From London’s King’s Cross to Edinburgh’s Waverley station, the evening journey of four hours seemed short. All along, coaxed into being by the smooth motion of the train, Marie’s thoughts took a glimmering, hopeful shape, and she recorded them in a small notebook. Several times, she got up to go to the bathroom in her excited state, and on each return believed she saw the eyes of other passengers flick up to take her in, admiring, she thought, her wide smooth face, her pale gray eyes. She was dressed in new clothes bought specially for the occasion, and on her feet wore freshly polished brown leather boots.
Once arrived in the station and forced to disembark, she longed for the train, the sensation of movement and change. Her mind, which had chugged along its tracks so well, now came to a halt. Where was… well, she was in Edinburgh. Her dreamlike ways had once again set her down in a strange city without much of a plan — no, there was a plan, a very clear and important one. It involved the man she thought she’d once loved, who must right what he’d done wrong. But she hadn’t figured out the hundreds of steps it would take for her to reach him.
All shall be well — it went — and all manner of thing shall —
The station was losing its London passengers. She didn’t want to be the last one left, staring up at the departures board, so she followed a blue dot on her phone out of the station, till she reached a blue-lit hostel sign. It was the St. Christopher’s Inn — she wondered if he was a saint of travelers — and its lighting showed the outlines of what Marie assumed would be, in daylight, a building of grimy sandstone. Fine. She walked in and asked if there was room. To everyone’s surprise — for it was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — there was a bed available in the women’s dorm. She handed over money and her passport for safekeeping, and was given a key to the room.
Tugging her suitcase upstairs, Marie fought a strange and sudden wish that it would transform into a horse and she’d gallop away. She was afraid of horses and didn’t like their imperial bearing. As a child in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., she’d taken a season of riding lessons at a public stable. She’d learned English saddle, how to trot, canter, prepare for low jumps. Her seat had been decent and she’d held herself straight. But on a trail ride one afternoon, it had begun to storm, and her horse had gotten spooked by a branch rising and falling in the wind. He’d thrown her off violently. By the time she’d gotten to her feet, her instructor had managed to grab the reins and yank the horse’s head down till its wild eyes and mouth were nearly level with Marie’s. But she hadn’t taken the reins from him. She’d failed to do the essential thing, and now, she thought, now it seemed so obvious and easy to do: she would place one boot in the stirrup, grasp the pommel, press down with the stirruped foot while swinging up the other leg. But she hadn’t done it. Her lessons had ended that afternoon.
The dormitory was dark, and Marie kept off the lights. She had a top bunk, which was a relief — she didn’t like the idea of a stranger sleeping above her. As she was climbing up, a voice from the bunk below said, plain and stark: “Hi.”
“H-hello,” said Marie. Her voice came out sounding strange — she’d barely spoken since leaving Paris in the morning for London. She wished the voice from below would go silent, and it did. She stripped to her underwear and worked at losing consciousness.
When she woke early, one arm, pinned beneath her body, had fallen asleep completely. She shook her arm, waved it in the air, tried to get blood to flow. In her pain, she whimpered, and she sensed the woman below was lying awake and listening.
Marie planned to leave the hostel first thing to search for James. Her messages to him were still unread, unseen. Stealth, he kept no socials, and she didn’t know any of his friends, but he had a play premiering in Edinburgh — surely he’d attend. Or maybe she’d run into him elsewhere: she’d fall in with a crowd in a street or square and he’d suddenly appear and declare himself. Best to see him in public, where they would have to act civilized. She put on yesterday’s clothes and skipped a shower, rubbing perfume on her wrists and neck instead. After gathering her things, she left the room of sleeping women and found a dining room downstairs.
A complimentary breakfast! Marie would have her fill. She anticipated a day of walking, her feet growing sore inside her new boots, heavy clouds covering the sun with no warning, getting trapped in a rainstorm. Marie ignored the other guests as she arranged a tray of yogurt with cornflakes, rolls of bread and many packets of butter and different jams, plus two cups of coffee, black. She couldn’t steel herself to take more substantial food, eggs and sausages kept warm in metal containers atop hot plates. Those items recalled the weakness of flesh, how easily it could be transformed and consumed. She’d eat a hardboiled egg as a compromise.
