Sunlight streams through the glass that surrounds them, heats up skin.
Little beads of moisture glint at pores' edge.
Air prickled with a general contempt for everyone and everything.
A fly lands on the back of the jacket of the man in front.
Someone tucks a strand of damp hair behind an ear.
If only she had worn a hat. They have been standing in this near static line for twenty minutes. She watches the fly stutter across the gap between his shoulders, a black dot tracking between blades. A common house fly at an art exhibition. Her companion is still talking on her mobile phone in what would be hushed tones if people around them had been talking. They aren't.
She tells herself that she must concentrate on looking ahead and on not thinking too hard about anything, especially not who. She summons the unheard voice inside herself, the one with a cheerful tannoy-like tone, to give the advice she would offer to someone 'in her situation'. She wonders if the fly has been attracted by the wilted flowers that the man in front of them is gripping in his left hand?
Tiny buds of white and yellow and even pink on a green stem, damaged and drooping, they might have been picked at a roadside or on waste ground. Little silver hairs. Flecks of pollen. There are more stuffed inside his pocket. She thinks of legs, hairy legs, and struggles to laugh perhaps, unsure if it will come out as more of a stifled cry.
"Ok, I will speak to you later" her friend is saying brightly to the person she can't see and that she probably doesn't know or doesn't want to.
They move in different social circles would be the official way of putting it, hers would be more of an irregular shape she thinks dryly while trying not to listen too closely. She watches how the fly pauses and then comes effortlessly to rest on his right shoulder. It rubs its front legs together and she wonders, if her hearing were more acute, how this might sound? A pleasant melody or high-pitched whine, even a scream?
A woman in a red hat of the kind she wished she had worn, appears through the automatic doors to the foyer and crosses towards them. And then just as she leans in to kiss him on the cheek, their eyes meet. And the force of this look dissolves her into so many different shapes that she feels she must turn away in order to stay whole.
She is at once embarrassed by her own proximity to these everyday abstractions and overwhelmed by how they so often transform from solids into fragile states, bubbles of love even. Soft globules, clouds of oil in water just on the point of merging or drifting apart, to reform themselves into something else altogether. Perhaps something in the process of melting.
Her own hair is damp and sticky against her neck. She gives a little shrug. Nothing to get upset about, not really. She notices that the streak of the woman's lipstick is the same colour as her hat. She wears it perched at the back of her head but the outsized brim still manages to cast her face into shadow. At least she has anticipated the sun, more so than the famed architect of this new glass entrance hall so recently opened to great acclaim. Fragile curls of grey, blonde hair fall to one side of her waxy pale face and are held in place by combs. Almost like a doll she had once.
"Can you pick up the tickets and I will meet you in the cafe upstairs?" he is saying, "I don't think I can face going round again".
She wonders if he has forgotten about the flowers or perhaps, he had already presented them to her earlier and then offered to carry them. Perhaps. Or forgotten?
She can't be sure.
He moves away and the fly is dislodged. It hovers.
And she is left standing alone.
They both are.
Wives of sailors gone to sea, she thinks. Each of us watching out for the lights of ships.
There he goes across the foyer, bounding up the gallery stairs two at a time.
She could even wave. And she finds she has to suppress her hand inside her pocket, palms damp.
The fly relocates to the strip light above them. They listen to her girlfriend arranging to meet up with someone at a party in Dalston later.
And what if they have all melted by then?
Upstairs the man has reached the café table. It is so much cooler here. He plugs in his laptop and takes a sip of water, glances at his watch and looks over the rail, down into the atrium below. He wonders how long she will be and wishes he had stayed at home.
It is still too soon.
Carefully, he counts the flowers from his pocket out onto the table.
One for each year of a life lived he thinks. He checks to see that he is unobserved and quietly begins the count again.
Such fragile stems. Little green lines.
The woman with the red mouth is oblivious to the fact that she is now facing the wrong way in the queue and that she is standing motionless in front of the two girls waiting in the line behind her.
The one not on the phone shifts uneasily from foot to foot, her head bowed. Occasionally she looks up as if to check her surroundings are still the same. They are.
That is until there is an almost imperceptible change in their positions.
Some shade their eyes from the sun. Shuffle, at last, towards the ticket desk. A cough.
She watches as the fly returns, hovers, and then settles on the top of the older woman's head, moves to her hairline, and begins to crawl forwards.
Perhaps she should flap it away but that would mean flapping her hands in her face.
She is staring down again at her shoes just so as to stop herself seeing how it is now sitting on the woman's eyebrow.
The woman is unmoving.
Surely, she must feel its tiny legs creeping across her skin? She wishes her friend would get off the phone.
What is the sound that the fly is making? Is it something I could sing?
