Times like these

By Lizzy Ioannidou

Once they are buried under dirt, people become place. Flesh becomes earth, geography. They become enmapped, acquire fixed coordinates. That afternoon, she would be going to see her father, that patch of soil to the left of the cemetery entrance, third row. A momentary spasm took hold of her left eye. She slapped it shut. 

    Truthfully, she knew nothing of the process by which a body decays and decomposes, nor was the factor of his being cocooned in a casket particularly relevant to her. She preferred to think of her father as a place, especially given the alternative of having to labour to retain his presence through a biting awareness of his absence. An absence that would then need some form of substitution. Besides, to her, it seemed fitting that a distant, disgruntled man, hardened by tough and poorly-paid agricultural work, should become the very same as the soil he toiled. A conciliation of a complicated relationship, she liked to think.

    Lea was lying on her lavender-scented bed, waiting for a client. She was wondering through other rooms. Through churches, living rooms, bedrooms, where others had grieved and memorialised her father. Where she had observed the ease with which conjuring acts were performed to transform the the dead into objects. Photographs, trinkets, candles, their flame, flowers.

    “I pronounce thee, my father,” she said to the glass of water she had picked up from her bedside table. She tapped a cigarette out of the pack next to it. “And I pronounce thee, my father also.”

    She heard the knock on the door. Light and gentle, as always. Early autumn afternoon hues flowed in as the door swung open, followed by a man in his mid-thirties. The sweetness of the colours gave him an air of venerability.

    “How’s it going?” he asked as he sat on the chair in the corner of the room and began untying the laces of his leather shoes. He had the ease of a long-term lover returning home from work.

    “Never better,” was her customary response. She met his smile with one of her own. He undressed, keeping only his boxers on. His figure was muscular, bulging around the edges, though fatigue was visible across it, like handwriting growing increasingly erratic as the hand grows weary.

    He moved over to the bed and lay down next to her, making light conversation. She liked him, mostly because of the talking. They always talked before, sometimes afterwards too. The sex usually came after the conversation began to lull and the silence became hungry with desire. He fucked like he knocked, lightly and gently, almost as if he were somewhere else entirely. 

Afterwards, they lay entangled for several minutes. They listened to each other’s breath taming, feeling the room’s surfaces and edges gradually regain their shape. She slid her hand out from its crevice and reached for her cigarettes. She rested one on his lips and lighted it before gripping another with hers. They inhaled and exhaled smoke in silence as shadows grew longer across the ceiling and bare walls. He dressed, left money on a small table by the window, and left. She dressed, stared at her reflection for a long moment, and left.

Her mother was waiting for her in front of the flower shop that bordered the cemetery. Lea absorbed her image like a warm breeze; the youth in her posture, the casual serenity of her loose-hanging cotton clothes, the dirt in her fingernails. One hand gripped a white lily. The other was folded into the curve of her hip.

    “Hi, mama,” Lea said, patting her cheek with a kiss. She noticed the plumpness in her face. Mould-tinged shadows grew under her eyes. 

    “How was work?”

    “Fine, you know.”

    They stood facing the tombstone. Lea’s mother dropped to her knees with a dragged-out groan about the state of her back and began wiping the dust off the stone with a cloth. When she was done, she re-lit the grave candle and then removed the withered lilies from the clear plastic vase next to it. She threw out the brown water on the pathway slabs but put the crusty flowers on top of the grave. She picked up the vase and waved it at Lea.

    “That tap isn’t working, go to the one next to the big oak.”

    The white lily was a declaration she had seen her parents make to each other several times. The story goes that very late into her mother’s pregnancy with Lea, the first snowfall of that year had blanketed the mountains, and her mother was desperate to see the snow, but her father had refused. Out of protectiveness, her mother always added with raised eyebrows and a single waving finger. As the snow continued to pile up day after day, her mother grew bitter, depressive. Still refusing to take her up to the mountains, her father decided to meet her half way, to bring the snow to her, her mother would say. One morning, she woke to their small garden brimming with white lily plants. “That’s why you were born with those white strands of hair. Those white strands are the snow I never got to see.” 