Money, the cost of things, was on her mind as she sat down to eat. At twenty, she was lucky: her parents still sent, from separate locations, occasional checks. She’d dropped out of school once, twice — neither knew about her most recent abdication — and thought she’d get by fine for a summer in Paris with under-the-table waitressing: there was no way she’d return to modeling for another life-drawing class. But she’d been fired from a restaurant two weeks prior when a drunk man exercised his prerogative, and she’d made the mistake of striking back with fists. The display was shocking and deranged, her manager commented, though the official reason he gave was her tendency to be late. Marie had a panic attack the following day, quelled only by walking into a store well beyond her budget and asking to try on the tall leather boots on display. Like riding boots, actually. They fit perfectly, and Marie followed what seemed a script: she declared at once she’d take them; the salesgirl, delighted, wrapped them in tissue and rang them up; Marie spelled out her email to join their mailing list, then inquired, trying to sound off-hand, if they’d ever open a boutique in London — where James now lived. Leaving the store, she sustained a fantasy that one day, she might go there, that James might glimpse her walking down a street or through a window — well-heeled, unharmed, normal — and he’d be left in something like awe. As if there he and she could undo what had happened and live out alternative lives, and she in her new boots. She continued the bout of impulsiveness by booking tickets to Edinburgh.
Marie shuddered at the memory, then contemplated her breakfast. She ripped a roll in half and buttered it thickly.
A tray of food appeared opposite Marie. That voice — she was sure it was the voice of the woman from the night before, the woman from the bottom bunk, now embodied. Streaks of gray in dry brown hair, and a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses, the kind bought for cheap at pharmacies, set on a long and serious face.
Marie nodded and watched the woman fold her tall, androgynous body into the chair. She was dressed in jeans, a white button-down, a roomy olive-brown jacket over her shoulders. The make of her clothes was not apparent. Marie placed the woman around 55. Her name was Phyllis.
The woman cut into her breakfast of sausage and eggs. Spread before her was a program of all the plays at the festival, and she read as she ate, pausing to circle certain performances.
“Could I — ” asked Marie. “Where did you get that?”
“Oh, programs are everywhere,” said Phyllis. “You could try the front desk.” She resumed her work. Marie half-rose from her seat, then sat back down. Phyllis possessed that grounding presence which was so hard to find. She would sit with Phyllis for as long as she could, and gain by association some of the older woman’s calm.
Phyllis spoke again: “I’m having a hard time deciding what to see this morning.”
Marie asked if she could see the program and began turning the pages of plays and one-acts and street shows and comedies and tragedies and musicals — and then there was James, or a photo of him and a caption below. Just his shoulders and head, his back against an anonymous brick wall. Mouth closed, he looked angry at the photographer for daring to take his portrait. Text and photo blurred, and for a moment she could not make sense of any of it. She flipped to a fresh page. “Oh, uhh, this,” she said to Phyllis, tapping a finger on a 10 a.m. performance of Ubu Roi.
“I’ve seen it before,” said Marie. “Not here. I saw it in France, at another theater festival. It’s very fuck the bourgeoisie.”
“So it’s a classic.”
Once they were on the street, she and Phyllis walked quickly, Marie wondering if she should have remained alone. She was supposed to look for James, and Phyllis was distracting her with questions. American, Marie explained, in Paris for the summer. Yes, she was enjoying it. Studying literature, she said. It wasn’t far from the truth. She had been a student, and it was possible she’d become one again. They walked down a steep cobblestone street, Marie’s mood sliding with them, her toes pinched by the new boots. She considered asking to see the program again, locating the photo of James, enlisting Phyllis in her search. What she wanted more than another image of James in print or online was to behold him again in real life, and learn something from seeing him. So that she might point him out to Phyllis, and ask, “What do you make of that man?” It could be helpful to have a second opinion. But Marie kept delaying, returning Phyllis’s basic questions with her own.
“Australia,” Phyllis answered. “Near Melbourne.”
“That must be beautiful,” said Marie, who’d never considered Australia.
“It is — I had a ranch.”
Phyllis had a steady voice: friendly, but on guard. She described the bond she had with her animals, the horses especially. The work was relentless, morning to night, yet she wouldn’t have chosen anything else. Not everyone could understand or respect a life spent among animals.
“Will you go back soon?”
“It’s not clear. I miss my horses — Australian stock horses. Are you familiar with the breed?”
“No,” said Marie. “Not at all.”
“I miss them, but — ” Phyllis spoke the next words carefully. “I’m now in a position in life where I can do some traveling.” She turned to Marie. “Are you traveling by yourself?”
