The terrace was the reason they’d taken the house originally. It had been further from the tube than they’d wanted and the only pub in spitting distance was the Three Feathers, stubbornly untouched by the estate agent’s claims for gentrification, but the little roof space had woven a spell on all of them. It was just a flat space, maybe four feet square fringed with a low wall and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant. The house had taken a direct hit in the Blitz and when the money for renovations had run dry a flat roof had proven a cheap short cut to making it habitable again. They were unaware of this happy accident arising from the house’s unhappy past and had simply fallen in love with the views it afforded down and across Islington and, more importantly, up and out, over the the London skies.
There was usually an hour in the evening when the light was still good enough for Sarah to paint but the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, tempting Alex out to join her on the roof. He would name the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently tease him by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether they were comets or UFOs. Or they’d pretend to forget that he’d told them that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that did cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again.
Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from the tips into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Japanese print she’d had in her room as a student, back when all futures seemed possible. She glanced over at Alex. He was slouched back in the deck chair, a pair of binoculars resting on his stomach.
“You know what happened last time you looked through those…” said Sarah.
“They are strictly for star gazing,” replied Alex. “That incident with the couple on Woodfall Road was not entirely my fault.”
Rob’s head appeared in the hatch at the top of the steep stairs that served as the route up to the terrace.
“The One With The Naked Neighbours And The Surprising Things You Can Do With Fruit,” he announced. “Still can’t believe they called the police.”
“It wasn’t an episode of Friends, Rob.”
“No, it was funnier,” said Rob. “Although if it was I’d be Joey, right? The good looking one.”
“It’s not much of a choice. The funny one, the good looking one and the…the other one. What was the point of Ross anyway?” said Alex.
“He was the nice one, wasn’t he?” said Sarah, still idly stirring her brush in the jar, the water now a murky grey. “You’d be Ross, Alex.”
“Thanks a lot,” he replied. “So I’m the dull, wet guy who’s so lacking in character that he gets given a pet monkey just to make him more interesting.”
“Well I didn’t mean it quite like that,” smiled Sarah. “Anyway, you don’t need the monkey, you’ve got that whole neighbourhood peeping tom thing going on as a character quirk…”
“I was star gazing.”
The natural light was fading fast now, steadily replaced by the soft glow of the city. Sarah finished cleaning her brushes and sat down on one of the stools, accepting a quick swig of the beer that Rob had brought up with him and was offering round. He stood looking at the picture Sarah had left drying on her makeshift easel. It was an abstract series of blue and grey circles, bold and well defined in the centre and then progressively distorted and smudged towards the periphery of the page. He liked it although, if he was honest, he preferred her pencil drawings, preferred things rooted more directly in reality. Sarah caught him looking at the picture and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He smiled and nodded approvingly but knew better than to offer more; too many well intentioned observations about her painting had ended with the critiqued picture in pieces. He pulled up the other stool, took his beer back from Sarah and offered it to Alex who was now peering up towards the sky through his binoculars.
“What are you looking for up there?” asked Rob. “Trying to see our destinies?”
“God, no. Nothing like that. There’s no glimpse of the future up there, just lights from the past,” replied Alex.
“It’s just physics.” Alex adjusted the focusing ring on the binoculars, tried to get a better view of the Moon. It was only a quarter full but still one of the few things bright enough to cut through the light sodden sky. It’s just physics. He remembered saying something similar three years ago as his justification for jacking in the PhD, walking away from all that conceptual stuff about gravity and relativity to take up a graduate place with Deloitte. Swapping Lorentz transformations for double entry bookkeeping. It paid better but it was a mental downshift and he still felt the nagging, gravitational pull of his old studies.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” interrupted Sarah suddenly.
“This… This… I don’t know. This scratching out our days.” Sarah pushed her hand through her hair and frowned. “What happened to what we wanted to do?”
“You mean you didn’t want to design towers for video games?” It was Alex’s usual tease.
“Hey, those games need a lot of towers… and my correct title is Concept Artist as you well know.” Sarah straightened on her stool and extended her arm with a flourish. “Concept Artist responsible for initial design of player climbable structures. Should I continue to impress with my sketched portfolio of traversable in-game terrain then I have a very decent shot at being Lead Concept Artist in two to three years’ time”.
“It’s something to dream about.”
“Every day on the 153, believe me.”
“Maybe this is just a phase,” said Rob. He drained the last of his beer. “Maybe we need to go through this while we figure it out.”
“But we had it figured out,” protested Sarah. “When I met you… at that talk, what was it?”
“NGO roles in provision of public services,” said Rob.
“Sounds like quite the party,” said Alex from behind the binoculars. Sarah ignored him.
“Yeah, at that. When we met you knew exactly what you wanted to do. It was the thing that struck me about you. The passion. You were absolutely going to work in the public sector, or the third sector or whatever it’s called, and you were going to help people.”
“And hopefully I still will,” said Rob. “The social media thing’s just temporary, just to get some money behind me early on. It’s not forever.” They all fell silent, slightly awkward. Sarah tentatively touched at the paint to see if it was dry and rolled up her picture. Alex put down his binoculars and tried to lighten the mood.
“What were you doing at that talk anyway Sarah? Doesn’t strike me as your sort of thing.”
“What makes you think I’m not interested in social enterprise?”
“She was in the wrong room,” said Rob.
“You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone that,” smirked Sarah. All of them laughed and Alex wagged a finger in admonishment. “Alright, alright. It was at the Barbican and I’d gone to see a Murakami exhibition but I was running late, got a bit lost, and ended up in a room full of earnest liberals listening to someone talk about co-operatives and sustainable funding. They all seemed so nice that I thought it’d be impolite to just walk out.”
“Just imagine the vicious tutting you could have been subjected to…” said Alex.
