I traced obscene patterns along the top of the sandy bar until my drink arrived to better occupy my time. I knew she would be there. She often was.
It was hot, the air stagnant and helpless. Dust, captivated by smooth surfaces and rough nooks alike, clung to every crease and plane. I could feel it, thick under my cuffs. Every night the shower water ran copper with it all. The Flood had stormed the city, surging, unstoppable, anywhere it found a way. And it found every way. We were reduced to a graveyard of shards rising out of a new, black sea. Then it receded, a retreat as rapid and unexpected as its arrival. The city was transformed, a barrow of mud and sand, half-buried and sinking.
I tried to picture her arriving, as if I could hallucinate her into being. I imagined her; taller than most, all lengths and angles. I could almost see her, right there in front of me, settling her dark, shoulder-grazing curls back into place with a shake of her head and a pat of her hand. As if how she looked mattered, as if it wasn’t obvious that she was better than all that mortal nonsense.
When she did appear it was in an eddy of dust, the wind plucking at the black coat around her heels. The doors had opened and closed behind her so fast it felt like a conjuring trick. She walked towards me through the sly, appreciative glances.
‘Hello, I thought it was you,’ she said. ‘I think I saw you the other day, I can’t remember where now.’
‘It was at Wong Kei,’ I said. ‘Can I get you a drink?’
The barman had already leapt into action, busying himself for her.
‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘You were with someone.’
‘So were you.’
She pulled the tall glass of icy water towards her, dragging a clean path behind it. The conversation ebbed and flowed around her. In the lull I could hear the wind keening outside.
‘It wasn’t a criticism. It was an observation,’ she said. ‘Besides, people move on, don’t they?’
I thought of her fingertips leaving their dusty prints on the cool glass, how the condensation from the hot room would make muddy tears of them. Some people moved on.
‘And what are you doing here?’ she said.
‘I came here to see you,’ I said. ‘I was waiting for you.’
She raised an eyebrow. She didn’t mean to, she never did. She would make a terrible poker player, that eyebrow sharing her hand with the table.
‘You don’t get to do that,’ she said. ‘You don’t get to wait for me.’
‘I just wanted to talk to you,’ I said. ‘I wanted to say–’
‘You don’t get to say anything either,’ she said. ‘There was a time for you to say something and it passed. Because, if you remember, you let it pass.’
I took the glass from her. The sediment, disturbed, lifted to the surface, a bronze filigree twisting in the light. It tasted like a punch had split my lip.
‘I was never what you wanted anyway. Not that you know what you want,’ she laughed. ‘What you want is a pretty little thing with no self-respect. Someone you can just toss around like confetti on special occasions.’
I ran my knuckles over my lips to see if they came back bloodied, just so I had something to do while I didn’t answer her.
She took the glass back and put it on the bar. ‘I’m meeting someone for lunch.’
‘That’s very nice.’
She looked like she might cry then, catching her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment and taking a deliberate breath. Her eyes were the very last shade of green before it becomes blue, like the shallows that edge an ocean.
It all seemed so obvious looking at her then. Both of us were stuck. But I couldn’t take it back, take us back to that exact point in time and get it right.
‘I’m surprised you’re still that bothered about us anyway,’ I said, trying to sound off-hand, casual. I couldn’t even play it cool anymore. I felt bilious with self-pity.
‘Why?’ she was suspicious.
I presented her with a lazy smile, a little wolfish, I thought, around the edges. ‘You always came easily enough, I expected you to leave the same way.’
I reached for my glass, the only still object in the room, as it span away from me. I felt a dangerous lightness inside, right where there had been such terrible gravity. I wanted to laugh all of a sudden, as if I was a kid being thrown up into the air for a game. Time to go.
The heat hung over the street, a thick pelt. I kept my eyes closed until I’d put my sunglasses on to save them from the grating air. I pulled my scarf up and my hat down. Two young women were standing by the opposite corner in the crisp shadows. They made slow turns as though on a rotisserie, looking for afternoon business. They were new. They would learn there were better places to make their pitch than there. The pathway that was cleared every morning down the middle of the road was beginning to fall prey to the subsiding sand dunes and silt-drifts banked against every building across the city. I could see the familiar brown-black mark stretching along the wall opposite, three storeys up, where it marked the high point of the water. I struggled away below the billboards scoured pale and windows scratched blind by the raw wind, by houses and shops that had been engulfed by the creeping desert.
