Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Butterfly

The Butterfly.

Philip had come to the pub to be around people. To hear normal life going on all around him, the conversations about holidays, the moans about husbands, work, money, kids and pointless opinions on the latest episode of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get me out of Here!’ The superficial chit chat about nothing and the deep heart to hearts. Normal life. A comforting contrast to his own weird world, his mess, his dark matter. The dull everyday that had been invaded so completely by chaos; a butterfly had flapped its wings in some distant universe and caused his own to explode. Fragile, delicate, apparently harmless. A bright jewel flitting across his path, that had to be caught.
For a while, he thought he had caught her. Sitting alone in the pub, his heart took a bungee jump as he thought of her pale gold hair, her deep dark eyes, the warm sing-song of her laugh. She was always laughing. She was no Common blue or Cabbage white, but something rare, exotic, a bright-winged fantasy.
They had met at Ben’s terrible ‘get together’ party, a mercenary match-making experiment to which Ben had invited all his saddest singleton friends. Apparently, he included Philip in this list.
“You’ve got to get yourself a woman, Phil.” Ben had advised him over a pint, some weeks before.
“Come on, mate. I know you’re lonely. Just you and ‘Dave’ channel every night.”
“Me and ‘Dave’ are very happy, thank you.”
Ben had downed his pint, shaking his head. “I mean… don’t you want someone like Emma in your life?”
Ben never stopped going on about Emma. Philip thought he must know everything there was to know about the woman, being forced to listen to his endless exultations at work and afterwards, over many a pint: her favourite music/films/T.V programmes/ cooking tecniques/childhood memories… All her funny habits, (“Just so Emma.” Ben said, with a nauseating expression.) Even where she bought her bloody knickers. Being in love clearly turned your brain to mush.
“So, am I actually going to meet the wonderful Emma, at some point?” Said Philip. “Or have you made her up?”
“You can scoff. Come to my party next month and you will. You never know, you might meet someone yourself.”
“Pigs might fly.”
“I’ll prepare the runway.” Said Ben, with a grin.
He got to the party late, even later than the time usually prescribed to be cool. Not that he had ever answered that description. He hadn’t been going to turn up at all but, for once, there was nothing worth watching on ‘Dave’ channel, unless he fancied an evening of back to back ancient ‘Have I got News for you’ re-runs. And he was mildly curious to meet Emma.
“What time d’you… call this?” Ben was not what you’d describe as sober.
Philip shrugged. “Me and ‘Dave’ had a row. Where’s the booze?”
“Kitchen, mate. Help yourself.”
He did. He wrestled his way through the kitchen crowd (mostly drunk blokes, clutching bottles of Bud and loudly discussing the Liverpool v Arsenal game.) There was, of course, no real ale, so he poured himself a glass of dubious red and made a hasty exit. Not his scene.
The living room was emitting sounds of further drunken chaos, so he bypassed it and headed instead for the dining room.
He sat himself at the table, sighing deeply and sipping the wine from his pretend-glass glass. It wasn’t quite as dubious as he had feared; only moderately vinegar-like. A small sound behind him caught his attention. He turned and, with a shock, saw that he wasn’t alone. A young woman with long, pale gold hair in a sky-blue cotton dress - like a little girl’s - was photographing a vase of sunflowers, clematis and dried honesty. (Not that he would willingly admit to knowing the names of flowers to anyone. Years of helping his mum with the gardening was to blame for this.)
Embarrassed, he got up and began to creep away. But curiosity got the better of him, when he saw which camera she was using.
“Hi…” He said.
“You’re in my light.” She had a deep, gentle, amused voice.
“Sorry.” He moved a little towards the door, but didn’t leave.
“You must be Philip.” She continued to shift this way and that, focusing through her camera.
“How did you -?”
She lowered the camera, turning to face him. Her large dark eyes, set in a gently rounded face, were soft, filled with an amused, focussed light. “You’re exactly as Ben described you.”
“How’s that?”
“Handsome. Not as confident as you like to appear.” She smiled, a warm flush radiating upwards, resting on her beautiful cheekbones, sparking in her eyes. “Lonely.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“Have it your way.” She picked up her camera again and, before he could protest, took his photo.
Of course, when Ben had accused him of being lonely, he had been wrong. But somehow, when this woman said it, she was right. He was so lonely he didn’t know what to do with himself.
A subject change was in order. “I see you’re using an old film Leica.” He said. “That’s a brave choice. I tend to stick with digital, these days.”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “And you’ve got… a Nikon D.90…?”
Now she was freaking him out. “Spot on. How did you -?”
“I see you’ve met Emma.”
Ben had come in. He gave Philip a drunken grin and slipped his arm around Emma’s shoulder, squeezing it. She looked at him with an indulgent affection, reaching for his other hand. Philip looked away. Horror pressed in around his heart, pulsing mercilessly. Get your hands off her…
He muttered some excuse to Ben and bolted for the door, forgetting his wine. Forgetting his old life. Definitely forgetting his manners. Standing outside the closed door and breathing deeply, he realized with an exhilerating shock that he had fallen in love with Emma. The butterfly had fluttered her wings, the smallest stirring rising to an anhialating crescendo in his world. Chaos theory.
He found a place in a corner of the darkened, crowded living room, flopping onto a bean bag to avoid the general crush on the settee. It was a position strategically chosen to give him full view of the door and anyone who might come in. Well… to see if Emma came in. Eventually, Ben stumbled through the door, drunker than ever, without her. The butterfly had flitted away, back towards her own light.
