Agora, fiction by Kira McPherson

‘Where you from?’

He thought you hesitated because you didn’t want to say. It was your inability to give anything other than a full account that stopped you. The same thing happened at home. People at work asked where you were off to, in the British lingo, and you talked them through the route in detail when you could have said Spain. Infidelities appear in the span of long distances but it never occurred to you to leave me out—a few days with an old friend, a train to the south. Your country of origin was likewise a matter of judgment.

We stopped in a cafe outside Park Güell where the walls were stuck with origami picnic baskets. The owner shrugged at us from behind the counter. ‘I speak English at you,’ he said. ‘But you could be Spanish, French.’ He spared us the full list. The important thing to know was that he was not being overly familiar and that the question of your provenance was for him a practical one.

We were used to these enquiries. The year before in Italy was worse. Something about this particular formation of being with you—me being with you—leaves us more open to men than normal, as though two women together intensify the loneliness of each other. Men encounter us like a mortuary, not knowing what our bodies have in common and how it might preclude their involvement.

I started speaking to pastries the way men spoke to us: Nice, very nice, I said, whenever we passed a window that looked particularly good. Come to me, I would say, smacking my lips together, opening and closing one hand.

The main entrance to the park was shut. Security barriers sent us in the other direction. We could see the tops of buildings from the outside, spires growing into view. Cranes dangled off to the side. Everything we had seen so far was in some process of construction. I felt bad, assuming it was the time of year, and that my reluctance to spend money was somehow at fault. But you told me that some of the buildings were incomplete.

‘How do you not know this?’ you said. You were using the same tone of voice as when you explained, hair dripping, that October is typically a rainy month. Then we went to a bar with a framed print of the city skyline—a weirdness of bars everywhere—and there in the picture was a crane. Only then I believed you, having spent a while on alert for long simmering acts of vengeance. We were friends again, after all. Look how we travelled as a pair.

We passed back through the bollards. You said that in Manchester they used concrete blocks to seal off footpaths, then turned some of the blocks into planters. It was disconcerting, you said, the idea that the obstruction of violence was not sufficiently aesthetic. Barriers were cropping up everywhere. It made you feel like a child again, the adults spelling out their conversations while you were still in the room. But the t-word, it didn’t bother you. All you asked was to be treated like a thinking individual. That’s what you said. I wanted something that was the opposite, an empty head. I had stopped reading the news. It was strange at first to continue moving through the newsless world, where several natural disasters, random attacks and celebrity deaths passed without incident. I was happier, I realised, but if I thought about it too much the effect went away.

Some tourists on rented bikes went past and we followed at a distance. Their brakes squealed all the way down. While walking you told me about Clara, your friend from the internet. Back then everyone belonged to a message board, you explained, now mostly replaced by social media and what you kept calling the feed. If you were growing up now you would never have left South America, because the feed would sort you according to your time zone and your English would not have changed, you said, sounding for a moment like you inhabited that other world. The greatest thrill was waking up early and waiting for the dial-up to ring, then seeing what had happened to the discussion overnight.

I asked if it would have been better, if you had made friends who were near you? Probably, you conceded. But you turned out fine—and you would have not met Clara, the first person you knew from Barcelona. The usernames appeared with flags underneath. I asked what your username was and you wouldn’t tell me. ‘I don’t remember,’ you said, although your eyes were drifting the way eyes drift when people are remembering.

The forum was an interesting mix of people, you told me. Two of them were dating, internet dating, which was impressive at the time because of the perceived risk. The lovers even had a plan to meet. You could never have achieved anything like that. Your mother assumed that a person could be anyone online—and she was right, although in the wrong way, which is the way it usually was, because you were not meeting middle-aged men pretending to be girls but in the end she would have preferred that as a more familiar horror. But that wasn’t true for everyone, you said. Some of the girls were there for the band, some were there for each other, and everyone was working it out.

‘What about you?’ I asked.

‘I was there for the music,’ you said. ‘In the beginning.’

You spoke Spanish to a man at the ticket booth. I liked being in Barcelona because you did everything for me. It was the same in Seville years ago, when we were still together. You spoke to waiters and ordered meals. You managed all the small transactions that constitute visiting somewhere new. You would make a wonderful husband for someone one day, we joked. I remember saying to you, after dinner, that we would have to be quick. My girlfriend will be back at any minute, I said.

