Connection

“Do you want a hand with that ?” he asked nodding towards the case she’d wheeled up the aisle behind herself. She shook her head.

“It’s alright thanks, I can manage” she muttered as she picked it up and rose on tiptoes to place it on the overhead rack opposite his table. He watched her struggle, his eyes drawn to the small of her back, her jumper lifting as she stretched to reveal a small butterfly tattoo nestled against the curvature of her spine. He averted his eyes as she turned back towards him. “Anyone sitting in these ?” she asked pointing at the seats opposite him. He shook his head and she slid in next to the aisle, diagonally across from him, self consciously pulling at the bottom of her jumper, smoothing it down firmly with her hands as if aware that he’d been watching her. She folded her arms across her chest and stared out of the window. He considered complimenting her on the tattoo but then thought better of it and turned his attention back to his phone.

She gazed out of the window, briefly closing her eyes and enjoying the quiet of the carriage; it was a relief to be away from that snivelling, sniffing woman. Moving seats hadn’t changed the view though, static for the last fifteen minutes since the train had stopped. Hadn’t changed the view save she couldn’t look at it without also seeing her new travelling companion, either directly or in glimpses reflected back in the glass. Slouched, wedged against the corner of his seat and the window, he was tapping something out on his phone, both thumbs flying over the screen. Without staring more openly she could only catch snapshots of him, an impression. Short, sandy, untidy hair. Loosened tie. Turning a pen over and over between his fingers, hovered over an unopened note book. Face set in a frown, puzzled rather than sad.

He glanced up from his phone and looked directly at her. He smiled. She broke eye contact. Green eyes, mouth set in a firm line, long dark hair tied up in a ponytail. As she turned to look out of the window he noticed the line of her jaw, traced it down to her neck, exposed above the open ‘V’ of her jumper. The tannoy broke the silence. “We regret to inform you that we will be unable to move for up to an hour. Engineers are working as fast as possible to clear the other train from the line. Meanwhile, we ask for your patience. The buffet car is open.”

She sighed and looked at her watch before pulling a phone from her pocket. She prodded at it and sighed again.

“Sorry to bother you but I don’t suppose you’ve got a phone charger with you ?”

“Afraid not” he answered. “Looks like we’ve got different phones anyway. If you need to call someone about the delay you can borrow mine if you want.”

“Really ? Thanks, that’d be great. I just need to tell my parents that I’m running late.”

“Travelling home ?”

“Something like that.”

He passed her his phone and she made a brief call, turning her head and cupping her mouth behind her hand. No, you don’t need to pick me up. Really, I’m okay. Please don’t worry about doing anything for dinner, I’ll sort myself out. I’ll get a cab. She slid the phone back across the table, her long fingers ending in quick bitten nails, and sat back in her chair, rubbing her eyes.

“Long day ?” he asked. She nodded but didn’t reply. She’d moved seats looking for somewhere quiet, somewhere to think. In truth she’d spent most of the day thinking, running the same questions through her mind as she’d sat on various trains picking their way back from Paris, across London, and now up to her old family home in Peterborough. The same questions and no answers; just a sense of failure and disappointment. This journey home had never been part of the plan. She looked up at him again.

“I’m sorry. You must think I’m being really rude,” she offered. “It has been a long day. I’m travelling back from Paris.”

“No need to apologise, that sounds pretty tiring,” he said. There was a pause before he added. “I’m Jack by the way. Nice to meet you.”

“Thanks again for the phone, Jack. Nice to meet you too. I’m Kate.” She closed her eyes and leant her head back in the seat. “I am definitely tired.”

Jack continued to chat, just small talk about the delay and how busy it’d been in London earlier, and Kate, despite herself, began to respond. Just nods and demurrals of agreement at first but slowly she was drawn into conversation. He was easy company and she found that she’d missed the sound of her own language, missed conversation where there wasn’t that briefest of gaps between her thoughts and the translation. The fluency fraction. Or “fraction de la fluiditie” as she’d once tried to explain to a group of new, French friends, following a few too many glasses of wine, after the move to Paris. They’d laughed and one of them had poured her another glass. She’d spent the next six months with him.

“What would ‘sassy’ mean to you ?” said Jack, interrupting her thoughts.

“Sassy ?” said Kate. “Depends on the context I guess.”

