The glorious amnesia was dissipating even faster than usual. Sensing the weight next to her as a pressure on her temples, as white noise, and concentrating on blanking her mind, she tried to fool herself into returning to the empty coolness, the relief of dreamlessness. Too late. A peculiar sensation, the body signalling an emotional state before the mind provides details. As it treated her to the highlights, she attempted objectivity. Had she been thrilled by the power of her words, the cinematic poses of her innocence? Then that voice, reproachfully, "Well you've thought it now." Condemning herself. Again.
The ground was autumn-crunchy as she walked to the car, scattered with the strange pods. Inside, silky as a spaniel’s ear and warm like a kiss from the afternoon sun, she imagined secret little worlds. There were dark unreachable places in the centre. What sort of soul had their journey released? What mysterious signal had sent the hairy petal-cases spiraling downwards to rest at impossible angles and throw bizarre shadows? Skipping to avoid treading on the delicate stars, she got in. With the music up, she didn’t hear hundreds of them scrunching as she pulled away.
He brought it because she’d asked for some spare sheet music, but it was Grandma’s book. Goodness knows why he even had it; she had only ever heard him play Scott Joplin, a partiality she was in danger of inheriting. She stroked the ancient blue binding, loving it, unable to fully own it. Printed in the 1940s, this was treasure from a time of hope, despite all they’d been through. She could never live up to it. Miserably, she turned the precious pages. She couldn’t even remember the lines of the bass clef.
Do old flames flail, fail? Not unless the candle is bad. Not unless too many flies have met their grisly deaths there, disintegrating, sickening, shedding limbs, wings. No. An old flame is as inspiring, as magical, as comforting, as a new one – more so: new flames smoke, over-excited, dance wildly. Too bright.
So how, my old flame, can I be expected not gasp when, unexpected, un-hoped-for, you call my name across the market place? There will never come a time when you are buried so deeply I will not palpitate at the prospect of you. I do not want it.
It was Monday, day of the joyful mysteries. As she flew along, skirts flapping, the weight of the heavy beads nudged against her thigh, a reminder of her namesake's fear and excitement. Be it unto me according to thy word. Bumping along the cobbles, her veil slipped but she didn't pause to rearrange it. The morning sun danced with her thoughts off the diamond panes, filling her with champagne bubbles. And there was light. She was pedalling away from gloom and guilt, into the light. And in him is no darkness at all.
“Hello again! You following me around?”
She wasn’t, but something inside had done a little hop when she walked into the office and saw him there. She picked up her photocopying.
“Yeah. Can’t help myself.”
They left together, she trying not to wobble in her new shoes.
“Can’t help yourself!” Was that actually a chuckle? She concentrated on keeping her face clear, her head high. On no account must he be able to tell what she had dreamed about him last night. He was a complete, beautiful, unbearable mystery to her. And she planned to be exactly the same back.
She loves lying so still that the room, the gentle lights, are reflected in lagoons between heaps of bubbles. Her body is ghostly beneath the surface, less real than the undulations of tiles, the uncanny, upside-down taps. She watches the water vapour dancing upwards, twisting away and folding back like chiffon in the breeze. The wind catches the window, tugging it, and candles throw up angry wisps of insubstantial dark which vanish instantly. Without thinking, she leans over and draws a heart in the condensation on the screen; involuntary, muscle memory. Who is she thinking of? She adds an arrow.
I love lying still, waiting until the room, the gentle lights, are reflected in lagoons between heaps of bubbles. Under the surface my body seemed ghostly as I watched water vapour dancing upwards, twisting away and folding back on itself like chiffon in the breeze. When the wind caught the window, tugging it, the candles threw up angry wisps of dark which vanished instantly, insubstantial. Involuntarily, I drew a heart in the condensation on the shower screen. Surprised by the strength of that muscle memory, I tried not to think about who I was thinking of, and added an arrow.
Lying longing beside this too chivalrous man, she aches with the unutterable heaviness of unliveable possibilities. We will never know. There is a beauty to this night, too. But how difficult to come to terms with not knowing, not trying. Does the future have to be singular? Would, could his touch ever be as powerful as this not-touching? We will not take this road. Lying in the stillness of that darkest of nights, she becomes gradually aware of infinite, infinitesimal movement, of turning together with the earth, the ancient sidereal journey, imperceptible, unimaginable, eternal, majestic. We can have this.
