Red is the Colour of Night

“Sign here.”

A face looms through the semi-darkness. The boat of Amsterdam rises and falls with the canals; buildings wade through the half-light, broken rafters crumble through dust.

“Contracts are binding.”

I fumble through the notes in my purse for a pen. It all feels too familiar. Delft tiles framed with blue perfection peel across the walls, a cracked lamp flickers. My pen tumbles to the floor. Bending, I notice the front page of The Times. Another girl lost to the undercurrents of the red that lines these streets. That’s the sixth in a year.

Checked-in, he leads me through the breakfast room to a lair of winding corridors and balanced stairwells. I pull my weighted suitcase to the lift door where the sign shows one small person, one small bag at a time.

“Third floor. Enjoy your stay.”

The door slams. My icy hand glides an empty wall.

The Speech

The courtyard was covered in glass; round chairs beside square tables warmed by the sun, cooled by the rain. I was nearing the end of my shift when a man appeared at the door and asked for a table away from the noise. I led him to the courtyard and placed him beneath the sky in the center of the room. He ordered a chai and a teacake, and laid beside him a suit in a black wrapped bag, a pair of polished shoes and a handbag.

I watched from my post as he unclenched himself a limb at a time, rolling waves across his shoulders, twisting his neck this way and that until it was aligned just so. When his meal arrived he pushed it aside, cracking his back like a whip.

In the silence of his mind the day before him loomed across the void.

Dance-like, his hands rose and fell as he worked his way through the notes in his bag. He laid them straight against the grain, flattened the folds beneath the palms and realigned himself, moving his chai aside and putting it back again until he was certain that everything was correct in its place.

I stood beside the pillar and watched.

He began to talk to himself as mimes do, exaggerated, focused, moving through his notes a word at a time in a kind of stop-frame motion reserved for children’s cartoons and drunks. At each phrase he paused, rearranged his face, noted the gesture of his body and planned his route.

At the end of it all he held a Q&A, his shoulders tied to the lobes of his ears. He had marked his course, and as a reward divided his teacake into four equal parts, sending them to the corners of the plate where they were joined to the whole by the crumbs.

He began again.

This time, answers in place, rehearsed and ready, he moved through the words with the softness in the simple gesture of letting go. As his hands rose his shoulders fell, sinking slowly, gently, flowing freely through the silence of his mind.

I looked across the crowded restaurant as he folded his hands to his forehead, pressed his palms to the sockets of his eyes and wept with silent relief, unfolding himself through the years of his life that were held by the notes on the page.

I didn’t see him leave.

When I returned to his table I found a suit, four quarters of a teacake and a folded bill beneath the cooling chai. The shoes were gone. So was the handbag.

In its place a pool of sunlight fell to the floor.