Jonathan Horner contributes to this first Spring installment of The Gown’s Inkpot, with ‘The Observer.’
The bed was warm, so much so that he was reluctant to leave it and start the day – but this clearly wasn’t an option. He loathed the idea of being inactive, so he forced himself from his position of comfort and into the new day. His breakfast was a matter of routine, a small glass of orange juice with a bowl containing some sort of cereal (the type really didn’t matter to him), and, as he had done on an almost daily basis recently, he pondered on how this detached house, which had been his home for so long, was now far too big for him alone to inhabit. At about 10 o’clock he set out for his morning walk. This meant his daily reminder that he hadn’t yet dealt with the clothes in his wardrobes and drawers that weren’t his. He wouldn’t get any use out of them, they simply existed as reminders of someone who was no longer there. But as he had done on so many occasions recently, he simply got what he needed for the day and deferred the task of dealing with them. He promised himself he would deal with them soon, but this was the same promise he had made himself three weeks ago.
His routine morning stroll was borne out of a perceived necessity for at least some limited exercise in a day, rather than any particular fondness for his locality. Indeed, as he passed by all of the familiar buildings and spots of the rural town which he normally took for granted, he deliberately set out to pay them greater attention. In doing so, he couldn’t help but conclude that they were drearier than he remembered. This was the sort of place that one could simply drive through on one’s way to a more noteworthy destination without even realising that it existed at all. Nothing stood out, with every feature dilapidated and thoroughly uninspiring. He was only interrupted in this heightened observation by a few familiar faces who passed by – people who could only be regarded as friends in the loosest possible sense.
Encapsulated within his interactions with them was something of a social bargain: on the one hand, he was generally uninterested in being interrupted during his walk and had no interest in entering into a proper conversation, on the other, those who encountered him knew, like many who were familiar with him, that even the simple question of ‘how are you?’ was a loaded one, given what we had gone through in the past few months. Truth be told, these ‘friends’ of his were similarly uninterested in a conversation of any depth, because they had their own places to go and attend to. If they received a fairly straightforward and positive reply when they asked how he was doing, they felt no need to probe any further.
It may have been overcast, but the day was also fairly mild. Even so, he was surprised that there weren’t many people around, even as he approached the centre of town. He was under no illusion that it was densely populated, but regardless, the lack of humanity was notable. The petrol station he had passed some time earlier had few cars, but more alarmingly, the town market, that was normally held at this time every week, was nowhere to be seen. It had surely been cancelled.
He stopped for a break at one of the local bookmakers, as he always did. He wasn’t a gambler; he simply chose it as a random spot which to rest one day. Directly facing the bookmakers across the street was one of the town’s few eateries, a pub and bistro. The building itself was antiquated and long in need of renovation. Yet, a young couple had bought it relatively recently. He frequented it now and again, but nowhere near enough to be considered a regular. It was the sort of place one goes to only because there are no better options in the vicinity. As his gaze shifted upwards to one of the windows on the first floor, he realised that he was being watched, catching the gaze of a woman sitting at a table with coffee cup in hand. He had visited often enough to recognise her as one of the pub’s proprietors. Whilst he knew who she was, the two had never been acquainted. But at this moment, their eyes met.
Direct and prolonged eye contact usually made him uncomfortable, but he was so taken aback by her that he couldn’t look away. He became an observer, and it was almost as if he was waiting for her to do something. For whatever reason, she neither looked away nor moved, instead staying motionless, as though catching his gaze had turned her to stone, and sporting a joyless and sombre expression. Compared to the bubbly and energetic figure he had seen on previous visits to the pub, the woman on whom his gaze was now transfixed looked like she had given up the ghost.
