It was late at night on Reverend Street and he could hardly walk. Beneath his feet, the earth felt strange and unsteady, as if it suffered from the same unrest that was in him. All he wanted was to go home and sleep.
Again and again, he pulled into himself, calling a stop to all his thoughts. The night’s memories still surged back, playing out as if in a cinema: the neon club signs, the blaze of their glasses, their rattling red tongues. He saw and heard it all again, as if it hadn’t been him, just an hour ago, but some tragicomedy he was watching from the seats in strangled embarrassment. What had happened to that rush, that laughter that had swept him through the night? What had happened to him? Just a few drinks, they had said, just to cheer you up, take your mind off work. And it had worked. But now here he was, numb and exhausted, asking himself why he felt the need to drink so much every time.
Yet he knew very well why he did it.
Sick of everything, he sank into himself. The street lamps and houses, the grey road and distant sound of cars, all faded into the background. He carried on walking as if asleep, awaking only when his own house appeared before his eyes. He stood still, registering its presence. The windows were all dark; it seemed that the house was still asleep. And yet he could not bring himself to go in. No, he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He felt only a strange urge to wait, to while away a little more time on the empty road.
And as he drifted on, something in the air caught his attention. He stopped, closed his eyes, inhaled deeper to be sure. Yes, there it was, a faint and silvery fragrance, haunting the cool night air. It drew him ever forward, past the big grey ash tree, down the road, into the start of a crescent. He stood still. At first he saw nothing, looking about as if hoping to see a woman, one with blue eyes and soft dark hair and a face as pale and pretty as a musk rose–but there was no one. He felt something in him sag with disappointment. He had imagined it. But then he saw it on the floor, almost hidden in the crack between wall and ground, rising from a dark tangle of weeds. A soft little thing, easily hurt, with faint and sleepy petals, so blue it seemed lit up from within.
He knelt down before it.
It was beautiful. Its petals were fine and soft and fanned wide open, the stem slender and long; even its spectral leaves were fascinating to him. But he did not dare touch it: there was a faintness in its petals, a sickliness in its thin green stem, and so he was afraid that he would break it with his rough fingers. But touch it he did, before he could even think, running his fingers over the petals, over their soft edges, over the sticky hairs on the stem and leaves, and again over the petals. He drew away and looked at it in confused fascination. Why couldn’t he stop looking at it?
And then the rain came, and he sat there in shock, feeling its cold assault on his back. Not wanting to leave the flower outside, he pushed his fingers into the crack and pulled it out carefully, with a little earth for good measure. The rain intensified. He dashed down the road, aware only of his feet hitting the ground, the rain plastering his gelled hair to his scalp, and his cold giant hands almost crushing the little flower. With his eyes squeezed almost shut, he ran down the road and up to the door, coming to a stop under the arch. There he uncupped his hands: she lay there without a sound, taking no notice of the rain.
Inside the house, the lights turned on. He froze. She was coming. He couldn’t let her touch it, not her, never her… he looked about desperately, at the potted plant, at the front yard, and then at the post box, and finding no better option, he opened its steel mouth and dropped the flower in it. And then the house-door swung open and there stood his wife, with her thin beak of a nose and thin pale hair, already in her pyjamas.
“Where have you been, darling?” she asked softly. Irritation surged inside him. She tried to touch his arm, but he managed to avoid it; her hand was always cold, almost bloodless.
“Why do I need to tell you every time I do anything?” he said. “I can do what I want when I want. I’m not a child.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, in the soft wilting-violet way that he used to adore. “It’s just that you said you would be home at six, and I cooked for you because I knew you’d be starving after your meeting. That’s all I meant, I didn’t mean anything else—”
He shrugged. “It took longer than expected.” Loosening his tie and kicking off his shoes haphazardly, he walked into the kitchen and started washing his hands in the sink. To his irritation, she followed him.
“I had a really stressful day too,” she said. “We have this new team leader who’s so difficult to work with… he wants that marketing campaign I told you about to be launched in a month, but the truth is that it’s just not good enough and everybody knows it. But if we even breathe a word of criticism, he reacts as if we’ve stamped on his foot—”
She droned on like this for a minute as he stood in front of the sink with his arms folded, hoping that she would get the hint. But she didn’t, so he ended it himself. “Can I eat now, Anna?” he asked tiredly. “The food will go cold.”
“Right, of course!” she said. “I’m sorry for talking so much, Marty. It’s just that I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all day. I’ll let you eat now. ”
He sat down at the table with his back to her and started shovelling the food in his mouth. The cod was tasteless and its yellow sauce had congealed around the cold peas; he ate silently and without enjoyment. He did not look at his wife, and was not surprised when he turned around and she was gone.
