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Today's Story by John Saul

I tried swilling the last of my wine like her.

Anywhere and nowhere

It was over, but do you think I cared? As Anthea left my orbit for a new existence in a grand leafy part of town—stay to the end of the tramline to get there—I saw her not so much in her new apartment as drifting off, soundlessly, in a little personal space­craft with simple, basic controls, like Pirx the Pilot, three big red buttons on a white board and a grey stick to change directions. For those who don’t know, Pirx is a Polish astronaut, much renowned. It’s Anthea I see, however, a pearly bulb by her ear making her and the cabin features visible. She’s seat-belted and looks alert. She wears a headscarf. Knowing Anthea as I do—used to do—the scarf’s a resource to take along, ready to stuff into leaks, apply a tourniquet, to bind whatever rod or bone might break. Anthea always was re­sourceful.

So do I care? I’m not managing to let her drift away without being there too, imagining how it is for her. Somehow the dark accentu­ates the brightness of the heavens, a glorious infinity of stars. To the side, above, below. She feels awe. So this is how it is in space. She stares at it for minutes, breaking off finally to look about the cabin. Unclipping the belt, holding onto the armrests, she tries standing. But she can’t begin to stand without her head coming against the roof, so she sits again and puts back the seat belt. A tap on the dome of the windscreen tells her it’s made of plastic. It’s calm. See those stars, a marvel. Very calm: could this be the quiet before some final shock? Is this night or day? Space is silent. Her little motor also can’t be heard, per­haps because it is always being left behind, the sound of its putterings too slow to catch up with itself. To check she can hear her own voice she sings squeakily I’m off the hook, appro­priately enough, off the hook. She tries out rhymes for hook and finds shook and look and Captain Cook. Distracted, she wonders if voyaging in unknown space was similar to how it was for Captain Cook. A shake of her head; she resumes the song. However, since the squeakiness is not inspir­ing, not confidence-making, she leaves singing aside and pretends to chew gum.

I surprise myself to even think of her in her tiny space­craft, but I do. I feel for her as she reaches under her seat and discovers nothing of interest, as she looks straight ahead out of a duty to be vigilant. I feel her fear turn to awe at an on­coming cloud of dust, all zest sparkling with extra­terrestrial colours.

A sobering blackness then descends, clamping down on everything and persuading me to rejoin the more real world. My thoughts move on, or rather back­ward, returning to our infernal restaurant dinner, in particular to the streets we walked along to get there. These streets were of in­difference to me, but to Anthea of considerable significance, the scenic back­drop to her solo life to come. They snaked around between white mansions that looked crowded to­gether, occupying spaces otherwise filled by greenery and trees, all spread­ing and over­hanging. There were thick clouds that day too, almost closing off the blue of the sky beyond. After a string of false endings, it was Anthea wanted us to meet for an early dinner, to end it all.

We’d walked along the streets of mansions, admiring the broad spacings of the rail­ings, the conservatories and the burgeoning gardens. As we made wild guesses at who besides her might live in such homes and apartments—surely gun-runners and astronomers, lecturers and spies—Anthea set the pace by ambling and starting long con­versations at the kerbs instead of cros­sing. Only now does the significance of these moments occur to me: it was our last easy time together. I can even set a marker for when this ended. In a dozen years I’d never known Anthea take along a change of shoes, but she was carrying a new pair in a bag. She took them out to show me. They were her current pride and pleasure but let me tell you the colour, a garish pink, sounded a jarring note to end on. They may have been leather but in terms of colour they were brash, bling and neon, a magenta to run a mile from.

As she drifts off peer­ing intently out of the cockpit window, as is her character, puzzling at what­ever space holds, shoes roped tightly to the roof rack, I know for me she will become a cold blue star, the colour of the night, the lurid specks of pink alone visible from Earth.

I always was a handful for you, she said at the dinner, pushing her monster glass of expensive wine round in circles on the table.

Besides, she said, I don’t want us to end the way I did with Marvin. This time I’m going to get everything sorted, that’s why I’ve asked you here, not on a whim, it’s to do things differently. If you like, it’s because of Marvin.

Round and round she pushed the glass. When I think about it, she said looking up a moment: all our actions have a history.

We watched the dark wine swill.

Come to the point, I said, this is just banana talk.

Oh really, said Anthea.

Instantly she signalled for the bill. I tried swilling the last of my wine like her.