During his nights at the pub, she had seemed somewhat complimentary to her husband, who cut a more serious figure. Now, it appeared as though she had been moulded in his image. She looked the same, with hazel eyes and long free-flowing brunette hair, but something had changed. The observer wasn’t sure how long they had been in this position, with eyes locked together, but for whatever reason, he felt a certain unease about breaking the chain. The husband then entered the frame and appeared to say something, although, the observer couldn’t possibly tell from across the street, and in any case, he couldn’t claim to be a good lip reader. Suddenly, the husband shifted his gaze from his wife to the outside, and the man across the street. The observer immediately and instinctively shifted his own gaze down from the emerging upstairs scene to the ground, swiftly moving on and trying his best to forget the whole incident, but it lived rent-free in his mind until the next morning, when he would again go for his daily walk.
As he set off at the usual time the following day, he observed that the conditions were to a great extent the same as they had been before. In fact, it was fair to say that, although 24 hours had gone by, the locality was made no better or worse by the passage of time. He even passed the same people on the way to his usual resting spot. Luckily for him, they hadn’t suddenly gained an interest in his well-being overnight. The pleasantries were the same, and the conversation abrupt as it had been many times before. Oddly, these were the only people he saw on his journey. Whilst the area was unusually quiet the previous day, it was almost deserted on this occasion. The only discernible movement or commotion came as he stood at the bookmakers, as a plastic bag, aided by a moderate breeze, swept by his feet along the pavement.
Perhaps subconsciously, his gaze again moved up to the pub window. Although she was sat in a similar position as she had been in previously, she was not fixated on him this time. Again, he noted that she was in conversation, but again, he could not hope to decipher the code presented to him. She did not once lift her head. Instead, she continued to look downwards. The husband quickly came into view, cutting a very agitated figure, and promptly putting both of his hands on the table and leaning his head in toward hers. She stood up at once, almost throwing her chair against the wall behind her as she did so. The suddenness of this forced her husband to retreat back to a standing position in double quick time. Now face-to-face with him, she rammed her index finger into his chest multiple times in an accusatory manner. The husband’s shake of the head was enough to indicate that he refuted whatever charge has been laid at his feet. After stepping back and running her hands through her free-flowing hair, she walked out of view, making sure to brush past him as she did so. This left him with his hands on his hips, staring aimlessly at the wall facing him. At this point, the observer decided to swiftly move on, trying to forget the whole incident, but it lived rent-free in his mind until the next morning, when he would again go for his daily walk.
As he left the house the next morning, he noticed a lone plastic bag at his front door. The day was hospitable. Yes, it was overcast, but it was also mild, with a moderate breeze – fine conditions for walking. As he walked, he kept his eyes to the ground, as though he needed to be sure that he was capable of putting one foot after the other. The scenery could not distract him from this task, nor could any familiar faces passing by. Although, had he bothered to look up, he would have noticed that he had the world to himself, with not one person passing him. Like an automaton, he was fixated on his own movements, his own journey, and particularly, his destination.
As he reached the bookmakers, his eyes were attracted, as they inevitably would be, to the pub window. Fortunately for him, he had arrived mid-fracas this time. Husband and wife were both in view. She looked even more exasperated and withdrawn than before, as though she had aged a decade in the day. Again, the husband came out of the traps as the aggressor, slamming his fists against the familiar table, as though he was desperately trying to get a point across, but was angered by his lack of progress. Indeed, it seemed to the observer that the point would never register with her, given her body language. She looked in no mood to listen. As the husband stepped away from the table and walked out of view, she glanced down at the coffee cup on the table.
By the time he walked back into frame and raised his index finger as though wishing to end the argument once and for all, the cup’s contents had been thrown in his face. His arm suddenly lurched forward with a fist formed, connecting on the left-hand side of her face. She was prevented from falling to the ground, but only because the hand used to strike the blow was now round her neck and forcing her against the wall. They stood there face-to-face, eye-to-eye for a considerable amount of time, all while another set of eyes witnessed it from across the street. The observer couldn’t look away. He had never acquainted himself with these people before, but at this precise moment, her face took on an extra familiarity, as though they had met many times before and knew each other well.
The husband too gave him a strange feeling, as though he knew the man better than anyone else on the face of the earth could. Regardless, he had been watching them for far too long, and really needed to get on with his day. So, the observer decided to swiftly move on, trying to forget the whole incident. But it lived rent-free in his mind until the next morning, when he would again go for his daily walk.