Sylvia by Daisy Johnson

Sylvia was able to send him messages but there would never be any in return. She had been told this over and over in the months leading up to his leaving. Dylan had told her himself once or twice. She had settled herself to the thought.
Except the day before he left he’d said he would try. Off-hand. He’d give it a go. They were walking the dog along the canal, back around, the stretch of hill, the ancient, log mired lock.
What do you mean?
He shrugged. He had been preparing for the trip for almost a year. She missed the fatty, imperfect parts of his body. There was nothing on him now that he did not need. He was practical like a suitcase and she felt a little shy in front of him. She was not that way. In their downstairs toilet there was a machine the shape and size of a travelling chest, which was set to the temperature and humidity of the place he would be going. For an hour after breakfast he lay in it. From her study she could hear the sound of it clicking, steady, metronomic. Afterwards he would come out sweating and the kitchen would be filled with steam. His skin, she thought, was thicker than it had been before, tough.
I’ve been thinking about it. It wouldn’t be long, it might be some kind of Morse code, but I think I could get messages to you.
How?
He wouldn’t explain. More and more, there were things he wouldn’t explain or answer. He was like the door of a bus closing slowly, the thinning gap in-between.

*

For the first year, everything was possible Morse code: the peals of the ice-cream van that pulled up at the end of the road, the changing arrival times on the electronic bus stop signs, the bells over shop and café doors. Stood for ten minutes in the library convinced there was something about the barcodes, the matching letters and numbers, the position of the full stop. If only he had explained himself better, given her a direction to look in, told her what she could ignore.
She went to the base once a month to send a message. A woman in uniform stood on the door while she talked into the handset. As if she was doing a drugs test. Sometimes she would hear the sound of the woman clearing her throat and know she had gone too far. Whatever she had said would be erased. It was not good, she’d been told at the start, to sentimentalise, either about herself or the country he was no longer in, the home he did not currently have. There was comfort in routine: the dullness of weather forecasts, small town news, family affairs. There was no comfort in missing, in longing, despairing.
She tried all the same, in the brief messages, to tell him what he’d missed. There had been holidays with family or friends. Rented houses in Wales, France, the Norfolk coast. There was, even, a trip alone to Barcelona. There were a couple of funerals. At his cousin’s wedding there was a photo of him on one of the tables that – as the free bar began to dry up – people pretended to talk to, catching her eye as they did so, making some kind of joke she did not understand. In April she was walking past a playground on the way to the library when she saw a child – no older than three – braving the monkey bars, balanced, no one around to see. She scaled up after him, fell, broke her arm in two places. She told him about that in the next message, explained how the junior doctor who’d set her cast had done it wrong, had to cut it all away again. The woman on the door made no noises of dispute at this and she presumed the information got to him, winging its way to wherever he was. She was uncertain what he would make of it.

*

Imagine: your lover gone so long others begin trying their luck.
On the doorstep: wilted flowers, half-frozen boxes of chocolates, cards with a question mark at the end instead of a name. There was a pub she went to on Thursdays with the other wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends who were also waiting. They told her similar stories. Messages left with their children or with people at work; deliveries of books and presents, phone numbers through the letter box. One man had been followed home from the pub. He spoke about turning and seeing the woman standing beneath the street light, watching him. By the time he got to his door, she was close enough she could have reached out and touched him.

*

A friend called Anna rings to say that she has been given the green light to begin preparation. Her partner, Sophia, will be coming home in a day. Sylvia takes the call in the hallway. The phone is one of those ancient ones with holes for fingers, a short cord tethering you to the spot. It is not, Anna says, enough notice to get everything ready. She is making noises that could be crying or laughing.
There’s a list of things I’m not allowed to have in the house.
What do you mean?
The list was expansive. When Anna was gone, Sylvia went around with a bin bag and gathered all the boxes of matches, the lighter fluid and BBQ equipment. Tried, as she went, to work out what it meant that these were the things she had to get rid of; what it might mean about where he was; about when he would come back. The locks and bolts on inner doors, the stuffing in cushions, the soap and shampoo. Just in case. Just to be ready.

*

There was a celebration for Sophia’s return. In the invitation Anna wrote that she could only eat soft food for a while so Sylvia made the pear cake she’d eaten every day as a child with braces. Picked up a couple of beers at the off-licence on the corner.
She had seen Sophia a couple of times at the preparatory seminars she’d gone to with Dylan. She was very straight backed, taking notes with her left hand, not laughing at a joke the tutor made but smiling conspiratorially. Sylvia had wanted to trust the people Dylan was going with and had studied them, asked him questions about them on the drive home. He’d seemed unwilling to answer, switching the heating up as high as it would go, asking her to roll up her window, putting on another couple of jumpers that he’d stored in the car for the purpose. Everything was a moment in which he could be more ready, more prepared. She watched him sweating. But what are they like? As people?
They’re fine.
At the house she knocked on the green front door and someone she did not know let her in. There was barely room to stand. A few people grabbed her elbow or kissed her cheek and then were gone. She heard Anna’s laugh but could not see her. She fought through the crowd, found a table and put the cake tin down. There was a break in the crowd, a thinning. Sophia was on the sofa with a blanket over her legs. People were stood around her though no one was speaking to her. She was looking at Sylvia carefully.
I know you, she said.
Yes, Sylvia said and went over. Sophia looked up at her. Her skin was tanned and bark-like. Beneath the blanket Sylvia could see that her legs were wasted, too thin to carry her body. She wanted to ask: How was it? But couldn’t think of the right way to say it. She wanted to ask: How is he?
I don’t remember how I know you, Sophia said and then took a hold of the corner of Sylvia’s sleeve. Her grip was surprisingly tight. Sylvia bent down towards her. Her breath was hot and dry and there was a rattle somewhere in her chest. She waited for her to say something, to say something about Dylan, to tell her he was coming back soon or he wasn’t coming back. She waited so long she could hear Sophia’s pulse thrumming, too fast, beneath her skin.

