This was the first time Gavil had failed to be the first to produce a cigarette lighter at someone’s request. The lighter that had been successfully found and offered by someone else caught his eye. ‘Where did you find that?’ he asked, checking to see if he still had his own in his pocket.
‘Just bought it the other day, that shop near the railway bridge. Only two quid.’ A smile spread across the other man’s face as Gavil located his own lighter and held it out on his palm, fingers stretched out enough to curve slightly backwards. They held them next to each other to find that their worn, engraved metal lighters were identical. The other man started laughing at Gavil’s expression.
‘Thought you had something special there, didn’t you! Ha, did you think yours was the only one? They’re everywhere, these things!’
Gavil looked away, concerned at how best to react. He squinted into the flat, open sky like a depression-era boy looking into the lens of a documentary photographer. He turned the other way towards meadows of grass and flowers that could probably be classed as weeds, steep green banks guiding the river into the distance, silty sand beaches at the water’s edge. He had heard that Neanderthal handprints had been discovered on some rocks nearby, although they didn’t yet know for sure if they were genuine. He liked the thought of them whether they were or not – such a simple assertion of an individual’s existence. Simple enough to need no interpretation, to have something in common.
He wondered whether the landscape was beautiful or not. Whether it was supposed to be beautiful. What would someone else think? What did he think? He wondered whether to comment on its beauty in order to discern the opinions of the other men who sat fishing nearby. He imagined it might only seem beautiful through nostalgia or a connection to something enjoyable, through being the setting for something good happening.
He wondered if he could decide himself whether or not it was beautiful, on these terms, and looked down at the lighter he had retrieved too late to be of use. One of his well-meaning uncles had given it to him, he couldn’t remember which one, only that it couldn’t have been his father, as he’d always instinctively hidden it from him. It had been some kind of consolation for being who he was. He’d had the impression – someone else’s impression – that it held value. It was something he could offer people.
He went fishing almost every day now, since his employer didn’t want him back at work. He had been arrested one day, on his doorstep. When the policemen had repeatedly insisted that he must know what it was about, he had repeatedly insisted he didn’t, until he was told that someone had drowned in the nearby river. They’d let him go eventually but people had decided his solitude was evidence of his guilt, and he wondered if they were right.
He had got to know the other men almost wordlessly, through sitting in silence by the river within sight of them for long periods of time. Occasionally they would share fishing stories or anecdotes about their families, or he would lend them his lighter, which he never used himself. Since he had been unemployed he’d discovered that different people frequented the spot on weekdays than at weekends. Sometimes the new people there on weekdays were drunk, and sometimes he accepted the drinks they offered to share with him, sometimes even before midday. He’d worried at first that this signified something about himself, that it put him into a certain category of people from which there was no escaping. One of the new weekday people reminded him of his father. He didn’t look much like him – it was more to do with his reaction to Gavil’s catching anything noteworthy. Anything at all, actually – he would scorn both achievements and embarrassments, the way his father had most of the time, apart from once when he’d brought home a pike that was nearly a foot long. His father hadn’t been out with him that day so was able to claim that he would’ve got it if he’d been there, and a lack of possible competition allowed him to be pleased.
That was the only thing Gavil knew of that had pleased his father. The rest was guesswork. He still couldn’t work out whether attending university would anger or placate his father – if his father’s bitterness at not being able to go himself would make him happy that his son could, or would make him resent Gavil for being luckier than he had been. ‘Need a university education to get anywhere,’ he would say warningly, but at other times he’d claim, ‘Mickey Mouse degrees, that’s all they teach nowadays. Not worth it,’ or else complain that students were all spoiled layabouts. Gavil knew there had been some reason his father hadn’t been able to go: either something to do with his own father’s – Gavil’s grandfather’s – imprisonment, or some government policy. Either way, Gavil had been given the definite impression that a university place had been unfairly torn from his father’s grasp. This had meant that every accessible form of employment had been beneath him, and everything it had earned him was beneath him too.
Gavil hadn’t told his father about his own arrest. His grandfather had been all but erased from their family history after his, and this could mean Gavil’s burial, his willed departure from the minds and thoughts of others, from their history. Although on the other hand, maybe it would just mean he was conforming to expectation, which people liked – his father had already threatened that it ‘ran in the family’, ignoring his own direct relationship to the felon, as if Gavil had always been doomed. As if there was something wrong about him, fundamentally and forever.
He had started working in IT for a small supplier of vacuum cleaner parts while he decided whether to do a degree because it had seemed a safe option – his father wouldn’t know enough about it to be disparaging either out of genuine scorn or because he felt threatened. It was out of his reach. Gavil also had the impression that people would think working in IT suited someone like him. When he had told people what he did, he’d felt he was safeguarding their judgements and expectations, which people liked. He had known himself to be lucky to have a job and to be comfortable financially, but he’d found it difficult to join in with conversations at work about how women had the best of both worlds now, and how his colleagues were not racist or anything but what about white people’s rights? His inability to go along with them had made him uncomfortable and confused, and he’d avoided them for fear of not knowing what to say when he couldn’t agree with them. Sometimes, if he squinted, he almost understood why they said those things – he sometimes felt downtrodden as well.
He’d found he could take up a position of stability and straightforwardness during his infrequent social encounters, usually at his local pub. He could be a reliable presence one might take comfort in for a minute or two if the usual sources of comfort seemed to be falling away. A woman had once been unexpectedly attracted to him, which he had put down to this. He had felt he could see something in her, through her permanently tense facial expression, that no one else could, but he also knew, from films and TV programmes and other people, that this was a common feeling. He had read somewhere that women like it if men are affectionate but also not just interested in them for sex, and after a few weeks he’d suggested that they become physically closer while still keeping material between most of their bodies, maybe by wearing full-body swimsuits with built-in shorts, kind of short wetsuits. He’d thought it would at least seem kind of innocent, but she had stopped speaking to him without officially dumping him or saying anything about it. Her attraction to him had puzzled him too much anyway, and it felt only right for her to leave. He had been worried he was taking advantage of whatever the reason was that she had found comfort and security in him.
A colleague had once seen him looking at those swimsuits online, and had shown no reaction until Gavil had hurriedly closed the internet page and turned red, needlessly incriminating himself. Remembering this, he decided he was glad he didn’t work there anymore, actually letting out a sigh of relief. He started to feel pleased about how things had turned out, pleased to be where he wanted to be, here at his favourite spot by the river near the possible Neanderthal handprints, on his own terms. The man who reminded him of his father was laughing again about the way Gavil had thought his lighter was valuable. ‘What did you think? That it was solid silver? Platinum? Ha, what did you think?’ He was grinning at him. The sky brightened and Gavil’s brow raised to less of a squint as he grinned back. ‘I think you’re an idiot,’ he said, and tossed the lighter into the beautiful river, laughing like never before.
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