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You Can’t See Stars In London - Elaine Chennatt

On yet another Saturday with nowhere to be, I wander into the Tate Modern art gallery. I stand for a moment, watching the people in the vast Turbine Hall from the viewing deck that you reach through the entry directly opposite the river. The area has been turned into a makeshift urban picnic site for winter, with faux grass and oversized beach balls included. The cavernous ceiling echoes children’s shouts back down to them as their parents murmur and devour neatly packed sandwiches and organic fruit.


I watch the children playing and tug my thoughts back from what that life might be like. Scanning the faces of chattering parents, I wonder whether any are looking up at me, a lone figure with no secondary small body attached to it via an invisible string. Whether any of them might be having the same thoughts about what my life is like. No one meets my gaze. I turn, leaning into my lack of demands, and begin my meandering from Mondrian to Rothko. Today, like most of my days, is not for thinking such things.

When you’re alone, the weekends are an inviting promise, a chance to do all those wonderful solitary things that refuel you minus any of the added pressures of compromising for the desires and needs of someone else. You can, quite literally, do anything you want, and no one will ever say, “oh, but don’t you want just to stay home?” or “I don’t know why you want to do that; it’s not my thing.” Or the worst one I was ever told, “you only want to do that because you want to do something”, as though wanting to do something was the worst thing in the world. And when the something in question was going to the library and getting a coffee after, I didn’t see why it was so heinous. That relationship didn’t last long. None of them ever had.

The thing with weekends, when you’ve been alone for some time, is that you find yourself slipping into familiar routines. Over the years, mine had become a rinse-and-repeat formula for the handful of places I liked - coffee shops and galleries I favoured, quiet parks, and less touristy river walks. I wasn’t leaving my comfort zone, and it was showing. Even today. I had woken and decided that I wouldn’t go to the Tate, as had become a routine every two weeks or so. I was going to go somewhere different. Yet the walk from my apartment in Borough had been freezing. A doomsday grey-black sky loomed above, threatening to break apart and wash us all away. When the familiar chimney rose to greet me, I flicked into autopilot and headed inside. So here I am. Doing what I said I wouldn’t do, which seems too familiar a theme in my life.


On the first floor, I duck my head into some smaller gallery spaces, recognising the art hasn’t changed and moving on. I make a beeline for my favourite works in the permanent collections and spend a moment with each. The sky must have finally broken outside as the gallery seems to suddenly surge with more people, and the din of voices elevates. Cleaners are moving stoically about with mops, buckets, and a stash of ‘caution, wet floor’ signs.


On the second floor of the gallery, I enter a new room and catch my breath. On three walls of the cavernous white space are three giant canvases by the artist Cy Twombly. On each canvas, the artist has looped over and over in a bright, vivid red. For some unknown reason, they tug me into a state of rapture. Hungry for the unexpected silencing in my thoughts, I stand frozen in the room. I am completely lost in the paintings when a hand taps me gently on the shoulder.


A slender blonde woman smiles at me. She has also tapped the shoulder of the visitor standing next to me, a man whose presence I’d missed until that moment.


“Sorry to interrupt you both,” she begins in a soft European accent. “I just had to take a picture, and I wanted to show you. Look,” she turns her camera around for us to see.


In the photo, the man and I gaze at the artwork in unison. We are both wearing red footwear. He, a trendy pair of sports sneakers. Me, red leather ankle boots. The man lets out a snort of delight.


“That’s a great shot,” he says, offering an easy smile, one the woman returns in relief. “I can send it to you - a memento of your trip together?” she offers.


“We’re not together,” I announce bluntly. They look at me, and my cheeks grow warm. “Ah well,” the woman quips after an awkward pause, “what a lovely coincidence all the same.”


The man thanks her as I mumble my own sentiments, and she heads across the space to exit into another room. Not knowing what to do, I smile at the man, who gives me a curious look, nods, and wanders smoothly through the same exit.


The encounter leaves me mortified, and I turn, doubling back on myself, praying I don’t run into either of them as I try to reroute my visit. Disrupted and self-conscious, I continue aimlessly before heading to the gallery cafe. It’s packed, and, somewhat smugly, I manage to take the last vacant table. As I lift my coffee cup to my lips, a voice interrupts.


