Saturday 24 June 2023

Saturday Sample:The Art of Losing by Paul Williams, cheap fizz,


Happy Birthday Frank


He arrived at five on a Sunday morning. Haggard from the long haul flight from Brisbane, he stumbled through the mazes of the underground, dragged his suitcase with the broken handle along interminable tunnels of concrete. The last thing he expected at the bottom of a long escalator at Victoria Station was a knot of men and women at the tail end of an all-night party. Each carried a pink and silver heart-shaped balloon. He tried to slide past but a man handed him a balloon, with HAPPY BIRTHDAY FRANK printed on one side.

‘Who’s Frank?’ he asked.

‘You are. Happy birthday, Frank.’

He held the balloon tight, and it pulled against him in the draught of the arched ceiling.

On the Northern Line to Tooting Bec, he gripped the balloon’s pink string with one hand and hugged the suitcase with the other. The balloon bobbed against the roof of the carriage.

The Tube had its rules: no one smile, no one make eye contact, no one intrude into personal space, even if your nose is in their armpit. Fortunately a December Sunday morning meant room for all.  The passengers sat in a row opposite him, and rocked themselves to sleep to the rhythm of the train. Some read The Metro, the free newspaper that littered the carriage.  Some stared past him through the window at the passing stations, their pupils dancing left and right as if they were having a petit mal fit. A woman directly opposite him in tight black clothes (nothing unusual—everyone wore black) looked up at the balloon and then down at him. Smiled.  Closed her eyes.

She had a mouth like a shrew, wore black eyeliner and mauve lipstick, displayed glitter black fingernails, and sported a short black dress. Tight black stockings emerged from tight black knee high boots. She had dressed up for the ride. A Tube Rider. She looked older than he, in her late twenties, at least. Her skin revealed her Englishness—that is to say, underbelly toad white and unblemished by sun or wrinkles.

She opened her eyes. He stared at the Tube map above her head, counting how many stops he had to go. 22. 21. 20.

But her eyes focused on the balloon. She mouthed the words, Happy Birthday Frank. He  adjusted his suitcase and transferred the balloon to his left hand.

      At her station, Clapham South, she stood, held the strap above his seat and lurched toward him as the train screeched to a grinding stop. She leaned over him and mouthed the words again, this time aloud: ‘Happy Birthday Frank.’ He stared at her shoulders and hair as she stepped out of the train and past his window. Their eyes met. He waved. She waved back with two fingers and turned the corner.


The deal was this: he was to inhabit the flat in Tooting Bec for a week of London culture and adventure; his cousin would take his cottage in Northern New South Wales for a week of summer by the Pacific Ocean.

His cousin had the better end of the deal by far. The subterranean London flat reeked of mould. Once the four storey building had been a Victorian mansion, he guessed, but had since been divided into four vertical apartments, and the old servants’ quarters below the level of the street had been converted into a granny flat. His ceiling was so low, he could flatten his palm against it when he stood, and all evening, neighbours creaked like elephants above him. This flat could fit into his modest living room at home.  Nevertheless, this was London, the flat within walking distance to a Tube stop, and he could have—as his brother said—an adventure.

Life. Experience The Big City. The people. Maybe you’ll meet someone. And don’t forget to bolt and latch the front door every time.

He let the balloon go at last. It rose slowly to the ceiling, and hid in the corner of the room, its string dangling on the couch.


He was not interested in buildings and shows and history. People fascinated him. And the best place to see people was on the Tube. He had bought a week travel card (Off Peak), and planned to spend most of his days underground.

He hoped to bump into the woman he had encountered on that first Tube ride from the airport. Fat chance of that. How many millions of people traversed this city every day? He saw many doubles, triples, quadruples of her, of course—women in tight black skirts, black stockings, boots, and tight mouths. But not her. 

He gave her a name—Emily. She looked like an Emily. He took it from the Simon and Garfunkel CD he found in his cousin’s CD collection.  For Emily wherever I may find her—a fragment of a song, a haunting dream, and images of hair on a pillow, dark alleyways, church bells ringing.

Happy Birthday Frank. The way her eyes smiled. The way she spoke, in a husky collusive whisper. The way she turned her head, as if in slow motion, and the wave—two fingers, signifying something. Her face, her smile, her gestures burned into the retina of his memory, and, surprisingly, into his heart. He played that brief scenario over and over in his mind.  In his dreams, he felt the shadow of her face over him as she bent down, he felt her hair tickle his face, and he felt her kiss. He could even hear her voice, husky, low.  Happy Birthday Frank.  But he woke up cold and bereft.

What if he had run after her that day, followed her? Excuse me…. ? Lumbering with his suitcase. She would have turned, smiled… and...

He explored Hampton Court maze, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. He waded through tourists the way he swished through the sugarcane plantation at home.  The world rolled on and off at every Tube stop.  Weary travellers from Heathrow clung to labelled suitcases that told everyone exactly where they came from and where they were going.  He recognised Aussies too, and he slid back, hoping not to be recognised as one of them.

