For December’s Monthly Story, I chose one of the lightest and most upbeat stories from Phantoms Doused in Night, entitled Mångata. The story is almost untouched from the original 2013 version, with the slightest of changes to the text. It’s quite a short little story. I hope you enjoy it.
As with all snowy December evenings, thoughts were consumed by Christmas. The glittering of snowflakes draped a sheet over the city as cars trudged through the slush of ice with bumpers close and engines humming. On footpaths, shopping bags and umbrellas bounced about like pinballs as high streets appeared as a sea of activity, with waves flowing in all directions. Buyers rushed from window to window as their eyes scoured the items beyond the glass with calculator minds crunching the likelihood that what they saw was the perfect gift, the one that will bring that cash-earned smile.
It was just past 4pm and to Jonathan, the rush and panic of last-minute shoppers and the excitement of children was a background noise that was irrelevant. He liked to wander, with no aim in mind. At twenty-nine, he was a man who appreciated the value of a casual saunter through a maelstrom of other peoples’ dashing, and where possible, he liked to stop and light up a cigarette. Then he could simply take in the blizzard of December weather and enjoy not being part of the frantic retail dependency. As he put out a near-finished smoke, he spotted a man carrying a child’s bike, boxed (assembly required) under one arm, with the other clutching what must have been four or five shopping bags, each bulging out with pointed corners of smaller boxes inside. He hoped that the man was parked nearby, or at least planning to hail a taxi soon.
Jonathan lingered around a paper seller’s stall and flicked through a few magazines, a new Marvel comic he hadn’t heard of, then reached for another when he noticed the disapproving look from the seller. With one hand on the comic, he returned it and turned away.
Anne was feeling a little ditsy this afternoon. She had known that there was something she had to get in town, but it was cloudy in her mind now. It can’t have been too important, but whatever it was, it had drawn her to the main shopping street, where a crush of people gave her a despairing desire to give up and go home. Traffic would be horrendous at this hour, so she decided to stick with her half-plan and battled the swarms and if it didn’t come back to her, she would at least find somewhere to sit for a while and grab a coffee.
As she weaved carefully through stalls and customers along the long pedestrian street, she felt the shoulder of someone colliding with her own, which sent her straight down onto the slippery ground. She looked up meekly at a man who almost fell himself as he tried to get her back to her feet. She shrugged him away irritably and caught her bearings.
“I’m so sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t see… I’m sorry, are you okay?”
She looked angrily at him, then at the news seller behind him who had also come to her aide. “It’s fine. I’m fine,” she spat, then continued on her way. She cursed the clumsy oaf, then noticed a store ahead. “Aha,” she remembered. “Of course!” She disappeared into a bookshop.
Feeling a little foolish, Jonathan decided to get out of everyone’s way. He drifted into a coffee shop a few doors down and waited in the doorway for a spot to appear. The sound of steaming milk and grinding beans was nothing compared to the chatter of happy shoppers, likely the ones who had finished for the day. A small table freed up in a tiny booth at the end of the shop, so he parked himself down and looked at the wall mounted menu over the end of the counter.
“Hi there. Welcome back!” a waiter said cheerfully as he spotted Jonathan. “So, what did she have?”
Puzzled, Jonathan responded. “Oh, I think you must have me mistaken with someone else…” He eyed the waiter, who in turn was puzzled.
The man was almost expecting it to be a joke. “Really? You’re not…?”
“I’ve never been in here,” Jonathan said. “What did she have? Who is she?”
“That’s so strange. I could have sworn… Well, you look just like one of our regular customers… His wife was having a baby and it was a while ago so… I thought it was you. Never mind. Sorry about that!”
“Sorry. Erm,” he said awkwardly. “I’ll have a black coffee, please.”
“Coming right up. Sorry again!”
“Don’t mention it…”
He noticed a framed print of “The Persistence of Memory” on the wall opposite him, which he found amusing. He lounged aimlessly in wait for his coffee. The place was getting ever more packed with customers, but he was happy to stay put.
Anne targeted The Bean Counter opposite the bookshop once she had bundled her book into her handbag. As she crossed the street, she was tapped on the shoulder by someone.
