The way the woman would put it is this: there is a death for everything, with an inevitability of grief waiting beneath. Composure’s surface cracks eventually. After deferral, pain’s ugliness comes as a relief. To square your mouth and let anguish echo is bliss. Every sailor in a matelot jumper knows that.
She left him there, in his cornflower blue suit of ignorance. She turned away from his unseeing, unseeking, dead and lonely person, bound up in empty words and the harm of unknowing.
She stepped out into the wider world. She walked. Bravery didn’t come into it. Deferral had become untenable. She had come to an understanding with herself. The malice of silence wasn’t what she wanted. Nor the brutality of indifference.
She thought of a statue, of a green metal building. She thought about the horizon, and the sun caught the gold in her brown hair.
A small, dark girl watched her quizzically from a distance. The small, dark girl thought about possibilities. She thought about offering the woman the benefit of one of her finest skills, but the woman had purpose in her stride. The small, dark girl saw this with the glittering blackness of her eye.
The girl at the table shook her head, awakening from a dream of sorts. Opposite her, the man in the blue suit and the green shirt looked up from his crossword. The girl, who was a woman, looked at him through grey eyes, reflecting the short lightwaves that his brown eyes absorbed. ‘I saw a building,’ she said, ‘the same shade as your shirt. Green enamelled metal. Two sailors were filling it with board games.’ Opposite her, the man whose shirt was the shade of green enamel looked back to his crossword. He wrote across a line of squares. The woman, who used to be a girl, felt a judgement in those squares and the spidery black letters placed inside their walls. ‘Where has my life gone?’ the woman murmured. ‘Where is my drunkenness of being?’ The man placed more spiders inside square walls. The woman looked sad. ‘Am I looking at you from the wrong direction?’ she asked. Opposite her, the man whose suit was blue like cornflowers, pressed on, pressing down, marking the page. The woman sighed and cast a sidelong glance through the café window. ‘Let’s go back to the beginning,’ she said. ‘Start this thing again.’
The small, dark girl looked up at the frozen sailor. As she regarded his four-square form he seemed to solidify and the colour drained from him. ‘I said he was colourless,’ she said to no-one in particular. ‘I always knew it would end this way.’ Far in the distance, the girl at the table yawned and stretched. She shook her head as though awakening from a dream before rising from the table. Far in the distance, she began to walk. The small, dark girl leaned over the handlebars of her bicycle to watch. Her quizzical right eyebrow arched above the glittering blackness of her eye. The girl who had left the table took forever to reach the middle distance. ‘Shall I give you a backy?’ called the small, dark girl. ‘It’s one of my finest skills.’ ‘No thanks,’ said the girl who had left the table, her voice sounding closer in the ear of the small, dark girl than she would have thought possible, had she been inclined to think about the possible in any way whatsoever. Then, there she was, the sunlight catching on the gold in her brown hair. ‘Nice statue,’ she said. ‘Did you make it yourself?’
Fatigue glittered across his brow. The two-fold harm, its twin destruction, left him four-square and rigid. “Your mouth, your mouth!” sang the small, dark girl, jubilant and cocksure. “My mouth?” the sailor said wordlessly. “Your mouth, your mouth, so square and flat. Your mouth, so square, just fancy that!” sang the small, dark girl, cycling tauntingly round him. Four-square and rigid and building a rage as hot as a furnace, the sailor felt his legs pushing down into the earth. Through his square mouth, shaped like a letterbox, he bellowed, “My mouth, my mouth, so square and flat!” Anguish echoed all around. Tears sprang in his eyes. He was not a thing, he knew that much. And yet, his rigid legs pushing down into the earth, his four-square body belied this knowledge. The temptation of a heavy load, a weight, a pressure. 5CWT or more, he seemed to understand, a pressure greater than could be borne. He chose his words. “My mouth, my mouth! My mouth, my mouth!” The small, dark girl cycled back from the middle distance. “You chose your words?” she seemed to ask. His square mouth grimaced. His eyes flashed fear. Here was his sorrow, at last.
After the snow had melted, colour returned to the landscape. ‘Was the snow absorbing all the colours?’ he asked. ‘Oh, probably,’ came a familiar voice. The small, dark girl rode her bicycle once in a circle around him. ‘The snow or the sign or you.’ ‘Me?’ said the sailor. ‘How could I absorb the colours?’ ‘You’re a very colourless man,’ the small, dark girl said, pivoting on the back wheel of her bicycle, like a perverse jewellery box ballerina. ‘Thanks,’ said the sailor. The small, dark girl stopped her rubber pirouette. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘He discovers his sarcasm at last. He is truly coming on.’ The sailor looked past her, trying to see the sign. ‘Don’t look for that thing,’ said the small, dark girl. ‘You’ll never see that thing again.’ The sailor looked behind him, trying to see where his opposite had gone. ‘Or him,’ the small, dark girl said. ‘You’ll never see him again, either.’ The sailor felt the surface of his well cap crack. He felt the grief bubble up. ‘At least you won’t drown,’ said the girl. ‘At least the grief won’t kill you.’ Something splintered in his chest. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ he said.
