waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move
Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
The morning arrived when it was time for her boyfriend to go travelling and she went with him to the airport. In the otherwise deserted carriage of a train rattling through the city they sat across the aisle from each other. The train burst out of a tunnel into the dazzling yellow of a summer morning and then slid back into darkness. It was cool in a way that suggested it would be hot later. At the airport she said goodbye to him in an echoing white space between the escalators and the check-in, then watched him lope away clutching the straps of his backpack. By the time she embarked on her solitary journey home it was hot, mid-morning, the train carriages empty again.
At home, the panes of coloured glass in the front door cast a warm parallelogram of green on the floorboards. She went up to her bedroom and lay down. It was so quiet that she could hear the hum of the fridge downstairs. Eventually she slept and dreamed that she could see the world through his eyes, drifting out of sleep hours later to the muted sounds of traffic and church bells tolling six. She went over to the window and heaved it open. Above the gleaming lead roofs there was nothing, or what passed for nothing: a crane dipping in the empty sky, a streak of vapour where a plane had gone past.
Directly below her there was a battered Allegro idling in the street. Her next-door neighbours, a group of boys from university, were loading the car with boxes and suitcases. A couple of pot plants and a tatty leather bean bag sat on the pavement. Eventually the neighbours finished loading, got in and slammed the doors. The car pulled away, a fug of blue exhaust fumes lingering behind in the still air.
Her friends were all travelling or at home with their parents for the holidays. Her plan was to get a job or try to finish her novel, but this first evening without him she drifted from her laptop to the fridge and back again, pausing to smoke out of the back door and watch the neighbour’s cat skulk through the high grasses.
With nobody in town and little money to spend she soon became bored. One day she finally sat down to look at the university jobs website and found an email from him, his first communication since leaving over a week ago. He hadn’t written anything, but attached dozens of images. As she was clicking through them, a notification floated up from the bottom of the screen signalling a second email. Then a third, a fourth, until a run of (no subject)s filled the entire first page of her inbox. Of the thirty pictures, not a single one showed his face – he was always behind the lens.
In the morning, the photos had formed a thin film over her vision, tinting everything the hazy electric blue of a Shanghai twilight. Ghostly red shapes rose up in front of her, as if someone had lit a field of sky lanterns in her kitchen. She drifted through her days with no real sense of how much time was passing, the only markers being her short Skype conversations with him. There were always anonymous t-shirt sleeves in the corner of the shot, a friend waiting for him to finish so they could go off and do something; she could never tell if it was a boy or a girl.
In a supermarket that seemed empty for a Saturday evening, she drifted between aisles collecting the ingredients for her meal: salmon fillets, a bulb of garlic, a fresh lemon, a jar of honey. When she came to pay for her food, the cashier scanned the barcodes in slow motion.
Her elderly neighbour was queuing at the next cash register along. Although she had never seen him before this summer, she often ran into him now in the supermarket or on the bus, as if she had fallen into the slow rhythm of life he’d been keeping to. She caught up with him on the ramp down to the carpark and offer to take one of his bags. They spoke in small bursts, and then the conversation died out. As they approached the top of the hill, she saw that the cavernous blue sky was imprinted with the image of a temple. The building drifted across the horizon and vanished.
‘Hello?’ her neighbour said.
They had reached his garden gate, in fact she had gone slightly past it. Bees hovered around the lavender bush, hazy in the evening fug.
‘Sorry, I was miles away.’
Inside, he asked if she wanted something to drink and, without waiting for her reply, shuffled out of the back door to fetch some lemonade. Through the whitened window she watched him heave open the door of his garage and meld into the dim interior. She leaned back against the countertop and her arm touched something sticky. The plastic bags of shopping stood on the table, the handles straining upwards as if someone was still holding them. She went over and started to unpack them.
As she did so, she became aware that she had heard her phone go off some time ago, when they first came into the house. The slowness of the realisation disturbed her. The air was a dense amber she was suspended in. She took the phone out of her pocket. She saw an image on the screen. The man came back into the kitchen and poured her a glass of lemonade which tasted too sweet and sharp. They talked for a while and then she said she had to leave.
At home she saw the dirt in her house for the first time: the cobweb dangling from the bare and milky lightbulb, the specks of black mould around the glaucous eye of the washing machine, the shine of grease on the countertop. She wandered into the lounge, where the diffuse light through the white curtains blurred out imperfections. She took out her phone and looked at the photograph again.
It was a picture of him with his arm around a middle-aged lady at some kind of festival. The image was startlingly clear on the small screen of her phone; in the background she could make out a trestle table laden with roasted meat, dumplings, cloud bread, boiled sweets. Beyond that a Bodhi tree scraped its brown-grey fingers against a stone wall. Three blurs of colour across the foreground resolved themselves into pieces of confetti. The picture quality was so high that she could see the slight shadow where each strip of coloured paper curled slightly as it fell. Both her boyfriend and the lady were laughing at something the person behind the camera had said.
A tiny piece of paper fell from the ceiling and came to rest on her shoe. She looked up. Another piece of confetti fluttered down, pale yellow, and grazed her nose. Then a flurry of glitter burst above her head and made the air shimmer. More confetti was falling now: it came down in lazy spirals, sycamore seeds in slow motion, and left her skin tingling where it seemed to touch her. It collected in multi-coloured snowdrifts in the corners of the room, banked up against the legs of the chairs and floated on the glass surface of the coffee table. She opened her arms, a movie star in a sudden downpour, but the confetti danced away from her touch. A gentle hubbub of voices rose around her. She couldn’t make out the words, but they seemed to be saying that he was never coming back.