For months I only really went home to sleep. Some nights not even for that. I went out every day, and every day I walked through the city. I was alone at that time, but perhaps not a man best suited to being that way. The most comfortable I ever felt was when disappearing into a crowd. Surrounded by people, this became the only way I could clear my mind and relax and be free to think of nothing. I had nothing worth thinking about and no-one to think about me.
I walked and I travelled. I spent my days on trams and on train journeys. I clicked and I clattered my way through every part of this town, from one place to another, from one filthy, litter-strewn station platform to another. Whatever morality I’d ever learnt I left behind me, or ignored. I stole money from handbags. I took food from market stalls. No-one ever stopped me. I don’t think anyone ever saw me. I might have been invisible, or more likely just not important enough for anybody to notice. I was a ghost walking amongst men. I must have been dirty, too. I don’t remember, but I must have been. I never washed. My clothes would have been soiled and grey, my face stained the colour of the street.
Every night I went to a bar and I drank brandy. Small glasses smeared with other men’s fingerprints, with cracks on the lip that cut my mouth. At this bar there were others like me. We sat together, or stared at each other from across the room. We very rarely spoke, we knew nothing about one another, but we must have been some sort of comfort, I suppose. We must have been. Otherwise, why would we meet there every night?
There were four of us, altogether. Three men, including me, and one woman. We never smiled. I never saw any one of us smile even once. Only the woman, I thought, occasionally gave the impression that perhaps she knew how to smile, that perhaps she once had smiled before.
This is how the idea formed. This is the notion that began to take hold of me. I wanted to see the woman smile. This thought, once it entered my mind, became my reason for going to the bar. Overnight, and with no warning, her face became a promise for me, of something better or something new that was possible. I never had cared about, or even thought about what was happening to me, but now I had a new thought to occupy my days. All I cared about was the woman’s face and the smile that might be inside.
Perhaps I was not alone. Perhaps the other two men in our group were thinking the same thing. I had no way of knowing. How could anyone of us possibly know what the others were thinking?
This went on for weeks. I went to the bar and I watched her, while all the time trying not to reveal my interest. I watched her lips open and close as she drank. I watched the slow throb of her pulse in her neck. I watched the rise and fall of her shoulders with every breath she took. But she never smiled. In all that time, she did nothing to even suggest the thought of a smile.
I should have lost interest. Losing interest would have been the normal thing to do, but instead I became frustrated. I wanted to see her smile, and I didn’t want to have to wait any longer. I wondered what I could do to encourage her. I needed to find something that she would like, something that would make her happy, but I had no idea what that might be. How could I? Who was I to know such things?
I walked the streets and I thought about it. I stole money as I always did, but instead of buying cigarettes or junk food, I walked through arcades and department stores to try to find something I could bring to her. I tried to imagine myself handing her a gift–a necklace, perhaps, or a bouquet of flowers, maybe a bracelet or a scarf–but none of these imaginings helped me at all. None of these gifts had the effect I was looking for, and in each fantasy I was left feeling only ridiculous, more wretched than I ever had before.
At the end of the day I bought nothing. I did nothing. The sun went down and the trams stopped running and I walked through the rain soaked streets to the bar as I always did. Only on the way there did I decide what I was going to do. I was going to talk to her. I was going to tell her how I felt. How the idea of her smile was the only thought my poor mind had been able to keep hold of these past few weeks. How I thought of nothing else now and that my heart would burst with joy if only I were to see her smile just once. I was going to tell her these things and say that I wanted nothing, I expected nothing, that all I wanted was to say these words so that she might know how I felt.
I opened the door to the bar and went inside. There was nobody there. I ordered a brandy. Then another. Then three more. She never came. Neither did the other two men of our group. It could not be coincidence. This was the first night in months we had not met in this place.
I drank until the bar closed and then I walked home. I lay down in my bed, I stared at the ceiling and I tried hard not to think about anything. I tried hard to be a man who did not think about anything at all.
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Rufus Woodward lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of four collections of poems and weird tales. To read more please visit www.shorecliffhorror.com.