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XOR

By Andy Hedgecock

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INPUT A

Neil and Gayle are having their final argument on a warm spring evening, two days after the 1983 General Election. It’s eight o’clock, the light is fading and the park is almost empty. From the bench beneath the statue of Lord Stanley, 1799 to 1869, Gayle watches Neil stride down the stone steps and across the neatly mown grass of the terrace below. ‘You’re acting like a toddler,’ she calls after him, as he heads towards the river. He shouts something in reply, without turning, without missing a stride, but she can’t make out the words.

She feels beneath the bench for one of her high-top sneakers, and then crosses the gravel with fastidious steps to retrieve its twin from a wooden slatted litter bin. By the time she looks round, Neil has disappeared. The only figure in sight is a woman standing motionless on the path below, in front of the circular fountain to the left of where Neil has walked. Gayle peers at her. She wears a long, wrap coat, possibly blue – colours are fading to dusty pastels in the muted light, so it’s difficult to tell. The knee-length boots are a bit over-the-top for June, thinks Gayle. The woman waves. Gayle begins to raise her hand, quite automatically, and then stops herself. Who is she, she wonders. Am I supposed to know her?

Turning towards the river, the woman starts to walk away, and instantly vanishes. She doesn’t reach the fountain, she doesn’t leave the path and she doesn’t walk behind a bush. She is simply no longer there.

Gayle stares for a moment, tugs on her sneakers, then sets off to find Neil with her laces flapping. She heads wide of the fountain, towards the East Grotto and cuts down towards the river. There is no sign of the woman, and no sign of Neil. She hurries under the old rail bridge, past the Japanese rock garden. No Neil. She pauses for breath at the Boer War memorial, before jogging to the western edge of a grass amphitheatre. At the other side is a crumbling belvedere tattooed with graffiti: through one arch she sees an anarchist’s circled A, but no sign of Neil. She is about to cross the grass when she hears a raucous shout – a couple of lads in their teens are heading towards her, flourishing cans and bellowing inchoate greetings. Probably harmless, she thinks, but it’s getting dark, don’t run, walk briskly. She heads up the path towards the exit, her legs feeling shaky and her ears ringing. Stay calm, she tells herself.

As she walks back to the car park the street lights, tail-lights and headlights bleed into each other. She realises she is crying and hears her own shuddering breath above the traffic drone. Sinking into the front seat of her battered Peugeot, she slaps the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. She starts the engine. As she pushes a cassette into the tape player, Marc Almond sings: ‘It was a kind of so-so love, and I’m gonna make sure it doesn’t happen again.’

Gayle drives away unaware she has seen Neil for the last time. They are still avoiding each other when, two days later, he is hit and killed by a transit van while cycling to university to pick up the mark for his essay on visual perception.

OUTPUT A

Gayle sits in a conference chair in Joanne’s office. Her much younger boss performs the usual ritual with her foot, freeing her heel and letting her shoe swing on her toe. This is what happens when she comes to the ‘talking turkey’ phase of a supervision meeting. It’s the bit where consultation segues into bollocking.

‘Gayle, I think the team are taking the piss and letting you take the strain. Look at their performance over the past few weeks.’ She starts counting off their misdemeanours on her fingers: ‘The test version of the scoring module was a mess. Kerry’s coding was late and I’m not sure what Richard actually does these days. From what I’ve seen, his purpose in life is postponing client meetings, buying equipment of dubious value, and filing weekly expense claims.’

Gayle’s throat tightens as she fixates on Joanne’s swinging shoe. Her Development Director’s concern is well intentioned, but that somehow makes things worse.

‘It’s not easy being a new manager,’ Joanne leans towards Gayle and touches her arm. ‘In coding terms you’ve come to an XOR Gate: you can be their friend or you can be their manager, not both. But don’t worry; I’ll help you get the boundaries in place.’

As she trudges along the beech-floored corridor to the Web Application section, Gayle wonders if the game is up. She’s been at Westerman Psychometrics since returning to her Midlands hometown 15 years ago, and she’s starting to flounder. It’s been a struggle to get a management post, and if it doesn’t work out where else can she go at the age of fifty-one?

