The glass slipped from her hand.
Leaning over the edge of the balcony she watched it tumble through the air briefly before smashing on the balcony of the flat below, the ice-cubes from her drink skidding across the floor.
She sighed, walked back through her flat and down the stairs to the flat below.
She pressed the buzzer and waited.
No-one came to the door. No sound inside but the faint undulating hum of a fan.
She pressed it again, starting to perspire in the stuffy corridor.
No response. She turned to leave.
“What do you want?” a voice abruptly shot out behind her.
A man stood in the doorway wearing a crumpled cheap black suit, as though he had been sleeping in it. It was a Saturday.
“I dropped a glass.” She said, by way of explanation.
“A glass. It dropped and smashed on your balcony.”
He looked visibly annoyed, as though he couldn’t fathom why she would tell him this. “Do you want it back?”
“Well, no, I guess not, I just thought-”.
“Well then.” He snorted derisively.
“I -“. He shut the door.
She frowned and a fly crawled up the back of her neck.
The glass slipped from her hand.
We wouldn’t have been worried if this had been the first glass we’d heard smash this morning, but it was the third. Three broken glasses in one day, and she didn’t even seem to notice. She also didn’t seem to notice she’d left the front door wide open since we got here, or that the family cat had been missing all week. Sure, occasional lapses are to be expected at this age, but such regular slip-ups of the mind could no longer be ignored. We knew that this day had been on the cards for a long time coming, but now that it was finally here, none of us actually knew what to do.
We were all sitting around the aged dining-room table. We’d sat in these exact same seats as children, causing our own mischief, breaking our own glasses. There was never a moment of silence back then, but now a melancholy echo of nothingness hung in the air as we looked at one another, an unspoken understanding passing amongst each of us. Nobody could bring themselves to move, until Flick nodded, almost to herself, stood, and walked to the kitchen.
“Come on, Mum. Let’s get in the car.”
As he got to the bottom of the stairs, he suddenly forgot why he was there.
It was dark in the house, though a small amount of pre-dawn light was coming in through the window of the front door. The door was open. Closed. The scene swam, slipping away from him. The window was gone but the light remained. He needed to focus. Remember. He moved down the corridor, feet swimming through the dense air.
Every night he dreamt this same scene, always the same. He couldn’t forget this time. Must focus. Retrace the steps, remember. He entered the kitchen, dark slate floor cool on the soles of his bare feet, and moved towards the door at the rear of the house.
The keyring. Her keyring. Hung up by the back door. Her house. He’s leaving.
Carpet between his toes. He was in her bedroom. Shoes off. Raining outside. New carpet. Warm light. ‘Please, leave. Please.’
She spoke to him, mouth opening and closing now in slow motion, he heard static. Words a fierce jumble in his head. He could explain. He’d forgotten the colour of her eyes. Knew everything but her eyes. He stared at her face but his tears blurred everything. He just wanted to see her eyes, one last time. Please.
As he got to the bottom of the stairs, he suddenly forgot why he was there.
Unexpectedly, he felt warm sand beneath his feet, not the plush carpet he thought was once there. Under the gentle moonlight, a white horse galloped past with a monkey sprawled on its flank, scowling at the night sky, a cigarette clinging loosely to its pursed lips.
He blinked twice, rubbed his eyes with a gentle violence, and attempted to turn his head to retreat back upstairs. Like an owl, the rest of his neck stayed in place. A hoot escaped his beak. He spanned his wings and flew to the moon - glistening, and silver, and bright.
As quickly as they materialised, his wings all at once disappeared and he plummeted to the Earth's core. Scathing blisters enveloped his torso, searing and bright, and he awoke with a scream.
He looked down at his hands in horror. To his relief, they were made of skin, and veins, and a wispy covering of hair. He felt a neck that followed his head when he turned. A dream. It was all a peculiar dream.
He rose from his bed, the night-terror teasing a dryness to his mouth, when for a second, he swore he could hear a dusting of sand in the breeze.
Bright light seared through the sheer curtains.
It was the third time this month. I looked over at Mother and her shoulders sank with a sigh, realising that he had broken his promise once more. Mother gripped her cane and slowly shuffled towards the front door, brushing past me, pushing me back down onto the sofa. She muttered something under her breath I didn’t quite hear.
The pummelling fists were more fervent than usual, and an eerie chill ran down the length of my spine, something I had never experienced before. Mother picked up speed and urgently threw open the door. I set the television to mute and strained to hear the tense mumbles being exchanged a few feet away.
This time, I couldn’t hear him cursing at the Officers, like he usually does. For a while it was silent, then a heavy thud, the clattering of Mother’s cane, and all at once the most gut-wrenching wail I had ever felt invade my tiny ears. I ran out of the living room, saw Mother curled in a ball, with two Officers standing above her. I got there just in time to hear one of them say,
“There was nothing we could do to slow him down.”
Bright light seared through the sheer curtains.
She pushed herself even further into the back corner and clutched the paper to her chest.
The megaphone blared violence. "This is the security division of sector 27b-6. We know you are in there. Open this door immediately."
She could see their silhouettes illuminated up against the window like some macabre puppet show. The city had privatised it's police force years ago, long before she was born, so these 'security contractors' were the closest thing they had to law and order. Hired thugs.
Dust motes drifted through the harsh beam of light which cut the apartment in two. She opened her hand, looked down at the paper and the woman smiled back at her. She had found it in amongst the rubbish of the salvage yard - a relic from the old world. She still doesn't know why she didn't report it; why she slipped it into her pocket. They must have caught her during the CCTV review.
