Zhanna is ebullient on the bus into central London. The National Theatre is exhibiting the winners of the National Geographic Traveller Photo Contest. She holds Tom’s arm and squeezes and draws his attention to people in the street, points out buildings of interest. For a Russian girl who has only lived in the city for a year, she knows a lot about London. Her energetic curiosity means she knows more than other Londoners; certainly more than he does. She knows London like she knows her home city of Orenburg, and from books alone she knows other cities too: New York; Cape Town; Istanbul.
Zhanna and Tom visit museums whenever they can. It is something they both like to do, and no surprise that they first met at the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of Albrecht Dürer engravings. From across the room he noticed her, sitting on a wooden bench so immersed in a work that she would not move from it. Other visitors ambled from piece to piece, making occasional comments, but Zhanna sat so captivated by this single picture that it seemed as though she were setting it to memory, or planning to steal it. She gazed at the engraving while he gazed at her. And so it was with other exhibitions they visited. He knew what to expect, but was never quite prepared for it. Whatever it was that came upon her so unexpectedly. If he were to be clinical, he might refer to such moments as episodes. She would be bright and talkative one moment and lost to him an instant later.
At the National Theatre, they buy a drink at the bar and go upstairs. The landscapes interest her more than the portraits, and as they come to a series of pictures taken in the Turkish area of Goreme, Tom feels her slipping away. She seems to enter each photograph, inhabiting it as the photographer might have, focusing like a lens, extending herself, finding her own preferred depth-of-field, venturing to the furthest point and spreading herself out across the landscape, covering all possible space, embedding herself in the grainy surface of the photograph.
As always, he is stubborn and tries to intercept and retrieve her, much in the same way a jealous child might when their playmate seems happier playing on their own. But Zhanna will not allow interference or be hindered by anyone. She simply cannot be brought back.
They move slowly along the series, Zhanna saying very little, until they come to a picture entitled Sunrise over Cappadocia. Hundreds of hot air balloons floating above the dreamlike rocky desert landscape. The picture was taken from one of the balloons further adrift and, caught by the sun rising over the distant mountains, the other balloons, splayed out in a haphazard dance across the sky, are imbued with an iridescent glow.
Her light, olive-green eyes grow lively. The expression of a city child in the woods for the first time, witnessing the flickering glow of fireflies. A moment when the real outshines the limits of the imagination. He reaches for her hand but she withdraws it, smiling but not speaking, unable to look him in the eyes. Guilty of some sin.
Later, they walk along the South Bank in silence. He suggests they get something to eat at Borough Market, and a drink, which is one way of reviving her. She nods and they walk on. He watches her as one watches a stranger, as he watched her months ago at the Courtauld. She looks up at the sky and at the river flowing downstream. But not at him.
Do you have many regrets? she says.
If he is hoping for her to speak this is not what he wants to hear. He makes some flippant remark not wishing to philosophize every angle of their experience. Tom likes art for what it is, technically. He likes to think that he is able to distinguish good works from bad ones by the execution of skill, whereas Zhanna tends to examine art for its intentions. She searches for meaning. For her technique is a given, and therefore secondary.
She does not try to insist that he answer her, nor does she elaborate. Instead, she drifts back into her silent space. The mood has soured and he would like to suggest they head for home but does not want to be the one to have completely ruined their day out.
That evening she does not work on her cushions. Before they left that morning she had been hard at work on a new design, but now her embroidery, strewn on her work desk, is forgotten. It is a new hobby of hers, one he urged she try after they met a woman in Brick Lane selling cushions embroidered with graffiti. The cushions sold well and Zhanna said she had some ideas. It has turned out to be an obsession and cushions, embroidered with her own designs of weird birds and insects, fill every room. To free some space, he arranges them out on the swing in front of the house. The neighbour’s cat seems to appreciate them.
They both read a little, drink tea and make small talk before going upstairs to bed. Things are not perfect, but they seem to have clawed back some sense of normality. They make love, which like his view of art seems to be all technique, and for her, this once, without meaning. She falls asleep before he turns off the light.
Later, he wakes up to find her sitting naked at the end of the bed. She has opened the blinds and her skin is striped with shadow and moonlight. She is startled when he touches her.
I didn’t mean to wake you, she says.
Just a dream.
He shifts beneath the covers, prepared to fall back asleep. He has work in the morning.
Perhaps more than just a dream, Thomas.
Tell me about it, he says.
We were at the Courtauld Gallery.
Where we met?
Yes. I’d wandered into a room on my own. Large scrolls, painted blue, Chagall blue, hung suspended from the ceilings. Coming closer I saw writing on the scrolls. Handwritten in fine black ink, the script was illegible to me. But somehow I understood, and it seemed as if the truth about my whole life was there, written, illegible, but clear, upon Chagall blue.
She tells dreams this way. An outpouring, a chant, repetition. Beautiful. But he wants her to stop, and go back to sleep. And then what? he asks.
You were there, in the next room, and I called out to you, excited. I wanted you to see the scrolls. But when you approached your expression was indifferent. I could not believe it. I felt angry.
He touches her back, feeling irritated for consoling her and assuaging a sense of guilt for something he has not actually done.
When I tried to look back at the scrolls I couldn’t move, she says. Not my head, my body, not even my eyes, which were fixed on you and your expression, on your apathy.
He is silent, and withdraws his hand.
I had become the artwork, suspended above the ground. Immovable, and looked at by you, only you were so indifferent.
It’s just a dream, he says.
She stands up, the broken moonlight fluttering down the length of her naked body, and leaves the room.
In the morning she is gone. Tom goes out into the front garden. The sun has not yet risen. The wooden swing, her birthday gift to him, the one he didn’t care for much, is stacked with cushions. He picks one up. It is light, lumpy and covered in cat hair. These cushions, whimsical things that are left scattered across the garden when the wind blows, do not serve their purpose. The cushions, he thinks now, were made simply to punish him for not liking the swing in the first place. The effort she must have made to have it fitted without him knowing, the childlike anticipation of surprise she must have imagined he’d feel as she led him out on to the terrace on the morning of his birthday. The disappointment when she saw the look on his face. His indifference.
Since then it has become a white elephant, buried under cushions, home to the neighbour’s cat. And yet here he is, this morning, still dark, sitting on the swing, a cushion on his lap. With birdsong slowly beginning to replace the call of crickets, he is aware of the significance of his position, because it is a first, something unforeseen. Do you have many regrets? she’d asked.
He begins to rock, his feet firm on the ground, pushing him back, his knees bending, bringing him forward. Hung on chains threaded through thick brass rings bored into the wooden beams of the extended roof, the swing does not squeak. Rather, the sound is similar to that of a moored boat, rocking on gentle waves.
The sun begins to rise.
In the distance, beyond the cityscape, like strange mountain peaks, birds fly in formation, migrating to a warmer climate, and for a moment he imagines her flying with them. The sun catches their wings, setting them alight: a Chagall orange, against a Chagall blue; without regret.