“Sort of. I’m here to meet someone.”
“I’ve been traveling by myself. It’s been wonderfully clarifying.”
“Clarifying — wonderfully,” echoed Marie.
They reached the queue for Ubu Roi. The line was long, but they were certain to get tickets, so they relaxed. Or Marie pretended to: James could be there, somewhere in the audience, preparing to identify with Alfred Jarry’s antics and genre-bending genius. James was an artist, an artist and a director. He was all about play and also control. Sometimes he’d said, daring and control. Marie, a civilian, not an artist, wouldn’t understand. She understood neither play nor control.
They made it through the production — pretty good, they concurred, the players all rising to the occasion, a woman playing the role of Ubu, showing that women too could be infantile and disgusting, but so what. “I guess it was clever,” said Marie, and Phyllis replied, “I don’t care about clever” — and sat down on a low stone wall to eat lunch. “Great minds,” said Phyllis when both took out stolen rolls and packets of jam. Phyllis had even had the foresight to bring along a knife.
“How civilized,” said Marie, who’d been shoving bits of bread into a plastic tub of strawberry.
“It’s not enough, is it?” Phyllis stood. “I’ll go get us something to drink.”
She disappeared into the crowd, and the swiftness of her disappearance alarmed Marie. The day wasn’t promising. A sky of glaring gray light gave no heat but hurt her eyes. The shops, the streets were full of loud, shouting people, some of them already drunk. There were many people, too many. They were close to the Royal Mile — how would Phyllis ever find her again? And how would she find James? She’d been trying to will forth his messages by hiding her phone. Now she pulled it out. None.
Phyllis returned with a bottle of water and a cheese sandwich, which she kindly split in half. Marie asked if she could pay her back, but Phyllis, mid-chew, waved her hand no.
“I don’t think I like it here,” tried Marie. “Too many tourists. I feel anxious.”
“The countryside is better,” Phyllis agreed. “There are marvelous hills for walking. Do you hike?”
Marie wondered if this was an invitation. “I like to. But I don’t have hiking boots.”
They sat in silence and watched a man on a giant unicycle pedal by.
“This is what I don’t like,” explained Marie. “All the street performers make me nervous. That man could just fall.”
“I guess they trust themselves in their ability — and they trust their audience.”
“Not to push him over, you mean?”
“Something like that.”
“But someone could.” She was aware of having revealed too much of her fearful mind, so she stood and gathered their garbage. “I have to make a call — do you have plans, or will you be around here?”
“I’ll wait.” She looked perfectly happy to. Something so steady about Phyllis!
Marie forded the flow of pedestrians, then turned down a side street where at least she’d be out of Phyllis’s sight. It crossed her mind she could search out his theater, maybe run into him there. Or go and leave a message with the box office? No. She didn’t want to keep Phyllis waiting too long. She pressed his number instead. Ringing… ringing… What was he doing right now? He might not be near his phone. Or was he searching for it, wondering, Who calls —
His voice, confident and bored, “Hi, this is — ”
“Hi, James, I — ”
“James, I’m not here. Leave your name and number.” Beep. Marie hung up. She tried again. With each ring, she cleared her throat and bounced lightly on the balls of her feet. She hadn’t spoken to him since the afternoon she fled his apartment. Beep. She spoke in a rush. “Oh, hello James, it’s me, Marie. You know. I’m just calling because I ended up in Edinburgh, and I’m wondering if you’re around. I’m — my phone always dies, but I can also give you the number of the place I’m staying at. It’s — ”
Here was her luck: on the jam-stained napkin was the number of St. Christopher’s Inn. She read it out clearly, twice, before ending the call and hurrying across the street.
“Did you manage to get in touch with your friends?” Phyllis asked.
“No, but I left a message — and I also left the number of the hostel. So it’s old-fashioned this way. Maybe he’ll call me there.”
“That’s smart. There’ll probably be a message waiting for you when we get back.” The optimistic prediction from neutral Phyllis made Marie soar. Yes, there would probably be a message! He would, at the very least, have the English politeness to return her call. More important, he would want to set things right.
The next hours were charged with anticipation. All shall be well… She let Phyllis lead her to a comedy show. Marie could barely understand the comedian’s thick accent, and with James on her mind, she had trouble focusing. No matter. She let her thoughts drift, only once looking over at Phyllis, who was laughing hard, showing all her teeth.