You came back from the park ticket booth. ‘It’s closed,’ you said.

You brought out a map, pointing out the parts coloured yellow. You explained that we could walk along this route, but we would miss out on the most beautiful and scenic areas unless we came back later. I could hear the voice of the attendant in the way you spoke. We agreed the yellow places would be enough. We had stood outside the Sagrada Família for a few minutes and been satisfied with the visit overall. We joked about the city guides we had been reading, the absurd quantities of time they allocated to intellectual experiences. Soak up the architecture at the Casa Batlló: 4 hrs. A walk around the gardens was something we could do. We could pretend to be men of action, in the Aristotelian sense, characters of physical and moral fortitude equal to the scene around them.

We began walking along the perimeter of the garden. I told you about my trip to the south of England with someone who was important, or who seemed like she was going to become important but this turned out not to be the case. The Cornwall trip had nothing to do with the end of the relationship except that one immediately followed the other. This is what happened, I told you. We were on the beach one day and there were three loud noises. A car backfiring somewhere, a pause, then backfiring twice more. This sound is a lot like the sound of gunshots, which means for a short period my mind went dark and by the time it was fully mine again, meaning by the time I was back inside it with what felt like control, I was trying to hoist myself over a flood defence wall.

‘Deary me,’ you said, using your English phrase of choice.

I told you that that wasn’t the worst part. My friend in Cornwall wanted to know what I was doing. Dirt from the wall had rubbed off onto my top. My hands were black. I told her that I thought we could use the wall for cover, if we needed.. I was still trying to find somewhere to wipe my hands. A woman coming in the opposite direction stopped us. ‘You thought you were going to get blown up, didn’t you?’ the woman said, laughing. I told her yes, I did think that for a second, but I thought I was going to be shot.

You interrupted my story. Explosions, bullets—you said the difference was small.

‘They both operate as forces,’ you said. ‘It’s really cinematic effects that have spoiled this association for us. Projectiles, that’s what get you.’

But you were willing to admit that I behaved sensibly, even if this was not because of any conscious choices I had made. Your old appeal comes through strongest in these moments. Then you asked why I was telling you that story, implying that there were many other stories I could have used to illustrate my flaws. Was I was trying to make you jealous?

‘It popped into my mind,’ I said. ‘It was my last holiday, that’s all.’

‘Okie dokie,’ you said.

‘I’m sure I told you about it at the time.’

 

We went up one set of stairs and another. The view of Barcelona was the same one Picasso put in pictures, which we had seen two days earlier in the museum about him. Flat and imperfectly tessellated, lots of orange.

You said it was strange to think that terrorists were similar to old mythic heroes, in terms of their values and tribal identities, and the idea of everything as a quest that they have a destiny to fulfill.

‘Not Odysseus,’ you said. ‘But not not that, either.’

You paused. ‘Greece,’ you said. ‘We should be there instead.’

We stood aside to let a couple with hiking gear go past. We were surrounded by tall trees that we couldn’t name. A fly hovered in front of your face, becoming caught in the gravitational pull of your nose. ‘Come on,’ you said. We continued walking up, and you talked more about Clara.

You exchanged letters with some of the girls from the internet, Clara included. You must have written your address on the open forum, which made you wince now. Would it turn up in a search if you looked for it? You would rather not know. If it did it would surface along with the younger you, the one thing part of the other.

Over the next month the mail started to come. It came from France and Australia and Taiwan, and from Clara in Barcelona. It shocked you to see the nice stationery everyone used when you had ripped pages from your schoolbook, which was the only way to ensure your lines remained even. You found out the woman from Taiwan was nearly 40. That cooled your enthusiasm. On the other hand the Australian never wrote back and stopped posting online—from time to time this was something that happened.

The strip ahead of us had been colonised by street hawkers, their blankets laid out with small items, most of them without pretense to the current location. Bags, sunglasses, flashing toys. Putty that stuck to any surface and came off good as new. One stall was selling paper dolls of US presidents, strung in chronological order and with the help of the wind apparently dancing. Things you could imagine being a child and wanting, that your adult perspective knew was rubbish. Mind-blowing to think there is economy in it, the economy of shit, shit repeated and made international. Yet at some past age you would have wanted it. It would have made you feel good in a way that was no longer available.

