CSN is 50: Short Story: “The Man Pondered” by Joe Dilworth Nov21


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CSN is 50: Short Story: “The Man Pondered” by Joe Dilworth

The man pondered. On this, his fiftieth birthday, his legacy lay all around him in both the present and the absent, the talk and the drink. His life could not be called kind but nor could it be called cruel. It was mundane, almost… generic. It was not unique and yet was special. This birthday party was a mirror of his life, old, well-used mirror, mass-made, but his mirror nevertheless.

Questions began to develop in the man’s mind. Why Heineken? He didn’t really like it so why was he drinking it? Was he brand loyal, after a young adulthood of the stuff? Was it because of work, seen to be the “right” kind of beer when networking? Or was he trying to please his friends, trying to hold on to the last morsel of companionship he had? Was he really that desperate for talk? He was starved for attention, and with this party he thought he would be like a junkie getting his fix. That would change soon, one way or another.

Where did this party really start? Did it start with the rebellious secondary school friend at this stage barely known and yet somehow essential to the gathering, his genuine laughs meta-morphing glum politeness into some semblance of interest? The college buddies, drinking buddies, smoking buddies and doping buddies of a life past and the alimony buddies of life present? Or did it start with Sophie, the heaviest non-presence in the room? All these places where this life had started. They finished today. The rest of his life was going to be his.

One way or another.

So, who wasn’t here? Often that could reveal more than who was. The first were obvious: his ex; Robert; Grace. That had been nasty, especially for the children. The tears on their faces as arguments erupted over nothing. The denials after they were told that both Mommy and Daddy would always love them very much; and the anger focused on him seen as the belligerent in this mess. Of course the judges had to favour the maternal side, somehow seen as more loving. Even though she cheated over and over again, one mention of his free-spirited past and the kids were all hers. To finish it off she even got the little ones to blame it on him.

There were others of course. His granddaughter. He sometimes found it hard to believe that Robert had been that stupid; his winning Rugby team from the alma mater, who abandon their captain when he needed support most; the in-laws; all those he had fallen out with and in with and out with again, and business friends, offering him a new path, with him leading, but who “couldn’t be here today.”

The room began to feel big, and the crowd small.

What was being said? First, of course the hollow congratulations: “You don’t look a day over thirty-five;” “You’ve had it great!” “Here’s to the next fifty!” Then of course the conversations about rugby, soccer, life in general, anything that can make the words and drinks flow. Then the hushed words, things said behind backs thought to be invincible sound barriers, about the messy divorce: “he was a fool to lose her;” the alimony: “It’s killing him;” the party: “Can we go? It’s really uncomfortable here;” and his life in general: “How the mighty fall;” “I hear he’s still in receivership.”

As the guests sat down at the table for dinner every word was more painful than the crack of a hunting rifle. It had all accumulated to this. His wife was seemingly faithful – until she wasn’t. His finances, paying dividends until, like everyone’s, they crashed and burned. His skyscraper of contracts which collapsed into rubble. His son, who was perfect until one night “with a friend” too many. His daughter, given away by a man he had never met. All at once; all shocking; and all pushing him down after such a climb from his birth.

They pushed him to the brink and nearly over. But no more. The past fifty years had been constricted by the laws of gods and kings. Well damn them. He was going to decide his own faith from now on. No longer would he have a mass-made mirror. No longer would he merely personalise what everyone else had. As he stood up, there were two paths to take and in that instant he had to decide. To not be controlled, to not have to ponder the pain like he did that evening. He must pick between the cold, comforting steel in his jacket, offering solitude and an end to the rat run, and the cool glass of champagne on the bespoke white table cloth, offering a renaissance in his life, a return to the up, return to successful business, maybe even,- though maybe this was the drink talking – a return to his family – all on his terms with him in charge. Would he announce a new adventure in life or death? Bubbly or bullets? How would he define his life from now on?

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have an exciting announcement to make, one that will change all of our lives. The past seven years have been… tumultuous. Tonight all that changes. This party will be remembered.”