“Phoenix at the Gateway to the Lakes”

Further serialisation of my novel “Here Am I Sitting in my Tin Can.”

“After all these years it’s a miracle you have found me!” Diantha says.

Some months ago, when I had a proper home, I’d watched as news spread like televisual wildfire in my living room; flashing images of people fleeing for their lives, burnt-out cars and some of those bereaved interviewed at the scene, I thought insensitively and certainly sensationally. At that time the official death toll was seventy-four. It filled me with horror and sadness but at the same time made me think.
In nineteen-seventy-nine I was a fifth-year grammar school student intelligent and aimless, and while others had eyes on further education I only had eyes for my girl.  We were never apart, kissing till our mouths were sore like first-time lovers do, hand in hand in snatched between-lesson hiatuses, laughing together, playing together and pretending to be punks together. Lazy commentators said we were joined at the hip while the more discerning said we went together like the liquorice and the sherbet fountain.
“But how did you find me!?” she wants to know.

And so I tell her my journey to the tin can and how I’m living in it, and how I’ve met different people, like homeless Craig to whom I gave a bed and James who gave me a bed in his tent and how a new pair of boots got delivered in the night like some fairytale, and how I’m writing a novel.
“I knew you’d gone to Cumbria after school,” I say, “It was a long shot. I saw your father through the window in his restaurant so I hoped you were still there too. But you weren’t, so I was heading back to my tin can and saw your name above the florist’s.”

“It was you who phoned the restaurant last night!” she says, “My father told me someone was asking for me.”
We are now in a sleek bar, lunching, catching up, laughing, joking, reminiscing, clasping hands in disbelief at all those years that passed between us and made us grey but not aged her skin or hair in the slightest, and that her face now is the same face that smiled toothily over at me in the classroom in nineteen-seventy-nine.  O Level English I believe it was, the only subject in which I ever showed any level of proficiency.
“I saw the news and thought of you,” I say, “I had this horrible notion you were there, caught up in it all.”
“I’ve only been back to Athens twice in all this time,” she says guiltily, “Daddy goes sometimes to see his brothers, my aunts and uncles. It’s so sad what happened.”
“They were all OK I hope.”
“Daddy heard from them at the time. He was very worried. I told him not to, they’d be fine. He gave me a hug, for the first time in years. We haven’t always got on that well.”
“Is that down to your rebellious nature?”
“Me? Rebellious?” she says, smiling widely with those teeth beaconing crookedly against the olive skin.
“You were so intelligent though in those days.”
“Are you saying I am not now? That I could’ve done so much more with my life than own a flower shop?”
“I’m not saying that at all,” I insist, “the shop is beautiful, successful it would appear?”
“I don’t do too bad,” she says, “well enough to employ a girl, Sophie who you met.  But right now the weather is so hot, some people are afraid to buy flowers lest they die too soon.”
There is a sombre pause at that, the first since we sat down to lunch, and in which we eat a few more mouthfuls of our pasta. And then I tell her about the bloke in the Aldi carpark yesterday who’d lost his wife, and how that too had made me think, made me depressed.  And then I look at her and take a sip of wine and say, “I wanted to come and find you when I saw the news last year.  I wanted to but I was working then.”

“I have often thought of you too,” she says, and searching her mind like sifting through the pages of a book, she begins to fill in some of the pages we’d left blank…

At first we would speak to each other every day, write long letters saying how much we pined for that ‘first time’ back again. And then, gradually, the pen was running out.
While many, not least her father, predicted Diantha would go to Uni, get a degree with honours and go on to Masters and even beyond, it didn’t work out like that. Because after school Diantha changed. She began to find more interest in music, especially rock, and the once beautiful young girl gradually metamorphosed into a Gothic womanhood. Much of the time she spent listening to her Walkman, hanging out with friends, smoking pot, travelling occasionally over to Whitby to find peace at the Abbey or going to gigs in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Killing Joke, The Cure, Siouxsie, Sex Gang Children… Her father wasn’t happy, he strongly felt she was being led astray and said so, and they’d fight. He sometimes phoned her mother in London to remonstrate about their daughter but she said she’s a grown woman, she can do her own thing… like he did before they got divorced. Defeated and chastened, and anyway off his feet with the restaurant, her father left her to it, though secretly praying that in time she’d grow up, grow out of it and finish what she started at Uni before dropping out.
When she was twenty-one and they were barely on speaking-terms, Diantha moved out of her father’s house and in with some friends, drifting from part-time to full-time dead-end jobs or nothing at all, to eat. But her father was right… in time, like many things and many people, Diantha changed again, to a woman wanting more from life than that, in other words a husband and a child. She realised that though in the company of many friends almost all the time, she felt deep down a loneliness almost all the time. And so came the hour when she decided to settle down, and the time when she metamorphosed back to the beautiful, slim and neatly-dressed woman that was always within her. An ordinary life became more attractive, an ordinary life and an ordinary job that might not pay too well but it was money earned along with pride, respectability and simplicity. Which is how I now find her in a flower shop, where she’d been for more than thirty years, starting part-time, going full-time, working up to manageress then having saved and saved, buying the business outright, re-branding it to bear her name above the door, and winning back the respect and love of her father.

