Flights in Airless Space


From the window, looking up, it appeared to be a pigeon. The bird moved quickly; blurred and merged with the slate tiles, it beat the air, then scrambled to a perch in the eaves, high on the roof. It disappeared.


The sky was grey and low. The time; it was near four o’clock in the afternoon, the day is fading by then, trailing out to white wraithy light. It is hard to discern anything precisely in those conditions.


A portion of sky was revealed between the sharp angles of the roof. The scene is dressed in grey and bluewhite; and for anyone who can remember it, the color is like trailing cigarette smoke.


From behind the window glass the scene was transfixed. The autumn air was clean; its chill sealed the scent of high summer, just weeks ago, for another nine months. The air was still; the courtyard grounds still; and the building seemed uninhabited. It was an almost perfect space.


From behind the window a man observed the sky. He was standing at the window; they were in fact, French windows, naked. The pigeon had gone completely. The man stood silently, as though he was anticipating something; that something would happen outside before his field of view. His skin was milky, northern; the veins on his arms and legs were raised and dark blue; but the skin was pale. The size of the veins signaled recent heavy activity.


Nothing happened outside: but inside the room a woman lay on her back. She stared up at the man and followed his eye line out towards the window pane, where he had seen the pigeon. A sheet, crumpled into sharp folds, spread across her waist. She was naked. She called him Dan; he returned with her name: Elizabeth. She had a question, what had he seen; and he had said it was a pigeon: he hated them, just everybody did. She asked again for him to come back to bed. He turned.


Dan fell back onto the bed; Elizabeth drew him to her; their arms joined like rope, folded over and under the other. Intimacy resumed without a break. They had to use the time well, to be surrounded in and with and by the other in the few hours they have: to have taken the time, to have committed to the one, and the other.


They are obliged to manage their time well, and each week for a year they have met in the room. They enter the room happy after a hundred and sixty five hours apart. The room’s decoration does not interest them: they are consumed by each other. But after a year neither Elizabeth nor Dan has wanted to move to another permanent state: their separate obligations, to a husband and a wife; with each person’s individual trail of emotional mortgages is already too high.


After three hours, when they dress and kiss goodbye – an estranged and polite gesture, he and she contemplates separately on the way home, or back to the office, the restraints of love. It is a thought that first arises again and again as they part and take the corridor in their own steps, never daring to look behind for fear that the other is not looking either, and therefore a glance is searching the void. In the taxi, or the bus, as they go away for another week the thought becomes more acute. The resistance they resent is their fear and to replace the anxiety they wish they could be elsewhere.



Many years earlier two people sought shelter there, in the building in the room, from darkness and driving rain. They were foreign and on the run, their crime is not important after all this time. They wore tweeds, or heavy wool, which they had worn for some days, living in hiding, traveling at night, not looking up at the sky. It is several hours since they exchanged words: Suzanne is steely, but Sam is taciturn; and when they talk, it is fast and energetic, but at other times they are silent where such quietness would fret most people, but neither Suzanne nor Sam interpret it with any portent.


Not on the night they arrived cold and drained, when their feet ache, their shoes are split, unsuitable to walk in for eighteen hours a day. Suzanne washes their clothes with a damp towel, as Sam inserts folded paper into the shoes, he knows it may constrain their feet for the first ten kilometers in the morning but once worn in will form another sole in the shoe. They do their work in their underclothes, their bodies are white and bony; they appear malnourished and exhausted. The sight of the other in despairing condition does not provoke either person to say a word. They have seen worse. They must sleep if they can before dawn.


Bone tired Suzanne falls asleep instantly; while Sam listens to the night. He has done this for weeks and now it is a habit, it is his way to safeguard Suzanne. In the dead quiet night he hears the hasty wings of a bird, short in flight, and gets up from the bed to see it. The night is starry and should be beautiful but not to Sam. He fingers a burnt stub of a cigarette; the acrid smell of the black end is pungent under his nostrils. He will save it for the morning.


Alert to any noise, Sam hears a throbbing sound: unmistakably of a dove. He says to himself: they bill and coo. Then silence again. Why do they, he asks himself; often it is the only way to pass time without books, to ask himself questions, to fill in time, fill in the dull journey.


Suddenly the bird is in flight, but even in darkness Sam realizes he is wrong, it is only a pigeon. Watching it merge with the gloom he envies its passage with such freedom and he drops his gaze down to his feet; ironic that his own gait is like a pigeon. The bleak joke dispels any bitterness at his endless journey of escape, which he puts into a question: Were it possible to be in a different space?


Without articulating an answer, he does not want to be rid of Suzanne; but freedom from the men pursuing him. Standing there he feels the cold; with a tremor he climbs back to bed, the question hangs, as it will for years, without a response.


At dawn he and Suzanne have gone and never return.


A dull peace settles over the grounds. It could be any day of any year. Fewer people come and go; the calm does not appeal to everyone. A different couple has come to enjoy the quiet; to find repose as they try to amend the tear between them.


When Natalie entered the room she tried not to sigh. She dropped her bag on the bed then sauntered over to the window. She fidgeted; rubbed the palms together to conceal and displace her anxiety.  Behind her John exhaled loudly to show the effort he had taken in carrying their luggage. He said something like, how do you like the room, but Natalie did not hear him; away in her thoughts through the pane of glass.


They are together, joined for two days, as if apportioning the time can be invoiced, to enjoy the company of each other, to rekindle ashes. Of the two John is trying as he reminds Natalie; and he has enough enthusiasm for two: it will be sufficient to change her mind and melt her heart once again. To himself he says he would change her system settings, but often John has a virtual understanding of others: they are beings who may resemble him in some sense, but are comprised of not much more than code. Natalie does not react: she is here but not present, not least to him.  He follows her gaze to the window, her back is to him; and in his heart he knows the weekend is doomed.


Natalie is distracted, a prisoner in the first minutes of a sentence. The warders may hold her body under lock and key, order to her to be happy, to follow rules; but her mind is free, even to deceive herself for a weekend, which she will unfold with enough time to let it pass without anger or incident. And later, she can tell John, it is over, but for the best. This time, this forced time of being together; to recreate something, as if a new architect could build something new; is a sign of how it all falls apart. To leave him will be hard; to stay harder.


His voice breaks her argument, and standing beside her he points to a moving image; oval and grey against a light blue sky. What is that, he asks; and it is clear in an instant. They stand beside each other; Natalie looks to him, and her eyes reveal something from the past that had been hidden: it is pity. It is enough for him, then.


The bird, it was a dove this time, flew across the sky: then fell out of sight. It had never been; the trace of its flight was empty space. An instant before, the wings had measured time; though they could not be heard inside the room, the sound would have been within earshot to anyone underneath, outside.


The air’s resistance held and carried the dove and though it was a windless day the wings beat quickly. In the course of time the observers had watched the tired bird and wondered to themselves if the struggle to move on would be easier elsewhere. That place, wherever it might be, was unknown, or, undefined but imagined nonetheless. It was somewhere they too might exist, without the battle, the resistance that notched each of their days, and therefore, it was understood intuitively to be without time.


One by one: each of them, he and she, all the named and unnamed, their desire trailing the arc of the flight. Now nothing; vanished in the greyblue light: the space.



- Guy Cranswick