“Okay” said Jack. “On a dating profile. I keep getting recommended women who are sassy, independent, and smart.” He held up the phone she’d borrowed earlier, open on a web page headed ‘Soul Mates’.

“You sure you can cope with that ?” asked Kate with a smile.

“Exactly ! No, I’m not” laughed Jack. “But sassy could mean all sorts of things. If it means someone who likes some lively banter then I might be alright but if it’s short hand for someone that’s high maintenance, with a biting tongue and a cruel wit then it’s a whole different matter.”

“I’m fairly sure no one who actually wanted a date would describe themselves as a high maintenance cruel wit with a biting tongue on their profile…”

“No, sure, but is that within the bounds of what it could mean ? That’s the question” mused Jack. “Is it a word you think you would use ?”

Kate let her gaze drift to the fields outside but could still see him in the glass, looking at her intently. Turning her head towards the window her own translucent reflection crept into view, mirroring how she felt: indistinct, dislocated, a little blurred round the edges. Sassy might have been a word she’d have used once, confident and sure in who she was, but now not so much. She wasn’t even sure she liked the word anymore. It was like feisty. Why was it only women who were ever sassy or feisty ? As if being lively and bold and confident were so beyond the boundaries of what was expected for a woman that there had to be special words ascribed to it. Spirited. That was another one. Feisty and spirited. Like a fucking horse or something. She turned back to Jack. “No, it’s not a word I think I’d use” she said. “I think it’s something people put because they think other people want to hear it.”

“Like everyone says they’ve got a great sense of humour ?” said Jack.

“Exactly like that” said Kate. “Or like everyone says they like taking long, romantic walks or visiting art galleries or keeping in shape or socializing with a wide circle of friends. It’s all shorthand isn’t it ? Here’s my profile: I am nice, cultured, physically fit and not a social pariah.”

“It’s the profile pictures that get me. Everyone’s a picture of health, permanently smiling, and radiating an air of calm contentment. Where are all the desperate selfies, tear smudged mascara or a dishevelled five day beard because you haven’t left the house for a week after your last relationship ended in the usual bitterness and recrimination ?”

“Oh you should definitely change your picture to one of those” said Kate. “Mascara would be a strong look for you.” Jack laughed and rubbed at the corner of his eye; Kate tilted her head and pulled at the back of her hair. “I particularly like the ones where it’s clearly a photo chopped in half. You know what I mean ?”

Jack nodded. “Where some old flame was in the frame before they were extinguished with a pair of scissors…”

“Can you extinguish something with scissors ?”

“Words were never really my thing” he acknowledged. “Maybe like this…” He flipped open the notepad that sat on the table between them and deftly sketched a fire extinguisher, a pair of scissors cutting through its short hose.

“A bit literal ?” frowned Kate.

“Everyone’s a critic ! How about this then ?” He drew a pair of candles, the first with flame flickering, suggested through a couple of spare, precise lines that almost made the static drawing dance. Beneath it he placed a closed pair of scissors with its handles elongated to look like a heart. The second candle’s wick was snipped, the flame now just a wisp of smoke, and the pair of scissors beneath it were open, heart-like handles pulled apart. Kate smiled, smoothing her hair again with her hand.

“That works. You’re good.”

“Thanks. Like I say, words were never really my thing. Probably why I never seem to get anywhere with this online dating thing.”

“You having trouble writing your profile ?”

“Something like that. Having trouble getting anyone to reply to my profile might be more accurate.”

“Read it to me” said Kate sitting forwards in her chair, resting her elbows on the table, chin in her hands. “Perhaps I can help.”

“It’s not very interesting. It just says: 28 year old man, slim, athletic build WLTM woman 25-35. Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends.”

“WLTM ?”

“Would love to meet. I thought I should read it as written.”

“You forgot to mention that you’ve got a good sense of humour…”

“Let me finish ! Enjoys film, books, restaurants, and meeting up with friends. Has GSOH and is looking for someone fun and friendly.”

“GSOH, of course. Well, you sound nice enough” said Kate. “Doesn’t tell me much about you though. Not really about you.”

“You think it’s just stuff that I think other people want to hear ?”

“I don’t know. Is it ?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I guess I’m banking on my photo to look suitably appealing on its own.”

“Is it one with an extinguished old flame ?” asked Kate picking up Jack’s drawings. He looked away and rubbed his hand through his hair, scratched at the back of his head. Kate put the paper back on the table and there was an awkward silence.

