Neutral Tones

Neutral Tones

Short Fiction

Dragoon Babic




It was a familiar story.

We were locked in arms and giddily stumbling towards our inevitable fate. The cobbled streets over which we fumbled clopped out the beat of our clumsy march. On we walked; illuminated by the glare of the neon street-lamps that glowed above us and, every now and then, washed over by the roaming headlights of the black taxi cabs that rolled on by.

Across the road there was another couple walking in the opposite direction. Just like us they were clumsily finding their way home after another night of revelry; meandering along the footpath in alcohol-induced delirium.

My mind, too, was beginning to wander. On seeing this couple I became considerably warmed by the notion that this same scene was being acted out by many others, in cities, towns and villages all over the country. I felt a strange sense of communion with all the other worn out hedonists who I would never meet but who were, like me, happily making their way home; secure in the knowledge that the self-obliterating sanctity of a well-won shag awaits at the end of it all. To these shadows I silently said:

—good night and Godspeed, lost children of Eros.

The mutual drunken merriment which now bubbled between us was surprising considering the sorry state Dee had been in at the nightclub. I tried my best to seem sincere in my sympathy but really I was just desperate for her to stop making a scene.

She had started telling me about the extremely messy break-up she had just had with her boyfriend; so, in an attempt to save the night from the selfish tedium which such a conversation would impose, I tactlessly tried to divert her from the topic.

My efforts were in vain. She continued with her story and eventually broke down in our barely isolated corner of the stuffily-cramped smoking area. I spent the next half an hour condescendingly patting her on the back and telling her how much better off she is without him; all the while trying desperately to ignore the curious glances being shot our way by the accidental audience that loitered around us. I felt like I had unintentionally assumed the role of a tabloid agony aunt; reluctantly complicit in the public airing of someone else’s dirty laundry.

I eventually convinced her to forget about it and go back inside. I realised that from here on in I would have to impose a program of damage limitation. I was not in the mood to try and talk her out of her lethargy again, so I thought that lashings of booze and loud music would do the trick instead. I hastily bought us a few rounds of cheap whiskey and watered-down coke. After quickly sinking these I got two more and then pushed her in the direction of the dance-floor. Her mood was visibly lightened by the drink and she soon became as determined as myself to forget the drama which had threatened to ruin an otherwise good night. The swelling crowd on the dance-floor provided a strangely comforting type of anonymity by which it was possible to forget the tedious implications of everyday life. We both submitted ourselves to this short-term solution and thereby postponed the intrusion of reality for a few sweet hours. Carelessly, we conformed to our quiet false-consciousness.

Come closing time we were both well scunnered. In the messy confusion that follows any mass drunken exodus from a grimy nightclub we fondled and groped each other with arrogant liberality. Our subsequent walk home was giddy and cheerful.

For me, self-pity has never been a very potent aphrodisiac; therefore I was thankful that Dee had forgotten her previous despondency in the light of our current destination.

The crisp night air was beginning to take the edge off our drunken high. Her body rested against mine as we huddled for warmth and attempted to shield each other from the harsh North-Sea wind which crashed down on us. As a result of the cold, her previous laughter and playfulness died down to a simper. The shallow river of drunken infatuation which had flowed between us was now beginning to dry up; and so I began to quicken our pace. Continuity of inebriation is not essential; but I often find that in these situations it offers the advantage of propelling the action forward. It has the impression of acting like an external force; and we were but rudderless voyagers being carried along in its blind magnificence. All we needed to do was unfurl our mast and float.

Unfortunately I could sense us both sobering up with every new gush of wind that blew against us. The cold became stifling. I started to furiously rub her arm and shoulder in an attempt to quell the goosebumps and light shivering which had now come over her. She was looking tidy-as-fuck that night. The striped one-piece skirt she had on lightly detailed the rolling contours of her body. Her choice of attire now seemed to have been ill-advised as I quickly ushered her down the street towards my flat.

We arrived at my door. It’s an extremely fidgety lock so I made sure to correctly insert and turn the key. The symbolic significance of “getting it in” was not lost on me in the current context; and I was loath to invite any bad omens which might spoil our night.

When we got into the flat it became obvious that the unfortunate weather has dampened our respective libidos; and there wasn’t a drop of booze in the flat that might rekindle the embers of desire which were left on the street below.

