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Zettel Film Reviews » The End Of February – A Leap Year story

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The End Of February – A Leap Year story

 

 

BBC Radio 4 is the one critical element of the media I could not do without. On the PM programme a few weeks ago Eddie Maier challenged listeners to do something completely different on the unique 29th February. I wrote in and said I would try to extend my writing from 250 film reviews to have a crack at a short story/draft screenplay. I said I would not prepare anything and would start from scratch on the day itself. Which I did. As a friend heard this plan broadcast on the PM programme I couldn’t get out of it.

What follows is the result. There is the technical problem I think with tense but I’ll keep polishing. Posted now simply for topicality.

The End Of February

“Differences should not affect friendship; nor friendship, differences.”   –   Simone Weil

Ever since he helped me face down some bullies on our first day at secondary school, Sean has been my best friend. Truth be told I was terrified and it was only his confident assurance that made them back down. The first of many life-lessons from Sean: confidence is all.

We were complementary: I did ok at school by working hard, putting in the hours and sticking to the rules. Sean breezed through with a little work, a lot of copying, mostly from me, and talking his way out of his regular exploration of the boundaries of the rules.

That we both left school with roughly the same good results provided life-lesson 2: the world is not fair and often seems to reward charm over effort.

We travelled the world together on our gap year eventually parting company in Australia when I returned to take up a University place and Sean disappeared into a particularly beautiful Bondi evening with a Russian blonde of spectacular looks that put even the sunset in the shade.

Following our natural instincts and talents I left university to teach Philosophy, and Sean, two globe-wandering years later, ended up in Oil Trading for a Middle East company with plenty of oil and an unconscionable amount of cash.

Twenty years on from that definitive moment of playground terror, we are still good friends, both living and working in London. We lead parallel lives but are regularly in contact. Sean knows my partner of 6 years Rachel; and Rachel and I have over the years served as a kind of approval tribunal for the revolving door women in his life. Until Anna that is. With amazement, amusement and no little relish, Rachel and I watched Anna, whip-crack smart and striking rather than conventionally beautiful, in impressive action: wisely resisting that infamous charm until she had reversed Sean’s usual polarities of attraction; he was chasing her instead of the other way around.

Boys being boys and of course Sean and I are no exception to this natural law; football regularly brings us together, alcoholically, electronically or both. This only safe shared true passion between guys, paradoxically both unites and divides us: Sean with a cosmically obtuse lack of judgement favouring Arsenal; while I, with the innate a priori wisdom with which all Philosophers are blessed, am of course a devotee of Spurs.

These eternally separate strands of belief achieve an uneasy rapprochement whenever England play. Then we can, club hostilities on hold, reprove players of every nationality for not being English enough; and castigate our national team for not being good enough. An empire irretrievably lost some time between 1966 and the death of Bobby Moore.

February 29th 2012 and I am waiting for his call. Having failed to get tickets for tonight’s satirically named ‘friendly’ with Holland we must agree whether to meet at the Cheshire or the Goat: the Cheshire has bad beer, a good TV and an engaging ambience of pretty girl students. The Goat has excellent beer, an ageing TV and a monastic male exclusivity. Negotiation is always part of the fun: sometimes I’ll join him in the Cheshire; at others he will, complaining, accompany me to the Goat.

The phone rings. I pick up.

“Hello mate. I’d given you up.”
“Mike – it’s me.” Rachel’s voice.
“Hello babe. What’s up?”
“Why should something be up?” Repartee is one of Rachel’s strengths.
“No reason. I was just expecting Sean to call.”
“Why?”
“England and Holland tonight.”
“I thought you said England had qualified.” Good girl. At least she listens.
“Yeah it’s a friendly.”
“Thank goodness for that.”
“Why?”
“Well it doesn’t really matter does it?”

Having strayed down this conversational cul de sac before, I let this inflammatory remark go. There is a better chance of inducing Rachel to understand the paradoxes of Quantum mechanics than the necessary truth that anymatch between Holland and England – matters.

I wait, with an innate instinct educated by 6 years of sharing my life and my bed with Rachel.

