( ONE )
It was a cold, bright winter day, windless and cloudless, with sunlight like glass and a bitter taste of ice in the air. It had rained overnight, and puddles remained on the ground, but for now the rain had cleared. The sky was a pale hazy blue and the air was clear.
Emma was walking in the park across the road from her house. The trees were bare, and fallen leaves were damp in the grass. She could taste ice in the air, but knew it would never arrive. Winters here were mild, and rather dull. So mild she had stopped automatically taking a coat whenever she left the house, because it hardly ever rained. So mild she didn’t even bother with scarves and hats any more, like she would have at home, and just wore two tops, one layered over the other. The gentler winter had made her realise, in a way the heat and flies and eucalyptus-stench of summer hadn’t, that she wasn’t at home any more.
She was walking, lost in her thoughts, tired from a day of doing nothing. She wasn’t really paying attention to anything around her, and didn’t notice the sky turn grey, and thick cloud wash in. She didn’t realise it was about to rain again until the rain actually hit her, sharp and cold and almost sore against the bare skin of her arms.
She stopped, startled.
She didn’t know what to do. She was shocked, as if by sudden violence.
She stood where she was, getting soaked, dismayed.
“Hey,” someone called. “Over here.”
A stranger, a woman, was calling to Emma from beneath a nearby tree. The tree was bare of leaves, but large enough and with thick enough branches that there was a dry space underneath, against the trunk, large enough to shelter in.
Emma stood where she was in the rain for a moment, getting soaked, too surprised to think. Then she ran. She ran over and stood beside the woman under tree and said, “Thank you.”
The rain came down heavily. Emma watched it falling, all sulky and heavy, splatting onto bare dirt. There was a thick ozoney smell of newly-wet ground in the air, a smell which, oddly, made Emma think of sex. It always did, and she’d never been quite sure why. There was something about that thick, rich kind of freshness that reminded her of sex. Something about the sense of life and excitement it gave the air.
It always flustered her a little, when she thought like that around other people, so instead of thinking too much, she tried to get herself dry. She was drenched, and her hair was soaked. She shook her clothes, wiping water off her top, and then tried to wring out her hair. When she wrung, water actually dripped out through her fingers, as if she’d just got out of the shower.
The woman who’d called to her watched, as Emma squeezed.
“I’m Izzy,” the woman said, after a moment.
“I’m Em,” Emma said. “Emma.”
Izzy stuck out her hand, and then seemed to realize Emma’s hands were full of her own hair, and took her hand back, to Emma’s relief. Emma didn’t really like touching people, and didn’t usually shake hands.
“Hi,” Izzy said instead.
Emma smiled, and squeezed a little more water out of her hair. “Hi.”
Sudden lightning flashed. Emma jumped. Beside her, Izzy didn’t move. Emma waited, nervously looking upwards. She held her breath. After a moment, there was thunder, a rumbling crackling tearing in the sky.
Emma jumped again, even though she’d been expecting it.
That time, Izzy seemed to notice Emma flinch. “Are you okay?” she said.
“Are you scared of lightning or something?” Izzy said.
Emma shook her head. “Not really scared. Just not used to it, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Izzy said.
There was another flash, and another boom, that one louder, and straight after the lighting, too. The storm was getting closer. It was almost above them.
Emma looked upwards, nervously. “Should we be standing under a tree in a lightning storm?”
“Probably not,” Izzy said, quite calmly.
Emma looked around, but couldn’t see anywhere else to stand. Other than out in the open, which seemed more dangerous than under a tree.
“Why’s it a bad idea to stand under trees in storms again?” Emma said.
“I think the lightning hits them, or something.”
“But hits them,” Emma said, slowly. “Rather than us?”
Izzy grinned. “Or because of falling branches maybe.”
“It’s okay,” Izzy said. “There’s not much wind, and the storm’s moving over pretty fast. It’ll be gone in a couple of minutes.”
“Yeah,” Emma said, and kept looking around.
“The lighting won’t hit us,” Izzy said.
“I know,” Emma said. “I’m fine.”
Izzy nodded, but seemed almost like she didn’t believe Emma.
They stood and waited for the storm to pass, and Emma looked at Izzy.
Izzy had short, dark hair. Dry hair, so she must have seen the storm coming, and taken shelter in time not to get soaked. Her hair was just long enough it curled slightly, and was messily cropped, as if she might have cut it herself, or was trying for bed hair on purpose. She had dark eyes, and was wearing lots of shadow, too. She was pretty, very pretty in a way Emma guessed a lot of people might not like, but Emma immediately did.
She was sexy, Emma suddenly thought. She was intense and sexy, somehow filling the space beneath the tree with herness in a way someone else might not.
It was an odd thing to think, Emma thought. She was a little surprised at herself, for thinking like that.
Emma was cold. She glanced down at herself, at her drenched clothes, and realized how much the cloth was sticking to her. She was wearing two tops, but both were thin and cotton, and had suddenly gone clingy when they got wet. They were sticking to her quite badly, Emma suddenly realized, and worse, Izzy seemed to be staring.
Izzy was staring at her chest, Emma realized, a little surprised.
