Light hitting the crystalline surface of the Arabian sea.
All of the clichéd blues used to sell tropical waters to backpackers and tourists of more disposable income, not bound for medical school or Israeli national service.
A cool breeze.
The slow sound of the sea.
Now as distant, as ill remembered as last night’s television.
A day, a week, a year for every hour sat cramped on the long haul, idly flicking through the small television in the back of the headrest. Awful films I’d gladly missed.
A travel chess set without an opponent.
Time for another. The same time every day, I was told. Make sure you don’t skip any. They didn’t say why. It could get bad if you do. They didn’t say how. They have the days of the week on them so it’s easier.
Another. I feel it slowly dissolving. And with it the gritted teeth and smiling and inappropriate happiness.
In the back of my old notebook. The number for the door still the same.
The magnetised lock buzzes open and I push against the weight of the reinforced door, dragging my bag up the four flights. I’m aware of the anxious feeling I have, but it’s as if I was been told about a story with which I could not fully empathise.
Dim, suspicious eyes meet mine, head on. Low bass and the sickly sweet smell of over processed skunk, a world away from the hand-pressed charas I’d become used to.
“Oh, hi. I uh. Oh, shit, didn’t she say?”
“Fuck, I’da thought she would have. This is awkward. I’m Al, I’m meant to be staying...”
I can feel him as he looks at me. I try not to flinch.
“Oh shit, right, right, right, yeah. You’re the dude, right? Right. Yeah, yeah, of course man, come in”
I lift the burden for what I hoped was the last time. I don’t grimace.
“So yeah, make yourself at home man, I guess the sofa’s yours for the next...”
I smile a silent thanks.
“You want a coffee?”
I say yes before I know what I’m doing.
“So, Sal’s, uh, at work at the moment I guess, but, you know, just crash out, whatever”
He brings over the coffee. Milk and sugar without asking.
“So, you, uh, you were away for a while, right? Where were you?”
I start to tell him. The précis. The guarded, rehearsed, truncated version. An overview. A few funny anecdotes about a different world. I don’t know if he knows. I don’t care. I don’t want to talk about...
The waves lap around my ears. My words get slower. The breeze again, and the warm feeling
I spend the first few minutes of my new day wondering where I am. I can’t tell where the dreaming stops, where the world started. A thick layer of film. Sweat. The empty feeling of unconscious ejaculation. The itch.
The flat was empty. I was lying flat. Someone had tucked me in, put a blanket over me. I stagger to my feet. Knock the cold coffee over. Then I just remember staring at my hands.
I’m trying to translate.
Added, or taken away?
Did I do this wrong?
What happens if I do this wrong?
I scan through my old texts. From Sal. I only go back so far. I can’t go further. I can’t.
Of course you can stay. As long as you need. Stay strong xxx
When do you get in?
I can’t wait!!!
OK, I’m gonna be at work then. I can’t come out and meet you.
I’ll leave a key under the mat.
It’s OK. One of my flatmates will be in.
The front door is usually unlocked. If you have any problems, text me. I can’t answer the phone.
I’m sorry. I’m so busy.
I can’t wait to see you.
The first hot tap I have used for months gives way with a little work. Gingerly stripping, the clothes don’t want to come off and I feel like I’m flaying myself. The burns are starting to fade.
I am enveloped in a womb. The spray. I had forgotten what a good shower felt like. Even an average one. I had become used to a lukewarm spray, heated by the air. What felt like being urinated on by a tramp with prostate problems. I would always say. She would always laugh and then ask me how I knew.
She would always laugh.
Even when her eyes were glazed.
Clicking sound in my ears again. Every time I yawn. These things are making me yawn. A lot.
I unpack and repack my bag 3 times, before deciding to leave.
Did you see the keys? I left them on the side. Get a set cut and leave them out for me tonight x
Won’t you be back later?
No. Sorry. Can’t. Staying with a friend.
“Oh hey, man”
Steve stood in the kitchen with a fish slice in his hand, a little like he’d been caught doing something other than frying eggs. Bleary eyed, that sweet heavy smell again.
“How was your day?”
