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I saw Anna. I wasn’t expecting much that night; I was travelling to my parents’, back along the main street, tired after working all evening. It’s a quiet bus; by the time it reaches my estate the bus driver and I are usually the only two left. But as we drove between the honeyed lights of the town, the bus stopped for a few moments. Being vacantly consumed by some article on my phone, I didn’t look up. It was only when I sensed the bus had stopped for longer than usual – long enough to be picking up another passenger – that I glanced up and saw her sit down. I saw the side of her face and the cloak of her hair, many-hued and damp from the rain. She sat at the front of the bus, her head leant against the window, a kaleidoscope of streetlights setting her hair ablaze.
In many ways, seeing her there felt like the most natural thing in the world, as if it were just one more step in the course of my life. It had been a few months since I’d seen her, a few months since our pre-season holiday to Cornwall. It occurred to me that this time about six months ago, I would have been on a bus in the opposite direction, on my way to her house. It’s what started our nocturnal relationship.
I worked evenings and didn’t need much sleep so Anna would wait up for me. Her bed was low and large, and we sank into it like two stones in water. The warmth of the laptop would press into my thighs, killing off my sperm hour by hour while we watched cartoons. Eventually, we’d have sex. It was nice sex, fantastic sex. The kind of sex you want to be having with your girlfriend – different every night, but still just the two of you. Always that familiar touch – that same warmth.
She’d turn to straddle me and I’d groan. It was the hyperactivity before the inevitable tiredness, the wrestling, pinching, laughing nakedness after half a bottle of wine. I fought with her and didn’t mind at all. She laughed at how easily I overpowered her, arched her back in protest and then beamed as I released my grip. Sometimes I found it surprising just how little effort it required to push her away, or halt her flailing arm as she tried to sink a playful punch to my chest. By no means was I a strong man, and by no means was she weak.
When she became tired it happened quickly, and rarely could she fight it. She’d always apologise as if it were a vice, eating away at our half-inched hours. I’d lie awake, my movements slow and controlled. If I moved too suddenly, my hip brushing against her shoulder, she’d murmur – her voice coming at me lightly, full of a tired drunkenness, mumbling words that made no sense. I’d lie awake, delivering quiet, articulate responses.
Her voice stuck, following me wherever I went. It would creep up on me in unusual places, like the gurgle of an open drain or the static screen of a television. Sometimes, her voice would float off the backs of strangers, as I stared into corners of rooms that weren’t hers. She’d offer disembodied words, always bearing the same gentleness and unformed irregularity that I remembered as the late-night soundtrack of our relationship.
So naturally, seeing her on the bus months after all of this was almost pleasantly normal. Or at the very least it felt more familiar than anything else in my life had recently. Even working the same job I’d had for months had changed, as if I was an android moving around a building that I wasn’t programmed to know. I’d pour pints and watch the beer run over my hands. During our busiest times I’d wander down to the cellar, without being able to recall what it was I needed. As I cut lemons in the early evening, I winced as the acid burned the lesions in my chewed fingers. Sleep offered little relief, as I began waking up in odd places after Anna left. It was as if even in my dream state, my body was dictated by this insatiable yearning for what was far away. Often, I’d find myself shivering on the pavement outside my parents’ house or wandering, rootless, down the stairway. These episodes would end with me stumbling, adrift, back to my cold bed.
The bus pulled up to a stop, the noise depleting like water down a drain. This time it was a familiar stop, being the unofficial timing point used by bus drivers if they were ahead of schedule. Despite a sign on the lamppost reading “DO NOT MAKE TIME HERE”, bus drivers seemed to favour the quietness of this out-of-town shelter for a fag break. Back in the early days of Anna, I used to wait with a quiet anxiety for the bus driver to return, keenly aware of the stop’s proximity to an ex’s house. It felt strange to be there with Anna, at this place which once made me writhe with anticipation. The ex was a nice girl, but the rap of my knuckle on her door felt chaotic, even then. I remember the rain splashing my trainers as I walked up the stone steps, the quietness of her home. Family portraits that loomed in the hall, watching us on our midnight rendezvous. My shaking hands and the flood of adrenalin that rattled me too much, driving me back down the concrete steps. After that time came Anna, and the rising bile in my throat was replaced with the smooth sinking of red wine, a medicine. The floods of anxiety evaporated. Then came a period of calmness, belonging.
