A short story: "Mark"
She was sitting in a café she found on the corner as she walked through town. Her long black hair pinned up into victory rolls, wearing a seashell necklace tight round her long thin neck, black skin-tight dress reaching half way down her thighs and black classic high heels. On her right hand, she had two plain rings on her index and middle finger, and on her left she had a studded one, on her thumb. In front of her, going from the right-hand side, she had ideally placed cup of coffee she just ordered, her phone next to it and an opened notebook with blank pages right in front of her. She was looking out the window, spinning the ring on her thumb nervously and twitching her leg, as she sat on one of the high stools in the café.
The café was all white, with vegan food spread out across the front bar and two huge manual coffee machines in the back of the bar, where the baristas worked hard to make every customer’s coffee just the way they liked it all day long. Baristas were wearing all white, the walls were all white, coffee cups were all white too. It was a beautiful summer day, sun was pouring in through the huge windows at the front of the shop, front door wide open letting in the late-afternoon air into the coffee shop, beautifully complimenting the smell of fresh coffee and green salads. There was nobody else in the café apart from her.
She suddenly got up and walked up to the bar.
“Do you guys sell anything else than coffee?” she asked the head barista that was by the till, cleaning the surfaces with a wet cloth. He looked up with tired eyes but a huge, welcoming smile on his face.
“What do you mean?” he chuckled.
“You know, something stronger. Alcohol. Vodka? Rum?” she said, a bit impatiently but keeping her voice calm.
The barista looked at her a bit unsurely, as if to check if she was joking. Seeing her serious expression, he smiled again.
“We don’t exactly sell alcohol here…” he hesitated for a moment “But the bar down the road is quite nice….”
“I don’t like bars.” She responded before he even finished.
He stood there, looking at her, not really knowing what to say. She turned around and sat back down on her stool. She reached into her bag and pulled out a very pretty, dark green pen. She clicked it, spun it a few times in her fingers then started tapping nervously on the notepad. She rested her chin on her hand, and stared out the big cafes window.
The sun was setting this time of day, throwing a beautiful bright orange light on the High Street outside, and through the windows. The barista she earlier spoke to, the only worker left in the shop, went outside and sat on the seating area in front of the café, took out a cigarette and sparked it up, looking out in direction of where the beautiful orange light was coming from.
She got up and leaving all her belongings inside, she sat outside directly next to him at the same rectangular table and looked in the same direction, not saying a word to the guy. He watched her as she did all that, also without a word, smoking his cigarette and enjoying the view.
“May I have a cigarette please?” she asked.
He handed her a packet with one of them sticking out. She pulled it out and put it in her mouth. He reached to his pocket, took out a Zippo lighter and lit it for her. She took a long drag, as if taking a deep breathe and let out a cloud of grey right in his face. He coughed.
“Sorry” she murmured.
He lightly chuckled and waved his hand as if to say “Don’t worry” but still didn’t say anything. His cigarette was nearly burnt all the way but he just kept smoking it, going straight down to the filter. She watched him, in disgust, as she never smokes them all the way, only as much as half way if that. He stabbed it into the ashtray and took a sip out of his paper cup. This whole time he had a slight smile on his face, like when you think of a pleasant memory, almost with a pinch of nostalgia. He then got up, taking his paper cup with him and walked back into the café. She sat there on her own, and watched the sun go down. She didn’t know how long she sat there before the barista came out again, this time just stopping at the front door.
“It’s nearly time to close, miss” he said, hanging out the door.
“Oh yes, of course, sorry!” she said, taking another rushed drag of the cigarette and throwing it into the ashtray. Heels clicked loudly against the floor as she quickly walked up to the door and back inside the café. The barista went behind the bar and crouched on the floor so that she couldn’t see him anymore, clearly looking for something. He opened one of the cupboards underneath the coffee machines, and started taking everything out. She watched him out the corner of her eye as she packed up her things into her big black leather rucksack. As she was putting her long black cardigan on, she heard a smash of glass behind her.
“Are you okay?” she asked, as she didn’t hear the barista make any noise and couldn’t see him from behind the counter. He abruptly got up, some more bottles fell over and rolled across the floor to the end of the bar. He had a big glass bottle in his hand that he put on the counter. It was one of those large bottles of whiskey.
“We close in 2 minutes, would you like a drink?” he asked, with a cheeky smile.
She looked at him, a bit shocked. “ I thought you don’t serve alcohol here”
“We don’t but we are…. – he looked towards the till, which was displaying the time – we are officially closed now and I am the owner so….Would you like a drink?”
