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A short story by Anna Metcalfe

In order to know when it was that he had been truly happy, Mr Arnold posed the question in terms of the gradient – when was I most happy? – so as to avoid inferring that he was, at that moment, unhappy, or worse: neutral.

The most obvious answer, and perhaps the answer towards which a great many of us would retreat, would be to say that he had been happiest in childhood: a time when the concept and question of happiness remained beyond satisfactory articulation, perhaps beyond thinking, and the simple, raw pursuit of it was what mattered most. But if, indeed, that was the case, he was certain that he could not remember it and, if he could not remember it, then it was of no use. If that early era of imagined happiness was not sufficiently luminous as to remain accessible to conscious memory, why, it may as well be the case, thought Mr Arnold, that I never experienced it at all.

He sometimes thought that if he were able to create the idea of such an era, with sufficient colour and shape so as to be able to feel as though he could remember it, then it would, later, once the effort of creation were forgotten, become a kind of pleasure in its own right. But that was not at all the same thing.

When the question first announced itself, it brought with it a tangible sadness. If I cannot recall when I was happy, he thought, then I must be either very miserable, very dull or very stupid. Mr Arnold could not even be sure what kind of response he hoped to produce. Should the ‘when’ represent a number of years, a golden phase of productivity and achievement, romance and travel and excitement, or general good living? Should it relate to a particular time in his life when he had been able to recognise in himself the feeling that he was in the place he ought to be in, at the time at which he ought to be there, doing the very thing he ought to be doing in that place and at that time? Or, rather, might it represent something as fleeting as a single moment, or a handful of fleeting moments, each containing some ephemeral, illuminative quality? Could the answer, instead, be conceived of as a growing sense of warmth, a progression of increasing and enduring contentment? Mr Arnold came to feel that it would never be within his powers to say: Yes, I was happy then. I see it now. This, here, marked the moment at which it started, and that, there, marked the moment at which it started to stop.

Nonetheless, his search continued. He strung together the important landmarks and achievements of his life, demanding answers from them all. At school? No. Well, perhaps there were flashes, but nothing he could remember well enough to pinpoint, and, on the whole, the experience was dulled with an overriding sense of anxiety. At university? No. Things were much too uncertain, his personality being too fluid and too easily influenced by whichever group of friends he had fallen in with at a particular time. During his first job as a legal clerk? Perhaps, but only a little. There was a sense of independence and freedom at the beginning that came with having a regular wage, but that quickly gave way to the dullness of routine and responsibility. His first holiday abroad? Yes, perhaps then, if only a little.

The holiday had marked the end of the era of his third job and the beginning of the era of the fourth, which merited a substantial pay rise. At that time, he didn’t know anyone else with the financial means or the availability to go abroad with him, so he went alone. His boss recommended France, in particular: Carcassonne. He had a little house down there, a little gite, that Mr Arnold could use gratuit. So he wandered the ancient, sun-soaked streets, ate and drank at the establishments recommended to him and watched the lives of the local inhabitants play out before him – the bakers in the morning, the men in suits at lunch, the farm boys on their bikes running errands in the town – as though it had been orchestrated solely for the purposes of his entertainment. He was, over those six days, to some degree, invisible. This was both a source of happiness and of freedom, that of having no obligation to a place. But for the duration of the holiday, Mr Arnold had allowed himself to slip into the skin of somebody else; the truth was that he did not have the proper disposition for travelling alone. Therefore, in order to enjoy it, he had assumed the mantle of someone with such a disposition, but this charade could not last forever, therefore it could not be happiness that he had felt for it was not truly Mr Arnold doing the feeling and it wasn’t real life so much as a fantasy world that bore resemblance to the south of France. So no, in fact, he had not been happy then.

It would have been wonderful to be able to say that the period of greatest happiness had begun with marriage and ended following the death of his wife, but that didn’t feel quite truthful either. It wasn’t at all the case that they had been unhappy, but happiness, if that’s what it was, had not simply begun on the day of their first meeting, nor on the day of their wedding. It was equally untrue to suggest that he had not been sad when she died, or that he had not grieved, but that was not the same as saying that her death was the cause of his ceasing to be happy, as, when she died, he had only grieved because he had been perfectly content when she was alive and because he was grateful and very glad to have known her at all. None of these facts, in and of themselves, made a moment of happiness, spread, as they were, over a long period of time, in which happiness had faded in and out.

