At the Hive, everybody was sucking on tiny lollipops and drinking cocktails with Nutella in. Polly had given her sister the slip. Claire was queuing for the bar and Polly was meant to be queuing for the toilets, but instead, thrilled by her own sudden boldness, she had taken a wrong turning and ventured outside. Just to get some air, of course. The cigarette was still top of the charts in Claire’s own playlist of recriminations. Did Polly remember that time when she had taken two drags on a menthol cigarette and then been voluminously sick? Over the intervening years she had given Polly no possible opportunity to forget about it.
Outside she went and stood with Pablo, a grizzled Spanish man who skulked around the nightclub most weekends. He made deadpan passes at the girls that they were only too willing to interpret as being sardonic, laughing nervously in his face. This time, she – yes, she – turned and asked him what he was doing that night. Eternally unsurprised, he responded paternalistically, as she had banked upon him doing. He understood that she simply needed to get out of the place. He was going to a flat party on Leith Walk. It would be relaxed, a few friends and a handful of beers. He could signal for a taxi immediately, if she liked.
Oh yes, she would like to very much. Whilst Claire was still ignorant of the plot.
Pablo returned after some minutes and escorted her dutifully to the taxi. Amongst the girls at the Hive he was like a whirlpool that everybody knows to avoid in the course of a sea crossing. Yet a whirlpool that is somehow only formally dangerous. There was no record of him ever having swallowed anybody up.
Then Polly was struck by something that she had until now forgotten: Pablo was a crony of her husband’s. She knew that Biggy was home tonight. The light had been on under his door when they had left. He probably had work tomorrow morning. Uneasily, Polly was sure that Pablo would be abreast of her husband’s plans for tonight.
The flat party was so sparsely attended that Polly got a whole sofa to herself, as well as an unattended box of white wine. Pablo had peeled away from her on arriving. He had been disappointed that her melancholy had not abated once they had left the Hive. She would not relax in her skin; it was as if he was singing to her encouragingly and she did not want to pick up the tune. She knew that he would come to collect her at the end of the party. Until then, she sat by herself on the sofa and drank steadily.
Her phone rang. She switched it off.
In this lonely state of mind, she fell into a fever of scheming. She always wondered a little at how the impulse came to her. It was as if there was some undetectable thread always tied to her body and that a distant, malicious twitch upon this thread would set in motion the familiar yearning. Her brain now ran on the layout of this flat. It was on the second floor. The living-room windows faced Leith Walk but two of the apartment’s back bedrooms were open to the party. She sensed that their windows looked out over a garden. This would be perfect. For a long time, Polly sat dead still, thinking about what she could do, as though it was a pebble whose lightness she was weighing gently in her hand. Then there was a click, like a small but definite rotation in a lock and she was thinking about what she would do.
She looked around, guilty-faced. Nobody was watching her. She rose to her feet, putting down her wine glass. On leaving the living room she was disappointed to see that both of the bedrooms across the corridor were too crowded with people for her to obtain the necessary privacy.
There was in fact a row of three doors on the other side of the corridor. The third door was closed and it obviously belonged to a bedroom that had been shut off from the party. She resolved to gamble. If somebody was inside, she would pretend that she was drunkenly looking for the bathroom. She went to the door, opened it, and stole into the room.
Polly’s heart sank at the predictability of it all. She had made a blunder – the lights were on. Yet before it was possible to speak or retreat, she had frozen in amazement. James, the host of this party, was lying slumped on an old battered sofa, with his fingers curled like those of a dead man across the keys of a cordless keyboard. A projector was beaming a Microsoft Word document on to the far wall above his bed. Such was the weirdness of the scale that both James and Polly resembled little animals that had gotten too near to a computer screen.
But Polly had been dumbfounded most by the words that were arching across the wall in the spectral blue light:
And underneath, two sentences that were evidently undergoing a process of construction or reconfiguration:
These words were written ten years ago to this day, in the Microlabs at They cause me to reflect on all
James was a famously private man and even in his own bedroom everything appeared to be kept in containers and tidied away. He had not stirred when the door had opened, aside from an idle flick of the eyes in Polly’s direction. “I’m sorry but this room is off-limits.”
“That’s me!” Polly blurted out. “I mean, I was the girl who threw herself out of windows.”
“Yes,” James replied. He appraised her calmly. “I thought you were over that?”
She suddenly knew what he was thinking. “I’m looking for the bathroom,” she explained plaintively. He studied her with a face as unreadable as a monkey’s. Next, she heard herself begging in a high, hopeless voice. “Please don’t call Claire.”
“Your sister?” Lying on the sofa, James looked incapable of movement, as though standing up and walking over to the phone on his desk would be the equivalent to him of Marco Polo’s voyage to China. “Don’t worry, I won’t call anybody.”
Polly continued to stand in front of him, transfixed by the writing on the wall. James roused himself belatedly, trying to kick energy back into his body. The sharp triangle of his face, with the sunken eyes and the small crop of beard, swivelled in an alien, almost mantis-like movement, to take more of her in. “It’s the same as cutting yourself, isn’t it?”
His tone was polite and half uninterested, as though he was asking a neighbour about their garden. She nodded.
“I don’t imagine Biggy’s here?”
“No, he’s at home.”
James grunted. He began to speak but it seemed more to Polly that he was castigating himself, as though the bedroom was his own mind and his voice was resounding emptily within. “I feel humiliated. I held this party to celebrate ten years of Tychy, ten years since our first post. And your husband, my chief author, hasn’t even come. He wants me to think that he’s forgotten. Or he doesn’t care what I think.” James glanced sharply at Polly. “Ten years – that deserves something, doesn’t it? A telegram from the Queen? Three cheers in the Scottish parliament?”
They both looked at the window. “Please don’t throw yourself out.” James’ face had altered and it was now wan and taut with anguish. “This will become ‘the party where a girl threw herself out of the window,’ not ‘the anniversary party of a failed website.’ At least give me this.”
“I was just playing with the idea,” Polly assured him. “I was only going to peer down and look at the ground.”
“Nobody here is sober enough to drive,” James reasoned. “We would have to call an ambulance. The paramedics would be insolent and sarcastic.”
“I’m okay, I’m really okay.”
“You’ll call your sister? She’ll be worried about you.”