    When they finished tending to the grave, Lea’s mother closed her eyes, her palms resting on her folded knees. Lea looked away, sensing herself intruding into the moment her mother had carved out for herself. Her eyes fastened onto the shadow made by the slant of a letter engraved in the tombstone.

    “Mama, I have to tell you something.”

    Her mother looked up, her eyes still weightless with a lingering sense of calm. 

    “I’m not really sure how to,” Lea continued. “And I know you’re probably not going to like it, but, look – I don’t work at the restaurant anymore. I quit. A while ago.”

    “What do you mean? Why?”

    “Why? Because it was awful, Mama. I mean, it was supposed to be a temporary thing, remember? And then it turned into two years.” She felt her blood rushing hot, her eyes stiffening in her sockets. She pictured herself lying deep within thick snow, cooling.

    “Look, mama, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, I had to figure things out for myself first. And I have now.”

     “I told you, I told you to come to the shop with me. But you insisted, and there you go.”

After a brief pause: “So? What now?”

     “Now… I – we’re still figuring it out. Jo and I, we live together.” Lea took in the disappointment that streamed from her mother’s eyes in with open arms, letting it fuse with her own.

    “What do you expect me to say exactly?”

    Still on her knees, she lowered her head into her hands, pushing the loose skin of her forehead into deeper, more erratic river formations. Fragments of a prayer slipped through her mother’s teeth. Lea looked around her, at the cemetery battered by wild growth. How desperately she wanted to see through the abandonment, to see presence as her mother could. 

    “Look, mama. I just wanted to tell you that I’m doing fine. I’m safe, I feel – I feel solid, good even. I just, I just want things to be better between us.” 

    Lea rose to her feet, dusting the dirt off her clothes. She looked down at the shell of her mother, at her fingers coating her face with dirt.

    “You’re welcome to come by any time after work. I know Jo would love to see you. So, bye, mama.”

Lea walked through the growing darkness to her car. In this city, it was easy to drive around aimlessly. She could disconnect completely, and would instantly know the way home in the moment she chose to deal with the matter of her whereabouts. Her father used to say it was so damn small, you could never get lost. The country, he meant. “If you keep going in any direction, you’ll either find sea or the buffer zone, and then you’ll know you have to turn back.”

    She reached for the radio, which always tuned in to the same station. She recognised the song by Duran Duran. She clenched a cigarette with her teeth, and mopped her tear-damp lips and chin with her sleeve before lighting it. For a brief moment, she closed her eyes as she exhaled her first sharp intake of smoke. 

    The softness of the cool air streaming in through the open window soothed her red hot skin. She felt like she could smell it, a charcoal-like odour emanating from her body. She remembered something she had read in the past about how flowers were initially laid on burial sites to mask the smell of decay. She lowered the passenger side window, letting the current bathe her skin. Her skin, that had rubbed on so many other skins, and yet felt more hers than it had ever done before – to waste, to worship, to tend to. A garden of her own, to do with as she pleased.

    Three cigarettes in, her field of vision widened beyond the tail lights of a car she realised she was following for a while. Street lamps momentarily spotlighted extravagant houses, empty plots covered in weeds, ageing stone houses swallowed by branches. Here and there neon strips adorned kiosks with a smudged halo of pink or green humidity. The dampness frizzed her jet black hair, compelling it into erratic convulsion-like movements. The white strands that subtly framed the left side of her face glittered under the street lamps like dew. Her eyes were a set of green and brown fractals that danced as she moved in and out of the lamp gloom. She parked in a field close to home and walked past the row of stone houses, holding her white shirt wrapped around her waist. 

She pushed the front door open to find Debussy’s “Rêverie” pouring out across the room, which almost seemed to float above the piano, swaying. Jo was sprawled across the white couch which, along with her dyed ash-blonde hair, was painted a warm pink by the red light that hung in one corner of the living room. Jo had originally bought it some months ago as a humorous present for Lea, but it soon turned into their lighting of choice for most nights. Candles dotted the coffee table, animating the cover of a book Jo held open in one hand, the other holding a glass of red wine.

