‘Just stay, kiddo,’ Robert was saying, ‘really, you’re more than welcome. Anyway, I think the journey home might kill you.’ It was late afternoon and she huddled among his bed covers having woken up only a few hours before to a merciless thirst and thumping headache. She shivered as the wind slammed itself against the small bedroom window. Tendrils of cold crept through the cracked sealant and through the half-raised blind she could see the weather fiercely churning London like a blender. Aerials bent under the force of the gale that howled with the violence of a warrior, throwing the contents of the streets around in tantrum. In her especially vulnerable state she feared the roof might be ripped off.
Still, she deliberated over staying, gratefully accepting a host of vitamin tablets and painkillers from Robert who had either drunk much less than her or was more practiced at dealing with such aggressive hangovers. She silently cursed the enlarged nature of men that meant they could suffer the same brute force and escape relatively unscathed, while she fought off nausea. She couldn’t even stomach the fry up Robert cooked for them.
After a day of fitful napping she woke up in the evening feeling a little more human. The hum of Robert’s voice accompanied by Adrienne’s arcing intonation drifted up from the kitchen. There was a kind of flattened sound, like a choir of IKEA flat pack furniture, as the noise of the television rose up behind them. Looking about for a towel in the dull twilight she finally registered Robert’s room properly.
There was a narrow wardrobe with drawers at its bottom leaning, it seemed, against the foot of the bed. Tacked onto the side of the wardrobe facing her was a mess of black and white photos that she couldn’t bring herself to scrutinise in her weakened state. Uncurling on the side of the bed against the wall, she dragged herself across the double to gingerly lower her feet. Scattered around her were indistinct shapes she was careful not to step on as she picked her way to the towel she had spied hanging on the back of the door. She was desperate to be clean and dry and in fresh clothes.
Grabbing the towel, she turned on the light and was surprised to see a Kindle, tablet and laptop making up part of the mess on the floor as she cast around for her phone. He had sat it on her pile of clothes that were bundled in a small armchair in the nearest corner to the door. She nudged it with her big toe but the battery was flat. But still, the touch awoke an irritated notion that she was meant to call someone. Was it her mother? She couldn’t see the answer through the fog in her brain but the unformed thought buzzed around like a wasp always just narrowly escaping her clammy understanding. Her tongue poked feebly at her bottom teeth. A shower will help, she thought, feeling suddenly overwhelmed by the numerous maps and diagrams that crowded Robert’s walls.
Her legs found the strength to stop trembling as the water sluiced over her aching body and the steam punctured her eyes. Towelling herself, she felt almost normal - as long as she didn’t tip her head upside down, at which point she felt as if a bowling ball had rolled up her spine and crashed into the front of her skull.
Back in his room, she pulled on one of his shirts and a pair of pyjama bottoms, recounting the vague details of the night before. The disorganised memories flashed through her brain just as light reflects unpredictably from a waterfall, and she struggled to form a concrete image. Even their early evening was murky. She had a vague idea that Adrienne had called Robert ‘Bobby’ as the night went on. Had she made that up or was that his nickname? Why hadn’t he asked him to call her that? She groaned. She might be feeling better than was even thirty minutes ago but she was still in no state to be solving riddles. She would have to ask him once she was sure she had remembered correctly. She nudged her phone again before heading downstairs and the flighty buzz grew a little louder.
Robert greeted her with a depreciative joke and a kiss when she sheepishly entered the kitchen. Adrienne had just left for a night out, but it meant they had the place to themselves. For Robert, that meant smoking indoors near an open window that creaked in the wind. She refused a cigarette when he offered one, afraid it might be the end of her.
‘Danger fag,’ he nodded sympathetically.
He plied her with tea and biscuits until a respectable colour rose once more in her cheeks. She found herself wrapped in his arms on the sofa, giggling at something or other. He convinced her to stay and leave her phone run down, encouraging her to ‘disconnect’ for the weekend, even as he charged his own in the kitchen. She let him coddle her, but every time the wind shook the room it seemed to be raging at her, throwing the thoughts and worries she tried to force outside back at the windowpanes. They howled for her attention and rattled at the door to be let in. Hiding was futile when the storm weathered within.
She left on Sunday afternoon. Robert walked her to the station through a much gentler breeze. She marvelled at the time they spent together and that their conversation was still flowing. He held her hand as they walked and she found comfort in his dry palm. She tried to enjoy the feeling of being clasped but was still distracted by that inexhaustible buzz. She squirmed against it as he kissed her goodbye, trying to lose herself in the pressure of his lips and gentle brush of his beard. She missed the smell of his cologne when he was gone.