The question acquired a presence of its own, with him as he ate his two boiled eggs at breakfast, as he read the newspaper, as he daydreamed by the window, as he drank the glass of milk, or, on occasion, scotch, that he liked to take at precisely half past ten in the evening before he completed the rituals of washing and teeth-brushing, preparing for bed.

Am I happy now? He ate a chocolate biscuit. What about now? He read a chapter of his book. And now? He went for a walk; he had lunch in Chez Thomas, which was his favourite café, with Mr Lambert, who was his only friend. He took an extra scotch at midnight. And now? And now?

The answer, when it revealed itself, came quite out of the blue. It arrived one afternoon, as he was sitting in the big yellow chair, which he had repositioned – with some difficulty, as it was a large and heavy chair – from the back of the room to much a brighter location by the bay window in the room that he referred to as his ‘day room’. He watched a bus pull up at the stop across the road. This was not an unusual occurrence — buses came and went every half an hour — but this particular bus reminded him of another bus: one that he had been waiting for fifty years earlier, just a week before his twenty seventh birthday.

It happened like this. It was early August, 1963. He had been on a camping trip along the north Norfolk coast with friends from school. He was making his way back to London, where he was working as a legal clerk (his second job) and had to change buses at Norwich, which meant a thirty five minute wait at the bus station. Upon arrival, he went to the ticket office and was informed that the bus to London was due to leave from bay number seven. (Such detail! Such clarity! How could he have failed to remember this before?) He placed himself at one end of the bench beneath the shelter, unzipped a side-pocket in his travel-bag to withdraw the necessary materials, and began to roll a cigarette. He lit up. Across from him was bay number four, where there was a bus – it was blue with a big yellow stripe – due to travel in the direction of Cambridge. Sitting at the back of the bus, by the window closest to him, was a girl, about his age, with short brown hair that was rich in colour but foreign in texture, thick and frizzy, bushing out at the sides. Her profile was elegant and she sat tall, her neck long and straight. She held in her hands a large hardback book with a dark red cover, perhaps something – he imagined – by one of the Russians – Anna Karenina, Notes from the Underground, perhaps a volume of Akhmatova? No. It was too large a tome to be a single work of poetry. But an anthology? A Complete Works? No. Absurd. She did not look the type to read poetry in public. It was a novel, to be sure, and she was enraptured.

With her arm at the necessary angle to support the weight of the book, the collection of chunky gold bangles she was wearing had slipped to the crook of her elbow. He gave a moment’s consideration to the jewellery. Where had she been when she put them on that morning, if, indeed, it was morning when she put them on? Had she arranged them on her wrist one by one, hearing each gold band making a satisfying clatter against the next as it adorned her arm?

He watched her intently, taking in every detail, every flourish – the slight pink in her cheeks, the small black space of her open mouth – and yet she did not once look up. I could get on that bus, he thought. I could learn her name. I could introduce myself as someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free. We could become best friends, intellectual allies, kindred spirits. Perhaps, after the right amount of time has elapsed, I could in my own way become someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free, without even being aware of my own transformation. Could I be that man? Am I not that man? Do I not contain the possibility of someone distinguished, mysterious, confident, spontaneous and free? We could fall in love. We could make love, before making the more traditional moves — marriage, property, children — but with more bravery, more conviction, more passion than all the others making those very same moves around us. And what a story we would have to tell, when friends of friends might ask us over dinner to tell the story of how we met. Or, none of that. We might have nothing to say to one another at all.

Perhaps she isn’t reading the Russians at all. It could turn out to be a dreadful decision, and a boring one at that. I could make a real blunder of things, spending money I don’t really have, on a bus ticket to Cambridge, only to spend more on another back to London, when it turns out she is an insufferable bore: vain, disengaged, never making any jokes of her own. It would be worse than if she were to turn out to be a character of some abominable sort. The real disappointment would be if nothing remarkable, nothing worthy of remark, were to happen at all.

The possibilities of accident and chance displayed themselves to Mr Arnold, bright, colourful and implausibly various. In the memory of this moment, a small point — a pin-prick — of contentment arose in his gut. It grew and warmed and became light until the sensation, only slightly painful, affected the whole surface of his skin. Sitting by the bay window in the large yellow chair, he replayed that summer’s day, over and over, waiting for the London bus, at the quiet, sun-drenched station in Norwich, and he tried to remember what it was that he had done.

Anna Metcalfe’s debut short story collection Blind Water Pass is published by John Murray Originals.