He got up. The plate was still half-full, but he had lost his appetite, and it no longer even looked like you could eat it. He tipped the rest in the bin and then went to the sink, which was filled with washing water and the day’s dishes. With tired hands he washed them, the water shrivelling his skin. Besides the sound of running water, it was silent in the kitchen.
And in this silence, the thought he had been trying to drink to death became very clear in his mind. Is this all? Is this all? And it disturbed him. God, it disturbed him. Because this was what he had been aiming at: a well-paid job as a financial analyst, an old, roomy house, a circle of easy-going friends he could travel and banter with. And yet they left him cold.
But why should they? He wasn’t the unfeeling sort of person: he had fallen in love several times before his wife, and enjoyed flattering his lovers with little gifts and gestures of affection. And he had a great relationship with his mother when she was alive, checking up on her every day to make sure she was taking her medication. A cold man wouldn’t do that, would he? The only possible answer was that woman. She had been emptying him out for ten years now, giving back nothing but bad cooking and abysmally rare sex.
How could it have gone so sour? It had started well, really well. He had seen her at an understated New Year’s party in London, looking austere but gorgeous in her low-cut long black dress, and once he had summoned up the courage to talk to her, she became steadily more fascinating: he found out that she got her cheekbones and Siberian husky-eyes from her Slavic ancestry, that she adored Yeats and Keats and Pushkin, that she was studying classical music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and dreamt of becoming an eminent pianist, and even though he preferred techno, had studied Business and Finance and wasn’t the least bit interested in poems, she quickly became irresistible to him.
And how could she not! Being with her made him feel like his soul was on fire: he would breathe in her warmth and her cool rose fragrance, holding her dainty body in his arms, and feel so tender and alive. He loved her for more than her beauty; he loved her gentleness, her intelligence, her soulful intensity. But with time, all of it faded away. Getting realistic about her career options, marrying and moving to England with him, she became like a spectre, with no music in her fingers and no light in her eyes.
All he felt for her now was hatred tinged with misery.
He stopped washing and stared out of the window into the rain-haunted night; he became aware of a deep and barren pain in his chest. In no time, he found himself creeping out into the damp nothingness outside, forcing his hand into the postbox and grasping about desperately. He felt it, frail and cool to the touch, and when he opened his hand it seemed to come alive, blooming delighted in his palm. Furtively he stroked it and inhaled its scent, brushing his dried-out lips on its petals. So much beauty, yet he felt nothing. It was as if something in him had died.
He had a terrible headache the day after. Three tablets of aspirin were enough to numb it. But nothing could get rid of what was going on in his head, this crazy circling around the unremarkable little thing he had found.
Focussing was impossible. It had always been a strain, especially the dullness that was data analysis, but he was appalled by how erratic and scatter-brained he was. I’ve really flipped out now, he thought, trying to make light of it, but in truth, it frightened him. How could something so ordinary have this kind of power over his mind?
It was at about two in the afternoon, when he was discussing investment ideas with some other senior analysts, that for the first time in his career, it became too much for him. He became conscious that however successful they were, there was something deeply irritating about them, with their phlegmatic faces and their Turing-machine way of talking. A sudden feeling of revulsion possessed him; in the middle of his sentence, he found himself saying that he felt sick, apologising profusely for any inconvenience caused, and making for the exit like a prisoner at the end of his sentence. He didn’t bother looking back.
But there was nothing liberating about it: standing outside, he could see there were hollow people everywhere. Their worn faces blurred into a shadow as they passed him by. He took the first bus back home.
When he came into the living room, he saw his wife slumped on the leather sofa, her skin a deathly white. What have you taken now? he thought, with a sort of disgusted resentment. He hated that she did this to herself. It was pure selfishness, nothing else: she never thought what it was like for him when he came into the bathroom and saw her in the tub, with an empty syringe and her arm limp at her side. It was pretty hard to love someone like that. She had never overdosed—thank God, he never wanted to deal with that—and nowadays she was using less. But still, he hated it. It had messed her up. And she would have aged better, he thought to himself, if she didn’t do this sort of thing.
He started moving towards her, just to check if she was alright; then she stirred, opened her eyes, and lethargically pulled her phone out of her pocket. She was alive. The realisation came with relief, but also a certain creeping disappointment, that this was not the end but simply the way life went. When he looked at her now, he saw only the shadows, the dips and humps, the sinking eyes and skin loosening around her jaw. So she had had her time to bloom, opening all her petals in the flush of youth; now it was her time to go. He understood this all in a cold pitiless way.
