Back to Descartes

He said, But it’s a public library, I’ve as much right to be there as they have. Too bloody refined, haven’t lived, that’s their trouble. I said, Don’t worry, we’ll go back later when you’re dry, it won’t be so noticeable then. Look, the sun’s coming out.

It was, it was turning into a pleasant afternoon. We came down the library steps. It’s funny, I’ve always thought of a library as a sort of cave of books. I told him that. He said Why is that funny?

We walked back to the park. A girl came out of the butcher’s ahead of us. I couldn’t see her stereo but she was slinking her hips, rump plumping, shoulders hunching, to some unheard beat. I thought of Calypso. He said Calypso? You’re about 40 years out of date, Daddy-o. Where the fuck have you been? Look, could you call in the off-licence, get a couple of bottles of cider – Graphite, not the other piss – and a quarter of vodka, we’ll make our own Alcopops. Thing is, my credit’s not hot at the moment.

I got the drink, headed toward the park. I picked out an evening paper early edition from the bin and met him at his bench.

I said, Look, I shouldn’t be getting this stuff for you. I’m supposed to be persuading you to kick it. She still cares for you, you know that? She worries. God knows why.

Yeah, yeah, she’s a caring person.

She is. She’s a warm person.

She was hot when I first met her. Was she hot. Those first years. I guess she cooled gradually. Like the stars. You need to watch it. They eventually become black holes. She’ll suck you in.

I said Delphine’s a beautiful woman, T, a lovely person. I want to make her happy.

Noble of you.

Look, I know you’re bitter.

I am not bitter. I am not a bit bitter. You’re not drinking, it’s getting warm.

It was. The sun was drying out the gravel, drawing up the moisture, releasing the scent of earth, pine needles, buddleia. The glitter of the river was filtered through the shrubs, sliced by the railings in between. I started to relax. The air was soft. I took a few sips of the cider and vodka, coughed.

Across the grass a girl, a student maybe, was assuming a yoga position. Lotus, perhaps. The outstretched wings of the white angel, the War Memorial, hovered above her.

On the plinth of the memorial, obscured by shrubbery, there’s a plaque of names, roll call of the local dead. I thought of them then, not just dead but from a dead age, remote. I felt their loneliness.

T had put part of the newspaper over his face, presumably to sleep. I tried to read a few paragraphs on the Black Economy, but it was the usual windy opinionising, so much exhaust. A breeze sprang up from off the river, rustling the paper. I wondered, had I the hearing of a dog, would I hear the wind playing through the railings, like an Aeolian harp?

I remembered then the package in my pocket.

Delphine sent you some food, T. Sandwiches.

What are they?

Cheese and mustard, I think.

Not still on her vegetarian kick is she? Pity she never went the whole hog, became a vegan. Would have saved me a fortune on shoes and handbags.

It was kind of her to bother at all, T.

Yeah yeah okay. But not even ham. I could murder a sausage and pickle. That’s only one step from cannibalism to her though, right?

You still haven’t told me what you wanted in the library that was worth running the gauntlet of the refined for.

Ever read anything by a guy called Wittgenstein?

Ludwig? A little.

Always go for the Sunday heavies. They keep more of the cold out. There’s usually a pile of them outside the newsagent’s if you go early enough. A review in one last week of a book on him. Apparently, “he offers a solution to the mind-body problem which circumvents the trap of dualism”. Bloody moron.

You think that’s philosophically invalid?

I think it’s crap. Seems to spend all his time talking about pain. Is toothache an inner experience, can it be shared, is it communicable? Pain isn’t the problem. It’s part of the cure. Reminds us we won’t last for ever, our experiences end.

You find that a comfort?

Of course. Pain isn’t the problem.

Then what is?

Happiness. It’s happiness that’s not communicable. That’s when boy, you’re on your own. She used to say to me, you have no inner life. Just where she was wrong. There’s a bit of paving near a cemetery in Richmond, old. Rectangular stones, regular pattern. All colours, greys, blues, ochres. Makes me want to cry.

Is this on the level?

Don’t understand, do you? Proves my point. Know a Dutch painter called Mondrian?

