An extract from ‘The Juggler’

The JugglerLater, Mark’s wife accused him of running away. His old friends agreed with her. They were the kind of people who didn’t understand that a person might need to go away for a while, or forever if necessary, so they would see it – with a predictable inevitability – as running away. But the fact was that he’d fundamentally shifted, although he’d been unaware of it most of the time. And then, one day, it had become unbearable. He hadn’t planned it, it had simply happened.

Mark would feel a strange sensation from time to time, a discomfort in his skin. Not an itch, exactly, but a fidgety thrill of disgust that would shiver through him. Vaguely, he knew it was the life he was leading that was causing this unease, paradoxically making him feel trapped; paradoxical because he’d made all his choices willingly and they had led to the desired outcome, which is to say, a good qualification as an engineer, marriage and fatherhood at the age of twenty-nine. So why the discomfort? Because of the inevitable but. This was the surprising and scary thing, there always seemed to be a but. Right now he could formulate it as ‘I have everything I want, but…’ It was this particular but that had caused the tremor of disquiet.

Then he did what people aren’t supposed to do. He left his home, his job, his wife, his friends, his seven month old baby… everything. He set out, with a flyer advertising a night club in his pocket that had an address written on the back in spidery pencil. And a small, hard bag of the sort that photographers carry their lenses in. But this bag did not contain photographic equipment. This bag contained £40,000 in cash.

 

Sitting breathless on the train, he knew with a desperate certainty that if he’d missed this departure, the three hour wait for the next train would have proved too much and he’d have given up on his wild, impromptu flight. There was a window of time, a brief moment in which Mark saw, without fully understanding why, that he must give in to this impulse to get away, or give up on himself entirely.

Mark’s mood on the journey was a mixture of exhilaration and panic. He was doing something. He wasn’t sure what it was, but that was far less important than the fact that he was doing it. It came as a shock to realise that he’d never in his life set in motion a course of action without knowing precisely what the outcome was likely to be, and it was this uncertainty that caused both the exhilaration and the panic. It was like doing the high jump. He had cleared the hurdle of escape and was now in the process of landing on the other side of the bar. He was unsure of what it might mean, to do this, except that there was something unequivocal and irrevocable about having jumped.

The train went through a long tunnel shortly after the journey started and, as it plunged through the darkness, Mark’s ears depressurised and it was as if his whole life was being sucked out of him and ejected into the air that he was leaving behind. The four-and-a-half hour journey was spent looking out at the fields and towns that he passed – an endless procession of ordered existence – or at the primroses that were in bloom beside the tracks.

He pulled the flyer from his back pocket and looked at the address scrawled there in smudged pencil: 1 Baker’s Yard.

As the train neared its destination, he could see a jumbled skyline of buildings ahead of him – corporate, private, religious – that made up the town, beyond which he could see the hills. To the west he could see the rearing cliff that dominated the skyline, crowned with its fine eighteenth century lighthouse, beneath which, he knew, were the famous caves. There was a sign by the track here, saying that the station was one mile away and he closed his eyes briefly, trying to still his nerves.

The station was one of those tall, Victorian iron-and-glass structures that made him feel that he was coming to a place of scale and substance. The station forecourt wasn’t particularly busy, but those people who were there had an air of intent and purpose that was obscurely inspiring. Outside, across a wide cobbled square, there was an avenue that sloped down to the river, flanked with arty shops, galleries and pubs. The older architecture was ornate, but not overblown, while the newer blocks of flats were made of glass that was tinted blue or green, with stainless steel railings and small but functional balconies. It was more or less what one might expect from a town that had made its money from its small port and fishing fleet a hundred and fifty years earlier and was now beginning to reassert itself in a post-industrial, even post-modern way.

The first thing he needed to do was to acquire a map of the town, in order to find his way to that all-important address, and he crossed the shiny blue-grey cobbles of the square to a small newsagent, outside which stood a series of buckets filled with bunches of tulips, carnations and freesias.

When he went in, he immediately noticed the smell of confectionery. It was one of those shops that sold hand-made chocolates in a glass cabinet by the till. This, and the waft of airy perfume from the freshly cut flowers, mingled to give an impression of indulgence and lethargy. The woman behind the counter was wearing loose pale clothes and dark tights, and looked like a dancer or someone who’d just stepped out of an aerobics class. She was reading a magazine from the extensive rack beside her and she glanced up at Mark when he came in, but didn’t stop reading until he went over to speak to her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said when he asked, ‘we don’t have any town maps at the moment. We should have had the new edition in last week at the latest, but -’ she shrugged, ‘- you know what councils are like. And with the start of the tourist season only a week or two away…’ She shook her head in mock despair, then smiled. ‘But tell me, where are you going? I expect I’ll know where it is.’

He showed her the address.

‘Oh, well!’ she laughed, ‘you’re in luck! It’s just round the corner.’

She gave directions and before he left, he bought a magazine about the area – a county he was not familiar with. He didn’t particularly want the magazine; he bought it to give her a little custom, for being so helpful.

‘Are you here visiting friends?’ she asked as he paid.

‘No,’ he told her. ‘I think I might have come to live here.’

She smiled as he said this, but he could tell that his words had closed her off, quite suddenly, and made her sad. It was as though she heard this all the time, and knew how impossible or vain the hope might actually be.

As he walked the couple of blocks to Baker’s Yard, Mark dropped the magazine into a bin. He realised with embarrassment as he did so that he had no idea what he was going to say when he got there. It wasn’t as if he knew why he’d come, or who he was hoping to meet…

© Sebastian Beaumont 2009