Dee brushed past me and made her way towards my room. Once there she lay down on the bed in a solemn manner. My permission to join her was nowhere implied. I sat across from her and said nothing. A terminal silence dropped between us.

The violently rustling leaves on the tree outside my window scattered a thousand faint shafts of street-lamp-light across my room. They played and danced over Dee’s statued body as she lay quietly on her side; looking blankly past me.

We both remained obstinate; until, finally, she conceded;

—Why don’t you say anything?

—Because you are the one who wants to speak. Not me.

The petty pantomime that is social interaction can sometimes be exploded by a remark so devastatingly rude and inconsiderate in its truthfulness that the players, in light of such a transgression, begin to feel exposed, diminished and every so often, liberated. This was one of those moments.

It was not said in order to provoke a certain reaction. It is simply that the unspoken promises which we had made with each other over the course of the night were now being withheld. I had diligently played my role as sympathetic friend in the nightclub in the knowledge that such a performance would procure for me dividends come the end of the night.

Similarly, Dee received the attention she needed in order to validate the sorry soap-opera which she had created in place of a normal existence. But I had now lost all interest in being a character in her soap opera. It was time to move onto my own invented reality i.e. the cheap, grainy, blue movie which I had been envisaging ever since we left the nightclub.

My response to her question was unnecessarily short. In as much as it was a move at all, it was a ballsy one. Surprisingly, she politely ignored the impatience which my tone had implied and began to tell me once more about the break-up.

In addition to the break-up story, she elaborated on numerous other private developments which had compounded to render her current situation a miserable one. I sat in my chair shameful and flummoxed. She seemed genuinely lonely and in distress. I began to experience light pangs of guilt concerning the cynical attitude which I had nurtured towards her evident depression. I can only claim that experience had perverted my perception.

You see, despite her many good qualities, Dee has always represented to me the most facile and tedious superficiality. Because of this I am immediately sceptical of any sob story that she has ever tried to fling my way. This time seemed different; and so I was conflicted over how to react.

Eventually I moved over to the bed and offered the only conciliation I can think of—a friendly embrace and some blithely encouraging words whispered into her drooping head.

Predictably, this lead to more tender caressing and the beginnings of foreplay. From here things began to take their natural course. In the end I suppose it was simply a matter of the right gesture, a passing phrase and the sunken ego of a confidant.

As we undressed each other and lay down, I was, at the back of my mind, trying to ascertain how having sex might change the nature and significance of our previous behaviour. Did it depreciate the sympathy which I had developed towards her situation? Had I only fabricated that sympathy in order to meet such an end? Or indeed had Dee evoked it in me—so as to bring us to this ridiculous conclusion? I feel we both wanted it; and in our own way we both played with the emotions of the other in order to bring about this silly end. But the question remains; why the subterfuge?

When we finished it was with relief and indifference. We lay quietly beside one another as a familiar sense of distance and anti-climax inevitably descended onto the now silent mattress. I ventured to embrace her; placing my head in the crook of her stomach in a petty imitation of intimacy. Minor embarrassment loomed. We both soon realised the contrived nature of this pose; and so the unnatural feeling that it evoked convinced me to awkwardly move back to my own side of the bed.

Strange how after being so physically close; the private distance that existed between us—as it exists between all people—now seemed more obvious than ever. Its crushing tangibility bore down on us as we lay horizontally exposed on the bed sheets. It was too heavy and too blatantly derisory for either of us to openly acknowledge; but we could both sense it, in ourselves and in each other. I was struck by the paradox that this mutually recognised sense of distance was the closest we might come to any higher mental affiliation.

I lightly stroked her face and hair; but my eyes were closed and half of my face was buried deep in my pillow. I did this for long enough to disguise my eagerness to turn over and go to sleep. I knew she wanted to do the same; but the pretence must be maintained for good-form’s sake.

After enough time had elapsed, and she looked to be asleep, possibly pretending, I lifted my hand and rolled over. She did the same and now we both lay on our sides with our backs to each other. I nuzzled into my mattress with that wriggling movement that is the body’s anticipation of a good night’s sleep.

Happily I lay; enjoying the after-sensation of another fair game. What more could we ask for? What more do we deserve?



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