    Jo rested the book on her stomach and lowered the music as Lea walked over to the couch, slipping under Jo’s legs and melting into cushions next to her. 

    “I’m guessing it went great, huh?” Jo said, stroking Lea’s hair. 

    “You were right, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

    “You were thinking that you miss her.” 

    “Yeah, well.” Lea reached for Jo’s wine and took a good-sized gulp. “Do you think there’s such a thing as unconditional love?”

    “No, not really,” Jo said after a pause. “I just think that there are some people, some relationships, for which we’re willing to work harder to go through the process of pain and forgiveness, and sometimes, even in those cases, there are things that you can never come back from.”

    “And I guess that’s okay, right? Having limits, boundaries?” Lea shifted on the couch, shoving her body deeper into the gaps formed by the cushions, sinking her face into her elbows. 

    “Yeah, that’s okay.”

    Lea breathed deep, rubbing her face with her hands. “I’ll go bring the wine.”

    Her body felt like a sandbag she was dragging across the marble floor. She felt envious of the way in which Jo had stripped herself of the things that had hurt her in the past. For Lea, the past always seemed to hang over her like a washing line bent with the weight of clothes that were always soaking wet, constantly dripping onto her, making a mess of everything.

    “Hey”, she called out from deep inside a kitchen cupboard. “I’ve got a magical, magical idea for tomorrow, after work.”

    “What? Oh, yeah. Yes!”

They were sitting on the couch facing a vintage, rose-patterned teapot and matching curved cups that were placed on the coffee table below them. They only brought out the specific tea set for such special occasions, as Jo liked to call them. Lea picked up the teapot and filled the two small cups with the muddy brown tea, infused with mint and other herbs. She placed it back in between them, still a little heavy with additional servings. 

    They emptied their cups and lay back with the abandonment of a long day’s work.

    “Let’s go out back, to the garden,” Jo said, as the room let in a brilliant orange that beamed through the arched fanlight window that caught the sun’s direct glare every afternoon. 

    Lea followed her through the living room and out the door at the far end of the kitchen, leaving the teapot on the stove. They sat on the bench that faced their small but brimming garden. Lea focused on the sounds emerging from all corners, which suddenly grew louder, as if the air around her amplified every little movement. The minute flapping of a warbler’s wings as it settled into a branch of the olive tree that rose above them filled the air like helicopter wings, the bird’s scratchy song making grating echoes. Flying insects crowded around her, shedding a digital buzz as they spun in circles that seemed to leave complicated fluorescent trails in the air, which quickly fell like dust. 

    The leaves of the jasmine plant that spiralled upwards, caressing the trunk of the olive tree, seemed to be staring back at her, demanding something of her. She forced out the jumble of noise that pricked at her senses. She could hear them, the leaves, making a popping sound, like the cracking of knuckle joints. She nodded, understanding.

    “The jasmine is dehydrated, it needs water.”

    She turned to look at Jo; at her eyelids that rested lightly closed, at her head that reclined on the wall behind them, at the serenity that exuded from her being. How beautiful she is, Lea thought. As the noise began to grow louder once more, Lea took hold of Jo’s hand and leaned back, deciding that the noise, too, was beautiful. All at once, the noise softened, and rested on her eyelids and lips and hair like a protective membrane. 

    The back of her eyes became a screen on which the colours of the dying day danced like silk. Burnt oranges and forest greens and purpleblues moved into and out of each other like waves licking the shore, in parting always taking with them something from that with which they had been intricately entangled, just as the sea carries a piece of the shore back with it within its bosom and melds it into its own body.

    She felt something call out to her. She opened her eyes to a radiant glow being emitted by the jasmine vines and its star-shaped flowers. The olive tree, too, was vivid with light. She became gripped by the feeling that she recognised them in some way, like the foliage contained within it something so intensely familiar. Yet formless, unplaceable. Wide open and undefended, she felt the light warming her skin with the tenderness of an apology.