“What would yours say then ?” asked Jack eventually.

“My what ?” asked Kate.

“Your dating profile” said Jack. “I’m not saying you need one but if you had one and could strip out all of the clichés and the shorthand and the things we write to show people what we think they want to see then what would yours say ?”

“Ah I don’t know if I want to do that” sighed Kate. She felt like all that was left was cliche. Mid twenties – who was she kidding, nearly late twenties – and moving back in with her parents because the great Parisienne dream had turned into a nightmare. What was left to say ? I had everything I thought I wanted ? It all turned to merde ?

“Come on. A pure blast of truth. You’ll probably never see me again so just use it as an opportunity to say what you always wanted to say.” Kate looked slightly bemused now as Jack cajoled her. “Tell you what. I’ll do mine too. What’s the worst that could happen ? I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…”

“Really ?” said Kate in mock exasperation. “Are we going to play doctors’ and nurses’ as well ?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves” said Jack. “I might not like your profile.”

“Just shut up and give me some of that paper” relented Kate. Perhaps it would help to write it down. A different way of thinking it through. “If we’re going to do this then let’s do it properly. Some quiet so I can write something down and then we can share and get it over with.”

 They sat in silence for a while writing or staring out of the window, pens poised between teeth, lost in thought. Occasionally one of them would catch the other’s eye and they’d smile, look away and return to the task at hand. Kate’s page filled up quickly, thoughts spilling out from her, whereas Jack doodled and dawdled, scratching out halting sentences before he had finished them. As he put a line through another false start he tossed his pen back onto the table and announced that he was going to get a coffee. Kate shook her head when he asked if she wanted anything.

Jack picked his way up the carriage towards the buffet car, tapping the tops of seats as he passed them until he inadvertently brushed against someone’s head. Muttering an apology he quickened his step and concentrated on the task at hand. She was distracting. In a good way. Why had he suggested this ridiculous let’s reveal our true selves game ? There was a reason his profile description was so ordinary: he was ordinary. Now she was going to find that out: scratch below the surface and discover that there’s only surface. Should have just kept it light and seen what happened.

Jack bought his coffee, returned to his seat and started emptying sugar into his cup. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to” he said to Kate, noting that she had now filled most of her paper.

“No, I’m ready. No backing out now.” Kate grinned at him and snatched up what she’d written, eager to get going. What the hell. Maybe it would be liberating. Maybe it’d just be a bit of fun to pass the time while they were delayed but, either way, like he’d said, they wouldn’t see each other again so what did it matter ? “Let’s start with this. I have a tattoo. It’s a butterfly in the small of my back. It’ll sound corny but it was supposed to be a reminder to myself that beauty can be transient and fleeting – a reminder to appreciate things whilst they’re here. Not many people get to see it but occasionally, if it’s accidentally on show I catch them looking at it and wonder if they’re just checking out my arse.” She looked pointedly at Jack who had the grace to look sheepish.

“You have a great tattoo” he offered. “And I thought everyone said ass these days anyway ?” Kate raised her eyebrows in mild rebuke before gesturing back at her paper.

“Shall I continue ?”

“Please do” said Jack. “I won’t say another word.”

“Particularly about my very British arsesaid Kate. “An ass is a donkey you great…”

“Donkey ?” offered Jack.

“Yes, you great donkey” agreed Kate. “Baudet”

“Baudet ?”

“Oh, sorry. It’s donkey in French. I do that sometimes. Must still be half there I guess. So, you really want to carry on with this ?” Kate looked down again at what she’d written out, Jack nodded his assent and so she continued. “I’m pretty smart. I know, I know, I guess no one ‘fesses up to being stupid on one of these profiles but I’m really not. Straight A student. Double first at Cambridge in Modern and Medieval Languages. Pretty smart and yet on my way back home to my parents. I quit my job at the Louvre. The Louvre ! Imagine that, imagine spending three years studying French and a year studying Art History and then getting a job at the Louvre. Well I had that but I quit and now I’ve got no idea what I’m doing, I’ve got nothing to go back home for, and I don’t know what I want to do.” Kate paused, looking again at what she’d been writing for the past twenty minutes. “I didn’t write all that you know.”

“What did you write ?” asked Jack.

“I just wrote ‘pretty smart but pretty stupid’” said Kate.

