We were there after the evacuation. We awoke, hands intertwined, the saturated haze of sleep lifting from our weary eyes. Our shared body heat had made a cocoon of our room and the closed red curtains absorbed the sun's rays and radiated them into the room. There was a stillness and a stir; my sleep was deep. I could not remember what had happened but I awoke heavily, pulling my dehydrated head from the pillow with a lurch. Emerging had been like pulling one's head from the deep water of a pool in our holiday home in Spain, far away. Tingling shards flecked through the ripples on the surface and ignited the lucid bottom, the cool sensation and the brainfreeze from the back of the head becoming normal. When I pull my head out there is a suck as the vacuum tries to hold me in place; more force sees my head rise from the water and the tadpoles in my head swirl around as I reorientate myself. The cuckoo clock on the wall, its wooden bird set at the end of its long pole, beak open in a permanent call that never came. My darling's eyes are bleary. She sits, still in her shorts from the hasty collapse onto the floor for an afternoon nap a long time ago.
The scale fascinated first: a city devoid of life seemed suddenly alive. We trod hand-in-hand, hands clasping door handles lightly as if afraid to disturb the balance that had settled. Guilty, like children who have come down to the Christmas tree early to find that, yes, indeed the presents are there but - is Christmas the same without the lights and the watchful eyes of parents? We ventured a walk first - to somewhere we knew and walked every day. It is a known phenomenon, paralysis by choice. Anywhere in the city we could have chosen to go, no barred door could hold us and no sign, AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY, and suchlike, could have been enforced. We walked, though, along the left side of the path through the green - for it was established custom among residents of the busy city blocks to walk on the left side of a single-track pavement to avoid the diplomacy of potential collisions. I held Alia's shoulders close to mine and looked up to the tops of the skyscrapers, the lengths of Manhattan-style streets with the lazy glow of evening cast against one side. Yet not a soul did we pass, not a light or glowing-shop sign... not even a cat or bird stirred from the trees above us or knocked over the obligatory bin outside the corner shop where we bought our baguettes on Sunday mornings like these. We bought our baguette, make no mistake - even in the stillness of the city and with no friendly face to greet me behind the counter, no conversation about the election of the latest representative or suchlike, no brief leg-liason with the friendly cat that stalked the shelves of the convenience store. Neither of us spoke a word on that walk, and wordlessly it was that we trod back on the right hand side of the path through the green, eyes down and a little more quickly but only just, as if some dim feeling had begun to permeate through us after our twenty minutes' exposure. Humans can be snapped into a kind of trance state when presented with the full force of an alternate reality if it is placed with such certainty before their eyes. The brain has no contingency for an existence devoid of all life beyond one's own partner - it goes about its daily routine with a feverish tenacity as if asserting the reality of its situation. Blinkered we had walked to the convenience store - even left change on the counter and ventured a salutation into the back room, to no avail - but during our return journey, and as my hands slipped on the keys to our apartment, the covers over our eyes were raised and the awareness reached us that - yes - we were alone.
The early days were fine and, bit by bit, we ventured out to explore our city for the first time. The stillness demanded attention everywhere at first - the flags flapping in the wind to herald a grand country, the rusty dent on the bumper of our landlady's car, the smell of the wind as it ran down alleyways and warm stone exteriors. The silence was something we had never known. A person wishes to know the source of every sound that comes to them, but when the world is awash with people it is easy enough to wave one's mental hand and attribute it to some or other person in a neighbouring tenement. There being no neighbours in our neighbouring tenement, though (we still considered only that one to be ours), any clatter made me stand still and look around for Alia.
There was the inevitable decay. Buoyed by the ferocity of human existence the world appears always to be moving steadily upwards - it is only when that stopped that I realised the duty of maintenance that mankind has on this planet. Decaying chicken on a plate in the fridge of our neighbour's flat (on the second day we entered), a ladder left against the white facade of a set of pretty French-style apartments that couldn't quite resist the wind, and, eventually, the paint that lines the quay - 'Come, and have fun!'. All these things submit, surely, to the whispering teeth of time. We had to choose our circle, one that we could defend as our own - and naturally we chose our modest tenement in the grey, slightly squashed set of flats on the corner of Prudence Street.
Then there was Alia. The light touch of her arm on my cheek became the reassurance that my world was alive. Everything was done for her, for us. We walked the length of the market street where ivy stems intertwined with the stripy overhead coverings for the coffee tables, and the metal of the handrail was reassuringly warm to the touch, just as I always remembered it when we came to collect our fruit on Tuesday market day.
"If you could build this city again, what would you change?" she said one such time.
"I wouldn't change a thing," I said.
"Not one?" We still clutched hands tightly as we always did when leaving the apartment. It was not our city.
"No. When it's laid in front of us like this," I said, giving a small gesture with my free hand and speaking slowly, "it's much the same as any city I could imagine. When I think of changing anything..."
"... it seems pointless" said Alia.
We stopped on a street corner, the warm evening glow staving away our glances down one street whose name no longer mattered.
"I feel like a city should be more than this," she said. "It's ours, you know. We could have anything, do anything we want." I said nothing. I wiped my forehead and looked down at our feet - mine, brown leather shoes calculated to give the quiet image of sophistication yet a self-respecting streak of creativity - hers suede boots whose desired projection I did not guess at, only knew that those were the shoes she had worn when we took our first walk around the city that was to be our new home, leaned over the rails to overlook the river, singled one another out in the tide of humanity as the person with whom we wished to spend the rest of our lives. Looking at my feet was something that I did increasingly often. The city was ominous, and I felt a nervous streak when I looked over any vast swath of it, an imposter syndrome that asserted to me, this is wrong. You do not deserve this. Give it back. And give it back I would, in a flash - though these feelings I had not yet told Alia. She was still quite in love with the image, though I had noticed our steps and deviations from the flat growing smaller with every day, the hours spent away from home fewer and fewer. Shadows leered at us from previously unnoticed alleys. Humanity was not at our side to categorise the world around it - we were the two nodes in the network of humankind, gathering all intelligence for ourselves as we passed, finding ourselves increasingly incapable of holding it all.
Shoulders back, present a proud face to the world. That's what my father would have told me. The forced recollection came like an arrow. My father had worn shoes like these - that was the trigger. I would like to say I could see his face in my mind and see him walking beside us, looking on Alia with the same satisfied warmth that he had done the week after our marriage.
That night we made love in the close confines of our tenement. Not the first time since the start of it, but possibly the first when we considered ourselves thoroughly born into our new world and, through that act, our new world was born into our minds. It was a glorious and hot night, and we were lucky enough in the positioning of our apartment that the dark red sunset threw rays through the window and cast the shadow of our railings against the side of our room. Tinted by the red light of this natural phenomenon her breasts shone and her feminine legs kicked as I tickled her in the place that I knew she loved since we first made love under the swings in her home county - on a similarly warm night, only with a grand oak tree watching over our play and the long grass touching our skin where it overlapped the rug. When we had completed she lay beside me, her soft stomach and elf-like body on its side, one side flattened to accentuate the curvature of the other, her front a silhouette against the shadows that lay as pictures on the wall. I touched the hair that nestled by her ear, curly in its youth, that I always loved and that she always vigorously stroked back.
She looked at me with no particular expression on her face, only the elfin features that I knew so well. She seemed more mature under this red filter as we lost the light.
Her eyes flitted to mine and I saw a distance in them. She was not here; she had left momentarily, possibly for the first time, to live once more among those we knew before things changed. Her father, maybe, or her brother.
"My mother," she said. She held my arm and stared into my eyes. Her mother had died the week of our marriage. The birth of something new had been united with the inevitable loss of something dear. Nothing comes without sacrifice.
"That world is gone," I said. She nodded, though no tears came to her eyes. "It's not the same, is it?" I said.
"No - I only remember her eyes, and they only look back at me because I see them in the mirror every morning."
"Every experience is tainted with the present."
She nodded again, and we embraced. She rolled onto me and kissed my neck, then we lay together. As I felt the line of her back, held the flesh that was my animate companion and sole place of respite, my own tears came to my eyes. She wiped them and smiled as she leaned up, her fabulous form outlined whatever else was in our room.
That night was the crowning moment of an ever deeper intertwining that we felt. We spent hours on sun-crested roofs and by the sides of cold and leafy autumn pools staring into one another's eyes, fewer words being spoken each time. There is a human connection that can be felt more strongly as two people willingly fall into one another's depths, and it took the five years of our marriage and the evacuation for this to happen. When every waking moment is spent with another, our bodies begin to feel a creeping urge. I wanted to fall deeper into Alia's mind, know her thoughts, know her feelings. She was a safe place, a warm body to the touch when the cold of the flagstones seeped through my clothes and drew my own body's heat away. We would tumble in the parks at dark and look into the heavy stars above, pregnant with infinite expanse yet holding for us no desire to go there; all the world was the same but for Alia.
Then one day her touch grew cold.
"Alia, what is wrong?" I asked.
"Love, tell me."
"I just need a second to myself," she said, lying on her side, her long-sleeved jumper pulled to the end of her arms and her hands on her cheeks.
"We can't afford to be alone, darling. All we have is each other."
"We have each other all day - it's okay to let go for a few seconds."
I had not felt this way for a long time. I was pulled from my reverie.
"I'm okay," she said. "It's not you. It's just that, we're separate people. Sometimes we need space in our own heads."
"I understand," I said.
I was taking one of my ramblings that evening. The crisp night bit at my ears; the light withdrew from crevices one by one, desaturating the shop fronts around me. I had taken to walking to more and more quickly lately, pacing to explore my domain at an ever faster rate. I felt like I was looking for something, night after night, but didn't know what it was or where I could find it. The sky was a burden and spelled tingling orange along its clouds. I walked under the cover of a petrol station overlooked by a greying SHELL sign, sheltering myself from the rain to come. I cannot remember what I was wearing against the weather - it was probably the thinning old jacket that I wore every day. Alia kept changing her apparel with the weather and the seasons, but I had long ago resigned myself to the same garments, hardly noticing myself dress and undress, sometimes not undressing at all at night.
I always hated petrol stations. The swelling reservoir of oil under my feet and the gallons being poured into my car through the steely, unforgiving nozzle would only be thrown to the wind to overcome air resistance. I was here and another person was there; we came towards each other and passed, each absorbed in their private capsules. Surely there was a way that I did not have to travel there, and they did not have to travel here? In terms of tonnage of person moved, our fuel was being wasted. And all the while the invisible fumes went to join their flurrying cousins in the skies to add to the indelible and growing mark of human existence.
I continued in my state of abstraction to pace down the street, looking fixedly at the pavement in front of me, here looking at the weathered grasses shooting through the cracks, there sidestepping a fallen flagpole.
Alia, Alia, why so unreasonable? Why do I have to submit to your interminable caprices? 'We're too close, we're too far apart' - why can't we just live?
The darkness of the night was closing in like a blanket over the street and I increased my pace.
I was going to rehearse our escape. Yes, the time had come - it was no good staying to be here at the end. The days were only growing shorter, so to speak - ha! I clutched my arms around me. Of course, Alia knew nothing of my plans. She was busy making preparations for the winter ahead, our third winter together. The scavenging for food had become harder, the nights longer, our expeditions from the apartment further away. The tenement was darker when we returned, unfamiliar, the talons of time taking their grip while we were away and somehow not ceasing to hang over us while we were in bed. Alia was absorbed in the trials of each day, blinkered, keeping her mind active to stop thoughts creeping in. Imagination is a dangerous thing here. But I saw it - I saw the talons tighten their hold. No, I had no intention of remaining in this place.
I climbed the outside staircase of an apartment building whose grey paint was peeling with constant exposure to the sun and the elements. Most buildings experienced the same thing - this one only particularly so. The green hand rail was rusted and its lead paint was chipping as well. It cut my hand once and I haven't held it since, in any of my rehearsals - even when the wind buffeted around me in the fiercest of gales. No, nature should not have any more victories on me. I would have my last, and soon.
The roof of the apartment building was flat, nondescript, once white, holding only a few marks from my first footprints when I had not learned to disguise them. There was a small lip at the edge, and it ended overlooking Palservy Road. The road was long and recently resurfaced and looked apt for the purpose I had in mind. It glittered as the rain spattered from it. A haze covered its end in the distance, but that only added to the effect. There was a small wall behind us, one that would suggest movement in the appropriate direction. The buildings around us were taller than the others so left no possibility of speculation over the 'beauty' of the city around us. The effect was complete: a masterpiece of human psychological manipulation, so fine that, executed on the right day, she could not help feel the justification of my proposed action. And today was the right day.
I shivered, feeling the water soak in through my thin coat. I had better get back to my apartment, see how my beautiful Alia is doing, see if she had managed to weather the solitude of the evening. She was a fine girl; she could surely stand up to it.
It was a cold night and there would be all the more reason to stay in bed. I felt a hunger to look over her feminine form again, to caress her flesh and look into her quivering eyes as she hugged her arms tightly. We had sex with increasing rarity now, which was not good; in times like this we should be together. That's why we couldn't stay anymore. Besides, I had my ways. She would request that the curtains be shut as usual, of course, but I would refuse; it was a pointless practice and her adherence to it was calculated to undermine me.
Prudence Street. I crossed the green, placing my feet always in new places on the grass - it didn't do to repeat old patterns. The tenements. The staircase. The staircase was streamlined and dark since we had exhausted the lamps' batteries. Nobody could see my approach and know which floor I turned on to. That was good. It didn't do to leave a trail.
"Alia," I said, turning the cold handle of our flat and pushing the door open with a rusty squeak.
"Alia! This door!"
I went into the kitchen. The fridge had long been disposed of and we lived from canned foods almost exclusively. It was a miserable existence, which is why we had to leave. Together. Tonight was the night. She would tell me, 'no, we cannot leave!' and put her forehead in her hands as she always did when she didn't realise that we had to do a certain thing.
I opened a can of Heinz tomato soup. Glorious and thick, it poured into the bowl on the counter. I took a spoon. I turned on the greasy switch on the camping lantern. No light.
That's right, I thought, I was supposed to find some batteries today. I shrugged and ate a spoonful of soup, but found I had little desire for it. I didn't know why I had opened it. All I could taste was the metal of the spoon on my tongue.
Now was the time to plead with darling Alia and tell her the merits of my plan. I went to our room, knowing I would find her there in her night dress. Would she have eaten? I would have to make sure she ate before we left. It didn't do to leave on an empty stomach.
There was water on the floor. The wind was blowing through the window. Then it was closed and I had remained sitting still on the bed, not realising it was I who had closed it. I was gripped with a terrifying emptiness at the thought of being alone. Alia, beautiful, gracious Alia, the one whom I had loved for her tender touch and guiding hand, for her silent actions that betrayed her deep feelings - had left. At that moment I could have screamed and run down the street, torn down an advertising placard from its sodden holster in the rain. But I carried on sitting, holding the bowl containing the red Heinz tomato soup on my lap.
Alia was gone, far away. She was flitting away over the sea, lying beside her mother and staring into her eyes, enjoying the glint of the sun off the water of the Riviera as she walked along it with her brother, Michael. She was, very likely, avoiding the thoughts of our times here. It was a shame that the rope had been so tight, so well fastened; that the ceiling had managed so admirably to support her weight; and that even in death she had retained a look of hope.
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