A Short Story
By jec. young
I arrived in the bleak midwinter of a country without sunlight. The orange street lamps seemed as though they never turned off. I didn’t understand how to cope with the cold, so I sat with my back against the radiator constantly, and I slept in everything I owned.
I walked endlessly in those early days. I couldn’t find work but couldn’t stay indoors any more either. It would be drizzling, I would have on three coats, and I would walk head bowed and eyelashes clinging with droplets up and down the same lap of seven or eight streets- I was afraid of getting lost. Finally finding my way down to the beach, its pebbles numbing my fingers when I picked them up, looking for the ones I might take as souvenirs, I would fill my pockets with the stones before walking back to sit once more against the radiator.
The winter absorbed me. I would stand naked in the mirror looking at my paling flesh, blue veins beginning to creep through to the surface of my stomach and my groin, and I would think-
I look like I’m dying.
I wanted that- to see myself dying in this foreign town; and I tried to remember what I had looked like before I had left, just to make sure.
One week after Christmas it snowed for the first time: I went and stood alone in the road and let it fall on me, one of the ridiculous romantic things I had always hoped to do.
The air must be on fire-
As I saw each particle ignited by the bulbs of the lights they floated past, and felt each one burn, for just a moment, on my skin.
Another day, not long after that, there was a fog so heavy I began worrying I would get lost again. It had come in off the channel in the night- a night I had spent with someone else. None of the landmarks I had taught myself remained and I couldn’t see paths on the unfamiliar route through Queens Park from her apartment where the bottle of gin still lay empty on the floor as it had while we emptied ourselves into one another and we fell through her broken bed screaming with laughter and trying to hold on to the sensation swelling between us. She had asked me to stay that day but I said I couldn’t and I made an excuse about going to work. I felt guilty about you, even though we had just met, and I wanted to find you. I didn’t go home to wash, instead I asked you to meet me and we walked to the beach front.
Hanging over the water, and flashing in and out of vision, bulb lights spelt out Brighton Pier, and as the fog showed the pathways of the light I thought-
The air must be on fire again.
As we walked across the wooden boards I could hear the waves beneath. Starlings broke in and quickly back out of the pockets of light and us; their sudden intrusions only emphasising the privacy of that dense air. You told me that the word for it, a flock of starlings, was a murmur, and somehow, then on the pier, I decided I would never leave you.
I remembered that I hadn’t washed yet and I didn’t want to kiss you in case you could tell.
You started getting sick again then. The winter was absorbing you, too, and in the endless nights we would sit together in the backs of pubs and speak endlessly about how we had ended up there- your flight through Cardiff and on to Bristol, before returning to Brighton; my plummet from Johannesburg to England. I didn’t see it then, but each time we met you drank more; and each time you looked further and further beyond me, the walls, and finally beyond any concrete thing and into those dark nights. One night I told you to stop drinking- you had begun saying things only to hurt me. You didn’t, instead, you told me you were leaving, and that you were going to pick up a bottle of cheap wine from the off license. Then you started talking about the train tracks that you crossed to climb the hill into Hove and back to your parents’ home. I knew what you meant to say when you told me about them; you had told me about all the times when you were younger that you had crossed that bridge and waited for a train to round the bend, heading for the station. You had told me about counting until they were passing beneath you, and working out when to jump.
I walked you home that night, and on the other nights like it.
Not long after that, I saw the first Snowdrop bloom. It was growing beneath a tree in Preston Park. I asked you about it and you told me that it meant the spring was coming. You were a gardener, you and your dad had spent your childhood summers in an allotment together, and you often looked to flowers for signs. At times like that I felt something in you I couldn’t feel in myself: you spoke to the place you were from.
The days had begun to lighten and the Snowdrops spread out from the base of the tree as an inverted shadow. The sky showed blue for the first time that weekend and I went with my uncle to the downs. It was freezing, and mud seeped through my cloth shoes (I was still ill-equipped to deal with this weather) but the sky had shown blue. It hung lower than I was used to in Johannesburg, but I recognised it still.
You began talking more and more about flowers. When you looked past me (more often than not by then) I imagined you were looking to where you could already see a small clod of earth pushed aside by a sprouting green stem. You were digging the allotment earth and had begun collecting the things you had decided to grow.
In the sunshine that seemed to be seeping up past the horizons earlier and earlier each day you wanted something to look after; but in the night, when the winter felt as though it had returned, we still sat in the back of pubs and spoke about train tracks.
Then one night you couldn’t get hold of me. I had put my phone in my backpack because I knew you would call. I didn’t ever tell you that.
That week you had you accused me of sleeping with someone and told me we couldn’t see each other again. I knew you were sleeping with other people, we had agreed to, but you told me this was different: the woman was my best friend.
She and I worked together, but we never slept together. It was her housewarming, and the first party I had been invited to since I had got my new job, I wanted to go. I had invited you, but you had said no, and I was relieved. I never told you that either. I knew that if we went together I would leave early, that I’d see your eyes looking for something beyond whoever you were talking to and I’d hear you talk about a train that you could see rounding a corner. But really I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take the ecstasy I had bought- so I had put my phone in my backpack because I knew you would call but I could ignore it. Halfway there I checked it- I felt cruel, I was being cruel, and I knew it as soon as I saw the missed calls and the messages. For the second time in a week, you told me that you never wanted to see me again, but I asked to see you and you consented all the same.
You were walking toward the railway.
I followed you, a few steps behind. We walked like that for a long time.
Finally, you stopped. I told you I wouldn’t leave you. You asked if I would take you to the hospital. We walked hand in hand, half a step at a time, the two miles to the emergency room. Outside you stopped and you asked me not to make you do it. You were afraid and you were crying. You’d been admitted before and you said you couldn’t do it again. You asked me to let you go back and I told you I couldn’t, I told you you’d have to leave me. We stood in the shadows cast by the fluorescents just beyond the entrance and we imitated the shape of so many other crying figures that must have stood beside the ambulances and the orderlies.
Inside you sat curled next to me.
I read you the pages from Virginia Woolf I had earmarked for you but always forgotten to show you. I read in a whisper, half embarrassed, feeling now like I was doing one of the ridiculous romantic things I had once hoped to do; half jealous of anyone listening. We sat until a woman came to speak to you. I stayed outside alone until you came and told me they had discharged you. You were smiling, talking normally; your eyes seemed able to focus, on the walls, the chairs, on my face. It wasn’t until much later you would tell me they had wanted you to stay, that you had refused, and that they had discharged you into my care- that you lied to me.
That night I wouldn’t walk you home, I couldn’t. You got into a cab and you promised to message me all the way home. I finished walking up the hill to the party, and when I got there, past one in the morning, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. They passed me lines on a mirror and I rubbed them into my gums. I stayed there all night and I didn’t check my phone again. It was easy, and though I thought about you I tried not to- I felt cruel again.
In the morning, when I couldn’t help but think of you again, I left. I would walk the route to your parents’ house and I would climb through the window to find you there- but when I opened the door the sun was already up. It was early, but the sun was up, and I realised that it was spring. The snowdrops had been right.