I squeeze my way through the crowded lobby and down a passageway lined with marble sculptures to a bright white atrium and a curving marble stair. At the entrance to the gallery, I show my ticket for the exhibition and the guard waves me through. Upstairs, on the white walls, hang paintings of clouds, sprayed chalk on slate, simple and ethereal, traces of the scantest precipitation created by a desert-dwelling artist homesick for English gloom.
In the next room, rooks on branches, a tumble of stark black-whiteness, dead stalks of sunflowers carrying heads of rotting seed. And in front of a giant painting of an avalanche, you, you, you: the closed door of the past I am not ready to knock on, to open and step through.
A frozen moment. From the first time we met there was something between us. I wouldn’t call it love, exactly – it was more like recognition. I open my mouth to say your name but then, no, no. I turn. I do not know where to begin. I do not know what to say.
The room, so quiet when I came in, is fuller now, the slide and slap of people in the high white space, the blurry wave-sound of traffic in the darkening lane below. A feeling then, a burning ear, a prickle of attention, the old instinct which tells us we are known, are seen. Though my back is turned, I know you’re looking, know that soon the snow will slide off the mountainside like a wall. How cold that weight, the huge crush, the white silence. I hear it groan and loosen and I run.
Outside, in Piccadilly, I lose myself in crowds. It’s fully dark now. I walk these streets as I have always walked them, in summer’s warmth and winter’s dark. This place was once low forest, birch and hazel, marginal land near the edge of the Thames. Despite the hardness of the grey paving, I feel it still beneath my fur-lined boots; earth springy with moss and damp, softened by the river’s thousand fingers creeping outward through the soil. Thousands of years ago, people came here from every corner of the country to worship the river’s dark water. They carried with them the smoothest, whitest, roundest stones they could find, offered them to her great current with their praise and prayers. Here, once, little birds sang loud in the sedge, clung tightly to the swaying reeds, their tiny, dun bodies hidden in the flicker of golden-green sunlight sieved through leaves.
Long gone the marsh, but a scent of it’s still here, beneath these wet, grey slabs. I follow them into Green Park, stripped of its flowers by order of a long-ago queen. You never gave me flowers. Only a sign, once. A white envelope with my name scrawled on it; inside, a single blade of fresh, green grass.
It’s so hard to see things as they are. That’s why, although I always loved it and love it still, I moved away from here. My gaze was downcast, my hearing and my seeing, all my senses dimmed. Too much blue-grey hard stone, too much traffic, the constant jostle of bodies. I needed earth and trees, the scent of rain on granite, cloud shadows tearing like wild horses across fields and red-brown cliffs. I settled by the rock-dark, boiling ocean, under the reaches of a star-struck sky. Such things I’ve seen since I’ve been there. Yesterday, out at sea, a line of lemon-green was resting on the waves, and through the wet, a washed-out rainbow stretched between two headlands like a net.
Light snow is falling. I retrace my steps through the park, from whose fine beds a foolish king picked flowers for his mistress. In the church where Blake worshipped as a child, I slide into a pew. The flowers near the altar – guelder rose and amaryllis, poppy heads and amaranthus – speak to me of what could have been.
That last night on Long Acre we ate a meal of oysters, scallops, lobster, sitting on high stools at a marble-topped table. We drank tall flutes of gold-grey champagne, tipped back our heads to swallow the pearls of scented bubbles melting in our mouths. You asked if I could taste the flavours hidden within the wine – hints of dark cherry and vanilla, blood orange and saffron – and I thought for a moment I could sense them on my tongue, as strange and haunting as a half-remembered song. The air hung heavy from days of tired heat, from burning hours of sun; from the mouth of the underground rose a fetid, fumy, swampy, dirty dampness. But always, with you, that sense of implacable cold, rising from the table’s marble surface to fill the empty oyster shells and the cracked lobster husks, spent crescents of lemons, heaps of crushed ice melting on silver platters.
On the way home it rained, warm and sweet. We sheltered under the trees in the park, the place stripped of its every petal by a queen’s fury. When a flock of gulls wheeled and screamed above us, you said it meant there was a storm at sea. I looked up and watched the soaring wings. There, caught in the streetlight, the kite of a raptor flew over the rooftops of the Ritz.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I watched the rain thicken and boil and turn to storm. Dreamless, I listened to the rain’s long song. Even after the oysters and the promises, I was fading, a spark off a flint thrown far from its kindling, a ghost at my own feast.
In the morning, when you’d left for work, I packed my things and ran from your perch amongst leaded roofs, attic dormers and copper domes, past towers whose mercury facades glimmered and faded in the steam. In the flowerless park, I stopped to draw in breath. Nearby, snow geese and swans circled in water made dun green by effluent and weed. I hunched to ease the tightening in my chest. The choice was clear: to run, or to spend my life here, crouched beneath high, unstable peaks. That night, I caught a train west, the sleeper to the sea.
Footsteps on the path behind me, echoing in the winter dark, wanting to turn but not wanting to, not wanting to know, to see, to hear. The heartbreak and the blame.
You in the park, on the green-painted bench, a sparrow eating crumbs from your fingers. You in the restaurant, holding the white-grey oyster shell, tipping it up to your lips. A series of flashes: marble-topped tables, silver platters, lobsters in their coral armour, lemon juice shivering on oyster flesh. The iodine tang of ocean, high, bronze cliffs, a wide, white, empty beach, the surf-song of the waves, the bluebell mirrors of the Porthmeor tide pools, the dazzle and the glitter of the sand.
A charcoal sky empty but for a cloud so light and wispy it is barely there, a handful of vapour caught above the dry, hot earth, which holds within it every dream of home.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. One lasting, deeper breath, and only then turn. Only then turn into the cold.
So much rain on centuries of snow. Decades of snow, layer upon layer, built up until it falls – falls so that every light goes out, the village gone along with its people, the whitest whiteness that encloses, smothers, covers, and all that is and was beneath it, whitely lost.
Emma Timpany is a writer from the far south of Aotearoa New Zealand who has a lifelong love of the short story form. Her publications include a novella, Travelling in the Dark, and the short story collections The Lost of Syros and Three Roads. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing and editor of the forthcoming Botanical Short Stories: Contemporary Writing about Plants and Flowers. She lives with her family in Cornwall.
photo by Hat Creative (via unsplash)