by Alex Lee
Dwell is a short story about grief and the many ways it manifests. It's a story about the places we call home, it's about loss, about friendship, and even hope. But most of all, Dwell is a story about the times when we're forced to dwell on painful thoughts and how those thoughts are able to send us on the path to acceptance.
You brush your fingers along the lens and glide them upwards to feel for the shutter release, you touch the curves, the controls, the hard glassy edge of the viewfinder. The body feels rough under your fingertips. It feels good, it feels like home.
Bringing the viewfinder up to your eye, you tilt it at just the right angle, feeling for the zoom button to flick through existing photographs. It’s no use, the zoom can’t fix your sight. The faces still blur…but Jenny’s strawberry blonde hair still manages to capture your gaze. You close your eyes and drop the camera down to the white sheets of the hospital bed. You allow yourself to collapse back against the mattress, the pain sapping your energy. Tears well up in your bottom eyelids. You blink rapidly, trying to force them away. Breathing in deeply through your nose, you sink into a world where you can see her face again.
She’s dancing, you’re dancing. Your lips curl up into a smile as you stare into her light brown eyes. And you realise, you love her. You love this girl. You kiss her. You’re in her bedroom, you’re with her and she is with you. But then…then it all changes. You can’t see her. She’s disappearing, her face becomes a Gaussian blur and you reach for her. You look around, you can’t see. You know there’s a poster on the wall but you can’t see it. You can’t see. You can’t see, the words ring in your head.
“Duncan, sweetie,” your mum says gently, nudging you awake.
Sweat beads along the top of your forehead and you wipe it away with the back of your hand. You reach for your camera and realise that the black blurry blob now sits on the table beside you. Your heart races and you swallow as you try to control the struggling breaths. One breath in. One breath out. This is only temporary, you remind yourself. This is only temporary. Soon you’ll be standing on a mountain in the Scottish Highlands photographing some alpacas in high-definition quality, or something.
“The nurse wants to take some more blood, sweetie…Doctor’s orders,” she says as she pulls sweaty, dark hair away from your forehead and presses her lips to it.
You stretch out your arm, feeling for the cannula and await the nurse.
She extracts blood quickly and methodically, like you’re a random lab rat in some medical institution. Needle in, slight pinch. Needle out.
“Thanks, Duncan,” the nurse says, as if you’re doing her a favour by keeping still. You see her silhouette turn to walk away.
“Sorry…” Mum says quickly.
“Yes?” she says, turning back.
"When will Doctor Peter see him?”
The nurse bows her head and you imagine she’s checking over a schedule.
“Ah! Today. He’s booked in today.”
The echo of her shoes tell you she’s turned back round to leave you and mum alone.
A few hours later, a man in a purple uniform carts you away in a wheelchair. Its wheels squeak as it skates over the gap between ground and elevator.
“Hockley Ward, second floor. Going down,” the elevator voice says.
You wonder if they know that it’s your eyes that aren’t working, not your legs.
Your parents sit next to you in the waiting room as you wait for your name to be called. It’s one of those plastic seats you get in hospital waiting rooms, where they’re all connected by a metal bar. You know it because Dad’s restless legs are shaking so much that it’s causing the whole row of chairs to vibrate.
A while later, Mum takes you by the arm and guides you into a large room and seats you down. The doctor stands before you and a whole team of medical juniors start silhouetting behind him. They scare you and you can’t quite pinpoint why.
He speaks medical jargon. Optic neuritis…something Stargardt’s, central vision loss. Cells in the optic nerve beginning to…
“Die,” the doctor says lastly.
Now you’re getting it. They scare you because your future is in their hands. They speak a language that you can’t comprehend. Your hands are shaking, you can’t…control them. Your mind tunes out of whatever he’s saying, like it’s protecting you from hearing the truth.
Dad’s voice pipes up, knocking your brain back into gear: “Thurrock’s what?”
“Thurrock’s Neuropathy. It’s a rare genetic condition passed down from the mother through the mitochondria.”
“What does that mean? There’s…there’s something you can do, right? Some kind of treatment?” you say, and you’re hyperaware of the tremble in your voice.
“No,” the doctor says hesitantly, “You’re going to go completely blind in, potentially eighteen months.”
I push the handlebar down and swing the fire escape door open. The cool air hits me in the face as I take one tentative, barefooted step onto the cold concrete rooftop. The moon peeks out above a high rise block of flats opposite, shining a pathway towards the ledge. I run the back of my hand across my runny nose from the cocaine come down. A small red car zooms by below as the wind quickens its pace. It makes me regret coming up here in just a pair of boxer shorts.