“Hi Anne!” the enthusiastic woman said. She was lost in a huge winter coat that was too big for her and a hat that smothered her ears.
“Oh, hi,” Anne responded, not quite sure who the girl was. She knew that they knew one another, but it had obviously been a while since they’d met, as the woman’s name escaped her.
“What are you up to?”
“Oh, just doing a bit of shopping, you know,” she brandished her bag.
“Same. Just getting Pete’s present now,” the mystery woman announced. “That’s the last thing on the list for me this year, thank God!”
“Ah, yeah, that’s great! I eh, I just have to dash, okay, talk to you again soon. Hi to Pete,” she added, grateful that there was something she could throw in at the end to hide her complete lack of recognition. She waved and turned away, picking her brain as to where she knew the woman from. Was it college, maybe? No, it can’t have been that long ago if the woman didn’t make a fuss over their chance meeting. Who was she?
Anne entered the bustling coffee shop. For a moment, she thought of just leaving, but despite the queues, she ended up hanging about at the counter, tempted to order a take away rather than sitting down. As she pondered her choice, the line started to move a bit and people began sitting down beside strangers at all tables. She thought about sitting, then changed her mind. “Latte to go, please. Large.”
The man smiled and turned his back.
Anne spotted a space in the back. “Actually, why not, I’ll sit in. I’ll see if I can sit down there. I’ll take a blueberry muffin as well, please.”
“No problem. I’ll bring them down,” the waiter offered.
Anne stepped around a child’s buggy and put her bag down on a chair at the end of the shop. She said, “Is this seat taken?” then looked into the face of the man opposite it. “Oh,” she said, recognising him.
“No, please…” the man said, who in turn looked up to see her. “Oh, hello again,” he said. “Please…” he started.
Anne almost picked up her bag and went to leave, but then considered how rude it would be and hesitated.
“Let me buy your coffee for you, please,” Jonathan said. “It’s the least I can do for almost knocking you out, that time…”
Anne laughed through her nose quietly and smiled. “You know what,” she said. “I’m just going to say yes, because I really would like to sit down somewhere, and this is the only seat left.”
“I’m charmed by your honesty,” Jonathan smirked.
“Harsh?” Jonathan offered.
“Yeah, a little harsh. Sorry.”
“Okay, we’re even now, right?” Jonathan asked.
“Once you pay for my coffee, yes.”
The waiter arrived, with Anne’s latte and muffin. “There you go.”
“A muffin as well,” Jonathan laughed. “I guess I’ll buy that too.”
“Anne,” she offered her hand.
“Jonathan.” They shook.
“How is it?” Jonathan asked.
“Delicious,” Anne answered.
“Your head, I mean. You hit your head earlier when you fell,” Jonathan smiled.
“Oh,” she laughed. “It’s fine. I’ve been a bit forgetful today, actually.”
“Since the fall?”
“No… Just in general. It’s weird, actually.” She took a long sip of her coffee and cut the muffin down the middle with a knife.
“You know, you look sort of familiar to me,” Jonathan said suddenly. He looked at her short black hair and tried to slot the thought into place.
“Really? I just had a feeling like that outside. A woman said she knew me, asked how I was, and frankly, I couldn’t tell what her name was or how she knew me at all… I am almost certain she had me pegged as someone else, but she knew my name.”
“Anne’s a popular enough name,” Jonathan suggested.
“Maybe.” Anne took her cigarette packet from her bag. She took one out and looked at it. “Is there smoking in here?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I remember now,” Jonathan said. “Forget it, though, it’s pretty irrelevant.”
“I figured out who you remind me of. But it’s fine, never mind.”
“You can’t say that and expect me not to drag it out of you. Come on!” she returned the cigarettes to her bag.
“It’s a strange one. Just forget it.”
Anne gave a look.
“Okay, it’s unusual, right, but you remind me of someone from a book. A character.”
“I hope it’s not someone from one of those silly comics you were looking at back at the newsstand.”
“Whoa! Silly comics?”
“Yeah. Silly comics. You know, for kids.”