“Anna is going to ring you.”
“OK. Why the heads up?”
“I want you to take her seriously.”
“I always take Anna seriously.”

A counterpart to my condescending silence about friendly football matches is now exercising synaptic connections in my partner’s brain. Rachel knows I fancy Anna, as any guy would, but with characteristic wisdom she’s comfortable with those of my guilty secret thoughts she knows about.

“She’s going to ask you to do something and I wanted to get to you first to make sure your first response wasn’t to laugh.”
“Why would I laugh?”
“She wants to propose to Sean today.”
I laughed.
“There I knew it.”
“Sorry babe but you’ve got to admit…”
“Admit what?”
“Are we talking about the same Sean?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Silly? You tell me Anna wants to propose to the most commitment averse, marriage-phobic guy on the planet – and you’re calling me silly?”
“Now you’re just being stupid.”
“Silly to stupid in a flash. I guess that’s some kind of progress.”
“I knew you’d be like this.”
“Like what?”
“All…well…blokey.”
“Rach – I am a bloke.”
“Look – she loves him. For the first time ever, I think he loves her. She knows she has to challenge him. To know one way or another.”
“OK. That makes sense. High risk though. He might even be seeing someone else occasionally.”
“What do you know? Who?” I decided it was impolitic to correct her grammar.
“I don’t know anything. But I do know Sean.”
“You wouldn’t tell me even if you did. Would you?
“Depends. Possibly not.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a man thing.”
“Are you seeing someone else?”
“What!?”
“You heard me.”
“How the hell did we get from Sean to me?
“It’s woman thing. Well are you?”
“No.”
“OK. When she calls. Help her.”
“Hang on Rach. Are we talking today?”
“Yes. It’s an esoteric mystery as to why, but the 29th of February only lasts 24 hours – once every four years.”
“You don’t suppose Anna would like to nip and tuck it by proposing somewhere between 10pm and midnight do you? After the match. We might even win – then he’ll be sure to say yes.”
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Hangs up.

———————————————-

It’s true. I don’t know if Sean’s cheating on Anna. He probably wouldn’t tell me if he was. One of the insights of long-term friendships is knowing each other well enough to avoid triggering disapproval in the other. On the other hand I like to see my problems in the distance so I can plan and be ready to cope with them once they get up close. I just got ambushed. Makes me uneasy.

Phone rings.

“Mike Hume.”
“Mike it’s Anna.” My heart sinks.
“Hi”
“Did Rachel ring you?”
“Yes”
“Well can you do it?”
“Anna I know the end but you’re gonna have to fill me in on the means.”
“I want you to get Sean to the London Eye for 9.30 tonight.”
“Can I tell him why?”
“Of course not.”
“What do I tell him?”
“C’mon Professor: if Wittgenstein doesn’t phase you, surely you can tell your best friend a white lie. For a good cause.
“Not sure Ludwig would like the parallel.”
“So don’t show him the way out of the flybottle and get him there.”
Anna’s unexpected knowledge had surprised me before. I wish it wasn’t such a turn-on. That’s a guilty secret I wouldn’t want Rachel to know.
“I’ll try.”
“No Mike. Make it happen. I’m relying on you.”

Hangs up

My day off, which had started with a feeling of peace and bonhomie towards the world was now a chaos of conflicting responsibilities and emotions. I lie very badly and like standing on a very high building, need time to adjust to be able to do it at all.
I need time to think. And adjust.

Phone rings. ‘Shit’ I mutter.

“Hey mate. We on for tonight?” Sean. Of course.
Stalling, with forlorn hope.
“What’s tonight?”
“England Holland – knucklehead.”
“Oh yeah”
“You Ok? You sound funny.”
“Fine, just mulling over a philosophical problem.”
“Nothing important then. I’ll make it easy for you – let’s go to the Goat.”
“You free at lunchtime Sean?”
“Yeah why?”
Playing for time.
“Can we have a beer. Cheap and cheerful lunch?”
“OK. What’s up mate?”
“Nothing serious. Tell you when I see you. Founders Arms at 1.00 OK?
“Sure. See you.”
Hangs up.
OK I’ve bought myself 2 hours. Now what do I do?

