Art Nahill – Tableau

Nahill LE P&W Feb 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing February 2024.

Tableau, flash fiction by Art Nahill.

You know how this scene ends. The young man and woman sit on a bed, knees to chest, in a small hotel room in an old section of the city. It could be any city, really, of rain and worn stone. The room is the best they can afford. Their bags lean into opposite corners, where the wallpaper curls upon itself in yellowing waves. The room overlooks a broad street clotted with traffic. He pulls the curtains closed as she reaches up and flicks on the bedside light, throwing the room into a tangle of sharp contours. It is early evening, but it feels much later.

Though you know how this, and all such stories, end, you may be in-trigued enough by the setting, the uncertainty in their faces, to carry on. There is something familiar in the way they hold themselves apart. Their bodies have only recently learned to speak. You read on, waiting to hear if any fragment of your own story echoes within the walls of theirs.

The man, in his early twenties you guess, will depart in the morning by train to the airport. She will wander for a time amongst other cities before returning home. From the moment he arrived to visit, he could sense the new dimensions of their separateness, her body withholding something from his, her eyes darting away like small fish at passing shadows. It is always these smallest of things, he thinks.

Recognising they have reached this denouement, you urge him to leave at once, to pack his bag quickly and spend the night elsewhere, even in the busy train station, as though doing so might alter the trajectory of his life. It’s what you would do. It’s what you have done. But he cannot hear you. He is listening instead to the night settling down around him.

I have not yet told you much about the young woman, though her changing heart is the fulcrum of this story. “Do not judge me,” she pleads. “Love is not a pair of shoes waiting for us to step wholly into or out of, at our choosing.” You notice the way she stares at the rust-coloured stain on the ceiling. You think she might cry, and so you do not judge her. You know we choose nothing in this life.

It grows late, and the moment you have feared somehow passes indistinctly, like tides far out at sea. The man and the woman eventually fall asleep, their knees lightly touching beneath the sheet. That’s it. You know the rest. For a while, there will be cards at Christmas, an occasional birthday message, then nothing. Even now, they are becoming landscapes littered with possibilities and misrememberings, and so, for years, they will keep, in a shoebox high on a shelf or beneath a pile of woolen jumpers, these few photographs, a few scribbled lines of bad, but earnest, poetry.

© Art Nahill

Art Nahill is a New Zealand physician, teacher, and writer who has published poetry on both sides of the equator, including four book-length collections. He has recently (and inexplicably) turned his hand to short fiction.

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