The man who takes their long unwanted coats and bags smiles at them and tells them to enjoy the exhibition and when his back is turned they raise their eyebrows at each other in a rare moment of conspiratorial togetherness and giggle at the idea that they are here to enjoy themselves which of course they are. She knows that in this moment she would be happy never to collect her belongings again.
They are not out of the first room yet but already she has lost her. At least it is cooler in here she thinks as she peers at the lines of cases hoping to catch a glimpse.
He glances away from his screen and looks over the rail and down into the gallery below. He sees that the queue for tickets has finally dispersed.
His eyes are drawn to a girl standing motionless in front of an exhibit. She is about the same age as his daughter would have been. He has to catch his breath then to stop the images coming in too fast. He has a simple trick to divert them which involves pressing his thumb and forefinger together as hard as he can. Sometimes the force of the pain generated has some effect in diverting the rush of grief.
Seen from above his hand makes the shape of a heart.
He will count out the flowers again.
The fly crawls out from the wilting heap and makes its way across the whiteness of the table.
She will probably want to get as far away from this one as possible she thinks and stands on one leg as if this might help her to see better. Or see past it. All that rotting wax.
Looking down, he wonders if she is trying to prove an obscure point about her own seriousness to someone he can't see. He suspects that he is the only person watching.
Nobody should look at that stuff for too long. Why she wanted to come here again he can't imagine. Doesn't want to. Really doesn't. He suspects she will come back with a catalogue and force him to go through it all over again.
If anyone happens to be staring down from the upstairs balcony then I will appear to be involved in an intense study of the exhibit and oblivious to anything else, she tells herself without raising her head to look up.
She focuses on the label to the left of the glass case.After all, it is only wax, she is saying to herself over and over.
But all of it? All of it? Is it?
With slow deliberation she reads the label on the wall: “A female head depicting life and death, European, possibly 18th century.”
The sound of her own voice takes her by surprise. Why shouldn't she? Speak, I mean out loud. She thinks this only.
What would a fly sound like?
The woman in the red hat appears at the edge of the white Formica table. He is staring out at its snowy waste, the glitter and fleck of shiny plastic that surrounds him.
He supposes it is made to look like stone or arctic tundra deliberately. It makes him think of glaciers melting. He can be confident as his thoughts are recorded in important scientific papers on the subject.
She smiles nervously and waits for him to clear a space for her to sit down.
He watches as the fly crawls along the vast whiteness and he can't help himself as he reaches out and knocks it off the edge. It returns immediately.
It must be a snowy waste if that is how he sees it, he tells himself this with a calm deliberation that he secretly hopes she will continue to mistake it for a clarity of vision on everything.
He is hoping that she has not bought a catalogue. He doesn't want to have to take it home with them.
She has been crying, he notices that. But this isn't something unusual. He is unsure if he cares what anyone else is feeling about anything anymore. At least he can be clear on this. And the ice melting.
The girl in the blue tea dress and space-dyed orange hair is looking over at her companion. She catches her eye and mimes cutting her hands across her neck, then acts being sick. She ducks her head out of sight behind another row of cabinets as if she had been seized from below by an unseen assassin. A horror stop motion animation she thinks. Yes, she is capturing the mood accurately, at least that.
She wishes he had chosen a seat nearer to the window so she could at least look out. Why has he still got those flowers? Why couldn't he just have left them behind on the bench outside where they had sat for what seemed like hours and hours with him not speaking just counting, counting. The endless counting.
Almost like a pool of blood, she says.
"What? What did you say?" he asks.
"I think I have lost a glove" she says, again.
"Oh well" he says, noting that he is not in the least relieved that he had misheard.
Somehow it would have been more real to him, more real than all that wax.
He adds a little bag of sugar to his now cold cup of coffee.
"Why didn't you go round with me?" she says, "I thought it was you who wanted to come here?"
"I changed my mind" he says and finally gestures for her to sit down on a stool on the other side of the pile of counted flowers. All this counting. How does he do it? How does he stay so focused?
She knows why.
She flicks at the fly with her hand and its body collides with the glossy cover of the catalogue and disappears off the edge of the table with the smallest noise, something like a paperclip falling onto a hard surface.
"What do you want me to say?” He pauses, “besides once you have seen it," he coughs, "it is everywhere.”
"Almost like a pool of blood" she says and smiles at him sadly, "or an oil spill".
"We can check in Lost Property on the way out" he replies.
And makes the shape with his fingers under the table knowing that she probably only said she had dropped a glove. Love for glove.
Blood? But there isn't any. She hears herself speak, a ventrioloquist bent on voicing another person much older than she had expected herself to sound or even be: “One side shows a beautiful woman; the other shows the head exposed as a skull and with worms and snails on and around it"
He looks up and tries to focus on her as if he were seeing her for the first time. What would he think of her, this? If they had only just met? Would he still want to follow her "to the end"? He prides himself on being familiar with what people in books refer to as The Ends of the Earth. He knows about the distribution of flies in the Arctic and how they provide an important source of food to other predators, how their numbers are declining with the change in the climate. He knows this for a fact. This is hard data.
