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The Lonely Hearts Club
By Dennis Friedman
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2012 Dennis Friedman
All rights reserved.
The men in tracksuits and trainers stood in the late-summer sunshine in the street outside the gym wondering where to have lunch. Watching them from the doorway of his diner Franco hoped, as he did whenever he saw them, that they would patronize his café rather than any of the others in the area. His need for their custom was commercial. Theirs was esoteric. Coffee and sandwiches were much the same everywhere. Being able to sit and talk without feeling that they were in anyone's way fulfilled their lunchtime requirements.
'You can tell the time by them.' Franco addressed his only customer, an elderly woman in a cardigan with a button missing who was sitting in the corner. She was reading yesterday's Metro newspaper which someone had left on the table and didn't look up. Talking before breakfast was not what she had come for. She had spoken to order toast and a cup of tea. That was enough. Having to ask Franco to clear the mess left by the previous customer irritated her.
She would have sat elsewhere, but the other tables were equally messy. Franco knew he should have tidied the place up – and she knew she had chosen a café that had little going for it. Neither of them had met before, and they were unlikely to meet again. But for a moment Franco's apathy, combined with his customer's need for food, created a bond between them.
Franco liked to talk. The woman did not. She wished he would go away. She wasn't in the mood for conversation, but Franco would chat to anyone. It made the time go more quickly. Being on his own depressed him. He needed companionship. He was depressed before Val left him, but having no one to talk to made the fact that he was on his own worse. Since the divorce he had neglected his business. A glance through the open door put most customers off. He neglected himself as well as the café and looked as if he hadn't long got out of bed. There were little tufts of hair on his chin, and there was garlic on his breath. The customers didn't care for his proximity. The expression 'in your face' came to mind; not a particularly agreeable one.
It cheered him up when people chatted to him. He hoped the men from the gym would arrive soon and lighten the atmosphere. They brought with them a friendly chaos. It didn't occur to him that their vivaciousness might conceal a sense of futility and that their mildly manic behaviour might cover up unresolved problems or that they might need him as much as he needed them. He couldn't have known that dumping their gear on the floor of his café might reflect something within themselves they might want to abandon. Had his thinking been more reflective he would have realized that the men from the gym had chosen his café because its chaos echoed their inner conflicts and for a time offered relief from them. But what only they could know was that whatever negative feelings they may have brought with them that morning disappeared when they were together.
Their frequent visits served only to convince Franco that other customers might also feel at home in casually carefree surroundings, despite knowing that even if passers-by glanced in they usually carried on walking. He had also misread the behaviour of the gym group. They did not, in fact, like chaos but were doing their best to rid themselves of a lifetime of clutter and found in Franco's café a welcoming refuse bin. Franco was adept at misreading what went on around him. Despite his wife telling him that one of the reasons she was leaving him was because he not only looked a mess but was a mess, he had continued to believe she wasn't serious. The woman at the corner table reminded him of Val. Familiar feelings of guilt swept over him. He reached for a paper towel from behind the counter, wet it in the sink next to the coffee machine and half-heartedly swabbed the round table by the window.
'I don't need this,' he volunteered, but his solitary customer pretended not to hear him. It was Val he was really talking to. The cardigan lady decided that next time she wanted a cup of tea she would go elsewhere or, better still, make sure she always had milk in her fridge.
The men in tracksuits and trainers invariably chose the round table. Although it was virtually identical to the others they told him that they preferred that one because of the view. He hadn't noticed that there was a view, only a never-ending cavalcade of tourists making their way to the nearby museum. Perhaps that was what they meant. He wasn't interested in passers-by or in any other form of continuity. He was interested only in those who came in and bought something – even if it was only a sandwich – and then left.
He looked away for a second. A moment before the room had been empty, and suddenly they were there. How could he not have noticed them? Val was right. She used to tell him that he never noticed anything. Noisy and friendly, they brought in what he thought of as a continental atmosphere. Taking chairs from other tables so that they could sit together, they dumped their fleece jackets and gym gear on the floor, shut the door because it was draughty and in no time were responsible for a comfortable disorder. More than once he had told them that the door had to remain open because there were no windows in the little room which had once been a tobacconist's. It had a fixed window only and a door with a now long-gone fanlight.