But as the days went by, he realised that the flower too was withering, and this was more difficult to accept. He tried putting it in a little pot of earth, giving it just enough water and sunlight, but nothing worked. The stem, once slim and silvery-green, became but a thin black stalk. The petals, once lustrous and richly hued, faded to a dreary grey. And when he cupped it in his hands and brought it anxiously to his lips, as if to kiss it awake, it remained still. He smelt nothing. Somehow he knew it was dead.
Trying to get on with his life, he threw its shrivelled remains into the compost. But he could not forget it, and everything paled in comparison. He would go to work and though his body was present, his true self would sink inward: away from the tyranny of the human face, away from the ticking clock, away from his desk, away from the office, away from the dreary island where he had been born and had wasted his best years–until someone would stand before him, with more data to analyse and reports to make, and like a dreamer pulled out of the tides of sleep, he would carry on his work sad-eyed and befogged.
Nothing happened for more than a month. He took a short holiday to the Bahamas. When he returned, he once again felt like he was on a conveyor belt, standing behind all the other analysts and bankers and lawyers, the same exhaustion with life marring each face. And being in this place, where everyone had the same soulless face, sitting there with the dumb anxious placidity of an animal waiting to be slaughtered, he stopped and thought: What am I doing? And he did not know. He asked himself again: What on earth am I doing? And still he did not know, for at some point he had lost the ability to explain to himself what he did, not on a practical level, where his role was clear, but in his deepest and most hidden self.
But what he felt now, this chill of delight, this yearning after something that maybe he would never see again—was it not the richest thing he had? His memory of it had lost much of its intensity, but still it seemed as if in its calyx, he saw deep into life itself. All this, he thought, everything from his suit to the motionless desks and doors and beyond—he didn’t want it. It was like slime on his skin, a slime that stayed on even when he scrubbed his flesh till it bled. But what could he do, if he could never feel like that again? Just sit and wait? Dream and rot away?
He had his dinner alone, standing outside the local chip shop. He went home and slept in his rumpled shirt and his sadness.
Open and endless he saw it, like the bowl of heaven, in the darkness of his inner vision. It was as though he were gazing into the silent depths of the sky. Dark yet radiant, holding an endlessness of blue, glowing with a meaning he saw nowhere else in the world, so he saw it, and as he gazed he thought to himself, as if murmuring a mantra: oh my love, my wonderful little flower, where on earth are you?
He spent minutes like this, deep in prayer, and then, one by one, became aware again of his blanket, his pale and skeletal feet, the brown wardrobe behind them, and finally the four walls of his room.
He tried not to think, going on about his habitual movements like the hands of an old clock. But now and then, seeing his weary face in the mirror, he would remember. Time was running out; he felt it ache in his bones. His joints hurt, he couldn’t read without his glasses, and he already had arthritis in two of his fingers. And it was precisely that which made his loss so dreadful: that it was into the papers he filed, the steady steps he took to work, and the mindless drinking that all this life was going, and not in the soft delighted bloom of his heart. There had been lovely things that he now remembered with an aching regret, little flowers blooming here and there from cracks in the walls of life, from the sky to the sea to her lips and her big bright eyes–but no more.
Later that day, with his wife at work, he stood alone in the empty house. For several days now he had stopped going to work: it had become unbearable to be near other people. Looking around at the sleek leather sofa, at the grand piano neglected in favour of the huge Samsung flatscreen in their bedroom, at the yellow-edged books on the shelves and the thick grey dust that coated his fingertips when he touched them, all he felt now was the inner coldness of disappointment.
To feel alive, to feel alive! That was all he wanted. But he never felt like that anymore. It made him wonder what all this business of life was for—the marrying and settling down, the meetings and deadlines, the mindless sex and alcohol-fuelled trips to Ibiza and the Bahamas—if all it had given him was this sense of dreary panic as he watched his days go down the drain. This couldn’t be his only life, he thought. Oh God, it couldn’t be. If it was, he’d fucking wasted it.
He wandered back to the couch and slumped down and closed his eyes. But inside, his heart was still hurting miserably, and he felt sick, and he did not know what to think. He started thinking again of the flower, and in his inner eye he saw it, so wonderfully bright it seemed that heaven itself had opened in the mud.
He felt suddenly that he was suffocating in his own longing. Enough, he thought. He wanted rest. And so he heaved himself off the couch and walked into the kitchen, groped about in a wall—cupboard until he felt a familiar heaviness in his palm. Out the door, up the stairs, into the rumpled sheets of his bed—he drank the waters of Lethe and slept.
