More Than This

by Heidi James

Not long before leaving, she’d begun forgetting the words that produced her life. Simple words like saucepan, obelisk, masquerade and most recently, cufflinks, which she’d called wrist links, her mind toddler-fumbling with the picture-sounds till her husband corrected her with an unconcerned look on his face. And he wasn’t concerned. He said it was natural, to be expected, considering the circumstances. She worried that she was losing her mind, but then she always worried about that because she had once before. Once before she’d believed she was a horse, with no voice and only legs to run away.

When she arrived it was dark, and the marble staircase spiralled blind above her. She humped her small case up, clutching the banister with her left hand, trying not to slip on the narrow ledge of each step. If she’d switched the case to her left hand and moved to the outer edge of the stairs it would’ve been easier, but she didn’t – it felt more natural to struggle. The flat they’d rented for her revealed itself under soft pools of well-positioned light as she entered, bruised and sweating. It was at the top of the building, with a large open-plan sitting room and dining area, a simple but well-appointed kitchen, two en-suite bedrooms and, best of all, a beautiful study with a huge desk beyond which lay a large terrace with a view of the city’s hills. It was the kind of flat she’d have chosen for herself – if she’d ever had a choice. As she set about unpacking, placing her razor and moisturiser and tampons in the bathroom, her nightgown under the pillow in the bedroom, she felt oddly at ease. The muscles in her shoulders had loosened a little.

‘So, have you been to Athens before?’ Arthur, her colleague asked. He was balding, fifty-something but trim. He likes to run, he told her. His voice was pitched for performance, so that everyone in the room could hear him if they chose to, which he imagines they do, she thought. ‘You’ll like it,’ he said, ‘the students are very good.’ And she wanted to ask him how he knew she’d like it, but she didn’t. There were others at the table: a pudgy male with receding gums and another woman, whose bright curls rose from her head like curious antennae. They drank wine and ate from a collection of dishes in the middle of the table, ordered by Arthur: feta in pastry, honeyed cheese, potato and garlic paste, entire fish floating in a tomato sauce. She ate French fries and drank diet Coke.

They talked about the week ahead and the work and Elvis and how to breed goats, but she will only remember that they listened to Arthur’s shrill voice saying that women want feminism but not all it entails, and that the parks are wonderful in Athens but too dangerous for girls; that it was natural for male professors to have affairs with young, female students and ridiculous that anyone could be sacked over it. He told her that it was a shame she didn’t have children, that having children had changed his life. She would recall hating herself for not arguing, because she wanted his approval even though she despised him. (Or at least, she didn’t want any trouble and knew he wouldn’t hear her anyway.)

When they were getting ready to leave, he spotted the book she was reading in her bag. ‘Ah, THAT book, what do you think of it?’ But while she was thinking of the words to use he said, ‘I hated it. And I definitely think it’s written by a man, don’t you?’ She shook her head and closed her bag. I like it, she almost whispered. The book is written by a woman called Elena and this will seem significant later.

The next morning she woke after nine o’clock, having slept right through for the first time in months. She stretched and lingered in bed, watching the light lift and swell through the slats in the blinds. When she made coffee she found everything: the spoons, the sugar, the coffee beans, exactly where she would’ve put them if it were her kitchen. She wandered around the flat, the large mug warm in her palm, browsing through the books, the shelves of classical CDs; admiring the paintings on the walls. It was the flat of someone elegant and educated. Someone who liked art and architecture, literature and travel; someone bilingual and intellectual and stylish. It was the flat of someone she would like to be and she imagined the flat revealing its secrets, welcoming her. She imagined belonging here. She opened the sliding glass doors onto the terrace and stepped out, the tiles already hot beneath her feet. Below her in the street, a construction crew hammered through the surface of the road, leaving a pile of rubble. She sat down and listened to their shouts.

She left the flat at four thirty. It would take twenty minutes to walk to the college for her class, according to the map she’d been given. She chose a longer route to avoid seeing her colleagues in the street; they were staying nearby and had been given the same route. But it turned out it wasn’t necessary. She crossed their path and they didn’t see her, didn’t call to her. They carried on talking, not breaking stride. She realised she wasn’t visible to them: a ghost, unrecognisable. Her body felt looser, more comfortable around her, as she walked.

Her students saw her, though: ten adults sitting around a table, waiting for her to speak. They told her their names and she tried to remember them, glancing at the register to tether the face to the word. She looked at her notes, the lesson plan she didn’t remember writing, and began. Speaking, her mouth translating black type into sounds. She watched them, a couple of men, more women, listening and scribbling in their books. It seemed to go well – no one complained or left the room. When the class was over the students asked her to join them for a drink, but she declined and hurried back to the apartment. She is safe there and when she is inside she likes who she is.