She observed his face, waiting for him to burst out laughing or something, to suggest he is joking. He wasn’t. He left the bottle on the counter and went to the front door, locked it and pulled all the blinds down. She sat back down on the stool.
“Oh, we’re not drinking up here.” He said quickly, seeing her put her things down. She looked at him, looking for answers. “We will go downstairs”
“Downstairs?” she didn’t even know this café had a downstairs area. She waited as he locked everything up. She didn’t want to say anything more. She was intrigued.
“Follow me.” He said, waving her hand at her to come with, and went towards the door at the back of the store that read: “Staff only” on a light grey label.
She grabbed her stuff, and quickly followed him as he opened the door and started walking down the concrete stairs. They led quite far down, then turned right, then down again and right again into another door that read “Private”. She was dying to find out what was on the other side. Any young girl following a man into a basement would be a little frightened at least or not go at all but she wasn’t. She was just curious and that whiskey bottle was almost sparkling to her in the tinted light of the basement. Almost like a light at the end of the tunnel that people talk about.
As they were walking down the stairs, the barista –whose name she still didn’t know – was quietly humming some song. “Welcome!” he said dramatically as he pushed the door open and revealed what was inside the “Private” room.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. As they walked in and the lights switched on, the room she walked in wasn’t just a room. It was a whole apartment! The floor was covered in beautiful light-brown wooden panels. Opposite the door, by the wall was a mattress on the floor, with light grey bedding and a million of pillows of all sizes and types. Next to the mattress, there was a small coffee table serving as a bedside table, all white, with three little draws and a see-through glass top. On top, there was a bucket of fresh flowers in a vase, and loads of little and big seashells spread across it. There was also a photo frame but it was empty. The lights were tinted, one of the walls was dark red, and the whole effect created almost the same lighting as the sun was not so long ago. On the right from the door, there was a little kitchen space and a very low table with cushions around that you could sit on. Directly opposite the door, just to the right from the bed, there was a dark hallway but she couldn’t see what was at the end of it. The walls were covered in world maps, photos of landscapes and portraits of various people. They weren’t just any portraits. Each of the faces was somewhat disfigured as if reflections in one of those funny mirrors in entertainment parks, and covered in what looked like paint splodges. By the wall on the left from the door as they walked in, opposite the bed, there were piles upon piles of books, magazines, DVD boxes, vinyl discs, rolled up posters.
“Are you an artist?” she asked, walking through the door and looking around the whole apartment, trying to remember each and every detail and figure out the guy she was with.
“Straight or with coke?” he ignored her question and opened the whiskey bottle.
“Straight” she said without hesitation. He invited her to sit down round the low table, on one of the cushions. Her dress was tight and short which made the action quite uncomfortable as she kneeled down on the cushion trying to look as relaxed and chilled as possible doing so. He just watched for a second then joined her, sitting opposite her on one of the cushions.
“Do you think you have enough cushions and pillows?” she said sarcastically, with a smile. He smiled back and poured the whiskey half way in each of the glasses.
“Cheers” he said, handing her the glass. She took a small sip however the temptation to chug the whole thing was quite strong. She didn’t want him to know that.
They started talking, about everything and nothing. What’s your name? How old are you? What have you been up to? What is your hobby? Why the café? Why the notebook?
“I keep a diary” she said, and hesitated watching his face. Why did she tell him that? People these days don’t keep diaries and it was something she always kept to herself. He said nothing, he just smiled and waited for her to continue. “I keep a diary about my life, about every day, about all that happens, about my dreams, I write down everything. I didn’t tell anyone that. It’s quite embarrassing”
“It’s not!” he said “I do the same” and he got up and opened one of the little draws in the coffee table and pulled out a thick, leather notebook. It looked old, used with pages falling out and loads of postcards and what looked like photos sticking out from in-between the pages. “One day we may forget it all”
This man intrigued her. After all, she knew next to nothing about him.
“Mark, is it?” He nodded. “Tell me something you haven’t told anyone”
“I find you absolutely beautiful and I don’t understand what you are doing here with me, in this shithole, if I’m honest. But I’m glad you’re here”
She started laughing. “Well, thank you” she said, still laughing. “Didn’t you invite me for a drink though? Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“Nobody has been here before apart from me, not even the staff. We have our office upstairs, nobody was ever invited down here. But there’s something different about you. It’s the way you appreciated the sunset. You didn’t disturb my peace. I liked that”
She had more questions but then decided not to ask them. She liked this man being mysterious, she liked that she didn’t know him at all. As they were sitting and drinking, her legs were slowly going numb from the kneeling down. She must’ve frowned when she tried to move, as he put his glass down and got up.