That morning she had been more successful in reclaiming an understanding of Friday night. She was again awed by Adrienne’s strength and courage to speak up unashamed. While nature brimmed with sounds, their artificial world had a way of sterilising people’s vocal chords and taming their ears so that even if you did speak honest words birthed from the fire that delivers all passionate dialects, it was filtered into the other’s consciousness as a distant scream: An uncomfortable sound that threatened responsibility for another’s pain to be avoided at all costs.
But Adrienne wasn’t screaming - she was sharing. Sitting on the tube home, she marvelled at the simplicity of Adrienne’s tactic. No one could kill her for thinking what she did. Would anyone kill her for vocalising them? She looked around at her fellow passengers and thought, certainly, no one here could. It struck her that unless there was some outlandish underground government army that vanquished traitors into conformity in the middle of the night, the most she could ever be afraid of was being snubbed by the very people she internally fought to be separate from, anyway. Was the fear of ostracism really the one hurdle tripping up her fight as it tried to break into the external world? Or was there some guerrilla government who whispered threats in the night that to sacrifice your Death Value was to sacrifice your life, not just your lifestyle?
She smiled at the absurdity of the idea, looking around the carriage at the children begging their parents for things things things as the parents themselves were glued to the things in their hands, addicted to the delicate balance of owning information but knowing nothing. Lifestyle had become synonymous with life. There was no need for guerrillas and campaigns other than ads. Not yet, anyway.
The ragged teeth of London’s skyline impaled the sun when she hurried out of Dalston Junction. Passing through her community she was stunned by how fragile it all looked now - a broken screen to cut through the message and the flesh. She picked up her feet and started to run. Her breath came heavily, but when she looked into the faces of those she passed she could neither feel it in her mouth or lungs. She careered through the mass of white, black and grey nothings that shimmered as buildings and roads and clothes. This can’t be real, she thought, none of this can be real.
The attack was sudden and unexpected. She felt like she was flying through Hackney invisibly. The softness of the pavement and her missing breath frightened her. Shaking, she pushed into her building, fighting against her body that tried to force her back outside and made her knees heavy as she stumbled through the hall. The lift seemed to take hours and the sickness rose with every floor.
When she collapsed through her front door her possessions rose up to assault her vision and she scrambled to the kitchen sink to be violently sick. When the nausea finally passed, she was left with the far more familiar ache to be by her easel. But she trod through to her bedroom first - there was someone she wanted to speak to.
Plugging in her phone by the bedside table, she sat on the floor leaning against the bed and looking out of the window. As it charged, she nursed that comfortable ache and focussed her residual anger past the city. Within minutes, the phone was chirping and vibrating as it flooded with the weekend’s notifications. She ignored them, pausing only when she saw she had a missed call from him just that morning.
‘Professor? It’s me.’ Her voice was cold despite the fluttering of her heart.
‘Ah. I’ve been wondering-’
‘I’ve been wondering too,’ she cut across. ‘I’ve been wondering why you’ve kept me silent.’ He paused at the other end and she could picture the left hand curled over his kneecap twitch slightly. ‘You’ve filled me with fear,’ she whispered.
‘I filled you with knowledge.’ He was calm. ‘Your fear is your own.’
‘That’s not true! It’s yours! It’s yours and you passed it on to me and now I’m full of it, too.’
‘I don’t quite know-’
‘Yes you do!’ she barked. ’You do - you have this wealth of knowledge but you haven’t done anything with it because you’re afraid. You’re afraid they’ll come after you, whoever they are, so you’ve sat on it and it’s made you sick and stopped you from doing anything about it!’
‘Stopped me from doing anything?’ His voice shook with anger. ‘I’ve taught you and others, haven’t I? I’ve shared it, haven’t I?’
‘Only to those you knew would accept it,’ she snapped, punching the floor beside her.
‘And what would you rather I had done? Organised an uprising? Stormed the maternity wards? Bombed parliament like some damned vigilante? Tell me, come on,’ he spat, breathing heavily down the phone. ‘I did what I could.’
‘You played it safe,’ she hissed.
‘And what would sacrificing my safety - and yours - have achieved?’
‘I’m not talking about rebellion and war,’ she said confidently. ’I’m talking about talking, about the power of language and sharing, of spreading ideas. I’m talking about engaging with the very people you disagree with - they’re the ones who need convincing, not me!’
’I thought it was exactly talking you had a problem with?’
’Speech can be an act. It can be the act of connecting and building and supporting. Words are never hollow if spoken from the heart, and they can lift people up like wings or rain down on fragile lies like stones.’
‘And I suppose in this vision you’re the one leading this band of stone-toting angels?’ he growled at her.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Speech isn’t enough for you. You’re too impatient, you want real action. You want to sacrifice your life for a cause so that your time meant something, so you can exit early and not have to deal with the world we live in.’ Her jaw clenched as he spoke. ‘You want to run off and join the Zero-people with the yellow scarves and be able to say you did so. But who does that help? You don’t even know who you’re fighting!’
