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At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
T. S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’
There. A little ellipsis, the smallest pause, opening for him to slide into. Then withdrawal and a full stop.
Then they are unsticking from each other and, unstuck, are two separate bodies again in a too-hot room together. The bed creaks as he sits heavily on the side and gets up to wrench at the window, swollen in an old frame, letting in night noises without relieving the heat. A car passes unseen and she imagines the face within, pale in the dashboard glow, driving late and alone through the quiet town. Turning onto her back (creak), she lets a hand rest on the bone between her breasts; her skin is slick, still sticky, clamming to the sheet. Turning again to rest her head upon him, feeling the new but not fresh air across her thighs, this is the memory that her mind spirals into as she slips under:
When I was a girl, we cut holes in the world. My sister took a pair of scissors and cut two lines in the air in parallel, horizontal, and then cut down between them to make invisible curtains which she took carefully between finger and thumb and, drawing them back, invited me to put my hand through the gap. The air beyond
was a different air, we’d have sworn it. Cleaner, I called it. Cool, unused. I’d wriggle my fingers, circle my wrist and then pull it out again. In time, my sister forgot the game but I tried that little magic again, alone, again and again, even after I was caught and scolded for playing with scissors. But I never cut a hole that was large enough to step through, for fear of being stranded in that other air.
I think now that perhaps I slipped through one of those holes without noticing, after all.
Some hours pass without event. They shift a little. The nascent day will soon begin; have patience. We are watching them in the time most often lost to us, well into the night, but before the threat of dawn — that space in time when, if we wake, we are unsure if there are hours of sleep ahead or if we will be shaken seconds later by whatever it is that usually signals the day: music or the shrill beep of an alarm; a persistent bird at the window; a lover; dread.
You can draw a little nearer, if you’re very quiet. Put your face close to his, close enough to feel the gentle rumble and stink of his breath; feel the damp warmth of hers on your own cheek. They fall asleep, as many couples do, first twined and then detached; as we rejoin them they have long since undergone this last conscious act, this delicate separation on the very brink of dreaming.
His posture is awkward, his arm at a sharp angle with his fist by his ear, so that there is a risk he will elbow her in the face as he has done sometimes in the past. His right knee, bent out to the side, is almost, almost touching her thigh. At this one point, between knee and thigh, this little heated space that’s moist with their sweat, you couldn’t fit your finger between them. They both sleep above the covers, he fully, she in part. There is, now the night has deepened, the softest of breezes from the open window which makes their sleep delicious, although they sense this only when they drift close to waking.
Look: he is skimming the surface now. His arm stretches a little, his elbow
dangerously close to her cheekbone, but then he pulls it around as he turns away from her, drawing it over and down so it is snug against his belly. His breathing quietens, and with a long dreaming sigh, she curls a little closer in upon herself. Settled, they do not stir.
In a few hours they will rise and pass through this door to the adjoining bathroom, to rinse themselves of the night’s residue. It is even hotter here, airless; there is no window and it is very dark without the benefit of streetlight, which seeps through their bedroom blind. They are not the kind of couple to share their ablutions, one in the shower while the other brushes teeth, and so forth. They are both quite private people, and whilst they have struggled to open their hearts as wide as they can to each other, the secrets of their bodies have remained their own. She would hate for him to watch her shaving her underarms, for example, or picking at her toenails as she relieves herself, pulling them short where necessary. He, on the other hand, might well be embarrassed if she were to see him cleaning the dirt from between his toes in the same posture. But they will in all likelihood never know of these similar habits. He will never watch her and tut — his own nails are carefully kept, on toes and fingers alike — but she in turn will never see him and smile as he scrubs with the nailbrush, seven times on each hand. We might observe as they perform these rites, if we stood here before the sink and waited a little longer; but it is hot and stuffy, smells a little of damp, and besides there is something unnerving, is there not, about a mirror in darkness. And perhaps we would rather not strip them entirely of mystique, not yet. Let us return instead to their bedside.
She too has turned, in our absence, emerging fully from the covers so that now they form the uneven outline of an urn: wide at the opening, their heads far apart, and narrowing to their bottoms, less than a foot between them; their bent knees make the swell of the bowl, tapering again to their feet. The zigzag of his body is sharper than hers, so that although he is much taller, if they were each to move their feet directly backwards their soles would touch. It is almost tempting to tickle them, both pairs so neatly stacked; she would pull hers away violently from our mischievous fingers, whereas he would barely stir, being more ticklish in the region of the torso.
Closer inspection of their eyelids will reveal that she is dreaming. Behind the skin you will just discern, in the violet dimness, the raised circles of her pupils scud and jitter as the eyes roll in their sockets. You would like to know the hidden colour of the irises. Very well, then: hers are brown, his are also brown, but darker. And if it were possible to ask what she is dreaming:
North, north, blue and white; silent, still. Beyond the world in a clean air. Unused, I am bare skin, against the snow. Laid out on bearskins, waiting. I am waiting. It is night now as it has been for a long time, a blue and white night. Always night here, or always day, and the long twilight between; time, limbs, stretching into the palest ache. There is no dirty city stain in the sky, which is depthless and goes on possibly for ever. Heavens above. It is not heaven, it is just air, deep, blue, indigo air, smattered silver. There is sometimes jade, rose and gold across it. Stretch the word out: cor-us-cating. The beat of my heart, high and skating. I wait. All my skin, immersed in air. Here there is no one to see and I am heedless.
She rolls just a little in her sleep. Her husband, who is now awake, thinks: I
never knew a woman to fall asleep so easily, and to sleep so deep. Perhaps it is time to reveal his name: Simon.
Simon, too, has been far north in his sleep, and is still emerging from the frozen sea that he dreamed of, a sea churning with chunks of sea-ice. His north, too, is dark and silent, but it is jagged, bitter, hard. In Simon’s dream he was sailing a gully that narrowed until his ship was gripped on both sides. It groaned; he woke, chilled, to air so hot that moving feels like swimming. And now he lies, stuck to the bed by his back in the brown night, beside his murmuring wife. He is listening to his wife’s murmur, and thinking: Julia is talking in her sleep again. Unknown words. Julia, he knows, is the sort of person who dreams, and remembers her dreams, and sets store by them. Simon is one of those who profess not to dream, but in the fuddle of this disturbed night he will admit it, or lacks the will to deny it. How many hours have passed since he lay down beside and made love to his wife and listened as she slipped into sleep, and slept perhaps himself for a time; how many hours? Three and a half, approximately. Just over three more before he must rise. The red digits of the alarm clock state 03:42. The hands of his watch, laid out neatly beside it, also show fortytwo minutes past the hour. It is dark and still and the too-few hours until dawn yawn before him.