Fabricate a Future
by Shirley Golden
'Nothing is designed to last forever,' you tell me. Trust a florist to focus on transience.
'Let's do this another time,' I say. 'In a week, a month, or two even. Gives us both room to adjust.' What a wimp, what clichés.
We're sitting in your courtyard garden in the city. Traffic intrudes with revs and honks and fumes. There's a sparrow perched in a plane tree, silent. The tree's leaves are changing; verdant fades to crimson, ash and rust; it's supposed to be beautiful. Yet it makes me think of the coming clout of winter and splendour soon to crumble.
'It'd just be dragging it out,' you say. You stretch long arms above your head, cup the back of your neck with your hands. One leg is folded, an ankle propped onto your other knee in a triangle.
I shield my eyes from the sun and watch the sparrow dart from branch to branch. 'We might be looking at the only one left in the city,' I say.
The sparrow population has reduced dramatically since the seventies, and no one understands why. You told me that when we first met.
'If I were the only person left,' I say, 'you'd want to keep me.'
You laugh. 'That's a ridiculous way to think.'
'Would you want to be kept just because I had no alternative?' you ask.
Here in our present, the terms don't matter; only consequences count.
You always warned, we wouldn't be forever. I used to laugh and say, what is? But now you're ready to quit, I wish for an unchanging world.
I don't want to close with a row. I don't want to finish and feel we can never speak again, so I leave. We kiss like strangers for the first time, rather than lovers for the last. I disappear through the side gate where the cars growl and wait. I don't glance back through the broken gap in the hedgerow, where smatterings of bees cling to late flowering buddleia. I don't want to glimpse the solitary sparrow flutter like a torn page, snatched by the breeze.
When I return to my flat everything seems different. The walls I'd splashed with orange paint to be cheerful have faded to russet. My stack of books-to-read beckons as always but more urgently, now that you're not here. There's a stale two-day-old smell of curry, so I open the windows. Upstairs the neighbour's kids are watching Shrek 2 again; I can hear Donkey, 'Are we there yet? No! Are we there . . . yet? Yes. Really? NO!'
I imagine far, far away and how it will feel not to see you, or hear your voice, or hold your hand. It's hard to visualise a future with your absence ever-present.
I fantasise over meeting randomly in the street in a few months and perhaps I'll have washed away the hurt with the last of your beauty cream bars—it was only ever me who bought soap. Perhaps I'll have smothered the lines of loss with a cheap foundation stick, look refurbished, and be over you. I'll tell you I have a nest of sparrows in my garden—at least four fledglings, whether or not it's true. And perhaps you'll look at me and regret we're no longer together. And we'll still be unequal, but now I'll hold the power. Perhaps we'll fall into each other's arms and understand forever is possible, now we understand the pain of being apart. But of course, there's no such thing as forever—only the time it takes to span our narrative. We're a happily-ever-after tale that finished the night before.
During daylight hours I hole up in the library—a place you'll never come. I've avoided the primitive cinema where I used to drag you to watch Art House Films, or the supermarket which is local for us both; and especially the bar: the bar where we first met.
When my friends ask after you, I tell them you're dead. I tell them I don't want to talk about it; most of them are shocked into silence anyway.
Now my flat is full of blossoms and cards of condolence. I decide this is how it should be; after all you are no longer here, in my life, and you might as well be dead.
Once all of the flowers have wilted, I sit at my desk and write long letters of apology. I explain how you're not dead, but I was mad with grief; I say I'm sorry for the confusion (it was an invention rather than a lie: creative sounds better than deceptive) and I apologise because sending flowers is expensive and it wasn't etiquettely necessary.
They made me feel better, so thank you. The letters take all day. I reword and revise. It's not easy to explain a misunderstanding about death—I suppose it'd be worse the other way around: had I told them you had left me when really you were dead.
I slap stamps on the envelopes and swill out the vases. It takes a whole bottle of bleach flushed down the sink to expel the stench. The water has transformed from clear to fog green and reeks like a corpse.
Now I've been forced to admit you're alive, I phone to see if you're free for coffee—nothing serious, just a chat, like you would with an old friend. You sound distracted. I'm unsure, but I think I can hear a voice in the background: my replacement. I hang up. It could have been anyone, I tell myself. Then I cry because I can hardly call you back now I've hung up on you. I pick up the receiver and press it to my ear just in case you're still there; but the line is dead. The dialling tone burrs worse than silence in my head.
I call the next day to apologise and encounter your answer machine; I leave a lengthy and complicated message and hang up without completing my final sentence. I wish I could delete my words as easily as they blundered from my lips. You will, at the other end of the line: delete, forget, but I can't; they're at your mercy, left in your charge.
When I phone to apologise for hanging up and the subsequent messages, there's not even an answer machine, just a constant tone. You've unplugged the phone or changed your number, and it doesn't matter which, because the effect is the same.
I wrench out two; no three sheets of A4 and begin to scribble furiously. Then I stop. I picture you glancing at my scrawl. I imagine you'll toss the letter unopened into the bin. I consider adjusting my script; make it less me: skinnier, taller, curlier, more legible, more inviting. Such a ploy would only give me a fragment more of your time. I'll still end up as scraps, dumped with the rubbish when you realise it's me in disguise.
I wish I could leap ahead and already be looking back. Perhaps I'll laugh—at the very least, I'll smile, even a whimsical one would do. If I were on the list of endangered species, about to take my last breath, then each minute and second would be fleeting, fundamental. As it stands, time balloons as an empty orb ahead.
Now is the future and already it's the past; we are bound to meet in the present. Not in the supermarket, or the bar, or even in the primitive cinema but at the airport.
I'm searching for departures and I see the back of your head. I don't know what catches my attention and makes me look again: the slope of your shoulders, perhaps? The honey colour of your hair, although it's shorter now. You turn around and stare and I'm trying to remember if I said your name aloud.
You come towards me, smiling—you really do. 'It's good to see you,' you say. 'Where are you going?'
'It's still uncertain,' I tell you, 'but if my plane is fast enough I'll let you know what the future holds.'
You laugh. You say you've missed me. And though my heart skips and I smile, it won't be the most significant thing that happens to me today.
You're off for a week on a business trip, you tell me, even though I don't ask. You tell me I'm looking good, or do you say I'm good-looking? You tell me you haven't met anyone else—no one serious, at least, and you laugh, but not in the easy manner teased into my memory. You tell me you're drinking at our old haunt most Saturday nights. You watch my reaction closely. You tell me all sorts of minor details about your life although I don't invite any of it.
Then my gate is called and I'm jostled into the spill of strangers. I see the honey-coloured head, lost within a population of other heads.
In the departure lounge outside of the window, I catch sight of a sparrow building a nest in the token hedge, and I consider the tale of the birds I never told, taking up residence in my garden.
This one dives in and out of the shrubbery its beak crammed with twigs while I sip on a watery coffee. Back and forth it goes. Is it a pair alternating, or does it labour alone?
And I smile. Nothing's certain. Either way, the best we can do is keep striving, and if it helps, fabricate a future, brittle hope.
Shirley Golden has publications in Bridge House Publishing, Earlyworks Press, Leaf Books and various magazines. Her stories have been short listed in competitions run by Chapter One Promotions and HISSAC. She won 5th prize in the 2011 Grace Dieu competition–the story is posted online at: http://btckstorage.blob.core.windows.net/site5548/Short_stories_2011/5th_Place_Shirley_Golden.pdf.
She is a novelist who writes historical fiction and science fantasy. Writing, for her, is an obsession; getting published and occasionally paid is the icing on top.
Her website address is www.shirleygolden.net.