When it started out, when I first met her, things were okay. Things were the way you’d imagine if you really wanted something to happen. It was late winter. We’d first exchanged words in a café in the centre of town, a disused church loomed outside. She had been writing something down – a poem or a song – in a notebook at her table, a half-drunk cappuccino at her wrist.
For the past few months, I’d been trying to write a novel, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get my words out, and I ended up with pages and pages of scribbles and nonsense; sentences that didn’t make sense. It was like I wanted to say something but didn’t know how to say it.
I worked up the courage to go talk to her. I asked her, ‘What you writing?’
And she’d said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’
I asked her her name and she told me it was Emma. She had a wide smile that became a concertina up to her ears, and her ears, small with several ear studs like pins stuck in, poked out from her long hair like rocks on a heath. I asked if I could see what she was writing and she said no.
‘What makes you think I’d show you?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I was just curious.’
‘Don’t you know what curiosity does to cats?’
She told me she liked to write and sing and writing was sometimes all she had.
‘What do you like to sing?’
‘Anything too old to remember,’ she said. ‘Edith Piaf, Rina Kelly, François Hardy.’
I didn’t know any of these names. I didn’t know much about old music, let alone French music, so I had little to say. I said, ‘You look a little like François Hardy.’
‘Oh really?’ she said, smiling. She probably knew I was lying, but it wasn’t a lie that she was beautiful. She was the kind of person to take you on your word and enjoy your company. She was a relief. Like a painkiller. It was rare to find someone like that, someone with that uncommon similarity, attractive only because it was easier to talk. I’d not seen her before that day. Normally I’d sit and read a book over coffee, watching the endless walk of faceless people, in and out for coffee, going somewhere, going places even they didn’t know they were going. But, for whatever reason it was, I liked her.
We spent most days and nights with each other, and soon the months passed by and we began living together in a small flat in the city, not too far from the café where we’d met, where the disused church was. Emma was a confident person and I was happy to see her grow in confidence and build the things in life that she wanted. Not long after, she gave up singing for a job managing an arts and events company. I’d begun working in an office, writing advertisements for small companies. This meant that she was now managing the type of person she wanted to be, and I was writing what I didn’t want to write.
In late summer, we hopped on a flight to Paris for a week. I fell in love with her there. I tried to write my novel, but I still couldn’t do it. She said, ‘You put too much pressure on yourself. Take it easy. Why not write something else?’ I took her advice and wrote a story about her. She was François Hardy and I was a man I’d made up. In the story, we met in Paris, during Nazi-occupied France, and we had to flee to England before it was too late. But there was no ending.
‘Why is there no ending?’ she said.
‘I don’t know how it ends,’ I said. It depressed me to think I didn’t know how it would end.
A day after we landed back home from Paris, my father died of a stroke. It was so unexpected, they said dealing with grief like that was similar to going into shock. I couldn’t handle it. She came with me to the funeral. My mother was there, as were my brother and sister. I watched them cry and how they cried, and how they pulled faces, distorted and sour, and Emma cried too, her tears, tall wet tracks on her face, glistening like rain. The church looming over.
Emma and I saw each other every day, and our arguments were over nothing. It wasn’t that neither of us listened to the other, but that we didn’t understand each other anymore. Any kind of irritation bubbled to the surface and there was no need for an apology because the irritation had already burned through to the skin. We slowly fell out of love with each other.
It was always difficult to talk. The flat now seemed darker than a year ago. I loved her, but we would never love each other.
One evening, I waited for her to come home. She had been working all day, she was tired and had little mood for conversation, so it was difficult to talk to her. By the time she was settled with her shoes off, nursing a cup of tea in front of the television, I said to her, ‘Emma,’ I said, ‘I’m leaving.’
‘Where are you going?’ she said.
‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m not coming back.’
‘You’re leaving me?’
‘It seems that way.’
‘It seems that way?’
‘I’m sorry, Emma, but I can’t go on.’
‘You wait til I’ve taken my shoes off to tell me,’ she said. I wondered when was best to tell her, having already thought it over, and I supposed, of all things, I should have told her with her shoes still on. As ridiculous as it sounds, at least with her shoes off, she wasn’t going anywhere.
She didn’t cry. Not that I saw anyway. The only action, other than talk, was to sip her tea once and look at me with a kind of childish loss. Coronation Street was on the television. Two people were talking, similar to us.
‘It’ll be okay,’ I said.
‘How will it be okay?’
‘I don’t know. It just will.’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Seems like we’re just two different people.’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘So I’ll never see you again?’