“We could be quite scathing in our shows of mild disapproval,” agreed Rob. “Some poor guy turned up to another talk one time with a coffee from Starbucks, it was just after the whole tax avoidance thing, and I think we briefly created a vacuum in the auditorium as everyone took a simultaneous sharp intake of breath.”
“Well it wouldn’t have technically been a vacuum…” started Alex before being drowned out under a mock chorus of tuts from his flatmates.
The early evening dusk was giving itself up to the beginnings of night now and the last of the sun’s warmth that had baked itself into the terraces was fading. Sarah rubbed her bare arms with her hands before gathering up her painting equipment.
“I think I’m going to head in,” she said. “Early start tomorrow.”
The other two didn’t move. She knew they liked to sit out for longer, eke out the weekend and delay the onset of Monday morning. Alex would usually be last to come back downstairs, pulling the hatch behind him. Sometimes he’d sit and try to wait until all of the lights across the surrounding streets winked out, hoping that the progressive darkening of the neighbourhood would allow more illumination from above. Once there’d been a power cut and he’d been able to just pick out Mars, seemingly tucked away behind Venus, just a trick of their relative positions and rotational orbits. The others teased him about how scientific, how clinical, he was about it all but he saw the beauty in it too. When he told Rob he wasn’t looking for destiny up there it was true but he was perhaps looking for something. Perspective? He wasn’t sure anymore.
“Good night,” said Rob. “Don’t forget our guest arrives tomorrow.”
“Guest?” said Sarah pausing at the head of the stairs.
“God, Sarah, do you read anything the landlord sends us? We talked about this last week. He’s offered up the spare room on Air BnB. We’re splitting the money, remember? He’ll take half and then take the other half off the rent. Said we can stop it anytime we want if it doesn’t work out.”
“Vaguely,” said Sarah. “Might be nice to have someone else around anyway. And I could definitely use the cash.”
“Tell me about it,” said Rob.
It was already dark by the time Alex returned from work. He walked down Shakespeare Street underneath the orange-white glow of its streetlights, his shadow lengthening as he got further away from each one, and then shortening as he approached the next. He paused at the mid point between two of them and briefly tried to remember the maths. Why would his shadow grow? He figured it was just triangles. He used to know this stuff. As he continued down the street the light closest to his destination, number 42, faded and winked out. That’ll save the Council about 27p tonight then. He’d just finished a project reviewing potential infrastructure savings for all the London Boroughs; something the Mayor’s office had commissioned. That was the stuff he knew now. Next door’s cat, tabby with white feet, watched him from the wall outside the house, both of them now in darkness.
“Alright Schrodinger? Still alive then. Bet you’ve had a better day than me,” he said to the cat, cracking his usual physicist’s joke. The cat began to lick its paw. “I guess you’ll only answer to Socks, eh?”. Socks remained silent and Alex, shaking his head at himself, let himself into the house.
He could hear voices from up on the terrace as he stepped into the hallway, almost tripping over a large, flower patterned carpetbag that had been left behind the door next to a propped up umbrella. Rob and Sarah and a woman’s voice he didn’t recognise. They seemed to be laughing a lot. Their guest. Air BnB. A bag and brolly he didn’t recognise. Slowly he put the pieces together and somewhat reluctantly headed up to join them.
“…so then Rob moved in a few months after we’d met at some event.” Sarah was just finishing the story about how they’d ended up in the house as Alex emerged on to the roof. She was sat forwards in the deck chair talking to a small, immaculately dressed lady. Late 60s? Alex was terrible at gauging ages. The first time he’d met Sarah he’d guessed she was 35, largely on the basis that she had been wearing a cardigan and had just told him that she was a big fan of Countdown. She’d been 25 at the time. Their guest had short, grey hair, pushed back on one side with an ornate mother of pearl hair clip, a bright white flower design above her left ear. She was looking at Sarah intently and smiling. She sat straight, upright and there was something immediately confident and calm about her. Sarah described it later as like that moment when a passer by intervenes at an accident you’ve witnessed and announces ‘don’t worry, I’m a doctor’.
“Hey, Alex, you’re back,” said Sarah jumping up from her chair. “You must meet Maria.”
“Hello part timers,” replied Alex before more formally turning towards their guest and extending his hand. “Hi, Maria, lovely to meet you. I’m Alex.”
She stood and took his hand, her grip firmer than he’d expected. They held eye contact for a few seconds before she closed her other hand on top of their handshake and squeezed, smiling. “It’s lovely to meet you too Alex.” She spoke softly and slowly, drawing out her vowels.
“Was your journey okay? Did you have far to come?” he asked, now curious about her accent.
“I’m over from Kansas. It’s been a fun trip so far.”
“We’ve done the Wizard of Oz joke,” interrupted Rob before Alex could reply.
“All you London folk do sound a little like munchkins to me though,” said Maria, eyes twinkling. She sat back down smoothing her skirt on her lap before folding her hands together. She was precise and graceful in her movements. “I was saying to Rob and Sarah how much I adore your roof terrace. It’s the reason I booked the room.”
“It’s the reason we took the house,” said Alex. “It’s just a shame we get more light from the streets than we do from the sky. You must have more luck at home?”
“Oh sure. Out in the countryside it’s glorious. And if you ever get a chance to get over to Bryce Canyon then it feels like the stars are laid out across the sky like diamonds that you could just pluck down and claim as your own.” She briefly paused and looked down at a ring on her left hand, turned it on her finger, rubbing its single stone. “But it’s good to see a different view of it all once in a while.”
“Maybe we should swap,” laughed Alex. “I don’t seem to be able to make out what I want to see up there.” He gestured up and out at the night sky.
“When things get dark you’ll see what you need to see,” she replied.
