Incarnations by Simon Botten

Returning to the city after two decades, a man wonders whether some places and people aren’t  best left in memories.

Almost every corner Tom turned tore at more memories. It had been twenty years, but still, the extent of change was dizzying.

Before he’d even set foot on land the divergence from what he recalled had become evident. Gazing out the window as the plane came in on its’ approach, he observed how fields had been swallowed by the city’s sprawl. Developments had spread like tentacles out toward satellite villages which were themselves expanding in red-roofed clots.

The crowded bus ride from the airport provided more proof. Gone were the weed-covered plots and billboard-stuck lots stretching between buildings. Now the road was bordered by clean-cut company complexes and apartment blocks. He’d thought that returning to the city would be akin to slipping back into a familiar coat, but its’ new look and dimensions didn’t fit. He wondered whether he’d made a mistake. Some places are best left as remembered, basking in an increasingly rose-tinted aura. Some people too.

For two decades she’d been on his mind. In his thoughts, not every day, but in the quiet times; moments of contemplation; the aftermaths of what he regarded as being his rather too frequent failures.

Then he’d got the message from Pepa, one of the old crowd who’d never left the city.

‘Hey, Tom – some news you might be interested in. There’s a new flower shop not far from here and this afternoon I looked through the window – just got a brief look, but I’m certain it was your old flame Kája. And the name of the shop is  Kája Květiny! Maybe now you should finally pay us a visit. What do you think? Would be great to see you.’

Within a couple of hours, he had found a flight and, before possible complications could intrude, clicked on pay. A search for cheap accommodation had ended with his booking three nights in a centrally-located hotel, three nights in a basic room costing closer to London prices than the bargains he recalled.

From the packed bus he emerged into a rush of bodies. Just an early summer’s Sunday evening, but the almost empty streets he’d envisioned, with room for reflection, echoes, and imagined tumbleweeds, were gone. His pace quickened as the hotel became a place of refuge.

Later, with the trolley bag he’d pulled awkwardly over cobbles and tram tracks left in his room, he went to see if any of the places he remembered still remained. The settings of their short shared history.

The first time he saw her was at a concert by a string quartet in an abandoned factory building. She’d been seated to his left, a couple of rows in front. Long dark hair loose against a black lace-collared dress that accentuated her tall slim figure. He could see her out of the corner of his eye while watching the musicians. Stylish, poised, elegant. Out of my league, he’d thought; one for the dreams.

At the end of the concert, with prolonged applause still resounding from the bare factory walls, she’d turned her head and eyes the colour of ebony had, ever so briefly, caught his. There had been the slightest hint of a smile before her attention had returned to her companion, who, Tom had noted, was similarly tall and stylishly-dressed, but male.

Then he hadn’t seen her for a couple of months. It had been New Year’s Eve and he’d been  with a small group of friends. Over two decades later, he retraced their steps from the main square. The KFC hadn’t existed, and the glass-fronted cheese shop was obviously new, but the church was as remembered. From there it had only been thirty, maybe forty yards. He found a doorway where he anticipated but containing double doors leading into some public baths. Not what he’d pictured. Next to them were a pair of padlocked grey steel doors. Perhaps there. He’d been drunk, they’d all been drunk, partying, in the words of the song, like it was 1999 though it was ‘98 that was fast approaching.

It had been newly-opened, a black-walled windowless bar below the street, on that evening thick with smoke and pulsing with life. As he scanned the crowd on entering, he’d spotted her, leaning against the bar and into some guy, clinking glasses with him and downing a shot with a head-shaking flourish. Obviously also more than a little tipsy, but elegantly so. Other details had disappeared.  There must have been cigarettes, laughter, beers and chasers. All he recalled was the cramped space crowded with revellers, and how he’d been dancing to some insanely infectious track while still aware that she was just  feet away. He’d hoped that, with alcoholic assistance and the aid of his friends, he was giving the impression of being popular, confident, carefree, and just a little crazy. Hoped, rather than expected.

