The Mirror, Malcolm & Me

It’s probably up there with one of the weirdest things that has happened to me. But then when you consider all the possible things in the world likely to happen, maybe it was pretty ordinary.

It happened just after I broke up with Emma. Well, actually she broke up with me. People talk about how they end up in a relationship, or a marriage, or a home, with a mortgage and kids and everything and they don’t quite know how. They don’t remembering saying yes to any of it. They just sort of went with it. And that’s how I ended up sharing a mortgage with Emma. I say a mortgage, because I’m not sure we shared anything else. We didn’t have much in common. There were things she didn’t want to do with me and I didn’t want to do with her. But you convince yourself that that doesn’t matter because plenty of couples don’t have anything in common. Forgetting that those couples share something else, they love each other despite missing all the obvious things.

I’m pretty sure I loved Emma. At some point anyway. I definitely cared for her a lot, and there was a moment when that could have been considered love. But I didn’t love her, want to spend the rest of my life with her, want to have kids with her. Actually, I’m not even sure I always enjoyed being around her. Our first few months together had been pretty great. But the moment came when we should have broken up, and it didn’t happen. Laziness on my part possibly. Then I just started saying yes to things, and somehow ended up living in a semi-detached house with a mortgage and a woman who I kind of thought of as a roommate.

When Emma broke up with me her main argument was that I didn’t care, I didn’t care about anything. About her, our home, anything. And she was right. In stories like this you hear about the woman manipulating the guy into a home and marriage and kids. But I can say, hand on heart, that this was all my fault. She came up with ideas and I said yes. She can hardly be blamed for that. It was actually an incredible relief when she broke up with me, and for a moment we basked in that relief. I really thought we were going to end on really simple, amicable terms. But then things got dirty. Not the sexy kind, the ‘here’s all the horrible things you did to me’ kind. Suddenly we’d gone from amicable to me being the worst kind of man because I’d lied to her, and promised her things I wasn’t prepared to give. Which isn’t exactly true, I think she was imagining all these things I’d promised. I’m definitely blaming her for that one. Then one thing led to another and I got very mad that she was laying this stupid-ass year and a half at my feet. She had dragged us into this, sure I’d said yes, but didn’t she have a part in it too? Yeah, I’m aware of how bad I sound right now.

It escalated short and sharply, which is good, because on the whole I don’t like arguments. Who does though, really? She left. And I was alone in a house I wasn’t sure I liked. I’d got a bit drunk and a bit mad and then I was in the bathroom gesturing and yelling wildly at the new bathroom suite. The one she had bought for a rock bottom price and which I had to magically learn to fit. Why do women think that guys know how to do this stuff? Anyway, people talk about how learning things like this can give you a sense of accomplishment. But, honestly, it just really pissed me off. I’d spent weeks and weeks on the thing, with scars and bruises to prove it, and she’d just watched. She was very happy that she’d already done the hard work by getting us such a great deal. I loathed that bathroom. And I decided to tell it what I thought of it. The fight ended quickly, because I decided to punch through the mirrored cabinet. Who knew you could injure yourself so badly, and so quickly? I don’t even have a temper, it was just grumpiness fuelled by a sense of drama. At first I thought I could get away with it, but then I sobered up, and there was blood literally pumping out of my hand. So I wrapped it in a towel, because that’s what you’re supposed to do I guess. I remembered something about keeping it raised and then I walked to the hospital. The hospital is quite close, this isn’t as weird as it sounds.

At the hospital A & E I was seen quite quickly by a doctor, which I thought was great, no waiting times for me. But he was just there to assess me, then I was sent back out into the waiting room. That’s where I met Malcolm. It kind of took me a while to notice him, which is weird, looking back on it. But I was probably out of it. He was lying on a row of chairs. It wasn’t very busy. And he was handcuffed to a radiator. Not to the wall, but to a disconnected radiator, like the one you might have in your bedroom.

Now the first thing you’re going to ask is, well, if he was handcuffed to a radiator why didn’t someone cut him free? Why didn’t they do it at whatever house he was at where the radiator doubtlessly belonged? You’re also going to ask, well, if the radiator isn’t attached to the wall how could he still be handcuffed to it. Well, here’s how it goes. Malcolm was handcuffed to the piece of pipe that was connected to the radiator, a piece that had been curled in on itself in a makeshift fashion. And I do mean purposefully, like someone had done it with some pliers. He had the other arm lying over his eyes in some sort of ‘woe is me’ fashion.