“I’m sorry we lost touch,” I say, when she finishes her story.
“Me too,” she says, “Did you ever marry?”
“Twice,” I say, “Four kids now grown up, two grandchildren.”

“How lovely.  And do you see them often, even though you live on a tin can?”
“We lost touch,” I admit and don’t embellish.
“Just like you lost touch with me.”
“Things don’t seem to work out for me, for one reason or another.”
“One reason or another being you,” she says, smiling into her wine glass and peering over it.
“I guess. What about you?  Did you ever find your husband and kids?”
“Me?” she says, “I also had many boyfriends, mostly when we lived in communes, great fun at the time but awfully sad when I look back.”
“And recently?”
“Recently…,” she says, and tails off. I see a moistness in her eyes now, and while part of me wants to push for more, part of me doesn’t for fear of stoking something unpleasant which would sadden me as much as it seems to be saddening her.
“Dessert?” I ask, deciding not to probe.
“Love to,” she says, snapping back into the moment and dabbing her wet eyes with a napkin, “but I need to get back. Sophie’s young. Sometimes not great with the till.”
“Of course,” I say. So as the waiter returns I tell him we won’t require the dessert menu and could I get the bill? And it’s now that Diantha notices my wallet, a black leather Pierre Cardin.
“You still have it?  All this time!” she exclaims, recognising it.
“I do,” I say, and tell her I’ve carried it ever since, but nearly lost it the other day on a supermarket carpark till a lady with a Kia told me I had dropped it.

As we blink out of the bar into the bright afternoon sun, I look at the woman Diantha has become. Slim, immaculately-dressed, long hair tied with a fiery bow to match the flowers on her maxi-dress and the ones in her shop window. And she is as toothily beautiful today as she always was, and I love her like I always did, the kind of love that got there first, that got to the ticker tape before any other.
“I need to ask,” she says, turning to me on the pavement, squinting into the light “Why did you come? Truthfully?”
I pause a second, before saying I’ve thought about the “why” many times over the year since watching that news bulletin and the hours since phoning her father’s restaurant last night, and while there are many reasons, curiosity, nostalgia, impulse, it always comes back to that one word, love. But it isn’t the word I can easily say right now, because the years prevent it, she needs to get back to work and somehow and heart-breakingly it doesn’t seem appropriate. So instead I simply say, “Truthfully? Because I wanted to see if you are still as beautiful as you were in the past.”
“And am I?” she asks.
“You are.”
“Thank you. And now I must go.”
“But will we see each other again?”
And she closes her wonderful eyes, shakes her head and says, “You are as beautiful today as you were in the past. Perhaps it’s best if we leave it all there. Memories pressed like flowers in a book.”
“Sure,” I say, softly and laden with regret, “At least take my card, or I’m here just one more night if…”
As I reach again into that wallet, she hesitates for a few agonising seconds, before taking my card then kissing me on both cheeks and turning on her heel.

So tonight, here am I sitting in my tin can, thinking about my day, wondering if she’ll come to the layby where I am, where I told her I would be, where I can ask the burning question that seemed to stop her in her tracks, about the here and now.  And whatever it is that’s upsetting, I can hold her in my arms and make it better.  But she doesn’t come, so I think I will never know.

Hours later I’m settled in my mummy bag, trying and failing to sleep, noting how the bed is bumpy, far less comfortable than normal, my mind troubled far more than usual.  Suddenly I feel the need to take the edge off things, so unzip the bag and open the side door to roll a joint.  But there, by the side of the tin can, is a bunch of flowers, with an envelope addressed to me.

To be continued…

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1 thought on ““Phoenix at the Gateway to the Lakes”

  1. Another poignant tale Mark. The sad, glorious, hopeful loneliness of being alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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