Angling it towards the light she read it again: "15 fun things to do with leftover egg boxes". The picture of the woman smiled up at her. So kind. So gentle. She wondered what eggs were and the door flew off its hinges.
I haven’t seen my cat since Sunday.
She meows from the gut, and purrs like a queen. She is slight, she is fiercely independent, and she is my life. I can feel myself unravelling with overwhelming worry.
I lower myself onto my hands and knees and I crawl through the house as she does, imaging my bushy tail imitating hers, praying with every slinky manoeuvre that I can recreate her final journey.
From this angle, my world changes. Undersides of tables and zoomed views of skirting joints are suddenly on display, exploded to a magnitude I had never known before. Her world, now mine, is expansive.
I continue my four-legged search, clambering up surfaces and gently lowering myself back down. How does she leap as she does? The heights and falls petrify me. They make my hair stand on end.
I wonder if she is scared, alone, and hopeless. I can only imagine the morbid squalor she must be in. The thought brings a lump to my throat. I feel myself draining. I must rest.
From her bed, I haul myself from frenzied slumber. I see a gap in the wall, dozens of desperate claw marks surrounding the cavity. A pathetic mew seeps from my withered lips.
I haven’t seen my cat since Sunday.
He’s normally a real house cat despite the flap we put in the back door, but it looks like he had scratched and torn at the fly screen at the front, managed to slip through.
I walked the streets the last few nights calling to him, and you can hear other owners calling to their own pets, like some giant game of Marco Polo. There are a lot of flyers up around the neighbourhood - Fluffy, Duke, Sid - all plastered over each other. It seems as though Harry wasn’t the only one who’s gone.
I can still see the smoke plume in the distance from the back of the house. There was an explosion at the research plant just over a week ago and thick oily smoke still oozes up from beyond the tree line. The pollution in the air gives the light an orange glow.
It’s dusk and it’s quiet. Darkness begins to pool in the corners. I sit on the back porch to watch the birds, but the bird table is vacant. I watch a worm as it wrenches itself free of the earth and moves across the path, away from the woods and the smoke.
The engine spluttered and the car rolled to a stop.
Two disbanded souls caught in a moment of chronic disappointment, further exacerbated by the vehicular failure that has fallen upon them. We descend.
“I don’t believe this. We’ve barely driven 100 miles. Why did I let that cowboy trick me into buying this piece-of-shit tin can?”
“Because you wanna sleep with him, that’s why.”
“For the last fucking time, I do not want to sleep with the used car salesman who uses Vaseline to keep his moustache curls in place.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about the state of his moustache.”
Tense and turgid snipes, aiming to destroy their delicate footbridge underfoot. Compassion and forgiving patience, why can’t these be mustered? They must alter their direction, they are breaking.
“Can you believe we’re stuck out here?”
“We could be out here a while - not a sign of life anywhere, and another car hasn’t passed us for at least an hour.”
“Shit. My head hurts.”
“Want me to pass you anything?”
“Just some water.”
“Here. You know, your eyes look really nice in this light.”
“You mean night time when there is no light?”
“No! I mean this light that’s here, right this second. Dusk. Twilight. Whatever you want to call it. When the sun has dipped low enough behind the mountains that the sky is no longer red, not yet moonlit blue, but tinged with this dusty, otherworldly purple. It’s the light of in-between. It picks up all the flecks of colour around your pupils and makes them look really beautiful.”
“I’m trying so hard not to roll my eyes.”
“Come on, I’m trying.”
A breakthrough. A moment of sweet, vulnerable truth that has torn a brick from the impenetrable wall. A gentle meander that points them toward True North. Now gallop, canter, blast off to reconciliation.
“Sorry. You know, when we first decided to leave home I didn’t think it would actually happen. I thought you would run, or I would run, or some monumental disaster of nature would tear the world apart and no trace of either one of us would be left behind. But that didn’t happen. We stayed with each other and we did leave home. I never thought I would find another human being who would want to leave, but here you are. Here we are. Together.”
“Yeah, that’s fate, or whatever they call it.”
“Whatever it is, it feels foreign. In the beginning I was petrified, but I stayed, I tried, and suddenly I was full of this ravenous eagerness.”
“Now, I just feel -.”
“Hey, hold on. I see headlights.”
Close. A hair away from the truth. A word on the tongue savagely denied freedom. The moment is done and they are shattered. They were breaking, now they are well and truly shattered. Another scorched plane that couldn't be saved from fire. Is this what they call anti-mimesis? Cars spluttering to stops. Lives spluttering to splinters. We have failed once more. We must move on. We must try again. Elsewhere.
The engine spluttered and the car rolled to a stop.
I got out. I was a few hours out of town and the scrubby desert stretched to both horizons.
A short distance from the car there was the body of a man. He was wearing a black suit and lying face down in the dirt. I walked over to him.
“I’ve broken down. Do you know how to fix an engine?” The body didn’t move.
“Sir?” I nudged him with my foot and he swore. He rolled over, lent up on one elbow and eyed me with contempt. His face was covered with brown dust and he wore a dog collar.
“Yes?” he fired at me, annoyed.
“My car has broken down. I was wondering if you knew how to fix it?”
“Can’t you see that I am busy?” He gestured with his head to the flattened earth beneath where he had been lying. It was damp with condensation, he must have been there for a while.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I trailed off. “What exactly is it that you are doing?”
