The embrace

FICTION

A family and a poem.

Words by & photo by Oxyman


Simon woke up in the middle of the night. Am I really going to do it? Am I really questioning it again? I planned it… He tried to think how long ago this was and couldn’t remember. How long has it been? How old is Tom? This wasn’t like Simon, he could always date making big decisions. Analyse, not agonise, Simon’s father used to say, decide, act and move on.  Big decisions were easy for Simon, his mind was trained to take it or leave it.

He sat up on the bed. Simon owned the biggest house of anyone in his circles, including his parents. There were marble Roman columns and fifty-grand Murano chandeliers in his bedroom – two of them – for Christ’s sake. He had everything. The three Roman columns separated the sleeping side of the room with its infinite bed from the rest of it – a large semi-oval shaped space with glass walls on one side and a row of oil paintings on the other. No furniture, no clutter. His thinking space, Simon called it. He liked waking up early, stroking the cool marble as he passed between the columns on the way to open the curtains and face the world.

This place needs something, Simon thought, something’s missing. I’m missing… In the dark, the chandeliers looked like dead trees suspended from the ceiling.

Simon opened his bedroom door and looked around as if checking for traffic before crossing. What am I doing? He headed down the long corridor with its multiple doors – his dressing room, study, library, Anne’s bedroom – until a face on the wall made him jump. It took a moment to realise that it was just a photo. The image was much lighter than its background, almost as if it was illuminated. Still, it took a while for Simon’s eyes to make out that this was a photo of him. It wasn’t there last night when he went to bed, he registered. Why would Anne do that – hang a large portrait of him next to a mirror? Had she figured out what was on his mind? And if she had, was this a gesture of spite or pity? Love? Was there something she was trying to tell him?

It was that shot Anne took just before they got into the car on the way to the maternity unit.

‘Could you?’ Simon asked handing her the camera.

‘What?’

‘Take a picture. Of me.’ Simon smiled at his wife.

‘Now?’

‘Yes. A bit historic, don’t you think?’

Anne looked at Simon in disbelief. ‘Aaaw,’ she moaned. ‘Aaaw, aaaw, aaaw.’ She doubled over her stomach in what looked like a coughing fit. One hand clutched her belly while the other searched for something or someone to hold on to.

Simon was sure his wife exaggerated the pain. He waited for her to clear her throat and straighten up. He was used to getting what he wanted. Lean, good-looking and intelligent enough, Simon led a straight-forward life of authority, popularity and pleasure. He was 37 in that photo, in good health and with fatherhood promising to be yet another success story of his life.

 

The photo and his reflection in the mirror next to it were like a pair of spot-the-difference images. Spiteful bitch, Simon thought. She must have gone to some trouble to have this photo printed to nearly life-size. Was this some kind of joke? He stood back a little so that his reflection and the portrait were of the same dimensions. What difference? One wore a t-shirt, the other – pyjama top, but both were tall and had a breadth to their shoulders, depth to their chests and substantial arm muscles, lovingly worked, stretched and massaged three times a week. Both had open, eager faces with regular, manly features – high foreheads, full lips and large, straight teeth. Simon produced a matching smile. Fourteen years have matured Simon slightly, but in the dark he couldn’t see the fine lines around his eyes and he knew he didn’t have many greys. He smoothed back his amber-coloured mane. Receding hair and thin mouths belonged to other people, he had always thought, along with lousy careers and messy lives.

There was a light in Tom’s bedroom. Simon turned and started walking away when his son’s door opened. The boy stood there, still in his day clothes, with an unsmiling look on his face.

‘It’s the middle of the night, Tom,’ Simon said, his head half-turned, his body still facing away from his son.  

‘I know. I’m just working on something,’ answered Tom.

Simon knew not to ask for details. He got more information than he’d expected already.

‘Ok,’ he said. ‘Make sure you get some sleep.’

‘Would you look at something for me in the morning, Dad, when I’m finished?’

Simon turned to face his son. At fourteen, fair and thin, Tom looked nothing like Simon had imagined him. He inherited none of his father’s handsome presence. Instead, he had an elongated nose, small mouth and his eyes, set deep into the skinny, pale face, had a permanent look of preoccupied anxiety.

