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Authors: David Staniforth

Imperfect Strangers

Imperfect Strangers

David M. Staniforth

Text copyright © David Staniforth 2014

All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, incidents and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

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I would like to thank Kath Middleton, Victoria Pearson, Rosemary Oberlander and Patti Elliott for their invaluable help in producing this book, and for instilling in me a necessary portion of self-belief.

 

CHAPTER
1

It’s just an office chair, but it’s her chair, and as I press my nose into the fabric and sniff I imagine the possibility of being with Sally. A ridiculous notion, but with her smell inside me – perfume, shampoo, possibly a hint of her sex – I feel intoxicated a
nd sigh as I curl into the seat.

Loneliness has led me to this, but what excuse is that to lighten the weight of guilt when I’ve been lonely all my life.
A quick glance into the dimly lit corridor boosts me with the reasoning that no one else is going to know. I fixed the cameras. Besides, I’m only going to look. No harm in that. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble for this, so why shouldn’t I? So what if I’m only supposed to enter the offices in an emergency. Patrol the floors. Punch the card on each level. Go back to the front desk. Wait for two mind-numbing hours, haunted by the creaks and groans of this empty building, before doing it over again, several times each night.

I
don’t feel as if I could stop myself anyway. Not now. I’m beguiled by the scent she’s left behind, and I wan
t
..
.
No! I need more. It’s a craving, I imagine, that is not dissimilar to an alcoholic’s need of a drink following the sniff of a cork.

My mind
is set. I’m going to do it. And thinking I may as well be comfortable, I slip off my shoes and remove my cap. Switching the lamp on then off in quick succession, I settle on five. Light filters into the room and casts harsh shadows. A moment’s pause and thankfully there’s no presence, nothing more than a mean niff of foot odour floating from beneath the desk.

Yes, f
ive is a good number.             

Sally is not like the others. I’m certain of it. Glancing around the room I see that even her desk looks different. A snow globe holds in place a ream of paper, so neatly stacked that the separate sheets appear to be one white mass. I’ve seen snow globes before. They’re stupid pointless things: famous monuments such as Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower – places of interest trapped in a perpetual winter. Sally’s globe isn’t pointless; it’s beautiful, like her.
This globe is ornamental. It encapsulates an angel who stands on her tiptoes throwing a kiss to the roof of the dome. Taking hold of the globe, I shake the snow to life and discover it’s even more unusual than I first realised. The floating flecks are not white, they’re silver, silver stars, hundreds of them, swirling around the angel, reflecting the lamp’s glow in a myriad of colourful catch-lights.

Wish upon a star
, Keith
.

I nod to the voice in my head and place the star-globe in its original position, pressing it firmly, knowing that my touching of it has unsettled its stability. Did Sally choose the globe herself, I wonder, scanning the desk for more
examples of her personality. A wire-mesh container holds a selection of pens, all but one of them purely functional: the clear plastic type with blue, black or red lids. What do they remind me of…?

Cockpits of fighter planes
: same shape. Like those models–

That I built from
odds and ends
.

A
gain I nod to the voice, my own. Not the voice I have now, but that of a much younger self.

One of the pens is glaringly different. Purple, topped with a many-faceted-heart of plastic
, it has an innocent girlish charm and reminds me of the rings in the machine next to the one that dispensed gobstoppers. Prizes for young children: plastic soldiers or bouncing balls for boys, and for the girls, bright plastic jewellery: necklaces, bracelets and rings, like...

Like the one I

Memories present no problem for most people. Sometimes they do, I suppose, in that they might make a person melancholy, but that would likely be the extent of it. For me it’s not so simple. Remembering is never a good thing. This recollection of a plastic ring has such baggage and comes with such force that I grit my teeth and tense my muscles against the expect
ed pain. Triggers such as the pen lids, as innocuous as they may seem, delve deep and claw at things long ago buried. I found a plastic ring when collecting the cast-off prize-cases to use in my model making. Some boy had no doubt received it as his prize and thrown it in disgust.