The four of them contemplated the London sky for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts. Sarah broke the silence, insisting that they were being terrible hosts and rushing downstairs to fetch glasses and a bottle of wine. Maria sat and had a drink with them for half an hour or so before declaring that jet lag had defeated her and that she ought to retire to be fresh for her planned tour of London’s galleries in the morning. She asked Sarah if she’d like to accompany her. Alex filled in the blanks and realised they must have been talking about her painting before he’d arrived home. Impulsively Sarah agreed, shushing her house mates’ queries about work. Looking quietly pleased Maria left them and went downstairs to her room.
“How are you going to get out of work?” asked Rob after Maria had gone.
“I’ll chuck a sickie or something,” said Sarah. “It’ll be okay. Besides there’s a game in the production schedule for next year set in London so it’ll double as research if I take my sketch book with me.”
“But we don’t know her?” said Alex.
“And yet we’re perfectly happy to have her stay in our house,” said Sarah. “That’s kind of how AirBnB works.”
“I think what Alex is saying is that it’s not AirBnBnTourGuide,” said Rob, trying and failing to enunciate each ‘n’ clearly.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Sarah. Rob faked a silent laugh, sarcastically, by way of reply. “It’ll be nice. She’s over here on her own, doesn’t know the city. Why not show her that Londoners don’t deserve their less than legendary reputation for hospitality? What do you think, Alex?”
“I guess it’ll be fine,” he said. “I don’t know. There’s something about her that I can’t really describe though. Like she’s got a…”
“An aura?” said Sarah. “Really? Coming from you, Alex?”
“Not an aura,” sighed Alex.
“A dark and mysterious past that haunts her?” said Rob, affecting a fake film voice over.
“Not that either. I don’t know. A presence. There’s something assured about her. She just seems utterly and completely herself if that makes sense. And, no, Sarah, I haven’t started believing in auras.”
“Sounds a bit like it to me,” teased Sarah. “I think I know what you mean. That’s why I’d like to spend the day with her.”
“I’m going to bed,” said Rob. “One thing’s for sure, none of us are in Kansas anymore. He theatrically clicked his heels together, muttered ‘there’s no place like home’ and left Alex and Sarah sat out on the terrace looking up at the night. Out of habit Alex looked for Polaris but there was too much light. It seemed rare that he could find it these days.
The late morning sun was struggling to break the clouds over Trafalgar Square as Sarah and Maria emerged from the National Gallery. Making their way down the steps they linked arms, like old school friends, and Sarah felt her companion lean into her slightly as she took the stairs. It was almost imperceptible but there was just a sense that Maria wanted, or needed, some support. Well she’s not a young woman. Probably mid 60s ? Sarah hoped Alex hadn’t made any observations about their guest’s age at breakfast. He was hopeless at things like that. Could tell you how old Saturn’s moons were but ask him to judge something, someone, staring him in the face and he’d be off by eons. She patted Maria’s arm and suggested that they stop for a bit, told her that she really needed to make some sketches of the square.
They perched on the bottom step in silence for a few minutes as Sarah swiftly penciled the grey, granite lines of Nelson’s Column into her notebook. Feeling vaguely guilty at her absence from work she started to embellish the drawing a little, adding details that might be useful as hand holds or points that someone could hook a rope around. She started to pencil in Nelson’s details but couldn’t get the angles of his bicorn right and so gave him a makeshift fez instead. Nelson continued to stare stoically in the opposite direction, seemingly untroubled by her alterations. Maria had spent the minutes gazing at the square, watching fellow tourists idle past, but now she looked over at Sarah’s sketch, curious.
“That’s great but what are those extra bits sticking out ? And what’s with the hat ?”
Sarah flipped her notebook closed. “I thought he might fancy a change. The extra bits are for work. When they take my drawings and use them in the games they often need to change them so they’ll work for the player.” She sensed Maria wasn’t entirely following. “So in this game there’ll probably be lots of things to do in London, lots of things they want the player to explore and find. I was just making the column easier to climb up. They always like things you can climb.”
“Why’d they make them like that?”
“Oh I don’t know. It gives the player something to do. They call it goal oriented game design or something. Lots of little, achievable tasks. Apparently you get a hit of… what’s that brain chemical that makes you happy?”
“Dopamine?” suggested Maria.
“Yeah, you get a hit of dopamine every time you complete one of these little tasks and that keeps you playing.”
“Sounds like life, wouldn’t you say?” said Maria looking at Sarah intently. Sarah hadn’t really noticed how green her eyes were before; she had a slight cloudy patch in her left pupil, a smattering of blurred white dots. It reminded her a little of the view from their terrace at night. Like stars fighting to break through the haze.
“Well it depends on the tasks,” answered Sarah finally. “Put it this way, I’m not sure how much dopamine I’ve been getting lately.”
“Perhaps you need to go and climb up that,” said Maria pointing up at Nelson’s Column, laughing.
“Well, assuming I didn’t break my neck, then it would certainly give me a hit of something.”
“And a great view.”
“And a great view,” agreed Sarah. “That’s the other reason they make them like that – the games I mean, why I spend my life drawing towers. In the game, whenever you get to the top of something tall it opens up the world to you. Shows you new things to do and places to go.”
“So your art shows people where they are and where they might go ?”
Sarah shook her head. “I hadn’t thought of it like that but… at a stretch, maybe. I used to think that my painting outside of work was trying to do that. Or at least that it was trying to show where I was and where I might go and that that would resonate with some people.”
“You shouldn’t distinguish between the two,” said Maria. “What you call your work and what you call your painting outside of work. It all comes from you. It’s all how you spend your days.” She patted Sarah’s arm and smiled. “Anyway, would you listen to me, doling out advice to talented young artists. I have to say that, personally, I liked the flowers. Back in the gallery. The Monet and the Van Gogh.” She sounded out the Gogh to rhyme with dough, extending the ‘o’ sound, and caught Sarah frowning at her. “What’d I say ? Van Gogh ? How’d you say it ? Goff ?”. They both laughed. “You prefer the abstract work, don’t you ?”
