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Brian Howell decorative flourish Black on White

This is how she appears to me now: a silhouette in front of the window, dark on dark, except for the white bars of the casement, her head making a roundel in the glass. I had occasionally speculated over how much difference there could be between the darkened stencil of a black girl standing with her back against the night and her white, yellow or whatever-coloured counterpart doing the same. To be truthful, I’m not sure if I remember a similar occasion with any of my previous partners standing against that kind of background, apart from Lisda. I’m still entertained by the thought, fascinated by this imaginary difference, as though the intensity of the one image were displacing the other.

Her figure is slim; her breasts hold their fullness downwards, as if asserting their independence from the chest proper; her legs taper; her skin has the mollescent quality of a downy leaf. We stroke each other in tandem, the effect like that vertiginous echoing movement of propeller blades which seem, impossibly, to reverse direction just as they reach full rotation.

Well, that was Lisda, when things were good, when life was reasonably uncomplicated for both of us, when I had not yet indulged my preoccupation with the decline of everything that surrounded me.

From the bed, Karen comes over to me and puts her arms around my waist. She does not speak, but I hear the words, nevertheless. Cold, very cold, and I shudder as if I too can feel it, even though Karen’s warmth spreads slowly through me. Finally, she speaks.

“Richard, what is it?”

“Nothing, I thought I just … no, nothing.”

Karen’s hair is blonde and straggly. She too is slender, except in one area, her stomach, where the warmth of her soul seems to have run, as if it could not take up residence anywhere else. She does not believe me but her stomach excites me more than any other part of her body or any woman’s ever has. It is ripe, not withchild, for there is none, but with another’s phantom offspring perhaps.

Sometimes she looks shocked, as if she does not believe in the features of her own face, which express delicate concern at the slightest change in anything around her. She’s a barometer of my fears and the worst possible partner for someone like me. Yet I could hardly be luckier, hardly less deserving.

Those disembodied words come back again, and I finally let myself be drawn to the marriage bed, to the dark cuneal shelter of her womb, overseen by that enticing overhang of flesh which is so conscious of me.

The lights are on now, in a place I have left behind, and I am a sleeping outsider.

Cold, cold.

We sit in the café. Lisda’s long arms, encased in a puffy bomber jacket, claim most of the Formica surface, as she has claimed most of my time for the past half year. The Greek counterman’s doleful, moustached expression engages ours as if we are unwelcome regulars who have bad news to tell.

“What if there is baby?” she asks.

We have discussed the matter five or six times already that day, but my assertions are like trains running into a terminal from which there are no longer any departures.

“There won’t, there can’t be, not now,” I reply, certain my uncertainty does not show, except to myself. Even now the chemical is working its way through her body on a one-way search-and-destroy mission.

I have to play a kind of bluff.

“You don’t want it, do you?”

She looks down.

I feel sick. Sick of editing my words before they come out. Communication is a big problem. It, like external beauty, bears no relations to inner intention. But perhaps it is better like that.

She twirls a vegetable samosa around the plate, offers me a bite, which I refuse, then devours it suddenly, salamander-like. I am still swimming in the black irises of her eyes, dissolving like coffee. Our child would be brown, I think to myself. I am not prepared for this.

I look around this London café, assessing pigmentation. Can it be calculated? What are the mathematics involved? Show me a chart, choose the saturation level you desire.

Her long fingers, unpainted, cold, dark brown. What if … baby?

I think back, see her slip into her jeans, rounding out their constriction, suffocating me with their promising curves, taking away, by this very act of dressing, what I have just enjoyed. How many pairs does she have? Seven, eight?

“No one can know. My father—”

“I know. Your father’s important.”

He is an army general, in fact.

“No one can know.”

“That’s difficult. But why, Lisda?”

“No one can know.”

It’s gone, but she isn’t. In the school building, they swirl around the entrance, a honeycomb of smiles and parting glances. If I should lose you. No.

“Where you come from … ” I start.

“Yes.”

“It’s bad to do what we’ve done.”

“Yes.”

“It’s not bad.”

“No?”

“I love you.”

A honey smile, a twist of her torso, long fingers knitting themselves around my chafed hand.

“You want something.”

“A photo.”

“No, no, no.”

“Why not?”

“Why?”

Let it drop, wait a while.

Cold, cold.

The bench is wet; strolling people are followed by trains of timid leaves.

Waiting at stations, treading space. How many times? Not just for Lisda.

She emerges, as if floating up the steps. Her look betrays no embarrassment.

We are talking about basic furniture, here. We are talking about a makeshift table, a home-made futon, a single, circular carpet centring a wide open room. No curtains. Viewers from without viewed by those within.

