The thought irritated me. Actually, it went beyond mere irritation: my right arm twitched, and the sugar flew past the coffee and ended up a tiny cocaine-like wisp beside the cup. It took me exactly one second to snap it off the table and get hold of the passing waiter. Not in any way hampered by the complaisant, servile face, I told him off for the disgustingly low Wi-Fi signal which barely registered on the screen of my phone. He replied that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, the tone indicating all the pissed-off politeness of someone whose entire existence depended on being liked. To stress his point, he cast a tortured glance at the steamy, overfilled tray. It was pointless to push any further, so I thanked him sarcastically and returned to my thought. The thought: I only came because I couldn’t say no.
Because I didn’t particularly like him back in the day. Come to think of it, when the phone rang yesterday and he asked me whether I recognized his voice (which sounded like it was filled with plumes of dense fog), I genuinely admitted I did not. And even when he said it was Brendan, an old friend, I could only utter my wistful, barely audible ‘uh-huh’. The mind was rummaging helplessly through back pages and minted memories while my wife (this was quarter to midnight) was staring at me with a quizzical intensity that made me feel a little awkward.
Another unfortunate thing was that something prompted me to arrive 20 minutes earlier, so here I was, with a cup of fairly mediocre coffee, no sugar and a dismal Wi-Fi signal. Waiting for Brendan, an immaterial schoolmate I wasn’t supposed to see again. An old friend – because too much time had passed, and there was no one to check, to remember or to care.
There was always something about cafés on Sunday afternoons which bored me to tears. It wasn’t that the place was empty (since I had nothing better to do, I felt bothered to count the few unoccupied tables), it was the general vibe of the place. The shuffling feet sounded muffled, uninvolved, as did the anonymous pop music constantly fading out in the background. Waiters that didn’t smile, didn’t even try. The light that seemed too dim, and the artsy pictures that could look so imaginative on a week day but were presently just a black & white excuse to cover the tedious, olive-coloured walls. In fact, the only thing lacking was an aquarium filled with drowsy, deadened fish. Also, no matter how loud and booming the conversations around could be, they all had a whiff of yesterday’s papers. I looked around reluctantly, just to make sure. If this was sex, this was dry humping.
Brendan. Of course, I remembered Brendan. It took me a couple of intent minutes and a string of perfectly unremarkable incidents to place the name with the face, but certain parts, consumed by time’s cagey memory, did come back to me. Brendan was that inconspicuous youth figure. Just another boy from my school. Not even my class – school. I knew him vaguely, through a bunch of other kids I smoked or played football with (if memory served, Brendan did neither). And I remembered him just as vaguely, because there was nothing to go by: no pierced ears, no stolen money, no oversized glasses, no hot girlfriends. He was around, most of the time, but we barely even talked. So what did he want from me, 20 years later? Where did he get my phone number? My home address? And, most importantly, what was it all about?..
Like any 35-year old man who’d moved and whose social networking status read ‘married with kids’, I despised all those voices from the past. I couldn’t stand the uneasy, effervescent buzz, catching up on you when you least expect it. Always so uncalled for. Still, this was somewhat different, coming as it did so late in the evening and from someone so well and thoroughly forgotten. I guess he did intrigue me, and I couldn’t say no. A rare Sunday I could devote to Stephanie and Kevin, and, presently, another angry glance at the café door.
So what did get into me yesterday? How did it happen that we spent forty minutes bringing our disjointed memories into one uncommon past (somehow successfully)? Was it a guilty pleasure so irresistible? At some point, though, I felt oddly ashamed, thought of Stephanie, and cut off all that laddish mirth. Abruptly, perhaps, but then I had the time, the clock on my side.
- But we didn’t particularly… I mean we weren’t… No disrespect, Brendan, but you have to understand. This is almost midnight, and I haven’t seen or spoken to you in, what, twenty years…
- Sorry, Matt, I understand, – he sounded as animated as his bored baritone could allow. I didn’t like that ‘Matt’, though, and would have much preferred ‘Matthew’. – I understand completely.
- And you won’t even tell me what it is?
- I promise I will, tomorrow, if you give me half an hour. A local café of some kind – you know the town a lot better than I do. I’ve only come here to see you.