She walks through the office door and sees Kerry’s screen flip from a travel website to a Word document. Nick slams his desk drawer shut. ‘Like your hair,’ he says hurriedly. ‘The highlights suit you.’

Gayle ignores him and flops behind her twin-screened console. ‘Richard around?’

‘Working next door,’ mumbles Kerry between bites of an apple. ‘He says he’s going to pop in and surprise us with something.’

‘I used to like surprises,’ says Gayle. No response. Nick develops an intense interest in his screen and, Kerry’s fingers begin to clatter the keyboard.

Gayle opens her mail and reads a message from Rob, her ex. He wants to sell the house and split the proceeds. ‘I don’t want to stress you out,’ he says, ‘but I need to know you’re not dragging your feet’. She clicks ‘Reply’, and types ‘You can’t help it can you? Bullying is your default setting.’ She re-reads her comment, types ‘Arsehole’ and clicks ‘Send’. She deletes a string of emails selling courses, software and exhibition space, before noticing an email from her solicitor saying, ‘On no account should you communicate directly with Rob.’ And there’s also a message from Mel:

From: melanie.aickman@psy.ox.ac.uk

Subject: Catching up

Having a good week you old slapper? I’m at a conference up there in the land where the woolly mammoths roam in a couple of weeks – any chance of bed and breakfast?

Lots to catch up on, look forward to boring you face-to-face … Mel

Gayle smiles. Mel is her last link with a time of optimism and possibility. It was Mel – and Neil – who gave her a bit of confidence and a sense of adventure. She can imagine how Neil would have reacted to Joanne’s attempt at a motivational chat. He’d have laughed in her face and asked if lacking a soul had been an accident of birth or a career strategy.

She thinks about Neil from time-to-time – usually while trading drunken and conflicting reminiscences with Mel. Her sense of connection with her undergraduate self – the socialist worldview, the passion for Dada and The Clash, the faith that Artificial Intelligence was less than a winter away – has evaporated over the years, but the memory of her time with Neil is vivid. If she concentrates, she can almost see his face.

The door flies open and a Cyberman from the David Tennant era of Dr Who stomps into the room, arms stiff at its sides.

‘Morning boss,’ Richard’s voice rasps through the helmet’s voice modifier, ‘this is what I’m wearing for the learning technology exhibition.’

There’s a simmering pause as Kerry and Nick gawk at the Cyberman’s silver boots, faux-metallic shin guards, chaps, breastplate and helmet, with its neat, geometric features.

‘How much did that cost Richard?’ Gayle’s voice remains controlled. ‘More than the hire car you charged to us last month? More than the first class rail tickets?’

‘Four hundred. Cheaper to buy than hire and it’ll pay for itself,’ he replies in a humming, electronic monotone.

‘Will it really?’ Gayle walks away from Richard and yanks her scarf and wrap coat from the coat stand. ‘I’m off to get some lunch. I’ll be an hour at least. When I get back I expect this,’ she waves her hand at Richard’s silver plastic body armour, ‘to have been returned, or paid for with your own money.’ She barges past Richard and leaves the team in sullen silence.

She walks out of the building, over a pelican crossing and up well-worn steps to a narrow stone path between a renovated Victorian terrace and a Gothic church. As the winter sun casts shadows of the churchyard’s iron railings onto the Portland stone of the houses, Gayle glimpses a blue plaque: Home and laboratory of Dr Carl Eckhardt – but her attention is suddenly caught by something in the air at the far end of the pathway: it seems to be full of suspended opaque particles, drifting in all directions, back and forth, but confined to the exit of the walkway. It can’t be gnats at this time of year, she decides. As she approaches the exit, curiosity overpowers caution. She holds her left arm out in front of her face and steps from stone pathway to concrete pavement.