“I wasn’t looking at silly comics, I was looking at X-Men and Walking… Wait a minute, you’ve never read an X-Men comic?”
Anne scoffed. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“You are missing out. Comics are not just pretty pictures with stupid dialogue attached. At least, not any more. I’ll have to educate you.”
“Maybe another time,” Anne gave a playful smile and took a bite of her muffin. She held her hand over her mouth as she chewed.
“Unbelievable…” Jonathan said, shaking his head as he bit his lower lip in mild annoyance.
“So, who do I remind you of then?” Anne asked.
“A superhero? Can she fly?”
“No. She’s not a superhero, she’s a woman, elegant and smart looking. I was clearly mistaken.”
“Oh,” Anne teased. “What does she do? What book is she in?”
“She’s a little complicated,” Jonathan explained.
“Seems about right.”
“She’s from The Bridge, by Iain Banks. It’s just her description really, you look like her to me. That’s all.”
Anne stared into his face with a look of shock on her own. “Do you believe in coincidences?” she asked.
Jonathan thought about it for a minute.
Anne took a wrapped paper bag from her handbag and opened it. From within, she revealed a sleek white paperback book. The Bridge by Iain Banks.
When they finished up in The Bean Counter, they opted to go for a drink in a small trendy bar two streets down, where a small crowd was relaxed but with a buzz. It was a nice atmosphere, not too loud to talk, but not so quiet that each word resounded from wall to wall. They took a corner table, with Anne on the soft couch and Jonathan on a short bar stool.
They chatted about music as they drank their contrasting drinks. A pint of Guinness loomed over a Gin and Tonic while they agreed that The Bends was Radiohead’s real best album, even though OK Computer had some of their best individual songs. They both hated U2, but their opinions differed on just about everything else. She couldn’t stand electronic music, while he was actually wearing a Kraftwerk t-shirt. Within ten minutes they were certain that they were human polar opposites, but it was the conflict of opinion that made the conversation fun.
“You hungry? Want to get something to eat?” Jonathan asked.
Anne looked at her watch.
“Well if you have somewhere to be…”
“No, I’m just checking to see if Gulemo’s is open yet. You know it?”
“Yeah,” Anne smiled.
“Never been there.”
“You are fucking kidding me,” she teased. “They open in half an hour.”
“I’ll get in another round so,” he suggested. She didn’t need to respond. Jonathan got to the bar and an older gentleman, who was leaving with a newspaper under one arm nodded to him.
“Hi,” Jonathan said, politely.
“Congratulations, by the way. Haven’t seen you since! Hope all is well!” the man said with enthusiasm. He waved as he said it and was out the door before Jonathan could realise what was happening. He looked over his shoulder at the men at the bar, none of whom were facing the door.
“Okay…” Jonathan murmured to himself. That was weird. The barman was looking at him. “A Guinness and a G&T, please,” he said automatically. A sense of déjà vu swam over him.
“I’ll drop down the Guinness,” the man said.
In Gulemo’s, their chatter became more animated, as it turned out, the pizzeria was also a cocktail bar. Not one to refuse alcohol on invitation, Jonathan nodded happily when the waitress asked, “Would you like a cocktail with that?”
“What’s a screwdriver?” he asked.
“Vodka and orange,” Anne explained.
“Nah,” Jonathan discarded. “If I’m going to have a cocktail, it has to be a White Russian.”
“One White Russian…” the waitress repeated.
“Make it two. I’ve never tried it,” Anne explained.
Jonathan’s jaw hung open. “Never tried…”
The waitress courteously left the table and went back out of sight.
“Just like you’ve never had a Gulemo’s pizza…”
“We must educate one another further,” Jonathan mused.
“I think that can be arranged.” Anne smiled with a cheeky grin then looked down at the drinks menu. “Some interesting names they have for some of these…”
“Yeah,” Jonathan said softly, noticing that something was rubbing against his leg.