‘No,’ I said.
Then there were no voices. I took my bag I’d already packed and left. The silence as I walked out like a swelling balloon. I walked into the cold air and it was dark. An hour later it rained. That night I slept in the bus station. I was too exhausted to think of where to go. I cried, too, but I don’t often go into that.
The next morning I got sick because of the cold and I went and found a B&B and slept through the day. When I woke up, it felt like the bag was still over my shoulder. I showered, ate breakfast, and left. I walked back to the bus stop. There, the road was empty and I looked up the long black stretch and thought of her. I thought of her and thought of her. I wondered what she was doing. I wondered if she was upset or if she was happy about something. If she was eating or drinking or asleep. My guilt rose like bile, and soon a bus arrived. I got on and left the city.
The following weeks I worked in a café serving coffee and sandwiches. I worked with an older woman called Davina. Black hair, stick-thin. Her smoking addiction gave her yellow fingers and a thick voice. She was almost always out back having a cigarette. But she was a good person. She told me about her husband, Richard, who’d died of a stroke (like my dad) three years ago, and how she loved him with all her heart but never told him because she was afraid of what might happen if she told him.
She said to me, ‘Essentially, I never loved him at all. I was too scared to say it. He was no saint, though. He hit me once. We had a row over something I can’t remember, and he hit me across the eye. Swore I’d leave him, but I didn’t. Swore I’d leave him if he did it a second time, but he didn’t. Richard was a fucking bastard sometimes, but I don’t know, who am I to judge what a good person is? It made me think if I even knew what love is. It’s so stupid, like I’m a teenage girl. I’m a grown woman for Christ’s sake, and I know what I love. And I loved him.’
‘I think I know what you mean,’ I said.
‘I would have killed him if he hit me a second time,’ she said. She took a drag on her cigarette and I heard it sizzle the paper, and then she stubbed it out on the wall and dropped it in a bin. As she walked back to the café’s back door, she said, ‘Coming back inside?’
I shook my head. I wanted to stand outside for a while for some reason. It was a warm afternoon. The sun was thick and bright above the clouds. The sour stench of the bins and the smell of Davina’s cigarette lingered as though she was still there with me.
I was cleaning up a few tables one day when a clown walked in. A pale white face, red lips and a round red nose, big, painted-on eyebrows and colourful hair. She was pretty underneath, I thought. She ordered a coffee and a tuna sandwich. Her name was Marcella and she was depressed. She told me she worked in the theatre and was “this” close two quitting. I got talking to her when the other customers had left.
‘Why are you still dressed like a clown?’ I asked.
‘You’re the clown,’ she said.
‘You are, not me.’
‘You’re literally dressed up as a clown. Did you forget?’
‘No, I didn’t forget, I’m not stupid,’ she said. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Liverpool,’ I said.
‘What you doing here?’
‘I just left and came here.’
‘You just left.’
‘How long you worked here?’ she said.
‘About six months,’ I said.
‘You like it?’
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘You like being a clown?’
‘I’m not a clown, you’re a clown,’ she said.
She paid and left. But before that she invited me to the theatre to see the show she was in. The play was Twelfth Night, and she played Feste, the fool. I’d studied Twelfth Night when I was in school, so I knew the story vaguely. Watching the play, I particularly remember the scene where Malvolio is tricked into thinking Olivia is in love with him. His actions make him look insane and so he’s locked up. Feste arrives and makes fun of his insanity while disguised as a priest.
I thought Marcella made eye contact with me once or twice while she was performing. I took it as a compliment and felt smug, then immediately I felt stupid because she was looking all over the audience while in character. I sunk low in my seat and watched her act as a clown. And Malvolio, being mocked, who was an arsehole, but didn’t really deserve it.
Afterwards, Marcella invited me to go for drinks with her and a couple of the other actors. Jacob Brightly, who played Malvolio, and Sarah-Jane Parker, who played Olivia.
‘Because, like, Shakespeare was…’ Sarah-Jane Parker was saying, ‘…he was just one of those meant-to-be guys.’
‘To-be-or-not-to-be guys,’ Jacob Brightly said.
‘Ha, yeah, sure,’ Sarah-Jane said. ‘I imagine him as this man who just knew what he wanted to say all the time. I bet he was annoying in that sense, but I think I’d love him if I knew him.’
‘Don’t be pathetic,’ Jacob said. ‘Besides, Shakespeare wasn’t one man. He was at least two.’
‘Yeah, one wrote them, the other posed for pictures.’
‘I heard Shakespeare was a woman,’ Marcella said.
