Zoe Fairtlough

He calls her again: ‘I can’t stop thinking of you. I need to see you.’ And she incredulous asks why, wanting to understand but also to be flattered. She senses it’s the wrong question – perhaps seeding doubt in his mind (can anyone truly explain?), but he replies something about her foreignness and drive and poise. Hearing about herself through his voice, she wants to be that person: someone stronger and more intriguing than she knows. On the surface she’s navigating millennial life in London, with an exciting new job as a biotech stock analyst, earning more money than she thought possible, spending it too, her eye on her final destination: Wall Street, New York. For this job and financial independence, she’s sacrificed time and relationships, but she knows where she’s going. Only at night does she feel far from all that was familiar. Now the possibility of romance (kiisa– at last!) on the horizon makes the distance to her hometown of Nuuk less immense.  

They’d first met at a party at his house. An actual party she’d actually been invited to after weeks of evenings alone. She’d come with an office acquaintance who’d been at Trinity with him in Ireland. The party in full swing, she’d introduced herself, but he was distracted or didn’t understand – nerves always intensified her accent. She observed him with others, the way he listened to what they said, nodding and smiling and not just to please. He didn’t say much himself. He wasn’t handsome but something about him was attractive. A vulnerability perhaps, or perhaps some echo of her own Greenlandic reserve. When a tall skinny blonde, the opposite of herself, encircled him, she retreated to the terrace, to breathe and search out the North Star. Later, he came outside and his liquid stare said he’d drunk too much. ‘I’ve never met anyone from Greenland before,’ he said, slurring slightly. ‘How’re you enjoying London?’ She must have hesitated because he chuckled, ‘Ruthless, right? We’ll get used to it.’ They’d talked a while, and she learned he was an assistant producer of a business programme. He showed off about various executives he’d interviewed at her investment firm, his technical prowess relating to filming and editing. How confident he seemed, but when he touched her arm she glimpsed under the Sex Pistols T-shirt, Doc Martens and dark jeans, to the child crouched in the corner.

The terrace door slid open to music and the blonde head. ‘Here you are, darling, people are going. Come and say goodbye.’ He hurried back inside, and the night grew darker.

She left quietly, embarrassed somehow.

He’d called her at work the next day, ‘May I see you?’

‘Don’t you have a girlfriend?’ she said, and hung up.

Weeks passed. Another party, thrown by another common acquaintance. How did everyone in London know each other? He cornered her by the drinks. ‘Whiskey?’ he asked, as if they’d never had that awkward call. ‘Where’s your girlfriend?’ she said. Because of the way he replied, ‘We’re not together anymore,’ she allowed him to talk to her. The retro music blared, ‘I like The Clash,’ she said, to say something. ‘Me too,’ he said. They talked about music and he laughed when she told him she’d joined a chamber choir. A delighted laugh, not scornful. The Ramones came on. ‘Let’s dance,’ he said, and she made herself listen to that noise he liked. ‘I wanna be your boyfriend,’ he sang, repeating the chorus softly in her ear. Then he’d called her every day but she’d kept her distance, protecting herself from the tragedies of other people.

Now he’s here in the crypt of the angular white church of St Martins in the Fields off Trafalgar Square, at a concert of chamber music. ‘I thought I might find you here,’ he says and kisses her forehead, like a prize for having been good. ‘Don’t,’ she says, making her hand a separator. ‘Sorry,’ he says. They shuffle along the pew and the music begins. He sits entranced through the concert, not a terrible one but the sopranos offkey spoil the Monteverdi, and the cadence of the Fauré is too slow. She doesn’t mention either fault because he’s enjoyed it regardless. She thinks he’ll be impressed by her choir. ‘We’re performing at the Barbican in a month,’ she says, immediately regretting it. ‘I’d love to see you,’ he says. ‘What part do you sing?’ She tells him contralto, ‘Not the melody but the underpinning, the depth and texture.’

‘You’re a deep one,’ he laughs, and caresses a wisp of hair from her face, burning her skin. When he links his arm into hers and offers to walk her home, she doesn’t turn away.