“Mind if we share the table?” the man with the red sneakers looks down at me expectantly.


I blink up at him, caught between finishing my sip and answering. “Sorry,” I finally manage, “of course, take a seat.” I move my bag and make a show of shuffling my chair over to make room. He sits with a slight sigh placing his own drink on the table. Smoothly removes his hat, and runs a hand through jet black hair. “We should have kept it,” he says.


I look at him blankly. “Kept what?”


“The photo” he smiles, meeting my eye and lifting his cup to his lips. He has an unassuming smile, but it transforms his face from sad and serious to open and warm.


“Oh right, perhaps. It was a good photo,” I shrug. He takes a sip of coffee but doesn’t take his eyes from mine.



We tentatively strike up a conversation sitting at the gallery cafe table. Two strangers, seemingly thrown together by raw coincidence - the best kind. By the time we finish our drinks, the conversation is no longer tentative. He offers to buy another, and we continue until our cups are empty once more. Effortlessly, we both rise, claiming hats, bags and coats, adopting a steady pace as we continue talking and slowly take the escalators down to the exit level.


The rain has subsided by the sky is still threatening. We make it halfway across the Millennium Bridge before we pause and laugh self-consciously at the situation we’ve found ourselves in. Amid confessions neither of us ever do this, we watch the river and tourists drift by in equal measure.


He asks about my plans for the rest of the day. When I advise I have none, his face brims with a hopeful smile, asks if I’m hungry, he knows a great spot. An unspoken agreement is signed, and we continue together, walking along the river, talking about everything and nothing at all. We have lunch at a small restaurant he recommends that I will never find my way back, despite several attempts. Amongst the crowded tables and steamed windows, his hand inevitably finds mine.


At one point, we talk about astronomy, a shared unnurtured interest. I tell him about growing up by the coast and star gazing on the beach with friends after house parties. Having lived in London his whole life, he says he never really sees stars and always dedicates time to finding them outside the city. The sky has already grown dark, and we’ve sought refuge in a bar tucked by the river, the water glistening with all the light London has to offer.


“You can see stars in London,” I inform him confidently. He shakes his head, “You’re talking nonsense. You can’t see stars in the city; too much light pollution.” I return his shake with one of my own. “You can. You just have to look for them.”


“You can find many things in this city,” he says with a knowing look. “But you can’t see stars in London.”


I get that strange feeling that occurs when you find yourself doing something you know you shouldn’t. Like butter sliding off a knife too soon, everything’s at the wrong angle. It’s not necessarily bad; you sense something is off but don’t feel compelled to question it. Out of fear, perhaps. Or hope.


It’s getting late, and we both agree we should get home. It’s only getting colder, but he offers to walk me back towards the station, despite it being in the opposite direction he should be heading. I tell him it’s unnecessary, that he doesn’t need to go out of his way, but he just takes my hand and spins me around, so we walk together some more.


The optimist in me is building ideas that this day is meant for more. That this was just the beginning, with a lengthy middle still to come. But for all our talking in the days that followed, too many topics remained out of bounds. We became experts at polite smiles and a subtle change of subject. It’s easy now to see the black hole between us we so desperately tiptoed around, each grieving separate loss we tried to cover up. It was in the covering that we came undone. You can’t ignore the darkness in life to pursue a little light. No matter how bright it seems at first. A few months after what I didn’t know would be the last time I would see him, I realise there’s a lot of dark I’ve been ignoring. It starts me on a new path.


He walks me to my train station, but instead of offering a simple goodbye and fleeing to catch my tube, we end up taking a seat on a bench outside, the biting frost of winter nipping our faces. We pull our coats tighter and edge closer together, turning our gaze skyward, a too-soon quiet comfort between us. You had to really look, but if you focused, you could vaguely make out a few pinpoints of stars in the deep.


“Can you see them now?” I asked, but he had given up looking skywards some minutes before.

 

Elaine Chennatt is a writer, educator and aspiring psychologist from London, currently residing in nipaluna, lutruwita. Her flash fiction and short stories have been published internationally in both print and digital media. You can find her online at www.wordswithelaine.com and on Instagram @cestelaine

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