It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time she played Iris’ voicemail that it dawned on Satya just how long she had gone without leaving her narrow slice of South Ealing Road. It took several more times before the full meaning of it sank in.
Satya...I know you probably don’t want to talk, but this is not just your daily motivational, so please listen to me: I just got out of Waterloo Station. Simon isn’t there anymore. They’ve replaced him with someone new. I’m sorry, but I thought you should know.
She thought about calling back but didn’t. She thought about leaving the flat but didn’t. Instead, she took another Xanax and tried to think nothing.
At three o’clock in the morning, she awoke to the sound of wings in the bedroom. She was certain that something had crossed the room in the air. The flutter had sounded feathery, so not an insect or bat. She opened her eyes, saw nothing but the sky beyond her bedroom window: a depthless black, mottled purple by London light pollution. Satya, amoebic, lay pinned to the bed by the late July heat and wondered what sort of things one did to remove a bird from a bedroom. She listened intently to the dark but there was no sound but her own breathing. A dream, then, in the brief moments she had succumbed to sleep. It had become difficult to know the difference.
She rolled over onto her side, grabbed the phone from the nightstand and played the message again, catching herself half hoping that Iris’ urgent voice would somehow say different things this time. She had become used to falling prey to this sort of magical thinking. But the news, which probably few of her fellow millions had remarked, was the same punch to her kidneys.
Before this, she had thought it perplexing enough to know that Simon’s voice was still being heard by untold legions of commuters on the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee Lines, on the Southern and Southeastern railways, too; to know that he was in a very specific but real sense everywhere. It had allowed her to imagine him as still present the way people thought the departed might watch them from the nearest realms of heaven. It was both comforting and upsetting, this dispersed persistence of his voice, famously cautioning workday-numbed commuters to mind the gap as they stepped on and off the platforms. To stand clear of the doors, please. His was the voice of the train delays, the weather alerts, the platform changes. He had even announced the train delays to his own funeral, as the London papers had noted. Some part of her needed to know that all this Simon was still out there, speaking the day into being—but was it really so hard to understand that she couldn’t bear to hear any of it herself? She had been unable to explain this to Iris and Rahul when she had last agreed to have them visit. But she didn’t fully understand it either, so what was the point? Better just to retreat, draw the blinds, go dark. People were allowed to do this when their world had fallen apart, weren’t they?
* * *
When Simon first landed the gig, the Tube job, he’d burst into the house, face beaming and a bit glazed with summer sweat, clutching white roses that hadn’t survived the rush hour transit.
“It’s me! I’m the new ‘mind the gap’ man! Can you believe it? Me! Now you’ll have to hear me telling you what to do with yourself all over the kingdom!”
In England, all the important transit instructions—the warnings, the alerts, the security reminders, the emergencies—were always done by men. Sociologists had shown that people paid attention to commands from men, wanted to hear the authority in the voice. Women could read off the station names, though, and in his exuberance he suggested maybe she should go in for the job now that they were redoing all the notices, she being the wife of the “mind the gap” man and all. But she shut it down, knowing better.
“There’s no England we’ll ever live in where a Bengali woman will be telling Brits where they’re getting off.”
“They don’t know what they’re missing. I have one telling me where to get off every day.”
“Boom tish! You’ve some other cracking dad jokes you’d like to debut?”
“Alright, fair, but listen—give it a go. Aren’t you as British as anyone? What’s that mean anymore anyway? And there’s Sadiq Khan now, right? Who’d have guessed we’d have a Pakistani mayor of London? You never know.”
“Do I need to point out Khan’s a man? Sometimes you do know. You lot will forever put one foot in front of the other without me.”
From then on their home had been turned into a chaos of machines and gadgets and cables. What had once been their walk-in closet was now a small space station with its own computer and dual monitors, high-tech and hideously expensive microphones and audio interface and codec and on and on—Satya found the profusion of numbers and letters and lights and waveforms a bit overwhelming but Simon was in geek heaven. For her part, she preferred the simplicity of her portable Zoom digital recorder and the kitchen table, the bare bones equipment of the student days, to all this Bond villain command center stuff. But this was the new life. Over the next few years, Simon recorded thousands of files for the rail system. They could make delay announcements from all the bits he’d committed to file well into the next millennium. The advert work poured in, along with newsreader stints for the BBC and a recurring role as a homicidal doctor on the radio soap Day for Night. Although no one would have recognized him walking the streets, his voice had become part of the fabric of British life.
“I don’t mind it, really,” Satya said when he asked about her commute a while later. “It’s sort of comforting. My very own mansplainer, haunting me about town.”
Still, it was an adjustment, this new reality. On an average workday, she would hear Simon’s voice countless times as she made her way to her own far less glamorous end of the voice artist spectrum in Leicester Square and the cramped, over-hot recording studio at InnerVoice. For a stretch, she thought of it as having her own personal narrator and it sometimes felt like she were starring in a movie about her own day. She would look around at the grim faces of her fellow commuters, at their thousand-yard stares and think about how they were hearing the man she loved. But no one thought much about the people behind the voices that guided them from place to place, did they? That was the thing about the work of the voice artist. If you did it well, you became part of other people’s experience but they would probably never know who you were. Because who really ever thought about the inner life of Susan Bennett, the woman who voiced Siri?
Even Bennett didn’t know that’s what she would become when she was being recorded, it was all so secretive. She just said lord knew how many words and then discovered that she’d given birth to Siri from out of her mouth, like in some Greek myth. And for a time there she was, speaking from most of the phone-dazzled Earth’s devices. But then one day, just like that, Siri wasn’t Susan Bennett anymore. She’d been replaced by an artificial intelligence program and no one noticed. That seemed like a very particular sort of modern melancholy, Satya said after she’d read the Guardian article aloud to Simon over some long-ago breakfast. To disappear in front of your very own eyes, or ears, or what have you. But then after a while, she herself didn’t think it so odd anymore to find her husband’s voice sounding throughout Charing Cross or Aldgate or Waterloo and soon enough even she didn’t really hear it at all.
But now this, like a second death. The sound of movement in the city was changing and so Simon’s voice was receding: for now Waterloo but soon enough other stations would follow. And then one day he would be truly gone.
* * *
Satya rose from the bed where she had drowsed only fitfully in the moist mid-summer heat. Little explosions set off inside her skull; her stomach responded with sharp spasms, reports of pain. She should not have gone off the meds. Zoloft had dampened the despair and the panic attacks adequately enough, but in their place had left a staring, blank dread. It was a blunt instrument, this drug. Out with the rounded, complex sensations, the delicate melting of molecules across receptors that had been made just for them; in with the indiscriminate, sense-dazing blast of synthetic chemicals. It was designed to cause to function, not to please. But it would make things better, insisted Iris, who had had her own battles with depression since her teens and knew what she was talking about. And maybe it had helped—who could really say? Not Satya’s shrink, compromised as she was by a waiting room densely forested with items bearing the Pfizer logo. Hang in there, she’d said. It takes time, she’d said. And it won’t bring Simon back. It can only bring you back. Back to what? To when? All Satya could tell was that when the drug first began to bathe her brain in its own chemicals, it also seemed to coat the visible world with an unpleasant chartreuse aura and she became convinced that she could hear her own synapses crackling with an uneasy energy. Plus, it had snatched her capacity for restful sleep and layered her view of reality with a chyron of suicidal thoughts. Yes, these were known to the alarming side-effects insert, but they were no less insidious for being statistically predictable. Not that she had seriously considered committing it, really, but was newly, intensely aware that such a possibility was there to be thought about. And there were so very many ways to do it, always there, testing her impulse control, insistently buzzing like a wasp trapped between two panes of glass. For the sleep she had Ambien and for the self-destructive ideation, Xanax, all of which needed to be followed by epic amounts of caffeine and vitamins to restart the whole process the next morning. She had become an unacceptably complex chain of chemicals, she decided, and so she stopped all of it but the occasional Xanax, which had lately become not so occasional. Was she better? What would that mean? With the drugs or without the drugs, which was the more compromised way of living?
