Excerpt from ‘The One Less Traveled’ by John O’Connor

Creative WorksThis week we have an extract from a novel by John O’Connor using stark simple language to create a tense, Carveresque atmosphere.

The One Less Traveled

“Are you even sure it’s what you want Jess? Have you properly thought about it?”
“Yes of course I have Rob, I’m not a fucking idiot”.

Robert had to be more careful with his phrasing.

“No, but what I mean is, are you sure the idea of a baby isn’t better than the reality? And why now? Why is it suddenly such an urgent matter?”
Jess stared at Rob with a look of submission, the reality dawning that perhaps they were incompatible. It was the look of one who has done all they can to explain themselves, to make their partner understand, and has still failed to breach square one. She shook her head slowly, more bemused than angry, closed her eyes, and rubbed her forehead. She was worn out by their irreconcilable opinions, by Robert’s incapacity to identify with her perspective. She gave it one last go.

“You’re missing the point Rob. You seem to think that this is some crazy whim I’ve had, like a baby is something I think might keep me entertained for a couple of weeks, but I’ve wanted this for ages. Ever since I decided to get my life on track, since I told you I didn’t want to live the life I used to, I’ve known that this is what I want. I couldn’t exactly bring it up to you then – we’d only been together a few months – but I was sure even then that I wanted to be a mum.

The sincerity and emotion in Jess’ voice was tangible. It was overwhelming and, for Robert, it was painful.

“I know for you us moving in together and you not going out all of the time was a big step, and was probably what you had in mind for growing up and moving on with your life, but I need more than that Rob. I need a child. I appreciate that you’ve made sacrifices, I really do, and I’m grateful, but I feel like there’s been a void in my life for a long time now. I maybe thought it was just to do with being stuck in that group, or not having a boyfriend that I loved, but now I’m out of that group, and I do love you, I really, really do. I’ve realised that this isn’t something that can be rectified like that, this is a need for something more, for something that I love more than I can even describe, something that will give my life meaning and purpose beyond self-interest. I need a child Rob”.

Jess was almost pleading with Robert, a desperation for what she thought would give her life meaning. Robert no longer doubted her earnestness, no longer doubted that this was what she wanted. It did not change his mind. Neither of them was going to budge; neither open to alterations. Both were acting out of good intentions, fighting for what they believed to be best. They had simply reached a stalemate.

“I just don’t know if I’m ready”.

Jess picked up her empty cup and turned towards the sink, rinsing it in silence as Robert unsuccessfully sought a way to find a compromise, or to at least soften the blow. He had suspected for weeks now that this conversation had been on the horizon, yet he had been unable to unearth any middle-ground, or discover a way to convey his point while avoiding the obliteration of the relationship. All he knew was that he did not want the same as Jess. She no longer seemed angry; she seemed resigned. Part of Robert wished it would revert to a slanging match, as it had been twenty minutes prior. All anger, and with it all hope, had ebbed away.

Jess raised her head wearily and looked back at Robert. Dark lines were developing under her eyes. It was 1am, and Robert had lost track of the length of this discussion.

“I don’t understand it Rob. Maybe if you gave me more of a reason we could start to work out what we’re going to do”.

Robert had tried numerous times to explain his position to Jess. It was difficult because his views, when laid out bare, made little sense even to himself. It was more a feeling than anything. The need for logic was stifling.

“I’m trying Jess, it’s difficult. I’m still only 24, and I know you think that’s old enough, and maybe it is for you – my mum was 22 when I was born – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s old enough for me. I just don’t feel like it’s the time or place in my life to be starting a family. We’ve only been together for two years, and I know that we’ve lived together for most of that, and it’s been a serious relationship for quite a while, but when it comes to things as significant as this, we’re still only really a couple in its infancy”.

“Is that was this is about? Do you still not see this as a serious relationship?”

The debate was becoming more and more pointless in Robert’s mind; the topics more and more cyclical. Suddenly, his life felt like a relentless attempt to convince Jess that he was committed.