I gave the ring t
o Heather Unwin just before she—

Leave it be.

I come to, feeling disorientated, sort of like I’ve gone missing for a moment – a bit like the altered recording of the corridor I suppose. This tends to happen, so I do my best to live in the present. When I have these episodes time moves on without my being aware. I once viewed a recording of the corridors to see what happens to me and wasn’t too surprised to discover that I stood rigid like a statue. It happened to me on the high street once and I came back to reality to find a scattering of coins around my feet.

Some of the silver stars have still not settled. Seconds,
likely fifteen at most, have elapsed. It was just a small episode, then. I know a memory will have brought it on, but I don’t know what that memory was. I don’t want to know. It’s shelved for the moment, tucked away where it can do no harm. It’s best if I leave it that way. Picking a scab will only make it bleed, and I’ve scars enough to show the error of that.

Lifting the star-globe, I take one sheet of paper and carefully place the angel back where she stood. Dead centre. A flurry of disturbed stars frisk around the angel’s ankles as I watch the print of moisture left by my thumb evaporate from the surface. The angel looks up at me
, seeming to blow me a kiss. The blank sheet stares back, as if daring me to ruin its pristine surface. I’m not going to write just yet, not until I have the perfect words.

When I
finally press pen to paper its heart lights up with a pink glow and squeezes a smile from me
.
Dear Sall
y
, I quickly write, wishing I wrote neater, knowing from years practising calligraphy that writing more slowly will make little difference.
Will you go for a drink with me?Keith
.
I underline my name, and think of scribing a kiss, maybe capturing it with a heart. Instead I add in brackets
(the night security guard
)
.
After scanning the words I fold the paper and on the outside, write
:
To Sall
y
, in big letters.

The entire building is empty,
and yet I feel the need to take a cautious look into the corridor before easing open the top drawer of Sally’s desk.

Bad boys need to be

I have to silence mother’s voice quickly or risk another episode. Glaring into a dark recess I will her to be quiet. It doesn’t matter which dark place receives the glare, they’re all connected – all darkness is connected in some
way or another. Five times in quick succession I switch the lamp off and then back on. It helps. I don’t know why, but it does. The number has to be a prime though, usually five.

Prime numbers stand alone
, and for that reason I have an affinity towards them. Two, for example, the smallest prime, can only be divided by itself and one, just like all other prime numbers: 3, 5, 7, 11 and so on. They’re solitary, like me. Numbers that aren’t prime are like couples, or families, because they are made from individuals (primes) coming together. I think of a couple as being the number six, a composite made of the first two primes: 2 x 3 = 6. So a man and woman in a relationship have a value of six. You can’t add them, that would make 5, and besides, two people combined creates something more than a sum of their parts. A family of three have the value of thirty: 2 x 3 x 5 = 30. A family of four: 2 x 3 x 5 x 7 = 210. Seeing people this way helps me cope with being alone: being a solitary prime and not a factor of a larger unit is simpler. Imagine having a family of aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and nephews, and nieces, a real ants’ nest, possibly adding to tens or even hundreds of people and see how complicated and scary the composite becomes.

A quick scan of this drawer’s contents is enough. It contains pencils, a highlighter, a stapler, a calculator, paperclips and other such mundane stuff. This isn’t what I was after. If I were to think of the items in this drawer as a set, I would title it:
things that could be found in anybody’s drawer
.

The second drawer proves more interesting. I
immediately title it:
things found in only Sally’s drawer.
It has a promise of intimacy that fills me with expectation. A nettle-sting of excitement prickles my palms as I draw to one side the soft gloves and scarf she wore yesterday.

What to look at first?