At which point I should have asked where he got my number in the first place and how he managed to find out that I was living in this town.
- This is not some friends reunited crap, Brendan, right? Because I hate that…
- Oh no no, – he gave a polite chuckle. – This is very different, Matt. And this is very exciting news. You could even say important.
When I got back into the bedroom, it was half past midnight, the lights were already off and there was not a sound coming from Stephanie. I don’t think she was asleep, but there was certainly no chance of me getting her back. Not this night. She wouldn’t forgive so easily. So there was only an old schoolyard memory of Brendan’s failed attempt to tell a lewd joke as well as my piqued curiosity that could soothe my strong, well-earned Saturday night erection.
I went a long way with these twenty minutes, as one would during a train journey to a sick mother or some troubled relationship. However, as time was closing in on two o’clock, my feelings were getting flabby and numb, and I realised that I no longer cared for Brendan or for whatever he wanted to tell me. Which made me think of my torturous University years and how I would sometimes be the last to stand my exam. At first, I was all edgy and restless, and the disjointed bits of papered memory would slip through my shaky fingers and onto the floor, but later, when my time came, as inevitably it did – well, I just couldn’t give a damn. Which was exactly what happened when the door opened and Brendan entered the café. My thin smile of recognition was more forced than genuine, and I thought how deeply I was engraved into the soft, soapy still-life of the place. It phlegmatized your whole being. You felt your mouth was dry, but you just weren’t thirsty.
It certainly did seem surprising that I managed to recognize him. Back in the morning, as I was haplessly adding insult to injury by telling Stephanie of my mysterious meet-up with Brendan, I wondered if I would be able to see anything more than a middle-aged man of average height (tall or short I would have recalled). His face was still a blur, and I was pretty confident that he did not feature in any of my old picture books. Picture books that I didn’t really want to see; picture books that held no memories, only people; picture books that would take weeks to dig out anyway.
- It’s odd, the whole thing, – I was trying to stir up her curiosity. – Brendan. And I don’t even remember his second name. I mean, he did mention it on the phone, but it didn’t add up or make sense. And you know I don’t talk to anyone from those days…
- Yes, – said Stephanie, expressing her total indifference by way of taking away my empty plate.
- So here he was, that darned Brendan, calling me at midnight to say that he had something to tell me. Who does he think I am? He has something to tell me. Christ. It’s like that cruel candy trick you pull in front of a kid. Still, I wonder what could it be? – I put all my effort into that sentence, trying to make it as direct and unrhetorical as possible.
Stephanie was unmoved, but she did turn around to say to me, with all the unspoken sexual frustration she could summon, that now I was ruining both her night and her day. That Sundays had the habit of coming just once a week and that it was she who would be taking Kevin to my parents. Stephanie said…
She clearly overreacted, silent though she was, but how on Earth do you tell a woman about overreaction?.. All I could tell her was that I wouldn’t be long. And I genuinely didn’t see one reason why I would be.
- I’m not late, am I? – asked Brendan, heavily plopping down the opposite side of the table.
Considering my early arrival, I could of course tell him he was, but that would have been unfair. It was two o’clock sharp. There are people who just can’t be late. Blizzards and broken alarm clocks have no power over them, the lucky prisoners.
So yeah: Brendan. Now I got the full picture, one that I could relate to. The ball-shaped face, the airy, straw-like flock of spidery hair spiking around his head, the soft brown eyes that had a deep, baritone look to them. This was Brendan all right. Granted, he did gain some weight and he did look more mature, but those were minor details. Clearly this was that same Brendan. The proverbial boring guy. The simple, transparent one. The lucky prisoner.
As he settled himself in the chair and told the waiter that he would be having jasmine tea (I made a mental note: but of course), I asked myself: what did I remember about Brendan? And was there perhaps something about him that I was missing? In fact, I almost wanted to start all those ridiculous reminiscences all over again. This time, though, there was no chance. Brendan was surprisingly swift and business-like. So brisk and intense, in fact, that I didn’t even have the time to call Stephanie and tell her that I would definitely come and pick them up.
- Well, Matt, I know you are wondering...