My face feels wrong and when I look in the mirror I see why: there is a line deeply etched across the bridge of my nose and the shadows under my eyes give me a ghoulish, manic look. I try to smile, to smooth the edges of this stretched-out, alien face. My jaw won’t unclench.
But they, so vulnerable, their inquisitive noses twitching with endearing, scraggy confusion: I will love them. I feel a surge of affection. Unexpectedly, golden joy fills me; I am going to burst, to overflow with the lightness of it. My breath catches. My heart sings.
The jungle is extravagantly exuberant. It throbs with fertility, with the explosive potentiality of life. Vines thicker than human arms criss-cross between trunks teeming with wings and legs, tangled amongst one another in endless interdependence. A fallen tree lets in ambrosial, infrangible mist, shot through with emerald and flashes of paradisiac feathers. Only the unearthly calls of unseen creatures defy its crystalline substance to pierce the rich air. The noise of abundance is deafening. And, glorying in the pool of gossamer green, the door blossoms. Around it, a halo of golden light reaches out to caress, consecrate the thrumming swarms.
Squatting on upturned buckets we nursed scalding tin cups of chai, enjoying momentary relief from the jolting of the truck. The tree under which we waited while the tyre was changed – back to the hurriedly patched-up spare – spread its branches generously over the cluster of corrugated roofs, but could not mitigate the heat which pushed down on us like a child’s angry scribbles. All around, the desert stretched out, endlessly horizontal, its wavering monotony interrupted by the occasional splash of a bright sari, the flick of a dusty turban-end, and nonchalant goats, who didn’t mind whether we ever reached Jaipur.
It took her a long time to forgive him for begging. In some ways adoration had been a welcome change, but abject neediness repulsed her. Having realised her own extravagant power, she felt disdainful at his servile dependency. It cramped and suffocated her, cloying, hot hands at her throat.
The other, in contrast, was ice; his attention like a crisp autumn morning: rare, refreshing. She was awake, alive in his presence – invigorated by even a momentary glimpse of his retreating back disappearing through a doorway. Her every pore tingled with the joy of it and the certainty of its brevity.
What was I thinking? That I could dazzle, throw her into the shade? That it would cure me?
Oh treacherous heart. A thousand thousand slimy things be heaped upon your wishing.
How could I have willed it, that awful meeting? The way you looked at her: seared forever on the insides of my eyelids, a constant cringing reminder of my arrogance, my idiocy. Nausea. Loneliness. The end of all that delicious hoping.
And the worst of it: she’s a nice-looking, gentle, ordinary girl. You don’t have everything in common. It wasn’t ‘meant to be’. Timing is everything.
I was late.
He practically skipped to find the precious picture, hidden in some corner of his locker. Suddenly shy, he shows me the one of her by herself first, waiting thirstily for me to see how like him she is, how tall now, how beautiful. And then the other, Carefully, Don’t smudge the glass.
“I have my arm round her in this one – look, all the way round.” A father’s pride. Love.
Will she know of these, when she’s old enough to join the dots between these fleeting meetings into a picture of her dad on the other side of the country?
pol y sem ous ness
Rows of young faces, shining with the joy of it, or the effort of remembering the words, beam across the hall. Over-exuberant arms, flung askew, disrupt the dance.
But he, the one who didn’t get the message about the t-shirts, he is at the end of the third row, on the right. Oblivious to the audience of parents exuding their desperate pride and delight like fragrance, he yawns, stretches like a kitten. Occasionally he gives a nonchalant flap to the strip of fabric he has been given. The boy next to him keeps flicking him in the eye.
His other self took over again, she’s off limits to you, it said, not all possibilities are open to us. The world is finite; our hopes spill over the edge. (Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses)
Is it possible to feel nostalgia for something you haven’t experienced? For the blueness of the eyes of an older colleague you only work with, can never really know? For that phone call you were afraid to make? For the feel of a waist you will never touch, an un-kissed mouth? Future is paradox: duplicitously multiplicitous, but always at the same time crushingly, inexorably singular.
Pathetic fallacy. As in: I was exhausted. The sky, accordingly, was trying to wash the greyness out of the dreary world but was instead splashing it ever-further across the bewintering fields. I drove, blinded by the rain, too fast for the slippery conditions and distracted by the weight of the bags under my eyes.The speeding van didn’t see me, pulled out...While one part of my brain sent the signal to my slamming right foot, just in time, another part said, almost audibly: "Go on, just hit me. Then I'd get to lie down."Enlivening horror flooded through me.