—————————————————

Founders Arms. We’ve bought our pints and ordered food.

“So c’mon Mike. I know you. Something’s up.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing.”
“Hey this is me remember? I could embarrass for England.”
“Well. I have this student.”
“What’s her name?”
“I do teach guys y’know.”
“Yeah but if you have that look on your face about a guy, I’d be a lot more worried than I am.”
“Maia. She’s Norwegian. Very Bright. Doing a PhD on Wittgenstein.”
“Christ: Norwegian, Philosophical and into Ludwig: that’s as bad as it gets. She’ll drink you under the table and make you feel stupid. All these years I’ve managed to avoid Philosophers except you. I can’t deal with people in deeper shit than I am.”
“If you saw her you might bend a rule. But you’re right she is a bit flaky.”
“Does Rachel know?”
“Know what?”
“That you’ve been shagging a Scandinavian ‘pole-walker?”
“I haven’t.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well there is a connection: an intellectual empathy. We’re interested in the same issues. But she seems to have assumed there’s something more. Or at least wants something more.”
“My man: the intoxicating eroticism of that brain of yours. I always knew it would get you into trouble one day.”
“This isn’t funny.”
“Well yes mate – it is. But serious as well. Always a dangerous combination. Anyway my philosophical chum, be precise: exactly what is the problem?”
“She keeps texting me.”
“Wow that’s hot. Any pictures?”
“Do you take anything seriously?”
“Two things I’ve learned are too serious to take seriously: sex and life itself. What kind of stuff is it?”
“Well she seems to be getting more and more intense.”
“Intensity and philosophy – isn’t that what you guys call tautologous?”
“I’m worried about her. She sounds desperate. She might do something foolish”
“Don’t take this unkindly my old mate – but she already has.”
“Thanks a bunch.”
“Look don’t worry about it. Just keep playing a straight bat. Hold her at bay. Get someone else to teach her for a bit. Even mad, Wittgesteinian Norwegian pole-walkers can recover a sense of proportion.”
“She keeps saying she wants to meet up.”
“No way Hosea. That way leads to shagging perdition. A destination I’m far more at home with than you.”
“Can I ask you a favour?”
“I can’t take her off your hands. Anna would literally kill me.”
“No that’s not it.”
“What then.”
“If she gets too desperate to meet – will you come with me? That might shake her out of it.”
“If you think it would help – no probs. Now put it out of your mind and let’s talk about the match. Why don’t we meet in the Goat at 6.30 – we’ll have a few pints before the game.”
“OK”
“C’mon mate. It’ll be OK. Uncle Sean is here to protect you from your philosophical groupie. No offence me old pal – but who’d have thought it?”
“How are things with Anna by the way?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well. You know.”
“No mate I don’t. It’s not like you to dig. What’s Rachel been saying.”
“Why Rachel?”
“Mike, for a professional philosopher you are one of the least curious people I know about important things.”
“Gee thanks.”
“C’mon man – you do philosophy, you got used to being weird long ago. So what’s that lovely, sexy but nosey woman of yours fretting about? I’d rather get it from her, via you than have Anna hit me with it unawares.”
I knew I had to back off or I’d blow it.
“No really. Rach just said you’d been with Anna longer than anyone else and she wondered.”
“Wondered what?”
“Apparently it’s a woman thing.”
“F**k. Do you get that one too? Anna does that. Does my head in.”
“I think it’s what they say when they know we know; but they don’t want us to know they know we know.”
“Thank you Donald Rumsfeld. Just occasionally you do fit my definition of a philosopher.”
“Which is?”
“Someone who goes through life with his head up his arse, talking to himself, wondering why it’s gone dark.”
“Well I must obviously defer to the superior intellect and moral probity of a f**king oil trader.”
We both knew enough to shut up at this point. Dangerous territory. I broke the tension in time-honoured fashion.
“Another pint?” He looked relieved.
“One for the road then.” He grinned. This is a dangerous little metaphor we occasionally misused serially to sanction several hours over-preparation for a road we couldn’t walk down when forced by the landlord to take it.
“Anyway. Anna’s fine. The perfect woman. Loves her freedom – respects mine. No hassles. No strings.”
My heart sank. A saying of my old Granny coming to mind: ‘there’ll be tears before the night’s out.’ In spades Grandma.
We finished our drinks and as I watched my best friend disappear along the embankment I felt guilty at having lied to him and anxious about the reason why.

