Fiction (Speculative, Dystopian)
England is aging. The contrasting and occasionally crossing lives of two young Englishmen in Darlington, County Durham express the decline and collapse of Western peoples no longer bearing children.
Gerald Keaton has a girlfriend, Vanessa. She wants a family, but Gerald knows not to let their relationship compromise his career.
Alec Frewer pays more attention to people, although not when he walks into one young woman wearing a floppy straw hat on High Row, spilling her coffee. She already didn’t like men who wear suits.
Before publication, the book was shortlisted for a CALEB Unpublished Manuscript Award.
Chapter 1: A Little Time from Now
The days were peaceful, summers warm. Gerald Keaton thought it mattered.
At only twenty-nine years of age, he and Alec Frewer were among the younger Englishmen around, although they knew nothing of each other as they knew too little of themselves. Darlington was the most populated place in County Durham but there were next to no children, not that people noticed. Each for his or her own reasons and without reasons at all, Europeans had stopped bearing babies.
The market town centrepiece was a nineteenth-century market hall, crafted with Gothic whimsies the English no longer wasted time to make. Its Victorian clock tower was an amenity of Gerald’s inherited prosperity, although he checked the time from the latest electronic gadgetry he carried in his pocket. Good living had made his face quite full, with his steely, bluish eyes and jaw so resolute. Hairdressers had cut and styled his short fair hair to look like other businessmen, while he thought most about the bars, restaurants, and shops where he bought gifts to his girlfriend and himself.
When Gerald’s work was a chance to be near Newton Aycliffe or Vanessa’s work brought her to Darlington and they could both afford the time, they ate their lunch together. Thus there came the day, a Thursday, they strolled along High Row, Darlington, holding each other’s hands. She was two years older than he was, with brunette hair, complexion like the whitest portions of a lily, and eyes of green in blue.
Walking ahead of them, near the waters falling down the sculpted steps, were a man and woman with large packs on their backs. Sewn to their packs were American flags almost as large. “Mum and Dad honeymooned in America, Gerry,” remarked Vanessa. She was the only person to call him by that name. “They rented a cottage near Newport, Rhode Island, towards Providence.”
“I’d like to see America.”
Vanessa stopped walking, causing Gerald to stop. She turned to him. “You haven’t forgotten they invited you to Sunday lunch?”
He looked at her, her eyes. “How could I?”
Their eyes lingered upon each other, before she smiled, reached up, and briefly kissed him, as familiar English couples did. She pulled away, drawing his attention to a rather telling likeness of the most familiar face in Britain, the King, partly drawn on the paving stones and looking past them to the sky. Kneeling on a blanket, a long-haired artist with several sticks of coloured chalk toiled through his task.
“It’s a shame the rain will wash it away,” said Gerald, studying the colourful chalk art.
Vanessa took ten pounds from her purse and offered it to the artist. “May I please borrow your chalk?” she asked him.
Away from the artist’s effort and with a single stick of chalk, Vanessa drew a box on the ground. She filled it with the number “1.” She then drew two boxes above it, numbering them “2” and “3.” She drew a fourth box she numbered, as Gerald slowly realised she was drawing a hopscotch court in the middle of High Row. She drew eight numbered boxes across the ground, closing with a semicircle.
“I hope that’s legal,” said Gerald.
Vanessa returned the chalk to the artist, giving him five more pounds, before returning to her handiwork. “Don’t you like children’s games, Gerry?”
“Who has time to think of children?”
“You and I do.” Her long heels can’t have been the best shoes for hopping, but Vanessa raised her left leg and hopped onto the first square. “We’ll see what you have to say after Sunday.” She jumped to land her feet in the next two boxes. She hopped and jumped through all the boxes before stepping into the semicircle and turning back to Gerald.
“What would your business associates think to see you hopping?” asked Gerald.
“They haven’t seen.”
After looking around to see that he didn’t recognise the people watching him, Gerald stepped before the first box on the ground. He raised his left uncertain leg. She laughed, as he hopped. Each hop and jump was easier than the last, his knees loosening and legs lightening a little. He jumped into the last box and fell forward into her. Their arms held each other, standing close together. “What might I say after Sunday?” he asked her.
