Chapter One: London, the present
The sigh had become a feature of the man. And when he sighed it signified no special existential despair, only an acknowledgement of the fact that another day had come and the coffee that he was drinking was no better than it had been yesterday. He sat in unsplendid isolation at the counter of his shop, his back to the rows and rows of stands that ran away from him toward the front door. Each stand was thick with plastic, and in the harsh strip lighting it was hard to see that each piece of plastic contained a comic.
“All right, Harvey? Make us one, I’m freezing.”
How long had it been from his own arrival until Josh tapped him playfully on one shoulder while walking the other way? The coffee cup was still warm in his hands. He looked up. “You’re late.” He hadn’t actually checked the time but he liked to start each working day by registering a complaint, preferably to Josh.
“What’s up? We open, are we?”
“Of course we are open. We keep business hours, or at least, I do.”
“Well, the sign doesn’t say Open.” Josh went back to the door and turned a rather grubby picture of Thor, God of Thunder, saying Closed to an identical one of him saying Open. “You wonder why we don’t get any customers, but you have to turn the sign round, Harvey.” Giggling, Josh made his way behind the counter and through into the back room where they kept the coffee. “You might have been swamped with customers by now if you’d remembered that simple rule.” Josh’s voice was muffled by the sound of water being run into a kettle.
But not muffled enough.
“Fuck off.” Harvey rose from his seat at the counter and moved to the front of the shop to avoid Josh’s voice, which now began painfully to accompany music on Xfm from the back room. He opened the door and walked out into a February wind that made him lift his shoulders and narrow his eyes.
Some days it was worse than usual, the memories, the wondering. It had never left him. Ever since he moved from Cornwall, made his way to the big city, he’d sort of expected it to go, to withdraw into some back room of his mind, but every day it had seemed stronger. He breathed deep of the icy air and contemplated the empty street. Few customers here, no passing trade. The sigh was a part of him, as much as the hunch of the shoulder and the reach for the cigarettes from the inside pocket of his denim jacket. He struggled to light up in the hectic wind, failed, swore vaguely, and made his way back into the shop to sit once more behind the counter on one of the two high stools. After a few moments he stabbed out the butt with a hard vicious motion.
“Turn that shit down, will you, Josh!”
“OK, Harvey, OK. You don’t need to get nasty.” And Harvey put his head in his hands and felt the way his hair was disappearing, leaving him: abandoning ship.
“What I could have done.” It was one-thirty and the Queen’s Head was full. But they had been there for over an hour and had a prime seat. It was a pub without noticeable character or appeal. But it was located midway between one set of office blocks and another and had accepted the benefits of fortune without complaint. It was also the closest place to get a drink to Inaction Comix.
“What might have been.” Harvey was making a song of it, an ironic little play for Josh’s benefit. What else could he do? He’d told the story too many times.
“Yeah.” Josh’s mind and his glasses were on the fruit machine and more specifically the T-shirt of the pretty blonde leaning against it. “Yeah, you could have been in Tahiti or something.”
“New York.” Harvey didn’t like his fantasy to be made commonplace. No lottery winner’s confusion for him. He knew what he’d have done. “A little coffeehouse downtown with murals on the walls, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, you know, classy but trashy, and I’d still have collected but just for fun.”
“Yeah, cool. A Superman One would have got you that, no problem.” Josh smiled hopefully at the blonde who turned away to her less desirable friend with a grimace. “You could have been a contender.” He put on a comedy-Brando to cover his not unanticipated failure and tried to catch the friend’s eye.
“Yeah, I could have been a contender”—Harvey pulled on his third pint—“but Bleeder is the contender now. He’s out there somewhere with a Superman One. And good luck to him.”
The blackboards above the bar described the almost risibly limited selection of foodstuffs that the pub had to offer. He examined them with the eyes of one who has read them before but seeks distractions.
“Maybe he’s sold it, but maybe he chucked it away the day after you gave it to him.” Josh found his attention caught, as it often was, by the topic of Harvey’s loss.
“No, he hasn’t sold it: They only come on the market every blue moon and it’s always in the press when they do. I’ve sat and watched its value increase for twenty years. Every year I look in Overstreet and every year it’s another few thousand dollars. A few thousand a year for twenty years . . . So yeah, maybe he chucked it out with the trash. Or maybe he just likes reading it too much to part with it.”
“What did you swap it for again?” Josh wasn’t usually malicious; that’s why Harvey liked him, or tolerated him at least. He picked up his pint and finished it in a long mouthful.
“Fuck off,” Harvey said.
“So, have you decided about going to the reunion?” Josh was struggling to keep pace and his fourth pint was making him slur a little. Harvey had strict standards about alcohol consumption—don’t get silly until the fifth pint—but he politely ignored Josh’s faux pas.
“I’ve thrown the letter away,” he said, making sure he enunciated clearly. “I just don’t see the point really. What could I possibly say or do to interest those people?”
The letter had arrived in the Saturday post and Harvey had been expecting it. It offended everything in his nature that he was expecting it, indeed he had tried very hard not to expect it, which is a difficult trick to perform. Every year they came, and every year he attempted it. And every year the trick failed. When it arrived he had a debate with himself and this too was a repeat of one he’d been having for twenty years. The debate involved two levels. The first was the “I’m not going to go” level. The second was the “I’m not going to let my going or not going mean anything in a feeble, shallow way about where my life has got to” level. The letter was an invitation to a reunion at his old school in Cornwall, and at both levels he usually lost.
This year was particularly pressing as it was twenty years and would be a more formal affair. Twenty years since they had sat their O levels together in the drafty school hall, the same place they would hold the reunion. And now O levels were a historical relic, as meaningless when trying to impress the younger generation as boasting of your high score on Space Invaders.
“So tell them you run a comic shop.” Josh managed to make it sound like a good thing to say.
“Mmm, you mean tell them exactly what I told them the last time I was down two years ago, and the year before that and five years ago, and ten?”
Harvey sighed his sigh, and flicked cigarette ash into a metal tin on the ugly little table that the pub grudgingly allowed its customers to sit at. “Admit that in the years since I last saw them I’ve not got married, or had any children, or had a promotion, or inherited a fortune . . . That what I’ve done is exactly the same thing I was doing last time I went?”
“Well, tell them you’ve expanded.”
“They’ll see that for themselves.”
“In the shop. Tell them you’re doing really well and planning to open another branch, something like that.”
“Lie to them?”
“It’s a thought.” Harvey dropped the stub of his cigarette into the tin tray and watched it lying there smoking by itself. “But if I’m going to do that why not tell them I’ve won the lottery and am moving to New York to open a coffeehouse with superheroes on the walls? I mean, if I’m going to lie why not make it something exciting?”
Josh grinned to announce a joke: “Tell them you found a Superman One.”
Harvey closed his eyes for a long moment. Then he sighed. The fact that he did it a lot didn’t mean it was only a habit.
Excerpted from The Swap by Antony Moore. Copyright © 2008 by Antony Moore. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.