“I do,” said Sarah. “And thank you for the advice. It’s nice to hear.” She wrinkled her brow, her nose crinkling in concentration, lost momentarily in thought. “I like the flowers too but there’s always something slightly sad about them to me. Something so beautiful, yet so fragile. Those paintings are just a snapshot of something fleeting, something that’s going to disappear.”
“Oh my dear. That’s not sad. That’s the very definition of joy. Come on, I sense you need something more modern. Take me to the Tate and I’ll buy you lunch on the South Bank.”
Inside the Tate Sarah felt a deep feeling of calm; the peace and vastness of the canopy above seemed to absorb her anxieties. Gave them room to lift and dissolve. They walked in with nothing but the echo of their footsteps for company. Outside the South Bank bustled, in here it was still. For a long time they just walked the floor, absorbed in the space, watching dust motes dance in the slats of light falling across the concrete from the high, vertical windows above. Eventually Maria pointed out that there was an exhibition running. Yayoi Kusama. They bought tickets and ventured into a world of coloured dots and circles and impressionistic shapes, endless patterns repeating, forms stretched and mutating. Another room filled with nothing but giant, monochrome canvasses on each wall, monolithic blank tranquility. And then, at the end, a darkened room with mirrored floors, walls and ceiling. They cautiously ventured in, eyes adjusting, and a myriad of LED lights overhead began to blink on and off. Pulses of colour that reflected back from the surfaces and into infinity; there, everywhere, and then they were gone. Sarah felt like she was standing in the centre of the universe watching its evolution on fast forward. The flash of the Big Bang, stars exploding into life, collapsing in on themselves, and then darkness. Or like she was a single neuron firing inside her own mind, watching the millions of other chemical reactions trigger and blaze in her cerebral cortex. It was dizzying and euphoric. They both sat down and lost themselves in the ineffable dazzle of lights.
Later they ate lunch on the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A green oasis atop a brutal concrete slab of a building. The sun had won its struggle with the clouds and they sat watching a faint shimmer of heat haze dance across the Thames.
It was still dark as Rob and Maria left the house. The early start had been her idea; jet lag had her on American time and so she said she’d sooner go out first thing rather than in the evening. Rob thought she must have been up for a full hour or so before they left because she was as perfectly elegant as she’d been the day before: there was a precision and neatness about her that he thought must require serious time. He looked like he’d rolled straight out of bed, planted his feet in his trainers, and pulled on whichever coat he’d passed en route to the front door. From under the duvet to the porch in thirty seconds flat. It was cold. The heat from yesterday’s late Autumn sun had faded fast, up and out as evening cooled to night with no cloud cover to cap its escape. They’d all sat on the terrace and watched it sink over towards Highgate. They were up too early to see it reappear.
“This better be good,” said Rob.
“Well, good morning to you too,” replied Maria brightly. “It’s nice to see you made an effort for me.”
“Believe me. Being up at this time is an effort.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never seen the dawn before, Rob?” smiled Maria. “Open your eyes, it’s beautiful.”
Rob glanced up and mentally conceded that there was something magical about the half light and quiet of this hour. He had seen it many times. It’s just that he usually saw it woozily soft filtered through the alcohol of the previous night before he found his way to bed. The idea for this morning’s early start had germinated the previous evening. They’d been on the roof listening to Sarah rave about the Kusama installation at the Tate, none of them wanting to point out the smudge of paint on her cheek that lifted and fell each time she smiled. She’d spent the late afternoon absorbed in a fresh canvas. Rob couldn’t remember seeing her so passionate since the day they’d met, back when she insisted on dragging him round the Murakami exhibition that she’d missed after he insisted that she stay and listen to the talk from Vision Housing and the various other social enterprises speaking that evening. They’d both been so certain then. Both fit to burst with ideas and energy. For a while he’d mistaken their mutual passion as a spark between them, a shared attraction, but as they spent longer together they settled into an easy friendship. There was a drunken kiss one night shortly after they’d moved in to the house but it had marked the end of any romance rather than the beginning. They’d both laughed it off: you can’t fake chemistry. Alex had told them that the mutual attraction of objects into each other’s orbit was actually more of a physics thing. This story had come up during the evening, Maria was curious as to how they all wound up together in the house. In turn that had led to a conversation about how Rob had fallen into his current job rather than pursuing the idiosyncrasies of London’s housing policies. He’d told her how those things had happened but he hadn’t really told her why. He wasn’t sure if he knew why. He knew the lines he said out loud when people asked him – it’s just a stop gap, I’m just getting some money behind me, it’s just a temporary thing – but he couldn’t remember now whether they were true.
Maria had insisted that she wanted to see London’s homeless crisis (Rob’s words) for herself. The others, surprised, had listed a host of alternative ways to spend a morning in the city but she wouldn’t budge. She said wanted to experience the place as it was, not as its people presented it for visitors. After he’d first moved into the house Rob had done some volunteering at the various homeless shelters round Islington and so he’d offered to take her down to one of them; he hadn’t been for about a year but if the circuit hadn’t changed then breakfast would need serving at Union Chapel. They took the tube down from Finsbury Park to Highbury and Islington, sitting quietly in half empty carriages with early rising, suited commuters and late returning nightshift workers, stifled yawns marking the beginnings and endings of days.
There were soft slashes of pink in the dawn sky, sunrise’s forward scouts, as they approached the church. The Union Chapel spire was bathed in the early morning glow, red brick framing high vaulted windows and gothic revival detail. A pair of magpies took flight from a perch near the top of the tower squabbling in their rattling, staccato voices. Rob was halfway up Compton Terrace, almost at the church, before he realised that Maria wasn’t with him. Turning back he saw her standing beneath the overhang of a spreading Oak, leaning on an iron railing, just gazing at the building. He was about to urge her to hurry up but something in her reaction gave him pause. He walked back to her and together they stood for a few minutes and watched as the rising sun slowly warmed the russet tones of the old spire. Watched it come to life in the light.