I could do it, you know. Twenty-three floors high, just one step. It would be quick. Instantaneous. A hundred metres? Terminal velocity. Yes, I could do that. The vertigo kicks in and I take a tiny, hesitant step back. I can see it happening, the slow-motion freefall… The same moment has played through my head so many times. Falling. Falling into the deepening depths…
Shit. I back away from the ledge and eye the girl. Her arms are wrapped round her body as she shivers in my black bathrobe.
“Yes?” I say, trying hard to hide my annoyance at the interruption and her continued butchering of my name.
“Is everything…okay?” Rave Girl 5 continues, her brow furrowing.
“I’m fine, Lisa,” I say as I walk past her and jog back down the staircase leading up to the fire escape door.
“It’s…Leah,” she says coldly.
My mind flashes back to the time in the club when she corrected my pronunciation of Greenwich. Greenwitch, Grennitch. Lisa, Leah….
“Right, sorry, Leah.”
She follows me back into my flat and stands by the door. I watch her fingertips glide along the wood of my vinyl player. She’s not you, Annelí.
“Look, Leah. I’m not in a good place right now. I’m going to need you to go,” I say with as much sadness as I can muster.
“But it’s 4am?”
“Please? I can call you an Uber? Here, I’ll pay for it, where are you go-”
“Forget it,” she says, striding into my bedroom to change into her clothes.
She’s out of my flat in five minutes, with nothing but a look that says ‘fuck you’. She’s not you…Annelí. Nothing but those same coloured eyes.
At 5am I decide to head back up to the rooftop. I lay a blanket down and sit, watching the lights of the buildings dance asynchronously. The sounds of early London buzz in uncooperative dissonance in the February wind. I can feel the flu-like symptoms coming on thick and fast.
I unfurl one of the corner pages of Kafka on the Shore and hold the book up to my face. Tracing my finger along the shitty sentence that I’ve read over and over again, I start to talk out loud.
“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
I can’t help it, I laugh like a maniac. Fucking bullshit. You were right, Annelí. Murakami is one lattelepjandi lopatrefill. You never liked his work. Bleak and depressing, you’d say.
At half past, I light a candle on top of a Red Velvet cupcake and wait for the wind to blow it out. It doesn’t, so I blow it out myself.
“Happy birthday, Ann,” I say under my breath, “I miss you. So much.”
Three weeks. Three weeks since you were discharged and in that time, you haven’t been out on a shoot. No more tears, you tell yourself. You’d been psyching yourself up for this very moment. You told Jenny everything and she…understood. Today will be the first time you’ve seen her in months. It’s time you left the house.
Your alarm wakes you at 5am and the breaking dawn greets you with its bright morning hues. You get Mum to drive you up to the entrance to Primrose Hill, something she would have never have done…before all of this. You haven’t forgotten how to navigate its landscape.
You ascend it, it’s a path you’ve trodden up a hundred times. Perching yourself on the bench, you wait.
You pull the Canon up to the view of London and hold down the shutter release. Click. It’s like the ability to take photographs can’t be unlearned. You had to swap out the lens before you left to make sure you could capture dawn’s light with the prime lens. Click. Sometimes you feel like you’re just doing this to keep up the great charade of normality, just so you can pretend that nothing has changed. Who are you kidding? It’s all changing.
An hour passes by, maybe more. You ring her. Two hours, three. Again and again you ring her and it just rings and rings before going to voicemail. You can recite the voicemail message by heart now.
The dog walkers arrive and leave, the morning joggers complete their morning routines and are off to work. The hill is starting to be invaded.
She’s not coming. The realisation sinks in.
The soft gentle breeze washes over you and you collapse onto the floor before the bench and hover your hands just above the ground. Finally, you place them down and feel for the words that are etched into the tarmac. From muscle memory, you move your fingers through the letters.
“I have conversed with the spiritual sun…” you mutter to yourself.
Both of you shared this spot together. You hold up your camera again and stare at the viewfinder, tilting it at just the right angle, now a sequence of motions you’ve perfected. Clicking through the images, you wait for your brain to click with recognition. Your eyes stare with concentration, just waiting for your remaining vision to find the photograph of blonde hair merging with the backdrop of London at dawn. It’s like you’re playing a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ and struggling to find him. There. That’s the one.