He lurked at the Clapham South Tube station, walked its streets. Finally, he placed an ad in the Metro. Foolish. Silly. But worth a shot.

‘Emily’… we met on the Northern Line Sunday, 23rd October, 8 a.m. I had the Happy Birthday Frank balloon. Please contact me at this number. ‘Frank.’

He watched women on the Tube flicking impatiently past his ad, moving their eyes quickly over it. Somewhere on the Tube, she would read it. 

His clothes grew grimy. London was, he decided, black. So he bought black Levi jeans, a black Levi shirt, black Doc Marten boots and a black trench coat he found second-hand in Camden market.  His skin felt pallid. Petal-like. He developed black rings under his eyes.

He watched people, guessed the story of their lives, where they were going, what their names were, their occupations. Outside the station, groups of women talked loudly, swore, laughed, accosted him.  ‘Going the wrong way?’ they cat-called as he passed late Tuesday night. ‘You need to come with us!’

The thing to do of course was to replicate that Sunday journey. At that precise time and place.  But this was impossible. Next Sunday he would be returning to Heathrow, and home.

On Wednesday, he visited Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly, St John’s, Big Ben, the Wheel, and between each, sat in the Tube, watched people. Lurked at Clapham South.

On Thursday, he played with the temptation to take his balloon back with him on the train—it was still semi-buoyant, thudding against the ceiling of the room, but had now found an air vent which it kept playing with, returning to and racing away from.  Perhaps the balloon would find her. Or it would at least single him out as the boy with the balloon. Perhaps raise a smile in this mass of unsmiling humanity.

But he didn’t need to stand out even more. He already stood out. Something about his face. Perhaps he still looked too much at other people, caught their eyes, something you mustn’t do here. He was too curious perhaps, not aloof enough. He rode the Tube as an end in itself, and it showed. He wasn’t going anywhere, as all these people were.

Friday evening, he walked through Soho. A passing white haired man felt him up, women in glass cubicles where neon lights flashed the word GIRLS over and over again harangued him, and he returned dejected to the Tube.

But at Clapham South, a woman at the far end of the carriage, her back to him, behind a thick crowd of standing passengers shouldered her way off the train.

Emily. The same skirt, hair, top, boots.

He squeezed his way out the train entrance to watch her step over the gap and into the lava flow of people upstairs. He pushed past people—bad decorum in these parts: you have to be patient, wait your turn, shuffle behind the crowd. ‘Excuse me….I just have to… please… Sorry.’

Outside the station, the air blew white and the pavements black.  Which way did she go? He heard the clicking of heels. In London, women walked alone at night, unafraid. He picked out against the streetlight a dark shape—black clothes, black hair—clicking heels up the street. He followed. She walked faster, as if she sensed he was stalking her; he matched her pace.  She did not turn. Wet pavements reflected the neon lights of the fish and chip shop and taxi rank, and as he splashed through the puddles, the reflection shattered into a kaleidoscope of weak colours.

She turned into an alleyway. A dark figure turning a key in a door. She looked up, and in the glint of the reflected neon light, he saw a stranger. Not her.  He saw panic in her white hands as she turned the key, pushed open the door and slid in. The door slammed. Latched. Bolted.

Sorry, sorry, he said to the cold air, his breath a dragon’s hiss of steam.


The flat echoed with his despair as he unlocked, unlatched, turned the dead bolt home. Happy Birthday Frank! The balloon stirred in the gust of wind as the heat came on, looked sadder and sadder, but still floated.

On the last night—Saturday—he resigned himself to the fact that the one brief moment—how long was it—ten or twenty seconds?—was all he would have of her. His whole life he would remember that moment. And she would never know.

Obsession grows from the smallest seeds. She had gouged an ache in his soul, big enough for a lost continent, a lost world, a lost childhood.

Maybe she too replayed that moment in her mind: the boy with the balloon—what was his name? Frank. Happy Birthday Frank, why didn’t I beckon him, invite him home? But more likely, this incident in her hard drive was immediately sent to the trash.  

Saturday night on the train from London Victoria, at around midnight, a woman sat down opposite him. A woman in a black pencil skirt. Thirty maybe. Same clothes, boots, mascara. Smiling hard at him, unashamedly staring, three feet away, her body jiggling to the bumping and scraping of the train.

But not her. Not Emily.

He avoided her eye.

No chance. One furtive glance at her was all it took: she stood up, staggered across to him, and slumped onto the vacant seat on his left. ‘God, you’re beautiful,’ she said.

She must be very, very drunk, he thought.  She leaned hard against him, pinning his arm to the armrest.

He feigned a smile at the other passengers—in apology—but being British, they didn’t give anything away. Not even a smile or twitch of the eye. The man opposite read The Metro. The woman on his right stared ahead into some other world far away. The teenagers behind him were attached by wires to devices that went tak tak tak ccchhh, tak tak tak ccchhh.

