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The Go-Between

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

Having nothing else to do I simply wandered through the wet sodium-lit streets of a city as endless as the night sky, drifting aimlessly through a moving ocean of humanity that went on and on in any direction that I cared to walk. Around each crowded corner, beyond each traffic-locked junction, more shops, more lights, more houses, more people staring through me, hurrying past with a nervous glance in my direction, forever on the move, forever striving to be somewhere else. As my feet grew tired and the slow drizzle began to soak through my clothing I gravitated as always to the kind of pub that catered for the likes of me, the people with nowhere else to go. Bright lights outside, dim lights inside, unobtrusive vaguely sentimental music just loud enough to permit relaxed conversation or to cover up its absence. A seating plan that blurred the distinction between those who were on their own and those who were not. The honey smeared on the human fly-paper that gathered up the rootless.

I ordered a drink and stood with it in my hand, scanning the faces of the people at the tables, making use of that radar by which we who are alone and don't want to be can detect others like ourselves. The highest reading came from a young black woman huddled into the far corner of the room, sitting alone at a table for four, with an almost full glass by her hand. I made my way directly to where she sat.

"May I?"

She smiled and motioned towards a chair. I introduced myself and sat down. Her name, she told me, was Sammi. My opening question was easy and obvious: where was she from? It was almost all that I needed to ask. She launched, hesitantly at first, into a long and detailed account of a life that had begun in an African missionary hospital and taken her eventually to a shared apartment in the student nurses' residence of another grander hospital, thousands of miles away in west London. Between there and here she had known good times and bad, love and loss, pain and joy, children and commitment, family and the leaving of family, the hope of a dazzling future in a far off land, the slow coming to terms with a much less glamorous reality. In essence it was the story of everybody who had ever responded to the lure of the neon fairyland that was permanently just out of reach where the end of the rainbow touched the ground. When it was my turn I told my story too, beginning with my arrival as an innocent and unworldly teenager from rural Ireland, standing transfixed between my two big suitcases on the Liverpool landing stage, too scared to ask the way to the train station. I told her of the jobs that hadn't worked out, the relationships that had floundered, the dreams that had somehow slipped away as the years piled one upon another.

We were both of an age when all such things ought really to have been resolved. Apart from the shallowest of externals, I thought, there was no significant difference between us.

I was certain that neither of us wanted to be alone that night, and that each was waiting for the other to make a move of some kind. It was a situation in which I had always felt particularly clumsy and inept, but bolstering up my confidence with the cliché that I had absolutely nothing to lose I finally managed to gather enough courage to ask if I could walk her back to the nurses' residence block where she lived. We left the pub hand in hand and within a couple of hundred yards I was shielding her from the rain with my right arm and the flap of my jacket around her shoulder. We shared our first kiss in a darkened doorway beneath the awning of a shuttered pawnbroker's shop.

I could feel her eagerness, the way her lips seemed to cling to mine, her hands covering all the territory from my head and neck down to my back and my buttocks, circling around to my chest, to my tummy and my belt, and below... I slipped my right hand beneath the end of her blouse and gently eased it out of her jeans so that I could feel the warm flesh of her back, then very slowly moved my caresses around to the front.

Breaking her lips free she whispered in my ear: "Can I ask you something?" I nodded and waited for her to find the right words.

"It's about my room-mate," she said almost apologetically.

"Your room-mate?" I was puzzled.

"My room-mate is very unhappy tonight," she explained with obvious embarrassment. "Maybe... tonight... you could make her happy instead of me?"

I took my hand out of her clothing. "Make your room-mate happy instead of you?" This was positively the weirdest situation in which I had ever found myself. "What are you talking about?"

"She is a very nice girl. A white girl. Do you like white girls too?" I nodded inanely. "Tonight, you go with Natalie. Okay? Maybe another night you go with me."

I swallowed hard. "Maybe you would like to explain to me exactly what you're talking about," I repeated weakly. Suddenly feeling rather cold and insecure I instinctively began to tuck Sammi's blouse back into her jeans.

"Natalie had a bad day today," she said quietly. "Very bad day. She had a row with her lover. She needs you more than I do. You go with Natalie tonight."

Although my head was slightly reeling I could see a kind of logic and honesty in what Sammi was saying. We weren't in love. What we had to offer one another we could get from almost anyone. Closeness. Physical pleasure. A little tenderness. A shoulder to cry on perhaps. What was the point of pretending that we were special to one another?

The traffic sped by on the big dual carriageway beside us, making a hissing sound as each set of tires traversed the wet tarmac. The headlights intermittently lit up the features of Sammi's small and elegant face. I stared into her eyes and wondered what it was that so offended me about her suggestion. It was the breaking of the illusion, I realized. It was her refusal to collude in the fiction that we cared about one another, that we had achieved some kind of contact that made us less separate, less alone.

"What makes you think that Natalie would like me, Sammi?" I asked quietly.

"I know the kind of men that Natalie likes. I always choose for her."

My puzzlement deepened. "You always choose for Natalie?"

"Natalie is shy. She... isn't very good with men."

I felt my brow wrinkle with perplexity. "If she's shy, how can she cope with… this? With you taking men back for her?"

"It's hard to explain. Come back with me. Talk to Natalie. See for yourself."

Before I could get a grip on the strange mixture of feelings that were pulling me in different directions Sammi had taken hold of my hand and was leading me briskly through the drizzling rain towards the entrance of the brooding grey nurses' residence. In the lift we said nothing, Sammi merely smiled at me reassuringly, after which her face relaxed into an expression that most resembled quiet satisfaction. Totally unfamiliar with this strange role into which I had somehow become slotted I no longer held Sammi's hand or touched her, but just stood impassively by her side, rather wishing that my ordeal might come to a speedy end.

Sammi unlocked the inner apartment door and stepped aside to let me go in first. Her room-mate, small and blonde and really very pretty, had been sitting at the window looking down at the rain and the traffic. No doubt she had seen us come to the front entrance. She turned around and smiled at me and I could see that she had been crying. I was beginning to feel a little better about the weird situation. Natalie was indeed a tempting prospect. She looked at me for a moment, then looked past me at Sammi. "He's very nice," she said quietly, "you are good to me." It was strange to be talked about by a woman with whom I was supposedly about to spend the night. A woman who had said nothing to me, not even hello.

She walked towards me, raising her arms and opening her hands, seemingly to embrace me, but continued straight past, and when I turned around she was kissing Sammi no less passionately than I had kissed her myself only minutes before.

Stunned, I watched the two of them for a moment, then instinctively drew back towards the door and the corridor leading to the lift. They made no attempt to stop me or to communicate with me in any way.

I looked back and their embrace was becoming ever more abandoned, so that I felt like a voyeur of something very private and rather beautiful. I gently closed the door and left them alone. My head reeled with incoherent emotions, a twinge of disappointment, acute embarrassment, but absolutely no bitterness or malice or resentment. I knew that I had served my purpose.

In the street below, the river of people was still on the move and the next pub was only a couple of hundred yards down the road. I buttoned up my coat and stepped back into the endless human stream, feeling its comforting anonymity close in around me.