The many lives of john s.., p.1
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       The Many Lives of John Stone, p.1

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 
The Many Lives of John Stone


  For Isabella

  There is no desert like that of living without friends.

  —BALTASAR GRACIÁN

  Photographs

  February 20—, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.

  Spark finds Mum hunched over the kitchen table, feet shoved into sheepskin slippers, hands around a mug of tea, the fridge door open for light.

  “What are you doing up already?”

  “Couldn’t get a wink,” says Mum, “knowing how early you’ve got to be off.”

  Later, as the London train pulls into the station in the frosty darkness, Spark asks: “You’re gonna be okay, aren’t you?”

  As if she were going to say: Don’t go. Not you, too. Nevertheless, Spark feels her heart harden, just in case, only to have it soften again.

  “Will you stop your wittering and get in?” Mum says. “You’ll be back before you know it.”

  As the train pulls out—there are only a couple of other people in the carriage, both city types—Spark puts the palms of both hands on the window and mouths, Love you! Although she is not sure if Mum has seen. The harsh station lights bleach all the color out of her mother’s face as she stands motionless on the platform, arms hanging at her sides, watching the gap between them grow larger.

  Later, New York.

  Caught up in the logjam of traffic crawling toward the Brooklyn Bridge, Spark sits alone in the back of a yellow cab. Lulled by the motion of the taxi and the overheated, pine-scented air, the point of her chin slowly drops until it rests on an overstuffed backpack, which she cradles on her lap. When the line of traffic begins to move freely again, a worn-out Volvo cuts in front of them. It’s a close thing. Spark’s heavy eyelids snap open as the cabdriver brakes hard. The seat belt tightens across her chest and her bags slide away from her across the seat. And so it is to the accompaniment of a fanfare of car horns that Spark gets her first sight of Manhattan.

  She leans forward in her seat and stares out at the dense mass of buildings that never stop coming at her, reaching up like mountain ranges. The gathering banks of violet cloud that cover Manhattan Island are so low, and so dense, that the skyscrapers seem to hold up the sky like columns shouldering the roof of some vast cathedral. “Wow!” She breathes.

  The driver wants to know where she’s from.

  “Mansfield. Nottinghamshire . . . England.”

  The driver shakes his head, says he’s spent a week in England. Never went there, though. Spark says she’s not surprised. Mansfield isn’t what you’d call a top tourist destination.

  At ten to five, the cab pulls up outside the espresso bar in East Forty-ninth Street where Dan’s text said to meet him. Spark monitors the meter and tries to remember how big a tip she is supposed to give. The cab pulls away, leaving her on the icy sidewalk on which snow is beginning to settle. Spark tilts back her head and opens her mouth until an American snowflake lands on her tongue.

  Dan—of course—hasn’t arrived yet. She scans the backs of a handful of heads sitting on high stools but none of them belong to her big brother. The penetrating squeal of the coffee machine makes her wince: Her ears are still popping after the long descent to JFK.

  “What can I get for you today?” The thrill of hearing the barista’s New York accent throws her and she orders a Danish pastry because her tired brain can’t deliver the word “bagel” in time. She is conscious of how different she must sound. There’s a mirror behind the bar. Oh, heck, she thinks. I look like I’ve slept in my clothes. But then, she has.

  Spark settles at a narrow bench overlooking the street and wishes that Dan would hurry up. No one’s taking a scrap of notice of her, yet Spark feels like she has “English” tattooed on her forehead. She licks the milk froth that has accumulated on her upper lip and her face lights up when it occurs to her that she is drinking hot chocolate on a different continent.

  A movement on the sidewalk outside draws her attention. Caught in the pool of yellow light spilling out from the café, she notices a curious figure in a long dress. Spark cuts her Danish in half and licks buttery crumbs from her fingers. It is one of those moments when there is a delay while the brain processes the data. Her first impression is of a woman in an evening dress who is catching her breath between dances. By the time Spark’s mind has caught up with itself, it rejects this unlikely scenario. Her gaze sidles back to the street. Sheltering under a tree is a tall, stooped woman with pale hair piled on top of her head. Although her layered approach to dressing is less a fashion statement than a means of preventing hypothermia, the result is eye-catching. Once upon a time the middle layer, a floor-length satin gown, must have been stunning. It has long, tapered sleeves, visible beneath a bulky vest, and the full skirt hangs in heavy folds. Even in this dim light, Spark can see that the hem is stained and frayed from being trailed across the streets of New York. She cannot begin to guess how old the woman is.

