Writing: Lucie Vovk
I remember your hands. Every image of you in my mind has blurred (your eyes were green or maybe grey), but your hands are etched into my memory as if in stone. There was a mole between your left thumb and index that you once thought was a drop of chocolate and tried to lick before discovering, with all the frustration of a toddler, that it would not budge.
I used to think your fingers were magic. Under them, plain paper might become birds that soared around our apartment; they coaxed seeds into saplings that you swore would one day bear us the sweetest fruit we would ever taste. Every sentence you spoke was punctuated by some gesture more swan than human. The whole world existed in your palms, and I in it.
We were sat on our bed with our legs out the window. The rain from that morning had at last abated, and the cool air tickled our toes and lifted our hems. You were smoking again.
“There’s no point giving up now,” you said, “when we already know what’s coming.”
At the time I agreed. We were younger then, more stupid, and I was afraid of you in that childish way that lovers often are. So I watched the ash burn tiny holes in the duvet cover and let the fresh, washed air grow thicker.
Clouds skidded lazy across the sky. Below us, potholes, hubcaps, skipping ropes, the greasy-haired fruit seller whose grapefruits were never sour. Behind us in the half-light, paperbacks unravelling, the patch of mould in the cupboard, rows of glass jars nursing the roots of our garden. And here, at the window, you and me.
We met in a bar, at some open mic night where neither of us performed. I’d quite fancied the bassist, I remember. The frames of her glasses were acid green and I had liked that. You sat beside me and asked for a light, which I didn’t have, which surprised you. The bassist came and went and I stayed, watching your fingertips trace beginnings into the air between us.
I noticed the barman staring at us and realised how close together we were sitting. A knot of apprehension squirmed in my stomach. As I moved away from you, I caught the question in your eyes. I tilted my head towards the bar; your face grew hard as iron and you stood.
It was cold outside. We stood in silence for a moment, both uncertain whether to raise the subject.
“Who cares what he thinks, right?” you half-laughed.
“Right.” The space between us felt solid, immovable.
You buried your fists in the pockets of your coat. It looked like you might leave, and that would be that.
“Where are you going now?” I asked quickly.
“Home, I guess,” you shrugged. “Walk me to my bus?”
The more distance we put between ourselves and the bar, the more your fists unclenched, the easier your laugh bubbled up at my jokes.
Neither of us had phones on which to save numbers, so I pulled a book from my bag and said, “I have to return this to the city library tomorrow. Want to come with me?”
You took it from me and turned it over in your hands. “Can’t I read it first?”
“It’ll be overdue–”
“I’ll have read it by morning,” you promised.
And so you had. We met at the library at noon, you in the same clothes as the night before, me freshly-ironed and fidgeting. We never did return the book. The afternoon was spent leafing through it, exchanging favourite passages. I still get those automated emails reminding me to cover the fine.
That summer was unbearably hot, so we took to buying peaches from the fruit seller and eating them as we walked across the shimmer of the pavements in the neighbourhood. I loved how the juice ran down my chin, loved the sticky patches it left on the skin of my chest. It felt like the sun had dropped down to kiss me.
We would wander through the streets, chasing shade or a breath of cool air from inside a shop. It was a lazy time of year, where windows were open but curtains were pulled shut, and we made a game of deciphering the lives of the people within. Sometimes a radio leaked music in Spanish, or match scores; sometimes it was children playing pretend or a lethargic argument over whose turn it was to make dinner.
There was such simple wonder to knowing we could never know each other fully. I listened for your radio waves, put together the puzzle pieces you handed me: your parents loved you too much. You read widely. You were never free on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays, you were always quieter, and smoked more. You pocketed the stone of every peach you ate on our walks.
One evening, a merciful wind had picked up and whirled down the street, cooling the sweat that pooled in the dip between your collarbones. The sun slanted down from the roofs of buildings, and the windows were gilded with the last of its gold. We had walked down a different street. Here, there were trees. I heard a bird and realised I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard one sing.
You were telling me about a girl you had known once. I think you had loved her.
“Do you still talk to her?” I asked.
A smile curved your lips. “No need to be jealous,” you said, nudging a pebble into the road, “I don’t know where she is anymore.”
I stopped walking. I could feel heat in my face and wondered if I had got sunburnt.
“I’m not jealous.”
You turned to face me. The sun threaded through your hair and cast shadows across your freckled cheeks. “That’s a shame.”