Anyway, she said reaching for the bag under the table, this is for you. And since you’re being so frank I will be too: it’s not much. Just a little keepsake. I had a suitcase full of presents, I had to go for things that were small and light, you know how it is.

When we finally parted she simply turned about and—I presume—was gone. All well and good for the poet to say she did not turn—that is, look back—but how would I know, I didn’t look myself. Salubri­ous as her neighbourhood may be, for all I care she’s off in space. Did we kiss good­bye?—Well, we forgot. Forgot. One thing I can tell you: had she really entered space I wouldn’t even have shown up, the way people do, to wave from the launch pad.

Systematically trying one button at a time and waiting, she sails on. Travelling in space has something of a sailing motion, albeit interrupted by sudden wobbling and bobbling. Meanwhile, as the effect of the white mansions began to wear away and I came to a long east-west street to take the tram, already approaching, I chucked her pathetic final present beneath its wheels. A keepsake?—It was a plastic drainer for drying lettuce. Weird. I made sure it wouldn’t see a single leaf. I stepped aboard, adding weight to the wheels that would crush this crazy plastic, cheap stupid present.

The tram would take me to my high-rise out of town. In my jacket I still had a DVD for Anthea. Some country-house romance with bonnets and top hats and carriages. I had decided it was not worth giving. I left it on a seat, punched in my ticket and sat somewhere else. Things change if you’re dumped. The world reports in as your personal dustbin. And we’d dumped each other: a double dump. She’d shot off and I’d stayed. I wasn’t worried. I was counting down the stops, looking forward to the last of the daylight on my balcony. However long it took, one day another space blimp would land, a bright green craft with a pilot I could learn to love.

The tram reached a stop, waited, moved off. Try that blue button, Anthea, maybe it’s a radio, maybe you can tune in some­where. Well I’ll try, I hear her say, I’m trying now. Calling you, calling you, hello. Hello back, I’m almost at the tram stop by the shopping centre, do you hear? Nothing. Lines from ground to space aren’t part of the technology. This calls for a Mexican scientist, I hear her mutter­ing at the buttons, a Czech Republican or a Pole: they’re the only ones can fix such things.

A blinding fire rushes past her, a conflagration, green and violet come and gone, to the sound of a flaring match magnified by hundreds.

It leaves a patch of grey crust on the window. Anthea unwraps her scarf, probably racking her brains on how to use it to mend the damage. The damage seems purely optical, however; but debilitating, a wound never to be repaired. The shoes, long demoted in significance, like some toys, must be turned to ash. I know her: next she’ll be looking for the lesson in this incident. More diligent steering is called for, is that it?

On she floats, calm and focused. By now she’s tried all the buttons but nothing has the least effect, nothing is wired up to anything. She’s looking at everything else: at how the control seat might be fixed to the floor, at the speckly white-and-blue panelling in sections behind her. To investigate these panels she has to grip the seat with one hand while reaching out with the other, running her finger­nails down where the panels join. As she floats and spins with tucked-up knees, weight­lessness caus­es her to move with a caution I barely associate with the Anthea I know—I used to know. The scarf floats too. It takes minutes for her to manoeuvre back into position at her seat, where she rubs away at some discomfort in her neck.

Did this worry me?—At every tram stop it concerned me less. By the time I’d got to my door I’d have forgotten the more stupid details I’d been mulling over. Forgotten that gift, stupid present, as cleanly as we forgot to kiss. If not by then, by tomorrow I’d have forgotten. Next week. Did I care? I’d buy a lettuce, maybe make a point of it, every day a lettuce. Dry it the way I always had, without another thought.

She beats the buttons with her fists. What next? She snarls in frustration, the sound sending an instant shock to the air: the scarf swirls dreamily to the side. And then? She sniffs the cabin air. Sniffs again. Familiar, what is that? It’s the weak frag­rance of her own skin. Keep calm Anth, she tells herself, space may be un­connected­ness. Space may have no obvious des­tination, anywhere and no­where being much the same. Stars alone suggest points of reference. Look at them all, they’ll need months of study. Yes, she decides, this is how it was for Captain Cook, out on the blank sea. Out of port with­out a reliable map, or no map at all, she tells herself; none­theless he returned. OK, she says gazing straight ahead: it’s a chal­lenge, OK Anth you can do it.


John Saul has had three collections of short fiction published by Salt Publishing (Cambridge, UK). The first, Call It Tender, was well received in The Times.  He lives in Suffolk in England.  His website is www.johnsaul.co.uk.


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