Brendan lifted his shapeless brown bag and placed it carefully on his knees. That bag. You either had to be a loser or the world’s most charming guy to be carrying something as crumpled and disheveled as that. And I knew exactly where I was going with Brendan. However, he derailed my cynicism by taking out a small blue envelope and putting it on the table, right in front of me.
- Brendan, seriously, let’s cut the crap. Is it a letter? What is going on?
I opened the envelope in a rather ruthless manner. A love letter. A death note. I didn’t expect anything in particular, but there was a sinking feeling of disappointment when I squeezed out an old sepia-coloured picture. Frayed and all the more classy for that, the picture certainly looked like it belonged to a different age. It looked like a postcard. Maybe it was a postcard.
I studied it briefly and looked up.
- Not funny, Brendan. This is just… not funny.
I was actually surprised at how calm my voice sounded. It probably had to do with the place. For I knew I was flared up inside. Stephanie, Kevin, it was all crumbling down, and I couldn’t even take out the fucking garbage.
- No, Matt, you don’t understand. This is not a joke.
- Call me Matthew. Also – fuck you, Brendan.
Brendan was visibly taken aback, though I didn’t know what exactly did it: the swearing or the silly ‘Matthew’ thing. Or maybe both. I didn’t feel sorry, though, and I wasn’t leaving just yet.
- What’s the point anyway? You somehow – I certainly don’t know how, and I most certainly don’t care – find out that I live here, you find my home phone number, you come to this town, you call me up, you arrange this meeting – all to show me a ridiculous 19th-century picture that was Photoshopped by your son three days ago?
- No, Matt, my son is only seven. He wouldn’t be able to do that. – The fact that he sounded so measured and composed was getting my blood up.
- So?.. And don’t Matt me.
- Matt, calm down, please. Let me explain. – He was running it down now, as quickly as my patience would allow. – The picture is genuine. It’s an original. It’s from 1913. I found it in the college library two months ago…
- I’m not 9, Brendan. Stop this fucking game. You are not doing this to me. For Christ’s sake.
The picture. It was a staged, gorgeously old-fashioned portrait of a family. A wealthy family, by the look of it. You saw a blindingly pretty mother, an intelligently bearded father, and three kids of various age, all standing in front of an entrance gate to what had to be a luxuriant mansion. Which would have been somewhat ordinary and meaningless, were it not for the fact that one of the children on the picture was actually me. I turned the picture over: yes, there it was, in old ink. Nineteen hundred thirteen.
- That picture, – said Brendan. – It really made me think. I knew I’d seen that face somewhere.
The particulars of that lewd joke came back to me, and I stared into his eyes. There was one thing about Brendan: he couldn’t lie. All common sense and no balls. Clearly what he was telling me was not possible (to put it mildly), and yet I could not shrug off the nagging feeling that I was starting to give in.
- Beer? – I said, utterly confused and stealthily glancing at my phone. There were no messages from Stephanie. The screen was awfully blank.
- Yeah, – he said, checking his watch. – Yeah. Why not.
Half an hour later, second glass of beer into the late, late afternoon, another round of disjointed reminiscences out of the way, my avid eyes rolling over every last millimetre of the picture, Brendan was telling me about his college library. Which, I came to know, was an average library with an average set of books mingled with an average amount of dust and cobwebs. (That dust! That learned, snobbish dust!) Also, it was a perfectly routine book on World War I that he was after. Brendan was a college professor (there was no surprise big enough for me at that point), and the book happened to be superficially relevant to his recent research on a number of war events I did not catch... An improvised bookmark, it slipped down through the pages and dropped on the floor with a light, floaty thud. (My details, but that’s how I imagined it.) He had hardly even opened the book. Things like that do happen, of course, and bookmarks of most rare and odd kind are hardly an unlikely find. Sometimes it’s down to forgetfulness, and sometimes it’s just somebody’s whimsy.
- Yeah, – I said. – I know. But, Brendan, that is me. Kind of sad that it all has to be a miraculous resemblance.
“Miraculous resemblance?” He waved that off, not at all minding to disrupt his own story. No way, Matt, absolutely out of the question. “If I recognized your face after such a long time, then it was obviously anything but a miraculous resemblance”. Which sounded like a strong argument to me.