Across her forehead there is a new crease. As if she is in the process of cracking up. Perhaps she is wearing some new make-up or something?
What would a fly sound like?
She is a child again learning to read, one not quite in control of what should or even could be said out loud or remain as thought.
There is an insect wing, dusty at the bottom of a case and almost hidden from sight or at least the weekly cleaning.
Apparently she has been left without an audience for too long. Too bad. It is her that will have to wait this time. She looks at the face of in the case as directly as she can, knowing that she has been avoiding looking at it straight on since they arrived.
He watches as she tucks a strand of her neat bob behind her ear. He has a sudden urge to scratch himself, all that dead skin collecting under his finger nails. He will have to take a bath later.
Cracking up. This kind of silence used to mean that one of them would make a joke and the other would laugh.
Glove, love, blood, ice....wax.
Wax. She had felt it earlier, when, emerging from one of the cubicles in the Ladies downstairs to face the walls of mirrors all around she had seen herself refracted and split across an apparently endless series of selves, spliced from so many angles, really too many to continue, too many to feel any possibility of containment inside this oh-so-garishly floral blouse, so carelessly flung on in happy expectation of a spring day that would be spent in the city and with her.
Wax melts in hot sun.
She had tried to stay quite still. A statue before the queue of women waiting in that oh-so-silently-tutting curved line.
So much queuing for what you might need.
We may as well go, there might not be time later.
Later there might not be time.
The blouse was of course a mistake, she could see that now. A hopeless gesture, an absurdity that was no match for her friend's oh-so-contemporary vintage-inspired polyester quotation of an electric blue tea dress, one that had bracketed their trip here with an unspoken irony at every turn.
When they first met he had told her how there were only 150 species of fly that could reach the High Arctic. She remembered how delighted he had been as he began to recount the full list to her, it had included non-biting midges and even house-flies. She had let him get that far, and then she had reached out and placed her gloved hand across his mouth which seemed to settle it, them.
And here they were all broken into little pieces.
She looked up at the light outside through the pink blinded windows that cast the cafe in to an unreal rosy hue, not unlike that of an Arctic day.
She noticed that her friend had faced no such trouble with the mirrors and had even sent a selfie to someone else in the time it had taken her to appear calm enough to wash her hands without shaking.
She had watched in awe at the way she moved forward to pose with her right hand on her hip, her left-hand outstretched, her phone towards the mirror. She had smiled in a way she never did in real life.
She holds the postcard up to her face. A caterpillar, perhaps the larvae of the insect, creeps up the skull.
She is dimly aware that the only way she has of assessing whether insects are actually in decline is by counting the number of bodies that she finds splattered on her windscreen and comparing this image with those of her childhood.
She smooths open the pages of the catalogue.
It is the mouth that disturbs her the most, the teeth, on the other side, red lips. Half and half? Or, is it more skull and teeth than lips? She bites her pencil thoughtfully.
The proportions of the relationship between them are illusive.She should be able to be more precise she thinks.
Afterall, she deals in facts every day. And every day she is aware of how often the facts escape her.
He, on the other hand, is an expert in other forms of counting. If he can only get this book finished on time. In time for what?
"It is only a picture," she says pushing it across the table towards him. She had hoped the catalogue might make it more.
How like some medieval saint pointing to a vision just out of reach of anyone else she had thought which wasn't what she had said as she managed a barely audible, "wow, you look so cool," as she moved forwards towards the sinks like someone next in line for a blessing.
What do you mean manageable?
"Of course I don't think I can make this any more manageable," she replies quietly.
Her coffee is too sugary. Hot. She should ordered an iced tea. She can't believe they had scarves with it on in the gift shop. A sip taken. Glove for love. Ice for wax. She wants him to say something before a snake enters her eye socket through what used to be her ear. She could scream that out she supposes but puts her mouth to the rim of the cup instead.
If only he could stop counting. Shouting would be better.
She would look at in a stream of pictures later and probably press on the little icon with a heart.
The hand holding a bunch of flowers on one side is already wasting away towards becoming the skeletal other of its mirror image perhaps even quicker than the unknown maker intended. She makes a note of this in her notebook for the paper she will give next week in some hot city if she is allowed to fly. If not she will speak from her kitchen table to little orbs in rows at the bottom of a screen. She sighs, she would not have time to see a city properly except through the window of her hotel or from the back of a taxi. She should stop flying anyhow.
It is all about the spider rather than them anyway she thinks. Even if it is it a spider? She doesn't want to check again to be sure.