—————————————————–

Phone Rings. Rachel.
“Well. How did you get on?”
“I think I can get the horse to water for 9.30 but I’m not convinced Anna can make him drink.”
“What makes you think that?”
“It’s a man thing.”
“I’ll see you at 9” she said.
“You’re coming too?”
“Of course. Anna might need me.”
Little did she know. Little did she know.
“OK. Bye.”

————————————————-

Phone rings. Anna.
“Are we on?”
“Should be. I haven’t really done it yet. But we should be ok.”
“Thank you Mike. You’re an angel.”
It freaked me out when a woman called me that. It always meant I was being given credit for something I didn’t deserve. And visually, despite the technical wonders of modern CGI, no one has ever created an image of a bloke in wings looking anything but a total prat.

Women should eschew the use of the words ‘angel’ and ‘cute’.

—————————————————–

We re-convened at the Goat.
Mike.

“What’ll you have.”
“Pint of Dodgy Codger please. Try it. It’s got a great hoppy taste.”

You have to make an effort in the Goat. They only have lager under sufferance: one expensive and the other absurdly expensive. To rook the tourists: or any, usually youthful local stupid enough to drink it.

You don’t have to actually know anything about beer. Personally I wouldn’t know what a hop tastes like if you stuffed my mouth full of the bloody things. But in that conspiracy of ignorance that defines men’s beer talk, bang on about hops and everyone will nod with sage approval.

The landlord.

“Two pints of Codger sir.”

I leaned over and whispered to Sean.

“Why do the bastards do that? If you’d asked for 2 pints of ‘Codger’ he’d have said ‘do you mean Dodgy Codger sir?

He grinned.

“Landlords really are the goalkeepers of the retail trade. Quirky or cranky as hell”

A safe theme between us. The complex social dynamic between men who drink and the men who sell them the drink they drink is worthy of an academic thesis or two. It’s a heavily co-dependent relationship: they want us to drink as much as possible as quickly as possible and bugger off; we want to pace our drinking in inverse proportion to the amount of legal time left to do it. Impasse. So both compromise to arrive at a fragile truce.

Sean.

“Stupid name though. Dodgy Codger. An MBA in Marketing’s idea of rustic I suppose. They damned near shut down Parliament with, what was it? Top Totty?”

“Yeah” I reply. “They think dumb names will substitute for quality and extra CO2 instead of a proper head.”

This is more technical beer-speak. It has something to do with the froth on the top of a pint of beer – but I’m not sure what. I’m not absolutely convinced anyone does. Apparently these modest concatenations of bubbles can be variously ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘absolutely essential’ or a ‘f**king rip-off’ if too deep. Once someone starts talking about cleaning out the pipes properly I usually make my excuses and go and talk about something simple like the Categorical Imperative.

“Have you heard from your pole-walker?”
“Yes. Three texts since we left the Founders Arms.”
“What does she say?”
“Look for yourself.” Handing him my mobile.

He reads the three messages frowning more and more.

“This looks a bit dodgy mate.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Well the straight bat strategy doesn’t seem to be working. So I’m stumped. Ho ho.”
“Don’t let’s go there Mike – this look serious.”
“Look. The match is about to start. Let’s forget about it for now.”
“Agreed.”

We have thankfully missed the Pundit patter before the match. Another ripe subject for a PhD in psycho-sexual iconography which might throw light on the subconscious intent of ex-footballers who sprawl thrusting their crutch at the camera with an insouciance even a catwalk model cannot muster.

The match begins.

The first half ends 0 – 0 with each team appearing to believe the goals have been moved to the sides of the pitch so little forward passing having taken place.

