“You might want to pad that box with tea towels or something, to soften the blows if it gets knocked about a lot in the van.”
“I know that, do I look like I’m five? I was just about to get to it.”
“Fuck, Emma, sorry, I was just trying to help. I know you can get a bit absentminded. And that’s the box with your grandparents’ wedding china, right?”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Shit. Sorry. This is…”
“Yeah. Super weird.”
Emma and Colin stood at opposite ends of the room staring at each other for what seemed like hours. Their lives – once life, /laɪf/, singular, n. – were being systematically packed into the distinctly labelled cardboard boxes and suitcases that were spread around the flat. God, stop looking at me like that.
“I’m going to go finish up with the… you know… stuff… in the….”
Shit. Where did I just say I was going? Bedroom? Do I still have things in the bedroom? Emma brushed past Colin and made her way down the narrow corridor, furrowing her brows in confusion only after she had passed him. Does she even need anything from the bedroom? Craning his neck around the corner of the living room-kitchen-dining room-study of their attic flat, Colin watched as Emma’s back disappeared behind the door. Leaning back against the kitchen counter, Colin let out a low sigh and rubbed his face, his hands scratching against the dark stubble. When were the vans coming again? Three? Cleaning company right after that? What do we still need to sort out? Books? Records? Did we decide on what we wanted to do with the photographs? The room and the mismatched furniture from well before they had moved in spread around him in silence. The bookshelves that ran along the opposite wall were almost bare, except for the various bits of literature and other memorabilia whose ownership they were still attempting to decide. The handmade quilt from the sofa – a Christmas gift from Colin’s parents – had been packed away, as had the decorative pillows. Emma had claimed the tablecloth – organic cotton from John Lewis – and Colin the charity shop vase in which they had kept the flowers she would buy weekly. The dark brown coffee table, now empty, stood before the large window. Neither of them had wanted it. Colin’s brother had been around a few days earlier to pick up the TV. Now, the beams of sunlight gave the dust covering the table gave it a luminescent appearance. We could have cleaned ourselves. What did she think we needed to hire a professional for?
Emma pressed her back against the door of the bedroom and stared out of the window next to the bed. Her side of the bed. Could it still be called that? During the summers when the sun rose early and Colin would forget to draw the curtains before coming to bed, she would wake with her pyjamas glued to her skin and her hairline damp. I really didn’t need to do anything here, did I? The wardrobe with its chipped, jade-green paint stands empty in the corner, and the dressing table of a matching green no longer holds her makeup and jewellery. Please tell me I still have cigs in here. Boxes full of clothes – mostly hers – are still open on the floor, and there is an indent in the middle of the springy mattress. Has that always been there? Out of the five garment bags lying on top of the bed, only one belongs to Colin – a suit, a gift from Emma to say ‘congratulations on the new job’. In the other four, three dresses and a jumpsuit, all worn exactly once before being neatly packed back into their bags, sent to the dry cleaners, and collected. The blue tags with the pencilled numbers are still attached to the hangers. Emma squatted down next to what had been her side of the bed, and ran her hand along the inside of the mahogany bedframe, stopping when she felt the tape. Letting her fingers guide her, she felt along the side of the carton till she found the lid. She pulled out one of the few remaining cigarettes and the lighter she kept in the carton, and opened the window with a grunt. How long have these been there for? They better not’ve gone completely stale. I wonder if I can get the cleaner to oil the window? Or is that a landlord job? Emma sat down on the windowsill and took a long, purposeful drag of her cigarette, staring out at nothing in particular. The midday sun was bright in her eyes, and the still heat of July felt heavy, almost tangible, almost solid. It smelt of asphalt, gasoline, and sweat. The steady murmur of the high street around the corner filled her ears, and she barely even registered the handle of the door turning.
“You’re smoking again?” Colin, with his perpetual frown, stood in the doorframe.
“I never quit.” Inhale.
Emma’s wide blue eyes, freckled pale skin, the big, curly ginger hair that framed her circular face, her long, lithe limbs curled within the frame of the open window, all sat there in front of Colin. Almost completely still, except for the intermittent dimpling of her cheeks. Who are you? As she continued to her gaze at the road outside, she parted her lips, letting a lazy stream of smoke disappear into the summer’s day. From a nearby park, the laughter of children echoed through the air.
“Want one?” Exhale.
“You know I don’t smoke.”
“Never too late to start.” Inhale.
Emma shrugged, and stared at the glowing embers at the end of her cigarette.
