On the floor of the hotel corridor they sit, either side of a bottle of wine, the world dark beyond a huge sloped window, their bodies reflected, slumped against an inner wall. In easy silence, they sip from their glasses, knowing that in a few short hours they will both fly home. She slides off her shoes, stretches her legs, smooths her new skirt over her thighs. His left foot tips against her right. She holds her breath against this pleasure; a flash of lightning brings her round.
‘Wow, that’s some storm,’ she says.
‘Well, I guess that’s the end of that,’ he says, a sudden energy in his voice. ‘We won’t see anything tonight.’
They have stayed up late to watch the space station, another spacecraft moving in to dock. She heard some of the delegates mention it at breakfast, later searched for details online. A crack of thunder vibrates beneath them, rain slashing the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. In the dim night-time lighting of the corridor, he makes a move to go.
‘I enjoyed your talk this morning,’ she says, a little louder now.
‘Did you really?’ he says, relaxing back down. ‘Which part?’
‘Well . . .’ All she had really noticed were his hands moving, how he held himself at the podium. He brings his knees to his chest. She takes another mouthful of wine. Her weekend has been spent watching all of them, barely registering their words, concentrating on time passing, one half-hour at a time. When his turn came, she could picture him in his studio, throwing colours at a wall.
‘I enjoyed yours too,’ he says, rescuing her. ‘Especially that last piece you read, about your husband.’
She hands him back the bottle, observes the thrashing of the world outside. Her hotel room waits twelve floors away, graced with its mountain view. Three days she has dressed and undressed there, curtains open, vast sky bearing down; the invitation to come here the first she has accepted in almost a year. On this, the ground floor, she senses the depth of the valley, the town that pulls away from this enormous building on a mountainside.
A cleaner approaches, moving quickly, pushing her cart straight ahead. They make their bodies small. The girl gives no reaction, her soft shoes squeaking over the hard floor. This gathering has brought dozens of them: artists, composers, writers from around the globe. They are the last two, long since kicked out of the function room, all the others gone to bed.
‘You remind me of someone,’ he says, close to her ear. She notices the threads of darker linen running down the front of his shirt, the slow movement of his chest as he breathes. ‘Are you drunk?’ he asks.
‘Of course not. No, no, no.’
She has put the emphasis on all the right syllables, made comedy out of nothing at all. And it comes, the laughter that obliterates the need to make any more talk for a while. They sit, the moment expanding, united by the storm.
‘Tell me about your marriage,’ he says, after a while.
‘What’s to tell? He died. I got old.’
When she hears it, she feels the truth of it. When she closes her eyes, he squeezes her hand. She welcomes the momentary pressure from his fingers, soft and unexpectedly warm.
‘Do you like living in the city?’ he asks. ‘Do you usually work from home?’
They ask questions of each other; new pieces of information standing in for all the years until now. He smells of soap and alcohol. At registration she saw him see her, knew he would make her acquaintance, seek her out from then on.
‘What’s the most beautiful thing you own?’
She considers this, and smiles. ‘Nothing I could show you,’ she replies. ‘How did your last day go?’
‘Good,’ he says, finishing his wine.
Strange that it’s the same day, she thinks, lived inside different lives. The storm has eased off, quietened down, the wind driving raindrops across the window. She puts both hands to the floor, which has started to tip underneath her.
‘I shouldn’t have come,’ she says.
‘Of course you should.’ They look carefully into each other’s eyes. ‘For all those people hanging on your every word.’ He smiles.
‘Ha,’ she says, ‘you’re sweet,’ letting herself lean in. In the dark glass, her head has found his shoulder. She releases an audible breath, reminds herself that he likes men, allows a little more weight to fall. In her room, they could be drinking tea with capsules of milk, tearing sachets of sugar, biting into individually foil-wrapped biscuits.
Her back slips an inch down the wall. When she rights herself, he is tapping on his phone. He has captured their reflection: two bodies elongated under glass.
‘I didn’t come here to be beamed around the place,’ she says.
‘It’s hardly that,’ he says, and laughs. ‘And, anyway, it’s not as if this is what we actually look like.’ His thumb continues its dance over the screen. ‘I went up onto the roof today. Here, look at this. It would make a great backdrop for something, don’t you think?’
She squints at the brightness until the colours coalesce into an image: sky, mountains, a distant cluster of low buildings. Her head feels heavy, peering down into the phone. They are joined at the hip now, the wine bottle no longer between them. She holds onto her heartbeat, under the breast, pounding the bone.
