By Louis Malloy
Ed had kept his eye close to the telescope for two months now and the silent pictures of family life surprised him nearly every day. He thought that he felt concern. Not so much for the children, who were just obstacles in the lives of their parents and reasons in many ways for the crisis. With the man and woman it went much deeper. He tried not to put one above the other, but he saw the drama as revolving around John. John was the one with the farthest to travel.
Seven o'clock was a good time to watch, as everyone had finished dinner by then, including Ed. He turned off all the upstairs lights, went up to the back bedroom and stood close to the curtain, aiming the telescope at John and Jane's kitchen. There were two rooms visible, the kitchen and the back downstairs room where they ate, though he didn't know whether they were really grand enough to call it the dining room. In this room he could see the whole family together, eating and arguing, but in the kitchen it was just John and Jane, washing up. It was good that they at least did that together. When he had first focussed in on them he had decided that the husband was some kind of boor, an oaf. He had never quite found the word. Most of the time John didn't say much and when he did there was never a smile. Worse, he made faces behind his wife's back. She would be standing at the sink and acting quite normally as a wife might be expected to act, just talking, Ed supposed, about her day or about what the plans were for tomorrow. John would grimace behind her. Sometimes when he was moving across the kitchen to put away a pile of plates he would come up close and bare his teeth. Sometimes he made gestures which betrayed such frustration, such doomful anger, that Ed worried he would do himself some damage. A hard slap against his forehead, a weird contortion of the face. Once he put down the handful of cutlery he was carrying and grabbed hold of his neck, squeezing the flesh and looking completely piteous, like a terrified child. Ed could see that there were actually tears in his eyes.
The telescope was that good. Ed had found it in a cupboard in his parents' house after his father had died. There were other pieces of his childhood in there too but the telescope was the only thing worth keeping. Originally it had been bought when Ed was learning about astronomy at school. He realised now that it wasn't really good enough to be used for that purpose, but as an observational tool it was excellent. Every time he looked into a house he was slightly startled by how close everything and everyone was. Faces which could be up to fifty yards away were clear enough to be recognised in the street the next day. At the moment he was focusing on a flower in a pot on the window-sill of John and Jane's kitchen. He had come to think of it as a crocus. The shape and the colour of the flower were very clear, it was only his ignorance that made him guess at the name. But crocus was as good a name as any, just as John and Jane were. He hadn't given the children names. They were just the children, the causes of arguments. It was all about the unhappy couple.
Ed waited for the ritual of the washing-up to begin. He moved the telescope along to other windows. No-one interested him as much as John and Jane but occasionally there would be a brief scene played out which could hold his attention. Usually it had to involve two people, because then he could imagine the dialogue. With one person it was not likely to be so different to what might go on his own house. Of course there was occasional nudity and that was hard to resist. There was a house far to the right, the upstairs landing window only just visible, where he had seen a woman come out of the bathroom several times. She would be wearing a white towel, brushing her hair and drinking what looked like red wine, and she would eventually take off the towel and put it on a radiator. For two seconds Ed would frame the rear view in the telescope's circle, then she would disappear again. It wasn't an obsession, but he knew that Tuesdays and Fridays were bath nights.
No such thoughts delayed him when he was watching John and Jane. In the back windows bedroom windows the curtains were always drawn well before dark. In any case Jane didn't interest him that way. She was a determined-looking, organised woman, caring for her two kids and probably struggling with John, so there was no time for her to walk around in towels. Ed watched her organising now, piling the dishes to the left of the sink, plates together, cutlery together and pans filled with hot water to soak before the final wash. John brought things through from the back room. He looked relieved every time he went in there, enjoying the brief solitude, then he came back into the kitchen, carrying dishes which he put down alongside Jane's neat piles, glancing at her sometimes like a resentful pet, not scared but expecting to be kicked.
Jane talked. She talked an awful lot for someone who was getting so few replies. John wiped. He put plates straight into the cupboard and clean glasses onto the work surface which Jane had cleared. It all worked well, except for the people. Maybe they had once enjoyed this time together; it might have been a pleasant chore, a communal twenty minutes. He couldn't believe that it was still so and as if to prove him right, John walked behind Jane and gave her one of his looks. Teeth clenched and head shaking rapidly. He mouthed something. Jane was still talking, so he can't have made a sound. Ed thought he had said 'shut up', half-a-dozen times.