INPUT B

Suddenly it’s warm – so warm she has to slip off her coat – and Gayle is in a city 80 miles to the North West, outside a railway station. She recognises her location instantly – the place has hardly changed at all. The station clock reads four fifteen. She walks up the driveway onto one of the city’s two high streets and sees the independent bookshop. It ought not to be there, having been demolished to make way for a new mall more than five years ago. She remembers reading about the protests. She wanders in. A table of recent publications showcases The Color Purple, The House of the Spirits, Schindler’s Ark and Deadeye Dick. Gayle drifts out of the bookshop and is about to pass a newsagent’s when she sees a placard advertising The Sun. ‘The Great Maggie Massacre,’ it shrieks. On the shelf inside the door is a spread of front pages: ‘Landslide’, ‘144 Majority for Tories’, ‘Thatcher Hails a Massive Majority’. Suddenly feeling hot and dizzy, Gayle walks back into the street. She checks the time against a clock over a jeweller’s shop and strolls past half-remembered shopfronts rendered exotic by their drab simplicity and vague familiarity, until she comes to a store crammed with racks of new and second-hand LPs. She’s surprised by how little space there is for customers to navigate past each other in the aisles. She flips through the racks, the polythene protective covers emitting the distinctive tang, faintly like petrol, that she hasn’t smelled in years.

A couple of hours later, after the shops have closed, she walks into the park in which she spent so many hours as a student. She walks down to the river, passing dog walkers enjoying the pale late afternoon sunshine. Later, as the light begins to dip, she finds herself near the fountain with four baroque figures representing the classical elements. He’s there already: she can hear the crisp echo of his voice across the terrace on this clear and still spring evening. And she can see him with that self-righteous girl beneath the Lord Stanley Statue. Behind the statue is the lowering gothic edifice of the Park Hotel.

*

The girl with the shock of scarlet hair, buzz-cut at the sides, slumps onto the bench and unlaces her sneakers. She kicks one off and leaves the other dangling from her toes. Neil leans down, grabs the shoe from her foot, and tosses it towards a litter bin halfway down the gravel path. As it hits the rim and drops into the empty wooden cylinder, Neil punches the air triumphantly and acknowledges the applause of an imagined audience.

‘Childish,’ she laughs. ‘Now get it back, I bet that bin stinks.’

‘In a minute,’ Neil flops back onto the bench. ‘You can’t escape without your shoe, and we need to talk.’

The girl clambers on top of him and, with her legs astride his, leans down as if to kiss him, then snatches her face away at the last moment. ‘So what do you want to talk about?’ she asks, looking down at him with a smirk and expecting him to pull her back towards him.

Neil frowns. ‘What are we going to do after graduation?’

‘I told you, I’ve got the postgrad offers from Edinburgh and Brighton and a couple of interviews. It all depends how I did in my finals.’

‘I don’t suppose I’ll see much of you once you move away.’

‘Look Neil, I wish... I wish you didn’t have another year to go,’ she takes his face in her hands. ‘But we’ll survive, you know. You’re just feeling miserable because Maggie Hatchet’s back in Number Ten.’

He stares at her: ‘Shall l tell you what I wish?’

*

Gayle is hiding behind the fountain to stay out of the couple’s sightline. As the quarrel unfolds she stares at an ornately carved woman whose stone feet have been eroded by decades of cascading water. She hears her younger self call, ‘You’re acting like a toddler’, as Neil walks away from her, across the grass. Neil’s mumbled response drowns in the gentle trickle of the fountain. She makes out the words ‘Jealousy about mean fashion’. But neither of them cared about clothes. Neil walks past the fountain without seeing her and veers left into the gazebo. As he does so, she walks from her hiding place towards Lord Stanley’s terrace.

*

Even though she was expecting Neil to walk away from the girl with scarlet hair, Gayle is shaken by the spectacle. And the shock prompts memories. She had just retrieved her shoes, including the one from the bin. Converse All Star, with a neat black line around the sole. Her pride and joy – she had splashed out on them, along with a couple of LPs, when Neil had disappeared for several days after an earlier row. And she recalls having to borrow a few quid for the rent from Mel that month. Now Neil had stormed off again, but then that woman had appeared from behind the fountain, and started walking across the grass towards her. She remembers how her hands had shaken as she tugged on her sneakers and surreptitiously glanced towards the advancing stranger, an older woman whose winter coat and boots looked ridiculous in that weather. She stopped at the base of the steps, ten feet below her. Then suddenly a new memory. The woman shouting: ‘He’s over there, behind the trees. He’s in the gazebo.’