    “Hey, Lea, do you hear that?”

    “Hear what? I can hear everything.” They laughed and let their bodies fall together. 

    Jo pushed against Lea to straighten her torso. “No, really. I think someone’s at the door.”

    Lea felt her phone vibrate. She squinted to focus on the screen which told her that her mom had called twice and had earlier sent a text. Hi Lea, just closed the shop. I’m going to pass by your house to see you. Love, Mama. 

    “It’s my mother, she’s here.” A burning chill rushed through her. 

    “Of course she is. Of all the days,” Jo said, genuinely amused. “Come on then, up you get. It’ll be fine, it’ll wear off in a bit anyway.” Lea looked at her, unsure. “It’ll be fine, really. You look fine.”

Jo took Lea by the hand and marched her to the front door.

    “Mama, hi,” Lea said, opening the door to her mother who looked up at them with a timid hesitation. 

    “Hi Esme, it’s really great to see you,” Jo said, embracing her warmly. “Come in, please.” 

    The air, fat with the potential for disaster, pushed against Lea’s forehead. The three women sat squeezed up on the couch, Lea pinched together in the middle. Jo broke the silence before it settled on the room. 

    “You’re looking wonderful, Esme. How’ve you been?”

    “Oh you know, alright.” Esme’s eyes scanned the room as if in search of something, and seemed to find some reassurance in her failure to latch onto anything in particular. Her fingers were tied in a complicated knot. “How about you?”

    “I – we’ve – both been doing great.” Jo smiled and turned to look at Lea with a deliberate jovial confusion. Lea seemed lost, elsewhere. 

    “I’ll just go to the bathroom for a minute,”Esme said. “No – sit, sit, I remember where it is.”

“Lea?” Jo said, before grabbing hold of Lea’s face with her hands. “Lea, Listen to me. You’re alright. She’s here, she’s trying, isn’t this what you wanted? Now I need you to try too.”

    “Okay,” Lea said through scrunched lips. “Okay, I’ll try.”

    “I had no idea you still had these,” Esme said as she walked back into the living room with a floral teacup in hand. Lea froze, but her horror was overshadowed by Jo’s spit of a laugh. 


    “Nothing, nothing. You haven’t drank any of the tea have you?” Jo said.

    “Just a little, but it was cold.”

    “Okay, good. I’ll make fresh. Come, sit.”

    You’re alright, Jo whispered. 

    Esme waited for Jo to leave the room and returned to the couch. 

    “I can leave if you want me to,” Esme said. 

    “No, stay. I’m happy you came.”

    “I just wanted to talk. You caught me so off guard yesterday. But I want to try, to understand. To make things better, as you said.”

    “Well, this is it. There’s not much else to understand.” 

    Words tornadoed across her mind, making the room, that she had just managed to anchor, start swirling once again, its textures melting like paint being mixed on a palette. She looked at her mother, expecting her downcast eyes to radiate a renewed sense of disappointment, but instead her mother looked perplexed, examining her hands with bewilderment. 

    “They’re – they’re glowing,” she breathed. Esme looked up at her daughter. “So are you! You’re glowing, like gold! Dear God, Heavenly Fa-” Esme was cut short by Jo’s arrival with the teapot. Lea followed her with massive eyes as she walked across the room and sat on the arm of the couch next to Lea. Finally, Lea saw alarm begin taking hold of Jo’s face. 

    “We’re being blessed! He’s looking! He – Oh Lord,” Esme cried, sending Jo into a fit of laughter. “You don’t understand, He’s blessing us!” Esme said lifting her hands into the air and releasing a baffled laugh, tears streaming across her cheeks. 

    “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever!” Esme exclaimed, looking at the ceiling. Jo shrieked with laughter and fell onto Lea, who too let out a baffled laugh.

    “For ours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever!” Jo said, her hands waving through the air. She folded into Lea like the sea folds over the shore, or like a withered lily folds into the earth.

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