We moved through all this like people who had seen it before, trying to catch glimpses of the garden at the edges. Below us was the idea of an intricate hedge, blocked from view. You walked quickly to spots of shade and rested for long stretches. You said you were tired of the cold in England but here you were too hot, maladapted.

What else happened with Clara, I wanted to know. You said it was nothing. You plucked out details you remembered: she liked football, she wanted to visit Argentina. She signed her letters with a heart. You traded photos with Clara, hers arriving first. You remember she was very pretty, dark-haired and tanned and older than you, wholesome-looking, as if the photo had been taken at the instance of a good thought. You didn’t fall in love with her but that would be enough later: age and authority, one or two minor flaws in which you could invest as much personality as you needed. We all heard so much about your first love, the teacher with glasses who got surgery and spoiled all your affections.

So many people around us had gone off the pathway, finding secluded spots in the bushes where they could eat lunch. We kept climbing higher, the ledges around us thinning out. It looked the same as the spot in Italy where we fought in between towns. I thought we were done at that point, but then Manarola was so beautiful I found myself wondering what you would think.

These trips are wasted on us. You take so many they begin to remind you of each other.

‘Look at that beautiful bird,’ you said. By the time I found where you were pointing it was gone. We had no food and talked wistfully about the picnic baskets in the cafe. In our version they contained high quality cheeses and crusty bread, and too much of it for either of us to consume.

You said you didn’t know how you got a photo to Clara. It seemed possible you didn’t send one at all, any visual representation of your body at the time a violent shock to the complexity and abstraction of your inner life. Merchandise was hard to get in your town, compared to the glut in European cities and apparently Canada, where the band was also popular. Clara sent you a poster and a live concert that wouldn’t play in your video machine. The poster was something your mother would throw back at you later: three brunettes and a redhead on your bedroom wall, under her roof, how could you?

‘I was radicalised by the internet,’ you said. ‘Women with guitars. Look how far I’ve come!’

You wiped your forehead with your t-shirt and kept walking. I saw the brown of your stomach for a moment, wondered if I would see it again.

We had a good view of all the buildings we were going to miss at closer range. They could be taken in with one broad swivel of the hips. A woman held out her phone at me and spoke at length—you took it and photographed them.

‘You?’ she said, gesturing between us.

‘No gracias.

A smile sent her direction in lieu of language.

Sometimes I get angry when people call us friends. You and your friend, do you want to pay together? Your friend, what does she want? Then I remember that we are friends now, and my anger loses force but hangs around in the same shape.

One of you stopped writing first, you can’t say if it was you. For you the band was one stop along the way and you think for Clara it was different. You have no evidence, but it feels wrong to continue relationships when you are sitting on something explosive, that will explode you and propel you into a different place than before. The fear is that you have a pattern here, that you can start and stop things at will, and that we never know which thing might be discarded next.

You ask about my childhood on the internet. It was much the same, I tell you, and entirely different. I developed two interests in parallel that took me through early adolescence: astrology and motorcycles. Both helped me work myself out at a comfortable remove.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘And I developed a phishing scam when I was thirteen.’

‘Fishing?’

‘Password scam. A stupid email saying, ‘Your account has been compromised’.

It was more innocent at the time, depriving people of nothing but the ability to send and receive emails.

‘We didn’t all have lesbian music,’ I said.

In the sum of it Clara was not an important person. You only remembered her because of the Barcelona connection. It was your grandmother who mailed the letters anyway, meaning that your commitment was not always up to the task.

By the exit an escalator spat out new people. There was a mosaic that you had an instinct to describe as beautiful, you said, but on second thoughts it was just colourful. What did I think? ‘Colourful,’ I said.

We took a circular path that went gradually downhill. No bikes this time to lead us.

‘Have you seen the Chagall gallery,’ you asked, ‘in Nice? It looks just like this.’

You didn’t go inside because it was eight euros and you had seen the famous Chagalls elsewhere. While you spoke you were taking such long strides it must have looked to an observer like you were running away. You were on the horizon, parallel to the rooftops that ran beside us. You grew older, found excuses to move away. There never was another letter writer and now you have stopped sending letters completely. The daytime took you in, and down you went.


Kira McPherson lives in London. Her short fiction has been published in Westerly magazine and is forthcoming in the 2018 London Short Story Prize Anthology. She won a 2018 Spread the Word London Writers Award. She is working on her first novel.

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