Playing Stories — Chapter 18: In the Air Tonight

Chapter 18: In the Air Tonight
from the 1981 album “Face Value” by Phil Collins
posted at 08:45, 8 March 2019

But I know the reason why you keep your silence up
No you don’t fool me
The hurt doesn’t show, but the pain still grows
It’s no stranger to you and me

She looked different tonight. Maybe it was the light in the café. Maybe we just hadn’t seen each other for a few days. Or maybe we were just tired. But no, there was something definitely different about her, in the way she walked down the platform, in the way she wasn’t looking at me the way she used to. As I got up from the table and we kissed, I noticed that she was squeezing shut her eyes… harder than normal.

She sighed as she collapsed into the seat opposite me. She held her head in her hands. One minute passed by. Two. She was breathing so deeply, I began to wonder if she’d fallen asleep. Then with a flick of the head, her chestnut hair cascading gorgeously down her shoulders, she looked up and caught me gaping.

“What,” she said.

“Nothing. Just wondering why you’re so quiet. It’s a rare thing.”

“Is that the only thing you see?”

“You know I’m not in the habit of telling someone how hot they look.”

She snorted and tugged at her dress. “I knew you were gonna say something about it… I don’t even know why they ask us to wear these… I’m at a diplomatic meeting, for Heaven’s sake, not a fancy-dress party. Makes me miss T-shirts.” She paused for a while. “And those people are all like deaf in one ear, you have to repeat every other sentence. It’s, just. Urgh.”

I nodded. She’d said this before, actually, and she knew it, cause she didn’t try to follow it up. I wondered if she was just trying to smooth things out between us, or if there were things that she was scared of talking about. Probably not the last one, though: in six months I’d already learnt enough about the Transcasian consul alone to blackmail him four lifetimes over. You could always rely on her for that kind of non-stop chitchat; she only did that, she said, because she didn’t really care about those people. I believed her, anyway.

But sitting there in the café, it was becoming apparent that she wouldn’t be in full form for quite some time. She stared unsteadily at me, and I shrugged. “Rough day for you, huh?”

“Yeah, a bit.”

“Fearnedale being a pain in the ass?”

She said nothing, but looked away and sipped her coffee in silence. Lately she’d been doing this a lot: whenever she came back from an assignment, she kept quiet and didn’t say anything at all. She’d keep on hesitating and reaching out her hand for something, only to take it back. Those nights weren’t exactly uncomfortable, but it was like a different soul had taken hold of her, and it always felt like I was only kissing her shell, not the person underneath that distant veneer. Of course it was back to normal again the next day, and she would be her bubbly self again. She always came back — you trusted her, instinctively, and you were always rewarded. But that waiting did get to you occasionally. You really had to learn to wait.

We sat in the pub, waiting for nothing in particular. The few people still in the café looked at us and then sighed and looked away. Maybe they’d never The Wycliffe express roared into the station, drowning out our words. She kept on looking out the window, and then looking back at me. She raised her eyebrows, a silent question handed delicately my way. I simply shrugged. “In your own time.”

She flashed a quick smile but didn’t raise the cup to her lips for a very long time. I looked at her while above us the television continued to blare: the stock market dropping like a stone, an incoming summer storm, some murderer on the loose back in Fearnedale.

I heard her put down her cup and sigh. “Murderers,” I heard her say. She was looking straight at me.

“Yeah. What about them?”

“Just… nothing. It’s depressing, that’s all. All those men, on the town for a good night, and then….” She clicked her fingers. “Snap. Just like that. You’re dead the next morning, and nobody even knows how.”

“Horrible… who’d want to do that kind of thing?” I shook my head. It was hard to even imagine. “Still, at least we’re safe here… nobody here to get us out in these smaller places.”

I looked straight at her. She nodded, gazing at her cup for a very long time. “I guess we are.” She paused. “I guess there’s nothing to worry about.”

We paid and left the station. She felt for my hand as we walked down the street, and I held it out and met her halfway. She had a hell of a grip, but tonight she was squeezing my hand really hard. I raised my eyebrows, but she simply shook her head and put her head on my shoulder. I wondered what she had to be thinking. So many things seemed to be running through her brain when she looked like that: it all seemed very strange when she assumed that otherworldly look. I wondered if I should tell her I understood, if she would snap out of it if I did. But no. She told you everything in due course. Give her time.

We climbed up the steps to our place, she first, I following. We kissed as I fumbled for the keys, and I felt her chest heaving as I stroked her shoulders. She must have caught me pausing, cause she broke away and went in without a second word. I followed her and found her slumped on the armchair, staring down at nothing in particular. I sat on the side, and suddenly she reached out, her eyes still boring holes into the floor. We sit there, simply hugging it out, neither of us knowing exactly what we could say.

She looked up at me after a while. “Give me a sec?” she said.

I nodded. She walked down the hallway, and I watched her gracious back as she walked into the bathroom and shut the door. She was a lovely person when it came to it. She was impulsive, she was random, she was very loud. Oh yes, she was very loud. And yet she actually had real emotion behind that loudness. She always tried to help you when you were down. She genuinely supported you, not like the hypocrites out there who said one thing and did the other. So what if she had a short temper sometimes? So what if she went quiet or behaved unpredictably? We all make mistakes. Hers I can tolerate, just as she tolerates my little habits. We help each other, despite everything.

An hour later, we were on the bed, breathing in each other, long deep breaths. She sat there staring at me, hollow, searching. I turned away from her, switched off the light, and we kissed in the darkness. Slowly, rhythmically, we undressed each other. Only a few slivers of cloth separated our naked bodies. And then she hesitated, her hands on my bare chest.

“I’ve got to tell you something,” she said. “I do know why all those people in Fearnedale are dead. It was because of me.” She paused for just the briefest of moments, and — was that a smile I could see as she leant forward? The next words were barely a whisper. “I killed them.”

I reached behind and unbuckled the strap of her bra. Even in the shadows, we could feel the faint smile on my lips.

“I know,” I said, and then we kissed.

I mean, say what you like, but I’m not going anywhere with my work, Quentin… I’m like this, you don’t have to try to persuade me to lighten up or anything. Thanks for trying, anyway.

Yeah, that’s panel’s loose again. Tell me when you’re coming over to fix it?



P. S. Also I’m not really sure about how much I like this exercise anymore… I don’t know, maybe I was trying to get something from this? I just don’t feel anything more here. And like it took me so long just to think of something to write, and it’s this shit story that comes out in the end. And what’s the point of writing if it’s just an exercise really?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about you or the songs, you write okay, but… I just don’t feel too much about it? Entirely up to you, of course.


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