To anyone watching, he appeared pleasant and self-contained, groomed and polite as he took books out, or as was more often the case, sat down with a book or a stack of graphic novels and read through them with a focused enthusiasm. He smiled if anyone made eye contact and indulged in balloons of conversation which flew away.
Liz handed over the dvd and smiled as she watched him take a book over to a chair in the corner and sit down. He leaned forward and looked up, caught her eye and grinned before he returned his attention to the book.
She watched him before Ellie came and asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. Liz nodded without looking at Ellie, who chuckled which made Liz turn around, embarrassed and ashamed.
‘Sorry, I was miles away.’ she said.
Ellie chuckled and went away to make tea. Liz looked down at the book open on the desk. Wuthering Heights, for the eighth time, and a book which reached inside her chest and squeezed each time she read it. When she looked up, she cried out with alarm as he handed over his library card.
Liz watched him ask to check on the status of a reservation before she realised he was asking her to do it, and she hurried herself with a tight-lipped embarrassment before she passed the card back and told him it had not arrived. He thanked her and walked away as Liz stared after him. Ellie came back with two mugs of tea and Liz sat there, awash with the fear she had looked ridiculous with the man.
His details were still on the computer and she opened another tab rather than delete the information. Ellie talked about her plans for the weekend, Liz had dinner with her parents on Sunday but nothing otherwise.. She seldom voiced how much pleasure she took in it but Liz had developed a sense of what was appropriate with others over the years, a lack of ostentation was a useful trait to survive, if not to live.
She had books.
Ellie went out to deal with the influx of returned books and Liz waited until she was on the other side of the desk before she clicked on the man’s information.
He didn’t look like a Joseph, she thought. He didn’t live far from here and she wondered what his house looked like. The information gave a telephone number and an email address, but nothing about his circumstances or what he did for a living.
Such a thing required copying his name into another tab and letting the internet do the rest.
There wasn’t much. No social media accounts and even an image search came up empty. She looked at the reservation.
Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulations.
Postmodernism gave her a headache, the ghost of too many university boys eager to fill her skull with words before she gave up on dating. Still, he moved with a quiet boldness which didn’t lend itself to the twitching unease of the small town intellectual. She liked his hands and his beard, how he stopped and spoke to people. Liz wondered what it would be like to have his attention for a time, but it crashed into her own wall of insecurities and she closed down both tabs in a hurried rush of guilt. She was curious about him, but it was fragile in the face of her experiences to date.
Liz was small, delicate in manner and wardrobe enough to pass for younger but her manner betrayed her. She had a small circle of friends, fellow survivors of the social wars being fought over so little and even a few of those had been absorbed into relationships, either with other people, cats or in Katharine’s case, academia. Liz had a small, quiet life, enlightened by spasms of acute loneliness. After a gilded adolescence, and experiences in further education which prepared her for a gradual lowering of expectations, Liz felt diminished by the years, those she carried already and their allies in the distance.
She left the library, letting her hair cover her face as she hurried home. Liz was tired, but made herself walk into the supermarket, dazzled by the overhead lights and the shrink-wrapped line up of choices. Liz picked out a tray of chicken breasts and laid them down in the basket when she looked up.
Joseph had picked out a tray of steaks and put it in his basket when he looked around and saw her. His smile widened and he took a step towards her.
‘We should stop meeting like this, people will talk.’ he said.
Liz fought the rush of blood to her cheeks as she turned away. She liked how he was with people, but when he turned his attention towards her, it made her twist with discomfort.
She looked back and saw him stood there, with the basket dangling from his fingers as he looked at her with a cautious interest.
‘I’ve seen you at the library.’ he said.
Liz smiled at the acknowledgement but struggled to keep herself even and nonchalant.
‘Me too.’ she said.
He smiled, raising an eyebrow as he moved towards her.
‘What you’ve seen yourself at the library?’ he said.
She frowned, not getting the joke until he shook his head and changed the subject of conversation.
Liz had worked at the library for three years. She enjoyed the work, but worried telling Joseph about it would somehow diminish her in his eyes. The logic of his regular visits eluded her as her choir of anxieties sang from the same hymn sheet.
‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’ he said.
Liz stared at him with surprise. There had been something, amongst the warm timbre of his voice and the easy manner he carried, but she paid it no more attention than she had anything else about him.
He looked around him before he leaned into her space.
‘I said you had a bum man should get on their knees and worship. We were in rehearsal for From Land And Sea, Helen Taylor was there.’
The mention of Helen tore at Liz, since she emigrated, Liz had entered a broken correspondence but it had been her turn to email. She looked and saw the twinkle had remained, masked by the beard and the polished armour of confidence.
‘Joe Mason.’ she said.
