by Carey Lenehan © 2004
The house was cold and silent when she finally closed the door behind her and faced the darkness of her own hallway. Somewhere inside she could hear the slow ticking of the mantle clock and the low-grade hum of the fridge thermostat. Curtains undisturbed for two weeks had gathered dust along their ruffled tops and there was a cobweb suspended like a canyon rope bridge from the hall lampshade to the top of a picture frame on the opposite wall. There was no one to meet her, no cheery voice calling from the kitchen, no warm smell of dinner issuing from the oven, no lamplight, no warmth, no one.
Had she known what was to come, this loneliness would have been a small price to pay.
She dumped her suitcase by the walnut side table where the phone, its red light flashing to indicate messages, sat, innocuous and innocent. It represented her only contact with him for the next three months - a hollow and empty form of communication which would not express even half of what she felt, not satisfy even a quarter of her need to have him with her, real, warm and touchable. She glanced at it, aching to call, even though she had only just spoken to him from her mobile whilst she locked the car outside on the driveway. All of two minutes had passed since then. Why did this have to be so hard?
It wasn't his fault that the company had sent him to Zurich for twelve weeks. It wasn't her fault that her job meant she couldn't join him there. It was nobody's fault that finances were so tight they couldn't pay a fortune for weekly flights to see each other. Low cost air travel was a joke. The offers looked promising, but their extensive efforts to find such giveaway travel gifts had come to nothing. Perhaps some lucky person was benefiting from the "fly to Europe for a penny" deals, but she didn't know that person. She only knew Ryan, and Ryan was trapped in a pricey temporary apartment hundreds of miles away, whilst she had to shoulder the crippling weight of their joint mortgage and car repayments back home.
Three months.... twelve weeks, 96 days..... It seemed like a lifetime, no, more like ten lifetimes. They had never been apart before, not for more than the space of a days labor, or the odd overnight when each had other commitments to friends or family.... she could hardly bear to think of how she would cope without him. That simple joy of being able to turn and make him smile, check his expression, lean against his body in passing or run her fingers up the inside of his arm just to reassure herself he was real. All those things she had come to count on, now reduced to a series of electronic signals that were squeezed down a thousand miles of phone line and into his ear. It hurt.
She suppressed a shudder that started somewhere in her lower gut and jittered up into her throat. It was panic, she knew. She had started to feel it even when he had accepted the job which would drag him away. She had felt it more strongly as the day of his leaving approached. It had stolen her breath all the way through their two week holiday over in Zurich where they had spent more time apartment hunting than relaxing. It had become almost stifling as he had taken her to the airport to make her solitary way through passport control and onto her plane. It had not abated on the three hour flight, or through the chaos of Heathrow as she retrieved her bags and finally her car. It had haunted her all the way back up the dark motorway systems to Northampton and now, here in the safety of her own home, she felt it strangling her, stealing her courage and conviction, suffocating her. She could hardly bear it.
She was still standing in the hallway under the cold single overhead bulb. The message light was still flashing. She couldn't take that step forward which would lead her into this silent house. Instead she turned, unbuttoning her coat, and pressed the play button on the answer phone.
It clicked and whined.
"...you have five messages..." it said and then played them.
"...Honey, it's me," came the voice, as she had known it would,
"...Welcome home.... sorry I can't be there... I miss you so much.... I know it's hard for you to be on your own like this and I just want you to know that it's just as hard for me.... call me when you get back and if you need to speak to me anytime, just ring. Doesn't matter what time it is. I'll keep looking for cheap flights and maybe we'll be able to spend a couple of weekends together between now and December. I hate not being there with you... but I know you'll be all right. Make sure you lock up and put the chain on the door. Oh, and don't forget to call your Mum. You said I should remind you.... Okay, I'd better go. Miss you so much, just call me, Okay? Love you... Bye...."
His voice came loud and strong out of the speaker, and suddenly there were tears in her throat, in her eyes and forcing their way down her face. She felt heat in her head and that clenched feeling in her gut became a pain, like a knife blow striking her chest. It was too awful, too much. She loved him more than life, how was she ever going to cope?
"I can't stand it Ry, I just can't. I know it's stupid... what's twelve weeks in a whole lifetime. This is going to make such a difference to your career, I know that. I know it all. But I still miss you so much I really can't imagine how I'm going to manage without you...." she said.
