I recognised Jani’s lips from the video at the gallery. In the film they endlessly formed the same silent shapes they made as she pulled on a string of joints. I raised my cigarette to her and while the room between us stretched and shrank and bent out of shape, we smoked and watched each other, fixed points on opposite walls.
I don’t remember talking to her but I must have done because I knew to turn up at Costa at eight the next morning, and Jani smiled and called, “Hey, Sandie!” when I walked in.
I fetched a double espresso with two extra shots and we both sat, breathing in the fumes, with our elbows resting on the table and our chins on our knuckles.
We sat like that for an hour, maybe more. Taking each other in. She wore a thick, loose-knit grey jumper and her hair hung in clumps around her face. Her skin had started to crease around eyes that danced and darted like lenses constantly recalibrating in an effort to focus.
We said nothing but the next day we were there again, tiptoeing round each other in silence.
And every day for a week, and another until one day, when the grounds of our coffees had gone cold, she said, “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To the exhibition.”
The student on the gallery reception nodded to me like a landlord welcoming a regular and starting to pull their usual.
“No,” she said, very quietly, as I headed to the glass doors between the foyer and the exhibition room where If a Windscreen Shatters in a Scrapyard would be looping away. I’d sat for hours trying to figure out where the film ended and began, cataloguing exaggerations of her lips and patterns of light on her face like a pathologist looking for markers on skin and teeth. The words had offered little help. I’d tried mimicking the shapes her mouth made but the sounds that played in my head when I did were meaningless.
Her hand steered me to the side, through a door marked private, and I followed her along corridors and up stairs, round corners and down steps until, finally, she held a door open. Inside was dark, like I’d stepped into Schrödinger’s box. Her fingers on my shoulders pushed me forward then pressed down lightly to indicate I should sit.
A switch clicked and I blinked several times to ease through the whiteout.
I was looking at a room. The exhibition room. I tried to orient myself within it. Ahead, a woman entered through a doorway, and came towards us without seeing or slowing, like a suicide walking into the sea. I reached out a hand to stop her and it met glass.
We were behind the screen.
I realised what that meant.
“You watched me?”
“I watched you.”
I thought of the hours I’d spent mumbling and repeating nonsense back at the screen.
“It’s OK,” she said.
“I was trying to figure out what you were saying,” I explained.
“Me too,” she said
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll tell you a story,” she said, and she did, looking in front of her, through the glass, never turning to me.
“A girl grew up in an isolated village in what’s now Kosovo. She was always sick so she didn’t go out much. Instead, her parents left her with her grandmother during the day. Granny was the last surviving speaker of her village’s language. The girl would beg the old woman to teach her what the strange sounds meant, but granny was out of her mind so the girl just listened and tried to remember them although they meant nothing.
“Then the war started. One after another groups of guys with guns would come into the village and beat the men and rape the women and then leave, and the villagers would wait in fear for the next group to come.
“One day soldiers wearing pale blue berets came, and no one was afraid of them. The villagers even cracked open the wine they’d been saving, and shared it with them. When they were all drunk, one of the soldiers stood up and smashed a bottle. He held the splintered neck in his fist and started laughing and then the others did the same and with the broken glass they slit the throats of all the men in the village and raped the women so hard they bled to death. Even granny.
“The little girl’s mother had taken her into the furthest corner she could find, placed a finger over her lips and willed her not to cry. But the soldiers found them, and when they did the girl was so frightened she started reciting the words she’d learned from granny, like a charm. ‘Listen to that!’ her mother screamed. ‘This little girl is the last person alive who can speak those words.’ Which in a way she was. ‘Take her. Take her and her words will make you rich!’
“And after they’d raped her mother with the broken bottles and watched her bleed out, they did. They brought her back to England and sent her to school, and college. But they didn’t make a penny from her.”
Jani reached into her pocket and took out a joint. As she lit it, the woman in the exhibition room seemed to flinch and look around her before turning back to the screen.
Afterwards, we sat in silence for a while, looking out through the glass like it was the sea and far away there might be gulls circling a coastline.
The next morning I was there at Costa at eight.
“Hey, Sandie!” called Jani as I fetched my coffee.
We sat, our elbows resting on the table and our chins on our knuckles, breathing caffeine and staring through each other.
And the next morning.
And every morning since.
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