Vertical too soon, she felt an unpleasant helium-filled sensation in her skull and thought she might well pass out. At least she was near enough to the bed that she’d collapse there. No concussion, no lonely lady tragic corpse for neighbors to call the fire services over. But—small victories!—she managed to stay on her feet and stumble toward the bathroom. Seated, half conscious, she listened to the rush of water emptying from her body, joined in chorus by the water coursing through the pipes concealed in the walls all around her. Some other insomniac flushing their nocturnal waste into the great, gurgling digestive tract of the apartment complex. She thought of all the people in all the bogs multiplied by all the buildings across London and perversely imagined the psychedelic rainbow of chemicals that must flow through this system: all the psychopharmaceuticals, opioids, ADD meds, synthetic hormones and whatnot, finding their way into the soil, into the water table, down the Thames and out to sea. She herself now a contributor, dribbling out molecules of the Sertraline hydrochloride that had kept her from the abject despair that maybe she should have been willing to feel.
It was then that she heard it again: wings beating the air, a small animal body, baffled to find itself contained. It seemed be coming from the living room. Sensing her way in the dark, she made it to the doorway and steadied herself. Translucent, milky moonlight poured diffuse shadows onto the far wall. On nights like this, navigating her unsteady body by the bobbling mobile phone torch, she could understand what it meant to believe in haunting. Could feel acutely the presence of how they had been in this space, see herself in a dense layering of moments all the way back to 2010, when she first dropped anchor on that shitty rust-colored divan and surveyed the boxes that contained the relics of her life as a single woman. Habitations held their charge, she thought. Maybe it was the house that believed in ghosts, not she.
* * *
That first night, eight years ago: Satya sinking low into worn-out cushions and the aura of her own apprehension, wondering what it would be like to flee. She could feel a knifepoint of anxiety pressing itself in between her ribs. Wasn’t it obvious that the two of them had made a dreadful mistake moving in with one another in this dreary place? There was no pretending the flat wasn’t a dump. Yet there he was: Simon, looking every inch the university student— threadbare Hüsker Dü T-shirt, orange anorak, tatty jeans—blithely placing a record onto the turntable. The records—his records—were predictably the first things he had chosen to unpack after the dishes and she could tell from his posture that he shared precisely none of her misgivings. It seemed almost a personal insult that he could be so content and she wondered how she could possibly be with someone so obtuse. But then Thelonious Monk was playing “Bemsha Swing” and the music spilled out into the room, washing over her like a blessing. Those long fingers, sinuous as cats, chasing one another across slippery scales. Simon glanced at her, oblivious to her unease, and smiled that disarmingly guileless gap-toothed grin. Whorls of reflected light on his square-framed glasses made his eyes swirl like galaxies. Except for the fact that what islands remained of his white-blond hair, once long and milkweed flossy, were now close-shaven to a calf-suede grain, she could imagine him at nine and fifteen and twenty, doing exactly the same gestures. The knifepoint eased its way back out, just a bit.
“Copacetic!” he said, doing ill-advised jazz hands, and she almost laughed at the suddenness and absurdity of it all. Satisfied at the effect, he went back to organizing his albums, something so mundane that it almost seemed holy, a ritual in the Temple of Everyday Life. There was a normalcy to it, a nearly convincing rebuke to her doubt.
Wasn’t this what her parents had been seeking when they had fled Bangladesh, this gleam of Englishness? This promise of fear-free life? Then why did she feel afraid? And of what? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she hadn’t yet told her parents about the move, nor even about Simon, the man himself. It was the first secret of any real consequence Satya had ever kept from them. Because what would they have made of any of it—of the haste, of him, of the ridiculous proposal that two voice actors who had no intention of having children would make a sensible life together out of reading for adverts and morning cartoons?
She watched him, this man she had chosen, this gangly Cornish lapsed Anglican, the one currently looking like a proper idiot, fingers stabbing at an invisible keyboard, and felt an affection she had never felt for anyone. He crossed the hideous institutional gray wall-to-wall carpet and disappeared down the hall toward the kitchen. When he returned, he had two glasses of Pimm’s in hand, ice tinkling. He sat beside her and she could feel the warmth of him, the gravity of him. She thrust her arms around his neck, catching him by surprise and nearly overturning the drinks. She buried her head in his collarbone, into his scent of sweat and cedarwood, unaware that within moments she would dampen him with tears.
“Hey then, what’s this about, Stella?” he said, voice high and reedy with surprise but gamely using the twee nickname they had given each other. An in-joke, holdover from the standard vocal practice passage that they had been given to read aloud at that first Showreel Voice-Over Workshop in Soho, the day they met:
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.
For some reason it was the slabs of blue cheese that made her giggle deliriously. Slabs! And five of them, no less! He always told her that this inappropriate, and as the entire class could see, unstoppable, response was how he knew she was to be his life pursuit. From then to now: a haze of forces not entirely under her control. By the second week they began seeing each other for after-class pub crawls and by the end of the third they were already calling each other Stella. Then this, the Ealing flat, impulsively rented, a mere month later. What were either of them thinking?
“It’s nothing, Simon. I’m happy. Really, I am. It’s just...it’s bigger than I thought.”
He glanced at the margarine-colored walls, then at the prior tenants’ ghastly purple curtains, rippling like kelp in front of the open windows. He arched an eyebrow.
“What, this place? All three rooms? You’re crying because the flat’s too big?”
“No. This.” She made an exhausted, all-encompassing gesture. “Moving in. Being adults.” She thought of the word she had read in some American women’s mag, “adulting.” A verb form, a thing you did, not a thing you became.
“I meant—I don’t know—making a home. No, I don’t know what I’m saying. I think it just caught up with me. All of it. It’s big, Stella.”
“It is,” he said, smiling reassuringly, smoothing her hair. “It’s fucking huge is what it is. And it’s also just the right size.”
“But, what if it’s a mistake,” she said then, quietly, not even meaning to let it out. But there it was.
“Well I know I haven’t made a mistake.” He said it softly, his look beseeching and a little wounded. “Have you?”
She shook her head but couldn’t find a way to match his smile.
“It’s what? That I don’t want children? We’ll talk about it. Or the age thing again? Is that it?” She shook her head, but for a suspended moment, she wasn’t sure. No, she definitely didn’t want children. That hadn’t changed. So the age thing. Maybe that was it. They had never really dragged it out in the open, what it meant to have been born fifteen years apart. What it might mean in time, when the split wasn’t his 47 to her 32 but 85 to 70—90 to 75, if they got lucky. He removed his glasses, his eyes a London winter gray, underscored by fine lines. They took her in and she thought: This is how people do it. How they get through life. They hand each other drinks and listen to music and talk things over in the living room. They create an architecture to house one another, to make of life what they choose, not simply what they must. Why shouldn’t this be something she could have, too? And fifteen years wasn’t so much, was it?
“It doesn’t matter. Believe in me,” he said, as earnestly as she had ever heard anything said. He was cupping her tear-streaked face in his hands. She was sure she looked a mess: red-eyed, puffy, nose running.
“I do... I will,” she managed. “I’m not so good at that. Believing. But I will.”
In less than a year’s time her father would be dead of two successive strokes, never having known about the existence of Simon Teague. Her mother would find out at the funeral in Chittagong, which Simon would insist on attending and after which he would propose during the plane ride home. After some months of complete silence, her mother would forgive Satya, just enough to come to Cornwall, for the wedding in Simon’s hometown of Polruan. But not enough for it ever to be entirely ok.
* * *
There was a bird or there wasn’t. There really could be no third option, but it suddenly seemed beyond Satya’s capacity to prove to her own satisfaction that she was not trapped in her house with a terrorized animal. She switched on the living room light and scanned the space but saw nothing. The throbbing dizziness surged once again, light bursts going off inside her brain like flares fired from a shipwreck. She tried to collect herself and focus on her breathing. Sometimes, disoriented in the dark, she would press her fingers into her flesh, as she did then, to make contact with the bones beneath, thinking how little familiarity she had with this structure that would survive her.