‘Yes, of course, I will,’ Simon finally responded. Will I, he thought. He had wanted to leave the house at 5 am. His son had not asked him for anything for what seemed like years. In fact, they rarely spoke. On that day, of all days, Tom opened his door and asked for Simon’s opinion.  

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a poem,’ said Tom.

‘A poem?’

A poem. When Simon imagined his unborn son, he pictured a boy’s room filled with swimming certificates and rugby cups, lego, robots, posters of racing cars and superheroes. Poetry was not something he had envisaged. Tom’s bedroom was mostly books, but only recently did he start reading them, for years he just used them as building blocks. When Simon sometimes walked in on his young son, Tom, this stranger in Simon’s house who bore no resemblance to either of the parents and seemed to have no need for them or anyone else, would be lost among books and if he did notice Simon, he’d turn away or stare at the floor.

‘Dad? Will you look at it at breakfast? I should be finished by then.’

‘Ok, Tom,’ Simon said. He turned around and went back to his bedroom. Passing the mirror this time he noticed a difference with the man he knew himself to be – stooped shoulders, as if perhaps a child was sitting on his shoulders. As he straightened his back, something clicked uncomfortably under the blades. Simon stared at his reflection and spotted another difference. There was a cowering look in his eyes. I’m not afraid, he said to himself. This is where it ends.

 

*

 

Mr Giannotti was everything Tom’s father wasn’t. Tom liked the other-ness of his English teacher. There were few people in Tom’s life that he was regularly close to and it was exciting to know someone who was so different, almost a complete opposite of his dad. Mr Giannotti laughed often and easily. He was slender, like Tom, and had smooth, youthful skin and lady-like long fingers. He also liked poetry. His voice and expression mesmerised Tom. Mr Giannotti would close or roll his eyes, shake his head, lift his chin and his arms – his arms were in constant motion when he recited.

‘Mr Giannotti, you must be tired after reading poetry,’ Tom asked earnestly after his teacher had gone through four pieces by ‘Bobby Burns’ in a fit of animated performance.

Mr Giannotti laughed his big, explosive laugh and ran a bony hand through his blond curls. ‘Not in the slightest! Why don’t you write one for me to read to the class?’

‘Me? Write a poem?’ asked Tom.

‘Yes, why not? You are good with words. Try.’

Tom thought about it. ‘I will try,’ he said.

On the way home, Tom looked for inspiration. Perhaps he should write about his mum. She was beautiful and kind. She spent a lot of time with Tom. Maybe dad? Tom’s dad was a like creature from a different world. He was quiet, but his presence filled the house when he was there, like a mist. Tom felt disorientated with dad around. He could write about that. In the end, he decided he didn’t want to write about people, not real people anyway.

 

*

 

Simon climbed back into bed and amazingly even fell asleep but was awake again later. He’d been waking up several times every night, thinking or rather trying not to think about that day. The decision had been made, date and place had been chosen. He had surveyed the site, walked to a suitable spot, looked down. ‘Freddie lives’ was the first thing he saw – a graffiti message in a poisonous shade of purple.  Train tracks, stones, metal and soot. A bit inelegant for a last effort. He imagined climbing over the barrier. Would he sit on it first or plunge in one swift movement? He gripped the barrier, expecting to feel something, an urge – to go or to change his mind – and felt nothing. He was mostly bothered by the sight of the rusty fasteners along the tracks. Even their wavy shape annoyed him. Couldn’t they use straight ones? He heard a train in the distance and then he felt it – a wave of air slapping him as the train shot under Simon’s bridge, the final moment getting closer and drawing him in, just as he was drifting towards it, with no room for error.

Can I still leave at 5, he thought. By 5:45 none of his new commitment to Tom and his stupid poem would be relevant. Would Tom even notice? Simon was growing tired of his doubts. He rubbed the back of his neck. His body’s tension seemed to accumulate in that one spot like clouds above a mountain top. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Then he thought of Anne. How long ago did she move into a separate bedroom? How long had it been since they went out together, did anything together? Does she know about the poetry? She’d lose it if he’d written a whole poem.