She smiled. “Mum and Dad like their lives, but they’ve lots of friends with long regrets. They want you to be aware.”
“I’ve got parents, too.”
“My parents suggested you invite them.”
Their close affection becoming too close, Gerald turned, leaving one arm around her. He led them into a man wearing a red cap and holding a camera, energetically bouncing up and down.
“You’re a very beautiful couple,” the man told them. Gerald tried to lead Vanessa around him, but he stepped in front of them again. “I want to take your picture.”
“No, thank you,” said Gerald.
“You don’t have to buy anything.”
Gerald and Vanessa posed, smiling for the camera, until the camera clicked. Their chore complete, they started to walk around the photographer.
Again, he stepped in front of them. “Have a look at you,” he told them, holding the back of the camera towards them. The image of them smiling filled the little screen. “Didn’t I say you were beautiful?” Gerald tried again to move away. “Ten quid gets you two prints.”
Paying him would be the easiest way to pass. “For that much money,” said Gerald, taking his wallet from a pocket inside his jacket, “we must be beautiful.”
The photographer pulled a small notebook and pen from his trouser pocket. “I need your name and address,” he told Gerald.
Gerald wrote his name and the address of the Stafford Joinery offices and factory, before parting with his pounds. The photographer bounced away, stalking other couples and tourists wearing packs or holding maps. “We might never see the photographs,” Gerald told Vanessa.
She looked up at the tower clock. “Time we both nipped back to work, Gerry.” She again reached up and kissed him.
Soon enough, Gerald was at his office desk. There he heard, as he often heard, Niles Stafford’s bark: “Keaton!”
Nineteen years older than Gerald but seeming much older, the owner of Stafford Joinery was an austere man, with a long face and nose, thin moustache, and forceful chin. Thoughtful and intense, his voice was deep and resonating. Gerald hurried to his office, expecting another perfunctory meeting about the work he’d done, was doing, or would do.
Stafford sat in his dark leather chair behind his dark timber desk. Memoranda spread around were interspersed with samples of new cornices, skirtings, and other timber ware, replacing whatever styles people no longer wanted. Hanging from the walls were the classical pieces his company used to make, between framed photographs of Stafford receiving business awards and, in the largest frame of all, a page from the Northern Echo newspaper featuring an article about him. The motifs on his computer screen were of more timber products.
In the low chair facing him, Gerald sat upright, leaning forward. Gerald was still below him.
“You’re a single man, aren’t you, Keaton?” Stafford hadn’t asked Gerald about his personal life since interviewing him before he joined the company.
“I have a girlfriend.”
Gerald knew the answer Stafford expected. “No, sir.”
“Good, Keaton, good.” Stafford lived alone, but he worked late at night and through most weekends so that his home was unimportant. “I’m looking for someone to be my special projects manager, Keaton. You’ll answer only to me, and I’ll pay you for the privilege.”
Gerald struggled to comprehend what Stafford said. The older man would work until he died and mightn’t die for another thirty years or more, but his invitation was a chance to sit eventually at his desk with all his life entailed, the power of command. “I’m honoured, sir.”
“You should be honoured, Keaton, damned bloody honoured. You can start by joining me for lunch, Sunday, at my club.” Stafford picked up a letter from his desk and began reading it, in the sign that Gerald was excused. Gerald quietly departed.
In the privacy of his office, Gerald pretended to read memoranda. His desk and office walls glowed that day and Gerald glowed with them. He held his open hands before his face to see the light against the patterns in his palms, trusting the future.
That evening, Gerald stood at the wide window of his second-storey apartment in the well-to-do West End, among the trees and four-storey blocks in brick along the western side of Marlborough Drive. The window was just a little open, affording him a hint of breeze and the sounds that slipped inside from passing cars.
Save only for his jacket hanging in a wardrobe, Gerald remained in his business shirt and wear. His patterned porcelain plates rested in the kitchen warmer. Slices of fresh veal in their red wine marinate lay cooking in the oven. Sliced carrots and broccoli in pots of salted water were almost boiling on the stove. An untouched glass of dry martini stood on a coaster on the sideboard. Another glass was in his hand.