‘There is a well of grief that is never ending,’ the sailor said, morosely. ‘I try to seal the top of it but it keeps cracking open, and I keep falling in.’ ‘You’ve had too much aquavit,’ said his opposite. He was still staring at the sign. ‘Aquavit will always make you morose.’ ‘I’ve had hardly any,’ the sailor replied, remembering the cold brightness of the liquid, how solid it felt, how clinical. ‘You’re not yourself, just remember that.’ His opposite flicked the words towards him, over his shoulder. The sailor thought. He looked down at the snow beneath his feet. It chilled him from the soles upwards. He looked up. ‘Who am I, then?’ he asked. His opposite was walking towards the sign. NOT TO DROP MORE THAN 5 CWT it silently shouted. The shape, the dimensions, the sense of it resembled a letter box, grimacing across the distance between him and it. ‘Who are you?’ he asked in the barest whisper. His opposite finally dropped the rose. The snow bloomed pink, as pink as the nose of a white cat. ‘I am nobody,’ his opposite replied. ‘I am just a sailor.’ He watched the snow melt to nothing.
At the sailor’s feet, the shattered glass from the dropped bottle had formed itself into a rose. The thorns along the stem glittered against the pure white of the snow. The flower was as pink as the nose of a white cat. As he stooped to pick the rose up, another hand grasped the stem. In its haste to win the flower, the hand grasped too hard, the glass thorns pierced the skin, forcing droplets of blood to stain the snow. Bent at the waist, the sailor looked up to find a mirror image. “You again?” he asked. “You too?” his double replied. Twin sailors gazed at each other, bent forwards at the waist. The sailor (our sailor) straightened his spine. “I thought I was dead,” he said, “but if your hand can bleed, that surely means we are alive.” He thought he felt the cold of the snow through his shoes, but wasn’t convinced. His double also straightened, still holding the rose by the stem, the glass thorns still piercing his skin. “I’ve seen you before,” he said. He did not release the rose as he turned towards the sign hanging in the blinding white, creating a bloody trail.
The sailor dropped the bottle from his hand. He looked across the white expanse of snow and saw a sign. Its once pristine surface was now cracked and pitted where metal had encountered too much oxygen. He saw flaws that could fracture at the slightest blow. The sign was wider than it was high by a measure the sailor could not calculate. He could not see the thing to which it was affixed. The background surface was white, obscured by snow. He had the sense of a container in the way the light fell across the dazzling background. He wondered at the words embossed upon the sign. NOT TO DROP MORE THAN 5 CWT. Another sailor flashed before his eyes, cowering beneath the shadow of a large wooden mallet. A heavy load, a weight, a pressure. A pounding and a whiteness. All things are made to bear a certain amount of pressure. All things have the strength to push so far, and no further. The temptation, he seemed to understand, was to build up steam and drop a pressure greater than can be borne. This, he seemed to feel, was to be avoided. A two-fold harm and a twin destruction.
The sailor bent down to look at the bottle. He expected to see a label, but the bottle was bare. He picked it up and put it back down again. He pushed his sailor’s cap back on his head and scratched his forehead beneath his kiss curl. He was surrounded by silence for the first time in a long while. It was oppressive, as though all vibration had been sucked out of the air. He realised that he was wearing his sailor’s jacket, dark blue with the square collar that hung down across the broad span of his back, tied with a ribbon at the front. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked himself. He looked down at his feet. He stood with one foot in the sand, the other in the snow. ‘Am I now really dead?’ he asked himself again. He picked up the bottle again, opened it and drank. It had a strange taste, metallic and clinical, with hard edges as though he were drinking a shard of something solid and bright. He felt cold, and he saw that the sand had all turned to snow. He stood with both feet in the frozen powder, waiting for something new.
The sailor groaned. If this was his joy, what would his sorrow resemble? ‘Look over there,’ said the small, dark girl. The sailor followed the line of her arm to the end of her pointing finger. She showed him a beach. Two people were crossing it side by side. They passed over sand dunes as though they were not there and walked through the water at the edge of the shore as though it had no depth. The sailor could see them clearly. They were magnified as though viewed through a lens. They crossed the sea and they emerged from the water onto another beach. The sailor saw that they had a wooden mallet and a large wooden bowl. He watched as they pounded the contents of the bowl with the mallet until it formed a large white mass. The sailor felt himself choke. He felt a pressure on his face, as though the large white mass was smothering him. ‘Tell them to stop,’ he begged the small, dark girl. ‘Please. Tell them. I can’t breathe.’ But the small, dark girl was gone again. In the place where she had stood, motionless on her bicycle, was a light blue bottle.