Another rush of serotonin, and I smile.
“Pretty good, thanks. I had a bit of a look around”
“You lived here, no? Before...”
“Uh, no. Me and Sal knew each other from uni, then she moved up here, and I...”
I look down and wipe my eye. Let the sting pass.
“Do you. Uh. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Nah man. It’s fine by me, go for it”
Steve smiles at me and I can’t read it. Like a painting. Like a painting I don’t give a shit about.
“Oh, I got some keys cut, so I won’t have to keep bothering you about the front door”
“Ah, good idea, man. I mean, it was no bother, but thanks”
“It was actually Sal’s idea”
It was here. It was this point. I swear to god. The corners of his mouth. They moved like he knew something I didn’t. I swear to god.
“Put some music on, man. Whatever you like”
“I’d offer you dinner, but I haven’t got much in- I’m eating eggs and potato waffles!”
“Ha. No. No, man. It’s fine. I ate in town”
“You want some of this, then?”
Steve shoves a joint at me. I stare at it for a while, trying to connect the visual with past memories and a thought of what might happen.
“Go on, mate. It won’t bite!”
“Fuck it, go on”
It wasn’t long before I drifted again.
The dry feeling in my mouth. The jitter. Silent electricity. Everything momentarily jumps. I was in a room. I was in a white room with sloping walls and there was a knocking on the door and a train going by the window and it’s... gone. It’s all gone.
The shower retains all comfort and no novelty.
I make a cup of tea and smoke. And I stare at her door. Her locked door. Again.
Morning! Will you be in later?
Try afternoon! I’ll send you a message later. x
I look at my watch and realise it’s almost 2.
Don’t be late. Don’t be late. Fucking things.
Can’t be late.
For the ‘plane. For the doctors. For the train. Can’t be late.
But I am. I was.
I take one with my tea and light another cigarette. Wait for the rush again.
And I stare at her door.
I look at the screen, at the flashing cursor. At my name. At my date of birth. At the words CURRICULUM VITAE. I try and sum up a lifetime ago in easily digested sentences, but I just don’t care enough.
Instead I look through my texts again. Through the call list. I realise the only contact I’ve had with her has been through email or SMS. The last time we spoke was months ago, over a crackly line in an STD centre (ha ha) the middle of one god-forsaken city or another on the upper west coast . I was homesick and I needed to hear a friendly voice. I threw a load of cash down and paid for an hour and we talked. We talked about jobs, old friends, current romantic entanglements. She told me about... about her housemate. About how weird it had gotten.
He’d been living there a month and after a while, they’d started fucking. I groaned and slapped my head, making sure she could hear.
“I know, I know, I know” she had said.
“Jesus, you’re right. You’re always right. You’re my fucking moral compass”
“Well thank you”
“And you’re such a fucking dick about it”
We both laughed for RS50 as the old man fixed a computer in the other room and his wife swept and pottered and drank chai, silently, politely waiting for me to finish up so they could close for the evening.
After a couple of weeks it had gotten weird, she told me. So she cut it off. But he refused to move out, even though the contract was in her name. He liked the flat, liked the area and liked trying it on with her, still. He locked himself away a lot and she wouldn’t see him for days on end. And when they did, it would be manic screaming. She started crying, telling me how much she hated it, how she couldn’t get him to leave, how it was worse than any of her terrible relationships (of which there had been a few) and how she thought he’d hacked into her email and how she wished it would just end.
The old man shrugged and checked the line a few times. Tried it on a local call, which worked. Sometimes it does this with international calls, he said. Just have to wait for tomorrow, he said.
Goodnight bhaiya, I said.
I remembered this. And I stared at the computer screen.
But really, I was just staring at her locked door.
“Here ‘yar mate”
Steve hands me the joint.
Steve smiles at me and I feel like shivering.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah. I handed my CV into a couple of places. Coffee shops, you know. Nothing I particularly want to do, but you know...”
“Oh, I know, don’t worry”
He smiles at me. I smile back and I feel sick inside. I pass him back the joint.
“So, uh, what is it that you do?”