‘Hey!’ he says, leaping to the window, the empty bottle sent careering along the floor. And she wonders whether they will see the space station after all. His back arches, the fingers of one hand spreading out against the glass. ‘Must have been a trick of the light,’ he says, quietly, to himself.
‘Oh, well,’ she says mildly, as if distracting a child. He doesn’t react. ‘You know, up there, they make night by pulling the shutters down.’
‘The people living in space.’ He turns to look at her. ‘And they spend hours and hours of every day working out.’ She joins him at the window. ‘Because of gravity. The body breaks down with nothing to push against.’ He nods, absently, taking a small step back. ‘You okay? You don’t seem yourself,’ she says.
‘I’m fine. Just tired, that’s all,’ he says.
‘And drunk,’ she laughs. He frowns. She hasn’t thought about her words, about how meaning is made from sounds; she is aware, all at once, of the risk in conversation, every second of it improvised.
‘I think it’s time to call it a night,’ he says, glancing at his watch.
She puts her forehead against the window, tilting back to accommodate its angle. ‘Goodnight,’ she says, without making eye contact.
‘Goodnight,’ he says. She senses his hesitation, then listens as he leaves, waiting until there is nothing except the sounds of her own breath. The harsh lighting of the deserted function room reveals its shabbiness when she passes, resting a hand on the door frame to steady herself. In the far corner, one of the giant display boards has toppled, and lies abandoned, face down. She walks the hotel’s long corridors, heels in hand, over concrete, carpet and tile. The lift shudders as it ascends.
Twelve flights later, she sits on the huge bed, peels off her clothes: the new skirt, the pale silk blouse. For a long time she works her thumb against the clasp of her thin silver necklace, until the skin is dented and sore. Her phone has filled with messages, and she retrieves them, finger swiping the tiny screen: words typed, voices recorded, a video of her brother’s children, laughing, on swings.
An image opens from an email sent only a few minutes before: two bodies in the dark, far away, huddled tight. ‘look how small we are’, reads the caption, all in lower case. She looks at it closely, zooming in and then out, staring at it long enough for it to dissolve into nothing more than shapes. In the bathroom, she wrestles with the splashy tap, pours a glass of water and gulps at it, her swallowing at odds with her breathing. The person in the mirror watches her, slightly swollen, slightly blurred. A little closer and she is even blurrier, this 44-year-old woman blinking at her, slack-jawed.
For almost two weeks, she lay wound around him, as much as the wires and the tubes would allow: her body curled up on a wide plastic chair, her head resting on her arms reaching out. One night, she took his left hand and slowly began to examine the length of each nail. Until the room was bleached in sudden light – everything quiet, everything noise – and filled with people working, signalling for her to get out of their way.
She pushes her head out the narrow window, sucks at the clean air, rotates herself to better see the stars. Up there, the skies clearing, it would be possible to make out one bright light gaining on another, the two of them hurtling side by side. A stinging breeze comes at her, fresh against the clammy heat of her skin. There is still time, she thinks. And then she’s heading down the hall, in towelling robe and stockinged feet; counting down towards the relevant number, fully sure that he will open his door.
But, at a turn, she is sent sideways, stumbles, finds herself kneeling on the carpeted floor. A hotel worker drops a pile of towels, and rushes forward, a soft ‘oh’ escaping from her. It is the girl from downstairs, who meets her gaze, and then averts her eyes to give her time to pick herself up. For a brief moment, she gets tangled in the dressing gown’s cord. Saliva starts to fill her mouth, her stomach lurching towards her throat. Eventually, she brings herself to standing, one hand pressed against the wall. With the girl at her side, she makes it back to her room.
On the bed, she lies wide-eyed, waiting to drop anchor, to sink into the unconscious part of her life. The soft mattress gives underneath her; she will wake to stiff bones, a sore neck. Carefully, she closes the robe over herself, bunching the thick cloth at her chest. The room spins hard. In the window, she concentrates on what surrounds her: the clean surfaces without trace of permanent life; the low lamplight doubled in the glass.
The girl is illuminated, crouching at the minibar, reaching in to pull something out. A bottle cap is untwisted, an open drink brought to the bedside table, a zing of lemons released into the air as the light clicks off. Swiftly, the girl draws the curtains, before circling back around the bed in the dark. She can track her by her breathing. She moves near enough for them to touch, if she put her hand out.
Photograph © Eamonn Doyle/Neutral Grey