Anne still hoped for a greatness in her son and so she tried – instruments, chess, charcoal drawing, abstract painting, sculpting, 4d modelling – there was something new almost every month. Tom went along but rarely more than once or twice. From a young age, the child preferred the company of his own, in his room, surrounded by books. Books he loved, he spent a lot of time with them, sorting them by shape, thickness and colour or some other system his parents failed to grasp. Tom’s thin, almost transparent face tensed when he was given new books. He would reorganise his stacks and shelves several times until he was satisfied that the new book belonged, and then he would change it all again. He said that books didn’t go in the same place on different days.

Simon thought about the day he met Anne, on a tennis court, he – in the final year of his science degree, without much passion for science, just impatient to get into a management programme and she – drifting through history of art. Tennis was her thing.

‘Out of my league,’ said Dylan, Tom’s best friend at university, when they both set eyes on Anne in her white top and a little skirt, eyes on the ball, in a match against another girl. Anne was all legs, arms and neck, slender and golden. I want that, Simon thought. That’s what I want my wife to look like. He went straight to her, forgetting about Dylan and where the two of them were going. As he approached, the two girls shook hands – Anne had won 4 to 1 – and started walking towards the clubhouse.  Simon followed. He caught sight of Dylan still hovering where he’d left him and ignored him. In fact, he avoided Dylan after that day, not wanting to be associated with lack of ambition.

Simon bought a box of strawberries, with his eyes on Anne who was walking away. ‘Would you just hurry?’ he said to the stall girl, ‘Here, I don’t need change.’

He caught up with Anne and her friend and was walking closely behind them, momentarily distracted by her endless legs and the flapping mini-skirt. Simon got ahead and stood in front of the two girls. ‘Strawberries?’ he asked. Anne took the box. ‘Thanks,’ she said, resuming her walk. Her friend hesitated and followed. Simon got ahead again, the three of them stood in the middle of the path. A middle-aged couple behind them had to walk around the group of a boy, two girls and a box of strawberries in the middle. The couple moved slowly, Simon gave them a hateful glance which he wanted Anne to notice.   

‘You’re extraordinarily beautiful,’ Simon said to Anne. He said it with his usual tone of authority and purpose, and he wasn’t smiling.

Anne must have been used to male attention and poor chat-up lines, but she stopped chewing and for a moment no one said anything. The lack of response puzzled Simon. He opened his mouth to speak, just as Anne held out the box to him and said, still with her mouth full, ’Shorberry?’ The three of them laughed. Simon helped himself to the biggest berry.

Many years later when Simon and Anne were arguing about Tom, she asked him, ‘What was that crap about extraordinary beauty you said to me when we first met?’ She still had the golden blond bob and slim legs, but her skin had lost its shine and in anger her soft mouth shook like the mouth of someone old and frail.  ‘What you said, no, what you meant was ‘you’re the best and therefore I must have you.’ That’s how you’ve always lived your life, isn’t it? Whether you know it or not. You can’t do this with Tom.’

She was right, of course. Simon’s decision-making was simple – want it, get it or don’t want it, dismiss. Only the best will do. And of course, he couldn’t do that to Tom. But was there something, anything that he could do with his son? Simon rocked Tom to sleep when he was tiny and did the middle-of-the-night bottle. He held his precious baby son and pictured cricket matches and endless social occasions that they would share. Simon was invited to enough events and get-togethers to fill most weekends of the year. In his mind Tom was a miniature version of himself – articulate, confident, gregarious.

From a quiet baby Tom grew into a quiet toddler. He didn’t seem to want to communicate in any way, not even by pointing or smiling, only his cries were vocal. Anne took him everywhere, like all other mums, but he would cry at the sight of animals, ignore playgrounds, scream every time they went to the pool. The first holiday together was a torture. Tom sat staring at his feet wherever they went – beach, zoo, shops. He just sat on the ground and refused to move. Or he screamed. He screamed because he didn’t like the sun cream or eating out or there were not enough books in the hotel room. ‘Boots, boots,’ he sobbed. At two and a half, books – or ‘boots’- was one of Tom’s few words. Simon watched Tom, he watched other children and their parents, people watched him and his son, and it must have been obvious to everyone that something was wrong.  

The word autism entered their world after that vacation. Anne threw herself into it, but for Simon having to accept and endure was an unknown territory. ‘I don’t need this’ was his first reaction, that was how he dealt with relationships that didn’t work out or jobs that didn’t suit. Cracks began to appear in their marriage.