He must have sort of sensed me watching him because he looked over. To be fair we were probably the last people in there. It was a sunny day, early evening, and I think people are generally less likely to want to be ill on a day like that. He turned his head toward me and said ‘hey’. Just that, ‘hey!’. I said ‘hi’. Then he turned his body toward me and said ‘your arm? Is it going to be okay?’. At this point I thought he was sort of crazy so I just shrugged him off and said something like ‘yeah, fine’. But while he was weary, he was actually intent on talking to me. Great I thought, I was now stuck talking to the crazy guy. ‘How did you do it?’ he asked. ‘Mirror?’ I volunteered. I really wasn’t sure how to explain myself. ‘You punched a mirror?’ he asked, still weary, like he was half-asleep. I jumped a bit at this, like how the hell did he figure that out? But then how else do you hurt yourself with a mirror? ‘Um, maybe’ I said. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Okay, yeah’ I said. I sort of looked down at the floor, it was becoming kind of obvious that I was embarrassed about it. But, still, he continued. ‘Woman?’ he said, ‘or man?’ he volunteered politely. This all seemed pretty weird, I don’t know why, maybe because a man handcuffed to a radiator was asking me such matter of fact, and sort of normal questions. He was handcuffed to a radiator! How was this not a thing he was paying attention to? I gave in, I wasn’t going to see the guy again, what the hell, right? I started with the getting drunk and punching the mirror, then everything else. Everything about Emma just spilled out in one long rant.

He just watched me, calmly, while I went through everything. Still lying there, arm laying absently across his forehead. When I finished, apologising for going on for so long, he turned his head and looked up at the ceiling. He sighed, then said ‘life can be difficult. But sometimes you just have to feel it, don’t you?’. I’m not sure if it was what he said, or the way he said it, but suddenly I felt less embarrassed. I decided to strike while I could, but then I stopped myself. I had no right to know why the guy was attached to a radiator. Just because I’d given him so much information about myself didn’t entitle me to know more about him. He must have guessed what I was thinking. ‘It’s okay, you can ask’ he said, still staring at the ceiling. ‘Ask about what?’ I asked, kind of tentatively because I was sort of embarrassed again. ‘This’ he said, and pointed to the arm dangling by his side. I pondered this and said ‘only if you want to, you know, talk about it’. ‘It’s okay’ he said, ‘you don’t get to walk around handcuffed to a radiator without getting used to talking about’. ‘Well’ I said ‘how did it happen?’. He turned to me and raised an eyebrow. ‘This didn’t happen’ he said slowly ‘I did this’. ‘Okay’ I said, ‘why did you do this?’, I pointed to the radiator with my good arm. ‘It is a story both long and short’ he said. ‘What’s the long?’ I asked, I was bored with sitting at this point and up for a story. ‘The long’ he said, returning his gaze to the ceiling ‘is that true happiness warrants sacrifices’. I didn’t know what to do with this. ‘And the short?’ I asked. ‘Love hurts’ he responded. This wasn’t really getting me anywhere.

I had settled myself with the fact that there was a greater story going on beyond what Malcolm was saying, and if I didn’t get to hear it that was okay. He looked so weary but strangely serene, I was in so much pain and so exhausted. His calmness and the silence between us was all I needed right then. Like when you have a terrible headache and all the noise just goes away.

We sat like that for a while. Well, I sat, and he lay looking up at the ceiling. I know what you’re thinking. What a self-indulgent man he must have been, lying there in his private lovelorn state. But more than anything I think he was just tired. Tired of whatever was going through his mind, tired of lugging around a heavy metal radiator maybe. Probably a combination of the two. After a while they took me into the emergency room properly, then I was carted upstairs to have some stitches put in my arm. After the long wait, and then again upstairs where I got my stitches, it was gone ten by the time I walked out of the hospital. They’d given me some things that had dulled the pain, but I had the feeling whatever they’d given me to take home, it was co-codamol, wasn’t going to be as good. It never is. But my head was clear when I walked past the entrance to the emergency room. Clear enough that now I really wanted to know what Malcolm was doing with that radiator.

I wandered in and he was still lying there. I sat across from him and he turned and looked at me. ‘Still here?’ I said, ‘has no one seen you yet?’. ‘And what do you think they might treat me for?’ he asked. I shrugged, not sure what to say. Well, actually I knew exactly what to say. ‘Why are you attached a radiator? And why are you in the emergency room?’ I said all this very slowly like I was just figuring out the words as they came out of my mouth. ‘And why are you still here?’ I followed up. He was silent for a moment, long enough to be noticeable. ‘What time is it?’ he asked. I stared at him for a moment, then up at the clock on the wall. ‘Just gone ten’ I said. ‘Time to go home’ he said, sitting up. ‘Oh, I said’ standing, seeing an end to this mystery. ‘Do you have to go far?’ I asked. ‘Just around the corner’ he said, standing and stretching. I looked down at the radiator. ‘Do you need a hand’ I asked ‘with, er, that’ and I pointed down at it, like it was some alien creature. ‘No, no, I’m used to it now’ he said, picking it up in his arms and sort of cradling it. To be fair it wasn’t all that big, just heavy I suppose. I’d given up at this point. The man mustered up some kind of aggressive politeness in me and I didn’t want to ask any more questions so I just said ‘I live around the corner, mind if I walk with you?’. ‘Well, that would be lovely’ he said. He smiled wearily. But really kindly, so I could tell he wasn’t just being polite. Then the two of us just walked out of the emergency room.