The pizza didn’t take long to eat, which was something that they were both grateful for, as there was a driving force that dragged them out of the restaurant. They needed somewhere out of light, out of sight. They felt compelled to stand in the darkened doorway of the building next door, where Anne clasped Jonathan’s head behind both ears and pulled him close. Their noses brushed lightly as she pressed her lips against his. He gave back some pressure and took a hard, sharp breath. They both blinked in surprise as their eyes met. He embraced her fully and held her head against his shoulder, for a long, long moment. It evaporated as she slowly turned to him again, pushed him gently against the panel of the door and kissed him forcefully. She leaned up to him, then went onto her toes as her lips forced his head right back against the wall.
Their fingers webbed as they pressed their bodies together. Their clothes were like walls that needed to be demolished, but there was nothing but air between them and a steady side street. People had been walking by, gone unnoticed to the two of them. Their magnetism was intense, but they each looked out from where they stood, in shadow, at cars drifting by and people avoiding looking directly at them.
“Come on,” Anne whispered. “Let’s walk a bit.”
“This way, then,” Jonathan suggested, and headed for the river. They walked side by side, her arm around his waist, his draped over her shoulder, like a familiar fit, but with an electric charge. They stepped as one, over cobbled streets and onto the riverside promenade, a walkway that jutted out over the water.
The night had taken the city hostage, its snowy sheen had been left to melt as clear skies, cloudless, were like a void of shadows fleeing the earth. Lights of white and yellow made the city look its best, hiding the daylight realities with a veil of pretty veneer. It always looked more like home at night, they agreed. They pottered along the walkway and turned up onto the small pedestrian bridge that arched over the black depths below. Over the keystone, right in the middle, they stopped and looked out, down the river towards the bay.
The moon, now on the horizon, looked like a gateway to tomorrow. It left a shimmering road of light along the surface of the water so palpable that Anne thought she could step onto it and walk right to the moon.
“It’s such a beautiful night,” she said, shivering in the chill wind.
Jonathan stood behind her and put his arms around her. “It truly is.” They fell into one another’s warmth as he smelled her hair. It was like an auburn autumn, peppered with smoke. “There’s a word for that,” he began. “The way it looks out on the water…”
“I can’t remember what it is, though…”
“That’s helpful,” she joked, turning to him. He sniggered. The clocktower beyond struck on the hour. They kissed once more, for a long instant, before it was gone. They looked into each other’s eyes.
“I’m glad I knocked you over,” Jonathan said.
Anne chuckled. “Me too,” she responded. “Good night.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Will I see you again soon?”
“I left my number in your back pocket,” she explained. “You were meant to find it later.” She laughed.
“Good thing I asked,” he smiled, “as I’d probably have washed it and lost you forever.” He retrieved a small folded piece of paper with ten digits on it.
Anne gave an amused grin as she waved her fingers at him and walked away, north of the river and round the bend.
Jonathan stood for a while longer and watched the snow begin to fall onto the moonlit river. Shortly after, he headed home.
Anne tried the elevator, but it was out of order. She decided to take the stairs.
Jonathan found himself hurrying up to his apartment, bounding up the stairs three at a time.
Anne rummaged for her keys in her handbag.
Jonathan typed Anne’s number into his phone’s contacts list as he walked along the balcony to his flat.
They looked up to see one another at number 12C. They glanced at the door and back at one another. Each had a key in their hand and a look of recollection on their face. They took one another’s hand and remembered. It was like switching on a bulb in their memory. Jonathan opened the door to his sister inside. She was holding a small baby, who she proffered to Anne.
“Did you guys have a nice time?” she asked.
“Yes,” Anne said, still slightly dizzy from the recollection.
“Then I’ll leave you to it. If I go now, I can catch the train back.”
“Thanks,” Jonathan said.
The door closed, leaving the three of them in the apartment. Anne put the sleeping baby down into her cot in the bedroom, with Jonathan at her side. As she led him down onto the bed beside her, she reached out to turn off the lamp. She knocked down a brochure from the dresser. It read: Have you ever wanted to have a second First Date? Now you can!
“When did you remember?” he asked as she opened his belt quietly but quickly.
“Just then, at the door. I have no idea how it worked,” she said, as he unhooked and tossed her clothes away to the floor.
“You know,” he whispered as their hands explored and lost their way, “I think we should remember more often.”