Soft music plying from his sound system was interrupted by a short repertoire of tones from a small speaker on a wall. Someone, Vanessa, was pressing the button marked for his apartment outside the building doors. While she made her way through the communal entrance hallway and up the stairs or lift, Gerald had time to close the lounge room curtains. She soon reached the door to his apartment he opened to see her dressed out of her business clothes into a casual blouse and skirt. They kissed.
“Ooh, nice,” she smiled, “martini.”
“We’re celebrating.” Gerald retrieved the second glass to give her. “Niles Stafford wants me to become his special projects manager,” he told her, as they sat down together on the cream-coloured leather sofa, his arm around her. “I’ll be involved in everything important: developing new product lines, dealing with the factory.”
“My parents’ll be thrilled!”
His arm stopped moving. “Stafford’s invited me to lunch on Sunday.”
Her shoulders straightened upright and forced his arm away. “You told him you were busy?” she said, as much a statement as a question.
“That’s no way to make the right impression.”
“Is this what life with you will now be like? Where does your evolving life leave us?”
He studied her eyes of green in blue and small pupil to her mind, uncertain what she was asking, hoping to find a clue. “I’ll see your parents again another time.”
Her voice became slow. “Will we ever see America, Gerry, rent a cottage outside Newport on the road to Providence?”
“I’ll need to check with Mister Stafford about my holidays.”
She laughed at him, before her voice became pensive. “When all I considered was my ambition,” she explained, “then I’d have sold my soul for a job like yours. If someone offered it to me today, so starkly, then I’d decide whether I wanted to be another Niles O Stafford, while I have the chance to choose.”
If Gerald sensed righteousness in her, then he didn’t know that she was right. Were the chance to succeed in a career so obviously hers, then he wouldn’t have let her forsake her chance. “I can’t refuse a promotion,” he told her, “not without leaving the company.”
She sipped her martini, staring through his eyes, until the sound of the oven clock alarm broke the mood between them. Gerald returned to the kitchen while Vanessa remained on the sofa. Speaking only as loud as she needed for Gerald to hear, she asked, “Do you love me, Gerry?”
Gerald ceased preparing their dinner. “Yes,” he replied. Whether she believed his answer mattered less than whether he believed it.
He slowly resumed tending to the broccoli, giving himself time to think and her time to not. He might’ve loved her, although loving her might’ve made their relationship more challenging. If his love for anyone were the one thing that could unsettle him, then he would fare better not to love her and keep his perfect life intact. He might’ve feared the pain of parting less than other risks in loving and being loved.
Vanessa opened a sideboard drawer, from which she removed stainless steel cutlery for two. She laid out the settings facing each other, across the dining table. He paused to smile, before she watched him serve their dinner. “Were you being truthful when you said you loved me?” she asked him.
“Do you love me?”
“Can’t you tell?”
The sounds of him pouring wine into the glasses were never louder than they were that night. “Thank you,” she said, as she might address a waiter. When Gerald finished, he stood the bottle on the table. They sat in their chairs in uneasy unison.
Gerald and Vanessa rarely spoke during the meal. He watched her, waiting for her to say something or look longer at him than she did, while her cursory words reverberated in his head. Sometimes, when she was looking at him, he smiled. Her eyes quickly looked down again. The words of persuasion and negotiation that served him well in his working life weren’t serving him well then.
If he gave his heart free rein then he might love her, without knowing if he would. If she drew him into loving her or if time together would be enough for her to let him love her, then she made loving her more difficult. Without knowing what the risk of love implied, it seemed she’d risk too much. He wouldn’t let her tempt him into doubting his dear ambitions, pushing him somewhere he didn’t want to go. They’d premised their relationship upon silence above dishonesty, except perhaps earlier that evening, which might’ve been a failing.
They finished eating. Vanessa picked up her plate from the table.
“I can take that,” said Gerald.
“I can do it.” She carried the plate into the kitchen and placed it on the sink near the dishwasher.
Gerald laid his plate and soiled cutlery beside hers. “Can I get you some coffee?”
“Not tonight.” She walked slowly back to the dining table and picked up her half-drunk glass of wine.
He poured the last wine from the bottle into his glass. He stood in front of her.