‘Would have been a woman dressed as a man,’ Jacob said. ‘But either way, he only wrote those plays, he wasn’t any more special than me or you. Just a person. He was by no means perfect.’
‘He was a great writer but he was an arsehole,’ I said. They looked at me, then laughed. They then carried on their conversation without me. I didn’t feel part of it. I had little interest in Shakespeare and I wanted to go home.
That evening, after Sarah-Jane and Jacob had left, I sat with Marcella. She told me she was feeling down because she had been through a break-up and felt guilty for leaving her husband.
‘Why did you leave him?’ I asked.
‘I thought I didn’t love him anymore.’
‘How should I know? All’s I know is that I made a decision based on what I was feeling, and I knew – still know – that it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t go on being unhappy. He didn’t make me happy. As selfish as it sounds.’
I told her I’d left my girlfriend several months ago. I felt guilty because I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you what scares me. What scares me is that I could fall in love with someone else. Makes me think what’s the point in that? Because it’ll happen again.’
‘We’re not bad people,’ I said. ‘Bad things just happen.’
‘Bad things just happen.’
The next day in work, Davina was in a good mood, singing as she brewed the coffee. I could smell the cigarette on her as though she was burning alive. She said to me, ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’
‘It’s a nice day, yeah,’ I said. It was sunny outside. A hard-faced sun behind big, thick clouds.
‘I’m going to be a mother,’ she said.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘But you – ’ I was going to say but you’re not with anyone, but I thought against it. I thought her husband was dead, that’s what she’d told me. I didn’t know who she was with, not that it was any of my business. ‘Congratulations,’ I said.
‘It’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘I hope it’s a little girl.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘That would be nice.’
It was a quiet day in the café. The afternoon was slow, people were enjoying the weather outside. I don’t know what came over me, but I picked up the phone behind the counter and called Emma. She answered. I heard her voice. ‘Hello?’ she said. That voice was still very familiar as though I’d never forgotten it. It frightened me as well. It was a sound I shouldn’t be hearing. ‘Who’s this?’ she said again. I hung up. I don’t know why I did that. I didn’t love her anymore. She was gone from my life. I’d made my choice.
A clown came into the café and sat down, and I went over and said, ‘Hello, Marcella.’
But a man’s voice said, ‘Who’s Marcella?’
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought you were someone else.’
‘See many clowns, do you?’ he said, not sounding like he was joking.
‘Yeah,’ I said, with a sarcastic laugh.
The male clown ordered a black coffee and sat in silence reading a newspaper. I went back behind the counter where I sat on a stool and watched him. I watched him sip his coffee and rustle the paper. He coughed loudly, being the only one there it was the only sound. Where was Marcella? She didn’t work during the day, only the night.
Davina came in smelling of smoke and told me to clear the tables. The tables were already cleared, but the clown was gone, so I went and took his empty coffee mug and wiped the table down.
Davina said, ‘This baby’s not going to birth itself. You want to manage the café while I’m gone?’
I said I would. She’d hire someone else to take my old job. She hired a young teenage girl called Natasha. She was studying law at university. Natasha kept to herself and was good at her job. After a while, I left her in charge and I went for a walk.
I walked to a stream where the water ran fast, and a couple of birds flew overhead, and the trees rustled their leaves. I felt a sense of calm. I enjoyed the emptiness of the place, the solitude, the forgottenness, the way the sounds of the trees and insects dominated the world, a whirlwind rustling like being shushed to sleep. After a while, sitting by the stream, I saw a frog. It leapt out of the water and into the tall grass. I only saw it for a second. And even though it was only a frog, it didn’t seem real. Didn’t seem natural. It caused me to sit there staring at the grass, noting every time the grass moved in the breeze, wondering if it was the frog. I remembered when I was a little boy and my dad had taken me down to the lake near our house and I have this image of him fishing, the angular shape of him, as though he were the foundations of a pyramid. In his camo-green wellies and tan sun hat, squinting like Clint Eastwood, and not saying much else to me but just sitting still, watching for frogs. So that’s what I did. And every time I saw one, it was like magic, like something special. But it’s one of those things you can’t tell anyone else because to them it’s just a frog and doesn’t mean a thing. None of it means anything.
I upset myself with my thoughts, and so I stayed there for a while longer until I got myself together. The thought of Emma hurt me, but I knew she’d move on with her life and find meaning in it that way. Without me.