You hover your finger over the delete button and take a deep breath, then pull your finger away. You were afraid of telling her, and you were right. All she knew was that you’d dropped out. You should have kept it at that and kept your big mouth shut. You pull your rucksack over your back and walk back down the hill.
Dad waits for you at the entrance of the park and drives you back home.
“How’s Jenny?” he asks, “Did she want to come round for lunch?”
You don’t respond.
When he pulls into the drive, he eagerly guides you through the porch and into the living room.
“There’s a lady here to see you, Dunc. Her name’s Juliet, she’s from the Social Services,” Mum says as you walk in.
Juliet shows you a long, white cane and teaches you how to use it. It’s a foreign object, like something that should never, ever be in your possession. You put it down on the chair next to you.
“Look, I know it’s hard,” she says, “and I know it’s easy for me to say, but honestly, it gets easier. You’re going to pull through this and come through the other side,”
Juliet, the not-blind social worker, says it like gospel.
“No,” you say, shaking your head. “It’s not…going to be the same. Everything’s changing. My life…it’s never going to be-”
“Duncan,” Mum says, a quiver in her voice.
“Fuck! Didn’t you hear him? It’s your fault! Your fault that this…that this is happening!” you scream, your mouth spitting the words out like venom. “This…shit! It’s fucked up everything!” You lurch out of the living room door and run up to your bedroom.
You think you should feel bad for saying it but you don’t. It’s never, ever going to be the same. You’ve lived life through your eyes, through the variety of lenses lining your windowsill. How can it ever be the same?
You stare at the wall facing your bed and zoom into the A3 poster with your camera. It’s a picture of a waterfall in Iceland shrouded by mist.
You unzip your rucksack and take out the gift card you bought from the Iceland Air website. A return flight for two people to Reykjavik, like you and her always dreamed of. It was a present, for always being there for you, for continuing to be there for you…
Tears roll down your cheeks and splash onto the gift card. You wipe your eyes with the back of your hand.
“I’m still going,” you say.
Over the past three years I’ve mastered the art of faking “being busy”. The trick is to play the part with conviction. Be the poor, lonely, broody European who has a shit command of the English language.
Step one: Keep my head down and sit at the cubicle with two screens, minimum. Three if possible.
Step two: Pull up a spreadsheet when the area manager walks behind me. That’s how to fool the stupid. When I look hard at work, I am hard at work. I mess around with the data, type in the figures here, send off some e-mails there, make a few phone calls – remember, poor English! My Literature degree doesn’t exist in this dimension. And by the time I’ve done all of that, the day should be gone. Bam! I’ve got money in the bank and I’m living the bullshittery that is ‘being an adult’.
Step three: When the hands on the clock point to five, get out of the office! See, the idea is to escape before any colleague can ask whether I want to grab a drink. If I answer and say no, I’m rude. If I answer and say yes, I’m screwed. The best thing to do is to not give them the opportunity to ask me in the first place.
I don’t think I can ever get used to the suffocating feeling of the London Underground. We’re packed in like dead fish on a Reykjavik boat. The man behind me sneezes on the back of my neck and I can physically feel the snotty residue hitting my skin. I grit my teeth instinctively. Thank you… Drullu kunta.
I’m trapped in the corner facing the glass. A couple leaning on the cushioned rest lock lips like lizards. They whisper sweet ‘I love you’s’ like how couples do at the six month point in a relationship. Like how we used to do…I stare at their reflection in the glass. Fuck.
I shake it off and close my eyes. I need sleep, no. I need air. I run my fingers through the stray blonds in my hair and wrestle through the sweaty suits to make my way off the train.
I can’t stop myself, I’m sauntering from pub to pub without a care for the consequences. After my seventh…maybe eighth drink, I realise, I have no idea where I am. I don’t even open my phone to check, because I don’t even care. I deserve every stupid thing that happens to me. The lampposts blur together and they start to wobble like they’re doing a dance. I lumber forward and spot another pub filled with after-work drinkers. The sign above reads ‘The Shipwreck’. Ha, perfect. I push the door open and slur the order for a pint.
I drink slowly now, like I know I need to stop. To take it…easy.
The phone in my pocket rings and vibrates. Arí. The green answer button beckons to me. I don’t want to press it. I do.
“Helloooo, brother,” I say.
“Tómas?” he says. Is he…angry? “Are you drunken?”
I burst into laughter: “Drunken? Arí, you need to improve your English!”
“Andskotinn, Tómas,” he says, now switching over to Icelandic. I can picture him shaking his head in disapproval.