The office was humming with activity, people all around her whose lives were normal and predictable, whose nights had not become a horror of loneliness and need. Of course not all of them had someone, but wasn't it easier to sleep alone when you were single? Surely it wasn't as bad as the night she had just had, lying awake for hours, needing his warmth beside her, wishing for the feel of his arms around her and the steady thump of his heartbeat under her cheek? No one else could understand what she was going through, no one, in the easy normality of their day. And if she tried to explain they would tell her she was being daft, or at best offer her twenty seconds of sympathy before passing on to some meaningless trivia that meant more to them. She felt isolated and alone, trapped in a misery no one else but she could understand. No one, that was, except her and him.
"Jody, you've just got get through it baby, okay. It's hard for me too. I miss you every second. The fact that we're stuck at opposite ends of a phone is a nightmare, but we've been through it. There's just no way we can get together while I'm here. Cheap travel takes time which we don't have, flights are too dear. I'll keep looking whenever I can for a good deal. Maybe next month, once I've got settled here and found my feet, I'll be able to get back for a night, but you know we costed it and went through it all before I left. It's pretty much impossible. The time is the problem. I can't leave before nine on a Friday, and the weekend flights are too pricey. I have to be back here by six on a Monday morning. What with the driving to and from the airport in each direction, it gives us so little time and it's so expensive... please be brave. It'll go quickly, you'll see."
His voice was reassuring on the surface, but she could hear the quake beneath, the way he was almost trying to reassure himself as he steadied her. He didn't think it was going to pass quickly at all. Every minute apart was as much an agony for him as for her. She took a deep breath. She was being weak and pathetic. It wasn't only she who was going through hell. She was selfish to moan at him like this, but it didn't matter. She felt how she felt. The weekend was still four days away. Hardly any time had passed at all and the yawning expanse of 95 days of loneliness stretched ahead like a desert without an oasis anywhere in its midst.
"What about coaches?" she said, grasping at straws.
"I could get a coach out on a Friday afternoon. It would get me to Zurich by Saturday night. We could have the night together and if I left to come back on Sunday morning, I'd still only be a couple of hours late for work on Monday. Please Ryan, I really need to see you this weekend. It's four whole days away. I just can't stand to think of going through the weekend on my own?"
She heard his mind ticking, sensed the negativity before he spoke the words.
"It's too much traveling Jo, you'd be shattered by the time you got back. And even if it is cheaper, it's still fifty quid. You've got to make the mortgage payment, and the phone bill is already going to be horrendous. I know you want to come but it's just impossible. Really, it's not practical, not for one night."
A little seed of anger planted itself in her heart. He didn't want her, was enjoying himself too much without her. Why else would he say no? But as soon as she let that thought flit through her head she knew it was nonsense. He was being practical in the face of her emotion. Someone had to, let's face it. She knew he was talking sense. She just didn't want to see it.
"I know," she sighed, eyes flicking across the dancing figures on her VDU. Work didn't seem to have any meaning right now, and she could almost sense the disapproval of her boss, several cubicles away, who was glancing repeatedly across the tops of the partitions to see whether she had got off the phone yet.
"I've got to go Ry, I'm going to get into trouble. Will you call me later?" He chuckled in her ear.
"Do ducks swim?" he answered. She smiled, feeling that heat of tears build again. She would not, could not, will not, cry at work....
"No, they float." she answered with an attempt at a grin.
"That's my girl." he said, "Now, just concentrate on work and try not to think of me. I'll call you later okay? I miss you baby. Love you so much. Take care now."
Click. He was gone. The abyss of loneliness once more yawned around her. She felt as if she was falling into a black hole. There was no one in there with her.
"I spoke to Helen, at the Travel Agents earlier." He said.
It was Monday. Their first weekend apart had stretched like warm toffee laced with arsenic. They had spent approximately ten hours on the phone together and it wasn't enough. Separating the link with him was becoming almost too hard to bear. She had hoped it would get easier, but it wasn't.
"Oh Yes." she could hardly contain her excitement. Was this a reprieve, a possible light in the clinging darkness of her personal tomb?
"She offered me a flight for next weekend, £265 return. It's impossible Jo, we really can't afford it. We talked about trains, but with all the connections the time frame is impossible."