He asks if he can come in. ‘OK,’ she says, and just like that he’s the first guest in her flat. He looks around the sitting room, at the fireplace, the flowers, the misted landscape on the wall, the velvet cushions on the sofa. ‘Welcoming,’ he says, sounding surprised. He spies the aquavit on the sideboard. ‘I’d love a shot, it’s freezing out there.’ The evening had seemed mild to her despite the constant rain. ‘Are you coming down with something?’ she asks. He grimaces and sits, his hands cradling the glass like a tiny and precious baby. He asks about Greenland, and demands she tell him the Greenlandic words for things. ‘Angut – man, arnap – woman, snow – aput, house – illu,’ she says. He’s fascinated by the idea that just one word can contain a whole sentence. She giggles, ‘Yes, silagissiartuaarusaarnialerunarpoq means the weather will slowly and gradually improve.’ When he mimics her sounds, homesickness almost doubles her over. He says he went home to Donegal, ‘Last weekend, for my parents’ anniversary. They live in town now, but we used to live in a village on the outskirts, in a little house with a garden. I went to see the place where I was born, but it’s all gone, as if I never existed.’ His pain is so palpable she backs away. ‘Life goes on,’ she says, brusquely perhaps. He reddens. ‘Illu,’ he says, copying the Welsh-like ll, ‘Is that like igloo?’

‘Yes, but our houses aren’t all made of ice.’

Days later, she’s almost forgotten him: finalizing a major finance raise has meant a flood of analytics, algorithms, financial models, and cold midnight coffee. ‘You around this eve or any time tmrw?’ he texts her. ‘Busy all week,’ she replies. ‘Check out the media coverage,’ he texts. She clicks on the link, a segment from his programme highlighting her client. She hearts the text. When she sees he’s tried calling several few times without leaving messages, she promises herself to call back soon as she has a minute.

‘I’ve missed you,’ he says, reaching her eventually. Her phone buzzes. ‘Hang on,’ she says. ‘Client on the other line. I’ll call you later.’ She’s assigned to a new biotech deal team, and hours turn into days of meetings, spreadsheets, and poring through data, all hands on deck between rushed bites of stale sandwiches. When the dossier goes out for legal review, calm at last. Life resumes. They reconnect.

She watches him listening awestruck at the concert of madrigals. ‘Angels are real,’ he says, and she laughs at his God is dead T-shirt. He says she isn’t what she seems either, and clasps her hand in his warm fingers. She glimpses him again, struggling in swirling waters. ‘You ok?’ she asks.

‘Of course. Is there a Greenlandic bar or restaurant in London?’ His desire to learn about her seems insatiable. She takes him to a Scandinavian bar she’s found, the closest to home, a refuge for when London’s frenzy is most merciless. ‘Two whiskeys,’ she orders, because that’s what he drinks. He gazes at her. ‘From now on, I want you to talk to me in Greenlandic.’ When she does, she tells him she loves him, to feel those alien words in her mouth, and because he won’t understand. ‘Asavakkit.’

He smiles.

They end up at his flat. He uncorks champagne and pours two tumblerfuls, ‘To your great success!’ he proclaims. A first light kiss, and more, deepening. His heart beats in her ears. She closes her eyes and he gently unbuttons her shirt. She won’t allow herself to think and then they’re on his bed and she has to warn him: ‘I’ve never done this before.’

He pauses and looks at her properly, perhaps for the first time. ‘It’s OK,’ she whispers, and he closes his eyes, kisses her again. She responds despite her fears. In the night she welcomes their tender collisions, pulling him to her again and again.

Morning. It’s done, ‘Was that it?’ she asks herself, not intending to speak aloud. She thought she’d be more fundamentally altered. He turns his back to her. ‘You OK?’ she asks. ‘Fine,’ he says. ‘I need to get to work.’ When she asks to use the shower, his shoulders loosen. Then, after she’s dressed and on the surface perfect again, she discovers he’s left her cold tea and a note: Thank you for last night.

Not expecting him to contact her again, she spends days castigating herself for poor judgment. It’s done, although not the momentous event she’d secretly wished for. It was a tender moment, she tells herself, that’s enough. But if she was completely honest (and she is often honest), she’s hurt, although he’ll never know.

She’s surprised when he calls. ‘We should meet,’ he says.


‘We should talk about what happened.’

She doesn’t want to talk but there’s a shadow in his voice. They agree to have lunch at the Café Parisien around the corner. She’s late. He’s sullen. The conversation flounders. She taps the phone on her lap. It’s only 12.30. Tiaavulu. After the steak frites, he finishes his third pint and inhales deeply. ‘I need to ask you something.’

She nods for him to go on.

‘That night, when we were together, did I force myself upon you?’ Such old-fashioned words. His voice sounds strangled. She considers that his sullenness might actually be shame.

She searches inside herself for the truth. ‘No. I was willing,’ she says, facing him.

‘But it was your first time,’ he says, his eyes bloodshot. ‘It should have been better.’