It was almost midnight when he hawled himself to his feet, pushing his way out of the cloying, unbearable room. He was choking on the stench of booze, hot body smells and disappointment.
He opened the front door.
“Nothing wrong with the D90, as such.” Said a deep voice behind him. Then she laughed, that rich, sing-song sound, sending a thrill tingling to his toes and fingertips.
“It’s about all I can handle.” He admitted, with a smile.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not true.” The brief touch of her hand on his arm glowed with promise. Her soft dark eyes drew him all the way into her butterfly world.
And so it had begun.
She had told him from the beginning that she was still just as much with Ben, that Ben mustn’t ever know and that Philip mustn’t try to get more of her than she was willing to give. Those were the terms and he agreed to them in a heartbeat. He would let her have her ‘freedom’, loving her, becoming her light, so that she came to him of her own accord.
That was the theory. At first, it seemed to work. Passion for Emma won over loyalty to his friend; he was shamefully jubilant to see how she seemed to prefer his company to Ben’s. She hardly even mentioned Ben’s name. He soon learned not to object or ask questions when she said: ”I’m busy, tonight.” He would simply nod. But the words were in his head, repeating, the film of his imagination was playing and there was no ‘stop’ button.
Still, he knew he could live with it. He had to.
It had been going on for six months now and he was exhausted. He wasn’t cut out for keeping secrets, or betraying his friend. Or for sharing.
The times he spent with her had a strange, dreamy quality, held long in the gaze of those dark, dark eyes, mesmerized by the bright technicolour of her wings. He carried her touch in the marrow of his bones, pulsing in his blood, when he was away from her. Which he often was.
He hung his whole existence on the times when it was his turn to see her, never knowing what to expect, what she would say, where she would lead him next. He followed her strange flight into the rapt darkness.
But then it was always time again for goodbye. He was never ready for it and had no say in it. He had simply to watch her walk away, back into the night where she belonged, never knowing when she would next materialise. The butterfly was becoming a moth.
So here he sat, in this pub, alone again. Tonight was another “I’m busy” night, which meant Ben. Philip closed his eyes against the pictures, the pull of guilt, the weight of unanswered questions. He would bear it all, to keep her in his life. His heart had captured her image, her face burned
into his existence, a photograph that wouldn’t fade. Even though, it now dawned on him, he was lonelier than ever.
She was a dark lust in his blood, a butterfly that would never be caught. His lonely, comfortable, microwave meal and ‘Dave’ grounded foundation hadn’t just been shaken, but obliterated. There was nothing left. And he missed Ben.
“Hiya, mate.”
Philip looked up, astonished to hear Ben’s voice. Why wasn’t he with Emma? Ben was grinning as usual, but there was a shadow across his blue eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
“I know.” Ben looked rueful. “Sad man, out for a pint by himself.” He planted his drink and crisps on the table and sat down next to Philip.
“Oh, sorry mate… are you -?”
“Yes. I, too, am a sad man. Isn’t Emma with you?”
Ben sighed. “Nah.” There was silence. Ben opened his crisps and downed half his pint. “I think she’s been seeing someone else.”
A thrill of fear passed through Philip’s gut, a dangerous spasm. With a mighty effort of will, he controlled his voice:
“What makes you say that?”
Ben sighed, swallowing the rest of his pint in one gulp. “I always knew she liked her own space.” He looked mournfully at his empty glass. “She’s an independent sort of girl.”
“Is she?” Philip couldn’t quite meet his eye.
“You know she is. I’ve told you that often enough. I still got to see quite a bit of her, though. Except lately… when I ask her if she’s free, most of the time she says, ‘I’m busy tonight.’” He shook his head.
Most of the time. What was she doing? She certainly wasn’t seeing him that much. His skin crept with horror at the familiar line: ‘Busy tonight.’
“Why don’t you confront her?” He said, hearing the edge of anger in his voice. Then, almost choking on his own hypocrisy: “You have a right to know, Ben.”
What he meant was, I have a right to know.
“I’m not sure I want to. I might be jumping to conclusions, anyway; two and two making three, you know.” He furrowed his brow, his eyes darkening. “Except that…”
“Well, tonight, she came out with that ‘I’m busy’ stuff again, which pissed me off. When I pressed her she told me she’d got some more overtime at work.”
“Well, maybe she has -”
“No. I phoned. Her mobile was off so I called her at work and they said she wasn’t there. And then they told me there’d been no overtime for months.”
“So, every time she’s told you she was working late, she was…” Philip swallowed. “Somewhere else.”
“Yes.” Ben laughed bitterly. “A mate of mine told me he’d seen her holding hands with this other bloke, a couple of weeks ago. I thought it must have been someone who looked like her. They say everyone’s got a twin, don’t they? But maybe it was her.”
Maybe it was.
Ben shrugged, sighed and picked up his empty glass. “Want another one?”
“Do I.”
This time it was Philip who downed it almost in one.
“I haven’t seen much of you lately, Phil.” Said Ben.
There was a reason for that. It was torture for him - literally akin to someone sliding razor blades under his fingernails - to see Emma and Ben together. Catching the affectionate glances, cringing at the private jokes, unable to take his eyes off Emma’s hand in his. It was like a car crash; you don’t want to look, but you always do.
“Yeah. Sorry, mate.”
“You doing o.k?”
“Yeah, I’m O.K. Well, I am now.”
In his mind’s eye, he saw the butterfly effortlessly rising, wings jewel-bright against the darkness, flying away into the night. This time, he would not follow.
Philip smiled at his friend, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Sorry, Ben. I’m really sorry.”

The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings

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