With school, came aggression, hitting and biting other kids, eating paper and what they called ‘smearing’. If someone had asked Simon at any stage of his life until then what smearing was he wouldn’t have had a clue. The expensive school Tom was enlisted with from birth asked them to leave two weeks before the end of his first year. They couldn’t even wait for two weeks.  

After some time in a specialist school Tom seemed to settle. One day, when he was about eight, he said to Simon, ‘Dad, I’m not going to eat paper or touch my poo anymore.’ That night Simon wept. At eight he was a competent swimmer and the most promising kid on the rugby field. He played saxophone and piano. He was King Lear in a school play. There were at least 40 kids at each of his birthday parties. ‘Touch my poo?’ Wasn’t that something a two-year-old might say?

Tom, however, did as he had promised. But he also withdrew, withdrew even more pointedly than before, he practically stopped speaking at home, to Simon anyway. It seemed like years had passed before they had another conversation.

‘Dad, what does coffee taste like?’ Tom asked his father one morning.

Hearing a complete sentence out of his son, a question addressed to him and requiring his response, his opinion – Simon couldn’t believe his ears. The seriousness of Tom’s face, so typical for Tom, suddenly seemed so unusual, so wise for a ten-year-old.

‘It tastes… it tastes like… poo.’

In the corner of the kitchen Anne mouthed ‘what the…’

Simon wanted to run out of the house. He’d missed out on the toilet humour with his little boy, he’d missed on everything and yet the word poo seemed to have been engraved on his brain.

‘Hmm,’ Tom said and went to his room.

That was more like him. Hmm, ah and occasionally ok. Simon was almost shocked to hear a string of words arranged in a meaningful question for his benefit. His shock produced a response of the strongest memory he had of a conversation with his son, about two years before that. Poo. But what really got Simon was that Tom didn’t even giggle. He never giggled.

Simon stormed out of the house. Then he rushed back, thinking, that was surely a beginning. He ran into Tom’s room with, ‘Tom, would you like a cup of coffee?’

‘Are you mad?’ shouted Anne from downstairs. ‘He’s only 10.’

‘Why?’ asked Tom.

‘I thought you might like to find out for yourself what it tastes like.’

‘Poo,’ said Tom.

‘Tea’s better.’ Simon wasn’t going to give up. ‘Tea tastes nice. Or lemonade. Shall I get you some fresh lemonade?’’

‘No,’ said Tom.

‘No, thank you,’ chimed in his mother. ‘He’s not thirsty, leave it, Simon.’

But for Simon it was as if he’d found the Holy Grail. He just had to identify the right drink or something like a drink that Tom might like to taste, test, talk about. Simon tried, and he waited, every day for months after the coffee episode. And Tom did occasionally ask questions or showed interest in things, but it never led anywhere. His comments appeared out of context and didn’t require follow-up. They were also very rare. Eventually Simon ignored them altogether. Anne dealt with teachers, doctors and homework and when Tom did speak it was always to Anne, not Simon. Simon lived as if he didn’t have a son.  

Twice since giving up on Dylan, Simon had met his former best university friend again. The first time they bumped into each other in a supermarket shortly after Tom was born.

‘Hey, Simon, long time, man,’ Dylan called. He looked heavier than when they last saw each other and had less hair. He was holding hands with a short, plump woman with bleached hair and a ratty sort of mouth – round and with pointy teeth.

‘Dylan! How’re you?’ said Simon.

‘Not too shabby’. The rat-mouth giggled at this response. ‘You remember Victoria?’

Simon took another look at Victoria. No, he did not remember her, and she wouldn’t have been worth remembering. Victoria was a used-Ford equivalent of a wife or girlfriend. ‘Delighted to meet you, Victoria?’ Simon said.

‘And you, call me Vicky,’ she said. ‘What’s in the bundle?’

‘Boy,’ Simon answered. Of course, he wanted to add. His gorgeous wife had had a text-book pregnancy, easy birth and was showing no signs of post-natal depression. And it was a boy. Life had never been better.

Smile temporarily vanished from Victoria’s face.

‘You?’ asked Simon.

‘Working on it,’ said Dylan awkwardly, stuffing his hands into his trousers pockets.