Funny how nobody talks about the decay of wax itself. Did the artist know that would happen? How gruesome it would be in decay? Wax refusing to conform to any suspect boundaries, especially any impositions of borders between art and life.
There she was, an abbess in a cloister, intent on her tiny phone screen, her back up against another glass case. How conveniently just out of reach.
It is the proportions of the mouth that catch her out when she tries to describe it accurately. How much for death and how much for life?
The facts are unclear
The hand is in the act of making a presentation of flowers.
“Do you mind if I go out later?” He is saying, "Will you be alright?"
Alright? She looks away. She would have liked him to say something about how beautiful it was but he won't even look at the postcard she has just pushed across the table. She gives a non-commital shrug and looks down at the pages of the catalogue.
The inscription at the base reads, 'Vanitas Vanitatum & omia Vanitas Ecc: Cap i/V2’, from Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 2. The note on the back says that it is translated in the King James Version as, ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” and points out that the rest of the passage invokes the constancy of the sun and the rivers and then proclaims that there can be “no new thing under the sun”.
That is true she thinks. The sun then is not a new thing either and here we are under it. Instinctively, she shades her eyes.
She tries to look as carefully as she can, the head is mounted on a varnished base with distracting wood grains that swirl and change with the reflections of the light on the glass. There is an inscription: 'Vanitas Vanitatum & omia Vanitas Ecc: Cap i/V2'. A translation underneath reads: "Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness, all is empty".
She squeezes her own phone inside her inside pocket. Of course, it would be disgusting to take a picture. And no, the person she wishes would have called has not called. She is over there pretending to be dead.
She could just walk away, leave. And what would be the point. The eye of the skull is so much larger when considered as only a socket. Hers too. She probably wouldn't even notice.
That the sun then is not a new thing.
This is not new. We came to know this together she thinks. Late night frowning at reports on the screen.
"From now on we should say, ‘crisis and not warming’ he had said. This was a long time ago now and there was no one else to hear.
“Yes” she replied, "we will."
Seen from above there are combs in her hair which is fraying from its neat roll. On the other side worms slither.
At what point does wax begin to melt?
She wants to ask but this would seem to be an obscene question in the circumstances.
The Vanitas was often figured as a sign of the transience of the earthly, the short-lived and misplaced belief in beauty that passes, a gruesome trope of invitation to redirect our attention to spiritual values rather than set our store by the frailty of flesh. She reads it aloud in a soft voice.
“It is okay, I can read it myself. That is if I want to” he says and stares over the rail.
Windscreen analysis: pulpy grey mass. Individuated wings detached from bodies.
A waxy boiled sweet wrapper used to clean off the line of vision.
Segments of clarity swished open with a returning squeak of the wiper.
More water necessary for the reservoir under the bonnet.
I am unsure if I am as real as the one that is sculpted here or only another model in the midst of all this extremity of purpose she thinks without speaking and makes a single note: nothing.
Apparently, the maker is unknown, so probably a woman then. She catches herself mid grimace and waits for the itching sensation behind her eyes to subside.
A human skull split in two. The part covered in wax depicts a woman alive she tells herself as if by way of reassurance.
This is a portrait of a woman alive, as I am. Because I Say So she thinks, remembering the title of a piece of work from the art lecture she had attended earlier this week.
“And if both sides of the skull are empty, then the speaker is always the insect and not the woman at all” she says aloud.
In more recent editions the phrase is translated as, "Emptiness, emptiness, says the speaker, emptiness, all is empty".
He gets up and crosses the space between them, all of that Arctic waste, and looks over her shoulder.
“Actually, it doesn’t say there is a speaker,” he says, “where did that come from?”
Glove for love.
Wax for ice.
Death of an insect. A whir of wings, legs.
How to reframe beyond the human.
Recalibrate the focus of attention. Away from them.
She thinks this inside only.
The online connection had not been good. Most of her classmates had their cameras turned off and the voice of the lecturer kept cutting in and out as if she might be speaking from a place a long, long way away. She was still shielding apparently, so couldn't be there in person, even though this was supposed to be the end of the pandemic.
She thinks that what the lecturer said was, but she might be wrong about this, that later on he had sent an otherwise blank telegram from Stockholm to Paris with the words, THIS IS A PORTRAIT OF IRIS CLERT IF I SAY SO to a woman called Iris.
And it was not someone he had been in love with.
She had gathered that much.
At night she imagines that an unknown insect is crawling across her face.
Perhaps one is really doing that. She brushes something away.
And how could you come to really know it? That death, that insect?
This is a wax model of sorts. Maker unknown. Possibly from the eighteenth century
“I don’t believe it” he says picking up the strewn flowers and counting them into a vase that two days later he will forget to refill. And they finally all dry out.
"It looks so modern".