By Aaron Callow
“Why won’t you tell me?” Audrey tugged playfully on his shirt, tucking one finger between the buttons. The corridor outside her apartment was lonely and dim.
“Audrey, don’t—” Henry looked down at her, patient but firm. He thought about leaving.
“It won’t make a difference,” she said.
“Then why do you want to know?” If only she’d leave it alone.
“Please, Henry.” She pressed herself against him, keeping her hands chastely behind her back, and looked up at him with glistening wide eyes.
“Audrey,” he said. He was not telling, it ought to have been obvious, but still she pressed him for answers. So he kissed her. Resting his hands on the wings of her hips, he pulled her towards him. He could taste the lollypop she had bought on the way home, sweet strawberry.
Pulling back, he looked down at her elfin face. At last she said nothing and Henry was glad of it. Perhaps he could stay after all. The appointment was early next morning but maybe it could wait. Maybe he would not have to go at all.
“Why don’t you come inside?” she breathed in his ear.
Henry needed a moment to remember where he was. He sat up slowly in bed and looked around. Diaphanous wall hangings diffused the harsh, wall-mounted lights (there were no windows), and a tatty wicker chair was laden with the pile of their clothes. The shelves were peppered with junkshop bric-a-brac: a dusty incense burner; half-melted candles; and soapstone ornaments. The aroma of incense weighed heavy on the room. Audrey stood next to the bed like an excited child.
“Audrey, what—” Henry rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands and tried to look blasé as a lead weight sank in his stomach. He should have known it would be like this.
“You’re seven hundred years old!” Audrey had wrapped herself in the top-sheet from the bed, a handful of it clasped just above her breasts. Her teeth shone behind her smile.
Henry furrowed his brow and in the dim light glanced at the photo-ID Audrey held in her hand. “Six hundred and ninety-eight, actually.” His voice betrayed a trace of anger but his disappointment he managed to keep hidden.
“I know,” she said, “I never would have guessed! I thought—”
“You went through my pockets.”
Audrey’s beaming face faltered. Her eyes gave her away, a little desperate and nervously insecure. “Yes, but—” her voice faltered too “—but you weren’t going to tell me. I mean, wow, Henry, you must have been one of the first.”
Barring accident, death was by appointment and even then only when a person felt it was their time. For a little over seven hundred years, no one had aged a day past twenty. Audrey was right, Henry had been among the first, and recently he had felt his age.
Still clutching Henry’s ID, Audrey’s hand was locked rigidly against her side to keep the sheet from flapping open. Henry was not so modest. Without saying a word, he swept the heavy duvet aside and walked naked to the wicker chair. He rummaged through the pile of clothes to separate what was his from what was Audrey’s.
“You had no right to go through my things,” he said darkly as he buttoned up his jeans.
“It’s none of your business how old I am!”
He did not mean to scare her but she flinched as he shouted. As he left her room, Audrey’s face was a broken toy, devastated and lonely. He strode through the front room and out into the corridor, slamming the door behind him and storming down the stairs.
Out in the street, the sun had barely broken the horizon. There was no one else around.
“Henry, man, what you doing here so early?” said Roland. “Get kicked out of bed or what?”
Roland was the barrista at Belvetti’s, a snug café nestled like an unwelcome squatter down a narrow Soho backroad. Shabby and cramped, the place was almost permanently empty but that was how it had always been. It was why Henry liked it and why he had stopped there on his way to the appointment.
Henry managed only a grumbled response and though he had hoped it would satisfy Roland’s curiosity, it did not.
“You have been kicked out of bed!” said Roland. “Man, what you do?”
“Skinny latté and a shot of vanilla,” Henry replied, unimpressed.
“Oh yeah? Nasty!” Roland’s animated laugh filled the tiny café.
“Just get my coffee,” said Henry. He was still angry and it seeped into the tone of his voice.
“Sure thing, man,” Roland replied. “Sorry, yeah?”
Henry waved dismissively and sat at the counter. Roland continued to chatter over the rattle of the large espresso machine. He could be loud and tactless but lately he was the closest Henry had to a friend. The white hiss of the machine rose to its crescendo then faded. Roland turned with a steaming mug of coffee.