I like the look of the mp3 player and finger its metallic peacock-blue casing before inserting the earpieces. I’m about to press the button that will display the list of available songs when I have a flash of inspiration – sheer genius actually – and change my mind. Instead of selecting the menu and choosing a random song I press play. Music floods my ears: a jangling mix of steel strings which cut through a resonating heart-beat-drum. A woman’s voice curls into the music, and it warms my groin. Her voice sounds sensual: like warm caramel dribbling over ice-cream, melting smooth hollows, soothing, as she sings, ‘
I want you with me every move I make.
’ To an alcoholic, I imagine this would be the inevitable tumbler of whisky following a sip from the opened bottle.

The music was paused, so these were the very last words she
heard on this device. My connection to Sally feels even stronger now. No doubt her favourite song, sitting there, waiting, paused for me to find. It’s as if Sally herself is singing the words – not merely singing them, but singing them to me.

Reading its label, I note that t
he scarf is made of angora. It has black and grey stripes that meld into each other with soft fuzzy edges. Angora... I recall reading that it’s harvested from rabbits with long silky fur. I find this comforting. Taking it from the drawer, I stroke the soft nap against my cheek and imagine Sally walking towards me in a dress that matches the floating quality of the music. Barefoot, she places one foot directly in front of the other, a soft bounce in her step – rabbit-like – not quite allowing her heels to make contact with the ground. The slightest smile blossoms in the curve of her lips and sparkles in her eyes. She looks carefree, a happy little hippy-chick. She sits on the desk and leans towards me, her naked toes, delicate, placed on the chair either side of my legs. Heat from her skin radiates through the material of my trousers. Her dress, drawn into loose folds, drapes diaphanously from her exposed, slightly parted knees. The curve of her kneecap, like an upturned teardrop, looks smooth under her skin, its sharp outline softened with flesh.

I find such details fascinating. I imagine most people don’t notice them. Writers draw on
such details. They search for the oft overlooked, ferret out the unusual, discard the ordinary in their quest of the most sublime. I like the way writers describe things and try to think in that way myself. To simply think something along the lines of, her knees looked nice, would be doing someone as outstanding as Sally an injustice. Things of beauty have to be described in a poetic way, hence, an upturned teardrop. What do they feel like, those soft knees that women have? I envisage smoothing my thumb over the bone as my fingertips lightly probe the silken skin behind.

It’s a sign, I determine: this music, the lyrics. It’s a sign of possibility.

Whoja

There she goes again,
her jarring voice stealing into my thoughts, trying to ruin this enjoyable moment. I reach for the lamp, but mother’s already silenced. Who do you think you are? That’s what she’d started to say. Where was I? Signs. Yes. They’re stacking up: first the smile and now the song. Just briefly, because I have the utmost respect for Sally, I dare to picture the private place hidden in the shade of her clothes.

You can’t hide under cardboard sheeting
. I brace against the expectant shudder of this voice from the past.

I don’t like that memory, the memory of cardboard sheeting and all it hid. I don’t want it. Quickly, teeth clenched, I skip the track back to the beginning. The music will force it away. It will push it away even better than the lamp.

I hope it will.

It does, and
mother’s sour voice sounds like it’s falling into a fathomless pit.

Beautiful, beautiful music. Exquisite, voice-banishing music.

I don’t know the tune, nor do I recognise the singer’s voice. All the same, I adore it. Nothing has ever worked so well at drowning the voice of that... that bitch! There, I dared to think it. Without the music, I couldn’t have done it. Usually I keep her at bay by having only pure thoughts, by not thinking about girls, and by concentrating on being good, by not giving in to my boyish wickedness. This music, though, this soothing music of Sally’s, is like some kind of magic that’s liberated me to think what I will.

A glance at the
player’s screen reveals the artist to be Leann Rimes. I’ve not heard of her. I know very little about music. It’s never interested me much. The song is called
I want you with me
. Such perfect words. There could be none more suitable.
As the track continues to play, my pulse quickens, my mouth becomes dry, my heart skips a dance in my chest and a myriad of imagined silver stars send colourful catch-lights into the darkest realms of my mind.

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