  Abruptly the woman reaches down to the floor. Now Spark can see that she has attached a whole series of bulging plastic bags onto a cord around her waist so that they trail behind her like some bizarre accessory. The last three bags sit on the sidewalk like obedient dogs. It is in one of these that the woman is rummaging. She pulls out an aerosol can and, with a hand that is purple with cold, starts to spray the tree angrily, as if in an attempt to be rid of a bad smell.

  How tragic, Spark thinks, to end up with nothing and no one in a city that has everything. Spark looks at her plate and wonders if she should offer the woman her half-eaten Danish. When she looks back up she notices a man in a billowing overcoat watching the woman from the opposite side of the tree. His gaze bores into her with such intensity it is as though the café, East Forty-ninth Street, and Manhattan itself have ceased to exist. Something about the little scenario sucks her in. Does he know the woman? What’s the story? Spark reaches for her camera, turning off the flash and zooming in on the man. Snowflakes settle on his shoulders and on wavy black hair that is brushed back from a broad forehead. Click. Spark takes another shot, this time on a slower shutter speed, and frames the picture to include both people. Click. And another. Click.

  Now the man approaches the woman, takes her hand, and kisses it. He presses some money into her palm but she throws it back at him, thrusting him away with the flats of her hands. She turns on her heels, revealing to Spark a hawk-like nose and fierce, dark eyes, and strides away in the direction of the river. The banknotes swirl across the sidewalk into the street, where passing traffic gobbles them up.

  The man in the overcoat continues to observe her until she has vanished from sight, then he, too, enters the café. He buys an espresso and sits at a corner table, apparently deep in thought. Spark steals curious glances at him every now and then and notices that he is writing in a small notebook. Spark texts Dan again. Where r u? She flicks through her photos. There it is, the man’s mesmerizing stare, digitized and recorded, an emotion in two dimensions. Spark is especially happy with the second shot: A car’s headlights streak across the image, sulphur yellow against the gray of the street, its rapid trajectory emphasizing both figures’ stillness. Yes, she is pleased with her photographs; she likes how they ask questions but provide no answers.

  Paper Cut

  Spark doesn’t notice Dan arrive, so when he puts his hands over her eyes she leaps up like a startled cat.

  “Sparky!” says Dan. He slips his bag off his shoulder and pats down her hair, like he always does.

  Spark knocks away her brother’s hand, like she always does. “Gerroff, Dan!”

  September was the last time they saw each other. Dan hugs her awkwardly—it is not something he would normally do. Perhaps it’s something he’s picked up from his New York mates. Dan says hi to the barist
a and carries back a cup of tea, which he sloshes over the saucer. He pulls up a high stool and sits next to her in front of the window. It’s dark now and Spark studies his grinning reflection in the glass.

  “You’re wearing a suit. It’s weird,” says Spark.

  “Not as weird as seeing you here.”

  Spark pings his cup with a fingernail. “What’s the point of coming to an espresso bar when you only drink tea?”

  “It’s my place. I like it here.” He nods toward the bar. “He gives me free bagels when he’s in a good mood.”

  Spark tells him he always was cheap and pulls out the receipt for the cab fare. “As you offered,” she grins, waving it in front of his nose. “Not that I’m holding you to it.” He cocks his head to one side to read it, and feigns falling off his stool.

  “Dan!”

  People are looking and Spark pushes him back on.

  “Sorry I couldn’t meet you at the airport—”

  “It’s okay—I got here, didn’t I? Though Mum will go mental when she finds out you didn’t meet me at JFK—”

  “You’re not going to tell her?”

  Spark’s eyes twinkle.

  “We should text her,” Dan says, suddenly solemn.