“You know, I hate to pry, man,” he said, “but you been mopey for a good long time now. If you wan’ talk about it-“
“Roland, you’re sub-centurion aren’t you?”
Henry looked up from his coffee at Roland’s expression. His mouth hung open and his forehead deepened. It was not easy to silence Roland mid-sentence but a question like that would do it every time.
“Come on, Henry. I ain’t gonna tell you that.”
In fact he did not have to tell. Henry knew very well how old he was. He had a sense for these things that had come to him with age. It was as if he could sense the fatigue in a person’s soul. Whatever he sensed, to ask about it was as offensive a question as there was.
“How old are you?” he continued regardless. “Ninety, ninety-one?”
For a very long time, much longer than Roland had been alive, the attitude to childbirth had been firm. Population pressures demanded it. One out, one in: that was the only way. And what couple would agree to that? It was almost unheard of. To be Roland’s age was almost as rare as it was to be Henry’s.
“Henry, seriously?” said Roland. “You’re asking me this?”
The steam on Henry’s coffee had settled to a lazy trail and he took a sip. Roland glared at him.
Apart from the seclusion, there were other reasons Henry liked Belvetti’s. Recently, more important to him than anything else had been Roland’s friendship. Just as Henry could tell Roland was young, so Roland must have had a sense that Henry was old. He would never have guessed how old, of course, but the signs were there all the same: it was in the way he spoke and the things he said sometimes. Even so, Roland had never once mentioned it. Now it was Henry who had asked the question and he felt suddenly ashamed of it.
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not. I’m sorry.”
Roland imitated Henry’s earlier wave with a dry smile. “What’s this all about, man?”
Henry was quiet for a while and then said, “Did I ever tell you I knew Elena?”
“You serious?” said Roland, amazed.
The photoplate of Elena Belvetti on the wall behind the bar had been taken almost six hundred years ago. Beneath it was a plaque dedicated to her memory. She had been dead for over four hundred years.
“I was with her when she died,” said Henry.
“You are serious,” Roland said.
Henry pursed his lips and, nodding, breathed a deep sigh. “I went with her to her appointment,” he replied.
Henry had noticed her watching him almost twenty minutes before she had come up beside him like an inquisitive child. He had been stood against the wall, within spitting distance of the drinks table.
“Hi,” she had said.
“I don’t need anything, thanks,” Henry had replied.
“No,” she laughed, “I just wanted to say hi.”
“Do I know you?”
“Don’t think so.”
“My name’s Audrey, can I talk to you? What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he said reluctantly. “We can talk if you want.”
“Oh, thanks, I always feel so lost at these things!” she said.
“So why come?” he replied.
“I work for the publishers. It’s sort of in my job description.”
Henry nodded, a vague attempt to feign interest. He was thinking only about how long it would be before he could leave to get another drink.
“What about you?” Audrey asked. “Why are you here?”
He had come because he had run out of booze and here was as good a place as any to carry on drinking. He would never have come to a party like this if not for the booze. If he could, he would have kept drinking right until the appointment next morning. He would have kept drinking even as the injection sent him slowly to sleep. That, he had been told, was not recommended, although he was not sure why. What complications could there be to a procedure like that?
To have said all that would have been the most honest answer. What he actually said was true as well, though. “I know Dante.”
Dante’s publisher, Audrey’s employer, was the party’s host. The new book was to be an underground event, they promised, and the party was supposed to reflect that. Henry had taken one look around and known it was all a crock of shit.
“Really?” Audrey replied. “Wow. I knew you would be interesting. I could tell by looking at you.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, all brooding and self-assured on your own at the edge of the room.” Audrey’s lips glowed in a nymph-like smile.
The launch was being held at an art gallery. On pristine walls hung a collection of prints, and from the vaulted ceiling wire-mesh birds floated on cables a few feet above the guests’ heads, a swooping flock frozen at the lowest trough of its dive. Henry hated the place.