“Do you believe in God?” asked Maria, relinquishing her hand on the railing and taking Rob’s arm instead.
“No, I don’t I’m afraid Maria,” he answered. “But it’s kind of magical this time of the day though, I’ll give you that. I can see why people see something bigger.”
“Oh no, don’t misunderstand,” said Maria. “I don’t believe either. Not anymore at least. Not since my late husband passed away. There’s nobody and nothing controlling our futures. There’s just here and now. Come on, you promised you’d show me the shelter.”
They ended up working the morning shift, changing bedding, washing up, serving London’s lost bacon and eggs and endless cups of tea. The centre manager, Jenny, had remembered Rob and had set them straight to helping out. Maria was a novelty for the patrons of the shelter and she spent most of her time sat quietly talking with each of them individually, laughter following her around the room. She was deep in conversation with an older man when their shift finished. He had a grey flecked beard and a nasty scar running between his right ear and the corner of his eye that gave him an intimidating look. The smell of stale alcohol and tobacco clung to him. Maria was sitting opposite him, holding his upturned hands in her own, gently massaging his fingers with her thumbs. Rob stood, arms folded, and watched them from across the room.
“He’s in a bad way.” Jenny had noticed Rob watching the odd couple. “He shouldn’t be here to be honest. He’s got stomach cancer. Late stages. They’ve told him its incurable and so every time he gets checked in to a hospital he just checks himself out again. Says he’d rather live out his last days on the street than lie down in a ward.”
“Hasn’t he got anybody?” asked Rob. He knew what the answer would be, he’d had this conversation so many times before in the early days of his volunteering. Surely everyone has someone. The truth was that everyone didn’t have someone. This was a community to pick up the pieces for people without a community.
“He had a wife. From what he’s told me after she died he lost his way, took to drinking too much, lost his job. You know the story. You’re only ever…”
“You’re only ever six bad months away from the street,” interrupted Rob. “I remember.”
They went over to join them. Maria was whispering something to him and, in response, the man had reached up to touch her hair clip. He had started to cry. As his fingers found the carved flower in her hair Maria quickly reached for his hand, moved it, and pressed it to her cheek instead. Eventually she released his hand and said her goodbyes.
“Come on,” said Rob. “Let me show you inside the church. It’s quite something.”
Maria shook her head. “I’ve seen the church,” she replied. “I’ve seen your church. It’s all here, in this room, in the bedrooms we cleaned and the pots we washed up. Sarah showed me the Tate, I don’t need to see another grand and imposing space.”
Rob smiled at her. “Let me buy you a coffee then. There’s a kiosk in the foyer that does a great cappuccino and all the money comes back into the shelter. You don’t have to look at the stained glass window or the chandeliers or the balustrades. Just have a drink with me. You’ve reminded me of something today and I wanted to say thank you.”
“Alright, it’s a deal,” said Maria. “And just what have I reminded you of today young man?”
“You’ve reminded me of who I used to be,” said Rob.
“No, no, no,” replied Maria gently. “Not who you used to be. Who you are.”
“Explain it to me again,” insisted Maria. Alex leaned forwards in his seat, elbows on knees, to narrow the gap between them across the tube carriage. He didn’t want to raise his voice. Around them people examined their phones.
“Are you just humouring me now?” he asked. “I’m sure there’ll be things that explain it all when we get there.”
“No, I really want to try to understand it,” she replied. “And I like hearing you talk about it. I want you to humour me, not the other way round.”
The train slowed into its next station. Alex watched the blur through the window resolve itself into a platform, waiting people, a name. Camden Town. He always thought it was like watching a film slowing down into a series of still photographs and, finally, a single, framed shot. There was a moment, even if it was just a fraction of a second, a heartbeat, when everything stopped before the train doors slid open and exhaled its passengers onto the platform. Mind the gap.
“Okay. Imagine the world and imagine a big line drawn all the way around the equator,” started Alex.
“I think I have this part,” said Maria. “I’m imagining parallel lines horizontally stacked on top of each other…”
“And underneath each other…”
“And underneath other other,” she continued. “Reaching to the North and South Poles. If you take the equator as your start point, then you can measure how far north or south you are. Degrees of latitude. Seems straightforward enough.”
“Well, allowing for a certain degree of latitude in your explanation, you’re right,” acknowledged Alex with a smile. “But latitude was always the easy part because it works from a fixed physical point – the lines you draw north and south around the earth don’t move relative to the equator. And if you know your stars and a bit of maths then you can work it out by looking at the sky. Longitude was where it got messy because all those imaginary lines are now running vertically and without a natural reference point.”
“This is where I lost you last time,” said Maria. “What do you mean there’s no natural reference point?”
“Because the Earth is spinning. Longitude is a distance in the planet’s daily rotation. Unless you agree an arbitrary fixed point to measure against then no one will ever agree on where they are. The Earth is always moving. One degree every four minutes.”
“Well I never did like to sit still anyway,” laughed Maria. “So the good folks at Greenwich offered to be the fixed point of reference for measuring how far east or west you were?”
“We’ve missed out a bunch of stuff about how they standardised solar time for everyone first so that you could always know what time it was wherever you were but, yes, I guess you have it about right.”
“Not bad for an amateur,” smiled Maria with a satisfied nod of her head. “We can’t all be… what was it again?”
“A physicist. Technically an astrophysicist I guess although I never finished my thesis.”
“Well, I don’t know about physics but I do know that you’ll never find your way to where you want to go unless you know where you are now.”