At some point during the next ten minutes, it occurred to Ed that he must help. He wanted to tell Jane that maybe she shouldn't talk so much or at least stop and give John a chance to say something. He wanted her to get an idea, however hard it would be to accept, of the things beneath the surface. But it was John he would have to talk to, he knew that. You couldn't approach a woman and start discussing such personal matters. It would be difficult enough with a man, but possible at least. It had to be done.
On Monday morning he had the telescope up at half-past seven. He watched breakfast. The children walked around, packing bags, talking to their mother. John came to collect his keys and at this point Ed moved quickly. Even though he was on their street in no more than a minute, John was already in the car, backing out of the drive. Ed waited, holding up a few cars behind him. When John started out on the road, Ed tried to stay a car behind.
Ed drove to a public car-park and then walked around town. He didn't know much about how things worked in offices but couldn't believe they would go for lunch before twelve. He browsed in bookshops and record-shops. He spent a few hours reading the beginnings and ends of novels and parts of a tragic biography. He went to the library and read through the papers and even serious magazines which he wouldn't normally look at. He committed facts to memory, nothing that he really needed but solid information which made him feel better about himself anyway. Then he bought a sandwich and went back to John's building. He had to walk up and down the street several times, but there were plenty of office workers around and he was dressed well enough to look like one. There were people walking alone, he noticed that. Almost as many wandering alone as there were in groups.
He hoped that John wouldn't be eating at his desk or in a canteen. At breakfast when the children took their sandwiches from Jane, there had been none for John. But that didn't mean he might not buy his lunch and eat inside. By twelve-thirty Ed was about to get nervous. But then John came out. His face was the same as it was through the telescope. Unremarkable, but- as Ed saw it- a little too gaunt and a little too pale.
Ed followed at a distance. After a few hundred yards he realised they were going to the sea. That was just right; it was where Ed would have gone himself to eat his sandwich. But he would have stopped earlier, closer to the pier and the shops, maybe using one of the deckchairs. John walked on for fifteen minutes, up the hill, away from the crowds and towards the small golf-course. Ed stayed a long way back now. Finally John stopped and leaned on a railing on the promenade. Ed stopped fifty yards away. He looked out to sea as well. Then he took out his sandwich and ate, turned at enough of an angle to be able to keep John, unmoving, in the corner of his vision.
He couldn't wait too long. He hadn't really planned anything; he had been comfortable with the idea that this was just a dummy run and that there would be time to do this again, but there wasn't. This was the time. He was scared and thrilled all at once and he finished his sandwich, drank his can of orange, dumped the rubbish in a bin and walked along the promenade towards John.
He thought that he would just start with "Hi". There was no easy way to approach someone who was meant to be a stranger and try to help him. When he was within a few yards, he was still un-noticed. John had his eyes half-closed and his mouth open, breathing in the sea air so hard and fast that Ed wondered whether he was feeling faint.
The realisation of his mistake made him jump and he almost apologised. But that would make it worse. Maybe John hadn't even heard.
"Hi," said Ed.
"Hi. Did you say John? My name's not John."
That was Ed's cue to move away, but he didn't.
"Hell of a breeze."
John looked at him. Ed was glad that he still didn't know his real name as that might have confused things even more. It was more comfortable thinking of him as plain John.
John looked stern and turned to the sea again. Ed leaned against the rail, still several yards away.
"Always relaxing, coming here. I don't think there's anything as calming as the sea. It's just the space I suppose." Ed was rambling but he had to keep it going. "Not even being in the Alps or the desert can beat it for that." He laughed. "Not that I've been to the Alps. Or the desert. Unless you count a stopover on a plane in Cairo."
He moved his eyes to the left to try and judge John's reaction. There was nothing, so he carried on.
"But it's a lovely place to come for a lunchtime. To relax, get away from it all."
"I'm not gay," he said, not looking at Ed. "If that's what you're thinking."
"Oh no. No, no. "Ed laughed again. He had a good laughed and he knew it sounded genuine and friendly. He used it to make people relax and it usually worked, but this was a tough one. "Sorry. This isn't a pick-up. Though I can see why you might think that. Really. I'm just here for the fresh air."