“Well, I am not trying to die if that is what you thought.” He eyed me suspiciously. "Definitely not."
“Yes yes, of course.”
He glared at me from the dirt. "Well, do you want to hear my story then?"
“Ah, yes, I guess so."
“Well, I am a priest. Have been for as long as I can remember, and I am one of the best. But, I have questions you see, questions that aren't answered by the bible. Questions only He can answer. Taking one's own life is a sin of course, but if I just happened to lose it, you know, then I figure that is ok. Then I can ask him in person"
"So you are out here, trying not to die?"
"Absolutely, but if something were to happen to me of course, I wouldn't be able to prevent that. It's out my control." He was looking me directly in the eye. "Let’s have a look at your car then.”
He prised himself off the ground and we walked back to the car. I popped the hood.
“Ah, I see your problem. It’s haunted. Clearly haunted.” I knew the salesman had been a crook. The priest set about exorcising the carburettor.
He popped his head out. "What brings you out here?"
"This morning I was accidentally delivered tomorrow's paper. I was flicking through and I saw that I died in a fire in my house, about 6pm this evening. I still have a lot of places I would like to see so I decided to leave town and drive west."
"Very wise." He muttered from somewhere under the hood.
It was 1pm when he finished, and the sun was beating down. I wrote my address on a slip of paper and handed it to him. He took it, smiled and shook my hand, leaving a smudge of grease on my palm.
As I drove away I could see him in my mirror. Thumb out. Heading east.
We carried as much as we could bear.
They’d cut off the power to the cities so we had to get south before winter set in. A small group of us trudging with wheelbarrows and homemade sleds, dragging our lives through the mud behind us. When night fell there was no familiar orange glow of the city on the horizon, just blackness, as though God have given up before his first day’s work.
We had heard that in the south they had managed to build bunkers underground before the permafrost set in and the ground became iron. They were accepting people of any nation, race or creed. The last refuge of humanity. We navigated via the sun and the stars, always driving south, skirting round any towns or cities we saw. The cities were lawless now - full of rioters and looters. Those people who thrive on chaos.
There were rumours as well, about how the radiation was affecting people. It had affected all of us of course - no child had come into this world for at least a year, not alive at least - but this was different. It made some people aggressive, inhuman. You heard stories of fathers ripping apart their children, communities having to barricade themselves against their neighbours. It was best to avoid the cities.
As we headed south, the days became a little longer and the wind less bitter. We were also running low on supplies, had to put new notch after new notch on our belts, but we heard we were close. At least that’s what they said from the front. Then, at night we began to see a glow on the horizon, it was faint at first, but it got brighter every night. We thought we were getting closer.
That’s when we hit the fence. Stretching as far as we could see in either direction, lit by harsh floodlights along its length. Barbed wire and bright lights and betrayal. There would be no refuge.
We made camp. Some people tried to find a way around the fence, but most never came back. Those that did said they never saw an end to it. Just mile after mile of steel links.
Despair set in, that awful disease. Each morning you saw fewer faces around the fire, people had nothing to wake up for anymore, so they stayed forever asleep. I became close to a man in the camp. He was handy, he could fix stuff. I think that is why he never succumbed to the despair. He kept his hands busy: fixing tents, mending fishing rods and building us a life.
Despite this, I began to succumb to the disease as the months ground on. Even the south was getting colder now, the nights were getting longer, the wind more bitter. We supplemented supplies with what we could catch and forage, but I knew we couldn’t last long. There was no refuge, just our camp by the wire. There was no hope.
Until today. Until you were born.
We carried as much as we could bear.
We started with clothing. Lightweight, breathable, earth tones. Nothing that would slow us down, anything that could easily blend into the ever-changing terrain if we needed it to. Choosing was hard. I wanted to pack my favourite sweater, but my father told me it would take up too much precious space. I hated that we had to leave again. Every time, they tell me and every time I am devastated about it. I sigh and put the sweater back on the shelf.
After the clothes had been chosen, or begrudgingly set aside, we moved on to supplies. Nothing perishable, again nothing too heavy, and certainly nothing that held a smell. Nothing that made it easier for them to track us.
“Are you ready?” My father whispered.
We nodded. We knew the drill. Every few months, it was the same and every few months he still asked us if we were ready. Truth was, we were never ready. Since the war, we hadn’t stayed still for longer than 93 days. That was the record. For years they had been trying to wipe us out. It filled my parents with fear, but sometimes I wished they would let them find us. At least it would be over. The upheaval, the struggle, the antagonising desperation to find a safe space to hide us long enough for this battle to be over.
It was two in the morning. The sky was a deep, dense black, a frosting of stars offered us little light in the deserted streets, but darkness was what we needed to remain part of the shadows. As always, we shuffled in side-step, my father first, myself second, my mother third. At the end of every building, we held our breath, crouched low to the ground, and ran as fast as we could to the next wall.
We pushed on. After an hour I was starting to get tired, I always flagged after the first hour. It was time to break into the first round of rations. As we sat on the floor to open our backpacks, there was a break in the stark silence.
“Hold on, hold on!” A vicious whisper erupted from my father’s mouth, “I hear something.”
He peered around the corner as a single gunshot drowned out my senses. I watched on while his head flew backwards in a sea of ruby waves.
“DAD!” I screamed into the dark. My mother grabbed my arm and threw her palm over my mouth, holding hostage the exclamations that were pushing their way forth.