She placed her left hand on his black Levi’s, a white, white hand with a wedding ring wedged on her ring finger.

‘What’s your name?’ It took her whole face to say the words.


‘Frank? Listen, honey, I’m too drunk to drive. Can you drive me home?’

She fumbled in the top pocket of her waistcoat. Underneath she wore a skimpy tank top, and little else. In winter, in London. Apparently British women didn’t feel the cold.

He recoiled from her garlic beer breath, from her invasion of his personal space. One thing to fantasise; another for a shy boy to respond as he did in dreams. Besides, he wanted her.  ‘Drive? We’re on a train.’

She dangled the keys. ‘See.’ Placed them in the palm of his hand and closed his fist over them. ‘Don’t lose them, for God’s sake.’

Clapham South. Balham. Tooting Bec. The doors banged open. He disentangled himself. Stood. ‘It’s my stop. I have to go.’  He held out her keys.

‘Mine too. This is my stop.’ She clung to him as he tried to escape, and held his trench coat by the lapels as he sidled past the other passengers. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to hurry.’

She fell, because he had dragged her along in his bid to get away. ‘Sorry.’

He picked her up, surprised at how heavy she was, this slim waif. He hoisted her over the gap between the platform and the train. He placed her down on the ground on her feet, but they gave way under her. She leaned on him and he had to half carry her out of the station and into the car park.  She was right—she’d had way too much to drink. Too drunk to drive. ‘So where’s your car?’

She looked bewildered. ‘Was this my stop?’

All station platforms looked the same to him:  the same low seedy humming depression, the small mean car parks, the lack of warm shelter from the wind. Only the names—the absurd names—distinguished them.

‘I parked it here, I swear.’ Her eyes were wide. ‘Do you think it’s been stolen?’

In the dark, he saw Emily: prim mouth, black hair, black stockings, black short dress, black way-too-small top.  Even a belly-ring—something he had missed before. ‘Sure this is your station?’ 

‘Tooting Bec? No. We were on the Victoria Line, right?’

‘Northern. It’s my station.’


He sighed. ‘It’s a two minute walk to my place.’

He helped her up the gleaming street, as best as he could. She leaned heavily on him, stumbled, made him weave. Her breath streamed white in the amber light of the street signs. Her face felt ice cold as she pressed against his neck.

‘You sure you don’t want me to take you home? I can still take you home. Where do you live?’

She looked confused.  ‘Can’t I stay at your place? Promise I won’t take up space. Just a sofa in your living room.’

He thought: some men prowl the Tube for years looking for drunk women to pick up and take home.

‘Are you cold? You want my coat?’

‘Where the hell do you come from?’

He did not know how to answer the question. ‘Australia.’

This was funny, apparently. ‘Australia?’ She accented the first syllable, then the second, then the third, then the fourth.  He could see the image the word evoked in her mind, but did not correct it.

‘Here we are.’

He fumbled with the key, pushed open the vault of his flat.

‘Your name is Frank. I thought you were bullshitting me. No one has a name like Frank.’

She pulled the pink string and the balloon curtseyed down and up, then slowly thudded its way back to its corner.

‘You should let it go, you know. It can’t survive here.’

He stared up at the sagging balloon.

‘It’s going to die in here. You have to let it out.’

‘It’s done pretty well—a week and it’s still floating.’


And with that she slumped onto the couch and passed out.  He covered her with a blanket, placed a pillow under her head, watched her for a while, then went to bed.

Emily hovered above him, whispering.  The balloon thudded every so often when the heating came on and off.

And in the morning, he could not find her. Empty couch bathroom, and wallet. His credit cards and money had been taken, of course, though she had kindly left his passport, air ticket and Travel Pass.  She also left a rumpled blanket and a long strand of black hair on a dented pillow. A note scrawled on the telephone pad read: Happy Birthday Frank!


He locked the door for the last time and rolled his suitcase on its plastic wheels along the cracked pavement. In his free hand, he held a pink and white balloon, still half buoyant. At the entrance to the Tube station, he looked up at the sky. He took his last breath of white air before climbing into a metal tube carriage, imagined the metal moving passageway at Heathrow, and finally the metal tube of the A380 to Singapore and Brisbane. A luminous hope still beat in his chest: he would see her on the Tube to Heathrow, by some fortuitous synchronicity.

He believed in symmetry, even though so far his life had shown him only disproportioned fractals.

His fingers numbed in the wind.

Commuters jostled him, unseeing, lowering their dead-pan faces as he held a sagging heart- shaped silver and pink balloon with the words Happy Birthday Frank on it.

He let it go. Unsure of its new-found freedom, the balloon hovered for a moment, and then stuttered up to the chimney rooftops of the terraced housing lining the street. He watched it trip and then find its way above the rooftops. In the grey morning of a new foggy London day, he watched it bob and duck and rise until it became a speck. He willed it to fly higher. 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment