Around the time the changing room was first established, I noticed that a woman I worked with paused in her daily business less often than was usual. She’d been a dreamy woman, prone to spending up to ten minutes every hour gazing out the window, at nothing more interesting than the skyscraper opposite our building. I wondered often whether she was having an affair, and if the building opposite contained the man she truly loved, and if the reason she could not bring herself to leave her husband was that he too worked not only in our office block, but on our floor. I felt sorry for her. I spent time wondering what I’d do if I was in her position, and it was hours of secretly pressing the teeth down on the tongue before I stopped grieving for the children I wished I’d never left behind.
Rumours began that the dreamy woman had seen a doctor for her nerves, that he had taken her to the changing room to facilitate a move for the better in her life. There was a general feeling that the contours of her face were sharper than before, though apparently no-one could say for definite, since none of her colleagues had ever particularly looked her in the face. I had the vague recollection that her hair had once been red, but I wasn’t certain, and I didn’t know if it mattered. The dreamy woman worked with purpose, now, spending the ten minutes she gained each hour tapping at the keys of her laptop with hard red acrylic nails.
I told my brother and sister about the dreamy woman, and my brother, especially, expressed concerns about the changing room. This was in spite of several slow choruses on the TV screen, those experts assuring us the procedure was medically sound. My sister asked me if it wasn’t preferable not to think about the world but to accept it, as its multifarious occurrences replaced each other, became past and formed memories, and I said I didn’t know. This was around the time our parents died.
For three days I lay prone on our old worn leather sofa. I stared at the ceiling, tracing the shapes of spreading damp patches with my eyes. My sister sat hollowly in Dad’s armchair. My brother took the kitchen, curling himself up on the lino by the cupboard under the sink. For three days, none of the three of us spoke.
On Day Four I got up, got dressed and made my way to work. I felt if I had to be anywhere, it may as well be there. Besides, the company felt five days’ leave should be sufficient for bereavement, so I knew I’d have to scrape myself together soon regardless. I caught the bus to the city, stepped off at our street, our building, I scanned my pass and rode to the lift to the seventh floor without seeing, noticing nothing, except for a large-leaved plastic plant newly stationed to the right of our Reception desk. Dotty on Reception saw me staring. Imitation Bird of Paradise, she said. The Board’s got this new Natural Habitats initiative, you’ll hear about it.
Right, I said. Cheers.
I walked through to my desk. Someone had seen fit to ornament the space beside my cubicle – a lone cactus newly graced the top of the filing cabinet – but otherwise, nothing much had changed in the days since the deaths. The tea I’d left undrunk, last time I was in, was sitting idle, curdling in my yellow polka-dotted mug, the tea separating, congealing, though thankfully it hadn’t yet gone mouldy proper. I tipped the tea on the cactus. I took a look around the office, sat down. I opened up my emails.
As the weeks unravelled themselves, I noticed that the dreamy woman, anxious to please, had started working faster. She fetched her copying from the print room with quick, easy strides and had a new deft way of cutting down on tea break time, stirring in her milk with just a single perfunctory swirl of the spoon. Naturally, she caused some gossip. I caught two colleagues whispering about her, over the tops of their monitors. She’s got a spring in her step. Mm. Green eyes suits her, don’t it? You know, Pamela downstairs says her Ritchie might try it.
That night, I told my brother what my colleagues said. He asked if it wasn’t a better use of time to choose and pursue an attainable goal, instead of the way we lived our lives. What do you mean? I asked. He said, Like how we talk to one another if we’re sad. Like how we chat before we make decisions. Like how we get all anxious, now, if one of us ain’t home, cos we don’t like living where it’s quiet.
I told him I loved him. I said, No-one likes the quiet.
This was the night before we were due to bury our mother. Dad’s funeral happened not too long after he died, but Mum couldn’t be buried with him due to problems with the post-mortem, some detail of the bruising that had to be checked again before the cops could tell for sure their drunk driver couldn’t be sent to jail. Policemen ummed and ahhed, unsure how much to tell us. Eventually they made decisions – which, on hearing, my sister quietly swore at. She went out to get takeaway. She didn’t say where, didn’t come home for another seventeen hours.
My brother and I paced the kitchen. After I while I wandered to the lounge, lay down on the sofa and tried to sleep, but instead of counting sheep I ended up counting all those times I’d warned my sister not to cross the road without looking. Bad memories pestered me, unbidden. I thought of a time when I was six, when a friend of mine got hit by a car: how in the hospital, her shattered cheekbones stopped me recognising who she was.
She’s not coming back, said my brother.
Let’s just see—
She’s not though.
