Town Called Distraction

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I loosely calculated faint figures in my hand.  The bridge to the east side of town would be down and crossable for a quarter of an hour from quarter past twelve and for ten minutes at twelve forty-five. Even if I were to make the close of the first window I would still be fifteen minutes late, yet the second window glowed in pink neon next to the faded twelve fifteen. I knew I would be distracted by the world. There are things you cannot ignore. The world requests time. I’d been listening to the news on the radio before leaving and had to spring back upstairs to note down names mentioned in the broadcast to look up later on.  The bus pulled in while I was scanning the headlines in the newsagents in front of the bus stop and I rushed out to meet it. It had been the wrong bus, so I waited and wondered how long ago the council had had the bus shelter replaced, if ever.

In the deepest, air-conditioned aisle of the supermarket, assertion finally came. As I stared into the spread of bottled drinks before me, and followed the small prints of the multibuy deals and percentage-based offers, a decision surfaced on something six rows and several aisles back. I returned to a single step from the foyer. At the circular, turreted stand of flowers that had caught my eye on arrival, I had, several minutes before, entertained the thought of a gift. In truth, I had noticed first that the flowers were heavily reduced, some wilting visibly even, and beyond that dubious beginning, I had known already that perhaps the idea of a gift itself did not sit correctly. Yet still, I had preceded to cloak this brief, gallant flourish of spontaneity in something else. I had procrastinated. I had realised that I could only remember the flowers that somebody else would have once adored, and in remembering that, a leak had sprung within. The whole meeting seemed futile now, and presently, as I flicked through the labels once more at the flower display, I could not understand how I had slept with such self-assurance the previous night. My fingers stopped at the cellophane wrap of the camellias. They carried the heaviest discount, and seemed to represent too the healthiest of those that still remained. The colour of their oscillating petals was a little gaudy for my taste, yet I had removed myself from the distraction of emotion altogether, and as such, they were patently the correct choice. Prising them carefully from the stand, I caught my image in the metal sheet that backed the now empty shelves of a refrigerated unit. My reflection appeared grievously dishonest. I turned back into the aisle, clutching them self-consciously to my left breast.

Once on the correct bus I sat beside a woman completely unlike myself reading a newspaper. I sought out the important parts. I completely agreed with the style of dress chosen by a French politician. I read all the stories about America. I had to unpick the tears sitting on my lower lashes after reading about a memorial service up north. I didn’t notice the woman leave, but remember picking up the newspaper off her empty seat to continue reading it. My fingertips felt roughened and dry from the paper, I looked around in my bag for hand cream. There is so much space between molecules that we never really touch anyone or anything, I moisturised more air than skin. As the bus took a detour due to the Carrutherson Pass being closed on Thursdays, which I’d forgotten about, I was notified that my book was ready to be picked up and would be available for the next three weeks. I got off a stop early to pick it up.

As I pored over the magazines, I read, a little absentmindedly, the watch of the man adjacent to me. He, a silver-haired embellishment in a sheepskin lined jacket, was busy haw-hawing with a lady whom I assumed to be his wife. Her skin bore the same leathery tan and her teeth shone as intimidatingly as his anyhow. I realised then that I was behind schedule. I had woken myself an hour early than strictly necessary that morning to allow for moments like this - for the doubt surrounding the flowers, for the c-list fodder that had attracted me momentarily, for my foray into soft drink promotion. And yet I had miscalculated even my own capacity for wasting time. I strode back through the cheese aisle, beyond the meat and fish and the deli counters and those other pungent substitutes for their soothing French counterparts. I kept my head down at the passing crocodile skinned handbags and the top-knotted scalps and those vulgar pairs of boots I should surely face up to in time. I thought of how I must remove my agitations toward these grotesque appendages and the memories of what again they may replace. I fell into line at the counter. I paid for the flowers politely and discreetly. I found myself no longer angling for any kind of affirmation from the eyes of a seventeen-year-old. The checkout seemed to offer only disdain anyway -  and that beneath the gravitas of a gloss pout. I crunched the receipt into a ball. It was unlike me to not have folded it with at least some degree of precision. As I swung beyond the automatic doors into the street outside, I could not adjust to the spiky protrusions of the synthetic paper form within my palm and I discarded it temporarily into the right hand pocket of my coat.