It was the light that drew me. At first I thought the old cinema was burning down, but the fire seemed curated, not out of control. The ruined building was marbled with copper and amber stains, bisected by that same murky line. Curiosity slipped me through a side door that hung off its hinges.
Candles squatted on almost every inch of carpet, their flames shifting in a breeze I couldn’t feel. It cast a spell over the broken seats and the screen that hung down in ragged sheets. I followed a narrow trail picked out through the light and sat down at the end of the third row.
‘No show today,’ said a voice.
An old woman was hauling herself to her feet further down the row. Once she was upright she shuffled between the seats towards me.
‘I said there’s no show today. There hasn’t been a show for weeks now. The projector is full of sand,’ she stopped in front of me. She was tiny, lost inside a purple silk kimono with broad hems edged with pink cherry blossoms, the cuffs as stiff and black with grime as the collar. ‘There was only the pornography left anyway. You don’t look the type. Move.’
I folded myself in half inside the tipped-up seat so she could pass, rustling like dried leaves.
‘You look like you wouldn’t know one end from the other,’ she seemed pleased to have passed this judgement. Then she looked anxious. ‘It was me. I put the sand in it so they’d leave me alone.’
I could see what she’d perhaps looked like as a child, age had started to tug her back through all those years.
‘Am I in trouble?’
‘Not with me,’ I said. ‘I don’t know one end from the other, remember?’
She seemed to cheer up. ‘I feel I’m of an age where I’ve earned some peace and quiet.’ She turned away and went down the first step, one foot, two feet, then the next step, one foot, two feet. ‘See this one?’ she said. ‘This is for…I lit this one for…’
When she looked back at me I couldn’t see her face, she was a black hole punched in the glow.
‘For?’ I said.
She seemed to slow all the time around her, it felt like midnight pulled inside out. ‘I can’t remember. They all got away anyway. It doesn’t matter.’
‘Who got away?’
‘All of them,’ she half-shrugged.
‘The people you lit the candles for?’ It did matter.
She nodded. ‘I let them get away. I thought that was what you were supposed to do. Love them, then leave them.’
The candles were deceptive, hotter and brighter than they appeared. I could see white spots when I closed my eyes. She started the painful journey back up the steps. I couldn’t work out how many candles there were, hundreds, maybe more.
‘Once you get rid of one,’ she tried to look defiant. ‘It’s easier to do the next one. Then the next. You’ll see. If you don’t know already, you look like you might.’
She came so close I could see that her eyes were cloudy. Her breath smelt of blackberries and pineapples.
‘When you’re old you know far too many things to make sense of them all,’ she said. ‘It’s just a jumble of nonsense. No one talks about that, they just go on about wisdom.’
‘I need to go home,’ I said.
‘And don’t get me started on experience. Why do you need to go home? Is there someone waiting?’
‘How is it home then?’ she glared at me.
She began to follow me up the steps but I was at the top before she’d made much headway.
‘I have to show you something,’ she said. ‘Wait.’
I don’t know why I stopped. We were on the edge of the darkness at the end of the candles. I could hear the rattle of her breath.
‘Help me sit down here,’ she said. ‘Please. I need to sit down here.’
I levered her onto the step as she held her kimono away from the flames and winced.
‘And now…’ she said, a magician showing me the contents of her sleeves.
She pushed the nearest candle. It teetered as though in two minds and then topped into its neighbour. Candle cannoned into candle into candle until the building was a blaze.
The slim bullet of the Intercontinental Hotel hung before me, heat pleating and re-pleating the air around it. The mirrored cladding shone like the scales of a fish in the evening sun. It was gutted from gills to tail by a deep gash that had disgorged tables, beds, baths and sofas. They had tumbled out of the hotel tangled in a cascade of pipes and plaster and bolts of ragged carpet, the sand claiming the debris on the ground. I could see some rooms on the lower floors were still hung with slanted pictures and safety signs, but higher up they were folded down the middle, neat creases arrowing through the floors below.
Most of the windows on the far side had been blown in. I climbed through into the restaurant, all the tables and chairs thrown up against one wall. I could hear the building groan as it listed. I found the staircase and started to make my way to the thirty-fourth floor. Most flights had steps missing or twisting off into space. I trusted nothing to bear my weight, climbing up and up until the walls began to disappear and could see all the way along corridors to the sky beyond.
As I went further and further everything returned to how I remembered, as if nothing had happened.