The last time they saw each other was when several years later Dylan had sought Simon out and sent him an email asking him to attend a fundraising auction in memory of Dylan’s dead mother. Simon did come but left as soon as he found out that it was a depression awareness event and Dylan’s mother had killed herself. Depression and suicide were for wimps.

Yet, when Simon decided to end his life, it was just that – a decision. He didn’t despair and he wasn’t depressed. Big, life-changing decisions were easy, it was the daily existence that he had come to regard as unnecessary.  

Simon rolled over on his stomach and rubbed the back of his neck with both hands. Had Tom just asked him to look at some poem, like any regular teenager might?  

 

*

 

There was a knock on Simon’s door. He looked at the clock. 7:30. Damn it, he thought, now what? Peak-time train? He dressed swiftly and went downstairs, there was no time or point in taking a shower. Simon paused in the hallway wondering whether to just leave. He took in the curved staircase of his near-stately home, the brass railings in abstract shapes. The hall resembled a sculpture gallery with a display of heads and bodies made of stone, metal and glass, once precious and meticulously chosen. There were no family photographs.

In the kitchen Simon poured himself milk into a blue mug with white polka dots and sat down at the table. He was calm. I’m here now, I’ll have a toast, he decided. Anne was there, with her back to him, programming the coffee-maker. She wore a black mini-skirt and a smoke coloured top, for Tuesday tennis. Her girly figure hadn’t changed since they first met.

‘Coffee?’ she asked.

That was the state of their marriage – ‘business’ exchanges only. ‘Hello’ was redundant, coffee was not. ‘Yes, please.’ Simon said, looking at her long, toned legs.

‘Tom’s written a poem,’ she announced. She was beaming, her teeth were the only natural thing about her fully made-up face, with too much bronze and shiny glitter for her gaunt cheeks and bleached bob. She brought Simon a steaming coffee in an unglazed porcelain mug and put it next to his milk. ‘I’m going to read it now. He worked on it all night!’

I know, Simon wanted to say. He stared at the two cups. Anne stood in the middle of the kitchen, not leaning on anything, with a piece of paper in her hands, presumably the poem. Her face appeared satisfyingly absorbed. Where was Tom? Shouldn’t he be here, analysing her face for signs of validation or condescension, like teenagers do, as if their lives depended on their parents’ verdict?  

Tom walked in, head down. He was wearing his school trousers and shirt and not quite filling them. His hair of a sort of off-white non-colour was a mess, he looked tired. He was nearly the same height as his mother now, but it was difficult not to think of him as a young child. Tom’s sideways glance darted from Anne to the paper she was holding and then to Simon. Still with his head down, Tom stopped in front of Anne. When he didn’t know what to do or didn’t want to do something, he just dropped his head and stared at his feet. He did this a lot when Simon was around.  

‘This is brilliant,’ said Anne. She was always going to say that, those exact words. She patted her son on the shoulder. Simon couldn’t tell what she was really thinking. ‘Brilliant,’ Anne said again. ‘Read it, Simon.’ She walked over to him again and put the paper next to the untouched drinks. Simon caught her scent, not sharp and overpowering like all her perfumes, but something warm, flowery and calming, maybe her hair oil.   

Simon moved the coffee and milk away and laid the poem in front of him. His actions were slow and deliberate, as if to signal the importance of what he was about to do. He tried to still his mind and focus on Tom’s writing.  

 

The Embrace

In this titanic city, daring and vast,

Hidden behind trains, purposeful and fast,

We stand together, bodies fused, silent, still,  

Soothing the Earth’s shivers with our will.

Giants made of metal, invincible,  

There in full view, yet invisible.   

Our first embrace is tender, slow,  

Sunrise completes our eternal hello.

 

Simon looked up. Tom was clinging to the open fridge door, poking the cheeses. Anne was buttering slices of toast. Simon knew he was supposed to say something about the poem. The Embrace. Had he been expecting to like it? He couldn’t think of that now. His mind was racing with thoughts of how normal this all felt, as if Tom had grown out of his old self without Simon knowing, as if he’d been away and now returned. But Simon had been there before, he had glimpsed a Tom he thought he could live with, he had wept once and accepted the half-a-life or quarter-of-a-life with his long-awaited only child, a life he had since decided was not worth living. Those glimpses, those moments of connection passed between Simon and his son, like rewards, and vanished, and Simon didn’t want any more hope. Hope was a weed, an unnecessary weakness. Within minutes Tom would disappear into himself, become unresponsive and estranged. And yet, this cryptic poem was filling the space where cold Sunday mornings on the rugby field should have been and swimming trophies and watching Star Wars together. No, thought Simon, this does not change anything.

