Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub.
I’m mentally cursing myself for choosing this place for us to meet, this popular wine bar in the city’s more affluent maritime quarter.
In 17 years nothing has made me feel like this – where I think even the secure ground is falling beneath my feet. I realise with a flash, this is the long-long-lost, near-forgotten moment I’ve been subconsciously waiting for nearly all my adult life...
I guess I chose it for the location’s convenience – after all, for an outsider it’s just a stone’s throw from the hub of the public transport network. The bus station, the waiting taxis stretching out beyond the rank, the end of the railway line’s long grey concrete platforms stretching almost to the sea beyond, before coming to an abrupt stop for the ferry crossing to Gosport and the Isle of Wight, just glinting across the murky water as day succumbs to twilight.
I know you will find the bar just as easily as making the inevitable hasty exit which is sure to follow. But I’ve grasped the wrong end of the stick. It’s so obvious to me now as I watch the group of twenty-something carefree women stumble in short dresses and high heels up the narrow steel spiralled staircase, one falling in behind the other like a makeshift conga, glasses of Prosecco wobbling in hand, laughter tinkling like bells drifting up and away on a cloud of nicotine. I should not have chosen here.
I catch a glimpse of them all up there spread out across the faux oak tables and chairs languidly, like cats marking their territory. One catches my eye and I look away first. A cluster of knock-off designer label-clad men hover near the group, chests out, preening, preparing to move in for the kill.
Cue carefully-tonged hair flicking and self-conscious, flirtatious giggles from the women, anticipating. The harsh, unrelenting sounds of a stomping, pulsating bass underpinning hard trance beats permeate the room, growing louder and faster with each passing minute, overwhelming.
My head is throbbing already and I’m starting to feel that all-too familiar furious flutter of the moth wings in my chest.
My heart is heavy in my chest as I meander through the buzzing crowds to discover an isolated corner of the bar. Glad to find a lone spare seat, I gulp my wine as though it were an oasis in a desert, feeling the slightly acidic taste warm my insides slightly and bringing a flush to my pale cheeks. My mouth remains dry despite several swigs, my throat still parched, unable to utter a comprehensible sound.
I am starting to feel detached, the vivacious, excited voices around me now resounding like distant echoes, a drum starting to pound in my head. I realise I am shaking all over, my glass only half-full yet spilling uncontrollably on to the table before me. I’m feeling dizzy now and the room is starting to take on another dimension.
The others’ voices are growing louder then fainter almost immediately, my cheeks now glowing like beacons, burning to the touch. Please let this madness pass over.
The wings in my chest swoop, now eagle-like as I see you tentatively approach the entrance of the bar, looking bemused, apprehensive. Out of the corner of my eye, I see you pull your worn, fraying denim jacket closer to your chest, nervously tousling your short dark curls.
You’re as out of place here as I am, I think, an ironic half-smile gently lifting the corners of my mouth, an unexpected sharp stab of sympathy poking my chest. In fact, maybe even as scared as I am.
In 17 years nothing has made me feel like this – where I think even the secure ground is falling beneath my feet. I realise with a flash, this is the long-long-lost, near-forgotten moment I’ve been subconsciously waiting for nearly all my adult life.
That face, that silhouette, that stance, despite shoulders more stooped than I remember. The hair a little greyer, age and life gently displaying their ravages on the lines of your face. But it’s no mistake this time, it is that person. It is you.
And yet I thought this moment was all but lost, bound to another world, another time, another life. But no – this moment is nearly upon me. The second where you’ll catch my eye and realise everything in a flash. My eyes speak worlds upon worlds, I know it. There is no hiding now, after I’ve spent all these years doing just that.
Seventeen wilderness years since you walked out of our home and took part of me with you, leaving nothing but several cherished photographs, yellow and creased at the corners with age. Seventeen years of cross-examining myself, of ‘what have I done wrong?’ Could I have been easier to live with, easier to love, less selfish, more attuned to your own needs? How I did not realise your unhappiness?
Night after sleepless night of unrest, the fathomless weight of the emptiness of the being without your stolid, reassuring, constant presence and gentle caress then swinging wildly to wild-eyed fury, hot wax spitting flecks of pure anger. At you, at myself. And of wondering whether I would ever see you again.
The weeks, the months I spent mentally kerb-crawling, my soul taking on a new persona and searching for you, even in my deepest slumber. And now, I watch you clumsily make your way across the room, awkwardly twisting your way around the heaving, dancing bodies, muttering apologies.
You spot me and almost freeze in your tracks before striding purposely over to my table. And now you’re almost upon me. I feel sick, the nausea reaching up though my chest and gullet. But the dizziness has passed, my eyesight now as clear as radar.
My skin is ice yet burning with fever. I want to look away but my eyes are glued to your face. And suddenly I feel a movement beside me and the squeak of a chair pulling up. I draw a deep breath sharply and turn towards you.
‘Hello dad,’ I say.
Rachel C Fagan is a long-time Southsea resident who specialises in short stories and poetry which explore the darker side of life, including the themes of horror, obsession, love, addiction, death and mental health. Rachel has also had gig reviews published in Louder Than War, and her first poem, Anaesthetic, was published in United Press Ltd’s Body and Soul anthology