“Tell me about your father.”

“Very important.”

“I know. He loves you.”

“Yes.”

“Let me stroke your hair.”

She inclines her head; we are squatting on the carpet.

“A ghost has it now.”

“What?”

“In my country, no-baby taken by ghost. Now lives with ghost.”

“He’s happy then?”

“Yes.”

Where she is, I don’t know.

I call the host family. The sullen, reproving voice of a thirteen-year-old answers.

“Hello, can I speak to … ”

“She’s not in.”

“Are you sure?”

The phone is dropped unceremoniously down on the table with a bang. I hear the sound of her knocking on Lisda’s door.

A lazy shuffle back.

“Can you … ”

The dial tone resumes.

My God, what have I done?

Trafalgar Square, Green Park, Kenwood. I haunt them like the shadows of tourists, camera in hand.

Finally.

“How are you?”

“Okay.”

“Can we meet?”

“Yes.”

“You remember Kenwood?”

“Yes.”

“In front of the orangery. Two o’clock?”

White barred windows, I think to myself again.

“Okay.”

Karen’s hand slips into mine. Rain funnels down chutes in the sky opening out of Ruysdael clouds pressed against the horizon. The trees are cowering like dogs. Walkers on the Heath etch parallelograms of defiance as they push on with their predetermined paths.

When I die they will say of me, He liked taking them to Kenwood.

We make our way to the orangery.

This is not Karen’s first time with me here. I take up the camera as she takes up position, so that her form is framed by the arch of the orangery windows. Dull light proceeds reluctantly into the aperture of the camera.

Click. A black rectangle of thought.

Lisda’s look of reproof is almost enough to make me swallow my tongue with regret. She starts to move away.

“Lisda.”

She continues on, directionless.

I catch her arm.

“No photo. You said no photo.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“But why? Why you take photo?”

“I … I need your image, that’s all.”

Her look of distrust finally makes me lose it.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Lisda. It’s not a crime. Where the fuck have you been all this time, anyway?”

I don’t know if it’s the expletive, the unusual tone of voice, but she starts to cry, her tears merging with the out-of-focus blur of green on green, painting circles of confusion within backgrounded circles of the same.

Karen and I have come back here to correct an error from that first occasion, of which there is no record, except the brittle one of memory. I can remember her look of disappointment, not anger, the expression that said, This makes me unhappy.

Then there was, filed away, that tell-tale image of Lisda, that ‘no-photo’ photo, which Karen, during an innocent spring clean, discovered. Had I really forgotten it?

“It was here, wasn’t it?” Karen says, consumed by momentary self-satisfaction, as I lower the camera.

“What?”

“Oh, come on, Richard. You had me stand in the exact same place. That’s why you didn’t want to photograph me here that first time.”

“I’m sorry, I’d forgotten,” I dissembled.

Her anger is temporary, fugitive.

“Smile, smile for me.”

Forever standing by the window, black on white, white frames and bars invisibly segmenting and parcelling her body. I have the negative, white on black, a mocking inversion of another occasion, never fixed for certain, until now.

“The chemical has two stages. You must complete the course.”

“What?”

“Don’t forget to take the other one tomorrow.”

“No.”

“I love you.”

“Me too.”

Dear Richard,

I don’t know what happen to me. I am in dark place, very very dark, and cold. Can you hear me. Can you hear my voice. I want hold you, but I afraid.

I did not take the other pill. Now I sick, very sick. If my father know … oh, Richard. I want you hold me, but I so afraid. This is hard for me, this language. So hard. Everything so hard.

I write soon.

Bye,

Lisda

I don’t remember Lisda standing against that benighted window, only against the fancy one on the Heath. But Karen often stands at our suburban window at night, looking out, hugging herself, and it is this vision that I am probably thinking of. Maybe there is no difference to be made out at all; perhaps it is just confused memories anyway, idle speculation, after all.

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Brian Howell lives and teaches in Japan. He has been publishing stories since 1990. Print publications include Critical Quarterly, Panurge, Stand, Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Vol. 1., and Leviathan Quarterly. Online, his stories have appeared in Linnaean Street, The Richmond Review (U.K.), The Paumanok Review, and Painted Moon Review. His first collection of stories, The Sound of White Ants, dealing with a variety of aspects of modern-day Japanese life, was published in 2004 in the U.K. by Elastic Press. His novel based on the life of Jan Vermeer, The Dance of Geometry, was published in March 2002 by The Toby Press and is available at Amazon and other online booksites. Brian’s eNovella, The Study of Sleep, is published by Wind River Press. He is currently working on his fourth novel.