‘Maybe it would show people there might be another way to live their lives.’
‘As a Zero? With no home or community?’
‘We could build something else-’
‘With who? Who will see what you’ve done? Only the Zeroes, who will call you an idiot for giving up food and water and a roof over your head. You won’t be able to fight when you’re sick and tired and starving.’
’But we’re not fighting now. We’re not even talking! All we have to do is talk.’
‘Perhaps! But to the people at the top, not those at the bottom.’
She frowned as the evening drew closer over London and the smog pressed heavily on the rooftops among the shadows. The lungs of the people at the top were filled with that poison. It was those on the ground who shared the last space of clean air; the crack in the coffin lid just as the last nail is put into place.
‘You think and believe just as the system built you to,’ she said to him, gripping her phone. ‘Full of fear and intrinsic valuations.’ Silent tears cascaded over her cheeks. In her head, the image of him squeezed his kneecap until it popped open like a hinged panel and all the air hissed out of him from between his organs and all that was left of him was a collapsed skin.
‘You don’t think the yellow scarf means anything, do you,’ she whispered resolutely. It wasn’t a question.
‘I think it means something to you,’ he said kindly, causing her eyes to fill again. She pulled her lips under her teeth and bit hard to fight back the sobs. Her chin dropped to her chest.
‘You told me to burn my paintings, to encourage detachment,’ she said eventually. ‘But it wasn’t about that, was it? It was to stop me showing them to anyone. It was to keep me safe.’
‘Yes,’ he admitted.
‘Yourself. Myself… My wife told me I couldn’t keep anyone safe.’ Her head snapped up in surprise. She didn’t know he’d been married.
‘Humbert, how were you blinded?’ He paused long enough for her to check they were still connected.
‘I haven’t told this story in years. Maybe even decades,’ he murmured, almost to himself. She waited and drew her head back to rest it against the bed, closing her eyes. She was the perfect, attentive, astute audience for what would be, she knew by the heaviness of her heart, his final story.
‘I’ve been in Cambridge for a long time now,’ he began. ’I was fresh into my professorship when I met my wife. She was a scientist in the Biology department who excelled at research but had little time for teaching. We were something of an odd pair, many said, but she was the most striking individual I had ever met - in every sense - and her zealotry challenged my capricious nature. She formed it into something stronger than anything I had ever hoped for myself. I suppose it was the scientist in her.
‘But she was more than just a scientist. She was an artist, like you. She had notions about her art I would never pretend to understand, and so refused to paint with the E-colours we could see, preferring instead to take graphite and charcoal from the labs. She sketched every day with the colour you are afflicted by in London.’
He paused and swallowed. ’You remind me of her. She pushed me. To think more, to read more, to write more. To be more.
’She was a hiker, purely for her health, and kindled a passion for it in me. We helped each other learn how to appreciate the stillness at the top of a mountain even if the view seemed dull and flat. We spent many weekends walking and milking the time to talk freely, acutely aware that our other waking moments were pre-paid for.
’We were radicals, believe it or not, but we didn’t want to push too hard and lose our jobs and our home and our books - and each other. For how long can you truly hold onto one another when destitution cakes your nails and coats your eyelashes.
‘But it was with her that I began what ended with you - secretly tutoring select students. She knew the risk was not just mine but encouraged it nonetheless. She saw the energy and the vigour it gave me. Perhaps it was that same vigour that resulted in her pregnancy.’
Her mouth dropped open at that. The professor had a child? Yes, once. And had since suffered the empty space of where it once sat. The space he had tried to contort her into.
He continued. ’When we found out she wanted me to stop tutoring. She said it was too dangerous, that we had a child to think of now - we certainly couldn’t afford to lose our jobs, and you could be sure an Economics professor spending his spare time preaching the déclassé Arts in clandestine meetings would cause a riot not just at the university but in the press. And if the press got hold of it… Well, what do you think the fat cats would have done to save Cambridge’s reputation?
’So I stopped, of course. I sent my pupils away with reading lists and ideas but no-one to talk to - and you accuse me of not knowing how important talking is!
’Our son was born and, for a few years, we lived in some kind of harmony within our four walls at home. But he became her epicentre while I still craved more. I’m ashamed to admit it but when my boy was four I followed my nose and found another student, a young lad, and secretly started working with him. As is the nature of these things, more students followed. It took two years or so for my wife to figure it out. I suppose that’s evidence in itself of just how far we’d drifted from each other.
‘She took him and left, of course. She said I was a security threat to her and her child. But I wasn’t a terrorist, or even an anarchist - I was an educator. I pleaded with her. I was scared for my son’s safety, too. Scared that she would refuse him the truth in order to protect him.’ He paused briefly. ’You see, there’s nothing stronger than a mother’s instinct after she has grown that child in her own body and shared her food and health and warmth with it. The shadow of the umbilical cord lingers on when it is cut; this is the bond only a mother can understand, a bond she will happily choke herself with, if necessary.