‘This is very good,’ he said.

‘It is, isn’t it? I’m really pleased for you, Tom. Well done!’ Anne kissed the top of Tom’s head. They were both smiling now as they settled companionably at the table, opposite Simon. For a while no one said anything, the only sounds in the kitchen were the muffled chewing and swallowing.  

Does it have to be so black and white, Simon thought. He could just walk out, divorce, start again. His career was on track, the rest of his life – surely, he could just pick it up where he left it, abandoned it gradually some years back. But divorce was a failure. He wasn’t made for that. There was no point… Simon had already been through denial and blame, feeling betrayed and robbed of fatherhood. Now he just envied his parents that they were already dead.

Tom said, ‘Do you think tender is a bit…predictable? Embraces are always tender.’

Simon was glad to be distracted from his thoughts. ‘Tender is good, I like tender,’ he answered. ‘What else would you have? Delicate? Gentle?’

‘What about fragile?’ offered Anne.

‘I already used fragile,’ said Tom.

‘Did you? Where?’

‘There’s a second version. I haven’t decided if it should be eternal hello or eternal goodbye, so I’ve written two endings. The other one ends with…’ Tom paused before reciting the variation, ‘Our last embrace is fragile, shy. Sunset completes our eternal goodbye.’

‘Beautiful,’ Anne said, smiling dreamily.

Simon nodded. He was never irritated by Tom. And of course, he wanted to live. I don’t need this, he wanted to scream. I’m normal, there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m not autistic…

‘Do you think it’s a bit… childish?’ Tom asked suddenly.

Tom’s voice sounded far away. Simon wasn’t sure if he’d heard the question, something about childish. Tom’s face looked as if he was listening to a sound no one else could hear. Their eyes met.

‘You’re fourteen, you are a child, and this is a good poem’ Simon heard himself say, his words echoing in his head. The next moment he was confused by his answer. Did I say, ‘You’re a good child’? What did I just say about that poem? He couldn’t tell if he was still talking or if his thoughts were getting louder in his head. ‘I prefer the goodbye ending. It’s more poignant and in keeping with the rest of it,’ he uttered. He thought his voice sounded like someone else’s, it was deafening, and the words were squeezing the air out of his lungs, his last breath. Simon’s eyes glazed over his son and wife; he felt his head was about to hit the table. He propped it up with hands and elbows and forced himself to stay upright. ‘Is it about skyscrapers that feel out of place surrounded by period houses? They feel invisible even though they’re giants.’ Where has that come from, Simon thought. He felt breathless.  

‘No way.’ That was Anne. ‘Surely these are metaphors – metal, invincible. It’s about people, isn’t it, Tom? Souls who feel alone in the middle of this crowded and… what did you call it? Intimidating city?’

‘Dad’s right,’ said Tom. ‘It’s about physical objects… one object, sort of. A very specific physical object.’

‘What is it then?’ Anne asked, sounding a bit deflated.

‘I’ll tell you later,’ said Tom with a grin on his face.   

Tom was already out of the kitchen when Simon called, almost in a whisper, ‘Tom, come here.’

His son waddled back. ‘What?’

Simon stood up. Tom stopped. Simon thought he saw a flicker of panic in Tom’s eyes. Watch the head, he thought, and he was right – Tom’s neck let go like a marionette’s and chin touched chest.  Simon wrapped his arms around Tom’s bony, rigid shoulders, straining to get his own right shoulder out of the way of Tom’s head which looked like it needed support. He didn’t know whether to put his unshaved face next to his son’s cheek or chin on top of his shoulder. He just threw his head back and squeezed Tom.  

‘I’m not going to war, Dad!’ Tom said. He was blushing. Then he turned around and left the house, sweeping his blazer, backpack and keys in one grand Wimbledon-here-I-come swing on the way out.  