“Where you going?” she asked, wondering if it was a sign to leave. Indeed, it wasn’t.
“Would you like something more comfortable?” he pointed at her dress. She nodded unsurely, doubting he has anything she could easily jump into. He went down the dark hallway and she heard a door slide. He soon then came back into the room with a large, dark grey wool jumper and a pair of grey fluffy slippers with cat faces on them. She looked at him, a little confused but chuckled, amused by the situation.
“You have to explain why you have those” she pointed at the slippers with a smile. She stood up and walked up to him and he handed her the clothing.
“I bought them on the market, one Wednesday. I always wanted a cat and this is the closest I’m going to get with this apartment as you can’t really keep cats in the basement and definitely not in a café” he smiled, somewhat sadly. She took the clothing from him and put it on the bed.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to the bathroom?” he said, watching as she’s undoing her shoes there and then and taking them off. She shook her head and pulled the dress over her head. She was now just standing there in skin-colour stockings and emerald green lacy underwear. He looked away.
“It’s fine, you can stare” she said softly, as she turned around with the jumper in her hands.
“Sorry, I must seem like such a pervert! Inviting you into a basement and then getting you to undress! That’s really not my intention, please forgive me” he started apologising and he went bright red on the face. She pulled the jumper over her head and pulled it down. It was the same length as her dress but because she was so skinny, it looked extra big on her. The fabric was soft against her skin and she immediately felt more cosy and better. The whisky in her stomach was burning but the butterflies weren’t for the whiskey.
“That’s not what I think at all” she said and sat on the mattress, rolling the stockings off her legs. She grabbed all her things and put them to one side by her bag. He was sat back on the cushions, pouring more whiskey into the two glasses. Her hair was still pinned up into victory rolls and in the jumper, she looked like a lady from another era who just time-travelled into present times.
“What’s in here?” she pointed at a very old suitcase that looked full but was all locked up.
“Do you travel a lot?”
“That’s packed for when I do” he said without much more of an explanation. She decided at the beginning of the evening she won’t ask him more than he is willing to explain as she didn’t want to know everything.
“Could you brush my hair for me?” she asked. He looked up from the label of the bottle he was suddenly carefully studying. “Yeah, of course” he said. He moved a bit away from the table to make space and placed a cushion in front of him. “Come, sit down” he patted the cushion with his hand. She grabbed her hairbrush from the bag on the floor and sat with her back to him.
“Do you want me to take out all the pins first?” she asked, expecting him to have no idea what he’s doing. She was already pleased he said yes in the first place. She loved having her hair brushed. Her dad used to do it for her every day before school before he died and she always used to ask her boyfriends to do it for her as it reminded her of the love and care she was blessed with from her dad. It was never successful and she was never relaxed when other people did it as they pulled her hair too much and weren’t as gentle as her dad. She stopped letting people do it all together but tonight was different. Mark was different.
He didn’t respond with words, he just started gently taking the pins out of her hair, one by one, letting her long, black hair fall to her shoulders, just half way down her upper arm. Her hair was shiny, soft and smelled of berries. He then run his hand through her hair, very slowly and gently, without pulling on even one of them. She closed her eyes. She felt as he took the hairbrush out of her hand and very carefully, starting from the very top, run the hairbrush through her hair. He was so close she could feel his breath on her neck. She let him be that close. It’s been a while since she let anyone be that close. She was hurt before by many men, letting them in then shutting them out, blaming herself and hating herself for being so naïve, so stupid and heartbroken. It was a vicious cycle she couldn’t get out of and finally she put a stop to it. She stopped everything and started writing her diary. She was happier in her own head than in reality with everyone else because she couldn’t get hurt that way.
Still with her eyes closed, she started breathing deeply, getting all relaxed and feeling warm from the whiskey and the thick jumper. She felt droplets of sweat on her forehead, which she would usually be very embarrassed about but for some reason with Mark it didn’t matter. He continued to brush her hair, slowly, listening to her even breathing and watching as tiny droplets of sweat rolled down from her forehead, down her hairline and towards her neck.
“Who was in the photo?” she pointed her long finger towards the coffee table by the bed, where the empty photo frame was placed.