“Come on, come one, we have to move now.” With her hand glued to my mouth, my mother twisted my arm upwards so I stood with a squeal, tears pouring from my eyes. She forced me back the way we came and we shot down an alleyway, diving into a deep stoop and buried ourselves in the rubble. We sobbed hollow, mournful cries, and we shook in one another’s arms. The ground trembled. Then we heard them.
She poured wine for each of the three men sat around the table.
The first, a stout, sour man named Giovanni, had a penchant for expensive red wine that tastes like vinegar and barely legal teens who most likely weren’t all that legal. He was filthy rich, and every day he grew filthier and richer, though official currency wasn’t his strong suit. He collected enemy debts in broken kneecaps and paid his own in death. Stubby fingers and a spotty facade gave Giovanni the air of an awkward adolescent, an adolescent who only seems able to find joy in between the begrudging legs of underage hookers.
To his right sat a spindly, sad sap of a man who went by the alias ‘Naples’. Everybody assumed that’s where he washed up from, but nobody cared to ask. His greasy curtains hung in front of his eyes, and sharp bones carved out his gaunt, ghostly white face. What he lacked in body mass he more than made up for in sadistic violence, the only place where he succumbed to gluttony.
The third man was the tallest and broadest of the three. To an outsider, Vincenzo looked like the ringleader. The assumed ‘Alpha’. A half-smoked cigar in a permanent vice-like grip between his lips. A sneer that coaxed all hairs on the back of your neck to eerie attention. The money clip that stuck out obnoxiously from this breast pocket. Everything about him demanded your gaze, and yet repulsed it all at once. As a wicked threesome, they seemed magnificently intimidating, yet she knew otherwise.
She circled the table once more, ensuring the three men on no occasion saw an empty glass in front of them. Her pour was precise, perfect. She could hold the bottle one-handed and ensure a gentle stream eased its way into the crystal gauntlet from two feet above the table, not a splash escaping onto the walnut surface below.
There’s usually a little more action in the groups she works with, a little more energy and enthusiasm, especially when the good red comes out. For the heads of organised crime in one of the biggest cities in the world, these guys seemed a little fusty. Time to cut to the chase, she supposed.
“Does everyone know why I’m here?” It was mostly rhetorical, but she thought it compassionate to pose the question. As expected, grunts and glares were all that came her way.
“Does anyone have any questions?” Again, rhetoric. History tells us that all mobsters know of the Mexican standoff, although they resent the racial reference. Shooting before you’re shot really is the fairest way to prove your leadership capabilities.
“Draw your weapons, boys.”
All three men whipped pistols from their holsters at the exact same moment. They pointed one weapon thirty degrees to the left, the other, thirty degrees to the right. As if part of some twisted choreographed number, six fingers pulled backwards in flawless unison and a stream of lead formed a perfect triangle between them. She was out the door before the dance reached its finale.
She poured wine for each of the three men sat around the table.
It was late and the restaurant carriage was dimly lit. Snow whorled past the windows. Each flake briefly illuminated by the light from the carriage, tumbling with intense fury, before disappearing into the night. She wished Jorge was here. He would have something profound to say about it she was sure. He always had something profound to say.
She looked at the clock on the wall. It was 1:47am. She wanted these men to go to bed, but they seemed to be talking intently with no sign of stopping. Everyone else on this train must be asleep, she thought. Jorge had once said that sleep was like practicing being dead. You practice your whole life until you are ready to do it for good. She thought about that a lot.
They gestured her over to order another bottle. She knew they must know a lot about wine as they were ordering the second best vintage on the list. Maria had told her that if you know about wine you don’t order the best vintage, it’s marked up too much and it isn’t much better. You only order the best vintage if you have too much money and a point to prove. She also told her that you don’t order anything more than 10 years old on a train. The vibrations mean the sediment doesn’t settle and you end up spitting it out all night. Maria grew up in a vineyard in the south so she knew a lot about wine.
She fetched their wine and filled their glasses. They ignored her and carried on speaking in French. She couldn’t understand them but she could tell by their accents they were well educated. She thought they were probably diplomats, no-one else really travels across the border any more.
She resumed her spot, behind the small bar tucked up against the wall. Her feet hurt. She stifled a yawn and idly polished the same glass she had been polishing all night. She wondered where Jorge was now. She had last seen him in Lisbon before he set sail, looking incongruous in his smart uniform with his wild hair. Her chest tightened as she pictured him on the dock and she thought she might cry.
One of them men got up to go to the bathroom and ordered coffee as he went past. She slipped out the door to her right and through to the kitchen. She was glad the chef had finished hours ago. When it was late he always tried to put his hand on her bottom. She loathed the chef.
The smell of the coffee brewing always reminded her of sitting at the table after dinner at her grandmothers house and she felt homesick. She arranged the cafetière on the tray with three cups and headed back out to the corridor. A man with a balaclava stood to the entrance of the carriage and held his finger to his lips. The revolution had started.
The plane took off without a hitch.
They exhaled a deep sigh of relief. That’s the worst part, and now it’s done. Every take off was the same - an anxiety, a nausea, a flip of the stomach that hits right at the tipping point of that shift in pressure. It always passed, but in that searing moment, the sickness consumed the mind, and wouldn’t disseminate for an aeon. It affected them.
Once the plane levelled out, they ordered a miniature vodka, hid it and ordered another. Ice. No softener. Just to take the edge off. Always just to take the edge off. Nothing more. It’s not a problem until it causes a problem, they told themselves. Tricked themselves?