  “I texted her as soon as I landed.” She kisses the tips of her fingers and plants them on Dan’s cheek. “From Mum.”

  * * *

  Spark shows Dan her pictures of Manhattan taken through a grimy taxi window. Something makes her hold back from letting him see the photos of the bag lady and the man whose presence, a few tables away, she senses in the small of her back. She watches Dan stir his tea and they both look out at the street without speaking. The absence of the third point in their triangle is unsettling. She lets him do all the talking at first. How he loves New York. What they’re going to do. How Ludo is letting her have his room for the week. Soon tiredness makes her wilt like a flower. She leans her shoulder against him like she used to, years ago now, when they watched telly together on the sofa after school. Spark looks at Dan’s nails, which he hasn’t stopped biting despite his smart suit and an internship in Manhattan. He fidgets all the while with a piece of cellophane that he scrunches up and then drops, watching it unfurl and picking it up again. Spark grabs hold of it.

  “Mum’s right, you’re not coming back, are you?” The words slip out before Spark can stop herself.

  Dan scrapes back his chair and downs the last dregs of his tea. “I don’t know for sure what I’m doing yet.” He gets to his feet. “Come on, let’s get going.”

  She reaches for her backpack under the bench and berates herself. Good move, Spark. Pick a fight, why don’t you? Tell him to come home for Mum’s sake while you’re at it—

  “Mr. Park? I hope I’m not intruding.”

  Dan spins around and when Spark gets up she is confronted by the man whose image her camera has stolen. He extends his hand to Dan, who shakes it warmly.

  “Mr. Stone!”

  Spark watches Dan’s posture alter. He straightens up, as if he is speaking to a headmaster. The man smiles and places a reassuring hand on Dan’s shoulder. He’s not tall—the same height as Dan, who is half a head shorter than his sister. “I was told I was likely to find you here.”

  Spark is again conscious of her creased clothes, her unruly hair, and the fact that she hasn’t brushed her teeth in twenty-four hours.

  “This is my little sister,” says Dan.

  Spark raises an eyebrow in her brother’s direction. He acknowledges her irritation with a flicker of a smile: on, off.

  The man turns to greet her and his hands go up in surprise. His eyes widen noticeably. “This is your sister?” Perhaps this is how people are with each other in New York. Dramatic. Over-the-top.

  “Yes, Stella’s over here for half term.”

  The man offers her his hand; he has a firm grip. “My name is John Stone. I’m delighted to meet you, Stella.”

  There’s a look in his eyes that is unexpected, like a paper cut. He doesn’t seem to want to let go of her hand even when she starts to pull away. Spark wonders if he noticed her photographing him.

  “Actually, no one calls me Stella. I’m Spark—S. Park. Spark.”

  This seems to amuse him. “Well, Spark, is this your first visit to New York?”

  “It’s my first time abroad—unless you count a day trip to Calais.”

  “Then you will remember it forever.”

  With a final squeeze John Stone releases her hand. He’s not, Spark realizes, an American. He’s English, or at least she thinks he is, with the kind of voice that would sound right on the stage or reading the news.

  “It’s a surprise to see you here, Mr. Stone,” says Dan.

  “Do not be concerned, Mr. Park, I am not here to check up on you!”

  “The internship is great—it couldn’t have worked out better—”

  “Of course! I place people where I know they’ll thrive. Your supervisor told me that you’re an excellent linguist.”

  Spark watches Dan purse his lips as he tries not to seem too pleased. “Did he?”

  “And that you sometimes arrive in the morning looking the worse for wear.”

  Dan opens his mouth and closes it again. John Stone smiles. “It’s good that you’re finding your feet.”

  “I’m grateful to you—I love it here.”

  The overhead lighting accentuates John Stone’s deep-set eyes, which are dark—almost black—and his square, prominent cheekbones. Although his skin is rugged, and his brow furrowed, his hair is still dark—with the exception of a curious white stripe above his forehead. It’s almost as if someone has taken a paintbrush and, with a deft flick of the wrist, has marked his scalp. Spark guesses he must have broken his nose at some point. It gives him the air of a rugby player, someone who is comfortable in his own skin, and who can take care of himself.