He stopped brushing her hair, took a deep breath. She turned around so now she was facing him with her legs wrapped round his hips. It was quite an intimate position as they were so close to each other but neither noticed how close even though their noses nearly touched each other. She was watching his face. His eyes as if clouded now, with a distant dark memory.
“My wife.” He said quietly, looking her straight in the eyes. He expected her to run off. That’s what they all did when they heard the words. She was different, however, and she didn’t move an inch. Instead, she was still watching his face, waiting for further explanation, out of sheer curiosity.
“…We got married when we were in our early 20’s. One day I came back and she was gone. She left a letter.” She could hear the pain in his voice. “She left because she was bored. That’s what it said” he let out a sad, soft chuckle. “She thought I only wanted to photograph her and paint her but I didn’t really love her. She said she was tired of seeing her face everywhere and wanted out so she took off.”
She got up and walked up to the wall with all the portraits of the disfigured faces and paint splodges.
“That’s my response” he chuckled, this time a little more cheery, as if he couldn’t believe his immaturity. She didn’t find it immature. Suddenly, the photos had more meaning than ever to her. She was that girl. The one that disappears without a goodbye. The one that leaves when she gets bored.
“Does she know how you feel?”
“Felt.” He corrected her quickly. “I don’t miss her anymore. She had her reasons.” He said slowly, as if carefully choosing his words. She turned from the wall, facing him. “No, I’m not looking for someone to put in there” he said, nodding his head towards the photo frame. “I’m done with that.”
“What photo is going to go there then?” she said, turning to the photos again, trying to see if she can figure out which he would put in there out of all the disfigured, paint-splodged faces.
She heard him take something out of the draws but she didn’t turn around, captivated by the photos. Suddenly, she felt him behind her, his breath on her neck. She was so out of touch with her feelings that she didn’t even know that what she felt that moment was adrenaline from his closeness.
“You” he whispered. She turned around and got blinded by firing camera flash. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to regain her vision and saw him take out a small Polaroid print from the camera. “This is the best photo I’ve taken”. He said looking at the photo in what looked to her like genuine amazement. She watched him put it in the photo frame which was far too big for the small square photo and looked quite out of place.
“I’ve not met anyone like you before. You have a beautiful soul. You say things how you see them, you didn’t run away just then when I said about my wife…”
“Why would I?” she asked, surprised. “It’s your past, I can’t take that away from you. I can see you were a loving husband, it’s not your fault she couldn’t see it.”
“I was obsessed with work. I suppose, in a way, I made her part of it. I made her my “work”” he said, his face burning red again.
“Exactly. You saw her beauty. You saw her potential; she was your muse. That doesn’t mean you didn’t love her. Just means you loved your work more but you didn’t leave her behind. It’s not your fault it wasn’t enough for her.” She said softly, both were now speaking so quietly that it was almost a whisper.
They stood inches apart from each other now. He moved towards her and kissed her on the lips. His lips were soft, full and cold on her mouth from the whiskey he was sipping before. She felt a tingle through her body and she kissed him back with the same amount of passion. She gave herself in. For the first time in years, she let herself feel something more than just erotic passion. She felt something different, there was something different about Mark and she couldn’t shake the feeling that meeting him wasn’t an accident at all. It was meant to happen. She felt it in the air, she felt it during their conversation and she felt it during this kiss. She didn’t know why and the whole situation frightened her.
She moved back.
“What’s wrong?” he opened his eyes as if waking from a dream. Like when you have a really nice dream and the alarm rings and you open your eyes and don’t know what year it is. He looked at her with that similar confusion, clearly craving more of her soft lips and warm touch. It’s been a while since he kissed a woman with such comfort and passion. What she also didn’t know is he didn’t take a photo in over 3 years. He couldn’t bring himself even to look at a camera, let alone through the lens, knowing he wouldn’t see Yivonne on the other side of it. That moment meant more for him than she could ever imagine. That moment awakened his long lost sense of creativity and feeling alive. He could feel his heart beating in his chest again and his brain couldn’t think of nothing else than of how much he missed the feeling. It felt like coming home. It felt like a long distant memory, suddenly entering his mind again and he wanted to jump, and laugh and dance with her, show her his art and make more.
“I have to go.” She said quickly, rushing to the corner where she left her things.
“Now? Why? I’m sorry if I was too forward…” he started apologising and rushed after her. “I really didn’t want this to be taken the wrong way…!”
But she just grabbed her things and still in just his jumper, almost ran towards the door, slamming it behind her. She ran up the stairs, unlocked the front door and ran out of the café, not looking back.