The coolness of the room awoke him hours later. He opened his eyes, and to his surprise they could see clearly; he lifted his head, and to his surprise it had no pain. And when he got up, though all his hairs were on end from the cold, he felt well. It was as if the calm and darkness outside were in him as well. He walked to the window, opening the blinds to see the night, and as the moonlight seemed to moan its way in and spread its pallor through the room, he felt like he had entered another world.
And yet this was his home. It was all imprinted in his mind: the Turkish lamp by the bed, the mahogany stand beneath it, the double-bed and door and wardrobe and all the other objects of the day; but somehow he felt that there was something altogether lonelier and more mysterious than what he could see with his two eyes, and as he took in the cool of the air and the deep of night and the silence so pure one could drink it, he knew that something had happened.
He put his feet on the floor and they made not a sound, as if on river-water, and as he crept towards the door, his feet were like fallen leaves floating by silently, down the darkened stairs and into the kitchen.
Here he marvelled at the way time had transfigured the world, softened the lights, deepened the wooden hues of the table and bathed the room in calmness. It seemed that time itself had slowed and stilled, that what he saw were spectres, echoes from far away. Now he stood there in the half-light, and for a moment he swore he had ceased to hear, to feel his arms and feet, aware of nothing but the night and his beating heart. A deep calm entered his heart.
From the door, just around the corner, came a creak, the stamp of boots knocking off snow and then silence. It was Anna. She came into the kitchen, but said nothing to him, standing there in a frumpy jacket with a plastic bag strained thin in each hand. She looked tired.
“It’s dark. Why were you out so late?” he asked. For the first time in months, there was no sternness in his voice. But she said nothing. Instead she walked right past him, hauled the bags onto the table and started pulling everything out. He asked again— “Anna? Is anything wrong?”—but she did not respond, walking by him again to put grapes and a carton of skimmed milk in the refrigerator. And as she went back and forth he just stood there, at first in confusion, then with disquiet, and then with sudden unreasoned understanding. She couldn’t see him. For whatever reason, she couldn’t see him.
And so he stood there. He watched her as she walked to the sink and began to wash her hands with a weary, distant expression, saw that even with the suds washed away, she kept her tired hands in the water, as if to take in as much of its warmth as she could. He remembered her telling him that if she ever got married, she would hire a maid to do the housework and pour all her time and soul into her music; but somehow that had changed, and now she was always cooking and washing and cleaning, saving her money for plans that, unlike his, never materialised. Thinking about this, something began to tug at his heart.
With a strangely deep curiosity, he waited to see what she would do next. He watched her turn off the tap, dry her hands and walk into the living room. Without taking off her jacket, she sat down at the grand piano and laid her fingers on the ivory keys, but gingerly, as if she had never played before. Taking in a deep breath, she began to play.
The melody began quietly and warily: she seemed hesitant, even afraid. But as she closed her eyes, she seemed to forget her surroundings, her face becoming serene as a child’s. Her pale hands became like clouds drifting over the keys and the melody that emerged was inexpressibly pure and sincere. And yet it felt constrained, as if she were trying to narrow it, to tame it, and the harmonies got more and more jarring. The piece became so disquieting to listen to that he felt his own hands become stiff and cold. Then, quite suddenly, she stopped. With a pained expression, she closed the lid. For a moment she covered her face with her hands, and when she took them away, he saw that her cheeks were already wet with tears, her mouth twisted in a way that could hardly be called beautiful. His eyes filled with tears.
He understood now. At last, he understood.
A need rose in him to comfort her, to touch her cheek, her poor cold flesh. He reached out and grazed her cheek, but although he could feel her skin, she seemed unaware of him in her pain. Pity for her overwhelmed him, so intense that it was as if his heart were cracking open. And yet, he felt alone and powerless to help her, powerless to undo the damage he had wrought upon her heart and upon his own, and soon it hurt so awfully that he could not bear it any longer—and so he withdrew.
Through the kitchen, through the living room, back into the garage whose coldness and solitude he always found strangely comforting—and here, as if from nowhere, the scent he had longed for blessed the air. At first it was but an echo, like a lonely strain of music drifting into the silence, but as he walked, it came closer and closer until it was in the air he breathed. At the end of the garage, through the window, he could already see the light of the everlasting flowers. As the door trembled under his fingertips and opened, he felt himself drift out into the garden, and in breathless silence, into the eternity of which he had dreamt.
At half-eleven that day, he was found dead, with his eyes wide open.
Tamara Falcone is reading Philosophy and Islamic Studies at the University of Tübingen. An aspiring scholar and writer currently working as a language teacher, she is passionate about words and stories, and the magic they hold.