Journeys of any kind had become a problem lately. They thought too much. They tried to understand the mechanics of tin boxes rolling on rubber rings, of metal snakes charging down metal tracks, of aluminium tubes held in the hemisphere by giant fans and flimsy wings. The mind whirred and the perspiration began. Breath became misaligned.
One miniature down. The heart rate was settling, their breath falling back into a normal rhythm. In four. Out six. Again. Again. Their screen illuminated with entertainment possibilities galore. The ability to read hadn’t returned, so they resumed their meditative prescription.
They chose the chicken. Barely touched it. Ordered another vodka, a dash of coke this time. Can’t draw attention. Must make it to the other side left in peace. Heavy lids teased the possibility of slumber. Good. Sleep is always welcomed in these moments. They fell.
The first drop. Eyes wide. Grips on arm rests tightened and a collective gasp broke out from the aisles. The gentle ‘ding’ of the seatbelt sign. Minimal urgency. Calm the mind. In four. Out six.
The second drop. It was longer, slower. For a moment they left their seat, a split second of eternity where they were hanging in space. They were airborne. The feeling was magic. The weightlessness without the nausea. It was freedom. It was everything they sought from life. They finally understood. The question was finally answered.
Screams erupted. They spoke.
“Don’t be scared. I’m-”
It wasn’t as they’d imagined it to be. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t light. They heard everything. Sand from an hourglass dusted slowly downwards in the distance, counting down the seconds to enlightenment. Counting down their final moments before they met their maker. Or their match. The anticipation of the unknown was rousing. The memory of gravity, strangely comforting.
Limbs with no feeling bent into shapes as they stood. A step forward. Feet collided with soft mounds of Earth. Eyes focused. Not Heaven, but a Wreckage. It took a moment to register the fire. Hell stood before their eyes. When their skin screamed with torture they ducked. Not sand but searing. A slow simmer of the flesh.
Water. They had to find water. The soft mounds of Earth revealed their true form of singed remains and soft furnishings. Bags and bodies. Bags of bodies.
The plane took off without a hitch.
There were just four other people on the flight, dotted variously amongst the rows - in fact, the staff outnumbered us almost 2 to 1. I stared out the window. What should have been a sea of lights was just blackness. They cut the power after 8pm these days.
No, wait. A flash of light in the distance. A car turning the corner perhaps, headlights briefly pointing towards the plane. The hostess murmured and offered me peanuts, I accepted and looked back out the window. The light was still there, but it seemed closer now. I watched it curiously. It was definitely getting brighter. The plane exploded and I realised what I had seen.
No, that can’t be it. There must be another one.
The plane began to taxi down the runway, and lifted in a jolting fashion. The harsh wind off the desert meant that the pilot was struggling to keep it flying level. The plane was packed and you could hear the uneasy murmur of people trying act nonchalantly to turbulence. Children whined.
An air hostess explained there was a nut allergy on board and offered me pretzels instead. I was wedged in between two other men, and struggled to open the packet with my arms all but pinned to my sides. I finally got it open and a missile hit the fuselage killing me instantly.
There are no planes, all planes are cancelled until further notice. Government troops round us up at the airport and take us to a detention centre. Most of us perish after the government collapses.
The plane took off without a hitch, but an engine suddenly loses power. We swerved sickeningly down and to the left, exploding into a fireball just 600 metres from the runway.
I can’t believe it. I am a man who can literally see into the future and even I can’t see a way to get out of this city alive. I pack everything useful I can find into a rucksack. This doesn’t amount to much, so I pack some useless stuff as well.
I sit on my bed in my tiny hotel room with my rucksack on my back figuring out what to do. I had seen that I couldn’t stay here, in a few hours government troops with storm the lobby and round up any foreigners, but I had no idea what to do next. The chaos of war always made seeing the future more difficult.
The best future I had seen so far was sneaking out the back of the hotel and bribing a taxi driver to take me outside the city. I couldn’t see past then, but I was out of options.
I step outside my hotel room and bump into a woman, slightly startling her. We sit in field of lavender in the Côtes de Provence, sipping wine from a plastic cup. The sun warms our face and honey bees drone lazily between the flowers.
It was the first time they had seen each other in years.
More than years. A thousand triple axels around the sun. Or so it felt. Since then, daily life had crawled at a glacial pace, yet the years had somehow soared by. Not a word spoken, not a sentiment shared. Now here they were again. Kitted up. Boots on. Ready to take on the rink once more. ‘Celebs Go Skating’. Neither one of them thought they would ever be desperate enough to be forced out of Olympic retirement for ‘Celebs Go fucking Skating’. After they had finished getting ready - lycra, peplum, and spangled, bedazzled, skin-tight vests, they left their hair and make-up stations and walked with morbid purpose towards one another. They nodded a curt ‘hello’ in the general direction of each other’s beings, gravely, resolutely, memories seeping in. They had sworn they would never be here together again. Not after the last time. In this macabre reunion, neither of them owned the words, couldn’t think of any to borrow, and so they remembered that fateful day in solitary seclusion.