When he felt the tug on his shoulder he’d turned, ready to accept another proffered shot. He must have looked surprised when it wasn’t the case, when he saw the arm that had reached out belonged to her. Surprised and dumbstruck when he heard her words above the music.

‘Oh, you are blue eyes!’ He was struck by the spark in hers, the flash in the ebony. So struck that before he was able to express a response, he saw her laugh in embarrassment. ‘Sorry, sorry – very drunk! Kaya.’ She pointed at herself, was still pointing when an arm rounded her shoulder, pulled her back into the throng. Minutes later, he glimpsed her, in a small group with coats on, working their way to the stairs. Kaya, he’d thought, like the title of the Bob Marley album. Kaya.

‘No, it’s Kája – K, long A, J, A – short for Karolína,‘ Pepa corrected him several weeks later as they sat in the theatre bar that had quickly become one of his regular haunts, and where Pepa hung out during and after his duties as stage manager. ‘She told me she likes you.’

‘Really? You’re sure it’s me?’

‘Sure. Englishman, blue eyes, black hair, striped shirt, crazy dancer – who else could it be?!’

‘But she’s got a boyfriend? Every time I see her she’s with some guys.’

‘Just friends. She’s single.’ He could see Pepa gauging his reaction. ‘If you want to meet her, come to Louka Friday evening. We’ll be there until late.’

‘Sounds good.’ He’d smiled, taken a sip of black espresso, attempted an air of calm that Pepa pierced with ease.

‘She’s hot, yeah?’

He nearly spat out the coffee, before gathering himself, nodding.

Truth was, from film noir femme fatales to comic characters like Catwoman, he’d always been partial to a certain type of woman; dark, mysterious, often heavily made-up and always unavailable. Bar the makeup, she’d appeared to tick all four boxes; it wasn’t just the caffeine making his heart race.

He sat on a bench by a square he recalled containing car parking. Now it was presided over by a large statue of some knight on a horse. A couple of tourists stood between the horses legs, pointing up and laughing. He slipped back into memories, the magic and mishaps of the months they’d been together.

Snapshots. The first evening, with Pepa and his girlfriend in another small and smoke-filled cellar bar. Discovering that, contrary to her initial comment concerning his eye colour, Kája spoke very good English.

‘Did I say that? Well, yes, I was quite drunk.’ she laughed. There was a lot of laughter. Pepa kept the conversation flowing, filled the gaps where they might have felt self-conscious. Other discoveries included common interests in music, poetry, Monty Python, and old black and white comedies. She told him her surname was a flower.

‘Carnation,’ Pepa translated. ‘She’s Caroline Carnation.’

A carnation studying chemistry at university. Living with four other students, two girls, two boys, in a two-bedroom flat. Whose knee didn’t immediately move from his when an influx of customers squeezed their space at the table.

All going so well, well into the early hours. Every time check another tram missed. He had just needed a quick pee before joining the others rushing for the 3 a.m.

A ringing sound as the cubicle door shut. What? He looked down to see the handle lying by his feet. Damn. By the time he’d figured out how to use his flat keys as pincers to pull the spindle through, re-attached the handle, and raced outside, they were out of sight. Invisible birds sang in the crisp pre-dawn darkness. He couldn’t match their optimism. No phone at her flat, no address to find it, no easy way to contact her and apologise.

Again, Pepa had been the go-between, but it took time. Spring was already in the air when they next met. In the air and stirring the blood. Watching a Czech film at a small cinema. Black and white with only occasional splashes of colour. Not understanding the words, but absorbed by its bleak beauty. Eyes on the screen while feeling the electricity course between them.

The following weekend they spent the night together. He remembered how her hair fell, covering her face, tickling his. In the morning she’d left early, not even stopping for a coffee.

‘I have to study’, she said, reaching for her coat. ‘And it’s easier this way.’

She’d meant no possibility of an awkward silence. Instead, he was left frustrated by a phone that didn’t ring, its silence fuelling uncertainties. He left a message with Pepa asking for her to call. Nothing. Two nights hitting every bar he knew, both ending with light slicing the sky, resulted only in monstrous hangovers. The second hadn’t worn off when he realised he was getting sick, starting to ache all over. He went back to bed, was just drifting off when the doorbell sounded.

