Barrow is seated at his desk gazing out across the city, the day dissolving, night settling in soft, sooty layers, blunting the edges of the vast concrete bunkers across the river. The window is open and from the street gardens and rooftop farms, the re-wilded parks the scent of flowers and ripe summer fruits, vegetables, spices, grasses, herbs, come swelling through the room.
He takes a deep breath, this burnished, sap rich, pollen heavy dusk. Rose is waiting for him back at the hotel. He squints, tries to make out their room, to see if the light is on. Imagines her reclining on the bed, grey skirt tight, a stark white blouse, smoking a cigarette, ice-blue eyes crinkled at the edge as she scans another manuscript. Perhaps she is not there at all but in some other room with some other lover, showering away the sweat and soured sweetness of the afternoon.
The end of a short day, all his days growing shorter. The past pulls at him, tugs his guts. He is that age. They tell him that this is merely the andropause, his testosterone levels dipping, that he should go and get a shot of something, exercise more, take supplements, keep his mood elevated, his focus sharp. And yet he almost welcomes the melancholy, a spiked, blueish-purple surge he has found himself, perhaps, beginning to savour.
And today’s date? Of course, this is why your mood has shifted, why those thoughts are creeping in, why loss and pain and the cold, lapping edge of grief are at you, Barrow, old boy. It was today they died. And yet every year somehow it takes you by surprise.
He takes in another lungful of sweet night air, releases it slowly, the cracked leather chair creaking beneath him. Almost time. Barrow would rather not have his session today, he has had this hour, at Frith’s gentle but implacable insistence, once a week for twenty five years now, not a single one missed. What more can he have to say, to reflect on?
The soft chime, exactly on 6 of an incoming video call and there up on the screen the old man is smiling patiently out. Good evening Doctor, he says. Perhaps he continues out of sympathy for, solidarity with Frith, not to let this relationship, if that’s the word, lapse. Odd to have watched Frith age, though at forty when Barrow was a mere twenty he had already seemed old.
Well, he said. I have been thinking, and he was aware suddenly of the dream he had had the night before, as though Frith’s mere presence, the owlish, inquisitive gaze had summoned the memory, about my parents.
I dreamed of them, actually he said and paused allowing himself to remember.
I dreamed they were still alive. Had never died. He rotated in his chair and looked out of the window again, sun almost gone now, the horizon a band of hammered brass. We were in the old house, in Deptford. The kitchen. As it was I suppose. My mother was explaining to us, the door open on to the garden, we had a little garden then, they loved it, spent many hours there, toiling over making things grow, live. As if, he said, that having three children of their own weren’t enough life for them. The dog, the cat. My father, always bringing people back to the house.
But in the dream, he was distracted by the details of the case, the open pages on the desk and swivelled around a little more. They were explaining to me that they had decided to step back from political activity, from agitation, as we used to say, that they felt too great a responsibility to John and Andrea and I and that for all their convictions their children had to come first. I was arguing against them, with all the stridency of youth and yet, he paused. That was the opposite of what happened at the time, I wanted them to be less openly opposed to the State, to its agents, formal and informal once they clearly became targets. Wanted them to step back. I was frightened, I suppose. A boy. My siblings were committed, only I argued against it. And then to be the only one to survive.
But Doctor, we have been over this many times.
He remembers again jumping down from the window into the blanket stretched taught below, the neighbours upturned faces. That moment on the ledge, the fear, the desire to stay and die with them, smoke billowing out around him, the crackling heat, his back on one side shrivelling as the half melted lamp stand fell against it, so it was the pain, the revulsion at the stench of his own charred flesh that finally galvanized him, made him jump, jump and live, a reflex, beyond his conscious control, that made him perhaps a traitor to himself, so that he sometimes imagines that half of him is still caught up there, half way out of the open window, his back burning, the dizzying drop down into the street before him, suspended between two fears, and all of this has been a fantasy, a dream of a world that is yet to be.
In the dream my mother was saying to me, when you are older you’ll understand, you’ll understand, and I had a sense that they were right, that I was a fool and I felt relief that they were deciding to step back. And when I woke I was happy, comforted to think that they were still here, and that I would be able to see them.
In this moment of waking doctor I supposed that the world was not what it is now, that the Autarchy had not happened, that we were still a country in which exploitation reigned and yet for all that I was relieved that at least these few people I had loved were still alive. I kept my eyes closed a little longer Doctor than usual, did not want to enter this world, this better world they were prepared to die for and did, and never saw. Nor did I wish, doctor to return to the stream of my own history, swelling in a great, dark bottleneck at my back. For a moment doctor, I really felt myself to be between two worlds and believed I might awake into either of them. Would I rather live in this better world, with the loss of my loved ones and the things I have done, the blood on my hands doctor, the lives I took, how that weighs on me, or a world with greater oppression, lesser freedom in which my loved ones were still with me, struggling, in which my hands were clean?