I know his later work, the New York period.

Get to know his early work. He painted things just like that. Lozenges of muted colours, like old bricks.

I might well enjoy that, maybe as much as his later work, although it’s his austerity I prize in things like Composition in…

Fuck off. Would they make you cry?

Probably not.

Just my point.

What you’re telling me, T, is, your marriage broke down over a pavement?

I’m trying to explain. We live in our minds. Our bodies sometimes get in the way. She used to accuse me of being brutal. Okay, I slapped her a little…

You hit her?

A little. Not often. But it wasn’t real. Didn’t mean anything. It didn’t alter how I felt about her in my mind.

That’s alright then? But maybe pain was a problem to her.

Then she said I ignored her, said that was worse, always distant.

Thinking about your pavement?

All sorts. Her skin, at night with the light off, sort of luminous, like those Japanese lampshades, that’d set me off thinking about Mount Fuji, full moon, rickety bridges, little boats. Whole trip. Maybe her hair would be splayed across the pillow, like seaweed in a current. I’m sinking, as a kid I was lost, there are stones, green light, strange fish, I’m drowning, gentlest death they say she’s breathing beside me you following this?

I said, Not entirely.

That’s just my point. Can’t describe these things. No point.

He poured some cider into his mug, missed.

Sod it. Maybe I’m getting the shakes. You noticed me getting the shakes? Trouble with cider is, it’s sticky. On your hands, clothes. Let’s go down to the river. Running water.

He stooped, scrabbled under the bushes, stood up. He had a handful of stones. He said I haven’t done this in years. Here.

He handed me four smooth flat stones.

We knelt on the boarding of the landing stage, skimming the stones across the water. I hadn’t done this in years either. He began hummimg The Dam Busters.

Five bounces. Beat that.

I did. He said, You got trained fish out there? It changed direction.

I said, Let’s throw simultaneously, see if they collide. But we’d run out of flat stones by then.

There was a crumpled advertising bill in the flotsam. We bombarded it with the last, mis-shapen ones.

A siren sounded in the distance, almost haunting in its softness. T was quiet, staring into the water. Then he said, That sound, when you hear it you know someone’s life somewhere has changed, changed course for good. Or rather, bad. They’ve been nicked or robbed or hurt or burnt. Happens before you know it.

He went back to staring into the water, so intently I began to worry. Music drifted across from the pub on the far bank, made rackety by the wind, wispy. I caught hold of his jacket.

He stood up suddenly. 

Arseholes. I said, What?

Solicitors. No better than debt-collectors. One-eyed sodding arseholes. My guts went into that house. Okay, Delphine worked too, we worked together, for something together. I didn’t need a lecture on the marital home being the life investment of both partners. Then the cunt started on about dividing the Air Miles. I said keep the Air Miles the C.D.s the goldfish the fucking lot. Walked out.

He went back to his bench. I followed.

He mixed another drink in his mug, then holding the bottle by the neck, hurled it into the lilacs.

Someone shouted watch it, you could have somebody’s eye out like that. He said, You’ve got another one haven’t you? Sod off you stupid arsehole. 

I said, Calm down, T.

You can sod off too. You don’t need to be here. I do not need a bleeding nurse.

I said, Okay, have another drink. Drink yourself stupid.

I walked away across the gravel, back down to the boarding.

He followed a few minutes later, his manner apologetic, at least I took it that way. He said, You got anything for nausea? I said, There’s no cure, it’s Being or Nothingness. He said, Don’t get smart. I feel sick. Must’ve been the mustard. I said, It couldn’t  have been the cider? Look, you’re not eating properly, what do you expect? Kick the drink.

Yeah, I’ll join the Temperance League.

You could do worse. Clean yourself up, start afresh. Remarry maybe, it’s not too late.

What sort of wanker do you take me for? I could have women if I wanted them. All ends the same way. On a warm day, lunchtime, girls come to the park, strip off, sunbathe. It’s nice, I like it, admire the sight of them. Later on I think of them. It’s in the mind.

What D. H. Lawrence called ‘sex in the head’.