My heart climbed up into my mouth. I reached for your hand for the first time. Your fingers curled into mine and you smiled. Later I would remark that your lips had tasted like peaches.
The city was ours after that. Every corner was painted in joy, that birdlike flutter of a secret uncovered. The sky curved around us, we who spoke too loudly in art galleries and laughed at the sad moments at the cinema. We were never long without touching one another: a hand on a shoulder or waist, a playful knock of the hips. Looking back, I think people knew. We were too obvious. Only the fruit seller didn’t frown at the sticky honey of our ill-concealed smiles.
We held hands when we thought no one could see us. You liked pointing out ‘to let’ signs on buildings, and at night, in the afterwards, we dreamed about how we would decorate our bedroom. We could create a whole universe in an evening, and rebuild it again come morning.
We needed nothing but each other. The world might bruise us, but we could shut the door on it and escape into our books, our seedlings, our bodies. We understood one another and it was enough.
I can’t really remember what we talked about anymore. I know that we did, sifting hungrily through each other’s minds, but I don’t know if it was music we were after, or politics, or a mutual love of bowling. I can’t remember. Once, I could talk to myself and hear you reply, knowing what you’d say and how you’d reassure me. But your voice faded from my memory without me noticing. Now, I talk, and only I answer.
Some things stand out, though. There’s the day we finally got the keys for our apartment – we opened all the windows and kissed each other silly in the empty living room. There’s the time you almost set the kitchen alight with a rogue cigarette, and in my panic I emptied a bottle of cider onto the flames, which created a not insignificant fireball and left a charred circle on the ceiling. You had laughed yourself to tears. The landlord was less amused.
And there’s the day I first noticed you looked weaker. There had been dancing, and drinks, and the smoke that soaked our days clung tight to your clothing. You couldn’t get out of bed.
“I’m just hungover.”
“You’ve been coughing for weeks now. And besides, we were barely drunk last night.”
“Perhaps you drugged me,” you laughed, sitting up.
I smiled. “Perhaps. I’ve been looking for ways to get rid of you for months now.”
A cloud flitted across your face. You rubbed your eyes, slapped your cheeks gently, and got up. “It’s working,” you said, and bumped my shoulder. Anyone who complains about drawing blood from a stone did not witness me trying to get you to a doctor.
It was an endless stream of ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’, ‘it’s only a cough’, or any other phrase to reassure me that you were just out of shape. Despite your groaning, I tried vitamins, cough syrup, yoga classes, even spoke to the fruit seller to ask him what he thought. He handed me my bag of shopping and wordlessly tucked a peach in with it.
It was when you couldn’t get up the stairs to our front door that I cast aside my fears of smothering you and dragged you to a chemist. There were frowns, referrals, more frowns, and finally that smouldering diagnosis, and your silence.
The doctor left the room to let us talk about our options. My knuckles were white in my lap. You were toying with your lighter. It sounded like bones breaking.
“How long have you known?” I whispered.
You said nothing. Your lips were pressed into a line.
“Look at me.” You flicked the lighter again. I took you by the chin and turned your head towards me. “Look at me.”
Your eyes were brimming with tears. They were green, I remember now, green like seaweed or nurse scrubs. Such gardens we could have grown with those eyes.
“Since before you. I get radiotherapy on Saturdays. Guess it didn’t work.”
And the room caved in, and the ceiling tiles screamed as they fell, and I was a crack in the pavement being opened and opened by the weeds clawing out to their poisoned sun.
I took the lighter from your hands and could not meet your gaze.
We stopped going on our walks. We stayed holed up in our apartment like sea birds caught in an oil spill. The quiet spread across every surface. I could barely look at you.
You liked to smoke out the window, and I hated the sight of it, so I sat in the middle of the floor with my eyes stubbornly shut and imagined I couldn’t hear the crackle of the paper with every inhale. Your cigarettes were like the hands of a clock, counting down to a future that you ran towards like there was so much waiting for you there.
“I just don’t understand how you could keep smoking when you knew what it would do to you,” I said.
You dragged your hands through your hair. “I guess I’m just tired of people telling me how to live my life.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
You looked at me as if I was a stranger.
“No one’s trying to tell you how to live your life,” I half-shouted, “they’re just telling you to live.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Don’t you see,” I raged, “that I don’t choose this?”
“It isn’t your decision.”
“How? I’m the one who has to watch it happen.”
You smiled cruelly. “Then leave.”
