UNDIGGING - James Young
Each morning when they leave the house Rob entwines his fingers between Teresa’s. He keeps holding her hand as they walk across the park to the station. Every few moments he gives it a squeeze, as though checking it is still there, it has not wriggled free.
As they pass below the radio mast Teresa stares upwards. Most of it is hidden by smudged grey clouds, so that the red light at the top appears to be floating in space.
It looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower, she says.
Rob laughs for a moment, then stops.
Actually no, he says, it’s different. It’s a lot smaller, for one.
They walk on. Rob’s brow is creased and Teresa knows he is trying to think of other differences between the radio mast and the Eiffel Tower.
She has read that a hundred years ago there was a cast-iron and plate glass exhibition hall in the park, as big as a palace. She imagines it glimmering in the pale morning light. There were trees inside, frozen reflections of those that swayed in the breeze on the other side of the glass walls. Then the hall was destroyed in a fire. People came from miles around to watch it burn. Now all that is left are a few sad-looking stone sphinxes standing sentinel over a muddy field and a broad, ornate flight of concrete stairs that leads to an entrance that is no longer there.
On most mornings they are late, so they take a shortcut through the trees, even though when it is wet the rain on the grass and the dampness of the soil soak through Teresa’s shoes.
Can’t we stay on the path, she said, the first time they took the shortcut.
Someone shouldn’t have stayed in bed so long, Rob replied.
Now she doesn’t say anything.
A milky sun breaks through the clouds. Ahead of them a spiderweb hangs like spun glass between the trees. As they reach it Teresa stretches and puts her hand on top of Rob’s head and pushes gently downwards. He looks at her, surprised, then sees the web and laughs.
Thanks, he says.
No problem, she says. Not telling him it was the spiderweb she was worried about.
At the station Rob goes to the newspaper kiosk while she stands and waits. He buys the paper and begins to walk towards her but then stops halfway and opens it and reads the headlines before looking up and blinking twice, slowly, as though he had forgotten she was there. Then he comes over and takes her hand and tugs it so that she follows him down the steps towards the trains.
When they get to the platform she looks up at the screen and sees their train is late, as it always is. She looks down at her shoes, wet from the grass.
She has read somewhere that even if you don’t feel like smiling if you smile anyway it releases dopamine and serotonin, which make you feel happy. Because of this she has made a resolution to smile as much as she can, even when she doesn’t want to.
Only now she finds the muscles in her cheeks ache when she tries to smile, whether she is smiling because she is happy or smiling to try and make herself happy.
Rob releases her hand so they can sit down on a bench while they wait. But when she sits she feels his hand near her leg, creeping towards her like a hunter through the undergrowth. Then it pounces and his fingers wrap around hers and their hands lie clasped together on her thigh. She does not look at him but can picture his face, shadowed with the thin curve of his smile.
Dopamine and serotonin unbridled.
Recently she has begun to imagine she is looking back on their relationship from a time in the future when it is already over. When she thinks about her future self in this way she is neither alone nor with anyone else. It is as though she is simply floating, as disembodied as the red light of the radio mast.
She does not imagine her future self viewing her relationship with Rob with either great fondness or regret.
It was what it was, her future self might say.
Or, he wasn’t a bad sort, Rob. He was a nice guy, deep down.
Her future self might wonder, indifferently, what Rob is doing now.
She is conscious that everything they do together is something she will one day consider her past. And so she feels she is not really living in the present, but is simply acting out moments her future self will recall absentmindedly, almost as though they had happened to someone else.
But also there will be so much her future self will not remember. This morning, for example, and every morning like it. Walking across the park, her shoes growing wet, her fingers entangled in Rob’s.
Who would remember such things?
Perhaps she will be like the stone sphinxes, gazing out across the field, wondering where their palace has gone, or if it was ever there at all.
Sentinel to a past that one day no one will remember.