Simon stood in the middle of the kitchen and thought, This is it. His toast and drinks untouched, he walked slowly to the hallway, slipped on his shoes and walked out. The door behind him opened and Anne’s head appeared. ‘Your bag,’ she said.

‘Yeah, thanks,’ Simon said. He took the bag which felt surprisingly heavy. There was a thin layer of dust on the handle. ‘Damn dust,’ he said.

I won’t need it, he thought on the way to the station. She looked so radiant, why didn’t I tell her that? The last thing on his mind as he sat on the train was that he could feel no tension at the back of his neck. Such luxury.  

 

*

 

Tom liked that his father had given him a hug, it hadn’t happened before. He had thought that anyone reading The Embrace would immediately realise what it was about. For Mr Giannotti, he printed the goodbye version.

‘This is it,’ Tom said to his teacher.

‘What is it? Ah, your poem, of course. You wrote it in one day? Splendid!’

His eyes ran over the short verse. ‘Wonderful,’ Mr Giannotti said. ‘Bravo! Let’s enter it into a competition.’

Tom watched his teacher’s animated face, his eyes fixed on the lines around his mouth that he had not noticed before. Mr Giannotti talked fast, and his head moved a lot, unsettling his soft blond curls.

‘Is it about the Twin Towers in New York? Am I right? Invincible, then invisible, eternal goodbye.’  

‘No,’ said Tom. ‘But you’re close. It’s about something you can see, a physical object. It’s not metaphoric.’

‘Right,’ said Mr Giannotti. ‘Maybe I’ll figure it out. Give me a day or two.’

Tom was beginning to enjoy the enigmatic side-effect of his poetry. ‘But please do not read it to the class,’ he said.

‘Why not?’ Mr Giannotti looked genuinely disappointed.

‘Maybe later,’ said Tom.

‘Ok, but you’ll let me send it to a poetry contest, won’t you?’

‘I’ll do it myself, what’s the address?’

‘There’s more than one. Give me a moment.’ Mr Giannotti typed quickly on his laptop, then scribbled something on a yellow post-it note.

‘Thank you,’ said Tom. He spent the rest of the day thinking about the competition. Someone he didn’t know would read his poem. Perhaps they’d want to give him a hug. On the way home, he bought two envelopes and two stamps – one of each for hello and goodbye. He folded and sealed the poems, copied the address twice, attached the stamps and tucked the envelopes into separate pockets of his backpack.

From Kings Cross Tom crossed the road to St Pancras station. He took the side stairs that led to the Renaissance Hotel. He liked the monumental building with its multitude of pointed windows, arches and spires. With rush-hour London tucked away behind the high walls on both sides of the staircase, it was easy to imagine yourself in 19th century England, until – just at the top of the stairs – parked cars came into view. Although today the space between the two train stations was filled with people and Tom thought he had heard an announcement about a fatality.

Tom turned into a red-brick archway and walked to the glass-domed expanse of the Eurostar terminal. He found his favourite spot in the alcove below the clock, and there it was – the nine-meter-tall bronze couple that he had assumed would be so recognisable from his poetry.  

He didn’t like their faces. Their angular metal features seemed lifeless and fake. They had none of the sensuality, tenderness or despair of their clinging bodies, clasping hands and touching foreheads. Their faces should have been featureless, Tom thought. Nor was he convinced by whether it was possible to drape a demure knee-length skirt, bronze or otherwise, around a woman’s buttocks with so much precision.  

From his perfect spot Tom’s view was angled on the man’s resolute stance and the woman’s light, almost dancing pose. Her whole body rose to her partner and fell into him at the same time.  The sculpture, titled simply The Meeting Place, appeared to Tom as one of those forces of London – or of life itself – that was as exciting as it was daunting and that one day just swallowed you whole. Yet, there was a promise and comfort about the embracing couple that Tom couldn’t explain.

Was it a farewell or a reunion?

Tom skipped down the empty staircase back into evening London. Stopping outside the post office on the way home, he took the two envelopes from his backpack and shuffled them.  He weighed them on his palms. Smiling to himself, he fed one to the pillar box and the other to the bin.

 

photo: Paul Day’s The Meeting Place, St Pancras Station, London