Life is all about choices, her mother used to say. Make sure you can live with your choices; that’s the key. Someone else told her that she could choose to be whomever and whatever she wanted. It’s her right to choose. A woman’s right. It’s the law. What to have what to wear who to be where to go what to do eat read listen like love. Who is she? This has always been a problem. Choosing and emulating the wrong person, and being disappointed or ashamed by behaviour she soon realised was nothing like the self she thought she could be. Which version would fit best, be liked most? Over and over, she repeated the advice she read in magazines and on social media to be true to her own soul, to like herself more, to love herself, but she has no idea who she is. Or why she should love her.

She discovered that the apartment belonged to a woman called Elena and she enjoyed the small coincidence of naming shared between the author of the book she adored and the owner of the flat. It seemed the world was confirming her existence. She took care of Elena’s things, making a temporary, yet oddly familiar life for herself. Ridiculous, she thought. She dusted the photos of a handsome man that punctuated the space, straightened the paintings and exhibition posters, and replaced books and CDs in the exact places she had found them.

The password to Elena’s wifi network was morethanthis and there was a candle with those words etched in its glass – she wondered if it was a little joke, an aide-mémoire, but then remembered that one of the few contemporary artists in the large music collection was Roxy Music and she wondered if it was more than this, more than a joke or mnemonic; she wondered if there was a commemoration even in this banal fact. That Elena chose the password because of the song and the man in the photo, and the candle was one of those funny synchronicities that trick us into believing in patterns and meaning. She understood the resurrecting of old loves by making their names into the codes that facilitate her life: the digital equivalent of a lock of hair in a necklace. She felt close to Elena, within touching distance.

She found the Roxy Music CD and put on the song, dancing for while in small concentric circles; putting it on repeat, because she liked it and it reminded her of someone she had tried to love. But then she thought of Elena and felt odd, as if impersonating her, or making light of her love affair, because she would like to be a person, a woman, who owned a home like this. Who deserved more respect. She sat down, tired of questioning her every move, knowing it was almost insane, especially at her age. She should be better than this, more than this.

She imagined that Elena was dignified and self-possessed, able to deflect an insult with a glance. She imagined she wore her hair pulled back in a sleek bun, or in sheets of shiny black hanging past her shoulders. She imagined she wore edgy clothes, tailored in asymmetric, elegant shapes that accentuated her femininity without a single regard for appealing to men. She imagined Elena didn’t seek approval from anyone. When she got ready for work, she dried her hair straight and painted her mouth an uncompromising red that she found in the bathroom cabinet – the red of a stop sign. She liked it.

In class, she dispensed with her notes and encouraged the students to tell her about Greek politics, the civil war and the economic crisis. Things she didn’t really understand. The students tell her about parents and grandparents that either did, or lived through, unspeakable things. Things that happened long after the Second World War had ended: the killing of neighbours because they were communist or capitalist or anarchist, the starvation of children, the rape of women and girls. How no one speaks of recent history, the divisions and splits, like silent parasites that burrow and itch and cause you to tear out your hair. They tell her about the British and their involvement. They tell her ancient history is safer. That the city is still divided between political factions, if only in discreet ways, and that the police don’t venture into some parts. They talk about refugees and the EU. She wonders what part Elena played in all this and whether to believe them. She wonders if they are making fun of her ignorance. Elena, she thought, would always do the right thing.

The next day she walks miles, past crowds of tourists, the collapsed monuments and soldiers guarding the government buildings with pompoms on their feet. She walks through the dangerous park without mishap. She watches Orthodox priests in their long black robes and mushroom-shaped hats sheltering from the sudden rain under a shop awning, staring at their phones. The rain overwhelms the sewers, collecting in deep puddles, shin deep. As thunder heaves overhead, she realises she can remember the words that describe her life. She walks and walks, shedding elements of herself as she goes. I am more than this, she thinks. She stops and buys herself a pistachio ice cream, counting out the correct change and eats it with long licks and big bites, not caring who sees.

She found Elena’s photo albums, albums dating back to the ‘50s. The first was mostly filled with photos of the handsome man, tracing him through his teens leaning against a sleek car or amongst his friends lazing on a beach; revealing him as a chubby kid smiling from the laps of loving adults; photos of him on holiday with his family in London, pigeons crowding his small figure in Trafalgar Square, his mother smiling, eyes squinted against the birds, next to him. They look happy, wealthy and better off than her family would’ve been. Her old family photos would commemorate damp seaside visits to eat whelks and drink tea from a Thermos. Christmases around a threadbare tinsel tree. There is no sign of the suffering her students told her about. Only happiness and wealth. Elena belonged to a family who had made a success of their lives, generation to generation; outside of history and politics.