  “Mr. Park, there’s something I wanted to ask you before I go back to London—”

  “Yes?”

  “I presume you’ll be returning home at the end of your internship?”

  Dan shoots an uneasy glance at Spark. “I might look around for a permanent role in New York. I’d like to stay on if I could.”

  Spark’s stomach lurches. Then he can break the news to Mum himself! She’s not going to be his messenger. Not for this.

  “Why do you ask, Sir?”

  “I was about to offer you a summer job.”

  “Another internship, you mean?”

  “Not exactly. It would not be a formal arrangement. I need someone to impose a sense of order on a collection of historical documents in my possession. Someone who can string sentences together.”

  “I see—”

  “However, as you shall be in the city that never sleeps, and I shall be in Suffolk, where even the birdsong can seem unsociably loud—”

  “It’s good of you to think of me, but—”

  John Stone holds up his hand to gesture that Dan need not explain.

  “I need a summer job,” Spark finds herself saying. “I like organizing, and writing’s my thing.”

  John Stone turns his gaze on her. Dan looks appalled. Spark regrets opening her mouth even though it’s all true: She does need a holiday job and she had to become good at organizing things when Mum couldn’t cope. As for writing, it has helped her through everything. Until you’ve written it down, how can you tell what you really think?

  “How old are you, Spark?” asks John Stone.

  “Seventeen. If I get the grades, I’ll be going to university this autumn.”

  “Seventeen. Seventeen.” A slow, spreading smile lights up his face, revealing large, ivory teeth that are a little uneven.

  “Yes.”

  “And you want me to consider you for this job?”

  “Yes,” she replies. “I do.”

  Even as she speaks Spark wonders why she is doing this. Now the full weight of John Stone’s attention is on her. She waits for him to respond. Instead, he pulls out a noteb
ook, tears out a blank page, and starts to write with a miniature silver pen. Spark scrutinizes the broad forehead etched with horizontal lines, the strong, square hands, the gold signet ring he wears on the small finger of his left hand. As he passes her the piece of paper she is seized by the feeling that she is responding to a prompt she knew would be forthcoming.

  “Take some time to think about it,” says John Stone. “Then, if you’re still interested, I invite you to write to me. By hand. Early in the summer—in late May or early June. Tell me about yourself and how you view the world so that I can see how well you handle the English language.”

  * * *

  “Writing’s my thing!” repeats Dan incredulously once John Stone has departed.

  “It just came out—”

  “I noticed.”

  “Do I know him?” asks Spark. “I mean, I’ve not met him before, have I?”

  “I can’t see how. He visited me at school a couple of times. He works for the charity that gave me the scholarship.”

  “And he arranged your internship, as well?”

  “Yes. After I graduated I went for an interview with him in London.”

  Dan plucks the scrap of paper from his sister’s hands and peers at the precise, looped handwriting. “Stowney House, Suffolk . . . Spark, you do know he was only being polite—”

  Spark snatches the piece of paper back from her brother’s grasp. She folds it into a neat square and slips it into the side pocket of her new purse.

  Ludo

  “It’s okay, Dan—let’s take the underground,” says Spark as he hails a cab.

  “The view from the subway isn’t so great.”

  “Well, a bus, then?”

  “A sock in it, Spark. We’re going by cab.”

  She can’t remember the last time anyone spoiled her. It’s strange that it should be Dan. “Thanks,” she says as they clamber in.

  Outside, the wind howls down the man-made canyons of Manhattan while over the icy East River screeching seagulls bicker over scraps. Inside the overheated cab, Spark’s nose stays glued to the window. The Chrysler Building rises into a leaden sky and vanishes almost immediately as her sight line shifts, playing hide-and-seek with her as the cab makes its way downtown. As they head over the bridge toward Brooklyn, Spark looks back over her shoulder. It is a sight that will stay with her: the island of Manhattan at nightfall, a giant ship ablaze with lights, floating on a black sea. She thinks of Hawthorn Avenue in Mansfield, and Mum, alone, mashing tea under the fluorescent kitchen lighting while both her children are here, on the other side of the planet.

 
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