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Short Story Competition: Here, At the Still Point

Toby Lloyd

It’s supposed to be me, Rick and Freddie, but they’re not here yet, so it’s just me. We’re the only ones left; everyone else has moved on or moved out. We said we’d meet at The North Star. The North Star was the name of a bar that used to be here. We used to go there after school. No one else went there very much, so in the end it went bankrupt. Someone bought the place up and opened a new bar called Vinnie’s. We still called it The North Star, but we didn’t go so much. After a while Vinnie’s too went bankrupt. This time no one bought it up, so it became just another abandoned building. One day the sign that said ‘Vinnie’s Bar’ fell clean off, so now the place had no name at all. I heard that when the sign fell off it killed a stray dog. In time squatters moved in. People complained, the council took action, and knocked the building down. They turned the place into a sort of public garden, and planted a few trees. The place became known unofficially as ‘The Rose Garden’, but I don’t know if many people needed a name to call it by. We still called it The North Star. When the trees grew to their full height the garden became quite pretty. It looked strange, being bordered on either side by the estates. You squash all those people in, living like ants, and the trees are given all that leg room. Trees don’t even have legs. Kids smoked weed there after dark. I should know; I’d been one of those kids. When the winds came, they ripped all the trees out of the ground. Have you ever seen an uprooted tree? There is something very desperate about the roots sticking out horizontally, all crooked. Not even children hold on that tight. They must have been some winds to do that. Now there is no bar, and no garden, no customers, and no squatters, and no kids to smoke weed. We still call it The North Star. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’re resistant to change.

Freddie and Rick arrive so we move on. The streets are completely deserted. It’s so quiet you can hear the buzz of the street lights. When human beings are a million years extinct the street lights will still be there, turning themselves on every night, turning themselves off every day. Aliens will come down to Earth and they’ll think London is a model village. It is a cold night, possibly in March. Rick is shivering but he won’t do up the zip on his coat. Freddie tries to light a cigarette but it is too windy. I tell him to wait until we get inside. We walk past the estates, and I think of all those buildings doing nothing now but providing the rats with a place to sleep. We’re going to the old hotel. In its day it was a hang out of the great and the good. Check the register. Jimi Hendrix stayed for three nights back in 1968. That was once a big deal to kids like us. The hotel closed down years ago, but hasn’t yet succumbed to rack and ruin. There’s a cellar where the drinks used to be kept, and it still has crates of undrunk beer. This is where we always go. When the beer runs out we’ll have to find somewhere else.

We walk into the lobby. It’s still pretty grand; sculptures, marble, chandeliers. All the windows are accompanied by thick curtains, tied permanently to the sides. Though the patterns on the curtain are abstract, they are suggestive of roses. Everything is immaculate. Dusty, but ordered. It is as though someone still maintains the place. When the guests have all gone, a ghostly cleaning staff remains. I sign the guest book. Freddie and Rick think this is weird, but it’s something I like to do. There’s a grand piano in the corner of the room. I don’t understand why it hasn’t gone out of tune, but it hasn’t. The first few times we came here Freddie would play it. He’s pretty good, but he only knows three songs, and when you’ve heard them you’ve heard them. Rick goes down to the cellar and comes back with some beers. We open them and fall silent. Me and Freddie smoke, but Rick doesn’t. Even though everything has changed, Rick still holds on to some of his old ways. Rick has suffered great disappointment and loss. Of course, we have all suffered disappointment and loss, but Rick’s have been the greatest. He was going to be an astronaut. He spent his whole life believing that. He did a four year engineering course at university, because that’s what they told him he needed. He didn’t even like engineering. He kept his body in perfect condition; he ran five miles every single morning. Never touched drugs, never even smoked a cigarette. Not one in his whole life. He spent hundreds of hours in jet planes, training. He had to do fitness tests. He had to do mental tests. He had to do fucking team building. He had to do weightlessness training. It used to make him throw up, like a car sick kid. Sometimes just watching Apollo 13 he would start to heave. To think, all those hours of throwing up, and he didn’t even get to leave the Earth’s orbit, not even for a minute. Not even just to say he’d done it. That’s disappointment.

