To be—or be like—You Tom White Macro-Fiction

map To be—or be like—You

by Tom White

Published in Issue No. 254 ~ July, 2018

He had watched Jay from afar, sauntered over, sat next to him heavily, and leaned in: “Home time?” “Almost,” Jay said. The man was dressed as if for the city, for glass office blocks and boardrooms. His suit looked expensive, as did the sunglasses tucked into his breast pocket and the briefcase he had set down with emphasis on the floor between them. Nothing fazes me. I will step on you if I have to. Nothing personal.

The train station’s cafe was tiny, its chrome tables and chairs spilling out onto the street. Jay sat out in the sun, only crumbs and dregs left, waiting.

“I saw you here on Friday. I was here too. I watched you here, on Friday. You were waiting for your weekend to begin, then, and now it’s over.” The man took a cigarette from his pocket, broke off the tip and, rolling it like a captured insect between finger and thumb, sprinkled tobacco over the floor and his shoes. There was alcohol on his breath. His jaw clenched, unclenched.

Jay looked to the man’s briefcase, to his own backpack, skew-whiff in the dust. Three days ago it had been new and clean, packed to perfection, ready for the weekend. But that was all his mum’s doing. The way she knew when to fold, when to roll, and when to stuff unceremoniously. It was a time-given skill. She had insisted that he let her do it, even if it meant propping her up in her bed with two extra pillows and laying the backpack on her lap and bringing her the items she called for one by one.

“There,” she had said, finally finished. “Still got it.”

Jay’s backpack was misshapen now, bloated as if by the force of many limbs making a bid for freedom and doing so with some success. Stitching and zips about to give up the ghost, spill the beans. Two full plastic bags sat by the side of his backpack, though he had acquired no new possessions over the course of the weekend.

The man was older than Jay, Jay decided, but not much older. Possibly even the same age, but it was most certainly a man who had sat opposite him, who was now shaking the tobacco from his shoes and swearing under his breath.

A horizon of green hills and the expensive properties that topped them. Cottages in the foreground that had maintained their rustic appeal. Wildflower gardens meticulously pruned, kept in check. All in all a nice Welsh village to spend a weekend getting away from it all. A house to go to that still felt like a home, and he would be on his way home soon. The cottage nearest to him had a Sold sign leaning out from its front garden. Looking in through its bay windows, Jay could see cardboard boxes stacked almost to the ceiling. A car passed slowly, circled back around and pulled up outside this cottage.

“I want you to watch this car,” the man said, leaning back in the chair. And then, leaning forward again, his eyes level with Jay’s:

“Your mother and father didn’t have you. Not strictly speaking. They had a baby, and raised it. They had no idea that it would grow up to be—or be like—you.”

A woman emerged from the car and sidled around to the boot, which she popped open. A boy, the woman’s son by the look of his hair and nose and build, appeared at her elbow. They stood there together, unsure, the mother looking to her son as if for guidance and the son unresponsive, staring into the boot, his little round face too young to be looking so serious.

“Watch,” the man said.

The son took a black stick from the boot and held it out straight before him as though something disgusting was smeared on the end of it. Without luster in the shade of the car, it became sleek and shiny as he grimaced and manipulated it in the sunlight, two hinges along its length making themselves known as the stick folded in on itself and swung down as if to sting his legs. His resulting dance kicked up dust and agitated the stick further and drew shushing sounds from his mother, who was reaching into the boot with both hands as the son dropped the stick onto the dust rather than let it touch his bare legs.

“Watch,” the man said. “Watch.”

The son picked up the stick and held it tentatively, in such a way that it did not fold but remained straight out before him. The stick was hairy, or furry, it became clear. The stick, Jay realized, was a cat’s front leg. The son was holding the front leg of a cat, and the mother was lifting from the car a mostly limp, mostly black, three-legged cat.

“Watch,” the man said again, but he had not been expecting this, had been lucky to be allowed to seem so knowledgeable for so long.

“Come on.”

The boy was disgusted by what he held.

Come on.”

The boy obeyed his mother regardless.

Together they made their way up to the front door of the house. That the man and Jay were watching them had surely registered. The mother lay the cat down with care on the porch step, and the son placed the leg with care before it. The cat yawned a pink, spiky yawn, and its tongue, like a cupped and burnt hand, fell from its mouth and set to licking both front legs—the severed and the attached.

The mother produced a piece of paper from her pocket and a staple gun from her handbag. With a click she stapled the paper to the detached leg. The man swore loudly. The cat and the son and Jay winced. The mother tucked the staple gun into a handbag, her hands into her pockets. The son fell into step behind her and they got back into the car and pulled away, leaving the cat, fully awake now, to lick its legs and yawn familiarly in the sun.