Small talk is so boring, Rob said when they first met, shouting over the music in the club. Teresa was only there because her friend Sally had broken up with her boyfriend and wanted to get drunk and have sex with someone she didn’t know. Now Sally was dancing with Rob’s friend Tony in another corner of the club. Teresa nodded and when Rob grinned amidst the darkness and the strobe lights his teeth shone a lurid green.
She did not go home with him that night but when he called to ask her out for a drink the following week she said yes. What harm could it do, after all?
What she discovered after a few months was that it wasn’t small talk that bored him, but any conversation that wasn’t about him. When they were out with friends and someone was telling him something about themselves he would nod and listen earnestly as though he was paying attention but every few seconds, when he thought the other person wasn’t looking, he would glance away towards the door or look over at someone else.
He has a gift for never being discovered at this, except by her.
When the train comes they find a seat by the window. Vandals have scored a web of graffiti grooves in the glass so that the sunlight fractures and explodes, hurting her eyes.
I can’t believe the email fucking Steve sent, Rob says.
She has not been listening and so does not know what email he is talking about. Though she knows Steve is someone he works with.
Unbelievable, she says, because unbelievable is always a safe bet.
I know, Rob says.
When she tells Rob about her work – her anything, really – he pauses for a moment before answering, as though he is thinking hard, then tells her something about his own work or himself that relates in some way to what she has told him.
I know what you mean, he says, that reminds me of the time when.
Or, I know what you mean, that’s like when.
He presents these stories about himself in a way that suggests they contain useful advice and which makes it seem as though he is trying to be helpful. He understands. He has been through something similar himself.
Though she does not always listen to him either. It is hard to concentrate all the time, 24-7. So maybe she is as bad as him. Maybe they’re as bad as each other.
But he started it. She only does it because he does it.
So she is almost in the right.
The giving of advice is one of the things she complains to Sally about when they talk about him. They usually meet for drinks or tapas after work, in a part of the city which two years earlier, around the time Teresa and Rob moved in together, was populated by prostitutes and drug dealers, sex shops with lurid red and purple signs, pubs with cracks in their windows and letters missing from their names.
Then developers razed the old streets to the ground and large technology corporations moved in and built headquarters of glass and chrome as vast and gilded as cathedrals.
Sometimes Teresa walks around the area before meeting Sally, staring up at the technology corporation workers sitting at their desks. They wear giant headphones and gaze, enraptured, at their computer screens. The screens illuminate their skin with a buttery glow. She stands and imagines being like the workers, oblivious to the physical world around them. She watches the lights of the technology corporation logos on the buildings blink on and off, just as the lights of the sex shops once did.
On one side of the development construction work is still going on. She stands on tiptoes and peers over a fence into a deep crater, dotted with mechanical diggers and ribbed with gigantic metal struts. To her left is an advertising hoarding showing how the development will look when it is finished – gleaming, glass-plated apartment buildings, children playing, people walking their dogs through tree-lined parks.
Though it would not stay like that for ever. She imagines the apartment buildings being abandoned in favour of other, newer developments and falling into disrepair. She pictures the corridors and elevators stained with graffiti, the parks full of rough sleepers and gangs selling drugs.
Then she goes to meet Sally.
Rob gets off the train a few stops before her and she watches through the window as he walks down the steps towards the exit. Before he disappears he turns and looks back and waves. He stands on the steps, his hand curved above his head like a sickle, until the train pulls away. But Teresa can feel the elderly man sitting opposite looking at her, so she doesn’t wave back. They have had arguments about this before. Rob thinks she should wave back and not care about being embarrassed in front of other passengers. She disagrees.
When she gets off she goes to the coffee stand outside the station and asks Leandro the barista for an americano, no milk, because anything else seems too complicated.
Coming right up, says Leandro, who is from Brazil and wears a bright yellow football shirt every day, no matter how cold it is.
She realises she has not heard a voice other than Rob’s since she left work the day before.
When are you going to let me take you away with me, away from all this shitty weather, Leandro says as he makes her coffee.
It’s sunny today, she says, laughing, because this is what Leandro always says.
This isn’t sun, he says. Real sun is warm. This is just illumination.