Their final routine was in February 2002. It was Salt Lake City, Utah. It should have been their gateway to greatness. By that great millenium, Olympic Figure Skating had been storming the Winter Games for almost 100 years. A century of grace, of poise, of death defying manoeuvres that thrust the most gifted into stardom. 1998 was clouded with drama, scandal, and stumbles. Russia had dominated. 2002 was their year. The year Armenia would finally sweep the rink and take home the Gold. Such pride hadn’t been brought back to their country since 1996, Atlanta, Georgia. Armen Nazaryan wrestled with the greatest Gods and came home glowing in their defeated light. Granted, Figure Skating was more delicate, lighter, than Heavyweight Wrestling, but it was also more controlled, more thought out, stronger in so many other ways. Masculine and feminine in equal measure.
When the music began, they had started strong. They were in sync. Two young lovers exploring one another with eyes closed, intuition guiding them both towards a sweet, familiar climax that usually required little exertion. This time, though, after one missed beat, youthful angst crept in, hands fumbled. Miscommunication took hold, taking their feet to places they never intended. They couldn’t trust their instincts. Before they knew it, the music made no sense. Tears of devastated sorrow poured from their endless eyes and neither could muster the strength to spin, to soar. But they had to push through. Aeons later, the music came to a halt. Either the song ended, or somebody took pity on them and hit ‘stop’. Whatever the conclusion, their souls had been massacred on the rink and everything was over. Every dream, sufficiently dashed. They wished to glide off unseen, keep their eyes closed and be done with it. An eruption of laughter. Their tears froze in a jet stream as they poured to the ice below. They didn’t wait to hear their scores.
18 years later, side by side once more, at the edge of the rink, arms intertwined.
“It’s nice to see you, Artem,” Maria hesitantly whispered, as they heard the Master of Ceremonies address the crowd from the centre of the rink, “It’s been too long.”
The curtain started to part, and Artem hazarded a solemn smile in Maria’s direction. He had never forgiven himself. He had never forgiven her. The spotlight hit them.
“Skating the routine that landed them in last place during the 2002 Winter Olympics, Maria Krasiltseva and Artem Znachkov!” Through the blinding light, laughter erupted from every direction, and with hearts a sinking anchor, they realised they had been set up. They were the joke contestants. A laughing stock, even eighteen years on. Maria felt Artem’s grip tighten in her hand, she looked up and he nodded once more, and she felt his resolve lift her spirits. She whipped her head forwards and beamed. They put one skate onto the ice, and they were off.
The routine was etched into their memories, it hadn’t changed. But their bodies had. Muscles that were once supple, strong, full of life and limber, were now tighter, weaker, soft around the edges with a gross air of rigidity. Having almost doubled in age, neither of them were surprised to be visited by the unwelcome guest of shame, persistently knocking. Yet, after a turn about the rink, their youthful intuition returned. They closed their eyes and melted into one another. Separate limbs became one moving force. They sped and they soared faster than either one of them had sped or soared in years. They loved it more than either one wanted to admit. To themselves. To each other. Yet admit it they did. In their glides, in their lifts, in every spin and lutz, they admitted joy freely.
As the music sang on, and the laughter around them was doused, the routine evolved. Muscle memory kicked in with every Toe Loop and Axel. Surprising hands guided Maria’s legs in new ways and stole her from the Earth. She let them. She gave in to Artem’s silent commands. He threw her higher, span her tighter, and leapt farther himself. When the whole room stood in a collective cheer, they felt the end of their tryst falling upon them. Maria didn’t want it to end. Suddenly, a reckless idea whispered itself into her periphery. The Throw Quad Salchow. The most savage, most nefarious manoeuvre known to Figure Skating kind. She didn’t need to ask him to try, permission didn’t live here anymore. As they were gliding backwards, taking in the fickle adoration of the crowds, Maria lifted her left foot, and subtly it crept up Artem’s calf. That was all he needed. He bent, squeezed, lifted and propelled her frame upwards and outwards. Maria’s mortal body span four clean rotations before plummeting back from the Heavens, that same left foot rigid, prepared for the landing.
The shrieks were gargantuan and encompassing. Finally, they had a new memory to replace Salt Lake City, Utah, February 2002.
It was the first time they had seen each other in years.
The mayor creaked back in his chair, and surveyed his old friend. The years had not been kind to him. He looked shorter than he used to be, but his dark hair was still as unruly and he was wearing a threadbare woollen suit - completely unsuitable for the summer heat.
The mayor took a sip of his brandy and held it on his tongue, savouring the slow burn from the alcohol. The sound of nocturnal insects droned through the the open window, floating in on the sodden, warm air and he suspected he might be drunk.
It had been at least 10 minutes since the mayor’s secretary had guided the man into the room and neither of them had spoken yet. It was highly unusual that the mayor accepted visitors this late, but the man had been insistent and had said he knew the mayor personally.
The room was stifling. A single ceiling fan swept the syrupy air around lazily. Storm clouds had been building over the town for days and at this point the humidity was almost unbearable. The whole town felt like it was being stretched taught, waiting for the release of those first raindrops.
Thunder rumbled in the distance.
‘You have returned. I must presume for good reason. What is it you wish to tell me?’ The mayor asked the man.
’Taking the mayoral seal was a stupid and reckless act. I have been paying my penance many times over in my banishment. I acted out of desperation and fear, but I know my actions were unjust.’ The man poured forth the words he had been rehearsing. ‘I have spent many years trying to recover the seal for you, and I finally think I have found it. The men I sold it to have returned to our shores, and their leader, Alfonso García, now wears it around his neck as a trophy. He claims that with it, he is now the mayor of our town.’
The man corrected himself quickly, ‘Your town’.
The mayor was leaning forward now, intently listening to the mans words. The man took a deep breath and averted his eyes from his gaze.
