It is Louis's ability to be at ease everywhere, even in hospital, that makes me uncomfortable. His dressings are succumbing to blood, and a cannula stretches his vein. His injuries terrify me, more so because I have to imagine how they looked when the bus knocked him from his bike. He has described the sensations of being lifted off the railings, of being plucked, wrenched, skewered, torn open. We are vulnerability wrapped in denial.
I try to imagine what it was like, as sympathetic shivers run through me. And he looks up from his laptop and says, 'You're cold, shut the window. And have a look at this. Beautiful, mad project.'
His stitches are thick black things hidden by bandages. They trace long arcs across his body, bisecting the bruises that punctuate the rest of his torso. I can't comprehend how he survived. But to him it's nothing. Already done. He won't run a red light again, will always wear his helmet, if just so Alice will stop pestering him about it.
I've been listening to my latest recording with one ear, half consumed by the clattering of train carriages over rails. My over-ear headphones are warm, a soft ablative against the world. But when he spins his laptop round to show me something I pull them down so they hang round my neck. An artist. Mia Clarke. We knew each other, once.
I am looking at something I thought mine alone. This website is full of them, of every kind. Mine is a beech leaf, brittle and brown now. The words she wrote on it are still clear, her doggerel empowered by honesty. So perfectly preserved. I keep it in an intricately carved box I bought in the Souk, because it isn't the kind of thing you can throw away. No matter how little I care for her now; it is the most beautiful gift I have ever been given.
The images on the website show how ornate, ostentatious, she has let her creations become. Her centerpiece is a long spike of aloe vera on which she has painted a tract of florid text. The description reveals it to be from Madame Bovary, a book I couldn't love. I am falling back into a previous life, suddenly aware of her scent, the brush of her hair, the whiteness of her skin. It feels sharp, immediate though I haven't thought of her in years.
There are four-leaf clovers, each leaflet illuminated like a medieval manuscript to form words. TIME. CORE. FLUX. COST. She eschews love. I gave her a clover I found once, and she tore a leaflet off and passed it back to me. The gap between her teeth never looked more wicked. She had no time for luck either.
She has worked on every plant she could find. Flowers, trees, succulents, weeds and more. But they are all fresh, green and verdant. I hear it like a morning whisper, her breath hot, her lips brushing my ear, 'Let them rot. They are perfect for a moment, only less after that.' I know this is true, that this is what she would say. She is still in me, still bound up in me. Did I make anyone as angry as her?
'Can't hear you bud.' The proximity, the clammy reality of Louis shatters something, the illusion is damaged, fated to crumble with time. 'One hell of an idea, I wonder how she came up with it.'
I make my excuses and leave. I feel the need to work, to reclaim my identity. She can paint on all the leaves in the world, but soundscapes are mine.
A thousand years ago, I was not a kind man. The things I did took on a certain momentum, and I was full of the greediness of youth. It seems callous now, I accept. But I wanted her. So I had her. Quietly, secretly.
It was during the protean years of university, when life is a prospect, still taking form from chaos. Hundreds of young minds suddenly liberated and freed from oversight. Hormonal bodies thrumming in tightly packed bars. Friendships that shout at eternity, and last overnight. It was in the middle of that, that we found each other.
She knew how to smile back then. It was a mischievous thing, which reformed her plain features into a puzzle. Her little teeth would peek out, and she would turn to show how her weight made her sensuous. She'd had enough of the chastity of living under her parents' roof, that was no secret.
There is a pivot in a young man's life, a point when he is growing, and feels older than he ever has before. Some milestone is reached, and the hinterlands of childhood come into focus. And in that point he doesn't realise girls, women, younger than him are wiser, that they see more of the truth. That's how I was able to break her heart, and she was able to defeat me.
After the bars closed, I made no noise as I stole up the stairs to her room. We'd arrange times after everyone had gone home, creating diversions and distraction so it became a tryst, though really there were no secrets to keep. I think she liked the excitement, the way she could make herself shiver with anticipation.
We would stand close to each other, fingertips playing, heads dancing closer. We rode the wave of suspense together, until finally one of us would crack.
She would always end up naked before me.
A thousand voices together. The chattering of Spanish schoolchildren, their words rolling into unending compound sentences to terrify Germans. Londoners shouting at phones, always moving quickly past me. Heels and trainers and slapping sandals and suitcase wheels and distant escalators. It's too much, too well defined. I move closer to the platforms where trains depart and arrive with heavy clunks of wheels on points. Arrivals and departures are called above it all.
Claws on tarmac intermingle with cooing. The birds' calls pulse together like a sonogram, their glass eyes and cocked heads staring through me. Bread, chips, chicken bones, rattle quietly as they are tossed about. It culminates in the crashing wave of a hundred birds taking flight together.
The most erratic sample of late, where the background noise of the road, hissing tires and engines standing at traffic lights, will be overwhelmed by arriving buses. They boom and squeal as they settle to a stop, then the heavy hiss of doors, the chattering of passengers. I press against the crowd, hiding their voices in the roar of fabric against microphone. I hear Louis screaming in the hydraulics. More hissing and booms, like a flash storm, and the background noise returns.
Alice is with Louis when I return. They share the bed, her careful not to lean on him, a hand idly stroking his hair as they study the laptop. I know they are looking at Mia's site. It's in the quality of the light. I wonder what Alice thinks, how much she remembers.
Alice says, 'You're back.' I can see the curiosity in her face.
'Recording. I've got something I need to finish, I need more samples.'
'What's the theme this time?'
She's trying to provoke me. She knows I don't have 'themes'. I make ambient music, soundscapes, reactive spaces. If there was a theme it wouldn't be ambient, it would be dominant.
'What do you think?' I ask her.
'Incredible technique. I had no idea she was so patient.'
'Neither did I.'
Louis catches on quick, and says, 'You know her?'
Alice fixes me with her stare: 'They had a thing going on, back at university.' So much for secrets. My disinterred past is an ugly thing.
Louis checks the site again and says, 'Yeah, I can see that I guess. She looks kinda mean, but nice rack.'
Alice cuffs him round the head playfully. Little threatens her; she shares that with Louis. 'She wasn't so hard when I met her. It was easy to surprise her.'
'I never took to her,' says Alice. I remember how they maintained a frosty civility when their paths crossed. Mia wasn't honest, or direct, something Alice has never had the time for.
The shock of recall has passed, and now it's been dragged into the light it doesn't threaten me in the same way. I feel a distaste, if anything. Not guilt, not regret, just a gummy sense of doing wrong by people. I take the seat by the window, framed by the brutalist façades of the hospital complex behind me. 'I changed her. It didn't end well between us.'
Alice whispers something in Louis's ear. I feel a pang of loss, not having recorded the sound of it, the rustle of sheets as she shifts her weight.
Mia expected certain things from me. We would lie in bed, face to face, her shapeless mass of hair bothering my skin, her toes playing across my kneecaps. I would run my hands over her, searching for the places where her skin folded. Her breasts, the crease between her hip and belly, the ridges before her neck plunged into clavicle. I wanted to unfold them, to keep pulling back the layers to reveal more of her.
She would tell me her daydreams. Maybe she told me she would be an artist then. I remember she was intensely focused on the idea of sculpture. Not the technique, but the act of conception. Maybe it was my obsessing about her body that brought that one on.
We always ask if we'd do it differently, if we could go back, but the truth is none of us have the imagination for that. To change one thing would be to change everything, a mistake undone would unravel my essence. Reality is too fragile a thing for choice. The trick is to be comfortable with your instincts so you don't come to hate your body. My life now is a pursuit of comfort and intellectual satisfaction and back then it was hormones and psychotropia. It amazes me there's anything to connect the two, even though I am that very connection.
It took me a long time to admit how unhappy I was. Getting what you want will do that to you. It was never simple with Mia, I always felt defensive in her presence. The only way I could relax was when we were alone and I'd stripped her. Only then could I talk openly.
It was a hot summer's day, near the end, when she said, 'I've got a surprise for you.' She crossed the room, her gait all rolling feet and innocent bounds, and opened a drawer. 'Close your eyes.' I did, and she tickled my nose with something.
I didn't realise I was disappointed, so I couldn't hide it. I'd expected some toy, a sexy game for us to play. Instead if was a beech leaf, lucent and bright in the sun. Her writing was perfect, that naïve uniform curvature that girls develop in school whilst boys wrestle with the alphabet.
I saw a world I'd never known when I sat with you
I lived a life I'd never dreamed when you held me close
Far too often in this world we find ourselves alone
And I want to say to you that you are not alone
You need only look for me.
Thank you for picking this drifting leaf
From the ground to the sky
The repetition of alone fell on one side of the leaf, so the word seemed to leap from its surface twice, commanding the interpretation. The way she spoke from the past struck me, physically. I became acutely aware of our nudity, my nudity.
Now, I can only see its fragility, the delicacy wrought from biro ink. I always saw it as a beautiful gesture, but what I saw then was a leaf, one of thousands. Tomorrow's mulch.
It didn't rot, or crack, or fade. Time has been kind to it.
Heavy rain, so it roars. It's a constant noise, the fullness of the swell regular, unflinching. I throw a rock in and hear nothing. It is swallowed entirely, no trace of it in my recordings. I want to throw myself in, see how loud it gets. I press my headphones into my ears, let it overwhelm me.
It looks ugly. People stumble, flashing white fabric at halogen headlights. The structures of the town break down, rules are forgotten and we compete for space that was discrete a few hours ago. My levels spike repeatedly, with shrieks and catcalls and braying laughs. I abandon the idea quickly.
The sound of art is scratching and tinkling and wet brushing and coughs, one following another as they all remember they have throats together. I hold off myself for as long as I can, suppressing a deep, tightening of my throat. There is an intensity in the sounds, a purity in the concentration of the artists. The less talented they are, the more I can divine in their faces as they work. There is a sublime moment, when the leader calls, 'Change'.
Alice gets called back to work, some corporate IP issue with a hearing in the next few days. The door has hardly closed when Louis says, 'Give me a hand with this, will you?' He pokes buttons until he has raised the bed to a sitting position and, wincing, he starts picking at his dressings.
'Do they need changing? Does it hurt?'
'Of course it hurts, now help me get it off and pass me my phone.'
We peel slowly, carefully revealing his wounds. I have to swallow a gag when I see their full extent. His skin is swollen in lurid ridges, blackened blood dried at points across the gashes. They cluster underneath his ribs, in the soft parts where he must fold in bed. The neat threading of the stitches seems inhuman, the kind of thing that belongs in a film.
He pokes at one gingerly, hissing when he makes contact, then looking up at me and grinning. 'My phone, quick! Bike mags love this stuff.' He's possessed with a childish glee, a mania so sudden I wonder if the accident has traumatised him and we didn't realise.
I give it to him and watch as he takes countless photos, reaching for different angles. Then he passes it to me and says, 'Do my back.' I have to lift the dressing off for him and see a violent red mountain. A great scab sits in the caldera, stained with a greenish-yellow tinge of infection. I stare, despite myself, but he pesters me until I take a photo. Touching the screen of his phone sets off a sympathetic reaction in me, as though I touched the wound itself.
He's reaching for the phone when the door opens behind me and a nurse barks, 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' I retreat automatically, pocketing the phone. Louis sees me do it and nods at me with a big grin. The nurse drives me out of the room quickly, setting to fixing Louis's dressing as best she can.
As the door closes I hear her say, 'What is it with you bike people? I'd swear you do it on purpose, just to get a photo.'
It all fell apart shortly before my finals. That used to be my excuse, but really it had nothing to do with it. As Mia grew she wanted more from things, from me. It wasn't ambition, not quite, she just abhorred stasis. The less I changed the more we resented each other.
That last night she came to my room and confronted me. Told me where she would go and what she would do in her summer break. She wanted to travel, to visit medieval cities across Europe and try new food. I wanted to go to festivals and party again.
Mia said to me, 'You don't realise how easy it is to love you.'
'What can I do with that?' Part of me was delighted, knowing as a young man that I had some kind of power over people. 'It's my fault you fell for me?'
'No, you're just a coward.'
'What am I scared of?' My voice broke, high and pleading, and she sneered back at me. I didn't know what she meant, but I knew she'd won.
I twisted and squirmed after that, alternating between flattery and disinterest, trying everything I could think of to keep her. No matter that I didn't love her, I just wanted to get her naked and fuck her one more time.
Mia paced the path from my bed to the door twenty times that night, until I stood up to meet her. She stopped before me, her eyes glazing over, her lips thin. She stayed precisely still as I inched towards her. How easily we deceive ourselves.
We'd fought before, why wouldn't this be another chance to make up? To soak our callouses of bitterness in old habits? Our bodies couldn't be ignored, or so I thought. As I reached for the strap of her top, she spun on her heel. She stopped at my door to fling it back, smacking it into the table behind until there was a raw, jagged hole in the panel.
I couldn't tell if she was disappointed it hadn't broken more, or if regret had corrupted her triumph. She hissed as she walked away.
Girl with stick and railing
Is this another pivot? I don't feel the stick in my hand, I see the child in my life. Her dark hair refuses to be tamed, the wavy mass beyond reproach. She is serious until she smiles, some rhythm in the ringing of wood on metal pleasing her, perhaps. Whatever delights her, I can't hear it. I hear the watchful parent talking to a friend, her eye never leaving her daughter.
Dog with ball
The sound is lost so quickly, as the dog pelts after the ball. It's such a sudden accumulation of pace, so singular a focus. I wanted a dog so badly as a child, but now I don't have the time, or the inclination. When it returns it dawdles, and skips around. It refuses to give up its prize easily, and I capture the impatient commands of its owner. The more he throws it, the heavier the dog breathes, the sound disrupted by the ball, which it refuses to let go.
It is the wind that brings the trees to life. They only speak when the breeze feathers the leaves. A storm front is moving in, so today they creak and shift, their negotiation with the sky suddenly fraught. They will still be standing tomorrow, stoic and of the landscape.
I feel uncomfortable, like I've lost something. I never wanted her, not really, but I had her and now I don't. Is there anything more dissatisfying? To have had and lost, and never wanted at all?
Who do the trees belong to? I wade through drifts of fallen leaves, crashing like the tide. The leaf I pick snaps in my hand. I crush it to dust, the sharp crackling percussive and clear.