“What? Don’t judge me, Arí! I’m celebrating!”
“Are you fucking kidding-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t curse at me!”
“Who are you with, Tómas?” he says.
“Myself,” I tell him. “Now if you will excuse me, I am celebrating Annelí’s birthday.”
"The fuck you are. I’m getting on the next plane to London and I’m taking you home. This is the end, Tómas. You are coming home.”
I end the call.
The window pane is cold under your hand. You can feel the icy temperatures outside the body of the plane leeching through the glass.
You and Dad had planned it meticulously. It wasn’t easy, mind. Dad assisted you with organising the trip. He’d understood, unlike Mum. You practically had to beg him not to tell her.
Dad had spoken to a lady at a small family-run hotel and she said she could definitely accommodate you. It feels strange, lacking the independence to plan a holiday by yourself.
It’s infantilising, you think. The way dad had to get some assistance from the airline as he carried your duffle for you. Did dad used to do that? The moments start to blur, like you’re forgetting how things used to be and how they are now.
You’re exhausted, not physically – emotionally. The tethers to the visual world are snapping themselves in half.
You hear a trolley come rattling down the aisle next to you and you look straight ahead, feeling the smooth edges of the folded up cane in your hand for support. You can do this. It’s you against the world. God knows you’re on your own now.
The plane lands and you stay seated, just like the air hostess told you to. You realise you’re the last passenger left on the plane, like the forgotten liability you think you are.
Pulling on your beanie, you walk through the connecting tunnel guided by one of the airport staff. You can’t help but allow yourself to smile, even for this one moment. You descend the escalator. Welcome to Iceland.
The smell of rotten egg fills your nostrils as you’re led outside the airport by the man. The scent of…sulphur? Rain pelts you in the face as you stand in the darkness, waiting. You pull your coat tight around you and wrap your scarf around your neck a second time.
The man hails a cab and he and the driver have a brief conversation in Icelandic.
You can just make out the guy gesturing to the cane in your hand that’s still folded up. He then opens the passenger door and you throw your duffle in before stepping in yourself.
“You’re going to 168 Hverfisgata, is that right?”
“Yes, please,” you tell him.
As he drives, you notice the lights blurring past and the dark green fields pop out in the gloomy blackness.
He makes small talk and by half an hour in, you feel like you know all about him. Magnus, with two kids. Been working for airport taxis for twenty years. He loves his job, he loves his country.
Magnus parks up on the side of the road and offers to guide you to the door. You refuse, politely. You stop at the threshold, duffle strung across your back and knock loudly.
I didn’t put up a fight when he came, I just bawled into his shoulder. Arí helped me pack up my life, the dingy shithole I called home in London was stuffed away into three large suitcases. He’s right, I was unravelling at the seams. Arí booked the flight and we caught the plane the next day.
We take our seats on the plane and I turn to look at him. He gives me a small smile.
“Ma is going to be happy to see you home,” he says.
I nod and stare out the window. It’s still disorientating hearing his voice in real life, hearing the Icelandic language again. I’m trying not to think about it. About how the country will suffocate me. How they will suffocate me.
I flip open Kafka on the Shore and rest my head against the cold window. ‘If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.’
Being home, it gives me anxiety. Like all their beady eyes are upon me. The airport I’ve grown up travelling in for twenty-four years feels the same. Time’s just stopped here.
“Mind if I drive,” Arí says as he walks towards my Jeep in the airport car park.
“I see you took her,” I say, stepping into the passenger side.
“Yeah,” he says, giving me a sheepish grin and hopping into the driver’s seat.
“It is fine, Arí.” I tell him as he swerves out of the car park and onto the highway to Reykjavik.
“So is this it now, Tómas? You’re not going back to London?”
“Why?” I ask.
“Just…we’ve moved all of your stuff out into the shed.”
“Ah, I’m gone for three years and you’ve turned my room into a guest room?”
“It’s been three years, Tómas…we thought you’d never-”
“Arí,” I say, looking at him, “Relax, I’m just fooling.”
He shakes his head and punches me in the arm.
“I’m not planning on staying home long anyway...”
He laughs: “Over my dead body,” but he bites his tongue as he says the words ‘dead ‘body’.
I fake a grin. He didn’t mean to say it.
“Are you scared?” he says after a few minutes silence.
I look ahead, watching the streetlights illuminate the stretches of black tarmac in front. The wipers swipe aggressively at the windshield.