‘I know I should not have, but I have been working in one of the small fishing villages up the coast.’ He flicked his eyes at the mayor to see how we would react to the news he had not honoured his banishment, but the mayor’s face showed nothing. ‘I could not leave and never have the chance of one day paying my debt. That time is now. I know where Alfonso’s men are camped, I can lead you to them and we can recover the seal.’
The mayor leant back and considered what his old friend had told him. Getting back his seal would mean life could go on normally in the town, and he could avoid the humiliation of having to reach out to the capital to get a new one. They would surely replace him for that.
The man pleaded, looking desperate. ‘Please, let me repay my debt, then I promise I will leave on the next ship heading east.’ Between the humidity and the brandy, the Mayor’s head was foggy. He nodded. The man looked relieved.
‘Alfonso’s men are planning to head north any day now so we must act quickly, I will show you the map and the plan tonight and you can assemble your men in the morning. It is all laid out where I am staying in the docklands, we can go there now.’
The mayor nodded again, the air would be cooler by the water and the walk would give the brandy some time to wear off. At least then he could think straight. If he could get the seal back the governors in the capital would never have to know.
They set off and the Mayor asked his secretary to tell his wife that he would be late back. Out on the streets the air was still stifling, but as they moved down towards the dock they could feel a breeze picking up from the ocean. The rains were finally coming. Blooming storm clouds obscured the fledgling moon and the streets were dark.
The man pulled ahead, anxiously looking back and silently urging the mayor to move faster with his eyes. The mayor ignored him and kept his leisurely pace, reflecting on their past. They had grown up together until their teenage years, the children of banana pickers, but through the machinations of some obscure uncle, the mayor had managed to go to school and then university, where he got involved in politics. When he came to office he hired his old friend as a general aide, and the men worked closely together for years until his friend, badly indebted to the wrong people, stole the seal. The mayor, with a heavy heart, was forced to banish him. He decided he would formally forgive the man when they recovered the seal.
The man was staying in cheap lodgings, but as the trade season had not begun he had the place to himself. They entered at street level and took the stairs to the mans room on the first floor. The man fumbled with his keys, but eventually opened the door. He held it open for the mayor before shutting it behind them and getting a lantern to light the pitch dark room. As the struck match caught the wick, the betrayal was illuminated.
A man lunged forward and swung a crowbar at the mayors head. It connected with a sickening crunch and the mayors legs went out from under him, darkness flooding his vision. The fog on unconsciousness began seeping into him, but he could hear his old friend ask urgently, anxiously. ‘My daughter, where is my daughter? Alfonso said he would return her, where is she?’
The tearing sound of lightning drowned out the man and rain began falling across the city.
I watched you part the heavy leaves.
You looked pitiful standing over there, peering out between the boughs of the ancient tree. Your dark hair was swept back into a plait but moving through the trees had teased hairs loose, which hung across your face. Your eyes widened in fear as you caught my gaze. Like a wild animal you leapt back into the foliage surrounding the manicured gardens.
I called to you, told you not to be afraid. I stood down the guards at my side and told them to wait in the courtyard behind. I called to you again, saying there were no guards here any more, just me. Just a man.
You emerged slowly, timid, eyes darting around the garden, wearing he simple, practical clothes of a peasant - a blouse with bodice and long black skirt. I was sitting on a bench slightly recessed into a well trimmed hedge at the edge of a well trimmed lawn. It was mid afternoon and the heat of the day was just releasing its suffocating grasp. The dappled light filtering through the tree above played across your skin as you approached. You looked afraid. You looked defiant.
I asked you to join me on the bench and tell me why you had broken into my palace gardens. You hesitated, but sat down and told me your story.
I have lived my whole life in a small village called Castilleja del Campo, just west of Seville. My father owns a small almond orchard and I grew up amongst those trees. It has always been just me, my father and the trees. My mother died during childbirth. Every day he is out in the orchard from dawn until dusk to try and make sure that there is enough food on the table for us.
Since I could walk I have been spending my days amongst the the trunks of the almond groves - helping my father amidst those gentle swaying giants. Most days are filled with pruning branches, picking fruit or clearing brush. Often we will men from your court when we are out toiling out land. They come hunting in the woods near the orchard, sometimes stopping to pick up some almond oil for their maiden’s hair, so we are used to seeing them around.
A few days ago, I was walking to the edge of our property to collect wild herbs. At the far edge of the meadow I stumbled across one of your courtiers with a local girl who was no more than a child. She was struggling under him, trying to get away, but he had his full body weight upon her. I pulled out my knife that I use to cut the herbs and ran towards them but he heard me approach and turned at the last minute, raising his hand to protect his face. I lunged at him, gashing his hand and he howled in pain and rage, like a wild animal. I screamed at him to get off her and he ran off into the woods.
I may have wounded his hand, but I wounded his pride more. Once I had comforted the girl and helped her get up, I saw the smoke rising from the far orchard. He had set it alight in his vicious spite.
We managed to stop the fire before it reached the house, but almost all of our trees are now gone. My father has been in shock since. Staring silently into vacant space. Those trees were like his children, he has grown most of them from seed and has known them all his life. We don’t know how we are going to survive. I knew that you would be able to help, so I broke into your garden today to ask for your help in finding this man and bringing him to justice.
I listened to your story with great sadness for I knew I could not help. I knew this man and I had seen his bandaged hand. He was a vile man, but, unfortunately, an important man. If I were to accuse him, let alone arrest him, it could cause a dangerous rift in the delicate political balance of the state. There would undoubtedly be a civil war, and many more would die.