‘It was fine,’ she says, trying not to laugh that he still needs reassurance. Yes, it was her first time, her maiden voyage, but everyone has a first time. She actually feels liberated, as if her lines have finally been cut and she can sail wherever she wants. New York suddenly seems less intimidating. Deep lines between his eyes prompt her to reassure him again. ‘You were great,’ she says. When he takes her hand, and strokes her palm like he’s wiping it clean, she expects him to say more but he doesn’t, not in words. She senses some kind of apology. Or regret. She takes back her hand and hides it in her pocket. It was a mistake, unfortunate, but the harm’s minimal, she tells herself and gets up. He does the same. ‘Let’s give this a go,’ he says suddenly. How his body turns away tells her it’s not what he wants. But she says yes, because suddenly it’s what she wants.

With him by her side, London opens up. So many pubs and restaurants, where everyone knows him. He favours the places with relaxed smoking rules. ‘You shouldn’t,’ she says.

‘I know, but they make me feel better.’

She should have asked him what was wrong, but since their first night together he’s not listening like he did. Or maybe she isn’t. She can’t tell what his silence means. He agrees to meet up whenever she asks, however.

Sometimes she’ll see him at St Martin’s because he says he’s developed a taste for chamber music. Early Sunday afternoon they sit in the crypt and listen to a rehearsal of a Requiem. When he unzips his jacket, she sees God is dead again, but he asks if they might stay for the service after. She’s only ever attended church to oblige her parents, true believers. ‘I don’t really go to church,’ she says. His eyes say he doesn’t understand. She laughs and flicks at his shirt, ‘Countries and God are artificial constructs.’ Later, he asks if she prays, and she realizes that her scoffed “no” is not the answer he’s searching for. ‘Don’t you consider what happens when we die?’ he asks, and it’s as though he’s somewhere else, not with her. ‘We die. There’s nothing to think about,’ she says, perhaps too quickly. He shudders although it’s coming to April. She can’t remember a London day without rain and rain and rain, but the dark branches are finally greening. She tells him she loves springtime, ‘Don’t you? The days when the buds open, I think of the millennia of evolutionary forces, all the mistakes and mutations, and yet here we are, alive. Isn’t that more miraculous than some celestial being trying to direct everything?’ The way he cocks his head says he likes that answer. ‘You do believe in something then,’ he says, kissing her.

Not long after, he offers her a key to his flat. ‘Come when you like.’ She accepts but doesn’t reciprocate. Her throat constricts. It feels too fast. Way too fast.

Another evening, it’s still raining when they walk to the Café Parisien he says she likes but is really just convenient for him. ‘I’d like to take a bus to the sea. There’s something irresistible about seaside towns out of season, their sadness. The leaden water,’ she tells him. But he’s quiet as he pushes past the tide of people emerging from the underground. ‘Ajunngi – you OK?’ she asks.

At dinner, he complains about London. ‘In Donegal, the sea there was my soul. Here, it’s like I’ve left part of myself behind.’ His passion for that soul, how sweet it is to her. She says she understands and perhaps she really does. Her fingers brush his and her receptors fire, speeding electrical impulses up neurones to her brain, to be received and connected to all her prior experience and somehow uniquely interpreted. But when he asks where her soul is, she 's afraid to say. She could have said, ‘In the sea across from Nuuk.’ He’d have liked that, but she shrugs, ‘We’re all just chemical soup. A happy coincidence of molecules.’ It isn’t just that though. She wants to tell him about nature’s sublime patterns, the beauty of the struggle for survival, to show him the petals on the rose, but words aren’t enough. He’s silent again. ‘Ajunngi?’ she asks again and this time he shrugs. ‘People in London are so ignorant.’ That’s what he says but she’s sure he’s talking about her.

After the plates are taken away and the bill is paid, he takes his time over his whiskey and finally says his company’s restructuring. In her mind he’s a successful news producer, his success and his being entwined, so she asks if he’ll be getting a new office. He stares at her and exhales. In a whisper he asks whether her company has any job openings, she assumes for a friend.

‘Maybe. The media group is always interested in reputable journalists.’ She gives him a name and a number. ‘And what about that proposal you were putting together?’ she asks. He’d shared an idea about a new programme showcasing miracles, to counteract all the bad news. He pulls out a scrap of paper from his pocket and drops it on the table. ‘My boss didn’t like it.’ She stares at the scribbles. ‘I’m not surprised if that’s it,’ she says. ‘It’s an interesting idea but execution matters more than intention.’ She smiles to soften the words, but he says it’s time to go.

He’s not interested in sex. ‘I’m tired,’ he’ll say. ‘Me too,’ she’ll say, but she’s disappointed. She asks him what’s the matter and he says nothing.

In the night the phone rings. Sheets pull back. Darkness in the window, she hears him grunt into the phone. He slams his fist down on the bedside table. She jumps. ‘Ajunngi?’ the eternal question. He’d failed to arrange a car to pick up a minister for an in-person interview back at the studio. ‘I forgot because I was rushing to meet you yesterday,’ he says.