“So how do you know him?” Audrey asked.
“We used to move in the same circles,” Henry replied.
“But you don’t anymore?”
“No. We don’t. Dante’s an idiot.”
Audrey laughed and held up her glass. “I’ll drink to that,” she said theatrically.
Henry’s glass was empty already but Audrey’s was full and it vanished so fast he thought she must have breathed it in. The bridge of her nose wrinkled in an ecstatic spasm.
“The bubbles tickle my nose,” she giggled. “Shall I get us a couple more?”
For the first time in ages, but not the last time that night, Henry let a narrow smile brighten his face and he gave her his glass.
Audrey’s dress looked even prettier from behind than it did from the front. It was open-backed and the hem flicked from side to side as she walked to the drinks table. Next to the rows of champagne flutes, were platters of delicate canapés: salmon pink, cream white and chilli red. Audrey reached for one with dainty fingers and popped it into her mouth whole. She had only just swallowed when she returned to Henry with their drinks.
“There’s so much desperation in this room,” she said. “Know what I mean?”
Henry took a long sip of his drink and nodded.
“I just overheard half a conversation at the drinks table,” she said conspiringly. “Some guy was talking to these girls about all these things he’s seen and done, making out he was so much older than them. People like that are the worst. As if it matters how old you are, you know?”
Henry was impressed and though he tried not to show it, Audrey suddenly looked very pleased with herself so he knew his reaction had given him away. He was fascinated by her. She seemed to be something new and Henry had not encountered something new for a very long time.
“So, have you read Dante’s book?” Audrey asked.
“No, have you?”
“I read an early manuscript.”
Audrey leaned towards him and spoke quietly so as not to be heard over the hum of conversation. “It’s like he’s saying age can catch up with you.”
“Knowing Dante, I imagine that’s exactly what he’s saying.”
“Yeah, I just don’t get that. Why can’t people start over if things go bad? Move somewhere new where people don’t know you. Start another life if it comes to that. Why does it have to end?”
Before moving back to London, Henry had worked as a missionary in Indonesia. Before that he had been in New York, before that the Seychelles and before that New Zealand. He had done a lot with his life and that was more than could be said for most people. Perhaps that’s why he had lasted so long. But a lot of water had passed under too many bridges and lately it felt as though the remaining trickle was pooling in a stagnant gully.
And yet there was something about Audrey that made him remember what it meant to have that freedom – the freedom that most took for granted – to live for as long as he wanted. Then he remembered absent friends. He remembered Elena. It had been four hundred years but losing her had not gotten easier with time. He remembered begging her to stay, even as she pressed down on the syringe, lining her veins with poison. Even as she lost consciousness still Henry had stood beside her with tears in his eyes. “Ellie, please,” he had kept saying, “you don’t have to go,” though he had known it was far too late for that.
“It’s better this way,” the coroner had said, “better this than let her do it on her own.” Henry had known it was true but that did not mean he accepted it. And Elena had just been the first of many to leave him like that. In seven hundred years he had lost count of the friends he had known and lost. Each had taken its toll on him until he had at last decided that his time had come too. His mind back in the present, Henry looked down at Audrey and wondered if he was really ready to go through all that himself.
“People say the soul ages even if the body doesn’t,” he replied eventually.
“You believe that?”
“Dante does,” he said evasively. “But I don’t think he understands what it means. I don’t think he’s as old as he likes to make out.”
“Really?” Intrigue sparkled in Audrey’s eyes.
Henry looked around warily. “I think we should talk about something else.”
“Or maybe we should get out of here,” Audrey replied. Baring her teeth in an arch grin, she punctuated her sentence with a very long, very slow blink. Her pitch eyelashes left a faint dusting of mascara beneath her eyes. “Will you walk me home?” she said.
“So why did she do it?” asked Roland. He was talking about Elena. He and Henry were still alone in the café.
Henry idly stirred his coffee with a spoon. “She just felt tired,” he replied. “Nothing happened exactly, she wasn’t in trouble or anything like that. She’d just had enough. I didn’t understand at the time but—”
Henry swallowed the end of his sentence and Roland frowned.
