I wrote the following story as flash fiction at a writing course I attended recently at Loutro on Crete (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). Unlike my recently-released collection, Seven Hotel Stories, it is not a comedy.
Taxi to London
I had my head down over my exam revision when the hospital called.
‘Is this Dave Ellingsworth?’ The girl’s voice was so calm I felt my adrenalin spike.
‘This is Dave.’
‘You are in a relationship with Joanne Jones, is that correct?’
‘JJ, yes, Joanne, I know her, yes.’
‘In a relationship? I can only speak to next of kin.’
I felt a sense of despair, and weightlessness. Was I in a relationship? JJ had said she thought we were. But I thought I had ended it last night.
‘Sure. In a relationship.’
‘She took some pills. She is out of danger now. She asked if you could come and see her.’ The woman on the phone sounded like she thought I should go.
My first exam was tomorrow. I found my coat and switched off the light.
In the weeks that followed her first suicide attempt, JJ was better. My exams came and went. My best friend Tim, who I was sharing rooms with next year, said JJ was trouble.
JJ said I didn’t understand women. She said I didn’t know how to care. She said I was frightened of emotion.
She was right, I thought. I didn’t have a clue about women, or emotions. In fact, I was a dismal piece of work.
I wanted to try and do better.
When we thought the weather might be getting better, we took a trip to the coast. The front was grey and deserted, like a parody of a grim British seaside. We talked and talked. Everything I did in the relationship was wrong. I thought only of myself. I didn’t understand her feelings. JJ was more experienced in relationships than me, she was older, she had been married, she had left another man, an older man, for me. She wanted me to behave differently. We took refuge from the rain in a bus-shelter. JJ refused to come with me to catch the train home when I wouldn’t use the “L” word.
I waited at the station. The Evening Chronicle said British Leyland was on strike again. The time came for the train to leave. Where was she? God knows where she’d gone. I caught the train.
Later that night Alex called me. JJ shared a flat with Alex and two other girls. They would run around in their night dresses and dressing gowns. The bathroom had a sign saying “Stand close. It’s shorter than you think.” I fancied Alex more than JJ to be honest, she wore these thick glasses which were always polished and had breasts which moved under the white T-shirts she always wore. She never burst into tears because I didn’t say things she wanted to hear.
‘JJ’s done it again,’ Alex said.
‘Where is she?’
‘Here. She came back here. She took something stronger. They pumped her stomach.’
‘Why didn’t the hospital call me? Last time, they called me.’
‘This time, she was unconscious. She couldn’t give them your number.’
I looked around the room. I hadn’t planned to do anything special this evening. This time I was still going out with JJ, I thought. All that had happened was that she’d decided not to catch the same train home as me. Should I have waited?
I didn’t even know if she had taken the train. Once, JJ had taken a taxi to London because she said she couldn’t bear to be close to me any longer. It had cost over sixty pounds.
Another night she had got out of bed and gone to lie in the corner, on the floor, under the sink, because she said I had rejected her feelings for her. She’d said I didn’t care, or understand.
She was right. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong.
My gas fire was burning in the grate. I had made soup on the ring to share with Tim. Tim said JJ was trouble, I shouldn’t go down there. I shrugged and said I couldn’t just bugger off and leave her.
JJ was awake when I arrived, twenty minutes later. She said she loved me, whether I loved her or not. I didn’t have to say, she said, she understood it was hard for some kinds of people, people like me.
It wasn’t my fault, she said. She meant the opposite.
The third time was my end-year finals. JJ said she understood I didn’t want to see her for a week before the first exam. She understood, she said. That was fine. A lot of men had problems with commitment. She had patience. She wanted to support me.
This time she was in hospital for a week. Alex said it was bad. JJ knew which drugs to use. Again, they called the night before the first exam. Again, I came to her hospital bed. This time she was unconscious when I arrived. They had her wired to a machine. I sat in the ward next to her as she slept and thought, fuck this.
The next day I wrote to her saying our relationship was doing neither of us any good. We had to end it.
She wrote back a postcard. One line.
‘Thanks, Dave. I understand.’
I went away to work in Italy that summer to work. I chose a remote campsite, far from anywhere.
JJ wrote and asked if she could come and see me. I said no, it wouldn’t work, but JJ came anyway. She took a train, and a ferry across the channel, then another train, then spent the night somewhere awful she said, then she hitch-hiked to the campsite. It was a terrible journey, she said when she arrived. Like it was my fault.
She likes to lay a guilt trip on me, I thought. It was something Alex used to say.
That night on the camp-site someone carried out a sexual assault on a teenage girl. They cut through the side of her tent with a sharp knife and groped her as she slept. It was a young man with long dark hair, her family said, they saw him running away. Slender.
The police came to the camp-site. They interviewed me.
‘Lucky I was with you,’ JJ said.
She was right. She’d done me a favour.
But I still said we should end it. I’d met a French girl. The French girl said I wasn’t a piece of shit.
This was a revelation to me.
JJ said, “OK”. She went home again. I arranged for someone to give her a ride to the station.
When I returned to university at the start of the second year, JJ was going out with Tim. Later, she married him, and they had a baby girl.
JJ got in touch to ask if I would be the god-parent.
If you would like to read another of the pieces of flash fiction I wrote on the course at Loutro, you may like to try Fixing It. If you would prefer to try one of my Hotel Stories, have a look at The Two Rooms.