It was a lovely night, it really was. The sky wasn’t quite black, you could still that lovely midnight blue on the horizon. That kind of warm evening that makes you think of barbeques and beer gardens and all that good stuff. It sounds terrible to me, and it probably does to you to, but I was really glad Emma was gone. No, that actually is terrible, isn’t it? Because I had willingly sort of fooled her into thinking I was this guy, and I wasn’t that guy. I felt kind of ashamed to be honest. But I was really glad I could go home to an empty house.

Malcolm and I walked in complete silence. We both had that warm exhausted glow. We somehow ended up walking towards my house. I couldn’t be bothered to ask if he lived the same way. Eventually we passed by a house with a skip out front. An old skip by the looks of it, filled with the litter of a thousand McDonalds wrappers. Malcolm stopped and turned to me and placed the radiator down between us. ‘It was very nice to meet you’ he said and he put out his hand and shook mine very gently. But firmly y’know? It was a really considered handshake. I stood there for a moment not knowing what to do. Until, eventually, he spoke.

‘I’m Malcolm’ he said. ‘I’m Adam’ I responded. Well, obviously that’s what I said, but it was kind of an unusual dramatic moment and I wanted to get that across. ‘A word of advice Adam’ he said, gazing up at the house. I know he sounds overly dramatic, but he really was a very earnest man. ‘If you love someone, look after them, and that love’. I nodded, now really not sure what to say. It wasn’t that it was a very intimate thing to say or anything, but I was feeling guilty about the whole Emma thing still. ‘Because’ he looked at me sternly ‘when they’re gone there’s very little you can do to get them back’. He fixed my gaze. ‘That woman who made you do that?’ he pointed toward my arm ‘did you love her, really love her?’. I shook my head, sort of shamefaced. I looked up at him, at this point he seemed like the wisest man I’d ever met, he had a real quality about him, like a Buddhist monk. No, it wasn’t just the drugs, and I was totally sober by this point. ‘When you do find her’ he looked up into the sky ‘you look after her and it. Don’t risk that happiness, because if you do’ he trailed off here and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he turned his head and smiled at me. He leaned in. ‘Don’t make foolish mistakes’, he said. Then he turned and headed into the house. He didn’t turn back and say goodbye or anything.

I started walking home, realising I didn’t know anything about the radiator or him. But that sort of didn’t matter. You can probably guess by now that I still think a lot about him and what he said. At first I thought his advice was don’t be an asshole, go back and patch things up with Emma. But that would have been quite ridiculous, and I think he was a lot smarter than that. I think his advice was just, don’t be foolish about love. Yeah things were never going to work with Emma, but maybe one day I would meet someone and I should pay attention to how I feel. Not just go along for the ride. Which I’d always thought, if I loved someone, I wouldn’t. But it’s important to be reminded. I think the lesson also was don’t be an over dramatic idiot over this thing with Emma. It was a relationship that hadn’t worked out, and the whole getting a house thing had been rash and stupid. But it wasn’t the end of the world. What he was going through, that looked like the end of the world. He looked so sad and so tired. My stupid several beer self-indulgent punch through the bathroom mirror was pretty daft in comparison. Malcolm looked so average, he could have been anyone. He was in his fifties, normal body and looks, but a bit skinny and thinning on top. But there was something about him, the honesty of him that made me think he’d worked it all out. That made me kind of sad for whatever he was going through, that he’d worked it out to late.

I was single for about two years after that. I’ve dated a bit recently, but I don’t make a big deal about finding someone anymore. I can tell by the look on your face now you’re not interested in that, you’re wondering what Malcolm’s radiator was all about? Aren’t you? Well, actually, I did find out in the end. It’s kind of obvious really though, so it might be a bit disappointing. But if you really want to know maybe you want to see me again? Maybe for a drink? Tomorrow? I know, I know, that’s a crap line. But you seem nice. And Malcolm, well, it’s a great story.

Keywords: Mirror, towel, and radiator.

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