“Henry, come on, man. What’s wrong?”
Henry stared at his coffee, by now lukewarm and undrinkable. “You just get tired of it all,” he said. “You reach a certain age and you realise nothing ever changes. It’ll always be like this, it’s like we’ve reached this plateau. This cultural, economic, technological plateau … I mean, Jesus, what year is this? Shouldn’t we be taking holidays to Pluto or something? Exploring a galaxy far, far away? There’s just no progress, you know? Everything’s so stagnant.”
“Henry, I don’t understand, what are you—”
“When I was a kid I used to wonder what the world would be like in a hundred years’ time, or two hundred or three … but it’s all just the same. There’s no urgency anymore. People think they have all the time in the world so there’s no pressure, no drive, nothing new under the sun. And when you think you’ve found something different and exciting,” he thought of Audrey and frowned, “it turns out it’s just the same old shit after all.”
Henry looked at his watch. It was almost eight o’clock. The appointment was at nine.
“I’m sorry, Roland,” he said, reaching into his pocket to pay for the coffee. “I have to go.” As soon as he touched his wallet, he was struck by a realisation. “Damn, I left my ID—”
Roland looked up at him sharply. “Your ID?”
There were only two reasons why a person would need their ID.
Roland put down the mug he’d been drying. “You planning on having a kid, Henry?” he said ironically. There was a slight tremble in his voice.
“No,” said Henry. “No, I’m not.”
Roland’s head sank with a sigh. “Oh, man…”
Henry took a lingering look around the café then looked back to his friend. “Take care of this place,” he said. “And take care of yourself.”
“Goodbye, Henry,” said Roland.
Henry had narrowed his eyes when she asked if he wanted a lollypop but apparently she had been serious.
“What flavour do you want?” she had said.
“You decide,” he had replied. He tried to give the newsagent an embarrassed look but could not hide the grin that snuck across face.
Audrey was oblivious, irrepressible. As fresh as the icy London night that blew through their coats, driving them together, arm in arm, to the nearest tube station. It was not as though Henry had wanted to stay at the gallery, in fact he had been happy to leave, but to have left for a woman? That had not been his style for a very long time.
“I got us both the same,” she said, slurring her words around the lollypop tucked into the side of her cheek. “Strawberry.”
She waited for him to unwrap his lollypop then reached once more into the crook of his arm and led him through the grubby archway down the stairs to the tube station. Beneath the stark plastic lights, Audrey’s pale skin shone like silver. She seemed to Henry like a piece of the moon walking with him among the draft-tossed litter and drab graffiti that lined the tunnels down to the platform.
They rode the Northern line to Brent Cross. Alone in the musty carriage, they talked over the howl of the ancient train and the occasional grinding squeak of metal wheels on metal rails.
The low sky when they emerged from the station was an unhealthy shade: dark, muddy and red. A bank of clouds, purple and brown in the light pollution, passed rapidly overhead, carried on the same bitter wind that made them huddle together as they walked.
“Henry, can I ask you something?”
Audrey had broken the lull in conversation brought on by the cold. Though she had spoken carelessly, Henry wondered if she had just been waiting for the right moment to ask. He said nothing.
“How old are you?”
He should have known that was coming. Then again, perhaps she was just curious. Hadn’t she said at the party that age doesn’t matter? Perhaps it would make no difference to her and she would treat him no differently if he told her the truth. She’d not ask him questions about the past, not look at him like a zoo animal. Maybe she wouldn’t put on that affected voice that had driven him crazy so many times before when someone found out about him. Somehow he doubted it.
“Does it matter?” he said.
“No, no,” she replied quickly. “I was just thinking about what you said earlier.”
“What did I say earlier?”
“You said Dante makes out like he’s older than he really is. I was wondering how you could tell, that’s all.”
He paused to think before answering. Perhaps she was genuine after all, he thought. He just wished she would change the subject. “Everyone hides their age, right?” he said.