She felt her heart sink as far as the Earth's core. Depression descended around her again.
"I know... I know... we just have to bear it. Problem is Ryan, I really can't. Right now I'm ready to quit work, give up the house, the car, every bloody thing. It's been a week and I'm living in hell without you. There has to be something, some way. People travel all over the world every minute of the day. Why does it have to be us stuck in this awful situation? If I wanted to be single, I would be, but I don't. I want to be with you. I just can't stand it. I'm not sleeping, I can't eat. I can't concentrate on work, or anything. All I can think about is you and how long it's going to be until I see you."
She was aware that a childish whine had crept into her voice but she could do nothing to stop it. He would probably get annoyed with her now, even though he never had, not ever in the entire three years they had been together. It wasn't in his nature. The love that had started between them almost at their first meeting had not gone away as their friends and family had predicted it would. Mundane togetherness had not settled into their lives. Every day had been like the first, a voyage of discovery and pleasure that had not diminished one little bit. The flush of love was still as strong as ever. Separation was hell. He was silent on the other end of the line for a long time and she listened to him breathing with her eyes closed, trying to pretend he was really here and the hot plastic of the phone handset against her head was him, warm and soft and pliable. It wasn't easy.
"I feel the same way Jo. You know that. I'm so alone here. I don't speak the language, I don't go out. I go to work, I struggle all day and when I get back to this... this horrible place and you aren't there, it's like I die. It's just as hard for me. I've been on the verge of packing it in every time I think of you. Every time I come off the phone I want to cry, pack my bags and run home. but this is our future, both of us.... you and me. If I stuff this up then we might lose everything. How long will you want to stay with me when I'm stuck at home without a job and we face eviction because we can't pay the mortgage? You know it all. We've been here before. I'll talk to Helen again, maybe she can find me a cheap flight for November. But then it's hardly worth it because I'll be finished here by Christmas. It would just be better if we save the money. You know that." "I know, I know, but it doesn't change anything. I feel the way I feel. Common sense has nothing to do with it."
Friday. Nearly two weeks gone. It seemed like an age. She was having trouble remembering what it was like to have him here. The smell of him was gone from her clothes, was even gone from his clothes hanging in the bedroom wardrobe. His toiletries in the bathroom had been superseded by her own, pushing his deodorant, his toothpaste, his shaving foam back in the cupboard as she was pushing his presence backward in her mind. She was crying less, but the emotion was being replaced by a kind of numbness that made her afraid. She tried to call up his face, laughing beside her, but there was an empty space where he should have been. When she lay in bed at night she tried to remember what it was like to have him beside her, talking to him with the phone pressed between her head and the pillow, her eyes closed, pretending he was there. But it felt fake, unreal, like a movie she was trying to feel involved in, like someone else's life she had once seen lived. It was scaring her badly.
Perhaps he felt it, perhaps he heard it in her voice as she tried to be jolly and talk about her days. Certainly he was feeling something too, because now she could hear the echo in his voice, of doubt, the constant demands for reassurance, '...do you still love me... are you angry.... will you be okay... will you call me later....' Her depression was making her diffident and apathetic. She had lost weight. Her hair was dry and lank. She had stopped bothering with makeup and dressed in the first thing that came out of the drawer, rather than choosing carefully with him in mind. Washing was piling up in the sink, the house was dusty and disheveled. Evenings had become a meaningless slump in front of the TV, watching anything that happened to be on, rather than choosing entertainment they could both enjoy. The outside world had ceased to exist. She didn't answer people's messages. The only number on the display that made her pick up the phone was his. She still hadn't spoken to her mother.
"Baby, I'm worried about you. Please, you've got to cheer up. It's only ten weeks now. Please... don't be so down." His voice was begging and, she suspected, almost near to tears. She couldn't help it. She felt the way she felt. The frustration and anguish of being imprisoned here away from him was too hard to bear. She felt the way she felt. She wanted to be with him. Being apart was killing her.
"If I could afford a helicopter...." he said, or, "I wish I could just click my fingers and be with you. Perhaps I could steal a Lear Jet. If only I'd learned to fly... I could rent a plane...." All said with a wistfulness that belied how impossible such ambitions were. He wasn't really trying at all any more.