“Gerald,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything differently because of me; I’d feel terrible if you did.”
He tried to place his hand against her cheek, but she stepped away. If she were deliberating about whether to end their time together, he didn’t know what to think. He’d previously ended short and long relationships when choice was imposed upon him. Without choice, there could be no regret.
“Relationships can make people want to do things they otherwise mightn’t have wanted to do,” explained Vanessa. “People can make each other change what they want, without meaning to.”
She stepped forward and raised her free hand near his face. He could see what she was doing, believing all the feelings that might arise within him he threatened to deny. She placed her palm and long soft fingers against his cheek.
Gerald leant closer to her, concentrating upon her. His wine glass neglected in his hand, he softly kissed her lips. His touch was his best persuasion, trying to keep her life in his as it already was. She slowly closed her eyes, threatening to bring him into her life as it could be. Still kissing her, Gerald placed his glass on the dining table before gently drawing her glass from her hand. He placed it beside his and, wanting her to feel more than she could think, wrapped his arms around her.
They continued kissing for several moments, without her holding him. She made him feel unconvincing, but he’d already said too much.
Gerald slowly pulled his face from hers. Her eyes opened and he saw her uncertainty, without wanting to hurt her. Standing face to face, his hands against her sides, their lives remained unresolved. If she kissed him, then he would know he had persuaded her to accept the life he wanted. She didn’t move.
If she imagined she could persuade him to share her visions for a life, then he knew that she was wrong. He wouldn’t compromise their careers to let her try. Her face before him could not deter him from the noble task of doing so. If he tried again to kiss her, then he expected her to interrupt to tell him of the choice for him to make. “Whatever Niles Stafford wants me to do,” he told her, with a formal tone of officialdom holding them apart, “I’m going to do.”
“What you do is your decision,” Vanessa sighed, “but I don’t want to be a widow without ever being a wife.”
His hands fell from her sides, while he tried to think so far ahead. Turning away from him, she collected herself together. Gerald watched her, resigning himself to what had always been. She was beautiful, he liked her, but she might never have been his for him to lose.
“I better go now,” she said.
“Do you want some port?”
“I’ll have some at home.” She kissed his lips more fondly than lovingly, but she seemed uncertain about kissing him at all. “Thank you for dinner.”
Gerald couldn’t recall if she normally thanked him for the meals he cooked. She checked the reflection of her mouth in a small mirror near the door to see her lipstick wasn’t smudged, while he opened the window curtains to the night and brazen lights from other homes before opening the door from his apartment to the corridor. “I’ll come down with you,” he said.
She glanced at him, as if about to say he needn’t do so, and stepped onward. Gerald followed her to the closed lift door, where he stepped past her to stretch his hand out to the wall. He pressed the button summoning the lift to take them downward. The sounds of the coming lift broke the silence in which they stood, while Vanessa stared forward at the closed lift doors.
“It’s normally slow,” said Gerald.
Vanessa turned and walked briskly down the stairs, while the lift slowed and stopped behind them. Glass-panelled doors separated the building entrance hallway from the ramp and few steps down to the street, where her car was parked. She stopped to face him. “I hope you’re happy, Gerry.” Her eyes had never been tenderer than they were tender then.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow.” She turned and opened the building door before Gerald could open it for her.
They shared so many passions, but not a passion for themselves. “Give my best to your parents,” said Gerald.
She turned around again to face him. “Do you know what I want, Gerald, since you never asked?” She spoke with all the force that parting words could be. “I want to marry and have children, who might play hopscotch and grow up to eat lunch with my husband and me some Sundays.” She started to turn away again.
“Wait!” said Gerald. Many things he might’ve said flew through his mind, but none of them meant anything. He dared not speak words that meant too little or too much. He moved towards her, grabbed both her arms with his hands, and held her as he pressed his lips against hers. His eyes were closed, but he thought of hers wide open and surprised. It was all he knew to do.
He let her go. His eyes opened.
She briefly continued looking at him, before turning away. The heels of her shoes pattered against the steps as she scurried down them to the pavement. Gerald heard her start to cry, as she opened her car door and stepped out of sight. Standing alone too early and late at night, the glass-panelled building door closed and locked in front of him.