That bloody girl’s blouse. All sex is in the head. Life is in the head. When I made love to Delphine, sure I desired her body at that moment. But that wasn’t it. I was making love to what I loved, all I knew about her, all my memories of her, the whole woman. Maybe that woman was partly imaginary. Maybe that was part of the trouble. But that’s how it has to be. Otherwise what is it? A quick firework display. A few bangers, a rocket. Over.

I said, The fireworks are the next generation jostling through.

Children make a marriage, you think? We had one, briefly. Premature, lived a few weeks. A transient bloom, the hospital chaplain said. I think of him at times, now I’ve got the time. Imagine all the possibilities. A lot of them bad. Road accidents, diseases. Bright healthy kids dying from eating burgers. Strange business.

I said, Statistically, it’s a small risk.

Yeah right. All those cattle slaughtered for nothing. Sacrificed to save the neck of some bloody politician. All think the sun shines out of their arses. Bastards.

He spat across the boards into the river, a milky fleck eddying like a slow motion catherine wheel and dispersing.

Better off without them.



We want to try for them, T. I want to give Delphine children.

Go ahead. Have a go.

I just feel – I want you to understand.

I do. Go and get some more cider, this is gone.

I said, Look, last bottle, alright?

Okay. We’ll wet the baby’s head.

That’s a bit premature, T. We haven’t really discussed…

He said, What the fuck are you waiting for? My blessing?

I got two more bottles of cider, and, against my better judgment, a quarter of vodka. I felt I might be making progress.

T was back on his bench, staring across the river.

He said, Dusk soon. Time I like best. It’s not just the drink. The day softens for everyone. Then, Night Town.

I said, T, aren’t you cold? At night?

Sleeping bag. My one concession to the old bourgeois life. Millett’s, top of the range. Sold my watch. Snug as a bug.

Talking of bugs, T…

Cider keeps them off. Comes out in the sweat. Tip for Delphine when she has her next barbecue. She still have barbecues?

In that case, what are those marks on your neck? I was meaning  to ask.

Just a rat.

My God, T.

My own fault. Little too much to drink. Rolled off the bench. Why are people so paranoid about rats? There’s a whole world around us we don’t even notice. Voles, shrews, three thousand types of beetles. There are bats in the trees further down. Protected species. There’s a preservation order on the trees because of them, did you know that? Whole world we hardly know. Ever seen a badger?

In town?

Half a mile from here, by the golf course. I’ve watched it. Pulling up bluebell stems. For bedding, I suppose. Ought to try it myself. Here. Look. Some of its hairs. Black and white. I keep them for luck. A whole world.

Is it real?

Of course it’s real. I’ve shown you the hairs. You think they’re from a shaving brush?

Ever tried baiting it, the badger?

Are you sick or what? They’re beautiful creatures. They’ve as much right to be alive as you have. More, I’d say.

That’s my point, T. They exist, independent of us, in their own right. They should be respected for their uniqueness. Every thing should.


You were arguing earlier for solipsism.


All exists in your mind, right?

Look at the angel, the statue. See it? Now close your eyes. Still see it?


No you don’t. You’re seeing a memory. Everything, a second later, becomes a memory.

And ideas?

They’re just imaginary memories.

That’s solipsism.

Balls. Look, I’ve had time to think now, time to notice. Listen, it’s late, maybe two, three in the morning. Dark. Quiet. Not silent, but quiet. Moths around, tiger moths, puss moths. Dancing round the street lamp. Maybe a bat taking them. You can hear shrews moving in the grass, see ground beetles, centipedes, if you happen to be down on the ground. There’s an owl some nights, across the river. The badgers out by the golf course. Then you look up, if it’s a clear night, look at the stars. Shattering. Especially if you’re flat on your back. Thousands of pricks of light, cold and hard, against infinity. A whole universe we hardly know. And the stars, by the way, don’t exist, you’re again seeing a memory.

But not a figment of your imagination, T.

Okay okay, but think about this. What’s the life span of a moth? Days? A shrew? Months. Badger? Years. Starlight? Millions of years. Their lives all coincide at this moment. Where? In my mind. Where it all comes together, becomes a memory, an experience, fixed like a photograph.

