Sifting his thoughts, idly, as if he had all the time in the world. The uninsistent English rain spattered the window. Dove-grey light disclosed a woman stepping briskly over the pavement, holding up an umbrella as freely and naturally as if it were her own hand that had bloomed, fingers lengthening to spokes, the webbing swelled to a fat dome held above her cropped head. Elementalist. The private garden on the other side of this residential road – bounded by a speared wrought-iron fence – was brilliant, bejewelled in its greenery, shining in the fresh wet. The woman crossed over, lightly, as on tiptoe. She carried her head high, with unemphatic elegance. The rain intensified a touch, and he could hear it through the glass, like cloth tearing.
She sidestepped a slow-crawling car, made the other side, continued. The sun was shy behind a grey swagged cloud. Larissa moved pantherishly, commandingly, it seemed to him – something flamed in the pit of his belly as he watched her approach. He realised his coffee cup he still held was empty, and placed it on the whatnot.
His whole week had been funnelling down to this moment. The succession of days were only a kind of vestibule, and waiting seemed the dominant activity, even if he'd been doing things. Even if his body had, filling up space, moving through rooms, among people. Meetings at vast deal tables under the gaze of ancient magnates hung on the oak panelling. Hurried discussions in stairwells. Lunches in pubs. And now, with Thomas Tallis issuing from the sound system in this Bayswater flat, everything else just fell away. A week of irrelevance. Absence as a hook in the viscera. Larissa drew parallel to his ground floor window, striding by, shot a brief wave at him in passing. Then she was at the door.
“You haven't been waiting all morning for me?”
He shrugged, smiling. Spem in alium flowed out of its material envelope and resolved into silence. He stood looking at her, as if her every feature hadn't been imprinted on his mind, giving a bias and tilt to his thoughts. She wore a light summer jacket and pencil skirt, her erect slenderness making the ensemble neat and practical. She had always this quizzing air, of being on the point of asking a question from which universes of meaning would rush. The slight cleft chin delicately pushed forward, the nimble provisionality of her attention. She folded up her umbrella and lay it against his desk.
“You've got me for an hour,” she said, and he could only nod idiotically. Unfussy, smartly shedding her jacket, Larissa crossed the floor, the carpet with its worn nap and wine stains; sliding by the work-table with its coppice of papers and books. She was before him, and straightening the open collar of his shirt. His breath came levelly, unfaltering, yet his heart swelled with delight.
The sunlight in its generosity lent highlights to her temple, her cheek, her jawline – her left eye caught and held it, the iris glowing green. Her boyishness – that gamine slightness mildly undercut by the discreet never-neutral contours of her hips and breasts – made all the keener the charm and charge of her physical presence in this musty room. He should offer her something, a coffee. But he really should drop to his knees and praise her. But he stood there, simply. She waited for him to speak. Reality split and branched, and multiple shards of possibility sprayed outwards from this still centre. A refuse collection truck nosed along the road outside; the brutish and uncontainable thrum of its machinery filling its sheer tonnage transmitted itself to the room. He felt the flicks and dabs of her appraising gaze on his face – he never could bear such close examination, but it was an intelligent scrutiny tendered in simple honesty, and he allowed it, when with anyone else he'd have turned his face away. The image thrown back by a mirror always appalled him. The haggard, care-worn face – that time had gouged and pitted - thus presented seemed not to be his, more the rude carven mask of a witch doctor, features a primitive daub, scabbed, cracked, awful! He wanted to – but could not – tell her how great was the gift of his not turning away, an intimate benison that resisted speech. (But wasn't the obligation in the circumstances to tell everything?) The faintest allusion of a smile browsed her lips. He marvelled at the steadiness of her gaze. In the card-shuffle of those seconds, he was the young man of twenty-five years ago – the blithe seducer, assured that to want was to have. Did she have an inkling, that she had this restorative power? Or was that the ultimate surety of her charisma, being unaware?
A London hour. Pigeons capered on the low garden wall, scruffy loiterers. The vast unending slipstream of urban life pressed invisibly against the glass.