That evening, they walked for an hour before choosing a restaurant that suited them both: Phyllis wanted to sit outside; Marie wanted a view; Phyllis didn’t want to sit at a table slanting downhill; Marie refused to eat “innards.”
They were happy where they ended up, on the terrace of a restaurant with vegetarian options, the long day turning slowly, very slowly, into night, their arms resting evenly on the table.
Marie told herself to savor these few hours — the hours before they returned to the Inn, where she would find, undoubtedly, a message from James. She spent a long time in the bathroom, and when she returned, Phyllis was eating her steak. Marie had ordered something with mashed potatoes and began scooping them with her fork.
“Remind me who your friends here are?”
“Well — not a friend. James.”
“No, from here — from London.” Her stomach tightened and she put down her fork. “But I met him back in the States, in New York. It’s funny, actually… ” She tried to see ahead. Maybe she could tell Phyllis. “I was working as a life-drawing model — do you know what that is?”
“I did it at first because it paid really well, 25 dollars an hour. And after my second session — wait, I should say, first we had an audition, and they liked me a lot. We had to contort ourselves into as many poses as possible, to see if we’d make good subjects. Turns out, I was good at it, and then James, well he’s a director but also somewhat of a painter, too, he asked if I’d be interested in posing privately — ”
But she couldn’t continue. If she described what happened, Phyllis would call it a crime, and Marie would be forced to agree.
She pushed back her chair and flung out her arms on a diagonal. “I had to sort of make myself like one of those wooden dolls with the flexible joints. You know what I’m talking about? You have to be strong to hold a pose like this.”
“And are you still doing this kind of thing?”
“No.” Marie dropped her arms and tucked back her chair. “And actually, after James, I don’t really feel like trying it again.”
“I took a drawing class once,” said Phyllis, “though I was never the model.”
“I think you’d make a good one — you have such nice long limbs.” Marie could picture Phyllis striding through Scottish countryside, perhaps carrying hiking poles, which she would brandish, sword-like, at any threatening beast or man.
“Perhaps you can’t tell then — I had breast cancer.”
“Oh — I’m sorry. I couldn’t.” She reevaluated Phyllis, whose clothes were loose and hung well on her long and stately frame. “Though I don’t think that’d be a problem if you wanted — ”
“I don’t miss my breasts, if that’s what you’re wondering. Once they were gone, I felt more like myself. I’d never wanted breasts, they were always just there. But — ”
And in the silence before Phyllis spoke again Marie sensed Phyllis had a secret use for her, too. She’d been keeping Marie around all day because she’d been traveling alone and in isolation for too long. She’d been preparing what she needed to say for too long, and now she had her audience.
Phyllis drank rapidly from her glass before resuming.
“But I really can’t speak of the cancer in an isolated way, because it was part of something larger — the most terrible and interesting months of my life. I was sick with cancer. It was almost too late — they’d found it too late. I was never attentive to the kind of exams you were supposed to do on yourself. I never bothered.”
Marie shivered, recalling the time a doctor circled his hand methodically around her breasts, showing her how to check herself.
Phyllis kept talking. “I was under anesthetic for the surgery, and I was separated from what was going on. But this I remember clearly: all of a sudden I was floating outside my body, above the operating table, and into the hall. I could look down and see my earthly body there on the table, but now I was something else, and I was being pulled toward white light. It was like no other I’d seen before — how could a light be so bright, and yet it didn’t hurt my eyes to look?”
The force of Phyllis’s speech had made the other tables on the terrace, the people passing by, sink further from reality, but the mention of white light brought the Edinburgh street back into focus. Near-death experiences always sounded the same.
“Even now,” said Phyllis, “I can’t convey to you the joy I felt. But then, as I was moving toward the light, I saw my husband and my two sons crying, and I knew I couldn’t let go yet. I was an atheist, and I think I still am. I’m not into all these theories, things we can’t prove. But I believed in the light, and the joy it brought me. The joy was real.” Phyllis’s mouth had trouble forming the next words. “Six months later,” she continued, “my husband and two sons — they were about your age, at the time — were killed together in a car accident as they were driving home. On the day of the funeral, I got kicked in the face by one of our horses. With all the painkillers, I was numb for the service.” Phyllis touched her jaw. “The only reason I didn’t fall into total despair was the memory of the light.”