The tannoy on the train interrupted them, announcing that there were suspensions on the Northern Line from the next stop in a tone that Alex recognised as more apologetic than Maria did. They changed at King’s Cross with a plan to follow part of the circumference of the Circle Line and then take a boat up the Thames. It would take longer but Alex figured that some time on the river would allow Maria to see some of the sites and might give him a better chance to explain the intricacies of a system of navigation that had, after all, arisen to guide people lost on the waves. He wasn’t altogether sure why he’d agreed to the trip but Maria had suggested it and had been roundly supported by Sarah and Rob, the three of them nagging him through yesterday evening until he’d agreed to show her the Observatory at Greenwich. Despite himself the idea of it had got under his skin, sparked something of the curiousity he’d often felt in his post grad days. He wasn’t booked out to a specific client this week so he’d taken a couple of days leave. He was long overdue holiday anyway. It was a standing joke in the house that he had so many days in lieu stacked up that he could spend all of next year in Cornwall. It had taken Rob some time to explain this to Maria. Looe. It’s a place in Cornwall. In lieu. Oh never mind.
The disruption that had forced the change of route seemed to be causing problems across the network. They made halting progress on the Circle Line before the train stopped at Liverpool Street. Alex felt his phone vibrate in his pocket as it picked up the station Wi-Fi and he reflexively pulled it out to check his messages. Maria watched his expression change as he stared at the screen, the frown, the slight slump in his shoulders. He looked up and took a deep breath. She saved them both the awkwardness.
“Do you need to be somewhere else?”
“I’m sorry. Really sorry. It’s a work thing. There’s a client audit that’s over running. They need an extra pair of hands to get it over the line by this evening. I don’t want to leave you in the lurch but…”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Maria. “I will find Greenwich just fine. 51 degrees north and zero degrees west, right?”
“You were just humouring me,” said Alex. “How did you know that ?”
“I like to know where I am and where I’m going. Now, go on, go do whatever it is that your job needs you to do. I’m a grown woman. Go count things. Just promise you’ll let me tell you all about it tonight.”
“Okay, that sounds good. Just stay on this train to Tower Hill and then you should be able to pick up the boat service.”
Alex left the train, left Maria, just as the doors slid shut again. He turned to wave and she lifted her arm in response, a brief flash of white as her watch caught the glare of an overhead light. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered Prof Miller testily explaining relativity to them again, three of them sitting in his dusty study in Oxford, listening to the rain outside. He remembered listening for patterns and order in the rhythmic fall of water on pavement. Remembered debating the apparent randomness of rain with colleagues who went on to help discover gravitational waves. Discovered the universe’s pulse. Remembered letting his mind roam, untethered, to fathom the smallest particles and the largest spaces and the longest times. He knew, dimly, that he and Maria would observe that light on the train differently. Her from inside the carriage. Him watching her move with the train from the platform. They would see the light relative to their perspectives. The train cleared the platform and, buffeted by the sudden back draught, Alex turned and headed for work.
Maria closed her eyes. The contrast was a little too bright when the carriage was plunged into the darkness of the tunnel. She felt the familiar, nagging tingle in her hands and rubbed them together until it faded.
Maria had blacked out somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. She’d woken up in the University Hospital Lewisham. They told her that she’d passed out in the planetarium at the Royal Observatory but in the darkness of the auditorium nobody had realised until the audience was returned from its tour of the solar system and the lights came back on. She remembered seeing the sun. Distended solar flares erupting across its writhing, fiery surface. It looked, to her, like an angry, malignant tumour seen in detail through a microscope. She remembered the perspective pulling away from the sun and the sensation of spinning, facing out towards the neighbourhood of planets. Accelerating past Mercury and Venus and Earth. Fragments of the commentary stuck in her memory. Not the scientific facts but the more human attributions. Mercury, named for the messenger of the gods. Blake writing in tribute to Venus. Speak silence with thy glimmering eyes, And wash the dusk with silver. She remembered Mars. Another angry, red circle. Remembered it growing on the screen above her until it filled her vision, seeming to throb and pulse, bringer of war, until she slipped from consciousness.
She was sitting up in bed when they arrived.
“God, we were so worried,” said Sarah. “When you didn’t come back, we just didn’t know what to think.”
“Are you okay?” asked Rob. “They won’t tell us anything because we’re not family or something. We tried to tell them that you’re our guest and that you don’t know anyone here but they said they can’t disclose information.”
Alex was silent. He hovered at the end of the bed, head down, shifting his weight between his feet.
“What happened?” said Sarah.
Maria closed her eyes. The telling was the thing she had found hardest in the last few months. The shock that she had felt in being told was something she felt again each time she passed on the news. She resented it. Resented seeing herself reduced to the victim of something random, an object of sympathy, in the eyes of those with whom she shared the shock. There were many things she had chosen to be in life and she wanted to be remembered for them. Not for this. Not this arbitrary act of war that her own body had declared on itself.
As she opened her eyes she pulled the delicately carved hair clip from its position above her left ear and laid it on the sheet in front of her. Tipping her head forwards she lifted her hair deftly from her scalp and placed it next to the clip, dark grey strands spread across the crisp whiteness of the bed. The exposed skin was smooth and pale save for a blotchy, swollen lump, crimson stained behind her right ear, the size of a dollar coin. It used to be the size of a dime. Look after the dimes and the dollars will look after themselves. That’s what Mom always used to say. She looked up at the three of them. Sarah had covered her mouth with her hand, eyes pricking with tears. Rob was shaking his head. Alex had pulled his arms across his chest, colour drained from his face. And then Sarah’s arms were round her and they were both crying.