Different surname, she told remembered, but hadn’t his mum remarried? Liz’ mum would know, but the thought of explaining it made her feel faint, so she gave in to her surprise and stared at him as he nodded.
‘You look good.’ he said.
His voice lowered the burr reached into Liz’ stomach and caressed a slow, liquid heat into being. The sensation made her feel girlish and strong and she straightened up a little in the face.
‘No, but you’re kind to say so, Joe.’ she said.
She coughed and took him in. He was thicker across the chest and shoulders and he had shaved his head, which contrasted well with the beard.
‘You do too.’ she said.
They laughed through the awkwardness in the polite, unspoken way people did. Ghosts of roads not taken put their arms around Liz, whispered at what she had missed out on, but Joe had never taken his shot either. He had been quiet and polite, but that one comment aroused her interest and he had seen the look in her eyes across the stage and never followed up on it. She had burned for him to ask her out, but his attentiveness and concern grew pathological and she had resigned from the vigil when Bradley asked her out to the school disco.
She blinked away tears and Joe smiled as he peered into her basket.
‘Want to get something to eat, Liz?’ he said.
She was scruffy and tired, embarrassed not to recognise him but Liz brushed her hair from her eyes and told him she was starving.
He was reading the Baudrillard as research for a book he was writing.
Liz stopped and looked at him with surprise.
‘You can’t just drop it into conversation and not elaborate.’ she said.
He wrote comic books under a different name, published in America and he had put out original series alongside the short runs on superhero titles. He looked at the pewter Captain America badge on the lapel of her coat and told her the name he wrote under.
To her relief, it was work she remembered and enjoyed.
Liz admitted she had looked at his information and he chortled as he drew closer to her.
‘So we both have our secrets don’t we? I’ll keep yours and you’ll keep mine.’ he said.
She looked down, felt the blood rising in her cheeks. Liz had not played the coquette before but he made it simple to work out how to do it without looking foolish.
‘Deal.’ she said.
They went into the pub, found a booth at the back out of the way and he said the steak was good here. She had been looking at the menu, unsure of what to order and she leapt at the chance to delegate the decision to him. Steak sounded great, she said and he smiled at her as the waitress came and took their order.
Liz couldn’t talk about Tom at first. She talked around him, but Joe looked at her, asked questions which opened her up to fill in the gaps since high school.
‘I was married. It didn’t work out.’ she said.
A universe hung between those words.
He sat forwards and picked up his beer.
‘I’m sorry, Liz. I never went down that road.’ he said.
Her hands shook as she wrapped them around the glass and lifted her chin.
‘We’re not smart when it comes to love, are we?’ she said.
He looked down and smiled then reached his hand across the table. She looked at the thick fingers, the dark hairs on the backs of his hands and the thick wrists before she put her hand atop his. The contact was galvanising and he looked into her eyes with a quiet, gentle acceptance which gave speed to her thoughts.
She breathed out and got up from the table, excusing herself with a soft whisper as she went to the bathroom and sat in a cubicle. Liz wanted to take him home, but the flat was a mess and her grooming routine had descended into washing and finding a gentle comfort in toying with the hair as she laid in bed reading. She decided not to announce the fact but telling herself meant she could commit to it without feeling bad about it.
Their food arrived and the conversation grew light as they enjoyed the food. They shared memories of music and film, books and television to paper over the gaps in their mutual experiences. Liz checked her phone for the time and saw it was close to nine o’clock. The time had flown by, and although she should have been sensible, there was a spring to her perceptions which made being around him a good, if impulsive decision.
He turned around outside the restaurant and kissed her. She whimpered as his hands came up to touch her cheek and she placed her hands on his shoulders, then his neck before she pushed him backwards, exhaling with surprise as she stared at him.
‘You can’t come to mine tonight.’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘You’re assuming I wanted to.’ he said.
The prickling of anxiety fled at the smile he gave and she kissed him again.
She led him to the river, and they walked, with her arm looped around his, looking for a relative measure of privacy.
Liz heard the caws of contempt from the boys sat on the bench. She tightened her grip on Joe’s arm without meaning to, and he lifted his chin and smiled at them.
‘Evening.’ he said.
They looked away and smiled. Liz saw one of them wink at Joe and she blushed as they walked past. She stopped him when they turned the corner and she kissed him again. He accepted the gift of her appetite without concern before they found a bench and she straddled him.
It started to rain and she drew him close. His hands closed on her backside and she drew back.
‘Joe, do you still feel the same way about my bum?’ she said.
He smiled in the dark and squeezed her underneath his fingers as he pulled her down towards him.
The rain did not wash the past away, but it cleared a path for them both as they reunited, familiar strangers rewriting history as the new day watched from the shadows, eager to begin.