“I put some old rags on the counter, so you can pack those around the plates.”
She averted her eyes from the street she had been staring at for the first time since Colin had entered the room. His unflinching dark blue eyes met hers. Has he always has those lines around his eyes? Through his forehead?
“What do you want to do about the records and the books?”
“I don’t care. Keep them.” Inhale.
“Even the whatsitcalled, the Velvet Underground one?”
“You mean The Velvet Underground?”
“Yeah, that’s what I just said, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, it’s called The Velvet Underground.”
“Were you always this pedantic?”
“Leave it. I’ll put it in one of my boxes.”
The bitter, plastic taste of the filter filled Emma’s mouth as she took one final drag before stubbing the cigarette out on the stony facade outside the window, letting it fall to the street below. From the corner of her eye, she watched Colin watch her hand.
“I’m assuming you don’t want to keep any of them?”
“Not even the one from the holiday in Alnwick?”
“Definitely not.” Wry scoff.
“I’ll just throw them all away then, shall I?”
“What, you’re not keeping any of them?” Her voice was strained and monotonous, in spite of the sudden drop she felt in her chest.
“Why would you assume I’d want to keep any of them if you don’t? Why don’t you want to keep any of them?”
“Fair enough. Guess I thought you’d want a memento of all the good times we shared?” The corners of Emma’s mouth turned upwards, but her eyes remained blank. Wordlessly, Colin broke the connection and turned on his heels, walking back down the corridor. Emma listened to the muffled thumps his feet made on the wooden floor, fading away. She heard the sound of the crinkling of the black bin bag, the sound of the picture frames scratching against the walls as Colin took them off their hooks. She thought she heard glass shattering. The idiot isn’t throwing them out without taking them out of the picture frames first, is he? She opened her mouth to call out to him. No, not my business anymore. Let him deal with broken glass if he wants to. But the picture frames… No, never mind. I never wanted them. What would I use them for? All the photographs are on Facebook anyways. I wonder if he’s untagged himself from the photos?
Colin peered into the darkness of the bin bag, at the amalgam of broken glass and coloured paper. Probably should’ve saved the frames. But she would’ve said something had she wanted to save them, right? The photograph on the top of the pile shows the two of them, standing on a cliff, the North Sea spreading far into the horizon. Emma’s hair is blowing in the wind as she hugs a grinning Colin. Unlike Colin, Emma is staring directly into the camera. The photograph is from a five-day trip to Alnwick that they took almost a year into their relationship, three months before they had finally moved in together. The cottage they had rented was close to the seaside, within driving distance from town – at least that’s what the Airbnb advert had claimed. Little had they known that ‘driving distance’ meant three quarters of an hour. The weather had been uncharacteristically warm for late August, even with the harsh wind and the cold water. They spent their evenings sitting out on the small patio behind the cottage, curled up beneath a quilt, drinking wine and talking late into the nights. An old man – farmer, they had assumed – accompanied by two shepherd dogs had taken the photo. “My wife and I met when we were about your age”, he had said, smiling. Emma had thought that Colin might propose during the trip. He didn’t. Emma barely spoke during the eight-hour drive home. When Colin asked her about this, she replied with a curt “I’m tired, it’s been a long trip. Let me focus on the road.” By the time the car drove through the yellow roads of the outskirts of London, Colin was fast asleep. He had looked so peaceful, head resting against the window, that Emma almost felt a pang of guilt at having to wake him up when they finally reached his flat. Looking up from the bin bag, Colin surveyed the foreign, plain white walls. There hadn’t been many pictures – five, maybe six at most, depending on the month, the year – but they had always been there. The sharp, flat metal hooks jotted out of the white walls. He walked across the room – had it always been this big? – and started to pile the few remaining books into one of his boxes. The Master and Margarita? Really? She didn’t want to keep this? He held the book, with its tattered pages and torn covers, in his hands. Footsteps down the corridor – light, rapid yet tentative – echoed in his ears as he gave the cover one final glance before tossing it in with the rest of the books. Emma recognised the black cover instantly, and watched it fall into Colin’s box.
“Vans are here.”
He glanced up at the sound of her voice. She was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded. Her jeans hung loosely around her legs, held up by a thick brown belt. She was picking at a thread hanging off the seam of her vest top. Emma could sense his eyes running along her tall, slim figure, and tugged at the thread with increasing intensity. She lifted her head, meeting his eyes. Smiling ever so slightly.
Article by Erika Koljonen
Illustration by Julia Rosner