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  • Writer's pictureRony Alfandary

With and Without

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

This is a tale of no importance. Out of boredom, to escape from the blues, I sat back and rambled, and travelled to a near-by place where something had happened (an unfortunate word, for it suggests action and drama, unless we designate "happening" to all those flecks of life that now only exist in our memory. Flecks that we pull out at times, to amuse ourselves with).

There was a band playing at The Three Crowns in Islington. There were bands playing at different pubs every night and I had never taken any notice before. The smoky atmosphere, the lack of adequate space for private and intimate conversations, the almost compulsive buying and drinking of two or three pints, even when there was no desire to do so, but what else could one do in a pub without singling oneself out? I had always preferred to indulge in other past-times, but I had two older visitors who had come a long way to see me and I had had to entertain them night after night for a week, and even though pubs weren't foreign to them, I assumed the superior native airs, which was ridiculous as I was less of a native myself, and suggested that we spent the night in a pub, listening to a band.

The woman visitor asked me if it was going to be crowded and noisy. I could see she didn't want to go but didn't want to make me feel bad about it. She was quite contented spending another quiet evening in the hotel where we could resume our fragmented conversation which, without fail, always touched upon our pasts, mutual or not.

I felt precariously close to her, too close to be able to appreciate the warmth and trust she had in me, and I felt embarrassed by her implicit references to that intimacy. Having spent so much dear time face to face with her, I wanted to see how our bond would behave in the outside world, outside the protective shelter we wove around each other, ever trying to fill the gaps our past mistakes had drilled into our relationship. I could see she was afraid of that. Afraid of the exposure, afraid of What she might see me in the company of others.

A bit weary and distraught, she sat down on the stool I pulled near the round table in the pub. She didn't want to drink anything and eyed me with apprehension as I brought two pints back to the table. For her husband and for myself. Why did she feel apprehensive? Was she afraid that I would get drunk and destroy the gentle image she had of me? Or was it maybe just because she had never seen me drink before? Or maybe she wasn't apprehensive at all and it was only I who felt that bringing a drink into the circle was like breaking a vow.

Her husband was enjoying the drink. He kept himself above the complexity of the situation and refused to commit himself by showing any sentiment that would suggest that he was out of control. He had been decisively excluded from the intimacy between his wife and me, and he chose to express his jealousy and frustration by being very amicable, repeatedly saying he was having a good time and pestering us with encouragement to enjoy ourselves. He was miles away from the emotional axis and was trying to construct a by-pass so that he too could participate. Having found the front door closed, he was relying heavily on his resources to gain access through the back door.

The atmosphere around our table was intermittently agile or depressed, depending on the volume of the woman's silence or her ambivalent and laconic remarks. The band wasn't on yet and we were subjected to loud disco music that flooded the room, emanating from a huge loud-speaker that was dangerously in our immediate vicinity. It was difficult to talk without shouting and we were forced to confine ourselves to small talk. Was the choice of our table unconsciously deliberate on my side, so that I would have an excuse to not resume that personal dialogue with the woman?

She complained that the sound waves were travelling straight through her body and were making her heart beat faster. She said she was feeling the vibrations throughout her body and had a phenomenal headache in progress. It was too late to change tables. The pub was already over-crowded, and people had to stand between the tables, enclosing us,

forcing us to form a knot, a closed circuit, now almost completely severed from the other tables. We whiled our time away by eavesdropping on the various conversations around us.

The smoke was hurting her eyes and I wanted so much to do something to help, swopping places helped a bit, she was now sitting next to her husband and it was heartwarming to watch how the two responded affectionately towards each other. He had worked his way through the first pint and was eliminating the best part of the second. He was more relaxed and began telling jokes which didn't fail to produce the anticipated soft admiring look she now had on her face, watching him closely, recognizing in every syllable and gesture the man she loved. They were sitting very close to each other, they were holding hands under and then above the table, and she let him do most of the talking, watching me every now and then, as if telling me how proud she was and how mistaken I was sometimes in thinking that her man was cold and emotionless. She wanted to contrast our sometimes-condescending attitude towards him, with a demonstration of how unworthy we were of his attention when he had conspired against him, erecting a wall between man and woman, accusing him with our understanding.

I was glad when the band appeared. A few applauses, followed by the announcement that this was one of the most popular bands in the South West, and then the music, hesitant to begin with, as if the musicians were still tuning their instruments, unsure of the required effect, but soon growing in volume and substance till it dominated the pub. The Latin American streak which was evident in three of the musicians controlled their repertoire at first, as they were playing and singing popular folk ballads which occasionally gave way to mere sweet, sentimental North American pop, strewn with pipe-music and a few quasi-comical quirks. Most conversations had ceased by then. Eyes were watching the stage, fingers drumming, feet began tapping in rhythm, a whole chain of reactions was set in motion. While the music lasted, the place was seized with physical excitement, fluctuating in chord with the tension the music was attaining. And when it was interrupted, when the band saw it was necessary to stop playing one tune and rest, and let us rest, before beginning another, the pub would assume its usual sound of coughs and laughter and words till the music resumed, reclaiming insistently its hold over us. We were being moved back and forth thus between two states of mind and it pleases us. Time was measured not by seconds or minutes now, but by the tune duration and the frequency of the intervals.

The band was about half way through their show when she gaped in amazement and called for our attention by exclaiming that she knew that tune. A hurried and excited explanation followed and she illustrated with her gleaming eyes and rapid movements a past moment in her childhood when her mother used to sit by her bed and send her to sleep by singing the same tune they were now preforming on the stage, miles and years

apart from her childhood. Her excitement was contagious, and we were all moved. She looked mainly at me while she was moving her lips to the sounds from the stage, trying to recapture that moment, trying to remember herself as a child.

When the band had finished playing that song, she was still deeply immersed in her memory. She was sad now because her mother was far away and only with her she felt she could have really relived the moment in such a way that would have completed the circle. I could see she was home-sick. The presence of her husband and of myself only aggravated the yearning, since she was beginning to realise that the source, and the only answer, to the that yearning could not be found in any one person, close as they might be to her, but was without physical dimensions, enclosed in complete darkness. But had she been back home, the yearning wouldn't have been tormenting her in the first place. I could see the resentment she experienced towards me, as I was the reason for her being away. And alongside that, there was also pity and sympathy since I too was away, and for longer, and it was only natural that one day I would be filled with the immense longing for a place, a person or something else, as a result of hearing a melody from my remote childhood.

I could feel that all this was passing through her mind and I tried to help her express her thoughts, but she remained reticent, mistaking my gay appearances for an unawareness for her plight. The band was playing livelier music now and some people were dancing.

The place felt more crowded than it actually was and we were slowly being surrounded by dancing people. It was strange being walled in by moving bodies. It felt claustrophobic and even though the following number wasn't bouncy enough for dancing, most people stayed on their feet. It was time to go.

She was clutching my hand on the way out. We only had a couple more days to spend together and we all began to miss each other. That tune back in the pub certainly opened up an old wound. They both wanted me to go back with them, they didn't like us being apart, but they didn't want to say anything. I was very proud of the state of independence I had achieved by being away and they didn't want me to think that they didn't appreciate that. They had other ways of making me want to return with them.

Outside the hotel we hugged each other. The man went in first and I was left alone with her. There was no need for words, just looking at each other was enough.

Finally I was left alone, the grave feeling of bereavement was already building up within me, and even then I knew that it would always be there, lurking and waiting for relapses in my tranquility to come out and devastate me with this inexplicable feeling of loss.

November 1985

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