BREAKING SILENCE – A SHORT STORY BY LAURA MUETZELFELDT

That word, ‘Heimweh.’

He’s at a talk by an author in the basement of a local bookshop. He walked in late and was ushered to an empty seat in the front row by a helpful member of staff, despite his protests. The rows of eyes made him clumsy and his bag hit off the lady beside him. It was airless, the people on both sides too close. He’d just started to daydream when the word tripped his thoughts.

Heimweh: it’s one of those German words that says in one word what it takes a whole sentence to say in English. It means, being homesick for nowhere in particular.

He’d heard it once before, from Kiera’s lips. On the drive north she asked him, or maybe he asked her, what’s your favourite word? Now it sort of chimed, made him remember the old Golf he used to drive, no carpet where you put your feet so the passenger could look down at a hole and watch the race of the road underneath.

He was so tired, it felt like motion. Suddenly, he was back in the car following the A87 with Teenage Fanclub on the stereo and Keira’s legs on his lap.

They were still friends at that point, both toying with each other, pretending they didn’t know the truth. They had got used to spending all their time with each other; it had become comfortable, a habit. Not quite lovers, but no longer friends.

Suddenly, he gets a flash of tugging at Keira’s towel as she held his gaze in the hotel mirror. He takes a deep breath. It’s too warm and there’s no air in the bookshop. He looks around, shifts his weight, crosses the other leg over. He looks up at the author, tries to concentrate on what he’s saying.

They decided to drive to an island off the west coast. Keira had the idea late one night and it stuck. She’d been reading a book set there and the words made it real for her, but not quite real enough. She wanted to go, said she wanted to stand on the edge of a cliff and feel the gentle push of the wind, egged on by the mad seagulls circling overhead.

They made arrangements for the trip hastily; it had to be quick, before they changed their minds. They’d run out of time and needed to go forwards or back. It made sense it was an island, somewhere you couldn’t escape from.

It was drizzling as they left the city. His hands rested on the wheel, her feet lay across his lap, one hand holding her ribs. Not nervous, she said, and they settled into each other’s company during the long car ride.

They made good time and quickly checked into the small hotel. When they got to the room, neither of them said anything about the double bed. He found his scarf, Keira looked out a chocolate bar, then they headed out to catch the last scraps of daylight. It started to spit and the wind picked up as they made their way along the root-tangled path down to the wee cove.

When they got to the edge of the beach, it started to rain heavily, like it really meant it. They sheltered a while, standing side-by-side in the doorway of an abandoned chapel. He remembers waiting for the shower to pass, the being cold and near her, but not touching. And – minutes later – his two hands rubbing against her hands, hers held out as if about to pray. It was the first time they had touched, meaning to. She caught his eye, then ran off down the path, saying, ‘Hurry!’ Before long, the shower passed but it left them shivering, with a sense of purpose in their strides.

He jumps a little when someone behind him in the bookshop coughs. The author is speaking about a writer’s ability to withhold. He says, carried along by the momentum of his own ideas: Readers are rewarded when they read a book they feel like they co-wrote. He writes down the words, ‘emptiness, space, silence’ in his notebook but, when he looks at them a few minutes later, can’t remember why.

On the walk back, they stopped and stood wind-battered on the top of a hill. She smiled at him with red apple cheeks and his cold fingers touched a lonely square of chocolate in her duffel coat pocket, wrapped and saved for later. She always held something back, just in case.

As they got nearer the hotel, they walked arm-in-arm because it seemed like what they should be doing. It had been awkward at first: his longer legs slowing for her to catch up, her legs walking faster, overtaking him. As they walked, their footsteps jarred, like two records playing at the same time, with the different beats fighting to be heard. Then, further along, he felt her hold tighter to his arm. His grip became protective, firm. They walked closer, falling into step with each other.

Back at the hotel, she walked round the room and busied herself, trailing a hand behind when she passed so it would lightly touch his shoulder or his back. It was supposed to be a careless gesture, to show she was comfortable with the situation, but it was something she’d never done before. She opened a bottle of white wine from the mini-bar and a bottle of beer for him. When their eyes met, she held his gaze for a little too long.

The warm was running out when Keira ran her bath and they agreed to share the water. It was a small detail, but felt like a code. She had a towel wrapped round her and was drying her hair when she called him.

Then he was tugging her towel as she watched in the bathroom mirror. He held her gaze and let his towel drop to the floor. Her hair fell in a dark tangle down her back, her art school fringe messed up, fluffy, no longer hiding her eyes. Looking at her in the bright halogen light, he was disappointed, almost upset. For some reason, it didn’t seem so extraordinary, them being naked together. She had a couple of spots on her back, a round scar on her thigh. Something like anger flashed. He grabbed her hair and bent her forward towards the sink. Her legs were slightly apart. His feet slipped a bit on the wet floor as he gripped with his toes, pushing her into the sink.

He looks around the bookshop, not sure if his expression has given him away, slightly shifting in his seat. Chairs on both sides of him along the row creak. He wishes that was how it had happened. He tries to replay it again like that, but instead remembers Keira looking at him in the mirror, her turning round, and his hard-on failing. She said something but he didn’t reply, then she walked out and the door hit, finally, against its catch.

He should have talked to her, told her the reason why he was like this, but instead he picked up his towel, wrapped it round his waist and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He heard her turn the radio on in the other room and, somehow, knowing she was close made him feel more alone. He looked in the mirror and wished she could see what he saw, wished she could see the scars.

Later, he climbed into bed beside her, pretending – like she was – that she was asleep. After a while, he felt the rhythm of her crying but she didn’t make a sound. He tried to rehearse a conversation where he told her what had happened to make him like this but, by the time he was ready, it was much later and he sensed from the way she slumped that she was fast asleep.

The fridge hummed and he heard the sound of his breathing overtake her slow, steady breaths. Something about the quiet and knowing she was asleep turned him on. He ran his hand along the dip of her waist to the sharp jut of her hipbone. Stroking the small of her back, he called her name softly. His erection nudged against her, and he felt her stir, move closer to him. Her back arched, curving to meet him. It didn’t last long, but felt good. He turned to his side and she fell asleep holding him as the wind worried the windows in their frames.

When he woke the next morning, she was in the shower. She said ‘morning’ when she came back through, fully dressed, but the conversation remained on the surface of things all day. At breakfast, if he strayed from talking about what they could see in front of them, she changed the subject. Neither of them mentioned the night before and Keira slept most of the drive back, only waking to change tapes when the stereo began playing the same song.

They hardly saw each other after that and, not long afterwards, Keira left to go travelling. Before she left, he asked her why she decided it wouldn’t work. She told him: the reason why they got on so well was because they weren’t lovers, it meant they both had to behave themselves, that they tried to get away with less. Her brown eyes stared at him darkly from under her long, restless fringe. She said, if they’d gone on, they would have ended up trapped in each other, like a person who asked a question at a talk – caving in to the pressure of too much silence – left nodding and pretending to be interested in the answer, but no longer listening.

While she was away, Keira sent him a postcard from every new place she went but he never found a reason to leave the city. The world rolled out before her, but he didn’t see the point in leaving. He wasn’t sure there was anywhere he’d feel at home.