. ‘Just once it’d be nice to get together for a friendly chat. Why do we always have to squabble?’
‘Not much in common anymore, I guess.’
She threw up both hands sarcastically, never imagining he meant it. ‘Then why bother staying friends?’
‘Because you’re the only person who remembers what I might have been. You’re the last one in the world. And I do the same for you. Hell, I know I need it just to get through the day.’
There was a long, disbelieving silence before she rallied. ‘That’s a whole new level of asshole even for you!’
‘I’m busy here leading a normal, responsible life! Just like everybody! We can’t all fluff around being hippies and radicals, and ... and ...’
‘I know.’ Guntarc set down his cup. ‘Just come and see me fly. I’m going to do something real for once. I want you there.’
‘No chance! I’m not stirring one foot to enable your nonsense!’ The friend struggled with her natural reticence ... but what if he meant it? ‘Guntarc, you can’t do this. You can’t. What’ll I do when you’re gone?’
Guntarc had to avert his face from the weary hopelessness in hers. ‘Something,’ he muttered. ‘Hopefully something.’
Guntarc’s nonsense stayed with the friend all day, skewing routine’s grey sameness into something raw and frightening.
‘Nonsense,’ she repeated to herself that evening while preparing for bed in her neat pantomime house. A comfortable family home with everything in its place including Pete who was already droning away, lost to the world. Poor Pete’s job was a nightmare, and he was constantly too exhausted to be bothered by much of anything.
She just couldn’t afford to be getting about with any of Guntarc’s insanity. Look how far she and Pete were stretched already just to meet what ends had to be tied - now that was ridiculous! As ridiculous as the tether binding her ankle to the bedpost, a new approach she hoped would keep her safely abed all night.
“Disturbing” couldn’t encompass how it felt to wake up with black earth between her toes. Or sometimes her nightdress missing. Once, all her fingernails had been broken.
Usually a quick snuggle into her husband’s prosaic farting warmth made it all bearable, but tonight the friend rocked fretfully on the bed’s cold lonely edge. Time continued its plunging uncontrollably by, like the icy raindrops beyond the fogged up window. It was all nonsense. Guntarc had to chicken out. Ordinary people couldn’t fly.
What her eye refused to witness imagination tormented her with, twice as vividly. Guntarc’s bird would take to the air. She’d never known him to wuss out, not once, no matter how many times life beat him down.
Holding herself in the dark bedroom she saw the inevitable sinister choppers arise in Guntarc’s wake, obscuring the beautiful stars. Oily mini-guns spinning up beside the all-important camera: the avid public eye had to see hubris cut down, watch the lesson of flaming debris hurled from the heavens.
The cruel wind cut streamers of water from Guntarc’s reddened eyes. But just this once he never looked back. Hands sure on the controls Guntarc flew on into the night and finally his heart cried joy, joy!