John grunted in a way that expressed no obvious meaning, but he didn't walk away.
"Who did you think I was then," he said after a while.
"No-one in particular."
"So why did you call me John?"
"I thought that might be your name. You look like a John. I do that sometimes, guess people's names."
John did look at him now. He raised his eyebrows in what was probably sympathy. He looked as though he was ready to go.
"It sounds odd, I know, " said Ed. "It is odd. But I'm a good reader of people."
"Right." John's expression was now somewhere between pity and contempt.
"You're married, aren't you?"
It's okay," said Ed. "And it's not a gay thing, really. But you are."
"Brilliant," said John, holding up the finger with his wedding ring on it.
"Okay." Ed did the laugh again. "Fair enough. But kids. Two kids."
John nodded. "Better."
"Boy and girl."
He nodded again. He waited.
"Look," said Ed, "I know this is weird. But I can read people. And I only want to help. Things aren't great at home."
The signs of a smile which had been showing disappeared from John's face.
"Sorry," said Ed. "That sounds blunt. I mean things aren't terrible, they're not beyond repair. But they are bad. Between you and your wife really, but that affects everything else. Things are bad."
"You're still guessing. Say any marriage is bad and you're at least fifty percent likely to be right."
"You're not a bad husband. She's not a bad wife. But you don't get on like you should. She talks. You have to listen. And you hate listening all the time. You want solitude, space. That's why you're here."
John was frowning now. He was ready to hear more.
"She makes you angry. Not with anything particular. Just by being how she is. Talking and organising things and taking charge. You don't hit her. But you know what it feels like to want to do something like that. You want to shout right up close to her face. You want to shake her. You need to stop yourself. You have to get your anger out some other way. You hit yourself sometimes."
"Is this mind-reading? Some kind of trickery? It's good, I'll give you that." John's voice was weaker and he looked bewildered.
"It's not a trick. I just read people. It's like I can see them elsewhere. You and your wife in the house, not talking properly. Doing normal things but without intimacy. Your eyes burning into her while she's talking, not looking at you. Everything annoying you, making you angry. Nothing really as you want it to be. No space."
"Right." John shrugged and now his sad eyes looked at the floor as if he'd been found out and there was nothing that could be done about it. "Okay. You're right."
"It's not a trick. And I'm not accusing you. But you need to talk. To your wife. You need to talk."
"I don't know."
"Nothing too heavy. Just normal things. Something about your day. About her day. All you need is a small breakthrough." Ed had read this kind of thing in self-help books which he sometimes browsed in the library. It seemed like common sense. It could do no harm. "Just talk and see how far it gets you. If you don't then this could just go on and on. You'll be unhappy. You're already unhappy and it will get no better."
"Right." John's voice was a whisper now. "How did you know? Really?"
"I just do. I don't know how." Ed was almost believing himself. "What I do know is that you're having problems. But you're a good man. You can pull through."
Ed decided he should go now. He didn't want to get too far into this. Although he felt ecstatic, he had to keep control of himself.
"I wish you luck," he said.
"Will I see you again?" said John.
"I don't think you'll need to," said Ed.
It would be a risk, meeting again as if it was some kind of therapy session. He realised it was already a risk if John saw him in the neighbourhood. He had never seen John or Jane out, but that kind of luck might not last. He wondered if he should even move house. It was extreme, but he didn't want this to be ruined. For John's sake, John and Jane's, as much as his own.
"Good luck, again," said Ed. He turned slowly and walked away.
Ed turned again.
"Am I what John?" He spoke as kindly as he could. He could imagine himself as a priest.
"Are you some kind of guardian angel?"
Ed smiled at the man with the face so full of sadness and hope. He almost felt a light shine around him. He wished that he could do something magical, like disappear into the sunlight. But he just laughed.
"Just here to help John."
Then he walked off. He would turn away from the promenade soon and John would look down the streets to get a final sight of him. Ed felt mysterious and powerful. Tonight he would probably watch again and see if things had changed. He walked on through the town back to his car and he smiled all the way. He felt that he was good now. A good man, in a way that he hadn't been good before. He would stop watching the woman who came out of the bath in a towel, but he would keep on using the telescope.