I should think that right now, Michael St John is sitting in his garden, nursing his second cigarette of the morning. To his left, a small table, the only thing that his father left him, and on that table will be collection of books that he still hasn’t found the time to read. He’s terrible at committing to those classic titles that are thrown around at dinner parties. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have an opinion on them – they have their place on his bookshelf. He always sought to buy books secondhand – he likes to pretend that their dog-eared corners and broken spines are of his own making. In his own mind he’s an intellectual, but one with such a great level of insight that if he were to attempt to put his thoughts into words, their incandescent meaning would surely be dimmed. To many, he is arrogant, lazy, and antisocial. The type of man who freely provides his brand of acerbic ‘wit’ to a variety of situations, proudly displaying an unbecoming and fruitless cynicism. He’s only 25, but his wanderings through the bowels of Europe at his late father’s expense have led him to believe that he is deserving of this world-weary outlook.
I first met him two years ago in Prague, at a small sitting bar near the Charles Bridge. I didn’t like him at first, and I’m still not entirely sure of his intentions. He’d been at the cocktails for an hour or so, and had been casting eyes at the pretty young things in the corner longer than that, all the while scribbling in a fresh Moleskine notebook. Against the rule of the bar that dictated not bothering the other patrons, I took up my drink and asked him what he was writing. He paused, and closed his book with a clap.
‘Oh really? What’s it about?’
‘That girl over there.’
He took a sip of his drink.
‘May I see?’
He heaved a sigh and thrust his book towards me, his finger marking the page. His gaze averted, he gave me the impression of a child afraid of needles at the doctors. At this moment I realised that he lived on the attentions of which he feigned disdain. Without the interruptions of people, he would surely never be noticed. The poem was short, and scrawled almost illegibly with a careless hand. It read crudely, like a playground limerick, the rhythm too jaunty.
‘It’s certainly interesting. I hope that she likes it. Are you going to show her?’
‘No, I’m waiting for her to notice me.’
I look over to her table. The tea lights shimmering through crystal glasses; her dress falling around her body and rippling with every movement. She wasn’t going to notice him. Not out of callousness, or even the fact that her attentions were diverted by her friends. It was simply because he was trying too hard not to be noticed. To sit in a darkened bar, writing, is a statement, and one that piques that 21st century interest that comes from seeing someone alone and not on their phone. To wait for no-one as you order another drink is inherently taboo. Why are you here, if not to wait for someone? Surely your evening could be improved by another? Through his own artistic indulgence, he had destroyed any chance of conversation. His scribblings were past the point of interest, and at this time, were not good enough to warrant any query. She wasn’t going to notice him because he looked intentionally lonely.
He invited me to join him.
‘Let’s join forces. We can catch more fish with two fishermen, after all.’
‘That depends on how good a fisherman you are.’
‘Oh, the key is patience. All you have to do is sit and wait, and eventually something will come.’
He seemed to have forgotten that a good fisherman normally provides some kind of bait, or lure. I don’t remind him of this. We both take a drink in silence.
He didn’t say anything else. Instead, he looked around the room like a panting terrier. It’s almost as if I was fit only to showcase that he was, in fact, personable.
But if this man was so odious, why did I sit down? Why did I not return to my own seat? The truth is that from time to time, I too had fallen foul of that 1920s expat nostalgia that leads young men with five-o-clock shadow to nurse wistfulness in cafe windows, imagining what life would be like if they could rely on the attentions of strangers. I was lonely, and for a while I had made that fact known. I bored my friends, and sliced our nights short in order to allow more time for quiet and indulgent self pity. I’m better now. I don’t often take books to bars, and I don’t write poems or stories there any more. I still go there alone, on occasion, but only to take in the sights, sounds and smells that meld together as the night runs on. I wanted to let him know that things improve, and that an actor who plays the same role frequently will surely be disregarded in the end. But I didn’t say anything.
Michael St John sat on the leather banquette, and took another sip of his drink. To his left was a young man, a recent companion, who he’d get to know just as he’d found the words. In his hands was a Moleskine notebook, one just like the one that his father had always carried. He always liked the smell of a fresh notebook, and he was concerned that the poem that he’d just written wasn’t worthy of those off-white pages. He wondered about whether or not Hemingway worried about things like this; whether that pesky Spanish Civil War dimmed his incandescent prose. He didn’t know – perhaps he was being too aloof, too thoughtful; not lively enough. Perhaps this man on his left could see right through him? He didn’t want to find out.
He could do this forever.