Sitting here, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer with Rick and Freddie, and none of us talking, I realise that I have two friends in the world, and I don’t like either of them. I have a fondness for both of them that goes beyond liking or disliking, but I don’t like either of them. It is because we don’t talk. We grew up together. We have known each other as long as we have known what it is to talk. Everything that any of us might say has been said. We have followed every avenue of conversation to its limit, and it is always the same: a brick wall, a hopeless dead end. The exceptions are those things that none of us can say, even when drunk. To say them now would make a mockery of all those years of not saying them. I guess that’s the point.

Rick says he needs some air. I suggest we go out onto the roof. Rick and Freddie agree. We take the lift to the top floor of the hotel. As the lift climbs the ten floors I stare at the screen which tells you what floor you’re on. I’m waiting to see if one of the floor numbers lights up, telling us that someone on that floor has called the lift. As if that were even possible. Freddie starts humming. We get out on the top floor. When we step out into the corridor lights come on automatically. As we walk forward the shadows in front of us recede, like we’re on stage in the spotlight. Or in a prison break. We reach the stairs which take us outside.

On top of the hotel there is a roof garden. It is warmer now. You can see the whole city from here, more or less. I wonder how the plants feel about the one hundred meters of glass and steel which come between them and any natural soil. Freddie mentions the famous person who threw himself off this roof top in the 1980s. He looks over the edge down to the street, empathetically. He throws a penny out in front of him. If it ever reached the ground I didn’t hear it. Freddie starts humming. Rick is shivering again

Way off, at the very edges of my vision, I can see a light moving. At first I think it must be an illusion, but soon I am in no doubt.

‘Hey, look’, I say. Now all three of us are watching it.

‘What do you think it is?’ says Freddie.

I tell him I think it’s an aeroplane.

‘How could it be a plane?’ says Rick, ‘where would it be going? It’s not a plane.’

‘I think it’s a plane.’

We watch in rapt silence. The light is coming closer to us. After a minute we can see that it is not just one light, but two, or even three, very close together.

‘Can you hear that?’ I say, ‘that rumbling sound? Can you hear it?’

‘I hear it’ Freddie says.

‘It’s coming from the hotel. It’s just the hum of electronics.’

‘No it’s not.’

The lights are coming closer. There are definitely three now. The rumbling sound is building. When I first saw it, the light was moving so slowly that I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t fixed, like I was looking on the imperceptible drift of the stars. Now the lights are careering with such a velocity, with such tangible purpose that there is no doubting; to move is to be alive. The sound is so loud it is deafening. It is as though the hotel has been erected in such a position as to straddle a fault line in the earth’s crust, and we are at the centre of a monumental upheaval, frictional forces large enough and hot enough to remodel the entire city. The garden is shaking. I think Freddie is shouting something, but I cannot hear a word. Even Rick has to believe now.

It passes straight over our heads, but none of us dives to the floor of even crouches. We are transfixed. For one moment only, the body of the aeroplane is lit up for me and I can see it clearly from beneath. It is a commercial, not a private, plane. There must be at least two hundred people on board. Its wing span is massive, and I, who spends my evenings standing on top of the city, should know what massive means. Imagine being one of those people, to laugh at the birds as they tire, to look down on the clouds, to have all those views and a destination to boot. Where has it come from? I’ve never understood how a plane works, how it even gets up there in the first place. All that metal, all those people; it just doesn’t make any sense. I think Rick would know, but he wouldn’t want to talk about it.

The time it spent hanging above us can’t have been so long as a second. A fragment of a second, that would have been to an hour what a grain of sand is to a mountain, was all it was. After it has passed we watch it vanish, just as we watched it appear. First the three lights become one, then the one light grows smaller and is lost altogether. When it has finally gone, we take the elevator back down and disperse into the night.

Toby Lloyd‘s ‘At the Still Point’ was selected as a runner-up of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition 2011