“Yeah,” I say softly, “Yeah, Arí. I’m really fucking scared.”
Arí reverses into our driveway. I stare at my childhood home. It looks exactly the same, the same red, wooden door. The same green elf statue on the lawn. Nothing changes.
I take a deep breath as Arí unlocks the front door.
“Tómas,” a voice breathes out as I step through the door.
Ma dives at me, holding me tightly. She kisses my cheek and her eyes fill with tears.
“It’s OK, Ma. I’m home,” I say and kiss her on the forehead. “I’m home.”
In my room, I begin to unpack my things. I lift out a photo frame. Shit. The glass had cracked in transit. I take the picture of Annelí and me out of the frame and lie it on my old bedside table. She has the biggest smile on her face as we stand in Hans’ house, posing for the picture. I unpack a few more items and feel my eyes getting tired. I lie back on the bed and close them.
A knock comes at my door, “Tómas?” Arí says.
“Shit,” I say, jolting up. “I fell asleep.”
“That’s OK, Tóm. You must be tired,”
“Yeah, I haven’t slept properly for…” I glance at the photo on the table.
Arí catches me looking at it. He takes a seat next to me.
I look up at him. His eyes bore into me, knowingly. I’m in for it.
“I want you to do something…not for me, but for yourself. I’ve seen how you’ve been, Tómas. You need to say goodbye. Please, for yourself, take one last trip up there and say goodbye to Annelí. She loved you so much, Tómas. I can see the…whatever this is, tearing you apart. You did nothing wrong.”
He leaves me to soak in his words and closes the door behind him.
Waking up in a different bed isn’t disorientating, it’s exciting. You are in Iceland. You’ve watched countless documentaries declaring this country the most beautiful place in the world. Films, television shows, music videos, every visual medium is itching to translate the beauty of Iceland to the screen. Now, you’re doing it.
The loud beeping of your watch wakes you up in the morning. Throwing off the covers, you place your feet down on the carpet.
Coming down the stairs, you carefully feel the edge of each step with your toes, a practice you’ve gotten used to doing. The lady who owns the bed and breakfast has a selection of food laid out for you. She takes you down and identifies what each item is. Fruit, cereal, bread
As you eat, she tells you where you can find the nearest tourist centre and offers to walk you there. But she seems…preoccupied. Her phone rings constantly and she has to keep pausing when she talks. After the fourth call, she sighs, turns it off and apologises. She starts telling you about the things you can do in Reykjavik.
In your hand you hold your camera, the image of the waterfall on the viewfinder. You consider asking her about it but the house phone rings, she apologises again before dashing off to the porch to answer the call. You drop the camera to your lap and sigh, there’s no point burdening her. She’s got her own problems and, like you keep telling yourself, it’s you against the world. No one wants to hear your shit.
You tug your hoodie up and pull down the strings. Your camera swings against your neck as you bend down to feel the laces to tie up your shoes. Taking one step outside onto the cobbled Reykjavik street, you inhale sharply. You can do this, you coach yourself. You can do this.
You hold the folded up cane in your hand and watch yourself shake involuntarily. Why are you so afraid? Because…because you know you don’t need it. You keep it folded up and shove it deep into your pocket, its string poking out from the top.
You walk now, the route directions the lady said ingrained in your brain. The cobbled path under your feet is unnatural but you get used to it, like how you have to get used to everything. A delicate wind rushes past your face as figures move both past, and at you. People stroll rather than speed by, not like in London where everyone moves hurriedly and tut if you’re too slow.
Left for two and right at the Salvation Army… You stare up at the sign and squint. Is that the shop? The words blur together. You shake your head and carry on walking. At the next intersection you stare up at the second shop’s sign. Is that it? You can feel your heart rate beginning to quicken as something tells you to turn right. What did she say it was next? Straight for five…until you get to the Skuggi? No, you’re sure it was a right.
Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
You stare at two bright car headlights as the loud beep of a car horn wrecks your ears. You let out breath after involuntary breath as you rush to the other side of the road. The driver shouts something in Icelandic.
Fuck! What are you doing? You collapse to the pavement and throw the cane to the side. The breaths fail to release. Your ribcage yearns for air as you breathe deeply, forcing a flood of oxygen into your system.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Alex Lee graduated from Goldsmiths in 2017 and achieved a first in Media and English. After completing his degree, he undertook numerous internships at the likes of the Guardian, Mac World and Tech Advisor. Alex is now writing for the tech and culture website Alphr, as well as freelancing for the Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @1AlexL.