“I don’t think it’s stupid to be unsure” said Jack. “I think you’re allowed some time to figure it out.”

Kate shrugged and looked back at her paper. “Perhaps. It just seemed easier before I guess.”

Jack tilted his head, listening. “Before ?”

“You know. School. College…”

“Ah I see” said Jack. “Before real life you mean.”

Kate laughed. “Exactly. It was easier. It felt like a series of clearly marked destinations.” She paused, flipped her paper over and drew a circle on the blank page. “Here, your next stop is GCSEs, and here” she sketched a straight line to another circle “A levels and on and on.” She continued the line, idly tracing more circles along its trajectory, until stopping in the middle of the page. “Then what ?”

“Look at all the blank paper” said Jack. “Exciting.”

“It’s terrifying” said Kate. “There’s no lines. No pre determined destinations.”

“I think it’s okay to get a little lost for a while. Explore.” said Jack. “You’re super smart – in two languages – so what if you don’t know what to do with your life ?”

“Oui. Nous ne savons pas ce que nous voulons et pourtant nous sommes responsables de ce que nous sommes – qui est le fait.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. I think I need to know more though if I’m going to choose your profile by the way. Particularly if I can’t always understand what you’re saying.”

“Who said you’d get the chance to choose ?”

“Humour me.”

“I thought I was.” Kate flipped her paper back over and started to read again. “So this is me: I think too much and like to make plans, sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to be a little more spontaneous.”

“Swapping pretend dating profiles with a complete stranger on a train seems pretty spontaneous” suggested Jack.

“It’s pretty something” said Kate. “Maybe unhinged would be a better word for it.”

“There’s a fine line between spontaneous and crazy I guess.”

“So it seems. What does yours say anyway ?”

“You’re not finished” protested Jack.

“I’m being spontaneous. Tell me a bit about you and then I’ll finish mine.”

“Okay,” shrugged Jack with a grin. “But be gentle with me, I’m not used to baring my soul like this.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

Jack picked up his paper with a dramatic flourish and made an exaggerated point of clearing his throat. It was all show before he felt ready to tell. He was nervous for the first time since they’d started talking. He began reading what he’d written, some stuff about films he liked, music he listened to, books he’d read, before putting his paper down again.

 You know what ? Like I said earlier words aren’t really my thing. Not written down at least. I could sit here and tell you about these things that I love but they’re all just another mask, aren’t they ? Borrowed identity. Just a different kind of way of telling people what they might want to hear.”

“So tell me about you without that stuff” said Kate. “I really want to know.”

“There’s really not that much to tell. Maybe that’s why I just churned out a list of cool sounding stuff so that you can make a judgement about me based on the things I like, not the things I do or the person I am.” Jack frowned and pressed his palms against his temples, rubbed at his head as if it would smooth out the creases on his brow. “I don’t know why this is so hard. It’s just kind of mundane I guess. I like to draw. No, scratch that, I love to draw. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, since I was a kid. I used to fill up pages and pages of sketches and pictures.” He gestured at the pad in front of him. “Now I carry a note book round but never put anything in it. The odd doodle but nothing that means anything to me anymore.”

“So tell me about that. Why’d you stop ?”

“My dad used to say something to me,” said Jack. “The only thing you should be worrying about drawing is your pension… and those scribbles won’t give you one of those. That was the sum total of his advice to me. All the time growing up, made me feel it was worthless, wanted me to get a ‘proper job’. I don’t really blame him, you know ? He was just trying to look out for me in the way he thought was best but it just killed that spark in me that made me want to draw. Didn’t seem like there was a reason to do it anymore. You know what the worst of it is ?” Kate shook her head. “The worst of it is that I let it happen, let that part of me go and just stopped. Went to study and became a tax accountant instead. Don’t judge me.”

“Too late for that,” replied Kate gently. “Not about the accountancy thing though. I was a tour guide in an art gallery so I’m not about to starting throwing career choice stones from my ever so glass house.”

“Glass pyramid” smiled Jack. “It’s a big glass pyramid at the Louvre” he added noting Kate’s slightly quizzical look.

“Glass and metal actually. Designed by I M Pei and consisting of 603 rhombus shaped segments and 70 triangular ones… I can tell you anything you want to know about that pyramid. Its history, what it’s for, that ‘Da Vinci Code’ bullshit about it having 666 panes. All this stuff I learned by rote when I was there, churned out to tick-list tourists on a daily basis, but I couldn’t tell you how it made me feel anymore. None of it. The pyramid. The paintings. The sculpture.”

