I only recently discovered Eleanor Catton, who yesterday was the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize with her book The Luminaries. In AnOther magazine, I found a commissioned short story, Bellwether, she wrote for the magazine back in 2009:
When we were tight-skinned and fuller, riding bicycles with our skirts tucked up beneath the seat like bloomers, pulling back the hammer to lick the bell, standing up on the pedals to breathe and shout, both of us swollen by a glass globe of lightness that grew against the sternum and pushed the rib cage outward, upward, on – or when we stood in the doorway under strung lanterns with our hips hard against the frame and cold lime rickeys and our throats all bare – or when we slid between the breakers in the sea, arching back and back against the suck of the sand – or when we sat, so quiet, and shared a twist of tobacco that grew flat like a whistle from the damp of our hands – we couldn’t remember. There were fewer colours now, and responsibility, and nothing divided quite the same. Her chin trembled and she kept touching her mouth with two fingers, breathing in, tapping twice.
She carried a diary, and it was full of ink. Her bag was trailing a sleeve and she sat down in a confetti of wrinkled receipts and a cloud of something sweet-smelling and anxious. That notch of red skin around her nostrils. I cocked my head to the side and shook my head faintly to say, All that has passed, because now I was older and there was a farewell in everything, in every greeting especially, in our chance encounter that same afternoon on the red-brick streets where we clutched our arms across our chests and pawed at the kerb and then said, well what about a coffee, for the sake of old time? We counted back, and it had been years and months: whole years, whole months, and nothing. She blew out her cheeks and rolled her eyes and pressed a smile and then cast about with her fingers for something to shred, touching the napkin, the paper cuff around the silverware, the specials list.
We had roomed together, that was it, in the residence hall behind the hospital that had been converted into dorms. It had once been the maternity wing, so the doors were wide and slow to push and there was a walled-up tunnel under the road to the morgue. All the usual stories of infant ghosts in the night-time and women weeping into their hands, but we never saw them and we almost disbelieved the girls who did. Everywhere the same crabbed linoleum, folded up the wall to the level of our breasts, and hard chairs, and rubber-necked lamps that craned low over our pages as we sat there, side by side. She started failing – papers and then whole terms – and the space under her eyes grew dark, and there was a look that dawned upon her face, forlorn but not quite yearning, strange. I was impatient with her. It seemed wasteful, all that feeling, like a helping that is bigger than the plate. Soon after the second year she dropped out altogether, giving up the dorm for a basement room in the inner city and a job kneading early-morning loaves. I found another roomer and the years and months went by.
And then on the street, and she was thinner than she had been, and thready, and I was easy and plump with wealth and I stepped back and said Look at you, like it was a directive, like I had the power to make her see. I had not loved her as I ought. In the coffee shop nearby we sat behind a bulging window and unwrapped ourselves. The radio was poor and flattened out the sounds to a single inching ribbon of noise.
She stirred the raw sugar with the butt of the spoon and then laughed and gestured at it, showing me how hopeless it was. I listed all the people we had known. Afterwards I wished that I had wrapped my hand around her wrist, there on the table, but to touch like that– to move my arm across the table to her skin – was weighted and leaden and wrong. We ordered froth and when the cups arrived she said I’m not – I’m sorry – and she began to cry.
I had been en route to the laundry and the bank, ordinary things, but I said it didn’t matter and I tucked my keys away. I stayed and the afternoon bled out and I asked about the fat gorge of her sadness and I hummed out my sympathy in a single dying note. I had never really known her. We replaced our coffee with more. She kept saying It’s like a horrible camera lens, spreading her hands wide and then rolling them in until they were fists and the aperture between her thumbs was gone. There was nobody to talk to, she told me, nobody to tell.
I was flattered. It made me feel generous and wise to talk about how lonely she was, how like a funnel her life had become. She spoke of her own death. I compared her to the movies and to the lives of my friends. The day grew dark and the crowd changed. We ordered dinner. Her eyes had a glassy look, and when I stood to use the bathroom she made a little snatching movement with her fingertips, to hold me there. In the bathroom I dragged my hands down over my face and stood for a while.
The cafe closed. I asked for her telephone number, and she asked for mine, and we parted in a kind of daze. When I got home I slept for three days. My body was so limp and cold and empty it felt like I had rinsed myself in her. I have never known exhaustion like that. The phone rang and I didn’t answer. It would have been too much. I screened my calls and felt glad that I had never suffered like she did.
More years and months went by. Sometimes I thought about calling her, but could not bear the weight of it, the weight of her. I was doing well. One autumn evening I came across her by chance on the corner of Ely Street, wheeling a bicycle – nearly three years had passed. I almost didn’t recognise her. She was wearing a linen shirt and smart trousers and her hair was glossy, pulled tight at her temples and slick. I stopped and smiled and we spoke as before, pawing at the kerb, except – how different now – she was frank and pert and she did not look away. I asked after her health, pinching my mouth to imply that her answer would probably be bad. She stared at me for a moment, and then said that she was better, pronouncing the word like it was not a comparative but a kind of absolute, a quality. It astonished me that she was so transformed. I felt something a little like disappointment as I looked her up and down.
She spun her watch around her wrist and asked me for a drink at a pub nearby. Hers was tonic – she was on medication now, she told me, a neutraliser to sand the corners of every mood, to dilute each feeling, to soften her. She said it was working. I ordered wine.
“That time – that day,” she said. “What you said to me that day. That was it. The moment when.”
“When you realised –“
“When I realised. How sick I was, whatever. The next morning I checked myself in to Mercy. I filled out all the forms.”
“And you stayed –”
“For three months full time,” she said. “They phase you out gently, with counselling and meetings and all that. They encourage you to trace it back to a day, you know, a single decision, the moment when.”
“Oh,” I said modestly, and I thought back to how I must have helped her. “Because of what we –”
“No,” she said. She rolled her finger around the rim of her glass. “Because that day was so utterly useless to me, everything you said was so utterly useless, so nothing, so wrong, that I realised, for the first time, that I was not OK. I realised that if you believed that what you were saying was actually helpful, or actually necessary, if you believed that that I was fixable, solvable, any of it – then your way of seeing the world must be so totally divorced from mine – I knew that I must be sick. I was on a different planet – there was a veil, here – and you didn’t understand. You just couldn’t understand.”
There was a moment of pause between us. I turned my head away. She wrapped her hand around my wrist. “You helped,” she said, but in a metal voice. I did not like to be condescended to like that, so I said nothing. We sat and she drew her thumb over the top of my hand, roughly, back and forth. To deflect I asked about the hospital, and then compared it to the movies I had seen. That was the last time. Outside in the street we kissed and said, in turns, how we were each doing well for ourselves, and that was a good thing.