The pundits are pontificating, struggling manfully like philosophers, to fill 20 minutes of air time talking about the absence of something – goals in this case, when my phone vibrates in my pocket. Nervously I get it out and open up the incoming text. Sean is looking questioningy at me. As the import of the message hits home I must have gone pale.

“Is it her?”
“Yep”
“So?”
“Well, reading between the lines, picking up on the subtle nuances of text-speak…I think she’s threatening to kill herself if I don’t meet her.”

He grabs the phone from me and scans the screen anxiously.

“Shit. What are we going to do?”

I am very grateful for the ‘we’ but can’t begin to answer his question. We both stare unseeing at the Television. Then with striking timing as if rehearsed we say as one:

“She could have waited until after the match.”
Sighing deeply Sean gets up.
“Come on Mike we’ve got to go.”
“I know. Where does she say?”
“Outside the Festival Hall. At least it’s only about 10 minutes away.”

Unwavering in our adherence to male etiquette, we first down our pints and head for the door.

—————————————————–

9.15. Southbank.
We hurry past the concrete chunks of the National Theatre, on past the National film Theatre. People everywhere in one of the liveliest parts of London, the glittering Thames to the right; the best in World Drama, World Cinema and some pretty impressive ad hoc skateboarding to the left. We hurry past the stairs up to the Hayward and first floor of the Festival Hall.

Sean.

“Can you see her?”
“Not yet” You wait here so I know where you are. You don’t know what she looks like. Stand over by the railings. I’ll try and find her. Keep your phone handy”

“OK”

I wander among the crowds outside the restaurants either side of the RFH.

Mike is admiring the view: St Pauls way to the right; the Cathedral-like Charing Cross Station over the river to the left. Boats are plying up and down the river in front of him. Lights of every colour glaring up at a black, cloudless sky. A passenger jet trails languidly towards Heathrow far above the lights and the urgent clatter of a helicopter tracks the winding path of the Thames South towards docklands.

Mike is so taken with the view he almost misses the ring of his phone.

“I’ve found her. She’s obviously given up on me and is heading towards the London Eye. Can you catch me up? I don’t want to tackle her without a witness.”

“OK. I’m on my way”

——————————————————-

Mike heads along the Embankment, under Hungerford Bridge. As he leaves the Bridge behind, he sees the London Eye looming up ahead of him and Mike half-way towards it waving him on.

He approaches Mike.
“Where is she?”

Mike points ahead.
“Just up there heading past the Eye. Come on.”

He hurries off. Sean in his wake. Still hurrying forward together they draw level with the new icon of the London skyline. Maia or no Maia, no one can pass the London Eye and not look up and take it in. Heads momentarily craning upwards. Suddenly familiar voices behind them.
“Hello boys. Right on time. Well done Mike. Brilliant.”
They whirl round and see Anna and Rachel grinning broadly at them. Sean looks towards Mike who looks oddly embarrassed.

“What the f**k’s going on Mike?”
“I’m sorry mate. But I was under orders.”
“Orders? Whose orders?
“Ours” Anna says. “Well to be fair, mine.” Come on you two, questions and answers in a minute we’ve got a special concession for a flight.”

The girls head off, every now and then letting out bursts of conspiratorial laughter. Sean is muttering furiously to Mike who is trying to keep up with the girls to avoid the questions.

“Come on” the girls are waving them on towards one of the cars, a smiling attendant holding open the door.
They all pile in. The door is locked and they head off slowly into the night sky.

Sean is pacing up and down making the car shudder slightly.

“Do calm down darling.” Anna
She puts her arms round him while Mike and Rachel pretend to be absorbed with the view at the other end of the car.

“Someone tell me what’s going on. Now!”
“OK darling. All will become clear. Now you just stand there. And don’t you dare stay angry”

She guides him to the middle of the car. She gets down on one knee and takes his hands in hers.

“Sean Patrick McGuire under the age old convention of the 29th of February, I Anna Christensen, with all my heart claim the right to ask you if you will marry me.”

Mike and Rachel, hardly breathing, stare, eyes fixed on Sean with Anna kneeling before him. Mike’s heart and mind are racing. To himself: ‘what the f**k happens now?’