I refused. You wilted and I stayed, you yelled and I stayed, I hated you and still, I picked you up and pushed the hair back from your face. Your hands took on the texture of paper. Now they shook when you spoke.
I stopped asking you to quit; I knew you wouldn’t. So I simply waited, and loved you.
The loss swept through like a brisk wind. It ended, not with fireworks or trumpets, but with a pregnant silence on the other end of the phone when I called your mother, and the sudden thought that I now knew what a hit-and-run felt like.
I couldn’t tell anyone, of course. The phone swarmed with condolences, but no one really heard me.
“I miss her,” I said to my father.
“Of course. She was your best friend.”
It felt like you had taken the atmosphere away with you. You were the only other witness to the life we had known, and with you gone, I was starting to forget what had been real. My grief was a series of half-truths. Our apartment became a tomb in which I buried every shred of honesty we had given each other.
It was an evening like the first one in that street full of trees, and brassy sunlight dripping into my skin. There were speeches and photographs, and I was your ‘close friend and roommate’. I didn’t bother telling them that I had mapped every freckle on your body like they were braille.
I looked out of the window and begged the birds to sing, remembering how they rejoiced in their indifference of us. Our lives spin madly on, building and collapsing, and still they only sing.
It’s all faded now. As if underwater, the memories come and go in all their muted colours, and all that remains is your hands. How they held me or a pen; pulled chords from violin strings, and the honesty from me. With you, I was a wide-open seed pod that you had persuaded to grow.
We didn’t wear rings. It was our fingers that mattered, locked together as we slept, or their lingering warmth on my skin. I imagine your fingertips pressing against the pages of our books. I think that maybe, if I place my fingers in just the right places, I might feel you pushing back, as if the page were only glass in a window. You might be on the other side, beckoning. It might be time for a walk, or for bed, and I might follow.
I slipped out before the end of the service. As I came out the door, I saw the fruit seller, hair washed and wearing a frayed suit jacket. He held a bag of apricots.
“We’re out of peaches,” he said thickly.
He and I walked down a side street whose tarmac was more patchwork than road. I could feel the space beside me where you should have stood. It was a ragged wound I was certain would never heal.
“I could tell she loved you.”
“We were good friends,” I nodded.
“No.” He handed me an apricot. “I mean she really loved you.”
“How can you know?” I could feel my old, weary heart climbing up my throat again. I was desperate for any crumb of evidence that you had existed as I remembered you.
We turned down our road. He led me into his shop. The shelves were fully-stocked as usual, bringing together the corners of the world for our street to taste.
It smelled sweet in there, alive. The seller picked a few grapes from a bunch and handed them to me. He had struck that careful balance between ripeness and rotting, that place where the fruit is sweetest, and he flourished from it.
I followed him into the back room, hesitated before irreparably crossing into a world where I knew him not as the fruit seller, but someone with memories of his own. On the wall hung a faded poster for an old Siouxie and the Banshees concert, postcards showing the pink roofs of Jaipur, and a dog-eared photo of three smiling girls who looked just like him.
“Your children?” I asked. He nodded and smiled. “They must love the shop.”
“They do, when they visit.” He caught my question before it came. “They live with their mother.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to–”
“Don’t be. We’re all on good terms. She was always very understanding, my ex-wife, and she gets on well with my husband.”
The words took their time reaching me. As I understood the depth of their meaning, I looked at him as if for the first time.
“So, you see,” he said, “I know she loved you.”
I could only nod.
“A few weeks ago, she came in, very early in the morning. She had a bag with her, and a list.”
He invited me through a door and out into a small courtyard, where there was a growing light rigged up above dozens of glass jars. They were filled with earth. In each one sprouted young stems bearing broad, waxy leaves.
They were each labelled with a date: every day that we had taken a walk.
“She asked me not to say anything. Until after, you see.”
I pictured you with him, working in silence. You would have needed to sit down, and the cannula in the back of your hand would have got in the way, but you had been here. I could see it.
The world, like damp earth, had crumbled. I could feel the city around me cracking, taking with it every word, every tree, every place we had kissed. The anchors we had put down were drifting impossibly away, and you with them.
Yet here, in this cluttered little courtyard, you had left behind some of what was stolen. Your hands had dipped and soared, carrying the weight of your very last gift. I could hear you promising me forever, and me believing you, and here it lay before me, in neat little rows. I had known and been known, and it would not be the last time.
“What are they?”