“But you were doing what you loved,” protested Jack. “Not like me.”

“I thought I was” said Kate. “Somewhere along the way I forgot how to see things I think. Forgot why I wanted to be there in the first place. A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring at ‘Diana of Versailles’…”

“Your co-workers had some pretty fancy names…”

“It’s a statue you arse. I love that piece. It’s a depiction of Artemis…” Jack looked blank. “Artemis ? No ? Really ? Looks like I’ve got some serious work to do educating you. She was the Greek goddess of the hunt. The Romans called her Diana and she was originally installed at the palace of Versailles.”

“Hence the name.”

“You’re catching on. In the statue she looks so strong and sure, focused exactly on what she’s doing. All poise and purpose. Pulling an arrow from the quiver on her back. It’s what I’d describe to the tourists as a perfect marriage of form and function. Don’t laugh but I used to stare at pictures of her when I was studying and I found it… I don’t know, I guess I found it inspiring. I wanted more than anything to see her for real and eventually I got to do that every day. But then, the other week, I was staring at her again and it was just a slab. Just cold stone.”

“Maybe she just became too familiar ? Like wallpaper ?”

“I don’t think it’s that. Honestly ? You wanted honest, right ? Some things went sour for me in Paris. No great drama I guess in the scheme of things. A relationship that went wrong and a life that was built on that – his friends, his city, his flat. It all felt like it was falling apart. Somewhere along the way I forgot why I was there. I forgot about myself. Diana didn’t change, I just stopped seeing myself in her anymore.”

“I kind of get that” said Jack. “I stopped seeing myself as someone who drew, forgot about chasing that thing I loved and built my life on all that advice my dad gave me. Made something of myself. But you lose something as well when you follow a track someone else lays down for you.”

 The tannoy interrupted them. “We apologise for the delay. The broken-down train has just been moved out of Huntingdon station. Due to the length of time we have been stationary, we will be making an unscheduled stop at Huntingdon. Any passengers wishing to alight there should prepare to do so.”

Jack sat up straight in his seat and leaned forwards.

“Let’s get off the train, go for a drink.”

“Woah there crazy man. What are you talking about ?”

“Come on Kate. Live a little. Do something that wasn’t in the plan.” Jack was laughing now and sank back into his seat. “I’m done with staying on track for a while. I’m going to go and see what Huntingdon has to offer. I know it’s not exactly Paris but it’ll be fun.”

“You’re kidding, right ?”

“No, I’m serious. You and me. I’d love to keep talking to you. It’ll be like.. like…” He tilted his head and looked up at the ceiling, searching for some filed away information. “What was that film where two people got off a train and spent the night walking round some city ?”

“Before Sunrise ?” answered Kate. “Ethan Hawke. Julie Delpy. You know the city was Paris though. I’m not sure it would have been made if they’d decided to grab a drink in Huntingdon.” She shook her head, smiling. “I’m no one’s idea of Julie Delpy either.”

“I bet you are. Back when you used to think you were Diana of whatsit…”

“Versailles”

“Diana of Versailles. Form and function. Poise and purpose. I bet you are. Anyway I’m no Ethan Hawke” conceded Jack. “But you know what ? That’s not the point. It doesn’t matter where it is or who we’re not. It matters who we are. Who we might be. And you don’t get to find that out by spending your life sitting on a train with a fixed destination. Sometimes you need to get off and change the journey.”

“You’re pretty pleased with that metaphor, aren’t you ?”

“Not bad for someone who’s not good with words” said Jack.

Kate shook her head again, still smiling at him despite herself. She pushed up from the table and made an excuse, told him that she needed to use the ladies. In truth she needed a moment to draw breath. Jack’s offer had caught her by surprise; she was flattered and excited. There was an honesty about him that she was drawn to but which scared her. It had only been a couple of months since things with Francois had imploded, a terse exchange on the Metro at Invalides after she’d found the messages on his phone and it was all done. Broken at Invalides. The irony hadn’t escaped her. Their first date after that night they’d met he’d taken her to Sacre Coeur in the evening and they’d stood on the steps looking down over the city. It had been just how she’d imagined it, just how she’d assumed it would go when she moved to Paris, and it had all been a lie.