She smiles and when he gives her her change she curls her fingers around the money in the palm of his hand so that their skins touch. Not meaning anything. Just to see.
The tapas bar is full of middle-aged businessmen and young Spanish and Italian women in tight skirts. The businessmen stare at the women, who ignore them. They stare at Teresa and Sally too, for a moment, but soon go back to staring at the women.
We don’t kiss with tongues anymore, she tells Sally.
Sally raises an eyebrow.
What’s wrong with him? she says
It’s not just him, Teresa says, I don’t either.
Why not? Sally asks.
It just seems like hard work, Teresa says.
She tries and fails to remember the last time she and Rob kissed properly. Then, unexpectedly, she imagines kissing Leandro. She pictures his tongue as thick and meaty, nuzzling her lips, filling her mouth so she cannot speak.
I just want him to talk less, she says. He talks too much.
They all do, says Sally, and waves her hand in the air to attract the waiter’s attention.
By the time they leave they have drunk two bottles of wine. At the station Teresa has time to wait before her train home so she wanders around the concourse thinking about whether she should have a burger, a sausage roll or a baguette. In the end she settles for a coffee. She stands in the middle of the station, her head spinning gently.
Her phone rings.
I’m at the station, Rob says, and at that moment the crowds around her thin and she can see him, standing with his back to her on the far side of the concourse. He has placed his feet wide apart in what she knows he believes is a commanding pose.
Then she thinks it is unfair to imagine him like this, as though he is ridiculous.
She feels a brief impulse to hide. Instead she says into the phone, turn around, and he does, and then he sees her. He walks over and puts his arms around her and kisses her.
I love you, he says.
He is drunk.
Me too, she says, because she is drunk too.
He takes her hand, gripping her fingers tightly, and they walk to the platform to get their train. When it arrives it is crowded and hot inside but they manage to find a seat.
Outside the station the train passes an enormous construction site. A row of skeletal cranes are etched against the horizon, spindly arms grasping upwards, red safety lights blinking at their tips. A billboard shows how the development will look when it is finished – more glass-plated apartment buildings, more children playing, more people walking their dogs through tree-lined parks.
She pictures a great cataclysm striking the earth and the apartment buildings and the children and the dogwalkers and their dogs being buried under layers of rock and silt. She imagines the buildings as not being built but uncovered, the builders and planners delving downwards like archaeologists, stripping away the earth, revealing the giant towers filled with worms and layers of soil and decomposing leaves. Uncovering the past, knowing as much will be forgotten as remembered.
After a few stops the train empties and she turns to Rob and begins to speak.
I want you to listen, she says. You never really listen. You just wait for me to finish so you can start talking.
She stops and glances at the window. She can see their reflections floating in the dull glass, as waxen and timorous as ghosts.
You think I only tell you things because I want your advice, she says.
Rob’s eyes are closed and she pokes him with her shoulder to see if he is asleep. He grunts but does not stir.
It is the perfect time for her to talk.
Sometimes I just want to talk for no reason, she says. And I want you to listen for no reason except that I’m talking.
The train begins to slow as it comes to their station. She reaches out to shake Rob awake, then stops. She looks at their reflections in the glass again, her hand hovering above his shoulder. She imagines her future self looking back, seeing them in this position. She stands. This will be the moment her future self will remember when she rummages through her heart for memories. This is the moment her future self will tell her lovers about, when she tells them about Rob. But only when she knows them as well as she knows him now. Only when it no longer matters what they think of her.
She walks towards the doors. As the lights of the station swim across the window she turns back and looks at Rob, his eyes closed, his tie loose around his neck, his chest gently rising and falling in time to the slowing beat of the train wheels. Then she gets off the train and stands on the platform and watches as it moves away and its red lights fade into the darkness beyond the station, knowing that if confronted she could tell her accusers she has done nothing wrong.
That nothing, in fact, has happened here at all.
James Young is a Northern Irish writer and translator. His work has appeared in a number of literary journals and reviews, and he has been shortlisted for this year’s Wasafiri New Writing prize. He is currently working on a novel.
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