"To hell with the money Ryan, please, just get on a plane tomorrow. Whatever it costs. I'll get a second job. Bar work, McDonalds, anything. I just have to see you. If I have to go another week without you I'm going to die, I just know it."
"No you won't." His voice was stern, but the tremor was there just beneath the surface all the same. He was convincing himself as much as her. He felt the same way. She wondered how much concentration he was able to give to his own job each day. Not much, she guessed.
"I'll think of something. I promise."
Four weeks down. Eight to go. He called her at work on Friday as another empty weekend stretched before them both. "I think I've found something. It's a bit crazy, but it might be the answer." he said, humour playing on the edge of his voice. It was the cheeriest she had heard him sound for weeks.
"Oh yes? What? You've met someone with a private plane? You've discovered the secret of worm holes? You quit your job?" She tried hard to keep the doubt and sarcasm from her tone, tried and failed. Her boss, across at someone elses desk, cast her a stern glance before going back to the vital chore of checking derelict accounts.
"It's almost too bizarre to talk about. I met this guy, he's a scientist. He's been working on systems of instant travel. It's all very experimental. Anyway, I was telling him about us and about how impossible it is for us to get back together in two days. He laughed at me, can you believe it, and said that soon problems like ours would be a thing of the past. Anyway, he's looking to test his transport machine thing and wanted to know if I'd be willing to try it out. Thought I'd run it by you first"
Two feelings bounced into her chest, one, a leap of hope such as she'd never felt before, the other a cold bite of fear as if the jaws of an ice monster had just clamped around her belly.
"It sounds a bit weird Ry, be careful. Who is this guy?"
Ryan's voice came back, breezy, dismissive, impossibly full of excitement.
"Oh, don't worry, he's a very well respected physicist. We've been managing the patent for his works. This one looks incredibly exciting. It's a teleportation machine." Her head emptied.
"What, you mean... beam me up Scotty, that kind of thing?" She tried to get her mind around what he was saying and failed.
"Yes, exactly. Isn't that unbelievable. The future is bright, the future is instant travel. Goodbye to the combustion engine, jet turbines, Concorde, even. This machine can transport matter from one place to the other in the blink of an eye. It's unbelievable I know, but honestly, the technology has been around for ages. It's just been a matter of working out the problems of how to disassemble and reassemble living tissue... Anyway, this guy thinks he's done that and he's ready to file the patent and begin some kind of tentative production. I'm going over to see him on Tuesday, take a look at his lab. I'll let you know...."
She spent the weekend in an agony of fear and expectation. Ryan called again and again, each time furnishing her with more details and trying to allay her fears. It was insane. Why couldn't he just get on a plane? But his adventurers spirit had been ignited like a kindled gas jet and was now almost out of control. It wasn't going to cost a thing. It was experimentation, pure and simple. This guy, this Scientist, was going to pay them! All he needed was a willing guinea pig.
"Has he actually tried it out on a real guinea pig." she had asked at some point, and Ryan had laughed in her ear. "Of course. He's got a dozen different animals in the Lab that he's already successfully transported. Anyway, I'm committed to nothing. It could just be rubbish, you know that. So many of these things are. At the moment it's all very hush- hush. It can't become open knowledge until he succeeds and then he can go public and let his system be tested in the public eye. He just needs one willing volunteer. He assures me there's no risk. Think about it Jody, I could come home every night. I go from the office to his lab, step into his machine and walk out in our front hall. It'll be as if I'm working just down the road."
That had been the clincher. The delicious idea that life could return to normal, that Ryan could commute daily from Zurich and be paid to do so, that she could once again touch him and hold him and have the overwhelming comfort of his presence every night and all through the weekends. No ten weeks of waiting, no possibility that after Christmas the contract might be extended and they would have to be apart again, all those fears allayed, her depression ended. She glanced into the mirror on the opposite side of the hall. She would have to get her hair done....
Tuesday. "It's incredible Jo, honestly. His lab is amazing. I watched him transport a dozen animals from one room to another without a hitch. The guy is a genius. He's going to make himself and the company very rich indeed. It's like a miracle."
He was so excited she could almost feel it inside her like a case of the flu.
