Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Desk of Alasdair Kettering

Sturdy nineteen-seventies shelving of wood and steel support a wall of books. Mostly paperbacks, with the odd hardback amongst them. Imperceptibly, the weight of these tomes pulls at the weakened wall plaster which supports them until one day in the future, Alasdair Kettering will return to his study to find all of his precious collection lying face-down on the floor, sprinkled with a pangrattato of metal, wood and plaster.

To catalogue this collection would be insurmountable. For the books to be placed on the shelf in any kind of order would be uncharacteristic. So, if we begin at the top-left shelf, we find A Collector’s Guide to Railway Memorabilia, next to Intertextuallity in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, adjacent to Contributions towards the resolution of conflict in Guyana. Despite this apparent chaos, if you were to ask Alasdair for a book, he would know immediately if it were in his possession, and roughly the shelf on which it resides.

Besides his library, the study is sparsely furnished: an oak desk (inherited from the previous tenant) on which sits a telephone, a laptop and, contained within its black leather case, a Windsor B flat clarinet. The chair is a green plastic garden chair which he has been using temporarily since his last office chair lost a leg. This incident happened over six months ago, though Alasdair would estimate it only a few weeks since.

On the back of the study door hangs an ‘inspirational’ poster featuring a penguin, and beneath it the words “INDIVIDUALITY. Have courage and follow your own path”. Alasdair enters his study, then closes and locks the door behind him. He circumnavigates his desk, tugging at one of his ears as he walks. As he sits down in his chair, adjusting his spectacles, he slowly reaches out for his clarinet case. Suddenly, the phone rings. The noise so startles Alasdair that it takes him a moment to regain the composure necessary to pick up the receiver. The phone reaches his ear, but he does not speak. He absorbs the digital silence on the other end of the line. Though no sound is communicated, Alasdair seems to understand this exchange, and wearily, knowingly, he replaces the phone in its cradle, and hangs his head.

Behind him, the shelves creak.

Airport coffee

From her vantage-point at the back of the queue, she counts the number of free seats in the café. The idea of eating standing up is unappealing, so she voices her concern: ‘Shall I get us a table?’

He surveys the area. Formica tables of varying heights; around them families, couples, suits and laptops. ‘We’ll be fine. Stay with me,’ then (in order to sound less needy) ‘I don’t know what you’ll want’. He checks his watch: there is time to kill. The flight doesn’t have a boarding gate yet.

‘Are we supposed to have a tray?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ he replies. Casting his view downward, he spies an empty metal cage – where trays used to live. ‘Do we need one?’

In her hand is a plastic triangle containing a brie and grape sandwich. He smiles as he watches her deliberate, wrinkle her nose and finally place the packet back on the refrigerator shelf. He spies her logic before she can articulate it: that she would be foolish to order cheese in an airport café in Manchester when she will soon be able to order the Real Thing from a fromagerie. Selecting instead a tuna salad, she turns her attention to the faux-chalkboard behind the counter. ‘What size coffee are you getting?’ she asks.

‘I’m just getting a medium. I find that when I do order a large cappuccino, I don’t enjoy the last third of it. It’s a waste.’

‘I’m getting the large anyway’

‘You won’t enjoy the last third of it.’

He knows that his tone is supercilious. He thinks it funny, and he hopes that she will realise that this superior tone was a character, though at the same time he is aware that he does talk down to her.

At what stage does a couple implicitly agree that they are now so comfortable with each other that they can talk down to each other? How long must elapse before we can say hurtful, testy things with impunity - things that we wouldn’t dream of saying to anybody else? After five years? Ten? He catches her eye to communicate all this. She looks back directly, and her glance comforts him, tells him that she knows him; she knows what he is like, she knows his faults and she has now even reached a stage where she can enjoy them. To such an extent, her glance continues, that should he die, these conversations are the things that she will miss.

He shifts his attention to the seating area: ‘Actually, it’s filling up. Do you want to get us a table? I’ll pay for these.’

The tray finally does materialise at the till. He takes it and stands, vacantly surveying the tables to find her. Her new hair almost trips him, and he makes comment on this as he takes a seat with her. So veiled was the compliment within this exchange that the average passer-by would miss it. She doesn’t however, and her face beams at him. He mistakes this smile as excitement at the imminent voyage and their conversation drifts in this direction.

‘How do you feel to be away from baby?’ he tentatively asks. He knows it is a question that needs asking, that he wants the answer to, yet he is afraid to bring down the mood.

‘Strange.’ is her monosyllabic reply. Within these letters, microscopic small print exists that reads ‘I feel as though a part of me has been removed. I feel limbless. I also feel liberated, as though I was carrying a heavy load of luggage, and now I have placed it down on the street and walked away. I feel like my heart has been broken and trampled on. I can picture her face smiling, and her big, beautiful ears. I feel worried about her, and worried about myself.’

She glances down at her outsized coffee cup. The cup is an unusual design that features handles on either side. Suddenly, she laughs, and holds the cup up for inspection: ‘Does this remind you of anyone?’

They both laugh. She places the cup back down on the table and reviews its contents: ‘I can’t finish this.’