It all began to give off an intriguing smell of fiction (cheap – yes, but does one really care about cheapness when it is his life that is fictionalized), and fiction has to follow certain rules. So no, he didn’t pay too much attention to the picture at first. The only thing peculiar about that image was that it seemed relevant to the contents of the book. For once. There was a date on the dust-stained flipside, but Brendan had spent too much time in that area to have no need for leads or clues. After all, there’s sepia that doesn’t come from Instagram. Besides, there was nothing strange about somebody leaving a pre-war photograph in a book about World War I. And then the twist, the catch, the edge that can turn an ordinary narrative into Brendan’s maddening nonsense: the picture slipped out again, and this time Brendan adjusted his reading glasses and took his time. The age-old charm prompted a closer look. Well, a 1913 family, one of many, and yet he could not get rid of the feeling that there was something wrong about it. A spider that your eye finally discerns against the impeccable whiteness of bathroom tiles. An old, uncertain wave of recognition; Brendan was now sure that he recognized the face of the teenage boy. He couldn’t yet place him, but he was intrigued enough to keep the photograph to himself. So it was at home, leafing through an old picture book, that he found my face in one of those random, playground pictures nobody really remembers. But the most significant thing was that it was not just about my face; everything was falling into place: the boy had my lanky build, my unfathomable black hair and even my look that was part-innocent and part-sinister. Look of a difficult child. The resemblance was perfect, and there was but one way to explain it: I was on that picture. Plain and simple. However crazy it sounded, however impossible, you just had to drop your atheism, open your mind and succumb to your own eyes.
No, I said, I had nothing to do with that college, and, come to think of it, had never even been to that part of the country. Brendan was all right with that. In fact, he didn’t even need to hear me say it. Years of tireless research had taught him to be meticulous, and in order to erase any possible doubts about the issue, he consulted a specialist. The specialist’s verdict was unequivocal: the photograph was genuine. There was no question that it belonged to 1913, and there were no signs of any subsequent meddling. Which meant that the photograph could not be anyone’s practical joke (it wouldn’t have made any sense anyway). The thick crust of dust and the natural, unstylized look of sepia was enough to convince any professional, amateur or casual onlooker. But getting back to Brendan’s specialist, he seemed so impressed by the striking authenticity of the photograph that he even offered a ridiculous sum of money to acquire it. Brendan declined, obviously.
At which point he decided to look for me. Knowing full well that I would most likely tell him (in a rude or polite manner) to get lost.
- Let’s get it clear, – I said. – We are getting into that reincarnation business here. Which, I have to admit, just doesn’t turn me on. I don’t buy it, never have.
- Neither do I, – said Brendan. – It’s ridiculous. Farcical, actually, all these far-fetched stories about young girls who had previously inhabited the bodies of Karl Marx or, heaven forbid, Leonardo da Vinci. But this is different, Matt. This is not about any sort of internal bond. This is physical, and it’s not shallow similarity. This goes so much deeper. Actually, you know what I did? I showed both pictures to my son, Kevin, and asked him whether what he saw was one and the same person.
- Kevin? – I asked.
- Yes, – he said. – Why?
- Never mind. – I had no intention of hearing his family story. – Go on.
- Well, okay. – Brendan looked and sounded so different now. So full of himself, so in charge. – Kevin had no doubts about this. He was absolutely convinced, the second he saw the pictures, that you were indeed featured on both of them. Matt, we are not talking half-assed Karl Marx hoax here. This is the real deal. Your situation is so much different.
Yes, no question about that. My situation was different.
We then talked about the family that was on the picture. Well, I may have looked like that boy (evidently, the clothes were dated, but that was the only visible discrepancy), but all the other people on the picture looked unfamiliar. Besides, I never had two sisters, my father would have said that beards are for pussies, and the beauty of your mother is an unspoken, unspeakable category. So for all their striking vividness, the other family members were out of the picture. No physical resemblance of any kind; also, that mansion in the background, where was that coming from?.. Brendan said he did try to find the house and the family, but with no names to fall back upon, the idea looked stillborn right from the off. There were certain conclusions to be made, but those conclusions could help as easily as they could mislead.