He stood there in the middle of his apartment like a little boy in the middle of a supermarket who just lost their mum. He looked at the photo he just put into the -until now -empty photo frame and felt all the familiar, regained just seconds ago, warmth gradually leave his body. He fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands and he began screaming. It wasn’t words, it wasn’t much of different sounds; it was just a horrific scream that shook the walls, of a broken man who felt alive for a second after years of emotional and creative hibernation. A man who, if it was at all physically possible, would break into million little pieces, like a mirror you drop on the floor or smashing a porcelain doll you can buy at those vintage markets. The pain he felt was stronger than emotional, stronger than physical. It was as if someone punched a whole in his chest, ripped out his heart and set it on fire. It was as if he threw himself into ice-cold water without knowing how to swim. He screamed and screamed from pain that was so deep and irrational, it almost felt unreal but very real all the same.
She ran and ran, with her backpack on one arm, in his jumper, with the heels in her hand and clothes hung on her arm. She didn’t want to stop. She wasn’t running from him, exactly. She felt something. Something that she spent so many years so carefully blocking out and designing every detail in her life to avoid feeling it again. The fear of it all caused her to do what she knew best when feeling afraid: run away. So she ran.
Hours, days, weeks have passed. She would walk down an alleyway, on the other side of the high street where the all-white coffee shop with big windows was. She was looking in, from a distance. She knew there was nothing there for her that could make her happy but only send her into panic. Yet, she couldn’t stop staring into the windows, hoping he would come out at least for a cigarette, at least to clear up the tables. That never happened.
One of those days, she finished work and head over to her perfect watching spot. She’s become obsessed with watching the place and waiting and hoping to see at least a glimpse of him. Even when she didn’t do it on purpose, she would end up in the same place, lost in her thought, her feet would just take her there.
This time it was different. The place was shut, the sign was down and a few people gathered around, peaking through the windows. There were no chairs outside and the place inside looked…well, empty. She walked over to the group of people who were talking in excitable tones between each other.
“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to sound less bothered than she actually was.
“They found someone in there, in the basement…” said one member of the crowd.
“Apparently the owner went crazy!” said one lady, more excited about her info than was tasteful.
Her eyes widened in shock. What did they mean? What was that lady talking about? She ran towards the door and pushed it open. It wasn’t locked to her and everyone else’s surprise and she ran towards the “Staff Only” door, down the stairs, to the right and down again and run into the “Private” room.
She switched the light on. What she saw would leave many people screaming, running or even go crazy but she just stood there, not believing her eyes. The apartment was absolutely empty. Walls were blank, all the posters, DVDs and books were gone, cushions weren’t there. The coffee table’s glass top was smashed into million pieces, draws were on the floor, mattress empty and looked very old and worn. All of the wooden floor was covered in millions of tiny pieces of ripped up paper. She stood there in the door way, her knees went soft, confused and felt so lost. What happened to him?
The apartment in all honesty looked like it wasn’t lived in for years, not just a few days, the rubbish everywhere and the tiny pieces of paper only suggested someone once left in a rush and never came back. She moved forward and walked up to the small table she sat at with him. She fell to the floor, helplessly as she saw the same whiskey bottle, untouched from when she was there, next to the table on the floor. She grabbed it and took a big chug.
To the bottom of the bottle, there was a note attached. It fell and flew down to her feet. She bent down and picked it up, ready to scrunch it thinking it’s a receipt. But she saw something different. She turned it in her fingers and the card read:
“At the end of the hallway, I left you a present.”
Her heart beating faster, pounding in her chest she drank more of the whisky and with the bottle in her hand, she stumbled down the hallway. There was a door at the end of it. “Darkroom”.
She pushed the door open and automatic lights came on. The room was empty, not one bit of furniture anywhere but the walls, the walls were covered in photos. In self-portraits of Mark, looking straight into the lens, pulling faces, 12 stop motion shots of him ripping his hair out in strands. In some it was just him in a big room, where he put the camera on the other side and took a photo of him standing or sitting on the other side of it, completely naked. She walked slowly along the walls and it wasn’t long before she realised the photos where in chronological order, telling a story who touched by a disease of the mind, went absolutely crazy. The photos weren’t posed; he was documenting the processes in his mind, the things he saw and felt, anger and confusion.
She fell to her knees and looked up. The whisky, the overwhelming place she was in took over and the walls seemed to be spinning quickly around her.