Audrey was conspicuously silent at this remark. She simply nodded without looking up at him. It may have been because she was fumbling in her bag for the keys to her building but this was the first time all night that Audrey had nothing to say for herself.
“So, if someone talks about their age then you know they’re lying,” Henry continued. “You just have to decide if they’re lying because they want to seem older or if they’re lying to seem younger. A man like Dante has more to gain from pretending to be older. It gives him authority. So he makes out that he’s five hundred or so when in fact he’s probably no older than three hundred, like most people.”
They walked up the stairs to Audrey’s apartment. Henry’s voice was a tinny echo in the concrete stairwell.
“That’s the problem with people, you know? As desperate as they are to get the dirt on each other they’re even more desperate to keep their own secrets. It goes around and around in circles. It’s always the same.” He paused for a moment and then said, “As far as I can tell, anyway.”
“I’ve never met anyone like you, Henry,” Audrey replied. “You’re the only other person I’ve met who sees through the bullshit.”
“It’s a rare gift,” he replied with a forced smile.
“It makes me wonder about you, though,” she said. “Can’t you tell me how old you are?”
By now, Henry did not know what to think. Hadn’t she listened to what he just said? Henry had not thought about the appointment since leaving the party but faint alarm bells began to ring in his head and he wondered if Audrey was all that she appeared. They had seemed so alike, the two of them. If he didn’t know better, he might even have suspected she was as old as he was. But if that was true, he had never met anyone so good at hiding it.
They were on the fourth floor now, in the corridor outside her apartment. Still Henry said nothing.
Audrey turned and tucked a finger between the buttons of his shirt. “Why won’t you tell me?” she asked, looking up at him.
Still clutching Henry’s ID and tangled in her sheet, Audrey lay slumped on her empty bed. An hour had passed since he left but she could still smell his cologne and the sweet scent of his hair.
The photo on the ID smiled broadly, as if someone outside the booth had made him laugh as the flash went off. The issue date was almost two hundred years ago. Looking at it, Audrey could not decide whether Henry was handsome or simply enigmatic. In the flesh he was both. His hair had not changed – cropped short but long enough for her to run her fingers through – and neither had much else. As far as she could tell, the only difference was that smile and the warmth it lent his face. She had caught glimpses of it before but never for long.
Perhaps Henry would not come back for his ID, she thought. Maybe he would just report it lost and apply for a new one. She was unsure whether she would be glad if he came back. She wanted to see him, she was certain of that, but whether she would be glad of it was not the same thing at all.
The knock at the door made her jump. It could only have been Henry and a thousand butterflies danced in her belly. Twirling her dressing gown around her shoulders, she walked from her bedroom and through the front room to the door. She leaned against it with her forehead before undoing the latch.
“I need my ID,” Henry said as Audrey opened the door.
His anger had mellowed since he left, but the disappointment remained and with it the detachment that had surrounded him these last few years.
Audrey’s hand reached from the sleeve of her dressing gown and she handed him his ID without saying a word.
“Thank you,” he said.
As he turned to leave, Audrey called after him. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He did not look round as he replied.
“Can’t you come in?” Audrey called after him again. “We can talk.”
This time he did turn around. “We don’t have anything to talk about,” he said. He was not bitter or angry, just jaded and resigned.
Henry looked at her with curious eyes. He felt like he had realised something but could not be sure what exactly. Audrey was pressed up against the front door, holding it open. With a frown, Henry came inside.
“Do you want coffee?” asked Audrey, walking past him to her tiny kitchenette.
“No, thanks,” Henry replied.
Henry shook his head.
“Orange juice, water?” She was getting flustered.
“I can’t stay,” he said. “I have an appointment.”
Hovering in the doorway to the kitchen, Audrey took a deep breath and opened her mouth to speak. She sounded nervous. “Henry,” she said, “there’s something I want you to know.”
She folded her arms, pulling her dressing gown tightly around her, and fixed her eyes on her toes. “I feel awful for what I did,” she said. “I never meant to upset you. I keep thinking about the things you said on the way home last night—”
“Audrey, you’ve already apologised.”
“No,” she said, “that’s not what I want to tell you. Will you sit?”
