Bum Note

Submitted by Matt Strempel to Contest #9 in response to: Write a story about unrequited love.... view prompt

Coffee cup in hand, James MacFarlane took his regular seat as the morning played out before him.

His bench in the north-western corner of Hyde Park afforded him a princely view of the fountain glistening in the morning sun. Surrounded by the giant guardians of the parklands, the ancient fig trees, he observed the morning rituals of those still chained to the hamster wheel from which he had long-since escaped. He smiled as they scurried hither and thither to attend a meeting they were late for, submit a report overdue, attend a review with their supervisor.

He noted the morning was particularly glorious for early spring. Unseasonably warm after a bitter winter, it had taken many by surprise, evident in the inconsistency in attire: men sweating in their heavy wool suits raised eyebrows at the women whose hems had become a foot shorter seemingly overnight. He could never understand it: despite the beauty James saw before him, the unexpected sight of flesh was the only thing that could tear the men’s eyes from their phones as they marched toward their monotonous duty to The Man.

James knew most of the commuting regulars. Not by name, of course. Mr Square stuffed uncomfortably into his straining three-piece suit no matter the weather. Puss in Boots, the tall blonde with an enviable collection of Chloé ankle boots. The Flash, the prematurely bald young man zooming through the park on his electric skateboard. Countless others that went by equally simplistic names. And, of course, Mr Blue: blue baseball cap, blue shirt, blue pants. The only things breaking up the azure monotony were his black belt and black shoes, and his ubiquitous black sunglasses. Cheap. Likely from a petrol station or the chemist.

If there was one thing James hated, it was cheap accessories. The scourge of fast fashion was increasingly prevalent in his observations and sat completely at odds with his days managing the Hermès store not 200 metres to the south of where he now sat. He shook his head at the irritation and concentrated once again on the scene before him. Life was too short to be worked up about the trivialities that had once driven him mad.

He smoothed the hair over his ears. She’ll be here soon.

Here was the first group of tourists assembling beneath a banner held aloft by the guide; enlightening them with origin tales of the fountain, the grand cathedral behind them, the sparkling city before them, into which they would faithfully trail.

There was Benji, the amateur pianist from Peru, assembling his keyboard and speakers. The busker responsible for coating the parkland soundscape with cumbersome interpretations of classical standards. James had a good ear and estimated Benji had been an enthusiastic student but had only learned to play by repetition. To play by heart was another skill entirely.

James checked his watch; a $10,000 Hermès gifted to him for 20 years’ of exceptional service.

While he’d loved every precious second of that job, in the end he’d been glad to be rid of it. The products were gorgeous, objects worthy of praise, to be sure. But the people; the vacuous, soulless entities that swanned in and through the store despising him as a lowly servant to their incalculable wealth. Them he would not miss. And his boss, Peter. Piece of sh— No, James. It’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.

8:57.

Six minutes to go.

He took a deep, satisfied breath the way a manager touring his factory floor might do as he witnessed all the elements of his enterprise moving in harmony.

‘Jimmy,’ said Chuck as he took a seat beside him. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not staying. I just wanted to say good morning.’

‘Sorry, Chuck,’ James replied, embarrassed his anxiety was so blatant. ‘She’ll be here any minute.’

‘I know, I know. I’ll be long gone.’

‘You well?’ James asked, checking his watch.

‘Not bad for an old fella.’

James laughed. He was 47 this year, while Chuck hadn’t even turned 30. ‘What’s news?’

‘The Blues beat the Falcons 35-32 in overtime, France beat Ireland in the World Cup, Chelsea and The Gunners played a nil-all draw, and Marsh got suspended again for beating up his wife.’

Chuck was James' Sports Guy. He was late this morning but at least he was brief.

‘Those league fellas,’ James said shaking his head. ‘When will they ever learn?’

‘It’s a mug’s game. Expect to attract mugs,’ Chuck replied, rising to leave. ‘Anyway, you well?’

‘Can’t complain. And if I did, no one would listen.’

Chuck laughed, slapped James on the shoulder and walked off into the thickening crowd.

In the distance, the Central Tower bell tolled 9 o'clock.

3 minutes to go.

James smiled at a little Chinese girl who had perched in front of him as her parents took photographs of the fountain.

Nǐ hǎo,’ he said.

His pronunciation was so perfect that the parents turned to speak to him as if a relative had snuck up behind them. But their expectant faces dropped to a scowl and they ushered their little girl away in haste.

James smiled his farewell to the girl and took another cleansing breath. He looked over his shoulder to the mouth of the underground station from which the mice were flowing to join The Great Wheel. Another day in the mines. Noses to the grindstone and all those fitting metaphors.

The cave from which she would emerge.

1 minute to go.

He adjusted the ring on his right hand; the ring that had once been his wedding band. The only other piece of jewellery he permitted himself to wear.

A man should wear only two pieces of jewellery, he used to say to his friends who’d ask his opinion on some gaudy bracelet, a necklace, or god-awful signet ring. A quality watch and a wedding band.

Alice had been a good wife. Too good for him. But the children had sucked the adventure from her and the spark that he had followed like a proverbial star across the oceans had faded and died. 

You’re the real piece of shit, James

An affair with the boss’s wife? What a tiresome cliché. But it wasn’t his fault. If Peter hadn’t been such a revolting man, hadn’t repeatedly cheated on Charlotte, she never would have taken Jimmy out for that drink to unload.

The drink had always gotten the better of him, too. The gin brought him undone. And Charlotte was so … fiery. Her volatility was as intoxicating as their secretive after-work drinks in the underground bar. He’d known from their first covert meeting she spelled his downfall. Like a siren upon the rocks, her wild spirit sang to him and called him to adventure.