She slipped into the cubicle at the end of the carriage and closed the door. The seat was down and she sat on it resting her head in her hands, elbows on knees and began to cry. From laughter in the city of lights to sobbing in a train toilet in the space of six wasted months. Kate tore off a piece of tissue and dabbed her eyes, watched as her tears soaked into the paper. At least she hadn’t bothered with mascara today so she wouldn’t end up looking like one of those imagined profile pictures that Jack had been talking about earlier. What was it he’d said ? Smudged and disheveled ? That felt about right. Her thoughts strayed back to him and she smiled sadly. Why did she have to meet him now ? Before she’d had time to work out what she wanted. Now that she’d walked away from what she’d spent years thinking she wanted; everything she’d worked for and planned. She needed to think. Needed a new plan.

……

Jack stood up and shuffled out to the aisle as the train slowed on its approach to Huntingdon. He pushed his phone into the pocket of his jeans and leant back over the table to pick up his sketch book. Kate watched him.

“It was really good to meet you” said Jack extending his hand slightly awkwardly. “Are you sure you don’t want that walk round Huntingdon ? Or a drink ?” Kate took his hand, met his firm grip with her own and shook her head gently.

“I’m sorry Jack. I just don’t think I can right now. Plan was to get back home and you know I do like a plan…” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged apologetically. “It was lovely to meet you too though. Really, it was.”

“By the way, that thing you said earlier, in French ? I liked hearing you speak like that. What did it mean ?”

“Oh that. It meant ‘we do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact’” answered Kate. “It’s Sartre. Told you I think too much.”

“Deep,” grinned Jack. “Listen, for what it’s worth, I think that what you are is working out just fine. Don’t worry so much about what you want. Try some stuff, see what happens. Like I said, good to meet you Kate.” He smiled at her, turned and made his way up the carriage to the doors. The train slowed, edging up the platform, and Kate pulled her eyes away from his retreating back and down at the table. He’d left his profile behind, a single piece of paper covered in his small, spidery handwriting. Kate picked it up with a rueful smile, turning it over in her hands. On the back was a drawing. In deft, firm pen strokes Jack had sketched her face, she was smiling and a shower of butterflies surrounded her head. Underneath it he’d written ‘don’t leave reminders to yourself where you can’t see them, life is fleeting, don’t forget’.

The tannoy crackled again. “This is Huntingdon. Will passengers leaving the train here please make sure they have all their belongings with them.”

……

Jack had taken a couple of strides away from the train when he heard a bang behind him and the hiss of the automatic door opening again. He looked back over his shoulder and saw that someone must have wedged their bag into the gap as the door had been closing.

“You didn’t get the butterflies right” said Kate as she stepped down onto the platform.

“Well I didn’t get to look at it for very long” replied Jack, hurrying to help with her bag.

“Don’t get any ideas mister. Let’s just start with that drink.”

……

 

Advertisements

Waiting for exits

Ten pm. Polls will shut and we’ll get our first indications from the exit surveys. All we can do now is wait for the exits.

He was lying on a trolley in a corridor. He thought he’d heard someone, white coat, furrowed brow, say that he was stable. That this would do for now. Would have to do for now. Each time the door at the end of the corridor swung open he could see rows of beds and curtained off partitions and people reading notes. We’ll get him in when there’s space. He thought someone had said that too. The needle had made him drowsy. When someone leaves we’ll get him in. Wait for an exit.

She was reading a letter. It said she had to leave. She didn’t really understand how this could be the case. Why she should leave her home for the last twenty years. They’d talked about rubber stamping their stay, back in the early days. Talked about applying for passports and settling things. Not just for them but for the kids. Back then it had cost too much, struggling to set up with jobs in a new country, and then, over time, it just hadn’t seemed necessary. They didn’t need a piece of paper to tell them that this was home. Did they ? The letter in her hands gave a date. Wait for an exit.

It had been good when he’d first started. The energy he’d had in front of the class had been infectious. He’d fired them up with a passion for Blake and Austen and Orwell, got them through the stodgy bits of the curriculum, and they’d returned his fire with fire of their own. He’d watched them grow and challenge and learn to think. He couldn’t put his finger on when it changed. It just seemed like something got lost in the slow grind of exams and marking and assessment and interference and cuts and buying books for the class to cover the shortfalls. The curriculum got stuck in the 1900s and the kids glazed over. They didn’t return fire and his own burned down. Another term and he was done. More money abroad teaching the language he loved to people that didn’t speak it as natives. Wait for an exit.