Phyllis and Marie looked at each other in silence. Phyllis sank back in her chair and Marie leaned forward, her posture almost aggressive.
“Phyllis, I — ” And Marie actually put her hand on her heart, and when she tried to speak, her mouth twisted, as if she were about to cry. This was a gesture of sympathy for Phyllis and her misfortune — but only in part. Phyllis put a hand on Marie’s shoulder, and the surprise of her touch made Marie cry. Dry-eyed, Phyllis touched her own heart, but Marie turned from Phyllis and the table and looked at the street through the blur. She wished James would step forward at exactly that moment and see how badly she hurt; also, she wished for the certainty that he would never see her again. She was crying for herself, pitying herself, which was a low thing to do, because the story she held in silence was lurid and disgusting, it certainly wasn’t about joy or love, and it would be wrong to share it now with Phyllis, who’d spoken of her deceased husband and sons.
A waiter interrupted, apologizing when he saw Marie’s tears. They declined dessert, and told him just the check.
They could have seen any number of late-night entertainments, but they chose to walk back to the hostel. At the top of a street, heading downhill, Marie became convinced she saw James at the bottom, laughing outside a bar, totally relaxed, surrounded by a group of admirers and friends. Was it James? She couldn’t tell. Phyllis strolled beside her, content now that she’d revealed her big burden and her secret joy. She kept holding out her phone for Marie, telling her to swipe through photos of her horses. Marie noted a series of gleaming black and chestnut coats: well-kept horses.
“Beautiful,” she said.
They passed the bar and Marie decided it couldn’t be James. Maybe she wouldn’t want it to be. Because if she approached him now, she wouldn’t be able to say it. Or he would deny it. Or, in a strange city, 3,000 and more miles from New York, in the company of his friends and Phyllis, his actions of six months ago would seem unreal.
When they arrived, the lobby was empty except for a bored-looking young man sitting behind the front desk. Marie approached him. “Hello,” she said. “Are there any messages for a Marie?”
Phyllis and Marie were alone in the women’s dorm. Everyone else was staying out late, seeing a show, getting drunk, enjoying the slow-setting sun of a northern summer night. Marie felt the way she had when she was little and had been sent to bed earlier than all the other kids on her street.
As for James, she decided, forestalling more thought, give it another day.
Phyllis came back from the bathroom. “I’m leaving tomorrow, early in the morning. It might be before you wake up.”
“Are you? Where?”
“To the countryside — the hills. Somewhere more tranquil. I need more time to think. You can write to me, you know, if you’re ever in Australia.” She handed Marie a slip of paper with an email address.
Marie tore off a blank bit and wrote out her own. “In case you’re ever in Paris. Or I don’t know, America.” She tried to keep her voice light. Her home country sounded as unknowable as Australia.
“Well, good night then. I enjoyed spending the day with you.”
Phyllis hugged her. Marie, who’d taken off her boots, wrestled out of the embrace, then stood on her toes to give Phyllis a quick kiss on both cheeks. Her skin felt hot: Phyllis was very alive.
“Likewise,” said Marie.
Phyllis smiled, then covered her mouth, as if debating whether to impart any final wisdom. “Good night,” she repeated. “And be well, Marie.”
Marie once more had trouble sleeping. Phyllis had a richer life to reflect on, she thought, which was probably what she was doing now, even in her dreams. It wouldn’t have been wise to tell Phyllis. What if she’d told Marie to get over it — to get back on the proverbial horse. Which sounded disgusting, in the context of James.
Marie turned onto her left side. She caressed the syllables of all-shall-be-well like prayer beads, but the image of the soap dish kept cutting back in, the underside of the soap dish in James’s bath. The soap dish, and not his face, was the first thing she saw after lifting her head from the bath water, where James had been holding her down. The soap dish that was built into the tiled wall of the ordinary bath, with soap remnants glommed to its ridges. If only she’d seen his face first, and glimpsed — what? Hatred? Curiosity? She’d never know. He did not extend a hand to help her up.
She turned on her side again, then flattened herself onto her stomach. She tried to count backwards from 1,000, but kept losing track, and then there was the soap dish, and then Phyllis, levitating above the hospital bed, and then it was James’s face looking down at her, James whom she had probably seen, who was out walking the streets of Edinburgh, not far from her at all.
Clare Needham has published work in Ploughshares Solos, The Missouri Review, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.