“No Jess, you know that it’s not that, we’ve discussed that loads of times. I take this relationship very seriously, but that doesn’t mean we should just jump into having a baby. I feel like I just need some time to assess everything, see where I am in life, and then maybe I’ll decide that having a child is the right thing for us. It’s not a decision that I can take lightly Jess, it’s probably the biggest thing you can do in life. It’s not just us we have to think about – it’s the child – and I’m not committing to it if I’m not 100% sure it’s right”.

Robert thought that Jess had stopped listening halfway through his explanation, choosing instead to walk over to the window and face away from him. She stared aimlessly at the outside world. Robert did not believe she was taking any of it in, the streets now obscured by the descending veil of darkness. He thought that she simply had to look away from him. She turned round after his speech ended, walked back into the living room, which was adjoined to the kitchen, and sat in one of the two chairs next to the dining table. The table was just big enough to accommodate both of them. Robert was sat on the other chair. There was a couch a metre away from them, but he did not feel that the situation allowed for the relaxation that it would connote. This was a discussion to be had either pacing the room, or sat on rigid chairs at the table, accompanied by the nothing except a coffee, a cigarette, and the obdurate opinions of the one you love.

Robert dragged his chair closer to the open window as he smoked. He missed the freedom of enjoying a cigarette without being frozen, each puff escorted by the callous bitterness of the icy night. He supposed it was fair of Jess to allow him to smoke inside at all, but being by the open window appeared a rather arbitrary, inconsequential rule now. He questioned what regulations would be imposed if a baby was introduced. They would have to rent a new flat for a start; there was barely room for the two of them here. That was fine for now – Robert was happy to live in such circumstances – but it would certainly be unfit for a newborn. The idea made little sense to him; if only he could gain an insight into Jess’ mind.

“I just can’t do it Jess. I can see how much you want it, and I wish more than anything that we could agree and go on with this both delighted, both certain it was what we wanted, but I can’t. There’s no way I can bring a child into this world with the doubts that I have now. Maybe in a year or two I will have changed my mind, because I think I probably will want a kid eventually. It’s nothing to do with not wanting a child with you, there are just still things I want to do in life before I’ll be ready. I don’t want to look back at my life and regret jumping into things too early. I’m only 24 – I want to look back and remember this time in my life as packed and varied. I don’t want the next eighteen or more years to be focused entirely on one thing; I still want to experience more first. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry. Truly, I am”.

Jess put her elbows on the table and bowed her head, resting her hands on the sides of her face. She raised her head after a pause, running her fingers through her hair and leaving them on the nape of her neck. She remained stooped over the table, staring at Robert, a vestige of helplessness straining through a haze of exhaustion. Robert stared at the bags under her eyes, the disillusionment etched across her face, a face that had recently become gaunt and sallow. Was Robert imposing those characteristics because of the state of affairs? Were they really there? Yes, he was positive that they were. Jess’ countenance was not the same as the one that had returned from Bordeaux. Granted, he himself had probably changed over the two years, an inescapable product of the passing of time, but Jess was weary. Robert yearned for a problem that he could solve, but he could do nothing.

Jess quelled her quivering lip, gazing out of the window once more. There was a speck on the glass. She licked her thumb and rubbed, but it would not disappear. Conceding defeat, she dropped her elbows back on the table, and addressed that which she wanted to ignore; which they both wanted to ignore. Her eyes were reddening. Robert did not know whether tiredness was the cause.

“What now then?”

Robert did not know. He did not feel that there were any options. He wanted to stay with Jess; he was sure that he loved her. He could not have a child. Not yet. His mind did not search for solutions; there were none. His thought processes had all but ceased. His mind was numb.

“I don’t know”.

With the use of language and the build up of tension, we can’t help but be swept away with the raw emotion of the characters and identify with their complex, often contradictory conflicts which stay true to the nuances of real life. 

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