Satya groaned, flicked the light back off, and padded across the carpet to the kitchen, groping in the dark. She ran her fingers along the beveled wood atop the wainscot in the narrow hall, felt its smoothness and then the chalky white of the plaster above. She’d done this since girlhood, gliding fingertips along the surface of the world. The smooth, rough, prickly, wet, sticky, cold-warm fleshy world. Probably a mild form of OCD. Definitely that. The nervous delight she took in textures. The gemstone smoothness of a lacquered fingernail; the slight resistance before the layers of varnish began to give way. Simon had this sort of compulsion, too. When recording, his hands would roam the surface of his skin like plovers, gathering up irresistible bits of sebum, salt, dried skin. Or he would absently slide the pointed corner of a book’s pages beneath his fingernails, cleaning them. Such strange animals they were.
No unusual sounds in the kitchen, so she peered out through the one window above the sink, past a dormant South Ealing Road Park and toward the grim geometry of the Sunderland row houses that bordered it. The scatterplot of still-illuminated windows reminded her of an old-fashioned computer punch card. What other wretched souls were up now, in the grip of private terrors she would never know about?
A lone moped trailed its insectile hum across the space of the window frame and then disappeared back into the mouth of night. It occurred to Satya that she might well never leave her home again. Why should she? Out there lay uncertainty and threat. The loud world. Another British day waiting in the wings. Brexit. This is how she had come to think of it: Not London, not England: Brexit. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and UKIP and social collapse. Puffed white faces shouting themselves raw red. She had never been especially political but it wasn’t a choice you could make anymore. It was the air and water. Simon had been appalled when the 2016 vote was tallied. He had actually apologized to her, as though it were a matter of some sort of implicit trust he had betrayed or as though he, too, had been exposed, Englishness emerging naked, hideous and fungal in unforgiving light.
It was all too much to think about. All so very far beyond the meager power of her person to affect. And so she had burrowed more deeply. In the two months since Simon’s death she had kept it all out; sealed herself off from the outside. No internet, no television, no newspapers. She burrowed and burrowed into forgetting and by the time she had clawed her way back to even basic functionality the nation had gone mad, or had always been mad and now was nothing else. She had no need to be in it. All she needed was her recording and uninterrupted time, of which she had plenty. Satisfied that there was no bird in the kitchen either, she slid into the cane-back chair and slumped at the table. She hadn’t bothered to switch the light on, so there was only the ghastly digital blue of the oven clock by which to locate her old Zoom digital recorder, put in her headphones, and listen to that distant night unfold once again.
* * *
A ghost, a trace:
-Why don’t you tell me what you love most about me?
Her own voice, in the mood to play. It was still possible to not fully recognize herself in it, despite how many times she had played it. The recorded voice always an estrangement, even for a professional. What had she been thinking then? Who had she been in these moments before, back when she thought they’d have all the time in the world?
-If I tell you too often, the words will lose all meaning. And then what?
Simon, affecting ennui. The whole thing a little bit of spontaneous intimate theater.
-And then you’ll have to come up with new words. So tell me again. Indulge me.
-I love your taste in men, mostly.
Satya wondered what her expression had been here, played out the variations, as she often did when she listened. She could pantomime almost the entire thing. If someone were watching her they’d have thought her insane, which she herself considered a possibility. After the quip came the crisp sound of papers being organized, then the subtler music of cloth shifting against cloth. He had been wearing the expensive blue oxford button-down she had given him for his fiftieth, his toffee-colored wool crewneck over it. She could still see these things as clearly as if he were right there in front of her, like placing a transparent layer over the space, the shed skin of the past stretched tight as a drum onto the now. A hundred Simons, gliding across one another:
Simon in the window, wet-showered hair gold in morning sun-slant.
Simon nude, practicing a voice-over to his mirror face, which grimaced back.
Simon bathed blue in the television light, cheering for Manchester United.
Simon dancing epileptically to Violent Femmes.
Simon angry at her in the hallway, his wiry body tensed.
Simon saying, “Stop. Wait. I want to tell you—”
Simon looking and eating and sleeping and bathing and here and then gone.
* * *
She listened to the ambulance siren pierce the brief silence, peak, then Doppler shift down South Ealing Road. It still sometimes confused her as to whether the sound belonged to the recorded past or the unfolding present. Sometimes they converged but she resisted finding the coincidence meaningful.
-Such a funny little husband you are. Go on...I’m listening.
Satya, in fact, had listened to the recording so often that it had become an act of pure devotion, of puja, in a way her household shrine to Ganesha and Lakshmi never had. Her mother had insisted on setting it up on the kitchen shelf above the coffee maker but for Satya, irreligious since her early teens, it was just a shrine to guilt. The little statues gathered dust, neglected and unbathed, their brass cups long emptied of food. The last time it had been dusted, oiled, and properly honored was when her mother came with a circus car of family members in tow, to perform the work of communal sorrow.
Satya had had no choice but to submit to her family’s insistence that she observe the traditional thirteen days of Hindu mourning. Her mother and aunties had come from Chittagong, her cousins from the scattered places throughout the UK where diaspora had deposited them. They had brought kachchi biryani and cooked pots of dal until the entire floor smelled of coriander and cumin, mutton and ghee. They spoke an excited Bangla that Satya could barely follow and busied themselves like ants in a shaken anthill, helping with the laundry and the trash, brushing out and perfuming her hair, cooing at its rich thickness as they had when she was a little girl; sharing in this way the burden of grief. Satya had not protested when her mother brought Simon’s clothing and shoes to the Goodwill, nor when his papers were gone through, insurance and bank information separated from the rest, which was packed up into bankers boxes and put into the closets where the clothes used to hang. But she would not let them touch the records, even though she had no intention of listening to a single one.
“You should come home with us,” her mother said.
“Yes, shona.” The aunties agreed.
“But this is my home.”
“You cannot live in a tomb, Satya,” said the aunties, when her mother, imperious, had given up arguing with her obstinate daughter. Then they told her about another cousin whose wife had been struck by a bus and now he was acting in a film with the Ankush Hazra, whose name they invoked as though it were some sacred Hindu text, though it meant precisely nothing to Satya. “I don’t know anything about Chittagong. I’m a tourist there. This is my home.”
And when the thirteenth day had passed, as they prepared to disperse into their private strivings again, they told her she had to go back out into the world because they wanted the best for her. The living had to live!
But she was still hallucinating him everywhere, catching glimpses of him in passing shadows, mistaking furniture for his form. The derangement of having loved someone this much.
* * *
Her mother stayed on through the blur of the following two weeks but then she, too, returned. An ailing uncle needed tending, the textile factory demanded her presence. The flowers that had been sent had by then all died into curled brown fists; friends and coworkers who had made it their business to call on her now returned to the grooved patterns of individual lives. And for all this diminishment Satya was grateful. She could draw the circumference of life even tighter around herself and Simon’s absence. It was then, when she was in the thick haze of these endless hours, that she discovered what she had recorded.
She had only intended to see, and half-heartedly at that, if any of the adverts she had done before the catastrophe were good enough for her audition reel now that she had been let go by InnerVoice. She was puzzled at first to find the SD card full and then she understood, understood with waves of awful excitation running through her that she had captured the entire night. An entire eight hours of audio from their last night together. And so she listened and listened and listened. She had to. She couldn’t give up listening and sobbing and listening again because love and grief had come to feel like the same thing.
She abandoned herself to it in the days and weeks that followed, each time sacrificing a little bit more of her sanity to understanding this beautiful, terrible artifact. And so time lost its shape; spring melted into midsummer and she devoted herself to perceiving things exactly as they were, to assigning them their proper place. She knew it wasn’t healthy and didn’t care. Just like her inability to leave the flat for more than an anxious walk to the post or the grocery wasn’t healthy, as Aksha’s or David’s well-meaning and unanswered texts, her mother’s emails, Rahul’s Instagram DMs, and Iris’ daily voicemails, all unhelpfully reminded her. Knowing these things made no difference. There was the recording and this was her reality.
* * *
-What a funny little husband you are. Go on...
What else had been happening then on that night, while they were having their final conversation? It was dark already, or very nearly. On the recording, the ordinary clamor of people and their cars. And just there: Gareth Owen from 2B, shuffling footfalls climbing the stairs and crossing the hall; gun-hammer snick of his locks being undone, the door opened then closed, then the locks again. Indistinct television burble, a panel quiz show (A League of Their Own, as she’d come to know). Then dog claws click-clacking across the floor of the apartment above, followed by heavier steps and rustling. Merriwether or Fran, central-casting 60s radicals, married and now both reiki healers, preparing to take their strays out for a walk.
Satya knew none of these people especially well, despite having shared one side of the three-story Ealing apartment house with them for the past five years. She knew only the murmur of their morning news, the strangled whine of their Hoovering, the ghostly echoes of their late-night activity. Merry and Fran loved Joan Baez and Neil Diamond and loud, athletic sex. And Yara and Azim? Refugees from the war in Syria, she knew this much. Both of them young, maybe mid-twenties. Now they were here, having crossed at unimaginable peril into another city on the brink of collapse, but the kind of white riot wealthy Western nations had in the twenty-first century. One of them had been a software engineer or some such and the other, well, she couldn’t remember who had done what. She knew she should make more of an effort to remember what it was that people did, but she’d never been good at retaining this information and it hardly seemed to matter now. Yara was delicate and beautiful, a face like a wary fox, framed, depending on the day, by a rose-or moss-colored hijab. Azim, trim and athletic, kept his black beard close-cropped and dressed in the sportswear he’d adopted, Satya surmised, as a sort of London camouflage. He worked nocturnal hours delivering for a bakery, and in the rare moments when she ran into him at their postboxes he always seemed to be looking over his shoulder, his ink-dark darting eyes scanning the surroundings as though he expected to be followed. Perhaps he had good reason.
They kept their blinds drawn, seemed shrouded in the air of people who had seen unspeakable things. And because Satya couldn’t imagine how to begin to ask, these things remained unspoken. She wondered sometimes if they had any feeling about her being Hindu or if this didn’t matter to Syrian Muslims the way it did to Indian Muslims. And she was barely Hindu anyway, so what did it all amount to?
* * *
Every time she listened to the recording, she could see Simon as he was during the segment of life that her recorder had fossilized. She could remember the fading streaks of ruddy last light, the blooming of the streetlamps. Simon’s profile, ghost-lit as he scrolled through his messages. But she could no longer see his expression or the position of his body at the table. She should have been paying more attention. She should have taken it all in. But it was ordinary, just one more moment in a succession of many others like it and no one would have thought to set any of it down because who is alive enough to know when a defining moment is passing through them?
Except there was a recording of it. A fragile relic, part miracle, part fairy tale curse, this wonderful, punishing thing, vital as an internal organ. Proof that she had loved him that last night. She had that, at least, had that to know. She needed to know this because earlier that day they had quarreled. A fact she did not want to acknowledge, so it remained a shard of glass embedded just under the surface of her skin. And because why? A thoughtless comment, maybe, something she didn’t like in his tone when he told her she had forgotten to get the dry cleaning, annoyed that it could have slipped her mind. The stupidity of it! He had dressed in silence, sulking, and she knew too well how the sequence would play out. If she didn’t make a show of being gentle with him before he left for work, it would come back to haunt her. It was tiring, tending to his imaginary wounds. Couldn’t he see that her energy had to remain focused on the job ahead of her? Was recording his BBC radio soap really so much more important than her declaiming an orgasmic list of attributes for Daddies brown sauce? Were either of them doing anything that actually mattered?
Maybe she shouldn’t have said that, but she did and Simon took it predictably personally, would surely brood all day. She knew how it would go: he’d say little, mope about projecting an aura of hurt and melancholy: Look! Here I am, obstructing your view of all else, an immovable monument to gloom as enormous as an Easter Island statue! Look upon my gargantuan stone face and tell it how sorry you are! It exhausted her, the day-long project of drawing him back out. Serving her penance for having dared to be overtired or inadequately affectionate. She could see coming to hate this, if this is what he intended from here on out. We should laugh now, Satya remembered thinking that morning, watching him from an oblique angle as he shrugged on his anorak. She thought about going to him and breaking the tension and laughing, remembering who they were. But then she heard him sigh, loudly, and she knew it was meant for her to hear, so she wasn’t going to have any of it. Why should she be the guardian of his baby-man mood?
A marriage was this, too, she’d come to understand: ebbs and flows. Pointless admonitions, an ascending volume of minor conflict when exhausted and impatient people become careless with their words. Pyrrhic victories about dry cleaning.
* * *
She scrubbed back to 3:10:28 when Simon had first entered the apartment and so also entered the recording. It was because of that morning’s friction that he had returned early, to make amends, surprising her in the closet studio. She had been doing another series of voiceovers for Branston Rich & Fruity Sauce radio spots, which was all that Alan George, loutish Managing Director of InnerVoice Studio, seemed willing to give her. It was this or yet another curry cookbook, and anyway Alan already had Prita “on the Indian stuff,” never mind that Prita was Indonesian. Alan George with his unconvincing hair restoration, his latte-beige teeth and yellow polyester short sleeves. He had probably voted “Leave,” Satya had decided, but he’d never admit it outside of his cluster of Stella-drinking pub mates. What was there to think about a man of this sort—about his shocked piglet-pink face and sour English breath? But this is what she had until the eternal something better came along, so Satya took on the depressing advert work and silently loathed Alan George, who got to receive praise for making good on InnerVoice’s corporate-mandated training on “diversity.” At least he allowed her to record from home when she was ill, which she had been on the day the precious recording was made, although she had menstrual cramps and not the stomach flu, as she had claimed.
She had set up her equipment and set about working through the day’s list: Scotch Beef, Garfunkel’s Restaurant, Sarson’s malt vinegar, three different kinds of biscuits, a car dealership’s promotion. Nothing out of the ordinary except the fact that on that Simon-altered day, which shifted the course of everything, she must have forgotten to switch it off, simple as that. A moment’s distraction. And so there’s this:
-You sound considerably less delighted than I’d hoped, Stella.
-No! I’m happy you’re back. I just wasn’t expecting you.
Then the silence in which he does not manage to say the apology he so evidently came to deliver. She knows that this is the point at which she smiles, rises and embraces him. Lets him know that she knows.
-I’m glad for it. Really. I’m just doing Tesco frozen tikka masala and if I have to say ‘they’re second to naan’ one more time I’ll positively vomit.
-Emerge from your lair, then. You put the kettle on. I’ll DJ. I declare a holiday!
He had been doing voice-over for a depressing documentary about Enoch Powell and the rise of British Nationalism when the production manager was called away so Simon took what he liked to call “stolen time.” Even going on fifty-six his boyish streak was still very much alive, never more so than when he got to play a bit of hooky. He made a comical face, eyebrows in circumflex over his glasses and mouth a naughty-boy “O,” when he produced a tight white pin joint from his jacket pocket.
-Barry the Beast gave it to me. Fresh from Amsterdam. What do you say?
Yes, of course she said yes. It had been a while and they both needed it. This must have been the reason she left the digital recorder running out into the open like that. And so it existed: this archive of the quanta, the infra-ordinary, the nothing-much of which she was now the sole scholar. So she dutifully listened again, damp in the muggy kitchen, feeling like a teenager cutting herself in the dark:
At 3:23:47 was Simon’s humming as he flipped through his records in the living room. Then her own dish clatter, running water.
-Oh yes, brilliant! The Jam—All Mod Cons!
She didn’t reply, knowing none was required. On went the record, down dropped the needle.
-You remember this one? ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight?’ God, so good. So good.
His voice louder at this point, approaching the kitchen. At 3:25:03, the sharp exclamation of a metal chair scooting on linoleum, then Simon settling his slender frame on it. She can see again the look of unabashed joy that had seized his face, fingers plucking the air around an imaginary instrument.
-Listen to Bruce Foxton’s bass line there. Brilliant. By the time I was playing this on Cornwall they were already broken up. Tragic. Nobody but The Clash were better than The Jam. Maybe The Smiths.
Then singing, terribly, tunelessly:
...And I said, I've a little money and a takeaway curry
I'm on my way home to my wife
She’ll be lining up the cutlery, you know she's expecting me...
She had watched him tumble fully into the moment, dorkily ghost-drumming, lower lip clenched in his front teeth, and forgave him for the morning’s bad weather, loving him despite it all, for it all. She could almost feel how happy it made him, this tunneling into memory: the afternoon phone-in music show for BBC Cornwall when it launched in 1983, sometime before he became a newsreader for BBC GMR. They’d considered him a bit of a radical for playing rock near teatime, a reputation he’d relished. The vast and daunting record collection—quite a few of them nicked after he was let go for playing Run-DMC to scandalized commuters—had followed him ever since. It ran easily over into the thousands and though Satya was sure he could have told her the exact number, she was afraid to know the full scope of the thing. She had been born into the era of CDs and even cassettes had already seemed to her like ancient clay tablets by the time she was buying her own music. Then soon after came MP3s and music became a thing of air, except for her husband, audio purist, who refused to download anything.
She watched him geek out to old fantasies of rebellion, teased him when the track ended:
-And what would 1980s Simon have thought of the irony that 2018 Simon would be the voice of that very same Tube station, then?
-Heh—hadn’t thought of that. Would’ve kicked him in the bloody teeth, I suspect.
...The wine will be flat and the curry's gone cold
I’m down in the Tube station at midnight...
Sometimes she had to remind him, as she did now, that she was just born when this or that song came out and something like five years old when he was playing it on the radio and so she had no particular association with it beyond hearing it in their living room. Sometimes fifteen years apart felt like a lot, especially when he made cultural references she couldn’t quite catch. The Young Ones? Day of the Triffids? Brazil? She regularly had to look things like this up on Wikipedia. Simon, for his part, was always a bit crestfallen that she could not enter completely into his nostalgia. Delicious irony, then, that their lives had furnished her with the perfect jab, a joke always at the ready, always at the edge of not being a joke: mind the gap.
At 3:28:19, she says:
- So that’s about being jumped by right-wing hooligans, that song?
-Yes. It is, isn’t it? Less fun if you think about that too much.
-Not much has changed, has it?
-No, not a thing, really. May instead of Thatcher. Same apocalypse, different horsemen. Horsewomen. You know what I was thinking about today, actually, doing that Enoch Powell thing, the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and all that?
-Well, just that he gave it in 1968, right? And isn’t that when your parents got here?
-Yes, nearly to the day. My mother still talks about that, hearing about it on the news. That was basically their welcome to Shoreditch. Pre-hipster Shoreditch. Think of it: two scared brown teenagers in a strange land and Enoch Powell telling you that because of immigrants like you the rivers will be foaming with blood.
-Exactly. ’the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’ and all that. I mean it’s insane. Can you imagine?
-I can, actually. Just listen to the call-in shows with your eyes closed. It’s a time machine.
-No, I mean what it must have been like for them. It must have felt like someone had lobbed a grenade through their bedroom window.
-It did. But they pressed on, you know? They’d risked everything and had to make a go of it.
-They did, they did—and had a Satya to show for it, praise Lakshmi!
-Ah, shit. Right. That’s the fertility one? I’ll get it one day. There are an awful lot of gods, you know.
His voice here was strangled and dissolved into a fit of coughing. He had taken a big hit off the joint, then passed it to her but she’d already had enough. Always a lightweight, never liked to lose too much control.
-There are. I can’t pretend to remember more than ten, max. Half credit for trying, though.
-You ever wonder what would have become of them if they’d stayed on all the way through?
-My parents? Yes, I do. But my mother was never happy here.
-No, she wasn’t happy. She was a caged bird. She told me that in those exact words. A caged bird.
-Oh, the drama! She’s impossible to please. I don’t need to tell you. I think she was grateful when my grandfather retired and asked her and my father to come back and take over the factory.
-But here you stayed.
-But here I stayed. You’ve heard all this before—the education; better opportunity for girls. These things mattered to them. I should be grateful. I mean, I am, of course.
-All the more because one day you would have to be here with me and there was no other way this could happen.
-Is it quite nice to believe yourself the engine of history?
-It’s a righteous blessing is what it is. Everything happens for a reason in a Simoncentric universe!
He was half singing at this point, near delirium.
-It must have just killed her to let me remain behind, even with her cousin. I was only fourteen. Seems like just a baby now. Feel like a baby still. Speaking of which, coincidence of coincidences: would you believe I saw an ‘Enoch Was Right’ T-shirt on a pregnant woman in Holland Park the other day? Can you picture? Someone printed a maternity shirt with that slogan—and somebody else bought it!
-And wore it. In public. This is who we are now, Stella.
-That poor child, whoever she’ll be. What a start.
-Maybe she’ll save us all.
Staccato clatter of the 18:43 to Piccadilly, followed closely on by the 18:48. The trains clambered by so insistently at the southern edge of the park that they barely registered. This was the first time in years she had actually heard them. Satya thought how odd it was that here she was in the kitchen, listening to a recording of Simon talking while he was also talking in a recording on that train that was going by, which was itself captured on the recording. The vertigo of the thought was cut short at 3:49:02 by a woman’s voice down Dorset shouting out a name, singsong, calling in a dog or a child. Simon took another long hit.
-You know ‘Get Back’—the Beatles?—they actually wrote that as a response to Powell. There’s an early version of it called ‘No Pakistanis,’ or I guess bootleggers call it that because it starts ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis takin’ other people’s jobs.’ It was supposed to mock Powell and his like but then they realized people would have taken it dead seriously, so Paul rewrote it.
-I thought that was about Yoko?
-Everyone thinks it’s all about how much Paul hated Yoko, those songs. Who knows— maybe some were. I prefer to listen to how much John loved her in those songs instead, you know?
-Why don’t you tell me what you love most about me?
-Everything. I love everything about you.
-Too easy. And not possible.
Here was where the electric kettle came in, its shrill exhalation, then the homely plink of stainless in ceramic. And there: hush of tires gliding wet on the asphalt below. It must have rained lightly just after he returned home.
-I said everything. I meant it. Everything.
Thick boom-bap of American hip-hop from rolled-down windows. Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” which she had grown strangely fond of despite having no particular appetite for rap. She had spent hours tracking it down, combing through YouTube, Spotify. Then she discovered there was such a thing as a Shazam app, thanks to Rahul, who lived more comfortably in the twenty-first century than she did. A godsend. In less than an hour she had identified all of the music and commercial jingles and TV themes that she had captured. All the media flora and fauna. She felt like Adam naming the animals in Eden. It was no longer just a collection of random things without form; it was a sound map of life on Earth that still had Simon in it. That was probably when it changed over from compulsion to full-fledged obsession.
Once he had asked her, just before a flight to LA to voice a computer-animated sheepdog, whether she would want him to call her if he was ever on a plane that he knew was going down. Would she want him to leave a message? he wanted to know. Would she want to be left with such a thing and the choice about whether or not to ever erase it? She’d refused to answer, angry that he’d bring up such a ghoulish thing just before leaving. And now she had this, which was like the whole flight recorder box. So she had decided to identify everything, document it all on an Excel spreadsheet, annotated down to the time code, like a proper MI6 analyst. Decided was the wrong word. It was a thing that had to be done and it insisted that she do it. No matter how many times she had thought about stopping, leaving this obsessive unfinished and not knowing, she came back, strapped into her personal diving bell, and plunged. She could no more quit it than she could quit wearing her skin. And on the days that she was brave enough to reach down into things she did not want to face about herself, she saw what it was about: some part of her needed to believe that she could reconstitute him from it, like some extinct animal coaxed back out from fragments of scattered bone.
Most important of these shards had been the song that appeared after 2 a.m., the far horizon of the recording. Strange and beautiful and just barely at the threshold of hearing. It made her ache, each time, this thing she had come to call “the visitation.” Quick rhythmic stabs of cello swathed in heavy reverb, caroming like beams of light around a mirrored room, then the muzzy voice she could not really make out except for one repeated phrase: moving me up. For weeks she followed as this pulsing thing mutated, more layers coming in: congas and then sunbursts of trumpets, then the voice again, heavily processed as if sung through a blown speaker submerged in water. She had never heard anything like it. It could have been the final transmission of an alien satellite. It could have been a dreaming machine singing in its sleep. She was grateful to Rahul, and technology, to finally know that this song was called “This Is How We Walk on the Moon.” Arthur Russell, 1982. That was breakthrough enough, she thought, but the real gift came two weeks later: Satya, woozy on the couch from sedation and too much listening, suddenly jolted to attention and shot to her feet, knowing she’d missed the most obvious thing. She’d thought all along that the song had to have come from a neighbor, no matter how hard it was to imagine any of those hallway-glimpsed faces belonging to people who would listen to this music. But she was wrong. In all this time it had never struck her to look at their own record player, lift the amber plastic dustcover and see, as she did now, that there was an album still on the turntable. She read the label and there it was: Arthur Russell, Another Thought. Side B. She hesitated, although she knew already that she would do it, knew that she would play it even though it would mean getting closer to being done, to having the whole thing mapped. And then what? But she had to, she had to, and so she moved the tone arm over the record, which spun into life as though it had been waiting for this moment. She positioned it on the first track, let it drop gently. A pop and hiss and it seemed the universe compressed itself into this interval of waiting. She was not aware that she was holding her breath. And then that cello hypnotic line. It bounced around the room, as did the voice, echoey, resonant, and intimately distant. It gave her chills, this message from interstellar space.
Each step is moving, it's moving me up
moving, it's moving me up
Every step is moving me up
moving me up, moving, moving me up
Every step is
moving me up
Beautiful, just beautiful. It filled her with both warmth and inexpressible longing. She knew now: it was Simon who had played it. This was what he had done, then, during his final hours on Earth.
One tiny, tiny,
He had come into the living room, awakened by incomprehensible impulses. Or maybe this happened every night?
It's all I need
And I jump over
Every step is moving me up
He had taken this particular album out of its sleeve and played this one song.
This is how we walk on the moon
And then he had switched off the stereo, returned to bed, slid in beside her sleeping form, and at some point before morning, ceased to live.
This is how we walk on the moon
Bright horns colored the dark room. Then the swirl of voices, spoken and sung, robotic and plaintive, and the cello once again and the drunken trombone, all of it like a shower of sparks until the final echo faded into the silence of her solitude. She played the song again and then again and she closed her eyes and slid, stricken, with her back against the wall until she was on the floor, her arms around her knees. She was not aware until she heard it that a wail was issuing from her, a grief howl from somewhere animal and marrow-deep. She didn’t even know there was a sound like this, and when this condensed anguish had taken its leave of her, she knew that she was almost free of listening to the recording, which she desperately did and did not want to be.
* * *
That was weeks ago already and she had made no progress since. It didn’t take a therapist to tell Satya that there was pleasure in pain because of how it feels just after the pain stops. But then the pleasure fades and in its absence leaves no sensation other than a craving for more pain. Maybe this was why she couldn’t bear to listen to the song again just now, knowing that just beyond it lay that one last thing she hadn’t yet accounted for: the sound of an alarm that was like no alarm she’d ever heard. And she’d listened to them all: store alarms, car alarms—all models, all types. Nothing. A genuine mystery signal. An interval of fifteen seconds, followed by another, followed two minutes later by the end of the recording.
But she didn’t want to get there yet, so she let the file play out in real time, lingering over things she knew so well that they’d become a kind of comfort: the squeal of tires at the Sainsbury’s Local, the traffic helicopter blades whipping the near edge of the sky into froth, the bottle smashing outside of the Triangle Service Station. She could hear the report of its thickness: wine, not beer. You get to know these things. In this way she made it all hers: the rustle of leaves, the passing of buses, the cries of infants, the movements of bodies inside and outside their homes, the silences that revealed deeper textures if you listened closely enough. Because there was never really any such thing as silence and there was always something more to hear. Rewind. Replay:
-Everything. I love everything about you.
-I said everything. I meant it. Everything.
-Alright—I love your charming and exotic accent.
-No— fetishist. There’s a difference.
-There isn’t. Next you’ll praise my mysterious eyes and dusky bosom. Is that all?
-No. I love that you leave your clothes in heaps on the bedroom floor.
-I love that you leave your shoes in the doorway, where I can trip over them, no matter how many times I tell you not to. I love that your efforts to organize always end in chaos. I love your crooked canines.
She laughed here. He remained deadpan, but she could hear he was luxuriating in this. It was the sound of a voice emerging through a smile. Just beneath her laughter, right at this juncture: the muffled cadence of Arabic. Azim and Yara passing their door. Clicking derailleur of Azim’s bicycle as he narrated an incident at the laundromat. Satya, understanding no Arabic, knew this because at 4:05:15 he says “laundromat” in English. To which Yara replied, “But what sort of person would want to steal your tube socks?” Or so Satya had gathered from an online translator. These things, too—these background things of no obvious importance—had become almost as significant to her as the grain of Simon’s voice. All this was entangled in the DNA of these moments.
-My canines? What perfectly unromantic things to say! Why are you saying them?
-Because these are the things I know about you. A lesser lover would say that you are intelligent and kind and beautiful and sexy and blah and blah and blah. Is this all you want? That’s just the obvious—and I’m no lesser lover.
-That remains to be seen.
This was when he kissed her. She could hear it clearly at 5:03:19. Hear herself giggling like the young girl she can hardly remember being. There is breathing, the melding of breath, the liquid-solid sound of their contact.
She sounded throaty saying it. It was almost a purr.
-That you cannot cook something without burning it? That you cannot parallel park without panicking? That you will never eat the last bite of anything, even if there is no one else around who would benefit from your sacrifice?
- Stop! Stop! You’re awful!—
Laughing. He has walked into the kitchen at this point, his Doc Marten’s squeaking on the linoleum. The dishes percuss, slide into the sink. He sprays water on them, she lounges on the sofa, slides her shoes off at a languid pace. First one dull thunk, leather on tufted wool, and then the second, easing into where the day was heading. The water stops but there’s a long pause before Simon begins scrubbing. What was he doing in the interval? Had he forgotten himself, distracted by something he saw outside? Was he looking at her? Maybe there was something his heart was feeling already, a signal. Then the bristly sound of the scrubber at its work and her own voice again:
-You’re an awful man! Why would you point these things out?
-Because these things are you. And I love them, no matter how crazy they drive me, will drive me in the course of our unfolding human drama.
-Hm. I could list some things about you, too, you know.
High whinge of the faucet as he shuts it off. Rattle of air pressure in the pipes and then the squeak and pop of a cork eased from the wine bottle’s neck.
- Mm. No doubt, but I’m not the one who asked for it. You want to hear more?
-This will get more flattering?
-I love that you’re an introvert.
-You do? You’ve never said that before.
-It’s true. It was one of the first things that attracted me to you.
-How strange you are. Why?
-Because it’s how I knew you were honest.
-True to yourself. Who fakes being shy? No one. It’s not possible. You meet a shy girl and you know something intimate about her from the get-go, because she can’t conceal the truth of who she is.
-You’re a silly, silly man. And lucky. How did you, of all people, get so lucky?
These were the last things they ever said to each other, or the last that she can verify. Perhaps she said something to him, and he to her, as they made love or just after. She could not be sure. In the morning, he was no longer alive. A mute, cold form next to her that looked like him but was no longer him. They had had this conversation, then he had been inside of her and she around him, the two of them fused in murmuring ecstasy, and then they had slept. And at some point in between her sleeping and waking he had risen, played Arthur Russell on the stereo, then left her forever. Maybe he vanished into the inside of a dream. Maybe he had cried out for her, softly. But in the hours of unintended recording that followed their last embrace, she heard nothing. Nothing that stood out against the monotony of night sounds, no sign of the moment that he had ceased to be.
* * *
The EMTs could do nothing to revive him. It was far too late for miracles. The neighbors came out into the street and watched her stare numbly as Simon was loaded into the green checkered ambulance. Like bread into an oven, she remembered thinking, bizarrely. Everything happened both excruciatingly slowly and too quickly for her to follow. Her vision was blurred, the murmuring faces swimming, and she felt certain she would collapse before making it inside the ambulance herself. Then she saw Yara and the girl’s gaze met hers and Satya heard blood roar from somewhere deep inside her skull and felt a hot current of anguish arc between them until the other woman looked away and the ambulance doors were shut.