I thought that maybe now, as the bus held us in the quietness of the night, I could say hello. Perhaps we would sit next to each other, have a chat. I could ask how she was getting on with her master’s. It was something I’d never experienced, going away to university. When we met, Anna was a year out of her degree. She’d adored it, she always said, feeling like she had finally met people she had something fundamental in common with. In our hometown, Anna said there wasn’t much room for growth. For pursuing your interests, and meeting people who shared them. I always thought of that time in her life with a brownish, speckled filter, or accompanied by some grave, ancient soundtrack. I’d met a few of her university friends – some wore braces and small, round spectacles. They all seemed very nice and very intelligent, but I got the impression that Anna had more feeling than the rest of them.
It also occurred to me that perhaps Anna didn’t want to speak to me. I wouldn’t have liked to speak to any other girl from my past, in almost any circumstance. And I remembered Anna’s face when we broke up. She looked at me in a way that made me feel like a sick child. But only a few months ago we’d swam in the shock of Cornish waters, felt the strong sun burn our faces. The salt had lodged in my skin, my pores, clung to the redness of my face. Sitting there on the bus, I scratched my arm, almost expecting salt-white flakes to shower to the floor.
It was my first holiday to Cornwall, but it was somewhere Anna had visited twice a year, growing up. On our first day, she lingered on the shore, the water cleaning her ankles. I stood with her briefly. The water lulled and glistened just as I thought it would. I couldn’t help but wade in. The sea pushed against my knees as I walked, and I felt the sand slipping from under the pressure of my feet. The water was so clear that I could see the grains rushing from under me. When it became deep enough, I dove under and began a slow, long breaststroke. It was only my second time swimming in the British sea, the first time having been as a child, on a school trip to the coast. The shore we visited then was murkier and I only remember paddling in the shallows. Here the sea was clear, the beach golden. Almost tropical.
After a while, I couldn’t hear any noise from the shore. Nobody was around me, all I could see was the expanse of blue and the light catching on its surface. I plunged down once more, my scalp weightless with cold. The salt burned my eyes and my mouth, and I knew then that this would be a place I would revisit often in the future. Out there in the ocean, everything became quiet and far away. I saw Anna, suspended in liquid crystal. I began to laugh, the freezing water compressing my lungs. I watched Anna as she continued to swim, like me, into the vast sea.
Later, we showered together in the Airbnb. I washed the salt from her body, slathered her hair in shampoo. We laughed together like we usually did, amusing ourselves with the lubrication of soap on our bodies. Later, I padded downstairs and found her curled on the sofa, reading her book. She was wearing a thick white dressing-gown that belonged to the host of the cottage. It was a beautiful, quaint property – full of a whitewashed, seaside charm. I perched on the end of the sofa and told her to budge up.
Anna put down the book and looked at me.
“This book,” she said. “It’s so good. But I don’t understand it. I’ll have to read an analysis of it when I finish.”
Anna often said she didn’t understand the books she read. She pored over them, getting through a novel a week. I think she’d started that one the day before, and was already a third of the way through. I didn’t read books, but I enjoyed hearing her talk about the stories. She spoke about them well.
“What’s it about?”
“As I said, I’m not one-hundred-percent sure yet, but it’s about a teenage girl and her mother, who has just died. But there’s a narrative about her mother being involved with spies – which is what confuses me. I’m not sure if it’s relevant or just a device to explore the character’s grief.”
Anna paused and looked at the front of the novel. On the cover was a vintage-looking photograph of two young women. Anna began to flick through the book.
“And there’s this one line I love. The mother is talking to the main character – when she was still alive, obviously – and she asks the daughter: ‘Which comes first? What we see or how we see it?’”