In the aftermath, with the three of them perched on the edge of her bed, Sarah closest, Alex furthest away, she told them all of it. She told them that she had been diagnosed nine months ago, had been told the chemo wasn’t working three months ago, and that she’d taken the decision to abandon the treatment and live what time she had left. Maybe six months. They didn’t really know. It had brought a certain clarity to her thinking. Not peace exactly, she felt restless for life rather than reconciled to death. She told them that she’d lost her husband ten years ago. That they’d never had children – she paused as she recounted this, an unspoken regret – and she’d found herself alone. Initially, she admitted, she’d felt lost and had only really made sense of her new circumstances when she’d moved away from Wichita and deeper into the country where, eventually, she’d found a new sense of perspective under the broad and sweeping Midwestern skies. Found enrichment in the amplified solitude of a small town rather than the isolation she’d felt in a bustling, busy city.
They listened in silence, letting her talk. Sarah held her hand. Rob poured a glass of water. Alex grew increasingly agitated, rising from the bed and pacing the floor. When she seemed to have finished speaking he started to rock backwards and forwards on his heels. He spoke quietly and urgently.
“It’s unforgivable. I’m sorry. To leave you like that.” Words tumbled from him in a torrent, addressed as much to himself as to Maria. How could I have done that? Someone should have been with you. I should have been with. I was with you. And then I left. For an overdue audit. Left to count things when you were counting on me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He was shaking his head, fists clenching and unclenching until Rob put his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, hey Alex. It’s alright. This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know. None of us knew.”
“Rob’s right,” said Maria softly. “Don’t blame yourself for this. I chose to take the trip and I don’t regret it. Whilst I still have choices I’m damned if I’m not going to use them. Please, please don’t blame yourself.”
“But I should have been there,” said Alex.
Maria stared at him until he met her gaze. He noticed the cataract in her eye, the smudged white dots, stars through an unfocussed telescope.
“Not for me,” she said. “You shouldn’t have been there for me. I made my choice and don’t need looking after Alex. You need to make your choices. Trust me. Make them before they get made for you.”
It was late by the time Rob and Sarah arrived back at the house with Maria. She’d stayed at the hospital for twenty-four hours, reluctantly agreeing that she might need the rest but impatient to be away from the array of medical equipment and drugs and professionals that could do nothing for her. She’d joked with the nurses that she was like a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store. You got nothing I can have but boy do I want it all. Sarah had insisted on organising a taxi, worried about the hustle and bustle of the tube on Saturday evening. Maria had agreed on condition that she paid, they use a black cab, and that they make the driver cross the Thames via Tower Bridge. She told Sarah that it’d be another landmark she could sketch for her game, another little source of dopamine for people playing, another marker to help them navigate. Sarah thought there was more of the tourist in Maria than she cared to admit and that she probably just wanted to see the strange castle on the river.
They crossed the Thames as the sun was going down, the towers on the bridge short and squat against the skyline in comparison to the jagged thrust of the Shard which dominated the view to the west. London was a city of silhouettes in the dusk, the fading light leaving just familiar shapes, the impression of places. Rob pointed out the sights as they appeared, sometimes just a momentary glimpse between office blocks and flats, and then a broader sweep of buildings as they crossed the bridge. A jumble of shapes and styles from the past and from the future. St Paul’s. The Gherkin. The Tower of London. City Hall. Traffic was unusually light and they didn’t get stuck as they crossed. Rob had hoped that perhaps they would so Maria would have more time to admire the view but she had to absorb it in less than a minute before they plunged into Whitechapel and everything closed in around them again.
When they stopped outside their house it was dark. The streetlight hadn’t been fixed and all of the lights inside were off. Rob let them in and called for Alex. There was no reply but it was then that they heard the shouts from outside.
Alex hadn’t gone back to the hospital. The others knew he blamed himself for what had happened but didn’t realise how hard it had hit him. He’d said he wanted a bit of time on his own and they’d respected that. In the time they’d lived together it was something they’d become used to. Rob teased him for being grumpy and they knew he’d never really settled into corporate life but neither of them thought there was more to it than that. If he was honest with himself he knew that the way he felt had a name. Depression. He should have been more clinical about it, more scientific, but he found it hard to apply his usual, objective mode of thinking to his own internal emotional landscape. He knew it had been getting worse and he could trace some of it to the small sets of decisions that had taken him further and further from the things that he’d thought of as making up who he was. He remembered the genuine disappointment that Prof Miller had expressed when he’d told him that he was giving it up. He hadn’t been angry and he’d even understood it – noone’s getting rich mapping the universe – but there was almost a resignation to it. A sense that another bright talent was about to be eclipsed by the need to make the rent. There had been occasional rational moments when he realised that he could just jack it all in, walk away from the office and start again. Lately those moments had come less often. The sane and reasonable voice in his head drowned out by a chorus of anxiety and regret and sadness.
Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of his fragile inner peace. It wasn’t just the guilt, on some level he knew that it wasn’t his fault, but the stark confrontation with mortality that had shaken him. There seemed to him to be a pointlessness to it. He’d always valued order and structure, causality and consequences, and whilst he could understand the facts of her disease he couldn’t explain why it was happening anymore than he could explain his own illness.
He put on his suit, straightened his tie, and headed up to the terrace.
Up on the roof Alex had his back to them. There was a small wall that ran round the sides of the terrace at knee height, there as a gentle reminder if someone got too close to the edge. You could perch on it and dangle your legs over the side of the house if you didn’t mind the guttering. None of them had ever thought of it as particularly dangerous. Early on the landlord had offered to put up a taller set of railings but they thought it would obstruct the view and had told him not to bother. Alex was standing on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the shouts from people in the flats in the adjacent street telling him to get down.
“What are you doing, Alex?” Rob spoke quietly, holding his arms out, palms down, trying to signal a sense of calm that he didn’t feel to Sarah and Maria.
“Alex, please,” said Sarah. “Just step down and let’s talk.”