No sooner had Franco opened the door again than the jolly overweight foreign man got up and shut it. A pal down the road had told him that the gym guys used to come to her place, but when she insisted that her door be kept open for the same reason they left and never came back. Pocketing the coins the elderly lady had left on the table Franco shrugged and decided to put up with it. They brought in chaos, but at least it was cheerful chaos. He liked it, even when a couple of them called out in Italian how they wanted their coffee. Franco didn't speak Italian, but they assumed he was Italian because of his name. His name was Frank. Franco sounded better in the same way that panini sounded better than bread. What they brought in was an existential confusion that had coloured their lives, distorted their relationships and eroded their talents.
Knowing only that they were from the gym across the road, he tried while he was busy behind the counter to discover more about them. Their habits never varied. One always sent his coffee back because it was cold; another insisted on picking up the tab; an older one continually asked questions; another brought his own flask for the coffee and occasionally ordered a slice of brown bread which he thought came with the coffee, like milk or sugar. The short fat one might have worked in a restaurant because he always insisted on carrying the tray to the table and, when Franco was busy, would stand behind the counter and help him butter the bagels. Occasionally a weirdo would accompany them. Quieter than the others, he looked perpetually worried. Although Franco might have recognized them anywhere he couldn't recognize the personality traits that made them what they were.
While he was dealing with their order he could hear them mulling over something they had been discussing earlier and their need to find answers. But no matter how often they came to his café he had never once noticed in detail their interactions with each other.
He pretended not to listen. He liked their noisy discussions although he wasn't sure what they were going on about. It gave his little café a sophisticated air, to which passers-by might be attracted. Those who paused to look at the menu, fixed to the inside of the shop window with tape, might think of it as a place in which to be seen, a place frequented by intellectuals. He rather regretted the smoking ban, because a smoke-filled room had a Dickensian feel to it which he thought Americans, with their passion for a remote past which as a nation had been denied them, might find attractive.
He was slicing some ham that he had taken out of the freezer and smelling it to check whether it had gone off, when one of the group stood up. 'I've got to go,' he announced. Picking up their gear, they left together. For the first time Franco was struck by how close they seemed. What one did they all did. They arrived together, talked together and left together. He could see them walking down the street still talking and then standing for a while and finally disappearing altogether.CHAPTER 2
The group, outwardly noisy but inwardly thoughtful, enjoyed their twice-weekly gym session which had, over time, evolved into an emotional as well as a physical work-out. All in very late middle age they had been told by their cardiologists that supervised exercise, following heart surgery, improved life expectancy. By working out regularly, with no ill effects, they were able to convince themselves that their health problems were behind them. Only recently had they realized they attended the gym regularly not so much for the exercise but because they felt at one with each other. Why this intimacy had come about they were unable to explain and often discussed the matter after their exercise session, either in the gym's canteen, in Franco's while having a sandwich or over a celebratory birthday lunch. Their closeness went far beyond their heart problems. It was based on something vaguely familiar. Whether it had to do with all being in the same boat as far as their health was concerned, they didn't know. But it puzzled them. Even their conversation, personal, political, academic or simply banter, worked better when whatever they spoke of was thrown open to them all. They felt they were all of a piece. Should two of them momentarily split off from the others and exchange intimacies, if only briefly, the others would feel left out.
It was not mentioned and didn't need to be, but it was concern for the other which drove the group's thinking. Idle gossip about the buses or the weather, which were taking place around them, had no place in their thoughts. Anonymity was important. Surnames weren't exchanged. In their tracksuits and their trainers they were barely distinguishable one from the other. No effort was made to enquire into anyone's religious, financial, social or marital status. Neither were they interested in one another's ages, which varied from forty to eighty. What they saw was what they got, and what they got was what they wanted. They were comfortable together, and if occasionally one or other of them was reminded of someone familiar from the past it was not commented on.
None of them was in a hurry to return to his life outside the gym where they would revert to how others saw them rather than how they saw themselves. In their twice-weekly sessions nothing was expected of them. Knowing nothing of the other allowed them to see in him whatever they wanted to see as well as the freedom to be whatever or whomever they wished.