She looked at me from over her book and pressed her glasses to her nose. I tried to break down the question in my head.
“Well, to me it matters less than it makes sense.”
“I think it matters,” she said slowly. “If what we see comes first it means that there is some objective truth – like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘I am good’,” Anna said, placing spikey emphasis on the “is” and the “am”.
She continued, “If the essence of a subject can only be determined by who sees it, then anything could be true. At least that’s what I make of it.”
“I don’t know anything in the world,” I said. And it was true; most of the time I felt certain that nothing existed beyond the velvet sheet of the sky, that the universe offered nothing more than a backdrop to the futile practices on earth. Full of drama and intrigue, sometimes beautiful – but ultimately without substance.
“I don’t know what’s true or what’s false. But I know that I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Later that night, we pulled the duvet from the bedroom onto the sofa and watched a film. We drank red wine and for the first time, it was me who felt sleepy. I struggled to keep my eyes open and had to jolt myself awake a few times. Each time I awoke, my chest fluttered with contentment.
Towards the end of the film I looked over to Anna. She sat upright, staring intently at the television. All the lights in the room were off, so I remember the screen seemed painfully bright. I watched as an artist-type man walked through the streets, accompanied by a smaller man. Both were wrapped in thick scarves, braced against the snow. They were talking vehemently. I was still tired and slightly drunk, so I could barely make out what they were saying. But I watched as they walked, and then I turned to Anna, whose eyes still hadn’t moved. The camera panned up, and I squinted in the bright white of the cinematic sky. I looked at Anna once more, but she still stared, her eyes were wide and hopeful as the light from the film drenched her.
That short time in Cornwall felt like our own private paradise, something I hadn’t experienced before. Anna had opened the curtains to her world and we’d soaked together in the warmth of the sun. When we returned from the trip, I didn’t see Anna for a few days. It was odd, as usually she was very engaged with me, very thoughtful. Where I could be distant, she would seek closeness and understanding, always asking how I really felt about things, or what I really wanted to do that night (always the same, lie together in our warmth). After a few days, she told me she wanted to get her stuff together for a late master’s application, starting that coming September. She wanted to study art history, and who was I to question her, always having faith that whatever happened would somehow work itself out.
The bus driver returned from his cigarette and brought the engine back to life. I watched the back of Anna’s head as she stared out into the black nothing of the night. We carried on moving through the estates and I felt that familiar beat of anxiety rise up in my chest. The urgent desire to act, held back by the seatbelt of doubt.
The bus slowed as we moved through narrow bends and crowded housing, so I stood up. I slipped out of my seat and felt my heart ignite. I didn’t want to frighten her, so I decided to simply say her name and then wait for her to turn. I moved forwards, gripping the handlebars attached to the seats, staggering stupidly with the bus’s movement. She still stared out the window. Her name left my mouth and it felt like it did all those months ago, as if I was just asking her if she wanted tea, or if she could switch the lamp off. Anna turned and I realised with swift mortification that it wasn’t her at all. She was similar in age, in complexion, in the lines and rhythms of her face, but the eyes that stared at me were laced with a kindly confusion, for the simple reason that she didn’t know me at all. I apologised, said I thought she was someone else, and sat down on a seat a little away from her. When the bus reached my estate, I pressed the bell and got off. Anna-not-Anna still sat there, and as I walked past the window of the bus, she smiled at me.
When I got home, I opened my window and lay on my bed, a night-time routine. Instead of Anna, I heard the voices of various actors on television from neighbouring windows, coming loud and profound down the quiet street. It felt peaceful now, quiet. They seemed to me a benediction, uttered for myself and others who were not only awake but listening – and perhaps alone, too, late into the night. Eventually I slept and awoke the next morning to find the light breaking through the thin fabric of my curtains. If nothing else, I remember observing it; the green, puerile colour that had become butter yellow in the morning sun. It looked familiar and it looked comforting. Soft, and comforting.