Flipping the meat off the bream with his knife he mused aloud about the journey.
“If you look on the map there’s nothing but trees. All green. And my time is limited. Damn and blast the traffic”.
This last imprecation was understandable in the circumstances. Due to fly to Libanda he had missed his plane by minutes. Many times before he had cut it fine, arriving late and clattering down, down, down the dark wooden escalators leading to the blue-lit check-in desks with his bag banging behind him. Such a slow and incongruously old-fashioned mode of moving, he always thought, as he gripped the worn hand-belt. More fit for an underground railway system than an airport.
Packing might also be to blame. Packing late, packing too much, unpacking and repacking obsessively. “Take it away” she had said. “All of it”.
There was so much of him had been left deliberately, and hopefully, in nooks and crannies, here and there, distributed between family and friends. Books, clothes, old photographs, boxes of music. Set down as remote roots, bonds. Nobody wanted them. Most had already been returned with varying degrees of civility. He picked carefully around the remaining caches, wondering how much to take, what to leave behind and whether another piece of the moss binding him to – what? security? a sense of belonging, somewhere, mattering, to someone? – would be prised from the mortar and fall to the ground. So much already lay withered, so few small patches remaining.
One result was the huge canvas bag which lay like an enormous brown dog at his feet. Much of his life lay inside it, organised into a complex hierarchy of transparent plastic bags of varying sizes. There was, he hoped, something for every eventuality and all arranged according to a complex law based on the probability of need and projected required speed of access.
It had been a change in this delicate equation which had meant he was late for the bus which was late for the train which was late for the second bus which disgorged him at the airport too late even for his practised breezy traveling persona to get him through to the departure gate.
There had been a story, in the news, of a woman whose life was saved by the insertion of a biro tube into her throat to act as an airway when she was in danger of choking to death. He had a biro but it was not among the emergency equipment. He kept a fibre-tipped pen to hand because it wasn’t prone to leaking and reacting badly to the rigours of changes in cabin pressure. But it had the wrong sort of tubing. Should he have a biro in his closest-to-hand-bag? and if so, with or without the slender column of unreliable ink?
“At least there was no hold-up with the visa” he said, pushing his now empty plate across the cloth towards her.
“They’ve got to know me there. Almost like visiting friends. ‘Strordinary place, the Libandan embassy. You ever been there?”
She shook her head.
“Huge town house. Not far from one of the palaces, you know, wide streets, big cars. Set back from the road. Completely empty of course. You have to knock and ring at the gate for an eternity before anyone comes. They don’t expect punters. Nobody wants to go there. When you do get in you’re escorted to a waiting room tricked out with a baby-blue leather three-piece suite and a massive marble-topped coffee table. Thick-pile cream carpet covered in dust and dead flies. Surreal.” He shook his head slightly.
“Must be an odd job. Set up in luxury by one corrupt dictator, serving out visas for visits to his killer. No money to send out someone new. No money to go home. That house must be worth millions. Chickens in the garden. I’m surprised none of the knobs in the other houses has complained. Maybe their walls are too high to see. Or maybe the chickens have diplomatic immunity!” He barked a rasping laugh.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked. This was approaching dangerous territory. She knew he had nowhere to stay, had given up his rented room; knew too that she had space to offer and wouldn’t; felt he knew this and resented his absence of reproach, her own gratitude for it. But she wanted to know.
Opening one of the many zips in the bag he extracted a map, wrestled and reconfigured its concertina folds and smoothed it across the table in front of them.
“See, this is where I was going to fly to”, jabbing the left edge of the exposed section. “Can’t get a refund on the ticket so I’m a bit short of the readies right now. There’s a boat over, but it lands up here”, jabbing a spot on what appeared to be a coastline near the bottom of the sheet. “But than what. There’s nothing there. Just all these bloody trees.” He rubbed the ball of his thumb moodily across the green print on the paper as though he could rub it away. And reveal what, she wondered, watching him. What was the contour and cartography of his heart’s desire.
“I must go now,” she said, getting up hastily and pulling on her coat. “Stay here – feel free” she added, gesturing with the flat of her hand as though ordering a dog to lie down when she saw him collect himself to rise. “It’s comfortable and warm. And get in touch when you know what your plans are.” She waved, a perfunctory window-wipe of a wave, turned hastily and walked quickly away.
He took her advice. His head laid to one side on the hard wood at the back of the chair, he gazed through the window out into the city sky growing darker and deeper as the winter light faded. The moon, a white semicircle, seemed embraced by the arms of the tree outside. He sighed. How often he had looked at it, bordered by so many different frames of circumstance and surrounding.
Sometimes, on the runway, in a small plane, the shuddering held-back force before takeoff felt like the tension of a huge catapult stretched to maximum tautness. Sometimes, eyes closed, the whoosh and hum of a large plane was the steeply curved launch of a ski jump. But that parting, the moment of peeling back space between earth and sky, never, he now knew, led anywhere other than here.
The moon remained as it had ever been. Cold, lifeless, utterly alone.