She said, “Let's have something a bit more appropriate.” - and bent to where the sound system crouched. Brittle clatter of CD cases. Ruminative humming and muttering. The pricked bubble of an 'Oh!' And the soundless This! declaring she'd made her choice. Larissa popped the disc into the player, raised herself in a touching knock-kneed way and turned to him once more. She flattened her skirt with deft hands, brightly challenging his immobility with a broad smile that enhanced that naiad quality of hers. “Now,” she said, “we've got to get you to loosen up!” Those hands were cool and dry in his. Willow wands. The music came from the speaker like an animal emerging from a brake, quiet, a dainty tremor at first. Waltz time. (Even as she moved to embrace him, Larissa was widening the floor space with the toe of her court shoe – her natural economy of grace.) These preliminaries gave him the time to reflect a little – not 'think' as such, but a wordless medley of impressions and unformed notions, held in suspension yet gently drifting – on the conspiracies of chance that had brought them together. An autumn day, the livery of reds and browns and yellows edging the urban streets, sodden yet somehow grand, as the year gathered the last days within itself – dashes through the rain from one doorway to another – Coldplay on a taxi radio – a stray dog, its fur daggled and dripping, with such a candid sorrow in its shining eyes that he had to let it in... (She shook his hand when they met, he remembered – and it still had that lightness.) Our minds seek to engineer these fables of consequence, where seeming randomness is retrofitted to serve our deeper instinctual need for a narrative line, for alembicated meaning. That life should feel plotted in a shapely way, is a universal prepossession: we need it to be so. He mourned for lost time, sitting alone, a paperback neglected on his knee, gazing out. Hours, days, weeks, irrecoverably gone – and they'd barely touched on his awareness; their value known only afterwards. He understood why people craved .. what was the term? .. 'peak experiences', happenings as blazonry. And, in these terminal days, Larissa brought with her the promise that the memory of these hours would be impressed deeply in his mind. A dancer resetting time with her movements, the fullness of it could make you weep...
“Tread on my toes,” Larissa was saying, “and you lose points.”
“I'll try my best not to,” he said with a twisted grin that closed his eyes. Said with a grainy tongue. “I found a shop dummy in a skip the other day. Almost – almost – picked it up and took it home. As a practice partner.” She chucked him under the chin.
“Would've been just as good as me.”
Revolving slowly on the spot, their bodies as close as lovers' but girdled by that chaste compact that understands that nothing more is intended, nothing more will result from this physical nearness, than the bodily expression of sexless pleasure. And he did tread on her toes from time to time – she'd yip with mock distress, and he'd apologise and pause. His clumsiness had become vaguely ritualised, and her adoption of the tutor's role – with its happy blend of hope and exasperation – suited her queerly – as did her unemphatic acceptance of power between them. He turned at her prompting like an ancient, barnacled sea vessel, with Larissa as the gently urgent wind.
These moments are their own guarantee.
The room had darkened as the afternoon wore on. Indeed, the light had lost that charmed translucence of earlier, a bleakening that vaguely plucked at his gut, as if to remind him that the hour would end and she'd leave. Still he made his ungainly revolutions within the pivot of their standing. And her bright boyish face pressed its encouragements on him.
Music fused them bodily and made an improvised grace. Larissa beamed at him when, for a few magical moments, their accord was perfected, and it felt like dancing. Corseted by his clumsiness as he passed through the workaday world, now he issued a snub to gravity. It was good, it was right – it lengthened his bones and turned his skull into an origami cube, aerated. But the worm was in the bud. Larissa's face had taken on an pixellated indistinctness, though it was never so close to his. Earlier he could see each eyelash, and the gold flecking in her iris. Now her eyes were watercolour daubs, runny and grey-black. Her mouth smeared by a thumb. Her face – formerly a dainty heart-shape – fattened and rippled, the chin like a pendulous ooze of melted tallow... Frosty creepers stole up his spine. The space behind her head became a Gerhard Richter frieze, horizons of undetailed colour. “How … more … turning … able?” - She spoke as from the depths of the sea.
Poliakoff released her, letting his hands drop like hung game to his sides. His chest felt cased in tacky soap, and he could feel his pulse ticking in his neck. She was there, whole, a sweet signature of puzzlement on her face. He stepped back from her, shaking his head. “Too.. too much..” - words as wood shavings, dry, curling to the floor. She recoiled in those brittle seconds, from the pain on his face. From the howl that was ribboning then ballooning from his mouth.