What was obvious, although not to Franco or to the others at the gym, was that they exchanged views about everything, were free to express them and always found in each other an interested and responsive audience.
Despite the fact that they shared heart problems health was rarely discussed, finding the illusion of immortality far more attractive. Although heart to hearts were frequently on the agenda, the heart as a pump was definitely not. Perhaps what united them was incongruity rather than harmony, difference rather than similarity or curiosity rather than knowledge, but while they existed as a vibrant, lively and thoughtful group, when they split up it was as if they ceased to exist. Out of sight was out of mind. In the early days it was only when they were at the gym that they shared their thoughts and feelings. It was months, years even, before some of them became aware of who the other was, where he lived or what he did when he was out of sight. If they thought about it at all they realized that they neither needed nor wanted to know. Their existence as a group was enough.
They wondered whether this was beginning to change. Was it the sandwich at Franco's or the social activities in which they were gradually becoming involved that were bridging the gap between their existence in the gym and the realities of everyday life? They liked Franco's but wondered sometimes about the effects socializing in his café might have on their experience of one another. The diner was never busy, and in it they felt carefree and at home – probably because they were not at home. The 'special' was the same every day, and they didn't enquire about it. What they had really come for had more to do with their thoughts than the food. They were hungry for information. Chatting among themselves at Franco's, they waited for their orders as a theatre audience might wait for the drama to begin.CHAPTER 3
Benedict Fanshawe, a retired church architect, had achieved fame among his contemporaries by designing a swimming-pool in a well-known gentlemen's club that wouldn't have looked out of place in a cathedral. He was reserved, modest and diffident in manner, although not averse to the occasional cutting comment disguised as humour when he thought he could get away with it. The conversion of abandoned churches into sports centres for the disabled, another of his interests, allowed him to think about the link between restoration and religion. He believed that managing disability through exercise, within the 'reach for the heavens' steepled design of the church, was an interface between physical activity and faith. Being good, looking good and feeling good, he thought, were keys to harmony. His concern for others was in direct proportion to his perception of their concern for him. He regarded such an interaction not as cynical but as an important cohesive ingredient for the survival of communities. He had wondered for some time whether that also applied to the survival of their group.
He was occasionally referred to as the Ancient Mariner, an appellation that someone had attached to him for reasons none of them could remember. Benedict privately took it as a vague reference to the wisdom that they assumed had come to him with age rather than their need for someone dependable to steer their boat.
He acknowledged that he liked looking at the sea and often saw himself as the group's helmsman, someone responsible for guiding them through waters as yet uncharted. But he also hated getting wet. Talking about issues or designing a pool was one thing, but getting one's hands dirty (or wet) was another. But no one could argue with the idea that life was a journey. Neither could anyone have any more idea than he about where they were going. What was increasingly clear was that they were all happy to be involved in a game of intellectual tennis – batting ideas back and forth, not so much to score points but because by putting the ball in someone else's court views could be exchanged about what life and, particularly, their lives might be about.
Benedict's studied manner was intended to suggest to the others that he would be the most likely of all to help interpret patterns of behaviour which might shed light not only on who they were but why they were. He was happy to play that role. He had, however, one unspoken proviso: he made it clear that he didn't wish to be referred to as Ben but as Benedict.
He was probably the most articulate of them all and ascribed this to information gleaned from listening daily to the BBC Radio 4's current affairs Today programme while having breakfast and comparing it with the Yesterday channel he viewed as an unintended horror version of Today. Did remembering the past discourage people from repeating it? And, if it didn't – which was fairly obvious to anyone witnessing tribal violence – what was the point of psychotherapy which depended on helping the unhappy rid themselves of their anxieties by encouraging them to recall what had led them to be worried in the first place? If why you are is so important, why did he not benefit from being introduced to why he was when he was having therapy? His therapist might have had several 'eureka' moments, but Benedict couldn't remember having any. Perhaps it was having someone listen that was therapeutic. The group listened and seemed to like him. He couldn't think what else it did, but he felt a lot happier for being part of it.
Excerpted from The Lonely Hearts Club by Dennis Friedman. Copyright © 2012 Dennis Friedman. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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