OUTPUT B

Over lunch, Neil and Gayle have been discussing plans for their twentieth wedding anniversary break in Vienna. The coffee hasn’t arrived and Neil is anxious about getting back to work on time. ‘I’m going to have to bolt,’ he says, ‘and you’re going to have to drink two macchiatos.’

‘The upside of being lumbered with morning lectures this term is I don’t have to face cognitive science Year One after lunch,’ says Gayle. ‘Getting anything worthwhile out of that lot is like stirring cement. They remind me of you at that age.’

Neil grins. ‘Well, some of us have proper jobs and a proper chance of redundancy, so I’ll make a move.’

‘I’m feeling so sorry for you I might have to cheer myself up with a visit to The Contemporary. There’s a new show on: the early ‘80s. Our era.’

‘Thatcher’s era,’ he corrects her. ‘If you go via the alley near St Mary’s, have a gander at the Eckhardt house, it’s acquired a blue plaque. There’s a consortium trying to buy the place and open it as a museum, but the family are dragging their heels, apparently.’

Half an hour later Gayle leaves the restaurant and takes the short cut to the gallery, along the narrow stone path between the renovated Victorian terrace and the Gothic church. As she walks in the winter sunshine, between black iron railings on her left, and Portland stone on her right, she sees the blue plaque Neil mentioned: Home and laboratory of Dr Carl Eckhardt – philosopher and pioneer in high energy physics.

A faint movement at the edge of her vision distracts her from the plaque. There is a disturbance in the air ahead of her, a flickering moiré pattern of floating specks. It can’t be gnats at this time of year, she decides, and continues to make for the end of the pathway.

INPUT A’

As the couple walk towards the bench every word they say falls into place like the dialogue of a favourite film. But Gayle struggles to recall the detail of events until they actually occur. She fixates on a weathered stone figure at the base of the fountain, straining to remember the words that sparked the row, but failing. For a moment Gayle wonders why she is waiting in the wings: why shouldn’t she walk past them or even sit on the adjacent bench? She knows that would be stupid, but her overwhelming sense of familiarity with the events of that night troubles her. She thinks, If I’m by the fountain, and she’s in front of the statue, where’s the other one? Where’s the woman I saw? Was she really in this park, on this evening, watching this couple?

All she knows for certain is that the overdressed woman plays a decisive role in her life. And here I am, wearing a coat and boots in May. Suddenly she knows what she has to do.

She peeks past the plinth and sees them: Neil and her younger self sit beneath the Lord Stanley Statue. The younger Gayle begins to unlace her sneakers…

*

‘Shall l tell you what I wish?’

‘What?’ her voice falters.

‘I wish you weren’t so eager to suck up to the suits. You’ll throw everything else away for a so-called good job – you’ll throw me away. You used to have ideas of your own. I suppose we’re coming to a dead end.’

She rolls off him and sits on the bench. ‘I know you’re stressed Neil, but that’s really unfair. I don’t want to end up on the dole, I have to make a living somehow.’

He glances at her: ‘I think Melanie brings out the worst in you. In a few months you’ll be a pair of big-haired, careerist bitches with fat Filofaxes, shoulder pads and no sense of morality.’

‘Don’t be a tosser, Neil.’ Gayle turns away from him and stares at the river. ‘Since we’re being honest, my wish is that you’d show a bit of enthusiasm for something. Your course, your friends, me? Even your politics are a pose. You call me immoral... Remind me who marched on the Falklands rally last year, while her boyfriend was at a football match. You’re drifting, you’re passionless...’

*

The middle-aged woman behind the fountain can tell the quarrel is coming to the boil so she abandons her hiding place and heads towards them. Neil has already reached the bottom of the steps and is setting out across the grass. She hears her younger self shout, ‘You’re acting like a toddler’.

Neil laughs and, as he walks away he mumbles: ‘Ask Melanie about me and passion, see what she thinks.’

The woman with the blonde highlights and wrap overcoat freezes until her younger self looks down from the terrace. Then, in the silence between them, the most she can bring herself to do is wave.

OUTPUT A’

In Joanne’s office, Gayle watches as her boss frees the heel of her right shoe and lets it swing it from her toe.


© Copyright Andy Hedgecock, 2017. All rights reserved.