’She wasn’t a cruel woman, though - far from it - and she didn’t keep him from me. The longer I stayed in my job with no one finding out, the safer she felt leaving him with me. He came to stay for a week in the summer he turned eleven. It was a particularly hot August and, like his mother, I had him out marching the hills every day. In the evenings we would sit where I am now reading together. Or he would sit at my feet and I would tell him stories, planting seeds with my well-practiced green thumb.
’He had found out where he was being streamed for secondary school. On the phone, his mother said he wanted to tell me himself. I was very impatient, as is my character, and he certainly took his time. He had been with me three nights before he eventually told me.
‘We were walking along the Grafham Water. I remember the sun was high in the sky and we didn’t meet a single soul on our journey. We had come to a stony beach flanked by a concrete wall and we were skimming pebbles silently, as I had done with my father.’ The professor’s voice became echoed and she knew he was back at that beach watching the scene as it unfolded in his words.
’He told me then and there where he would be streamed and I’m afraid I couldn’t hide my shock and concern. I tried skimming a stone with too much force and it splashed into the flat surface causing waves, not ripples.
’He was looking up at me, defiantly gripping a big, flat stone in both hands. I almost told him it was too big for him but caught myself just in time. I asked him if he wanted to skim it - he said yes. It really was perfectly flat. I remember it vividly. It was as smooth as laminated wood and a deep, genuine black like the night sky above an ocean. It was kind of rectangular and I thought if I broke it into pieces, perhaps, I could keep its sleek thinness. Then it would be the perfect size for a piece each.
‘I walked us back up the beach towards the concrete wall, hell-bent on making that stone skippable for my son. When we were near enough I threw it hard at the wall. It shattered and a shard flew into my right eye.’ She winced, hearing that, and couldn’t stop a gasp slipping from her.
The professor’s voice dipped in pitch, weighed down by the memory. ’I’m not sure what terrified him more - my screams or thrashing on the ground. He didn’t come back that summer. When his mother and I had a blazing row once my eye was healed she let slip that he thought- he thought I had been aiming for him. He thought I was disappointed in him, that I would always be disappointed in him.
‘Even if she had given me a chance to explain I don’t know what I could have said, what message I could have relayed that would’ve been true, except that I loved him. But by this point in history a father’s love is too fragile to protect, but strong enough to break, his child.’
Through the window, lights flashed in the filthy London twilight. Her heart skipped in her ribs like the pebbles that had broken his family. Looking out, the city loomed like a growing vigil and she thought of all the other souls harbouring their own painful silence that ate at their marrow like a virus.
‘I’m truly sorry,’ she said for the second time that weekend. ‘How often do you see him?’ She was hesitant. He was gruff.
They both paused and were so quiet she thought she could almost hear the radio waves bouncing between Cambridge and London. She was glad to know and bear witness to his pain, and she realised he had been brave, very brave, for continuing his teachings with her and the others after having his own son wrenched away by those same beliefs he tutored them in. She knew from her own visits to his garden the seeds he planted were of equal concern for those streamed both high low.
‘I have something for you,’ said the grieving father. ‘When can you come through?’ The shadows inched towards her across the floor and she heaved herself to her feet to move further into the room, grimacing at the pain in her stiff body. She turned away from the vigil and pinched the bridge of her nose. Eyes squeezed shut, she pulled a deep breath through her nose.
‘I can’t.’ Her heart danced as if on hot coals.
‘I’ll send it to you in the mail,’ he said finally, understanding. ‘You ought to have it.’
She was nodding long before she found her voice. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered, ‘it’s just my DVT is next week and I need to be in a good frame of mind and-’
‘Don’t,’ he interrupted, ‘don’t lie to me after touting the power of words.’ He paused. ‘If you will not keep yourself safe it’s even more imperative you keep your beliefs safe - what’s the point in sacrificing yourself if you are so quick to sacrifice your ideals?’
After she hung up she found herself standing in front her easel. The earlier ache had been replaced by a more disquiet throbbing in her head. A requiem. She had finally graduated, had she not? Not from learning, but from the professor himself. Her eyes watered the vision she foresaw on the paper tacked before her and gave life to it. She had already set up the table with her brushes and blood.
Like a funeral march, her body finally caught up with the thumping in her head. She picked up a brush and dipped it slowly into the red liquid watching it fold over the bristles. Then she turned to the easel and lifted her arm as a priest would to mark the trinity for a congregation.
When she was finished she let the tears loose over her cheeks and blur the story before her. A strong, column-like structure lay on its side. A figure sat beside it trying to pull out the leg trapped underneath it. The young boy’s face was terrified.