- It’s a lovely contrast, – said Brendan. – Look. This is merely a year before the war, and yet they are all smiles…
Ah, I thought, trying to remember. And failing, beautifully. Yes, another contrast.
At that point a large, extroverted group of foreigners entered the café and broke the world-weary spell of the place. Suddenly, people began to wake up, one by one. Bills were hurriedly paid, shrill goodbyes pierced, chopped and broke up conversations. The shuffling feet intensified their shuffling, and Brendan began to shift in his seat. Oddly, I suddenly realised that I didn’t want him to go. I wanted to stay here, with that damned photograph and... with him. “Another beer?” I asked, tentatively. But he had no time to reply, because at that very instant his phone rang. An unfamiliar ringtone, which, however tasteful and classical, always sounds so silly and so out of place. It was his wife. “Yes, Stephanie, I’m done here. I’m coming home tonight…”.
And then, turning to me:
- Well, Matt, I really have to go now. This was about the photograph, I just had to show it to you. Not your everyday occurrence, you have to admit.
It’s ridiculous how many good conversations have to add in cold, painfully indifferent farewells. This was another such instance. Like you pushed too far disclosing yourself to a beautiful girl, and feel this urgent need to take it all back, straight away. However, you are too late, and coldness is your only excuse. “Bye, Brendan, was nice seeing you”. God, I felt like a fraud.
Picking up the formless lump of his bag (which suited him, it goddamn did!), Brendan said that he would of course leave me the photograph. After all, what use did it have for him? He added that he had no idea what use it had for me, but if I chose to try and follow it up…
As Brendan turned to go, I made an awkward attempt at something wicked and unnecessary. A frightened child clutching the bottom of his mother’s coat. “It’s only for twenty minutes, honey, I’ll be back”.
- Brendan, do you remember that nasty joke you tried to tell us once? In the schoolyard?
Even though Brendan had the look of a man who was not going to look back (never mind turn back), he did face me one more time. He was visibly annoyed by the fact that he could not remember that episode, which made me regret bringing it up.
- No, what was that?
- Ah fuck it, – I said. – Old stuff. Not important.
- Okay, – said Brendan. For once, the truth and the past had no value for him. – By the way, the bill…
- I’ll settle it, – I said.
Brendan didn’t protest, which, in an odd way, seemed mildly irritating.
The second Brendan disappeared behind the smudgy glass door, I suddenly felt the desolate, crawly itch of frustration. I had forgotten to ask that all-important, but meaningless question: how did he manage to find me? How the hell…
Occasionally there was this pain. The pain you didn’t know how to deal with. Your tooth ached, you lamented in an unmanly way, you crawled up the walls, you cursed your god, and in the evening you doubled your efforts, squeezing more paste onto the toothbrush, scrubbing the unsuspecting enamel with ridiculous intensity. You fully expected the pain to go. It didn’t. I was calling Stephanie, desperately, with my jittery nicotine-stained fingers, but there was no reply. Parts of that gruesome, awful past were still dangling in front of my weary eyes. I could see them, those parts. I could almost see them. So why can’t I touch it, as that old punk song went. I couldn’t put an end to their swirling, artless dance. Couldn’t make them stop. And, above all, couldn’t make them utter so much as one single sound. So the blank, methodical dial tone eliminated any chance of my trying to hang on to the past, the present or the future.
I grinned, hysterically: for all his amazing thoroughness, Brendan was not so perfect after all. For there was one thing he forgot to do. He forgot to check whether that other, newer picture with me. The playground one. Was it genuine, was it authentic?..
With a feeble motion of my arm I waved to the waiter and asked him to bring the bill. The waiter made me recollect the altercation earlier that day. What was it about? Never mind, I was determined to overtip him anyway. Still, his promptness was outrageous. The cheerful evening tumult brought some life to the place, I didn’t really want to leave. Which wouldn’t have been a problem were I actually wanted to stay. In order to put off the decision, I nervously snatched the picture from the table. And stared at its dense textures, dissolving myself in the lush sepia that was slowly splashing out of the image and expanding over the tables, the people and, quite possibly, this whole city.