At dusk they lie on recliners in her tiny patch of outside space, drinking mai tais and watching planes approach Heathrow. Jim’s got one of those apps that tell him where they’re coming from and what type of plane they are, and he calls them out to Lizzie – a fat 380 from Doha, a Dreamliner from Dallas, a 350 from Jo’burg. Lizzie imagines the people in them – excited tourists or weary homecomers, waiting nervously for the bump, bump, bump, unconcernedly dozing, or following the serpentine course of the Thames as it takes them to their destination.
Jim’s spent the summer lifeguarding at the lido, his body honed and sleek from early morning swims, the contours of the vest he wears imprinted on his torso in shades of bronze. He turned up today with a new tattoo, just below his hip, covered in cling film and leeching blood – it’s a compass Lizzie, he tells her, one day we’ll just point and follow wherever it takes us.
As the sun sets, the flight frequency falls. They’re four mai tais in now and pretty buzzed. Jim switches apps and picks out the constellations and planets piercing the night. The space station passes, glitching and shimmering as it circumnavigates at impossible speeds – Lizzie pictures the astronauts tumbling, weightless, and her loaded brain feels tumbling and weightless as her eyes droop, as awareness fades, as she sleeps.
When she wakes she’s alone, still in the recliner, stiff and cold. Jim is absent, the backdoor wide open, lights blazing. Lizzie struggles out of the chair, head thick, pounding like waves on a harbour wall. The TV is on, switched to a sports channel; Lizzie turns it off, dims the lights, struggles to her room, snuggles beneath the duvet, wondering briefly about Jim before she drifts away once more.
In his absence, she follows the usual routine, work, dinner, mai thais in the garden. She downloads the flight app, stargazer, lies in the recliner watching the darkening skies. Sometimes she senses Jim, at the edge of things, in the liminal spaces between twilight and blackout, as she’s floating into sleep or gazing unfocused through the kitchen window into the realm of bats and badgers, foxes and hedgehogs.
She begins to suffer nightmares – lucid dreams of planes going down, meteor strikes, and gangrenous skin, the points of a compass just visible beneath. One night she dreams herself at the lido, it’s desolate, derelict, the playschool coloured doors of the changing booths hanging half-cut like drunks. The water is swampy and full of debris. She swims through weeds and branches, past abandoned shopping carts until she reaches him, trapped beneath scrap metal, eye sockets empty and skin peeling, a water-wraith, a kelpie.
She makes posters, places them around the town – have you seen this man – receives no replies. She rings the lido – don’t know him love – realises that she’s never met his family, friends, acquaintances, knows nothing of his life before he came to hers. One evening, lying in the recliner, mai thai to hand, she scrolls through the photos on her phone. Jim is missing from each, those she remembers of them together lost. She begins to doubt her memories, but when she closes her eyes, she can still feel the angle of his hips pressing hers, the imprint of his lips on her collar-bone, the scent of him – sandalwood and salt and something sweet beneath.
One morning, as she wakes alone again, she rises, goes to the bank, withdraws her savings and buys a ticket anywhere – Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific – she doesn’t care, just feels the need to flee, to point and follow the compass on Jim’s hip. She packs up the house, places all her things in storage, hands back the keys. As she closes the door for the final time she feels the house sigh, as if it’s been holding its breath, as if it’s coming up for air at last.
Author Bio: Maria Thomas is a middle-aged, apple-shaped mum of two. She has work in EllipsisZine, Funny Pearls, Levatio, Fiery Scribe Review, Paragraph Planet, VirtualZine, Free Flash Fiction, Punk Noir, Roi Faineant Press, Cape Magazine and (upcoming) Punk Monk. Maria won Retreat West’s April 2022 Micro competition. She can be found on Twitter as @AppleWriter.