It was a white room, its anonymity the greater part of its charm. It was always booked in my name because her name belonged, in part, to someone else. The clock was always against us and every moment became a marker so we could find each other even when we were apart.
‘Are you asleep?’ she said.
‘So is my arm.’
I moved as little as I could, not wanting to loosen our purring tangle. ‘Better?’
‘The other arm.’
‘What other arm?’ I said.
‘Maybe it’s your arm. It’s hard to tell.’
‘If you move, I can reach the room service menu.’
‘I’m not that hungry.’
‘I think I might be,’ she said.
I lifted myself up on an elbow and a chill draught slipped into the disorder of the bed.
‘Only might be,’ she said. ‘There’s no hurry.’
I reached down and got a pillow from the floor and then tried to untwist the duvet without making us cold. The window was ajar, the first heavy drops of rain tapping at it. I was starving all of a sudden. She slid under my arm and put her head on my shoulder. I pulled the covers around us.
‘I don’t really want to see the film,’ she said. ‘Will you be disappointed if we don’t go?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘I don’t want to go for a drink either.’
‘I don’t mind,’ I said. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Lie here. Talk about things.’
It was the way she said it. Talk about things. Like the talk was not just that but a conversation at a summit that meant to change the world and had a fighting chance of doing so. Like the things were weighty matters that would affect millions, matters of huge bearing and responsibility. I got up to close the window and looked out through the erratic rivulets of rain. My breath clouded the glass. I put on the white dressing gown embroidered with the Imperial Hotel logo.
‘It’s cold outside anyway,’ I said.
‘Get back into bed,’ she kicked the duvet straight and then pulled back the corner for me.
Once the pillows were fattened up again and the bed was in some order she rested the room service menu on her knees but didn’t open it.
‘I remember when I first saw you, not when we first talked. At the party,’ she said. ‘Everyone had come from work or somewhere and they all had bags and a coat and all this stuff they had to unwrap from themselves. And you appeared with nothing. You had a jacket and that was it.’
‘Everything was in my pockets.’
‘I’d never get everything in my pockets,’ she said.
‘You would if you had a shoplifter’s mackintosh.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Do you know what I’d thought when I looked at you?’
‘I can hazard a guess.’
‘I thought I’d like to do that.’
‘That was what I would have guessed.’
‘No,’ she frowned. ‘I thought I want to travel light. Like you do.’
‘I don’t travel light.’
‘You do. You don’t drag all this stuff around with you all the time like other people,’ she turned, her knees grazing my thigh under the duvet, and laid her arm along the pillow behind me. ‘You have all this freedom.’
I didn’t feel free, or light.
‘What if I didn’t go home?’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’ I knew what she meant. In the beginning I’d longed for her to say it, I’d fought the urge to beg her to say it. That wasn’t the deal, we’d been upfront about it from the beginning. She wasn’t available because of him and I wasn’t available because of me. I became available because of her and I had to learn to play by the rules to save myself from the glamourous torture of her leaving me over and over again.
‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘Tell me.’
I thought of watching her sleep and the tremor along the dark sweep of her eyelashes as she saw her dreams unfolding, of the light tap of her fingertips on my hip as she began to surface. I thought of seeing her wake up, one eye opening a fraction before the other, the left then the right, of the way her eyes would focus and how I would coax her lazy, morning smile from her. I thought of her pushing a near-black curl back from her forehead and it tumbling free again, and again, until I too had to try to persuade it back with the others on that bright, brilliant head. I thought of all these quiet gifts that filled the first seconds of our rare days and how they would be lost in the daily commonplace. I wondered if that was what they deserved.
I’d never seen her look like that before. It was as though she didn’t recognise me. She searched my face looking for something familiar, something that she could trust. I couldn’t help her because I felt the same way about myself as she did.
Next, the sky funnelled down towards the land, its black fingers stretching grasping and the room was full of shards of glass flying with a tornado that snatched up anything loose and when I reached for her she pushed me away rushing to barricade herself in the bathroom, a useless attempt to save herself.
She had come to me freighted with hope and I had capsized her. Instead of an anchor to hold her she had found a weight to sink her. All the way down to these depths of the dark water, coming to rest on the black mirror of a cold bed.
Valentine Carter became a woman after successfully completing many years as girl. She is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has stories published in a forthcoming issue of Bandit Fiction and the In Yer Ear/Wicked Hags Anthology. You can find her on Twitter here.