A week later, I heard Marcella had gone missing. I saw the missing person posters stuck to walls, fences and telephone poles. A black and white image of her face, a half smile from when she would have been asked to smile for the camera, but she was only half-hearted enough to give a little. Marcella Bramwell. I’d never known her second name before. I only knew her as Marcella, the sad clown, who played Feste in Twelfth Night, and who drank coffee and ate tuna sandwiches. But I didn’t really know her. Who was she really? Where had she gone?
‘That girl? The clown?’ Davina said. ‘No idea. I didn’t even know she was a girl.’
‘She was,’ I said.
‘I don’t want to talk to the police if that’s what you want.’
‘I’m not saying that,’ I said. ‘And I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I don’t have anything to tell them.’
‘Well, she’s a grown woman,’ Davina said. ‘She can come and go as she pleases without people asking where she’s gone.’
‘It’s only natural to worry.’
‘Yes, but it’s none of your business.’
Davina was twice as big these days, her belly the size of a pan full of pasta, which she poured out in front of me, covered in Bolognese and cheese, as I took my break. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘Eat.’ I did. I ate it while thinking, and even though it was hot, I ate the whole thing quite fast. I must have been hungry.
‘Don’t make it your business,’ she said. ‘It’s most likely not.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But it’s not normal, is it? To just disappear. To up and leave for no reason.’
‘Like I said, mind your business.’
Natasha was agile in the way she moved from table to table and swooped over to me, took my plate and cleaned up so quickly it was easy to forget I’d just eaten. The blonde of her hair caught in the sharp rays of sunlight. She smiled a lot. She was quite a positive person. She said to me, ‘Where are you from? Didn’t you just up and leave?’
‘Yeah but, I’m not a missing person. She is.’
‘She’ll be fine.’
‘Why aren’t you worried?’ I said.
‘I never met her,’ she said. She leaned both hands on the chair opposite and glanced once at Davina behind the counter, who’d soon be away on maternity leave for several months, and then glanced back at me. Natasha had a strong gaze that I held, and it seemed she was light years ahead of anyone else, like she knew my shit and her shit and Davina’s shit, and knew, just knew, how the world worked in some way or another. Her smile hooked on one side forming the curvature of a billhook. ‘There was this guy I knew,’ she said. ‘He didn’t have any friends. He didn’t go anywhere or do anything. We went to the same school and he lived near where I lived. I felt sorry for him, but back then he was just this weird kid. He put up with a lot of shit, apparently. Got beat up by his dad who tried to force him to join the army. He didn’t want to go. Like I said, he didn’t want to do anything.
‘Well, he must have had something he wanted. He just didn’t let anyone know. After school finished, I went to college. I heard he got a job in a supermarket, and I still saw him around since he lived close by. I never said a word to him. One day he was gone. Just vanished like he was never there. I suppose he had nothing. His mum died when he was a baby and his dad didn’t give a shit about him, and he didn’t even try to make friends. But there was nothing his dad could do since he was an adult now and living his own life.
‘One day in the spring, in my last semester of my second year at university, he sent a letter to my parent’s house. A letter. Can you believe it? But I suppose it makes sense, since our street was the only connection we had. All’s he needed was the house number, and I guess he remembered it. The letter said that he’d left because he hated everything and was very close to killing himself. He decided to, instead of ending his life physically, end it, I don’t know, mentally, I suppose. He was in Scotland. Living alone. But had two good friends. He worked in a supermarket again, but he was going to college, studying literature.
‘It made me happy to know he was happy. He was just born into the wrong place. He just needed someone, and I was there, but I never said a word to him. But after he left, would I go looking for him? God no. That’s his world now, no one else’s. Some people just want to leave and don’t want to be found.’
Natasha smiled and walked away. She headed behind the counter where she served an old man a coffee. I sat and thought for a while. It was hot. I’d been sweating and as I wiped my forehead, I felt quite a lot of sweat. I looked around. I thought to myself what the fuck am I doing here? I couldn’t for the life of me remember what had happened. I began to write. I wrote about the mistakes I’d made and put them all down on paper in my notebook. There was a lot of pain there where I’d ended up as myself but as someone else at the same time.
Marcella had been gone for four months. I received no letter. On a Monday, on the first week of that fourth month, I was on stage. I was Feste the clown. (Marcella’s role). They said I was a natural. That I was good at making people laugh and making believe that I was someone else. Every night I heard them roar with laughter at me, in my clown make-up, and I looked at Malvolio, locked up in prison for being insane. Olivia wasn’t really in love with him, silly man. But he shouldn’t have fucked everything up in the first place.
© Michael Holloway
Cover photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash