It comes for me in the middle of the day when I am preparing lunch, quartering a tomato then slicing each segment in two. The seeds where they spill out look wrong and terrible, as though I am cutting the meat of my own hand, and so it’s not a surprise when I hear a knock at the door. The bag sits ready at the bottom of the stairs, cottons and flannels collapsing in on themselves after a week of my hands folding them, unfolding them, refolding them. It’s the driver, a woman with hair and eyes so pale it’s as if she came from somewhere further north than I could imagine, some new and colourless frontier. She cocks her head not unsympathetically and tells me: It’s time.
You have choices, I’d told myself again and again in the last days. At the supermarket, debating rye flour or strong wholemeal, fresh pollock versus frozen white reconstituted slabs. Every choice was a joy, I told myself, a delight. At the till, the woman’s sick-looking hands flaked over my choices. I hoped she was joyful. At night I watched the organised joy on TV rather than participating out in the streets, and I did often consider stepping out to the parade, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t pastel sugar-coloured and there was nobody for me to lift up with my arms, or be lifted by, because to be lifted is always better, more suitable.
A teenage girl, Jennifer, latches onto me immediately. I feel very tender at the sight of her outlined eyes, the bracelets she tears at rhythmically that are supposed to be talismans for things such as love and belonging. At the first service station she sinks low in her seat, refusing to get off. I bring her a sandwich of plastic cheese and she chews it meditatively.
My mother will be on her way, she says. She’s caught me up before. She hits the seat in front of her with her palms, nervous energy coming off her like heat. Can you hurry up? she calls out to the driver. Please, just a bit faster.
You have to get off if they catch you up, she tells me, and I nod, I know the rules. I think of hands reaching out towards me like sea anemones and then I feel bad because there is no they, there is no circle of loved ones standing, grasping for my shadow. God, I am really just alone! It still feels like an exclamation whenever I think it, a fact dressed up as melodrama.
We get further and further north. The landscape becomes bleak and shingle, tall mountains with ribbon-narrow roads that we navigate between. It’s extremely beautiful. I no longer feel like I’m in my own country. I give permission for my thoughts to wander. I think: an ice sheet, a canyon. I think: the body of my husband of the house we used to live in, levitating.
Jennifer falls asleep, laid out over two seats, and I unfold my extra jumper and spread it over her like a blanket. She has laid her sadnesses out for me and they have echoed my younger sadnesses in colour and body. It’s a relief not to have to talk about our joys any more.
To the left of me, across the aisle, there is a family – two small boys, a father, a mother. They are laughing and playing cards together, and for a second I want my ribs to split with love and I want it to kill me instantly.
We are at a service station and I’ve thrown up onto the tarmac after smoking an entire packet of cigarettes in one go. I wish I had bought more. The world swoops, corners sagging, but I don’t fall. In my hand I’m holding a bottle of sparkling water and the word for water on the label is slightly different to the one I’m used to, and I swig, rinse and purse a fountain between my stinging lips. I see Jennifer’s face at the window looking for me and consider not getting back on the vehicle, because I have choices. A military van or a tourist would take me home. But I know there’s to be none of that when I look at her soft teenage face, and when I remember how the spokes of the fan centred on the ceiling of my living room look like long knives in the early evening, in the late morning, so I get back on the bus willingly and she says Oh, it’s you, but I can tell she’s secretly pleased.
The first halt on the road comes soon after. A car cuts up the bus, forcing us to pull over. Soon there is a crying woman standing in the aisle, and the bus driver calls out Jennifer Morris. Jennifer.
Jennifer is awake by now, and she stiffens, makes herself small in the seats. The crying woman sees her anyway, shouts That’s her. That’s her.
The driver pushes the button for the sound system and celebratory music starts to play, the same sort they have in the parades, trumpets wailing, the brisk rat-a-tat-tat of drums. We push Jennifer to her faltering feet. As she walks down the aisle, we clap. She weeps, pulling at the hem of her T-shirt. We shout Goodbye! Goodbye!
The woman tries to take her hand, but Jennifer pushes past her and runs off the bus. We all watch from the windows as she runs down the gravel shoulder of the road in front of us, the bare soles of her feet flying up dusty, until she trips and smashes into the ground. She sits and draws her leg up towards her and waits for her mother and the driver, who walk towards her slowly, they have no need to rush. We can see by the movement of her shoulders that she is weeping harder than anyone we’ve ever seen.
It’s night when James, the sad man who sits four rows behind, ghosts into the seat next to me. In the small light everyone’s faces are smooth.
I can’t sleep, he breathes into my ear. I touch his face. Underneath his eyes there are dark circles, buck teeth clamouring in his mouth. He kisses me decorously. I don’t say I’m allergic to sad men, even though I want to, badly.
When did you put the request in? he asks me, and I say A week ago, you? and he says Ten days. And then the question I knew was coming – And why?
Well, I don’t want to talk about it, I say. Outside we are passing through a medium-sized town and the lights are smudging against the rain on the windows. I draw a small smiley face in a patch of condensation and I think Joy and then I think Grace and then I change the smiley mouth to one pointing downwards, and then I rub it out altogether.
Why you? I ask, because I am angry he has asked, and he shrugs.
I’m a person with a lot of darkness in me, he says grandly, as if it’s anything special, as if we aren’t all literally nearly dead, and I suddenly just want to get him away from me.
I’m allergic to sad men I decide to say out loud after all, and he looks so hurt once he’s figured out what I’ve said that I laugh, a cruel pealing sound, and everyone’s heads turn.
By 5 a.m. we reach our first checkpoint, which means we are leaving the border for good. An old woman with eyes folded into the dough of her face tells me that loved ones often wait here for the bus to arrive, there are shortcuts if you know them, we drive a long and tortuous route to give them a fighting chance.
I don’t expect anyone but I sit low in my seat anyway, the way Jennifer did at the service station, at any suggestions of slowing – a small hit of ice in my heart as I think about her legs giving way, her fall to the ground – and others around me do the same. I see armed guards but feel safe in the knowledge that they aren’t for us, they are nothing to do with us. The vehicle stops while the driver shows her papers, her dispensation. I can see a vast screen through the window of the border facility, and it is showing another parade, a big one that has to be important somehow, and I try to add up the days we have been travelling, but it is impossible.
There are three people waiting to claim loved ones, all of them spouses with wet eyes, two men and one woman. They line up one by one and walk into the aisle. The husband of the woman refuses to get off, clutching at his seat until we pry his fingers off, one by one, then we start to kick at him, punch at him, and finally he gets to his feet, winded and bloodied, and walks with his wife’s arms holding him up. Again, we clap and call out Goodbye! Goodbye! and then we return to our seats and breathe in once, twice. I unfold a chocolate bar and slip two pieces onto my tongue, and keep my mouth absolutely still until they have dissolved.
When I stepped onto the vehicle I had looked very carefully at every face in case anyone I knew was travelling, to ensure there would be no surprises, no need to hide. I was ashamed of my weakness, so the moment I fell into my seat I pulled out some bad memories.
Like, the time it was too early and I’d lain there watching him sleep, towards the end. I was tired and my mouth hurt with it, and the curve of his arm could have been disembodied, pulled from the socket. I had stared at the arm a long time. I was waiting for it to choke me but it didn’t, and I was disappointed.
Like, the memories didn’t need to be anything too dramatic. The stipple of a dead match in the toilet bowl, or the rank thick smell, rising up, of the chicken we had unwrapped to roast, gone bad, beyond saving, or the January night where I waited patiently in my underclothes to be let back inside for thirty minutes, thirty-five.
Like, discussing the colours our offspring would wear when they ran into the streets holding their banners. What sort of joys they would carry. How we would hold their hands. How we would be finally gifted into place. Never had we broached the idea that regardless of all our efforts there might never be a place, because hope ticked next to grace in our mental list of how to be and how to act, the things we were supposed to do. It was just deep unluckiness that both of us had turned out to be so bad at all those things.
In another service station I eat two cheeseburgers without stopping, and they are really delicious. One I douse with ketchup, the other with remoulade. Nobody else is in the food court. The woman at the counter sucks her teeth when I walk up to her a second time and request a milkshake.
Strawberry, I say. Her eyes move to the rest of the travellers, who are touching the small souvenirs in the adjoining shop, testing out small trumpets festooned with the colours of towns and cities, the sort that children play in the parades. James puts coins into a slot machine again and again and it wails, sends out scattered light.
You can’t touch those, she calls to the people with the trumpets, but she pushes the money I’ve counted out back towards me and says The milkshake’s on me. I accept it with the grace I’m capable of.
I take it with me in its tall paper cup into the service station showers, where four coins get me ten minutes of moving water and a small tablet of soap that I rub across my hair and my body indiscriminately. I close my stinging eyes and put the straw in my mouth and swallow mouthfuls of synthetic-sweet ice cream. Parade music is piped in at the roof. Rat-a-tat-tat. This. If only this could be.