* * *
Cardiac arrest, the cardiologist at the hospital said. He had kind eyes and a round face and spoke with a faint Lebanese accent and she wanted to remember his name but afterward found she couldn’t. Though he was needed elsewhere, he explained it patiently. It was not a blockage; it was arrhythmia. A malfunction that had stopped Simon’s heart from beating. An electrical problem. And that was all. One blink and he’s there. Next blink and it’s over. In between, an eternity of questions about what she could have done. What else might have happened so that he wouldn’t have slipped her grasp so easily.
* * *
Satya removed the moist headphones and exhaled. And then she heard it again: that final sound, the odd alarm that had eluded her sleuthing skills up until now. Except she was not at the end of the recording. The sound was live, she realized. It was happening again and it was right there, in her kitchen. She stood abruptly and the alarm stopped. She felt along the wall behind the table and flicked the overhead. It scoured the space with lurid fluorescent whiteness and then she saw it: a bird, wedged in between the wall and the base of the refrigerator. A gasp went through her, then a shudder, the reflexive recoil from staring into the eyes of a wild, living thing where no wild, living thing should be. It tried to fly but couldn’t spread it wings. It flailed and struggled and Satya dashed for the first thing at hand: a box of Weetabix. She dumped the cereal into the sink and knelt in front of the desperate thing. Its head was a blush of peach and its body olive; the beak was sharp and curved. She could see its cream-colored undersides as it thrashed and she knew she had to move swiftly or it would break its own body in its panic. With one hand she put the box in front of the bird and with the other she pushed hard against the fridge to ease it away from the wall just an inch. As she did so, the bird launched itself into the cereal box and went completely berserk. Now what? She couldn’t just toss it out the window; it might be hurt and unable to fly. Not to the street front either, then, where it would just be a meal for strays. The courtyard out back, then. A protected place, relatively. And if she had to maybe she could look in on it there, nurse it back to health or something. Or at least not think about it until morning. She raced down the stairs toward the common laundry area and the heavy metal door that accessed the courtyard. The bird rustled in the narrow confines of the cardboard, little spasms and desperate scratchings. Satya felt like she was rushing a heart to be transplanted. Shoulder to the flaking red enamel paint, she nudged the door open and it groaned on its rusted hinges. What was she going to say if she woke someone up and was discovered here, disheveled in her thin nightshirt, with a bird in a cereal box?
* * *
Cool, damp air. A halo of light from the three-quarter moon descended from where the clouds had parted. It was just enough for Satya to see what she could not fully believe. The courtyard had been nothing before, a disused concrete enclosure, hidden from the street and surrounded on all sides by four stories of brick face. When Satya and Simon had moved in it was a forbidding, forgotten space, only broken glass, scattered household rubbish, an abandoned armchair, and skeletal remnants of long-desiccated bushes. They had stuck their heads out there once, judged it depressing, and promptly forgot all about it. But something had changed since then. Everything had changed. The far end of the courtyard, the one that contained neighbors she had only glimpsed and whose names she had never known, had been transformed into a living wall, cascading with ferns and elephant ears, spider plants and bromeliads, a verdant waterfall. Its almost obscenely lush face was dotted with sprays of color in pointillist patches: buttercups, crocuses, geraniums, strawberries, and jasmine. This alone would have been a marvel of improbability, but here it was the backdrop to the real astonishment: whoever had taken it upon themselves to create the space had refashioned it into a quadrilateral design, with four gardens divided by pebbled walkways. The gardens themselves were boundaried by breezeblocks and bricks salvaged from the courtyard and thickly planted with purple hyacinths, papery poppies in sherbet hues of pink, orange, and red, Damask roses, vermillion hibiscus; her meager plant vocabulary was exhausted well before she had identified the exotic constellations of colors and forms. Unlikelier still were the terra cotta pots lining the walkways and erupting with vigorously fruiting lemon, fig, and orange trees, and standing tallest in front of the living wall like a prophet’s hallucination, was a pomegranate tree, branches heavy with the brilliant red punctuation of its fruit. While none of it seemed probable or even possible in this space, it was thriving, an entire world within the world that seemed to have erupted there for no one but Satya.
To judge by the size of the trees, the mysterious gardener must have been making this courtyard bloom for years, hidden in plain sight by the sense-dulling passage of everyday indifference.
It smelled of damp earth and the cool, green breath of chlorophyll. Above that was a scent of jasmine and orange blossoms, other perfumes she couldn’t name. It smelled like the colors she was beginning to perceive as her eyes adjusted. How long had it been there? It was like stumbling onto a hidden kingdom, a secret haven as strange and florid as her girlhood daydreams. Wandering the paths in a semi-trance, white stones shifting beneath her slippers, Satya could well imagine what it would be like in the daytime: sun-bright and bee-loud. This would be lovely and remarkable enough, but in the near dark it was a wonder. She approached the living wall, could feel it exhale, breathe into her; its breeze-stirred leaves were a whispered language. She took it in through her pores, felt she belonged to it, a nocturnal animal in a wild and ancient myth. She remembered the bird, reached into the cereal box and offer it her hand. Satya could just make out the trembling form, tentatively edging toward her cupped hand. It alit in her palm and shuddered, trying its wings. Satya slowly, deliberately, removed the terrified creature from the box and held it to the wall. She let it nestle in a dark hollow between a sweet potato vine and a spill of begonias. And then it was gone.
Two wrought iron chairs, enameled white, had been placed on either side of the pomegranate tree, awaiting her, it seemed. She sat and tried to imagine what to do next. As if on cue, there came the sound of the alarm that had baffled her on the recording. The oscillating notes, clear and piercing, repeated as if on a loop. It had not been an alarm at all but rather this bird. The one she had rescued from her kitchen and that was now calling out from the undergrowth, calling to some imagined other it didn’t know was not there. It repeated the figure ten, twelve, fifteen times and then fell silent. The noise she had mistaken all along for something electronic had come from this tiny thing. So now I know, Simon, Satya thought. I know what it was that sounded the alarm when you left. A different person might have come to other conclusions, might have seen signs and wonders, proof of the transmigration of souls. Her family would have seen Karma. Coincidences erupt quickly into myth. But for Satya the bird itself was wonder enough.
It sounded its two notes again and began the whole sequence over. Satya yearned to call out its name in return. A name Simon, a birder since his very Cornish boyhood in Polruan, would have known. But Satya had never learned such things. The names of birds, trees, constellations, cricket players and statistics, battles, rock drummers. The things people know. But this bird. This bird, singing in anticipation of the dawn—this bird that cared nothing for the bewildered woman who sat staring into the verdant dark—this bird knew this song, this one thing at the core of its everything. Satya sat and listened to its song fill the garden. For the first time in a long time, she fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
“I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”
It took Satya a moment to get her bearings. It had grown appreciably lighter but it was not yet day. She was in the garden and the voice that was speaking to her was coming from a shape that at first she mistook for her mother, although that was impossible. Her eyes focused. It was the girl, Yara. She smelled like jasmine, or maybe that was coming from the garden.
“No. I mean, yes. Sorry, I guess I must have dozed off. But it’s nothing. I don’t sleep, really.” Yara sat in the chair on the other side of the pomegranate tree. It was startling to be this close to her, to hear her speak. She had long seemed to Satya somehow otherworldly, or maybe just a different kind of worldly. Satya had never fully sorted out why it was that she felt this way about this somber young woman. Maybe Yara’s remoteness and regal bearing, maybe her hunted aura. Most of all, that look that had passed between them the morning Simon was taken away.
“I do not sleep so well either. Would you like some?” Yara extended a cup of strong-smelling coffee. “I saw you here and I thought I might join you, unless you would rather be alone.”
“No, please. Stay. I’d love some coffee. I didn’t even mean to be here—I didn’t know it was—this, like this. I came to—to, well, it maybe sounds odd but I caught a bird in my house and came to free it. Then I found this—” She was aware she was speaking too much, and all of it nonsense, so she stopped. From inside the foliage the bird sounded its uncanny chirrup.
“That bird?” Asked Yara, tilting her chin in the direction of the living wall.
“Yes. That one. I thought it was a car alarm of some kind when I first heard it. Isn’t that funny? I’ve never heard a bird make a sound like that.”
“I think she is scared,” she said. “She is far, far from home.”
“How do you know?”
“I know this kind. A client of mine bred them. She is called a common tailorbird. From India— South Asia.”