Something dropped and clinked on the floor of the café behind. If it was retrieved then it was retrieved silently. That people could just carry on unawares while things like what had just happened outside happened seemed not just possible but inevitable and the way of things now. The foreground and its cat as still as the horizon beyond.

Somewhere in the distance a train could be heard to be slowing.

“My train,” Jay said.

Probably not, he thought.

But the man did what certain things about him suggested that he might not do. He let Jay stand and go, without a fuss, through the café and out the other side, onto the platform. Jay did not look back to see the man alone again and framed by the café canopy, preoccupied as he was now with the rucksack digging into his back and the plastic bags’ narrowness in his palms. And the man too was preoccupied, staring at the place where the cat had been, where the detached leg too had lain and now did not.

It was not, when it came, Jay’s train.

A voice over the speakers spoke about severe and widespread delays. Jay sighed heavily as he took off his rucksack and sat on a bench that faced the tracks. He leaned the plastic bags against each other at his feet. Beside him a frail man whose sparse white hair stuck up in the wind. The train had not stopped, had been slowing only to safely negotiate the tracks as it snaked between the hills.

“Plenty of seats elsewhere that you could have sat on,” this new, second man said.

Jay glanced down the length of the platform.

“I’m grateful,” the new man said. “Don’t get me wrong.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m just sitting. I’m nothing for a boy like you to worry about. But, as you’re asking, I’m looking out for my cat. Not that I’ve lost him. These are his parts. This mountain and these tracks are his or they are no one’s.”

The hill that the two of them faced was the tallest around and stood almost flush against the tracks, a mountain in the eyes of locals. Chain link fences in little squares up and down its flank had nothing to do with property or ownership, cordoning off as they did patches where the sloping green gave way to a dangerous steepness and grey, crumbling slate; singling out, as if for ridicule, areas where the hill’s alpine pretensions were most marked. The bottom edge of each wire square was bevelled by rubble piling up and pressing against it. Smaller stones that had escaped through the gaps in the fencing had gathered in a drainage ditch that ran parallel to and just shy of the tracks. Here the slate was wet and nearly black with last night’s rain, and something almost the same color as wet slate moved jerkily through the ditch, and then was still and invisible again. The voice that came over the speakers this time was pre-recorded and spoke of indefinite delays.

“I won’t be home until late,” Jay said.

“You’re sure about lots of things, aren’t you?” said this second man.

“I’m doubly sure of everything and no cleverer for it. That’s what my mum used to say, that’s what she says.”

Soft rain, more mist than rain but getting heavier, falling from a cloud that the hill disappeared into. Creeks appeared, widening by the moment and riding the hill’s textures down to the drainage ditch. Something sodden darted from the ditch and the water bubbling confusedly in it, was lost for a moment then reappeared by the side of the tracks, motionless and crouched beneath something metallic and twisted and burnt black.

“There he is,” the second man said without much enthusiasm. “There he is there he is there he is.”

The cat caught a drop of water to the eye, shook its head, and glared at the better shelter that the train station platform afforded and the fizzing ground in between, made up its mind and ran as best as it could, darting as if to avoid individual raindrops until it was underneath the bench and rubbing itself against the Jay’s legs, having hesitated only to calculate the leap onto the platform.

“He does that,” the man said. “He likes that.” The cat hissed.

“He’s got three legs. I saw what—what happened?”

“He likes the warm and the dry, you see.”

“He’s got three legs, I saw him. And his other leg, earlier.”

“Yes, he manages fine.”

“What happened? When did that happen?”

“A train. Or a car. Something fast broke it clean off years ago now.”

“I saw him earlier with this other leg. There was a woman and her girl and they had his other leg with them and they stapled something to it, or stapled it back on, I couldn’t tell.”

“There’s lots of cats and cats’ legs in this world.”

“They took a cat—they took this cat—out of their car boot and they had a leg with them. It was this cat. It was your cat. And the leg was a perfect fit, the same size and color.”

“He’s very sociable. He likes lots of people round here and spends a lot of time with them.”

“He was left outside the house opposite the station. Then they drove off.

“He likes you, see?”

The cat hissed at the man again, and warmed his wet sides against Jay’s legs.

account_box More About

Tom White is based in Birmingham, England, where he is completing his PhD in Creative Writing. Extracts of his first novel were published in Fatboy Review. He is working on an experimental ‘novel’, Wallpaper, which explores the role of metaphor in thought and language, and which sees creative and critical elements merge, vying for supremacy. Tweet him @TBIZZLEBEAR