‘Hello’, he managed.

‘My God, you look terrible. Are you ill?’

‘Well, I’ve felt better.’  And looked better. There were holes in the knees and crotch of his old tracksuit bottoms, but she didn’t seem to have noticed.

‘You’ve got some tablets?’

‘Yeah. I think they’re in the bathroom cupboard. I can -’

‘No. Lie down. I’ll get them.’

At least he recalled the conversation going something like that. What stood out in his memory was her wiping his forehead with a cold facecloth, sitting by his side through the night. Clearer than that, opening his eyes as the fever began to abate and seeing tears rolling down her face.

‘I thought you were going to die,’ she said, dabbing them dry. ‘The fever was so bad, I thought you’d die.’

Maybe, he reflected, that was the moment that had really stayed with him, and why he wanted to see her so many years on. That and the letter. Because they had spent so little time together. Every other weekend she went to visit her parents in a small town a couple of hours away, while preparations for exams seemed to take up almost all of the rest of her time. When they did meet she seemed distant, her mind elsewhere, to such an extent that he started to wonder if there was someone else. The fact that he hadn’t met any of her flatmates or friends fed his doubts. Despite Pepa having told him at the beginning that she was single, he started to imagine the worst; after all, single didn’t mean celibate.

The events of their last night together came back to him. First his stating all the doubts, and not managing to clarify that he wasn’t accusing her before she took this to be the case. The slap not hard, but sudden, across the cheek. A few choice words in Czech, almost equally shocking, before continuing in English.

‘You know, there is someone else – my grandfather. He’s got cancer and I don’t know – we don’t know -’ For the second time, he saw her cry, only this time he was able to hold her, kiss the tears, feel one slip from his eye.

The letter arrived a few days after he’d returned to England for his sister’s wedding. Addressed in large curling letters, with flowers drawn on the back of the envelope. Her words could have been written immediately after that night; poetic, full of passion, desire, telling of dreams.

‘Let me be inside you’, it finished, ‘Let me be your child.’

His reply couldn’t match such stirring heights; he didn’t mention it, but he’d just met an old friend and been offered a partnership in the running of a record shop, something he couldn’t turn down.

He tried to find her during his short return to the city to pack up, but she, along with the rest of the student population and many locals, was gone. It was already summer and the streets were almost deserted. He went to her building and saw no names by the buzzer; her flatmates must have also departed. Pepa wasn’t at the theatre.

‘Croatia,’ the girl at the bar told him. ‘Holiday. Two weeks.’ The bar was empty, there was nobody else to ask.

She had his parents address, so there was always the chance, but nothing arrived and the record shop soon took over his life. Just the snapshots were left, and the words, like tiny embers stored deep inside.

A warm May morning,  fallen blossom skirting the ground around the cherry trees. A slight breeze freshening the air.

Now that he was approaching the florist’s he was conscious of how he might appear, how much had he changed? Still wearing a striped shirt, but with a slight paunch visible. Skin a little more  lined, and a few grey hairs flecking the dark above his ears.

He’d shaved off his goatee the day before flying, but now wondered if it had been a mistake, she would still have recognised him and might have been attracted by the slight sophistication it suggested.

He stopped on the pavement opposite the shop. Nervous as an adolescent. Glad that a full window display possibly hid him from view. Twenty years.

A bell chimed as he opened the door and stepped in. Heart in mouth but attempting to evince an air of confidence.

She was behind the counter, head down, focussed, long slim fingers expertly arranging a bouquet of pink and white carnations. The same dark hair. As if time had stood still.

He was about to say her name.

Moment,’ she said.

The hint of a smile played from the corners of her mouth as she looked up. Looked straight at him.

You are blue eyes.

He wasn’t sure if it had been a thought or a voice. His voice. Once again he was speechless, but there was no arm to pull him back and away.

Where to begin.

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