You know I love you both, I said. Right? I know no-one in the world enjoys sadness. Still, I think your sister wouldn’t give that sadness up. Because there’s sadness everywhere, isn’t there? Most every place you find a lot of love, there’s always so much sadness wrapped up with it.
Around 2 a.m. the following night, my sister returned. I heard a key in the lock and ran to the hallway, watched her step inside with flushed cheeks and a brightly-lipsticked smile. However I looked at her, I couldn’t seem to focus on her properly, but she gave the impression of a woman taller than she’d been before. She’d bought a pair of black fur-trimmed boots and walked with an outward turn of the ankle, where before, she’d been pigeon-toed.
She told us the changing room was a worthwhile experience. She said that people queued now to get inside, long lines running all the way round the block. People kept each other company, she said – commiserating while the sun went down, while the night got colder, darker – and when they came back out, they chucked aside their coats and their scarves and umbrellas, let their eyes shine with real, unbridled joy.
My brother asked for details. There was an edge to his voice, a longing.
I said, Stop it.
But he pressed her for information. When I got up to hug them both his embrace was perfunctory, and my sister, once my best friend, didn’t soften at all when I put my arms around her.
Two days later, my sister was gone for good. She packed up her stuff and rented a studio in the city centre, declaring she no longer had reasons to fear loneliness. The flat was geometric, full of angle-poise lamps. She had a high-end coffee maker nailed to the kitchen worktop and a series of spotlights puncturing the ceiling of the lounge, like small portholes.
My brother and I visited, just once. We sat side by side on my sister’s uncomfortable sofa, exchanging pleasantries. That’s a nice footstool. Mm. The legs, elegant. Is that mahogany? I wanted to shriek. I wanted to drop my ridiculous espresso all over her pristine shag-pile carpet. But her brittle conversation was infectious. I became small, round-shouldered. Instead of howling, I found myself complimenting her wallpaper.
After the day at my sister’s, my brother withdrew. He retreated from awkwardness to silence, taking up residence in our parents’ bedroom: refusing meals, he’d sleep for twelve, thirteen hours daily, always with one of our mother’s hand-made nautical-striped pillows tucked between his knees. Each night, I’d drape a blanket over him, leave him sleeping. I’d lie awake worrying, then fail to broach his feelings in the morning.
One day, about a week later, I woke up early. It was June by then: a fresh, breezy summer’s day. I rapped lightly on my parents’ bedroom door. But my brother was inevitably gone.
I walked the rooms of our house, calling his name – pointlessly, since I knew he’d be inside the changing room already. The house felt emptier than it really was, as if for years it had stood dishevelled, shell-like, as though even I were already gone. Not knowing what to do, I called my sister. She sighed when she answered the phone, cut the call once she realised it was me.
I got dressed, ate some cereal and caught the bus to work. If I had to be anywhere, it may as well be there. Scanning my pass, I rode the lift to the seventh floor without seeing, noticing nothing, except for one cheery poster in the lift advertising a series of charity fun-runs. Make a difference, it read. Show the world your heart. I thought: Don’t we wish we could? It’s too difficult. Most every place you find a lot of love, there’s always so much sadness wrapped up with it.
The lift pinged.
I walked into Reception, waited a moment so the lights registered my movement. Everything was quiet. No-one working here was due in till half past eight. I wandered through the corridor, making my way haphazardly to the staff kitchen, yawning – as if by yawning, by concentrating on my tiredness, I might keep myself from crying – but then, I realised I’d heard movement.
I peeked round the doorframe. The dreamy woman, bent low to search a cupboard, straightened up. She caught sight of me – her eyes wide, mouth open – she turned to face the other doorway, made to run, but before she could disappear I shouted.
She turned round. Her face crumpled. I remember her eyes – bright green – the way the corners crinkled, crow’s feet magnified, as she nodded.
I stepped forward and she flinched. But all I did on reaching her was take her hands in mine. I touched her, pressed heat from my palms around her skinny fingers. What was the texture of the carpet? Were the hands of the facilitators cold to the touch? Before you went, was there any part of you remaining not shattered by sadness? Was it a frightening place?
The dreamy woman said, Didn’t notice, Don’t remember. She mumbled, Not an atom. She told me, Not at all.
I asked her if she ever did leave her husband for that man in the opposite building. That man she loved truly, but whose love would cut her off from the loves that rivalled his, her children.
She paused for a moment, mouth puckering. She bit her lip. The man in the opposite building had left her. Though she regretted it, she’d never had any children.
Robyn Leigh is a UK-based writer interested in morality, personality and repentance. Her work has previously appeared in The Warwick Review, Typishly Literary Magazine and In the Red; her short story 'Playing to Type' was shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2019.