And right then, just as Emma realized that, Izzy looked up and saw Emma watching.
Izzy looked horrified. “Shit,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Emma shrugged. She shrugged without thinking, and then realised what she’d just done.
Izzy glanced down. And then straight back up. And then looked mortified, and embarrassed. “Shit,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I just… again.”
Emma hugged her arms against her chest. “Don’t worry,” Emma said. “They’re a bit…”
She stopped. She had no idea how to finish that sentence without embarrassing herself. Obvious, she supposed. Unavoidable. When she was cold and wet.
She stood where she was, silently, deciding whether to be embarrassed.
She wasn’t, she thought. She didn’t really care.
Emma stood, watching the storm, her arms crossed over her chest. Izzy stood beside her, carefully not looking at Emma. They stood for a while, watching the rain. Neither spoke, and there was no more thunder.
Emma was almost disappointed.
By Izzy’s silence, not about the storm.
She was disappointed, because she was lonely, and didn’t know many people here, and because for a brief moment she’d hoped she was actually getting to know someone. She’d hoped, but she wasn’t, as it turned out. Awkwardness had settled that pretty effectively. She might have met someone interesting, someone to be friends with, except that now they were both too self-conscious to talk. So that was that, she thought. What a shame.
“Hey,” Izzy said. “I’m really sorry about…”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. I probably would have too.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Emma said again.
The rain started to ease, stopping as quickly as it had started. Across the other side of the park a couple with a dog looked out from under their tree, and started walking away.
“Do you live around here?” Izzy said.
Emma pointed to her house. “Eighty-three.”
Izzy pointed further along the same street. “Twenty-one.”
“Do you work?” Izzy said. “From home, I mean?”
Emma looked over, surprised. “Why?”
“Because you’re walking in the park in the middle of the day,” Izzy said.
“Oh yeah.” Emma said. “I see.”
“So do you?”
Emma shook her head. “My partner moved here for work. So I came too. I don’t work, yet. So I guess I’m just…”
Emma looked at Izzy. She was never sure if she should actually call herself that. “Yeah.”
“What’s your partner do,” Izzy said. “Your boyfriend, is it?”
“Works for the state government. And yes, boyfriend.”
Izzy waited a moment, and seemed to be waiting for more, and then, when none came, she said, “Right. Doing what?”
“Can’t tell you.”
Izzy seemed surprised. She didn’t seem sure if Emma was joking. “Seriously?”
Emma grinned. “It’s not a secret, but I don’t really know, because he doesn’t tell me. It’s something to do with policy. And he says it’s boring. What about you?”
“I write business software. From home.” Izzy grinned. “Which is boring too.”
The silence was starting to come back.
Izzy seemed to have noticed the silence, and be trying to stop it as well. She kept talking. Talking almost nervously, Emma thought.
“I just wondered if you did too,” Izzy said. “Worked from home, I mean. Because if you did it could be useful. You know, to get a neighbourhood business group going, that kind of thing.”
“I understand,” Emma said. “But no, I don’t. I’m really sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry,” Izzy said, surprised.
“Well yeah,” Izzy said. “Anyway. It doesn’t matter.”
They stood there a little longer, still slightly awkwardly, and the silence dragged on.
It dragged on, and so Emma wasn’t surprised when, disappointingly, Izzy suddenly said, “The rain’s stopping. I suppose I should go.”
Take a risk, Emma told herself. Because she was desperate, and had no-one else, and all Izzy could do was say no. “Do you want coffee?” Emma said. “Or something? Or just to dry off, even? Home is right over there, if you do.”
“Oh,” Izzy said, and seemed surprised.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine…”
“No,” Izzy said. “I would, I mean I’d like to, but I really do need to go. I have a meeting.”
Emma nodded slowly. She felt inexplicably sad. As though she’d tried something, and had failed, and now wouldn’t try again. Even though this didn’t really matter. Even though she’d never see Izzy again.
She hated trying to make friends.
Izzy was looking at her, as if trying to make a decision.
“What?” Emma said.
“What’s your phone number?” Izzy said, then patted her pockets. “And also, have you got a pen?”
Emma suddenly felt happier. She started to smile. She looked down at herself too, and thought about a pen. “Oh,” she said. “No, I don’t.”
“Shit,” Izzy said.
They looked at each other. Izzy smiled, and Emma did too.
“I’d really like to,” Izzy said. “Have coffee sometime. Or something.”
“So would I.”
“But no-one has a pen.”
“So what are we going to do?” Izzy was pretending to be helpless.
Emma kept smiling, and shrugged, pretending to be helpless too.
“We could meet here some other time…?” Izzy said.
Emma wanted to laugh. “Just tell me your number. I’ll remember.”
Izzy did, then said, “And my house is number twenty-one, if you forget. Just come and knock.”
“Well, bye,” Izzy said. “I’m sorry. I really have to rush.”
“Bye,” Emma said, and watched Izzy walk away.
She watched Izzy walk off, and then went home herself. Later, at home, she wrote Izzy’s number on a scrap of paper and put the fridge. Like a token, a symbol of something she needed in her life right now.