The answer to his question amazes him. Mike looks down at Anna and joins her on one knee.

“We might as well start as we mean to go on – on the same level. Yes I will marry you Ms Anna Christensen. But I may never trust you again.”

They get up put their arms round one another and kiss. With a look of utter relief on his face Mike goes over and gives them both a hug. Sean looks at him and says.

“I have a few things to say to you. You duplicitous bastard.”

“I’m sorry mate. They made me do it.”

MIke looks at the newly betrothed couple now smiling broadly at him. Oddly.

“Come on Rach, come and congratulate these two idiots.”

No response. Sean and Anna are looking past him. He turns round to repeat his request.

Rachel is on one knee in the middle of the car, grinning broadly. He looks back at Sean and Anna who burst into gleeful laughter.

“What’s going on?” He looks back and forth from Rachel and the laughing couple.

“Come over here Muggins and I’ll tell you.” Rachel beckons him.

He walks up to her and she takes his hands in hers. It is now Anna and Sean’s turn to look tensely at him.

“Mike Basil Hume, all that flowery stuff Anna said, and will you marry me?
Mike frowns. He looks perplexed.
Anna says “Come on Mike. That’s a very unromantic gap in the conversation.”
“It’s alright Anna” says Rachel. “I know why you’re confused Mike, don’t I?”
Mike says haltingly.
“We always said we didn’t want to get married. We didn’t need it.”
Rachel smiles “Except?”
Mike looking like someone who is still searching for a word that’s right on the tip of his tongue replies.
“Except that if we had children we should do it for them. But…”
Rachel interrupted him.
“Well, with that thought in mind I repeat: Mike Basil Hume – will you marry me?”
Like the man who’s just remembered the elusive word, Mike smiles and says.
“Are you kidding.”
Rachel laughs a full, throaty, happy laugh.
“In a manner of speaking – yes I am.”
“You mean?”
“Yes my darling philosophical innocent – what do you want – boy or girl?”
“I suppose one of each is out of the question?”
“Serially perhaps. Not concurrently. Anyway you haven’t yet answered my question Mr Hume.”
“With all my heart Mrs Hume.”
“Mrs Lindsey-Hume if you don’t mind. Let’s get the billing right”
“Agreed as long as you promise never to call me Basil again.”
“Done.”

By now the car has returned to the ground and the four friends pile out.

Sean takes Mike to one side.
“That last bit was news to me mate. Congratulations.”

Mike looked intently at him.
“You mean you knew about the rest? You let me fret and worry all day about lying to you?”

“Oh yes. And I’m amazed at what a convincing job you did. I’m never gonna trust you again either.”
Mike grabs him roughly but affectionally around the neck.

“You bastard.”
Sean grins.
“Takes one to know one mate.”

—————————————————–

The four friends walk back down the embankment stopping outside the Festival Hall leaning on the railings overlooking the river. Laughing happily.
Anna says “Mike we are all so impressed at how you managed to get Sean here. Nice lying.”

Mike preens himself a little.

“Oh it was nothing. We Philosophers are always under-rated. Just a bit of inventive genius.”

Still staring out across the river, looking serious, Rachel says.
“By the way Mike.”
“Yes darling.”
“Who’s Maia?”

All four fall silent. Mike is about to speak when Anna breaks first and shakes with laughter, followed in turns by Sean and Rachel.

Rachel leans over and kisses him.
“Don’t worry my innocent little Philosopher man. I trust you even if you are a surprisingly good liar.”

The four return to looking over the river when Mike’s phone beeps.

“Must be Maia” says Rachel teasingly.

Mike looks down at the message from Sean who is standing only 4 feet to his left. He catches Sean’s eye and shakes his head almost imperceptibly.

Rachel and Anna look at each other, high-five with glee and walk away arm in arm. Over their shoulders they call back.

“Sorry boys – but Holland won 3-2. But we’ve recorded it anyway.”

Mike and Sean look at each other and then to the disappearing backs of their soon-to-be wives.

“Sean. This could be the continuation of a beautiful friendship.”

The four friends link up and head for the nearest pub.


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