He likes imagining that the stairs to his third floor apartment, on the corner of a tall block of flats, gleam with the silvery shine of moon and stars at night. It is in the unforgiving light of day that the dirt from years of scuffling feet is laid bare and his imaginings are temporarily put to rest. The black metal railing and stairs remind him of the fire exits in American movies, transferred from New York right to the heart of London. Every morning countless chimneys prop up the day on their sturdy shoulders as he takes a few minutes to watch the city, falling away to the right of the landing in front of his door, wake up. Across from the alleyway another apartment block replicates that of his own, their concrete facades having faced each other in a permanent fixed stare for decades.
It’s been a week ago since she’s moved in opposite him on the third floor in her cement block. Immediately noticeable. That is how he can sum her up. Before she moved in the flat had been empty, dark, an exit to a seemingly depthless black hole. Now it glows. She spends her evenings between seven and eight o’clock languidly smoking cigarettes and exhaling the smoke, leaving her mouth in perfect oval haloes and disappearing slowly into the silence of night high above the busy city. Something about her slim, almost child-like body in the pale sheen of the light from the street lamps (which nightly just manage to steal its way, like an afterthought, into the alleyway) keeps him captivated. She inhabits it as if time doesn’t exist: the way in which she holds the cigarette in between her slim fingers, the slight bend of her wrist as she holds a glass of water in the other. Everything about her reminds him of wishbones and quiet dreams – fragile but unbreakable. And confident.
On the seventh night he walks out onto the metal landing, leaving his door half open. It can be slippery in winter. The landlord makes sure that the stairs and landings are covered in gritty salt every icy winter morning. Living like this, caught between earth and sky, stacked on top of each other creating cityscapes – beautiful only from afar – can be a precarious business. But the worst of the winter had passed and slowly the city is opening up to Spring. He can see her watching him as she sits in the windowsill. As usual her legs are folded underneath her and the cigarette smoke drifts straight up into the darkened sky. When he follows the path of the smoke it takes his gaze directly to the moon and he imagines it caught in there: its last dregs softly dispersing into the secret world of a crater. She lifts her other hand and waves at him. White hair like snow and feathers. He waves back.
‘Have you read The Little Prince?’ he calls out to her, his voice coming as a surprise to himself, as if uttered by someone else, as it reaches across the alleyway.
Then there is a sudden silence: birds noiselessly turning over in the sky above fields, a moment of stillness signifying the changing of seasons. And then the screeching sound of his phone. He goes inside and picks it up. Tell his mother that he’ll phone her back later. And, just before he ends the call, he experiences it again: a split second of silence like a pause in between the break of day and the end of night; an in-between stage of time when nothing exists yet.
But when he steps outside, there she is: sitting cross-legged on his landing, looking up at him quizzically with eyes round like the moon and just as pale, almost transparent.
“Yes, I have read it: The Little Prince. From Asteroid B-612. I’m Angel, by the way.”
“Jacob,” he replies as he shakes her outstretched hand. Fine bones press against his palm but intricately and tightly joined together, solid and incorruptible. “How did you get up here so quickly?” he asks, not making any effort to hide his surprise.
“Oh, I have my ways of getting to places,” she smiles and then turns towards the right where the city opens up towards the sky and the walls and windows fall away. “But now we must wait.”
“Wait for what?” he asks, studying her profile as he sits down next to her. Her hair and eyelashes white like cotton fields, and her skin almost translucent.
“Wait for the sun to set.”
Never before had he sat through a full twenty-eight minutes of silence with another person since his arrival in the city but it feels like an instant of quietude and as the last rays of the sun leave the outlines of the buildings, etched in sharp, silhouetted lines, he knows that the seasons have changed. Long ago, he realises, he knew the rhythms of nature but here, in the midst of human noise, he has learnt to forget to remember.
Before he can ask her if she feels sad when she watches the sunset, inexplicably drawn to quote from The Little Prince once again, she says, “No, do you?”
He doesn’t answer and he knows she’s not expecting him to.
And he quickly learns that hard facts are not all that essential when they are together. It’s not that either of them are avoiding answering. It’s just that the answer doesn’t always seem quite that important.
“Where are you from?”
“From all over,” she would answer with a half-smile just pulling up the corners of her mouth, wide like the Milky Way on clear nights above pastures and open plains.
“Do you work here in London?”
“I have come to rest awhile.” Next to him her body is lean: an altar candle between his sheets.
“What do you like?”
“I like paperweights that catch the light and let it go again. And dandelions. Sometimes they stay and sometimes they decide to leave. Like dreamcatchers.”
And so their nightly ritual begins: they watch the sunset together, time falls away, sometime she stays over, as he falls asleep – her hair falling soft around his face like an easily accessible veil between dream and reality – she would whisper, “Make a wish” and he would dream, for the first time in years, with his hands lightly clasped around her wishbone wrist.
A wide ladder descends from the moon to the earth and angels are hovering up and down it. Their spines, shining through their transparent bodies, are exact copies of the spines of their huge wings that bear them up and down the ladder. They would be almost completely silent, if it wasn’t for the soft swishing sounds of their swaying wings. They fill the sky like inaudible but upright exclamation marks, becoming one with the milky, cataract eye of the moon and then appearing again as they descend, like wisps of breath.
When he tells his sister about his dreams on the phone a few days later, she reminds him of a similar story in the Bible.
“It must be echoes from childhood,” she says. “Remember, Mum never used to read us fairy tales before bedtime. It was always a story from the Bible. No matter how violent, having come from the Bible made it all ok. Some nights I still have nightmares, most of them rooted in the Old Testament. What our parents do to us!” and with a dramatic sigh, she changed the topic of conversation.
After the first night, she’d arrive with a feather pillow under her arm. And in the morning she would be gone, a thin trail of feathers leading down the fire escape and across the alleyway. The only evidence of her stay. Even the ashtray would be cleaned out, the glasses she used washed and put away in the cupboard as if she was never there. Her flat shining in the first rays of sunlight when he gets up to go to work in the mornings.
After the third week of having known her, an odd sensation takes hold of him. He finds it hard to be close to his female colleagues at work. The smell of soil and tilled earth emanate from them and he has to excuse himself from two board meetings on the same day as the scent of freshly opened lands, just after the rain, make him feel sick. Sweating profusely in the bathroom, his father’s words and his voice, as always stern and unbending like the merciless severity of a slave-driver, quoting from the Bible, mills through his head, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
It is only when he gets physically sick that he feels rid of the scent of fecund fertility, death-like although abundant in its cyclical recurrence and his own breath that had turned stale as if it’s been locked for centuries inside a damp cavern.
Leaving work early, he decides to walk home rather than take the stifling underground. A hot wind has taken hold of the city, blowing paper and litter about in countless, small tornadoes. People try to find refuge in shop entrances, inside tube stations and over-crowded fast food places. But he pushes through the storm of inner-city exhaust fumes and black soot and feels how the dust is whirling around inside of him where once there were organs and a beating, pulsating heart.
That night at seven o’clock, when he goes to sit next to her, the wind has stopped blowing but still the city looks somewhat dishevelled and stirred up underneath a few patchy clouds.
“I expect it to rain tonight,” she mentions as she puts out the menthol cigarette in the ashtray between them.
“Are you taming me?” he asks her, well aware that he is quoting from The Little Prince.
She smiles slightly but still she doesn’t look at him, her eyes fixed on the horizon and her palms folded around her knees as if she is waiting and ready to jump at whatever is to appear in the sky.
“You have hair the colour of gold. So it will be marvellous when you have tamed me. Wheat, which is also golden, will remind me of you. And I shall love the sound of the wind in the wheat…” he continues to quote.
But then the first drops start to fall heavily and, as the sun drops down the sky, a golden glow envelops the city and the earthy scent fills his insides once again.
“A wonderful smell, isn’t it? The smell of rain falling on dry soil. The Greek word for it is petrichor. Petra, meaning stone and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods,” she murmurs.
That night the wheat fields are like an ocean around him, waving hands soft like feathers caressing his face as everything around him sways on the current of a warm summers wind. This time he doesn’t look up to the angels who, he knows, are traversing the space between earth and sky. Because tonight the fertile smell of soil rests inside of him, content like a child and the voice that reaches him on the breeze is gentle, the voice of a woman: “The land on which you lie I will give to you, I will bring you back to this land“.
As he wakes in the middle of the night, her hand covers his heart. He wouldn’t have known if he didn’t reach for his chest and found her hand there, following the vibration of his heartbeat which he can suddenly feel returning to his body, radiating throughout him like the voice in his dream. Her hand rests lightly on his chest, weightless like a note, in the dark. This is how she sleeps. He’s gotten used to it: an airy hummingbird in torpor.
Tracing the length of her slim, piano-playing fingers, he floats away on the rhythm of his heartbeat: a steady tide moving towards the shore.
Once again he is an eight-year old choir boy. The chapel air is filled with the rustling of hymn books like hushed whispers and slowly beating wings in mid-flight. A warm fog of melted candle wax hangs in the air, so thick that he exhales slowly, afraid that his breath would become waxy speech bubbles obscuring his vision and the words on the paper. As the deep sound of the organ and the sonorous voices of the boys lift up towards the wooden beams above them, he notices the stars. Through the stained glass windows they are distorted, looking like neon, commercial flashes of city lights but he knows that, once outside, they are milk-white oleanders, scattered over a sunless landscape.
The next day he doesn’t go to work even though he feels well. Better than he has in a long time, in fact. He stays indoors, makes up his mind, packs his bag and waits for seven o’clock.
When she doesn’t arrive and her window stays closed, the light cotton curtains drawn, he decides to knock on her door. Cautiously he climbs the stairs, looking for a trail of feathers, maybe a bit of cigarette ash along the way but there is no sign of her.
Finding the door slightly open, he carefully goes inside. The flat is exactly like his own except for wide skylights letting in wide shafts of setting sunlight, almost piercing in its intensity. Somewhat dazed by the silence and the apparent complete emptiness of the place, he wanders from room to room. And just when he resigns himself to the melancholic feeling of her departure, a brightness catches his eye from the corner of the windowsill facing his apartment.
From the windowsill he picks up the dandelion caught within the heavy, globed glass. The paperweight fits comfortably in his palm. Under the glass spindly spines and fluffy, globular seed heads reach outwards. Across the alleyway his landing disappears as the sun dips down and is swallowed by the city.
That night he is ten years old and flying past an E.T. moon – huge and bright, a fluorescent dandelion caught inside a huge sphere. She is sitting in the front basket of the bicycle, her head thrown back and her white hair floating in the sky as if under water. Pedalling like crazy to stay afloat, it is only later when his legs give in and stop of their own accord that he realises that it is her who keeps them in the air. Her legs casually and slowly kicking to and fro as if she is calmly treading water.
As he leaves the city early the next morning, a shower of white spring blossoms are caught in the corner of his car’s windscreen wipers.
He makes a call. “It’s been too long. I’ll be home by lunchtime.”
Holding his breath, he waits for the sun to appear. There is a moment of complete silence just before the new day breaks.
QUOTES taken from:
De Saint-Exupéry, A. 1995. The Little Prince. Wordsworth Editions Limited.