There are more and more stops for the loved ones after this. On verges of steel-toned grass, at a picnic spot overlooking a fat river, one jade-green car speeding ahead in front of the vehicle to stop it in the middle of the road. The car holds somebody for the family of four, a tall man in a ripped trenchcoat who looks like the mother, the same furrow between the eyes. They go quietly.
We allocate the back of the vehicle as the official place for people to cry if they want to, wedging their knees tight against the seat in front of them. I have a go to see if it will release the deep pressure behind my eyes, staring at the carpeted headrest until painful tears come, and it does help. I feel dehydrated, draw the small curtains against the blazing sun. James comes to find me there and paws at me palely and I think Oh, why not, I’ve had sex without joy before.
By this time the landscape is a coastal place of invisible grey brightness, but the sea looks freezing cold and the beaches are lunar. The only trees are vast splinters going into the sky, the bark dead-looking. We have passed over long bodies of water via bridges, travelled over plains and through the mountains. I am disorientated and nobody has come for me.
I think of my mother finding the empty house a month or two from now, and realise that even if she’d found me gone already she wouldn’t think to intercept the movements and come for me. She would just sit on the stairs and pick at her nails as another parade started on the street, night falling and light pouring from the flung-open doors of my neighbours as they sent the children out.
She would clean up the tomato juice, congealed, and she wouldn’t notice which of the photos were turned away from view as if they transmitted a code, which they did, but it was one only visible to me. She would say Well, she can make her own choices, and I can, I really can, it’s sort of still amazing to me, it’s a thing I have left.
The driver stops and comes up into the aisle and we brace ourselves, but nobody is with her.
We’re almost there, she tells us. I just want to let you know that we’ve passed the point of no return. We won’t be able to stop for any friends or relatives now.
Our chests fall in relief, and nobody looks at each other.
You’ve all been so patient, the driver tells us. I want you to know I’m very grateful to you.
Her voice is so kind it is unbearable, a long softness in her vowels that tells us everything we need to know about our own lack. My mouth is dry, the pressure back behind my eyes. There would be someone who came for her. I know there will always be a circle of hands waiting to enfold her with their grace, somewhere.
Like, the daffodils in the garden I uprooted one night in a fit of sick fear, and the kitchen light was on, a searchlight to which I was only just invisible. Dig your own grave, I told myself, because nobody else will. Dig it. The soil felt like it would always stay beneath my fingernails, giving me away.
Like, when I got stomach cramps at the supermarket, the rat-tat-a-tat music playing and too many eggs in my basket, too many loaves of bread, we would not eat them all, we would let the milk sour, I would throw out the hard slices from the top windows of my home and bring the birds to circle us.
Like, how every time the front door knocked I thought Help me but it was always just a neighbour asking us why we never participated any more, their hands folding and unfolding, a nosegay pinned to their lapel as if going to a wedding.
We all look very bad. I can feel my soul moving out already from my fingertips, leaving me calm. I am already dead and have been for a long time, I realise now. The driver goes into the stinking toilet of the bus and emerges, as we stand shivering in front of the vehicle, as the executioner, transformed in clothes of pure white linen. She goes round to everyone in turn and formally embraces us.
We are on the edge of a sheer mountain drop, a lake at the foot. We gulp like fish in the thin air. The executioner has us line up on the lip of the drop, and stands a few metres behind us. She starts to read something heavy and intoning in a language I don’t understand. Where the road meets the ridge of land one car pulls up, then another, and I don’t want to turn my head to see. It could be her, and her scooped-out cheeks and her knees buckling with grief. But another name is called out – James – and I feel him flinch, two people down. Another name is called out, indistinct, and this time there is no flinch from anyone.
Step out, now, the executioner calls. I think about the last parade I had seen on the television at the checkpoint and all the children dressed in yellow, duck-egg blue, pink. I once again think about his body in the garden, levitating, and falling over in the streets when I saw someone who had his walk, and about the tinnitus that had plagued me for six months. I am still not used to the absence its cure has left, every-thing sounds clear and true, but no voice calling for me comes into its absence, and I know then that this is it.
Those calling form a chorus. They don’t say one name but call out the same words as if synchronised, and the words are the only ones they could call, the words are Don’t jump. But we link hands, and we look at the water below, and we do jump, we do.