“And it wound up here? In my flat? From where?”
Yara shook her head wordlessly.
“The poor thing,” said Satya. “So far out of place.”
“We all are, I think” said Yara. Satya wasn’t quite sure how to take the comment but didn’t have time to form a proper response. “Let us hope she finds another one like her. That is what she is calling for.”
Satya cupped her coffee in both hands. It struck her as unbearably sad to imagine this bird entirely alone.
“Is it strange to say that I am certain I know you by your voice?” Yara said once the bird was silent again.
“You can hear me, you mean? Through the floor?” Satya thought with a twinge of embarrassment about the recording and Yara’s exchange with Azim. What kind of things had Yara overheard?
“No. That is not it. I have heard your voice elsewhere.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, you probably have. I’m a voice artist. I record adverts and things like that. Radio and telly. That sort of thing.”
“We do not have television or radio. No, I know what it is—you are the voice of Everything You Do Is Music.”
“The children’s book? On audio? I’d almost forgotten that, it was so long ago. One of the first things I did.”
“I bought it at a market, not long after we came. I listened to it every day when I was learning English.”
She leaned back into her chair and began to recite:
“Everything you do is music...and everywhere is the best seat...”
She could hear that Yara was smiling. Satya joined in, unearthing the long-buried memory: “The pots and pans and tins are music, if you know just how to play them...”
And then they were almost singing it together:
“...and the glasses, ladles, bowls, and spoons. Rhythm, rhythm everywhere! Did you know your kitchen was a symphony?”
Satya was surprised to hear Yara laugh, surprised as well that it was such a deep, burbling sound, like an underground spring. As they descended back into silence, she studied Yara’s face in profile. Even in the dim light it was impossible not to see the aura of sadness. Satya, impulsive, wanted to embrace her. The leaves and tendrils rose and fell on a current of air, respiring. She could hear it growing, blooming, germinating; she felt something in her own body responding. “You’ve known about this place?” she asked, staring into the unfathomable green.
Yara nodded. Satya sipped the coffee. It was pleasingly bittersweet and still hot and it seemed to her she could feel it coursing throughout her entire system.
“I had no idea. How long has it been here? It must be a long time and I never noticed.”
“You are not alone. I have never seen anyone else here. In five years, no one but you has come out. You can do a lot when no one is looking—and no one looks here.”
“So it’s yours, then, you mean? Your space?”
“This is no one’s but God’s. But yes, I made it grow.”
Satya said nothing, reflexively guarded as she was any time religion announced itself in a conversation. The disappointment was deflating, equaled by the disappointment in herself for the bias. But she couldn’t, she just couldn’t. No matter how much and how irrationally she yearned to connect to this other woman, to be absorbed in her presence. Whatever it was that they were sharing in this moment, it would have its boundaries. They would have to agree, wordlessly, to a mutual unintelligibility. But she decided to try anyway.
“Are you here because of the war?”
Yara nodded. That could mean many things, thought Satya. Too many things. Maybe she did not want to find out what side they had been on. She did not know enough to wade into these waters. “I’m sorry. I shouldn't have asked,” she said, avoiding the other’s gaze.
“I am not afraid of questions.”
“Then can I ask why you did this? Planted all this, here, in nowhere?”
“I made this because this is what I do. What I did. I designed gardens.”
“Of course. Damascus?” Satya felt foolish saying it, but it was the only Syrian city she could think of.
It would be some time after that Satya would Google the name and discover that this was the site of Assad’s sarin gas attack in 2013. And then she would understand.
“It was a beautiful place, once,” Yara continued. “Now it is ash, buried.”
“I’m sorry,” said Satya and again felt hot with embarrassment, having none of the right things to say, whatever those might be. Yara went on without acknowledging.
“There is a myth some say about Ghouta, that it was originally in heaven and was brought to earth by God at Adam’s request.”
From the other side of the living wall, on South Ealing, a truck’s brakes whined and exhaled. Deliveries to the Esso station. The day was beginning.
“And so this?” Satya gestured at the garden.
“And so this. My Syria.”
“These are the things that grow there, you mean?”
“Yes. Very hard to make grow here, but I made this promise. I took the seeds and cuttings with me, sewed them into the pockets of my clothing. My other possessions I lost, but these I managed to keep. I planted my memories here, in this place where no one bothers to know.”
Satya considered the many things she could ask—how it was irrigated, what happened to the fragile plants in winter, practical things, all of which dodged the story she knew she was actually being told. The perfumed air was sadness, the planting a memorial to roots that had been torn out a world away. What did she know about any of this? She could hear the pebbles shifting slightly underneath the girl's feet, which Satya now realized were bare. She felt the smallness of their two bodies, their fragility; the inaccessibility of whatever Yara might have been thinking. She wanted to embrace the girl and stay welded together in this garden, this enclosed argument against the world as it was. From somewhere within the moist interior of the living wall, the bird responded to some ancient avian impulse. It emitted the handful of notes that it knew, then repeated them, high and bright and incongruous with the lingering dark.
“When I was little,” Satya said, not entirely sure where she was going with this, “my mother told me the Hindu stories of creation. There are a lot of them, actually, since Hindus don’t believe in one creation, but the one that I remember most is that Brahma was born from a lotus flower that bloomed from the body of Vishnu. And when Brahma made all things, he made them from the petals of that lotus flower—and the first thing he made on the Earth was a garden. I never really thought about it much but I guess all the origin stories take place in gardens.”
“Hm. Yes, if you are going to try to explain where we came from—living things, us—you have to begin the story in a garden. And you would be right, actually. We are what became of the garden.”
Overhead, jet lights blinked across the canopy of sky. The air grew sweet with the scent of orange blossoms. Yara sunk deeper into her chair and stretched both of her legs ahead of her, toes pointed like a dancer’s.
“I know what it is to lose a husband.”
Satya thought about this for a moment, sipping the coffee. It was hard to make out Yara’s features in the dim light but it seemed that she was looking upward, past the courtyard, toward wherever the rest of the story resided.
There was a long pause. Yara brought the coffee to her lips, blew on its steaming surface, then set it down again without drinking.
“Azim is my brother. We say we are married so we are not separated. So we can live.”
It was said not as a confession but a statement of fact. The silence at the heart of the disclosure unfolded itself. It occurred to Satya that until now all she had known of Azim and Yara were the sounds of their processes. Hygiene, cooking, vigorous argumentation. To have such intimate contact with people and yet to exchange little more than vague pleasantries in the light of day. And then this.
“I won’t say anything. About this. About Azim.”
“No. I did not think you would.”
Yara placed her slender hand on Satya’s bare arm. A slight breeze made the living wall ripple with a hushed flutter. There was coolness when the hand lifted from the skin like a startled butterfly and Satya understood that the conversation was over. Yara rose with her cup.
“When you finish, leave everything here. I will get it in the morning.”
Satya nodded. The desire to say something meaningful had struck her dumb. An understanding had passed between them but it was not clear to her if that made them friends or just strangers who now knew the names of one another’s wounds.
“Thank you,” she whispered, but the other woman had already closed the door behind her. The moving leaves made the air audible. Satya, aware of the coming of the light, thought that maybe she would just stay in this involuted garden until her body learned to photosynthesize. She’d grow tendrils into the earth and cover her once-permeable skin with rough bark and draw up from some deep aquifer a nourishment made up from what had become of long-dead things. And when Yara eventually fled the sinking island of England, she’d take a cutting from Satya’s limbs, sew her into the lining of her garment, and then graft her onto some far away trunk to once more stretch sunward.
She thought of the interior of her home, of the kitchen table, the mute silver brick on it that held her husband’s voice. Maybe she was done now. Maybe she didn’t have to listen to it anymore. It was different somehow, she realized, knowing what everything was. Something had come to completion and the thought made her feel spent and scooped out. Grief had made her a hollowed gourd, its last seeds rattling in its dried belly. Now would come everything after. Maybe in the morning she would get on the Tube and Simon would be speaking to her, first at one stop, and then the next, and then the next. She would cross London in the palm of his voice and maybe it would feel like a haunting or maybe like a comfort. Like he was still watching out for her. There was no way to know except by having done it.