But when she’d arrived at the pub the night before, he was already there with his workmates, several pints in. Then, before bed, he’d drunk half the bottle of Jamesons. ‘You’re drinking too much,’ she says. He glares at her. ‘You know nothing. I’m going to work to sort things out.’ It’s five am but she dresses and leaves while he’s still in the shower. She can’t bear to look at him.

Concert night, he doesn’t come. During the interval, she texts him. ‘Where are you? Ajunngi?’

After the successful performance, the choir ends up at an out of the way pub, the conductor’s local. At a table behind the crowd, she recognizes the angle of the man’s head inclined toward the woman. She hasn’t seen that smile in a long time. The woman gets up and leaves, a soft-faced woman with a briefcase.

She texts him again. Ajunngi? She’d promised herself to stop asking him that. Nothing is OK. She watches him pick up his phone and tap at it. Still at work crosses her screen.

‘You seem preoccupied,’ she says later, when they’ve converged at his flat. His scowl puts her off from saying what she’s really thinking. ‘Work stuff. I need to stay up and finish things. You go to bed,’ he says.

She lies listening to the sounds of the other room: liquid poured into a glass, a bottle clinking on the glass table, the sofa straining under shifting weight. After a while she gets up and finds him asleep, head awkward inside his shoulders, the bottle empty.

That’s how it is the next evening: he drinks as she waits. He won’t talk, but she wouldn’t listen anyway. ‘It was too fast,’ she tells herself. ‘Just a mistake. Not important.’

She makes herself accustomed to the idea that they’re finished but won’t accept to just melt away. He started the relationship so he needs to end it, but part of her also senses he’s suffering. It's an ajunaarneq – awreck, she thinks. But who’s damaged whom? An unsinkable vessel is sunk by a few tiny rents in its hull, caused by an unwitting spectator whose path it has happened to cross. He’d been drawn to her, he’d said so. And those tiny rents might not have mattered had the structure been stronger, had the distress signals been received in time, had the course not been so drastically reversed, had everyone involved known what the fuck they were doing. And the iceberg, whatever happened to it? How do we know it too wasn’t fractured irreparably, that the vessel didn’t drag it down with it to the depths?

Next evening, he doesn’t come home. She awakes alone ‘Ajunngi?’ she texts. No response.

Her work takes off again. Courses diverge. The current of obligations pulls her away. She collects herself, puts his key in an envelope, and posts it to him with a note, We need to talk.

‘We need to talk,’ she says, when he answers her call eventually. ‘Just once more.’ Certain things must be done in person, so there are no misunderstandings.

They arrange to meet at an empty new pub in Covent Garden. It smells of plastic and air freshener. He orders whiskey but she wants nothing. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asks. She’s rehearsed a pretty speech, but forgets the order of all those words involving disappointment, disrespect, and dishonesty.

‘I never want to see you again,’ she says suddenly, and in the moment that is the truth.

He nods and swallows his whiskey.

‘Don’t you have anything to say?’

‘No. It’s OK,’ he replies, shaking his head.

‘I’m going then.’

‘Wait,’ he says. He walks her to the tube in silence.

The city shrinks back down to her office, the corner M&S for sandwiches and microwave meals, one bar that makes her coffee as she likes it, with Kahlua and whiskey, like at home. This massive ocean of a city is so very small now. When the position in New York opens quickly, she leaves, no chance and even less desire to say goodbye to anyone.

That last time she saw him, outside Covent Garden Tube Station, he was engulfed by waves of students and tourists and workers, ‘I never want to see you again,’ she’d said. And because he did not ask why, she assumed he’d chosen another girl, a soft-eyed one who wouldn’t argue with him, who wouldn’t push him to be better. He stared at her and she stared back, fists ready. ‘OK. Have a good life then,’ he said. She turned into the station, and in the glass door the reflection of life behind her had been of him looking back, and missing the relief she’d rehearsed in her mind.

It’s only later that she considers other reasons he didn’t ask why, like not bearing to hear her answer. Like not wanting to hear she doesn’t love him after all. She tries those words now and they’re bitter on her tongue. She wishes she’d demanded to know why he hadn’t shown up for her concert, wishes she’d fought for him, that they’d fought, but she’s afraid of how hurt she is, and how small he’s made her feel, although it’s she alone who’s allowed herself that luxury. ‘What’s the matter?’ he’d asked, and she wouldn’t say because words would have diminished the significance of the infinite thing bleeding from her. She wouldn’t let him take more of her than he had.  

And yet she’s always hoped she’d see him at least one more time, again.

Zoe Fairtlough

After a career in life sciences communications and corporate responsibility, I'm writing novels, short stories, and essays about outsiders, science, and family life.

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