The best thing about the apartment, Kate realized quite quickly, was the fire escape. Beyond the bedroom window and above the street you could nest there, held halfway between the inside world and outside world, suspended and sequestered. Today, she’d carefully furnished the space, made a small universe of select things: iced coffee, pack of cigarettes, cushion, book. Things to hold on to, to make you feel you were held on to. Which was a lie, of course. She was catastrophically unheld, and at the same time terribly conspicuous. That, maybe, was the worst thing about being lost: everyone could see you.
She’d had to ask for this iced coffee three times, as if she were speaking an entirely different language. Even before she’d opened her mouth, she had seemed to palpably discomfit the honey-haired barista. When she’d finally made herself understood and Honey-Hair had turned to shovel ice into a plastic cup, Kate checked her own shoes, left and right, and confirmed, definitively, that her soles were unshitted.
Everyone is invincible at eighteen. In that first year of university, in the weeks before she met George, Kate had experienced the sensation of being at the center of a web that tilted with her as she moved, as if the world were yielding to her, as if she were putting it in motion. Everything was smaller then. Now when she thought of Cambridge, she thought of the city’s model, on the raised circular plinth, about half a meter in diameter, on the edge of Market Square, the colleges cast in bronze, blocky and smooth as chocolate. You could loom over the model and put your forefinger on the street you were standing on. Just remembering this brought on a rush of claustrophobia.
She met George when their colleges shared seminars. His college — bigger, grander, more photogenic and famous — hosted. Two dozen of them sat around a huge round wooden table, where dead canonical poets had sat before them, soft January light pouring in through the windows. The second term was the seventeenth century. The first class was John Donne. They’d all bought the same edition, Everyman, handsome in its black-and-white jacket, the thin scarlet ribbon of a bookmark as proper as a Savile Row necktie. Only, the book in George’s hands was different. It was the first thing she noticed, his large hands holding that book, a charcoal-black volume with elegant silver lettering down its spine. He read aloud without hesitation, as though he already knew these rhythms. It was at least four months later that she realized the book in his hands was the same version everyone else had. He’d just taken the dust jacket off.
A few weeks ago, before she left, they’d gone to a friend’s dinner party. The friend — more George’s than hers — had just bought a West London flat, or rather her parents had, and the evening was an elaborate performance of adulthood. There were canapés from Fortnum & Mason, and place cards bearing names in careful calligraphy, a strict boy-girl-boy-girl seating plan around the table.
“Champagne?” the hostess kept saying to people whose flutes had been diminished only by a sip or two. She looked, bottle and eyebrows raised, as if she were about to strike a dainty bell.
George had sat opposite Kate, and as the dinner progressed he seemed to be drawing in the air around him, tightening it.
Who knows how the conversation reached the place it did. But one young woman called Annabelle began talking about pornography. She was petite, fine-boned, and her high voice seemed to undulate erratically, as though subjected to its own tiny weather systems, little breezes and quick currents over which she had little to no control.