You becoming a mystic, T?

I’ve got time to think now.

Think some more. They still exist independently of you. The starlight started out before you, even the planet, existed. The angel is there whether you look at it or not. The beetles, badgers, exist unobserved if need be. Delphine exists in her own right. They all have their own lives, own needs.

God you’re a boring bloody pedant. Comes of being a teacher.

Pass that bottle.

I knew the drink would start to hit soon. I decided on one last try.

A blackbird had been digging beneath a bush for worms. As it found one, I scared it off, picked up the worm, held it on my palm.

Know anything about earthworms, T? They’re hermaphroditic. Male and female organs in the same body.

I counted the segments with my nail, fifteen from its mouth.

See that? The male organ. Just in front is the female. Further down, the saddle, where the eggs are cocooned.

You mean it fucks itself?

No. They still need to pair off. It’s the transfer of cells from one to the other that ensures reproduction. They need each other. Most of the time, they’re tunnelling through the soil by themselves, chewing dirt.

He looked at it for a while. It’s a lonely bloody life.

He picked up the bottle. I put the worm down onto soft earth. You could smell the approaching dark.

I stood up. I should be going, T.

Me too. He pointed to the bushes.

My stash is in there. Have to hide there myself until they’ve locked up.

He pulled himself up. Look. Take care of her, okay? Delphine.

Yes, I said, yes I will. And, take care of yourself, T, alright?

I wanted to shake hands, but it would have seemed absurd. I walked away as he bent down for the other bottle.

The air held promise of a mild and fragrant night, but they’ve forecast a winter of barbed rain and polar winds in the wake of La Niña.

Delphine had prepared a cheese and artichoke flan for when I got home, with a chilled Chardonnay. The espresso bubbled on the hob. It was late so we ate on trays. The linen napkins looked yellow in the lamplight. I spooled out the day’s events. I said, It’ll take time. I’m not a quitter, you know that. She tucked her hand down the back of my collar. She suggested an early night, although it was no longer early.

Getting out of the shower I noticed a new bath rug, thick, soft. It toned with the towels. I assumed she had just bought it.

She’s asleep now, her back to me, but with one arm over so I can hold her hand, the other tucked under the pillow. The curtains are open to let in the breeze. Every time the floodlight opposite flashes on, I see her as if spotlit, her cheek as bleached as her breast. She sleeps through it, sound as stone.

But stone isn’t soft, isn’t warm. My lips find the mole on her shoulder.

Usually I too          

rug, the towels


each star condensing out of dust, contracting. Then the long slow hydrogen rage.

fingers tangle in her brush.

Black and
yes yes   

David Rose

About David Rose

David Rose was born in 1949. After attending a local Grammar, he spent his working life in the Post Office. His debut story was published in the Literary Review in 1989, since when he has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories (Salt). He was for some years co-owner and Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011, followed by a story collection, Posthumous Stories, in 2013 (both Salt). His second novel, Meridian, appeared in 2015 from Unthank Books. In 2018, a story from Posthumous Stories - "A Nice Bucket" - was selected for The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story (ed. Hensher). In November 2022, a collection of eight stories - with photographic artwork by Leah Leaf - Interpolated Stories - appeared from Confingo Publishing. He lives just outside West London, between Richmond and Windsor.

David Rose was born in 1949. After attending a local Grammar, he spent his working life in the Post Office. His debut story was published in the Literary Review in 1989, since when he has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories (Salt). He was for some years co-owner and Fiction Editor of Main Street Journal. His first novel, Vault, was published in 2011, followed by a story collection, Posthumous Stories, in 2013 (both Salt). His second novel, Meridian, appeared in 2015 from Unthank Books. In 2018, a story from Posthumous Stories - "A Nice Bucket" - was selected for The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story (ed. Hensher). In November 2022, a collection of eight stories - with photographic artwork by Leah Leaf - Interpolated Stories - appeared from Confingo Publishing. He lives just outside West London, between Richmond and Windsor.

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