“Oh, I’m just temping at the moment. I’m on the phones at PRS, calling people up, making sure they have their licences”
“Heh, like you say, not exactly what I want to be doing”
He winks and slaps my arm and I gag a little.
I silently drift off again, except this time I don’t. I just play the best possum I’ve ever played. I hear him creep off, wait for the soft music to come on in his room and boot up the computer.
It was at least three weeks before I heard from her again. It was a brief missive apologising for her histrionics on the phone. It seemed detached, but ended with an ‘x’.
Then another three weeks to reply to my reply.
To my reply.
I replied with a joke. To cheer her up. One that only she would get.
“There’s a street/
With a shop/
In the shop it sells lots of chocolate...”
In her response, she didn’t even mention it. Just a three line email, ending with an ‘x’. And the next one. And the next. And the one after. They didn’t sound like her. Neither did the texts. None of them sounded like her and they all ended with an ‘x’.
I tried to sleep. I tried.
At some point I was running. On the beach. I was running after a woman who will not turn around for a fear that I will disappear. I ran and I ran and I ran and I came across a door and I reached out to open it and I could hear footsteps and the door opens and I realise that I’m in the real world once again and her door is open and I can see legs and they look like male legs leaving her room and I can’t see any women’s legs but everything is light and dark and a painful blur and I can’t keep my eyes open any more but I can hear the lock go. And I’m back on the beach again prying at a door.
And I wake up. And I know exactly what has happened. What he has done.
Can’t be late.
For the police. For her parents. Can’t be late.
11.45. And I wait to become rational again.
I get back in. Before he gets back. I make sure it’s before he gets back. I take a kitchen knife and a rolling pin and wait in the dark. I’ll find out what has happened. I’ll make him tell me. I know what has happened. But I’ll make him tell me.
I sit, smoking and staring at her door in the dark.
And I close my eyes.
I got up and forced the lock. It gave straight away. Behind her door was a blinding light, a warmth, a softness. It washes over the grit and the artificial joy and all the things that I can’t even begin to face and wraps me in a fantasy world that has been ripped away, that does not exist anymore. The soft white sand, the blue of the sea, the perfect sunset. A coconut in my hand. The note on the other side. “Dear Mum and Dad, the weather here is beautiful. I have made lots of friends
...the... people here are very friendly.
Miss you both, I wish you could be out here to see how wonderful this place is.
Call again soon.
Lots of love,
Turn over again, back to the perfect scene.
A woman walks past.
I know her.
Her path cuts across me. For a moment, her hand lightly draws across mine. She looks me dead in the eye, black hair across her face. She says something. Her mouth moves, but I can’t hear it. There aren’t any words. She walks a few paces on and falls on to the sand. I keep walking. I try to stop. I try to stop but I can’t. I’m walking towards the door.
Towards the door.
My hand is out already,
before I get to it. It offers no resistance,
like I’m not really there, like it stopped existing.
And I’m in a room. I’m in a bedsit in a hot fishing town and I can hear the creaking of the Chinese nets outside the window and the low put put put of a rickshaw and I know exactly where I am
And the woman is there. She is there again and she’s lying on the bed
She is lying face down. There’s a broken pipe on the floor and a sweet smell in the air. Sandalwood incense and something else.
I reach out to her and I touch her shoulder
And she won’t. She doesn’t.
She reaches out to me.
I can’t speak.
“Al. Did I wake you?”
I shake my head
“I’m so sorry, I’ve been so busy. I’ve wanted to see you, but there’s been absolutely no time. I’m so sorry I haven’t been here. I had to stay at my friends, near work...”
I get up, stagger to my feet and run my hands through my sopping hair.
I walk towards Sal and I hug her as tightly as I can.
“Shh. It’s OK. I’m here”
Even though I know she’s late, she gives me precious, silent minutes.
“I’ve... I’ve got to go now, but I’ll meet you after work. Come in, we’ll go for dinner or something, ok?”
“Look, sleep in my bed while I’m gone. Get off that sofa. I’ll... I’ll look after you. Take care, honey”
She kisses my cheek and then slowly, regretfully leaves. I open her door, lie down and close my eyes again.