Alex didn’t reply and didn’t move. It had been a cloudless day and the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone, the air was still. Alex didn’t feel the cold through his suit. Pure wool. He vaguely remembered that fact had been important at work, they’d all been given pointers on personal presentation in the first year on the graduate scheme. A couple of the partners, knowing his background, had joked that he’d have to leave the cords and the elbow patches behind now that he was a professional. There’d been no malice in it. He hadn’t been offended. It wasn’t until later that he’d begun to reflect on his decision and wonder whether he’d got it badly wrong. It was Maria that broke the impasse.
“Where are you Alex?” He didn’t turn but this time he did reply.
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”
“Latitude. Start with that. Tell me our latitude,” nudged Maria.
“I don’t know,” said Alex. “How would I know that?”
“We’re not so far from Greenwich. I bet it’s roughly 51 degrees north and a touch over zero degrees west. How would you know if I hadn’t told you? You taught me this Alex.”
“A fixed reference point. You need a fixed reference point and then you can work it out.”
Across Islington the lights went out. Later it was reported as a power cut, some problem with a sudden surge on the National Grid causing fail safes to kick in and the electricity to switch off. Around them the shining rectangular frames, the windows of the surrounding flats and houses, winked out. The streetlights snapped off. Shakespeare Street went dark. As their eyes adjusted to the absence of light Maria walked across the terrace, reached up, and took Alex’s hand.
“Tell me what you see,” she said.
“You can never see much here,” he replied. “Usually just Venus and some of the brighter stars. The moon obviously, when it’s out.”
Rob and Sarah cautiously crossed the terrace and stood on Alex’s other side from Maria. Sarah took his other hand.
“I saw Mars at the planetarium,” said Maria. “It’s the last thing I remember before I fainted. Where would it be if we could see it now?”
Alex described its position relative to Venus and slowly began to tell them what he could remember about the positions of the distant objects they could see and the ones that they couldn’t. He was a little rusty but none of them would have known if he got anything wrong. He showed them Orion’s Belt, the three stars in a line that they could usually see above them, bright enough even when London wasn’t dimmed, and then he noticed the slightly skewed rectangle of Ursa Major. It was just visible now that the glare from the ground had been subdued and, just a slight turn of the head on from that, if he followed an imagined line from its two pointer stars, then he could make out Polaris. The North Star. He described it to the others.
“So you know where you are now,” said Maria squeezing his hand.
“It’s a start,” said Alex. “I could work out the latitude but you know longitude is always trickier than that.”
“Because we’re always spinning, always moving,” said Maria.
“Yes. Yes, we are. I just wanted to make it stop.”
“You can’t make it stop Alex,” she answered. “Not like this. It’ll stop for you, sure, but everything else keeps on spinning. You’ve got your fixed point up there,” she gestured at the sky, “and maybe you just need to pick your own fixed point down here. Your own Greenwich.”
“I think I had it,” said Alex. “I think I used to have it. Maybe I just need to find my way back to it again.” He stepped down from the wall and quietly accepted Maria’s embrace. Rob and Sarah clutched at his back and the four of them stood on the roof holding him as he wept.
They stayed out on the terrace until the power came back on about an hour later. Sarah had made them all tea and they’d sat staring across the rooftops, hands wrapped round warm mugs, steam rising into the night air. When the lights returned the stars overhead faded but all of them swore they could still see the North Star, unwavering, the sky rotating around it.
Sunday (One Year Later)
They had promised Maria that they’d watch the sun rise over Bryce Canyon and remember her. She had died in the Spring, the emails and Skype calls that they’d all maintained after she returned home from London becoming steadily less frequent as her illness took hold. They’d all wanted to fly out but she had insisted that they shouldn’t.
I am well cared for, come and remember me when I’m gone, she’d told them. Come and pick me out a diamond from the sky. Don’t let Alex tell you that stars and diamonds aren’t the same things either. I’ve been reading a lot now I’m stuck in bed and all the carbon in our solar system might just be the scattered dust from a dying star. Some of it must be diamonds and some of it must be us. I kinda like the idea that I’m built from a supernova. Don’t spoil it for me.
Alex, back now at Oxford, had called in a favour from one of the professors in the Chemistry department and persuaded him to send Maria a letter, on very official looking University headed paper, confirming that essentially, yes, she was made from stardust.
They had travelled to Kansas for the funeral. Sarah flew in from Montreal, Rob and Alex from Heathrow. Sarah’s design work from her sketches around London had picked up positive critical notices when the game had shipped and she’d taken a larger role in the Canadian office. She’d held firm on a flexible arrangement that left her enough time to paint and she’d just exhibited for the first time in a small downtown gallery. The others teased her when they met up – lead concept artist, putting on shows at Station 16, get you – but she could see how pleased they were for her. Despite them all leaving the house they were closer now than when they’d lived together. Rob had stayed in London but had needed to move a bit further out, his new job at the housing association didn’t pay well but he knew why he was doing it. Alex was back in Oxford, picking up the thread of his unfinished thesis, looking again for order in the chaos.
The three of them sat in silence as the first light of dawn stole over the jagged formations of the canyon, orange rocks warming into life, shadows extending. The last of the visible stars overhead slowly faded from view but they knew they were still there. Sarah had brought a flask and shared out paper cups of hot coffee to ward off the last of the night’s chill. It was a long time before anyone spoke.
“Thirty-seven degrees north. One hundred and twelve degrees west,” said Alex.
“What’s that?” said Rob.
“It’s where we are, isn’t it?” asked Sarah. “Co-ordinates.” Alex nodded.
“You’ll never find where you want to go unless you know where you are now,” he said softly.
“You getting all deep on us again,” said Rob. “Who said that?”
“Someone who always knew where she was. Someone who’ll be missed.” He raised his coffee in salute and the others held their cups up in a quiet toast as the sun began its steady ascent marking the new day.