Over 20 years at the store and you forget about the backroom cameras? You deserved to get caught, you imbecile.

He slapped his cheek and wiped the tear before it fell. She would be here any second.

James looked again to the train station’s exit and watched the commuters’ numbers swell. The 9:02 had been on time as usual. He steadied his bouncing foot.

The great hoard flowed from the station’s mouth and leaked out through the park. Heads down, eyes on their phones, they bumped into the tourists, they grumbled at the slow-walkers, they texted their bosses they were running a few minutes late; that the trains were delayed though it wasn’t true.

‘I’m in the office, Darling,’ one man said into his phone as he was striding through the park.

James recognised the deception in the man’s face. He empathised with the guilt undoubtedly wracking his guts. Guilt that consumed him but not strongly enough to confess to his affair.

Then again, maybe the man was only telling a white lie; hiding his true location because he’d spent the morning organising a surprise for his wedding anniversary? You’re projecting again, James.

And then she was there.

Jimmy’s heart exploded into a gallop and his mouth went dry. She was the only woman from whom he’d experienced the physical weakening of the knees. Before he saw her, he thought it was simply another untraceable idiom. But the first time she’d smiled at him, he’d had to take a seat immediately.

She walked with effortless confidence through the mass, eyes forward and up, the only being among them not attached to a device, taking in the majesty of the park in spring. He found it hard to believe she could walk through such a vast number of people without a security detail.

This morning she wore a cream silk blouse, a high-waisted skirt in brilliant red, strappy Louboutins and her silken brunette hair tamed by a black and gold Gucci scarf. Over her shoulder, she carried a tan leather messenger bag whose designer he couldn’t place, and he was intrigued to know what documents she contained therein. In 20 seconds she would be here. He’d ask her then if he could summon the courage to say more than two words to her.

Perhaps he’d walk her to the office. He’d buy her a coffee.

Macchiato? he’d say.

How did you know? she’d smile, placing a hand on his arm, and he’d be glad of the support of the counter lest he collapsed to the floor. 

The click of her heels was audible now as he looked up from his coffee cup and he prepared his smile. The one that said, What a pleasant surprise to see you, and hopefully not, I’m a lecherous creep whose entire world is a single devotion to seeing you each morning.

Her confident strides toward him were slowing now, she unfastened the flap on her satchel as she walked. Her hand slid inside her bag, which he could now see was vintage, and her skin appeared more tanned than last week. 

Had she been overseas? Who had she been with?

His eyes searched achingly for her left hand, which finally emerged from the bag (mercifully absent an engagement ring), clutching a black Chanel wallet. She unzipped it as she took the final steps toward him.

James couldn’t breathe. Her business card.

She removed from her wallet a piece of paper.

A handwritten phone number. He desperately hoped there was a doctor in Hyde Park this morning as, shortly, he was going to require resuscitation.

A smile bloomed across her scarlet lips and from her exquisite mouth she uttered, ‘Good morning,’ as she extended the paper in her hand toward him.

His world slowed and muted, the only sound his heart quickening further, he smelled her perfume and thought he might die if her hand were to touch his. He closed his eyes in anticipation of their contact. But it never came.

Her perfume faded, the sound of her heels dissipated, fading to silence below the sshhhh of the fountain.

Benji played a bum note and broke the spell.

James opened his eyes and watched her figure recede through the park. Past the sparkling fountain, under the great arms of the fig trees, she walked and disappeared into the crowded shadows.

James sat back down on his bench and exhaled, the stink of stale booze on his breath. He looked down at his filthy hands. His prized watch—its face smashed long-ago in a struggle with another homeless man—held together with electrical tape. In his tattered paper coffee cup now sat a crisp $10 note.

He looked up to see if he could catch a final glimpse of her, but she was gone for another day.

It was then that James noticed the Chinese couple talking with Mr Blue. The mother held their daughter’s hand and pointed back at James with the other. Mr Blue placated them with gesticulations suggesting the woman needed to calm down; that he would handle it.

Mr Blue walked across the park to James and sat down.

‘Jimmy,’ he said, peeling away his sunglasses.

James didn’t reply.

‘Did you say something to that little girl?’

‘I said nǐ hǎo.’

‘Yeah, well, her parents didn’t appreciate it.’

‘I’m not allowed to talk to people now?’

‘Come on, Jimmy. I let you stay here as long as you don’t cause trouble, but if I get complaints, I have to ask you to move on. You know that.’

James sighed, ‘Yes, officer.’ 

From his coffee cup, James emptied the thirteen dollars and fifty cents into his hand, pocketed it, and rolled up his sleeping bag.

As he listened irritably to Benji’s hurried rendition of Debussy's ‘Claire De Lune’—he always played it too fast—James trudged toward the train station and disappeared into its mouth.

 



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3 likes 3 comments

14:27 Oct 13, 2019

Critique: General remarks This was very well written, the descriptions are beautiful. I was able to picture the setting and the people clearly. This story was sad and moving; I want to know more about James story and I hope this is part of a longer story, but at the same time it is perfect as a standalone. Mechanics This is just a nitpick, but this sentence seems to have too many commas: "Surrounded by the giant guardians of the parklands, the ancient fig trees, he observed the morning rituals of those still chained to the hamster whee... read more

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19:26 Oct 13, 2019

Thanks so much for taking time to give such considered feedback. I agree with your comments. Best of luck with your writing, I look forward to hearing more from you.

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22:38 Oct 05, 2019

To be honest, I found the story slow-moving at first, and it did not really capture my attention at the onset. However, when it gave the impression that James was waiting to catch a glimpse of somebody, it became more interesting. I like the ending... I never saw it coming, despite the hints. It was a nice twist. The subtle moral about the vanity and fleetingness of things was also good.

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