Should I let hundreds die to avenge your orchard? Can you live with that? I explained that these are the terrible decisions I must make as a prince.
You argued that I could not let this man go unpunished, it was not ethical and it was not right. I told you that I understood you, but I explained that if I had the choice of saving lives over ensuring some notion of justice, I would choose the lives of my subjects every time.
I thanked you for coming to see me and called over a servant. You glowered at me. I told him to escort you through to the treasurer and ensure you are given enough money to re-plant the trees that were lost. I watched you with a heavy heart as you walked off. This would not silence you, not when you had justice burning so brightly in your heart.
I called a guard over and told him to follow you discreetly once you had left the palace, until you got to the small road that lead to Castilleja del Campo. I told him to make it look like a robbery gone wrong. I would not have the blood of another war on my hands.
I watched you part the heavy leaves.
At first I thought you were looking for wildlife - those small, sweet microcosms of existence. We hadn’t seen a praying mantis, or a beetle, with their spindly arms and heavy shells, in over a month. I’d been reading a lot about insects this summer and I knew pretty much everything about all of them. I liked Titan Beetles most because they were bigger than both my hands put together, but I don’t think I’d like to see one in real life. I don’t live anywhere near a rainforest though, so I should be okay. During these Indian Summers we’d been having recently, according to my Mother, all of the insects migrate elsewhere. They leave. They just leave, and I have never been able to figure out where they go. Despite my research, I don’t think ‘Elsewhere’ is a real place. I tried to follow a spider once, but I got too close and it spooked and disappeared. I drowned my misery in lemonade by the pool, watching my reflection in the rippling surface as the sun sank into the swathe of trees behind me. ‘Swathe’ is my word of the day, and it means ‘a broad strip or area of something’. As well as knowing everything about insects, I am also trying to learn one new word every single day. Without school, my brain was turning to mush, my Father tells me at least five times a week. This year I was determined to follow a spider to its summer destination, even though I’d already had my summer holiday to the beach. Watching your hands now, I was sure this was what you were doing in the row of trees that lived between our gardens. Then I traced a line from your hands to your face. Your eyes weren’t scanning for bugs, but dead locked on mine. With a start I looked away, turning my attention back to today’s saviour from the heat, a Cherry Cola.
A moment or two later, cautiously, I turned my neck towards your garden once more. Your eyes were still on me, but they looked very sad and empty. Even though the sun’s beams were soaring down, a tickle of a chill made my shoulders flex and tense, and something deep inside my stomach fluttered. I thought of my favourite winged creatures and the warmth spread over me once more, tingling on my skin. Our eyes connected again and even though the chill stayed away, the stomach flutters crept back. I heard my Mother yell from the back door, my head turned in a panic and I felt my cheeks redden, fearful I had been caught doing something I didn’t yet know was wrong. It was only the daily call for dinner. When I looked back, you had gone, and you had taken the clearing in the leaves with you, a wall of shimmering green returned to its rightful place. I lazily rolled off the sun lounger and headed towards the house, my unfinished Cherry Cola flattening in the heat.
“Come over here, honey,” my Mother’s palm instinctively reached for my forehead, feeling for a fever, before remembering what month we were in. “You’re steaming pink, how long were you out in that sun for?” I shrugged and fell into my chair at the dining table, the rest of my family already in place. We held hands and said Grace, my Father stood to dish out everyone’s food and I waited patiently, mutely, before my plate was handed back to me. I liked this tradition. I liked having my seat at the table and I liked my food decided and laid out for me, portion size and all. We began eating. None of us had realised how hungry the sun had made us, its slow simmer made our belly’s calls somehow quieter. We ate in a ravaged silence, chewing jaws and murmuring praise the only melodies in the air. Soon, we were all finished and full, our plates devoured, and not a lick of food left behind. Fat-bellied, us kids fell towards slumber as Mother and Father cleared the table. We groggily held hands and staggered upstairs, where sleep captured us before we’d had a chance to brush our teeth. I dreamt of lighthouses, of looking out across a beach where I stood, alone. I wasn’t scared, but I felt an uneasiness that roused me. A damp layer of sweat covered my skin, so I cracked the window and let in a cool midnight breeze. I thought of the spiders before drifting back to sleep.
Morning brought a new light and the same uneasiness that plagued my night visions. I ripped off ‘swathe’ to reveal today’s word of the day. ‘Apoplectic’ - [ ap-uh-plek-tik ] - adjective - extremely angry; furious. I wondered if I had ever been apoplectic. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard the daily call - for breakfast this time - and I dragged myself from my bed out of my room to the stairs and as I was passing I looked through the window on the landing. I could see you. You were brushing your hair, a big, fluffy white towel was wrapped around you, but clearly you hadn’t tied it very well because it started to fall down, and you weren’t even moving your hands that fast. As it opened a little more, the wings in my stomach went wild. The second call for breakfast erupted through the house, a little more apoplectic this time, but I was stuck. I fell to my knees and shuffled towards the window, hiding behind the curtain so I could try and be stealthy, like a spy, but somehow I knew you were watching. The towel fell completely and a gasp jumped from my mouth and flew to your window. Hair in hand, your eyes travelled upwards. I didn’t care, the butterfly flutters were going berserk through every inch of my body and I couldn’t think of anything else anymore. You watched me part the heavy curtains.