On the ward everyone was kind. She thought they all seemed so busy, all of the time, but kind. She didn’t really know why she was still here but didn’t complain. For a few weeks she’d had a lovely lady in the bed next to her and they’d gotten on famously. She’d gone now. They didn’t say what happened and she didn’t remember everything quite so clearly these days. She knew she should be somewhere else. Not her own home anymore, heavens no. That would not do. They’d told her about a lovely place that would be suitable but there was just no space and so she’d have to wait here for now. Sometimes she worried about the people that seemed really sick but they told her not to bother herself. Soon. We’ll get you settled soon. Wait for an exit.

It was exciting. Start up again in another city, another country. There’d been a lot of disappointment when the notification about the relocation had been confirmed but quite a few were going to make the move. Maybe London was getting too busy anyway. Financial centres move, money’s all electronic these days, it doesn’t need to be governed by geography. Might just as well work out of Hamburg. Aufregend. Warten Sie auf eine Ausfahrt.

It was devastating. What are we supposed to do ? Start up again in another city, another country ? When they’d said the plant was moving to France nobody had seen it coming. There had been promises. Even after the referendum. Deals were done. It was all secured. All the town had was the plant and the call centre. Someone from the call centre had dropped a leaflet through the door already. Flexible hours that suit you. Zero commitment. Give us a call. He’d dialled the number and a disembodied, artificial voice had asked him to select from the following options. Press six if you’re interested in careers with us. He’d hung up. Wait for the redundancy from the plant. Wait for an exit.

It was a week before they found her. One of the neighbours had gotten worried. It wasn’t unusual to go a couple of days without seeing her but a week was unusual; everyone knew that if her condition flared up she’d be in bed for a bit. They found her next to a letter from the DWP setting out the results of her disability assessment and a bottle of pills. The letter started I regret to inform you. The bottle was empty. An exit.

Ten pm. Polls will shut. Wait for the exits.

 

Careering: 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 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 professor’s 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 gallery in Downtown. 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’ll be missed and someone who always knew where she was.” 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.

Careering: Saturday

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 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, its towers 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 in their crossing. 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 gotten 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 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 choir of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of the fragile peace in his head. 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 without London being dimmed, and then he noticed that 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 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 sat 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.

Careering: Friday

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 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.

“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 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 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 Momma 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, 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 grand 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.”

 

 

Careering: Thursday

“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 always 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.

“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. Take the equator as your start point and 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 then you can work it out by looking at the sky. Longitude was where it got messy, all those imaginary lines are now running vertical 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 Earth’s daily rotation. Unless you agree an arbitrary fixed point to measure against then no one will ever agree on where they are. It’s always moving. One degree every four minutes.”

“And so the good folks at Greenwich offered to be the fixed point of reference for measuring how far east or west you were ?”

“Well we’ve missed a bunch of stuff out about how they standardised solar time for everyone first so that you could always know what time it was in any given location 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 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 skirt part of the circumference of the Circle Line and then take a boat up the Thames. It would take longer but Alex figured, on the plus side, that some time on the river would be a better way for 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 she’d 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 gotten under his skin, sparked something of the curiousity he’d often felt from back when he was a post grad. 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. 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 wifi 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. 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 flare of white as her watch caught the glare of an overhead light. Somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered 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. He watching her move with the train from the platform. They would see 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.

 

Careering: Wednesday

It was still dark as Rob and Maria left the house. The early start had been her idea; jet lag still had her on American time and so she said she’d sooner go out first thing rather than 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 on 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 up 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 hazily 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 all sat out on the roof and listened to Sarah rave about the Kusama installation that she’d seen the day before, none of them wanting to point out the smudge of paint on her cheek. She’d spent the late afternoon absorbed in a fresh canvas. Rob couldn’t remember seeing her passion that clearly 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. Somehow 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 Maria 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 down 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 soft 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. “It’s kind of magical this time of the day though, I’ll give you that.”

“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, 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 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 guy 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.” The centre manager had noticed Rob watching the odd couple and joined in the observation. “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, 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. 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 of that grand and imposing space 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.”