Elena appears in the next album. She has a crooked nose and curly hair. There are lots of photos of her, celebrating her; pictures of her and the handsome man holding each other, laughing, kissing, hugging; caught in the act at family parties, on a holiday, his hand on her thigh, arm around her, their faces joyful, close. There are photos of two children – babies, then toddlers – playing on the terrace of the flat, family dinners around the dining table: Elena, the handsome man and the children. Teenagers, graduates, adults. She guesses the children would be around thirty now, younger than her, but she was younger than Elena. This mattered. She is disappointed that Elena is not more chic or conventionally beautiful. She is disappointed she is not young and single. She is disappointed in herself that she wanted Elena to be different, but she realises, it’s OK because she can be a better Elena than them both, for them both. All women are competitive; it’s natural, her mother used to say.

Elena was a widow. She guessed this, simply because only Elena’s name was on the letters and bills stacked up in the kitchen, and the existence of the handsome man’s photo anchored the apartment to his absence. Then she found a condolence card tucked into a book on Joseph Beuys on the coffee table, sending Elena sympathy and hoping she felt less upset. Less upset. She tossed the book and tore up the card. Who were these people? She wanted Elena to have better friends, or at least friends who expressed condolences eloquently. Elena deserved better than these people, who didn’t understand how profound her grief was. But she understood, she felt it for her. She felt it with her.

She spent the rest of the week like this, reading Elena’s books, listening to Elena’s music, teaching class. Her colleagues had disappeared. She ran up the steps to the flat, sure footed. She stopped for coffee every afternoon in the same café and found herself learning short phrases of Greek. She lay on the sofa wondering if Elena was close to her children and her mother, and knew that she was. Elena was a woman incapable of petty grudges and squabbles. Elena was loved and loving. She had seen the evidence. She just knew.

She sat at Elena’s desk and wrote letters to strangers, knowing exactly what to say. The workmen were still hammering and tearing at the street below. On the desk there were scissors, yellow-handled, and pens in a pot under an Anglepoise lamp. Books on town planning and architecture lined the shelves. She had a large printer capable of printing A3 paper. Two model wooden boats hung from fishing nylon. She was a guest, an imposter, a ghost and yet belonged. She belonged there. She could choose to belong there. Her mobile phone lit up with a call from her husband. She ignored it, as she had all the other calls she’d received that week, before picking it up and throwing it out over the terrace. She looked at her reflection in the window and smiled.

She chose to stay in bed on the morning of the flight to London and lay watching the light clarify the room in cascading ripples. When she eventually dressed, she chose a white trouser suit that created a new geometry of her body. Her hair fell sleek and dark. She breakfasted on her terrace, looking through a book on medieval religious art. A page had been marked, an image of a gold shrine in Bavaria, and for a moment she wondered why, then she remembered that she had written an article about it a few years ago, before she had forgotten who she was. Now that she remembered, it all seemed clear, precise. That evening, she went to a concert in a converted church and had a late dinner in a small restaurant she decided she had visited years before. She was noticed, seen, people nodded in greeting, held doors open for her.

A few days later the police arrived. She had been cooking, preparing dinner for her children and their partners, her hair coiled in a bun, out of the way. Elena Allagi? She nodded and stepped aside, inviting the police officer, and the dishevelled man accompanying him, in to sit down. They were looking for someone, he said. This man’s wife is missing, the policeman gestured to his companion. Can I offer you coffee? she asked. They shook their heads and the policeman handed her a photo of the woman. Have you seen her, they asked, we understand she was here, a guest of the college. Elena peered at the photo of an unremarkable face, the expression prepared for disappointment. A face like so many others, indistinguishable and interchangeable. No, she said. I’m afraid I haven’t seen her; I’m sorry. The policeman spoke in English to the husband, who nodded and turned to Elena, scrutinising her face, her hands, as if he were trying to see his wife inside her. The husband began to cry, quietly, like a wounded boy, and Elena understood why his wife might choose to disappear. How can she just vanish like this? The husband wailed, his Adam’s apple bobbing under the skin of his throat. I’m sorry I can’t help, Elena said, rising and seeing the men to her door. She watched them as they descended the curling staircase, diminishing with each step, before closing her door.


Photograph by George Atsametakis / Alamy

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