*

That week Anna rings every day, sometimes twice or three times. She rings while Sophia has naps or takes hour long showers which drain all the hot water from the house. She speaks in whispers so that Sylvia has to say, What? What did you say? She tells Sylvia about waking in the night to an empty bed, going looking through the dim house for where Sophia is sleeping. She likes, Anna says, small, hot spaces. She keeps hiding. She keeps turning the heating up. She won’t eat anything I make her but there are tins going missing. Tins of what? Tins of custard and coconut milk; out of date tins from the back of the cupboard, mushy peas and spaghetti hoops. She won’t let me turn the lights on. The other day she went round unscrewing all the bulbs. I think, Anna says, that it was dark where they were.

*

In the mornings, she takes the dog out across the wheat field the way they used to do together. The dog was his, loved only him. Each time she called it back she was certain it would not come, would have realised she was no longer a place he was docked to. She walked until they reached the top of the hill and then stood looking down to the town. The old entrance to the mine. The M road beyond. Stood wondering how long she would be allowed to wait. The woman in the takeaway gave her extra chips with her fish. At the bus stop she was often let to the front of the queue like an invalid or a pregnant woman. It was unclear how long this would continue and what would happen when it stopped.
One morning on the hill, it crossed her mind that she could invite one of the other men or women into her life. Mostly, they were of the same build and height as Dylan. Their accents were similar. Some of them had gone to the same school as him. They would tell, perhaps, the same stories about the teachers. She could teach them the phrases he would use over and over. He had been able to ride his bike with no hands, leant back, on his telephone or whistling. He had played the piano well. Was good at it in a way she found inconceivable. She would set them on the stool, listen to them play. I would like, she would say, you to play through the night. I would like, she would say, you to play until he comes back.

*

The next time she goes to the base there is a moment when the woman on the door steps out into the corridor and lets the door close behind her. A thing that has never happened before. That will never happen again. She leans as close as she can get to the microphone. On the screen her voice makes a wavering line, rising in pitch. Are you in the dark? she says. Are you getting these messages? Can you hear me?
There are hands around her waist pulling her away. She makes a sound that she hopes will get to him; that she hopes will remind him of everything she is not allowed to talk about. How she misses him. How she doesn’t know how long to miss him for.

*

At the house, she retrieves the bin bag from the cupboard and goes around replacing everything where it belongs. Boxes of matches, lighter fluid and BBQ equipment. The locks and bolts on inner doors, the stuffing in cushions, the soap and shampoo.

*

The next day she is asked to go to the base. The traffic is bad and she arrives only just on time, sweating, running to the meeting room. She has prepared what she will say, how she will explain. She will be firm. You need, she will say, to tell us more about where they are. It is impossible, she will say, to live like this. Sat around the table are three other people she recognises from the pub. She does not have a chance to say all the things she has prepared. They are each given a brown envelope and told they can go.

*

Back at the house she unscrews all the locks she had screwed back in, her hands slipping on the screwdriver, the nails skittering down the gaps between floors. The dog watches her from the end of the hallway. There are a couple of extra things on the list that are new or that Anna had forgotten to mention. She adds them to the bin bag: pens, both of their laptops, the extension cords and phones. Takes the bag out to the rubbish. Goes back. Walks it down the road and puts it into the bin behind the supermarket. Just to be safe.
She defrosts the freezer, lowers the temperature on the fridge until it’s barely colder than the house, throws out anything that will go off. Tacks up newspaper over the windows; blocks the gaps beneath doors, puts the lamps into the attic. She tries to remember everything about him and finds that, already, there are gaps. What did he like most to drink? When did he wake up in the morning? What was their Sunday routine? He was like a shark, swimming and swimming. There was never a time he was not in motion. Except when he arrives – they have written – he will need to rest. He will want only to sleep.
When she rings Anna to tell her the news there is no answer. She leaves a message. He is coming home. He will be home in twelve hours.

*

That night she does not sleep but roams, checking, double-checking, pulling at the sockets to check they’re secure, leaving the doors swinging. The street lights come through the newspaper; she does not know what she can do about that.
When she thinks of him coming home, he is walking that old route back towards the house. She can hear the dog rustling in the hedges, through the knee-high nettles. He walks slowly; he is in no rush. It is early morning but the colour of the sky is the tangerine orange of the street lights outside their house. In the near distance she can hear the ice-cream van warbling a Morse code tune which she cannot quite decipher.

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