Her words inched across the page like reluctant caterpillars, her spidery writing more interesting to look at than to read. She squinted a bit. Actually it was just messy – the chaos of the recalcitrant garden intruding through the rain-streaked window, its lingering fingers leaving wet trails across her notebook. Gazing out, she registered four planes: her reflection in the diamond panes, dishevelled and bending with the irregular glass; driplets and droplets careering drunkenly downwards, sideways, crashing into one another, lurching dangerously; the garden, pulsing with lush greenish richness; and its invisible inhabitants, endlessly crawling creating eating excreting dying. She wrote.
It's actually called the Shambles, and the town is apparently famous for it, this labyrinth of twisted streets lined with improbably little shops. It's best at twilight, when the shop-fronts exude cheer and goodwill with the rich golden light. Twinkling isn't right - this glow has a dependable solidity as it extrudes into the darkening streets. People's faces, the bustle of pre-Christmas shoppers, are illuminated. Jumbled-together buildings jut into each other at odd angles; old beams and beautiful curved-glass bows settle comfortably between sleeker, modern lines. The wet cobbles gleam, proud of their place in this carefully ordered little world.
How carefully they negotiate their new relations to one another. He has changed his Facebook status – the tell-tale heart now sitting (smugly?) on his profile. She watches him constantly, searching him, in wonderment, for reassurance. She shines with pride, but also craves my admiration. And the others orbit around this couple whose commitment forms the first stable resting point in the shifting sands of these early weeks. Is it relief they feel, or the excitement of a grand adventure? Who will they be when they come to the end of this road, and will they know how far they’ve come?
When it's better to be "thoughtless" than the other thing: when you unthinkingly take what you'd know I need if you stopped to think. When your hello kiss is like one you'd give your Granny. When you watch me spending an hour getting ready to go out with you and forget to tell me I look nice. If we were aware of the wounds our thoughtlessness inflicts perhaps we would be more careful with one another. Or maybe we wouldn't. Intimacy is supposed to be dangerous. Heaven preserve us from becoming too thoughtful: to consciously hurt you would be unforgivable.
He was following the wild man of locusts and honey, but as they journeyed further away from the comforting market-place calls, the struggle to pinpoint his actual physical presence increased. The edges of his person wavered, his reassuring voice oddly indistinguishable from the caws of carrion-birds whose presence overhead was becoming oppressive.
Worse, as he walked onwards, the desert became larger – and it was not just the horizon receding, no: the actual material of the desert was expanding, so that pebbles became boulders, and the swarming invisible life of the shifting sands was monstrous.
The sky was a livid blister.
And then the voices started. Amidst the unearthly, mournful cries of sand crickets and the drone of fat, incessantly wheeling flies, they were easy to miss, to ignore. At first. But they were not to be shut out for long. Shut out? Impossible – they were already in. They were his stomach, clutching at emptiness, his brightness-blinded eyes, staring sightlessly and seeing too much, crying out for the relief of darkness, silence. Because that was the temptation: not bread, not riches, not power – just quiet.
And if he’d known how noisy it was going to get, perhaps he would have succumbed.
The evening sun glinted off it as the plane swam dizzily through the Mediterranean sky. EasyJet – the plastic orange of the tail contrasting pitifully with the glorious depth of even an English sunset: dream-laden. From our vantage point on the stubbly hill, the tiny shreds of matter scattered like breadcrumbs in its ghostly wake were not immediately visible or comprehensible. It was only as they fluttered nearer that the writing was perceptible, and even then, dancingly eluding our grasping hands, they came to rest only in unreachable branches. There, they blossomed into fantastical birds, crepe-paper flowers, happy-snaps of holiday romances.
“Do you know what borderline personality disorder is?” The gentleman with the smudge-kneed cords and surprisingly beautiful face was gazing a little too intently.
“I’m afraid I know very little.” He was still looking at me with those startlingly wide, ingenuous eyes, so I struggled on, “Why do you ask?”
“My girlfriend has it. I didn’t know until I fell in love with her, but now I’m in love with her, what can I do? And now she knows how I feel, so she’s playing games.”
Was I scornful of this man’s guileless faithfulness? I should be humbled by it.