Two battered and worn-out sofas faced each other in the middle of the room. One was green and badly faded, the other blue with thin gold stripes.
“I really can’t stay,” Henry replied.
“Please, Henry, it’s important.”
Audrey’s eyes searched Henry’s face, imploring him to stay. He sighed and sat on the edge of the blue sofa. He leant forward so as not to be swallowed by the sagging seat.
“The things you said last night made me think we had something in common,” Audrey said. “I thought we understood each other.”
“You thought wrong,” Henry replied.
Still embraced in her own arms, Audrey walked from the kitchen doorway to sit opposite him on the other sofa. Like him, she perched on the edge. There was something childlike and vulnerable about her posture. Her knees were together, her feet apart and turned inwards. Shadows fell deeply in the hollows of her face.
“I know,” she said after a while.
Henry tried to look her in the eyes but she would not look back at him. “I don’t have time for this,” he said as he stood.
“Wait, Henry. Listen to me!”
Henry looked at his watch and grimaced. He made a move for the door and Audrey rushed to her feet to intercept him. She placed one hand on his arm, just below the elbow and, finally, stared up at him. Henry stared back but said nothing. Instead, he gently pushed her to one side and reached for the door.
“Henry, please!” said Audrey, her voice cracked. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”
He wanted to leave. He wanted to keep his appointment. Whatever had changed in him last night was back to how it had been before he met her. He should have known better than to expect anything different. Nevertheless, the desperation in Audrey’s voice made him wait just long enough for her to continue.
“I wanted to know how old you were because I thought we were the same age, Henry. I’ve never met anyone—” she paused mid-sentence and looked down at the floor. “I thought you were—” she paused again and looked back up at him. “I’m twenty years old, Henry,” she said. “I’m only twenty years old.”
Like a magician’s reveal, all that Henry could not before put his finger on came together with a flash and when the smoke cleared there still stood Audrey, just as before, scared and alone, her eyes wet with tears.
“Jesus,” he mouthed.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be as old as you,” she said, “maybe I never will, but do you know what it’s like to be so young? I’m terrified, Henry, and I’ve got nobody. People don’t want to know me. They act like I don’t matter, like I’m not even good enough to talk to them. It’s so hard to keep it a secret and why should I have to? I thought you were different,” she continued. “I thought—” she swallowed a sob, “—I thought we were the same.”
Henry hovered in the doorway. He remembered what he had said to Roland: and when you think you’ve found something new…
Lately, Henry had felt his soul like it was a ghost haunting its own body. But why, he had asked himself, why did he feel that way? It was the whole world and the people around him. Nothing would ever change, he had thought and soon after realising it, he booked the appointment. And yet here stood before him, was a beautiful reminder that even if he lived for seven centuries more, he still might not experience all life had to offer. That was something he had once hoped never to forget. But somehow he had.
To Audrey, the world must have seemed terrifying and vast. But Henry was old enough to know that such was life, it was always so and more’s the glory. He had simply needed a reminder of that and here she was, just in time.
Audrey was right, he thought. Maybe not in the way she had guessed, but in the ways that really mattered, she and Henry were the same.
“Audrey—” he said.
“I know,” she interrupted, drying her eyes with the sleeve of her dressing gown, “you have an appointment to keep. But can’t you come back later? We need to talk. I think—” her voice stumbled on her tongue, “—I think I need you, Henry.”
Henry’s face broke into a smile. It was not quite as bright as that which beamed from the photo on his ID but it was a smile all the same and it was enough for the time being.
“Maybe the appointment can wait,” he said. “Maybe I can stay a little longer.”
Having travelled on four continents, played in two bands and studied anthropology at university, Aaron Callow now writes film reviews and short stories. His work has appeared at www.6degreesfilm.com and Eliot’s Face (the arts magazine of Jesus College, Cambridge). He will also be published in Whispers of Wickedness and Aesthetica over the coming months. He has a website at www.aaroncallow.blogspot.com
Story © 2006 Aaron Callow. All other content copyright © 2006 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish