by Joshua Davis
I want to write a story about a man in Lisbon who works at a car park. There was a man like that, in his fifties, who stood at the entrance and smoked, one cigarette and then another. We were staying in an apartment above the car park, an Airbnb, twelve of us on a stag trip I didn’t want to be on, because Stef was pregnant and in pain. It was worse than that. I believed she was having a miscarriage. That was what the doctors believed, two of them, one after the other, because she had bled freely and a scan showed no yolk sac. I pictured her uterus like a meringue, twisted on the screen and made entirely of white, but black, the way the screen showed it. Nothing was as it was meant to be. Probable missed miscarriage was the diagnosis. They told us to wait a week and we did, and it was during the intervening weekend that I went to Lisbon and pretended to be trying to pretend to have fun. And that was where I saw the man at the car park.
He watched us, the man. And he smoked. I’m trying to say that he stood on the street from morning until evening, and a cigarette was never far from his lips. It wasn’t that he was spying. He looked through us, or past us, his eyes never wavering in their trajectory, and we walked into and out of his gaze. If he noticed us, he showed no sign of it.
The story I would write is of a man who looks closed off to the outside world, but in his head a whole world of pain and drama plays out. Invisible infinities would project onto the backs of his eyelids, except that’s not what it was really like, because his eyes were open. He didn’t even blink much.
Here is what the story wouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be about the nobility of the working class. It wouldn’t elevate the man to prove something about myself. To you, he’s a mute in dusty clothes, but I, The Writer, see a universe of frustrated ambition and desire. Or perhaps anger, old battles rehashed and played out in the voices in his head. His mother talking to him, the way mine sometimes does, when a thought reminds me of her so much that I hear it in her voice, as if she exists inside my head. The story wouldn’t be patronising. I would acknowledge the gap between his experience and my own, while hiding myself neatly behind an impassive narrator.
The story would make you think that I had spoken to the man, bought him a bottle of beer from the corner shop and asked for one of his cigarettes. That I had stood beside him, waiting for him to speak, and my silence would eventually disarm him. The man would have opened up to me, in broken English naturally, one word then a sentence then an unstoppable river. He could trust me with his secrets and reveal thoughts aloud that, privately, he wouldn’t even express to himself. I would unlock the man with my empathy and he would teach me something I could take back into my life, to the drinking games on the stag, to Stef on my return. He would give me perspective on the loss of our potential child, and I would offer it to Stef, and she could accept it or reject it. Perhaps, after she read the first draft, I would change my mind about how she would react, this hypothetical version of herself. Perhaps I would only change her name.
I wouldn’t write anything that made me sound foolish. And I wouldn’t make the story about me, or my pain, or Stef, or her pain, but about the man, and what he had suffered. I would see beyond myself to the soul of another, like a poet. The story would be about the meeting of two identities, but really it would be about me. How well and how closely I read those around me, how much of their interior world betrays itself to me through their words.
And perhaps that might be the story I’d have written, if I knew how to approach a stranger and let them unburden themselves. But I was wrapped in my own misery, knowing I was in the wrong place, in Lisbon, and not at home, with Stef. I’d have returned from the trip with a story that made me feel like an author, but instead I returned empty, and tired, unprepared for the shock of good news, that the miscarriage was no longer probable, that there was a yolk sac, whatever that is, and the embryo had a glimmering heartbeat.
As it is I spoke to the man at the garage only once. On our last evening, we cleared up the flat, all those empty beer bottles and crisp packets. They went into the plastic bags that had carried them from the supermarket and the corner shop, and we brought them to the street, and hunted out the bins. The man at the garage watched us, or looked through us, and we walked down the hill to a dumping ground, which felt selfish, and then back up the hill to the door of the flat. I caught the man’s unwilling eye and raised the bags in question and said, Rubbish? He pointed past him, on up the hill, to a set of communal dustbins. Which was where the stag, the day before, had vomited, holding the bin lid aloft. Someone videoed him, laughter in the background while he dropped the lid and slumped over the bin and nodded, face grim with acceptance. The look of a man contemplating how much longer he would suffer, waiting for what was inside to come out.
Joshua Davis has a background in film development and has produced two independent short films. He co-founded Leather Lane Writers, a London-based writing group, with authors Kit de Waal, Annie Murray and Justin David. His work has appeared in Litro. Joshua is working on his first novel.