There was no one at the counter so I went round the back to try and find someone who worked in the stockroom who could find the book. I’d ordered it because the blurb used a turn of phrase I’d always admired and I was half-serious about highlighting any word in the book that I felt proved the existence of an ideology I’d been playing around with for almost two years. It started off as a miraculous discovery, a new way of seeing, but now it was the only way I saw, the only way I wanted to see. Not many others knew about it though, so I wasn’t a fanatic, I was just very interesting. The depot had a TV in the corridor outside the stockroom and I leant as if bored against its screen with a flat palm on the end of my stiff arm to twist my head and shoulders in for the thrill of guilt and culpability the international news would give me. Television perfectly illustrates the theory of quantum physics, I birthed this intellivision in my head. Those pixels everywhere in every colour being everything, being there but not being there, I reasoned, they could be everything, though they will never be real, they will never really exist outside imagination. Possibilities mean so much more than reality these days. They certainly do to me. If only he wanted to confuse me or contradict himself and smile because of it.

Above me, the sun had made itself known momentarily before slipping behind the burgeoning bank of cloud. I had expected the weather to be dour anyway. As I reached the monument at Perfrement Street, I examined it studiously. I cannot explain how exactly, but it was as if I had visited the site of a painting I had feared since childhood and found that it was merely the style of the brush work that had put me off. It seemed that the positioning of the statues and shrubbery, the planning of the park to my left - the curvature of the avenue ahead in fact - was so perfectly to my taste at first hand. I could not remember why I had always been so unmoved by it. At the corner of Beauregard Road I waited for a rush of traffic to calm. I released the balled receipt into a bin by the level crossing. Looking down upon the camellias, I saw that they were flagging somewhat more than they had seemed to be in the supermarket. I felt suddenly inclined to rid myself of them altogether, unable to imagine waiting on any bench with such poisonous ambivalence to the item in my hand and what it was inclined to represent.

I started walking towards the bridge, but very slowly. I was worrying, I remember, about whether things would turn out alright in the end, if things had already gone wrong some time up to this point. On the way I saw a cash machine but decided not to check my balance. It looked a lot like an arcade game with its fully flashing colour screen, full quantum. Where is my money? There’s more money than there is money, there’s more money than is needed for the whole world to be alright.

Crossing the road, I realised I would arrive early by default. I would expect poor time-keeping already; merely two weeks in, it was a habit, and I realised then I would not look on it with the same wry romance as I had harboured in the past. I remembered now, in amongst the brilling throng of lunchtime, the despondence I had felt during those sporadic sittings with others. It paralysed me as a feeling of utter distraction in the washy light of a pub garden. It was a cold disaffection toward a glass of Diet Coke at gone seven-o-clock. I was a terrible liar, it seemed, and yet with desperation I had always remained. I had forced myself drunk beyond the seams of my conscience.

I thought of a joke I could tell if I thought he was trying to make us feel serious.  I read it through in my head while my facial muscles held a tech rehearsal. I knew I’d missed the chance to cross the bridge, but by this I had saved myself.

I had pursued at pulling teeth for the sake of some momentary cling or the notion of something I had already dismissed. This that had seemed a self-deprecating and trustworthy punch line in the safety of a relationship, now seemed inescapably accurate once more. I arrived alone at the bench, camellias still in hand.

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Co-written with Patrick Fisher. © Patrick Fisher and Jen Calleja. Released as the A-side of Sauna Youth’s record Dreamlands in 2012 with musical accompaniment by Sauna Youth performed by Martha Orchard and Bobby Krlic. Played on BBC radio (twice). Performed live at Protein Gallery, London in September 2012.