"There's this machine that you step into, it's like a big telephone box. It reads your molecular structure and then it knows you. Simple as that. His idea is that you set one up in post offices, train stations, street corners, like those photo ID machines. You just step in and get read. Then you buy this little handset thing, kind of like a GPS receiver. It's satellite linked. You tell it where you want to go, press a button, and hey presto, there you are. I've never seen anything like it. So you don't need a big machine in your home or wherever you are traveling to. The mainframe has your structure and it does all the work for you. Don't ask me how it works, I haven't the faintest idea, but it's all to do with the reconstruction of molecules. Apparantly the biggest problem is disassembling and reassembling without destroying them. He's discovered how to do that. Presto, teleportation. It's going to utterly change the world as we know it Jo. Best of all, it means I can come home this weekend. Do you hear?"
She tried to calm the panic she was feeling. "Yes, I hear. I'm scared though. Have you actually tried it out yet?" She didn't want to sound so doubtful. She was sure that if there had been a 'Mrs Wright' she would have been feeling just this way when her husband came to inform her that he had cracked the secret of flight and was about to try out his new plane.... or the wife of the first astronaut being told he was going into space. Innovation was scary, but look at the world as it was now, full of things that seemed impossible. How many of these things she used every day did she actually understand. The phone, computers, cameras, televisions.... impossible things that worked. She should have faith. She was going to see Ryan. Wasn't that enough?
She called him on Thursday morning before she left for work. She had woken up crying. He soothed her fears and promised to call later. That night after work he was going to try the machine for the first time. She could hear the fear mixed with excitement in his voice. If it were successful, he would use it to come home to her the following night. She could hardly believe it and her mind would not let her. This was a dream, a nightmare that she was living and didn't even know it. What if something went wrong?
He wouldn't hear of it. The guy was kosher, the machine worked, he had seen it with his own eyes. She would believe it too when he arrived on their front lawn the following evening. She was to make sure that the car was in the garage, just in case a collision occurred. He didn't fancy, he told her jokingly, rematerializing inside the engine of the VW.
She didn't even want to think of that.
Friday. She couldn't go to work. She was so anxious she called in sick. She could sense the underlying anger of her boss as she spoke to him, trying to make her voice nasal and dreary as if she was laid low with the worst case of sinusitis in the world. Hanging up, she let herself breathe. She had to clean the house, make herself look beautiful. In a matter of hours, Ryan would be here. She didn't have much time, the place was a tip and so was she.
He called at six.
"I'm going over there now. He's going to run through some final checks and then I'm going to try it. I'm all ready. I'm bringing nothing with me. He thinks it will be simpler if I go naked so we're aiming for the back garden instead of the front. Can you keep a blanket or something by the back door, I might be a bit cold."
She found the warmest one she could. She was plagued by doubts now, even though she knew that Ryan had teleported himself a dozen times around the man's laboratory and office without a problem. The fear would not subside. At six she stationed herself in the kitchen, staring out of the window at the dying day with the telephone handset beside her. He rang at half past.
"Okay. This is it. I'm going for it now. Get ready." And he was gone.
Five minutes later she saw a shimmer on the lawn, some flexing of the air that was almost impossible to perceive. She thought it was just her imagination. She got off her chair, peering out through the window. Was he there? She couldn't see anything. She looked at the phone handset on the worktop. What to do? She was still standing there, hesitant, when it rang. She grabbed for it, picking it up and fumbling it so that it almost dropped from her shaking fingers. A voice came to her ear, guttural, foreign,
"Frau Goodrich? This is Professor Weiner. Please tell me if your husband has arrived?"
"I can't see him Professor," she answered with a shiver in her voice.
"Would you be so good as to go into your garden and tell me what you see."
She opened the back door, flicking on the light, remembering, finally, a film she had watched a long time ago. In the middle of the lawn there was something, a mound, in shadow she couldn't identify it, but she knew who it was.
"Ryan!" she cried, her voice full of joy the phone still in her hand, the line open to Professor Wiener. She ran down the steps, crossed the grass and bent to hug the man she loved. Then she stopped. On the lawn, their lawn, which they had lovingly seeded and tended together, was a mound of gunk like the biggest mashed hamburger in the world. It was steaming gently. She felt a gag of horror in her throat.
"Ryan?" she could hardly force the word out, unable to believe this was real.
"Honey, it's me," came the voice from somewhere within the goo that began creeping toward her. "I'm home."
|Photos by courtesy of scrfractal.free.fr|
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