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November 15, 2018

The Last Touch By Janice Pariat

A summer sojourn in Switzerland ends up being a transformative journey…. Author Janice Pariat writes a captivating short story exclusively for Verve

We met in the city with the dying lion.

In early summer, when the flowers along the Kapellbrücke were just beginning to blossom. Streams of colour reflecting across the lake, amidst the water tower and wooden stilts, an inverted painting. I’d spent all day trying to avoid tourists, the ones who swarmed the streets in laden busloads, stopping outside Bucherer and Gübelin, or tripping over themselves clicking pictures of frescoed buildings in the Old Town. Eventually, I parked my suitcase and myself on a bench by the Reuss and waited for you and your boyfriend to get home. I ate a sandwich. A slice of ham and Gruyère, trapped in slightly stale bread, a cheap thing I bought from a deli close to the train station. I watched the river, clear, liquid glass, as though a million blue-green marbles had melted. To my right, a bridge built as a concrete highway, and below it, the underpass I’d just walked through, covered in a frenzy of graffiti. Beyond, the squat stone facade of the Nölli, first of the city’s nine medieval towers. And drifting over it, from somewhere I could not see, the crisp, clean sound of bells assiduously marking the hours.

When I was informed, endless tolls later, that it was six o’clock, I walked further down the river — my suitcase bumping behind me — and crossed the road. Your boyfriend was right; it was the only blue building in a row of metallic grey houses (I could see why this was New Town). I pressed the buzzer, level four, and a voice crackled over the speaker, not yours.

“Yes.”

“It’s me,” I said.

“Oh, come on up…we’re both back.”

Inside, I was in a shiny vessel, as though I’d leaped into the future, or been swallowed by a robot. Up in a narrow gleaming elevator, and your boyfriend waiting to greet me at the door. He was smaller than I’d imagined, possibly an inch shorter than me, with a stocky, yet not disproportionate build. Older though, in his early thirties, with a wide, clean-shaven head, thickly-moulded features, and eyes that, oddly enough, reminded me of a lamb. His Couchsurfing profile said he was “an engineer with a passion for wild places”.

“Welcome, welcome….”

I pulled my suitcase into a flat of infinite whiteness. The walls and ceiling, and on the floor, large uncarpeted tiles. We walked into a dining space with an open kitchen.

I couldn’t see you. You were watching television in the lounge, the next room, shielded not by a door but by a shelf filled with knick-knacks and, I presume, many travels’ worth of souvenirs.

“This is the Couchsurfer corner,” said your boyfriend. It was a nook, next to a full-length glass wall with a view of the river, and across it, the Old Town.

“Here’s some stuff you might find useful.” On a table lay guides, maps and pamphlets.

“Thanks very much.”

“And now,” he said, smiling at me, “would you like to join us for dinner?”

I said I wouldn’t like to trouble them.

“Not at all.” He was making pasta, and had already thrown in a couple of extra handfuls into the pot, just in case.

“Can I help?” I offered.

No, all done. And while it cooked we could put out the ‘beach chairs’, enjoy the view and drink a beer.

Just then you walked in, and plucked a juice from the fridge.

Your boyfriend introduced us.

Your name was Evelyn. You had dark hair, tied into a loose bun, and dark eyes; you didn’t seem pleased to see me.

“Would you like a beer?” he asked you.

No.

And back you went to your TV programme.

Your boyfriend wasn’t perturbed; we opened our beers, and he asked me about India. He hadn’t yet met another Indian woman travelling alone.

“And I’ve hosted a lot of Couchsurfers here.”

Perhaps they didn’t Couchsurf? Back home, I said, staying in a stranger’s house, on your own, even if for only a few nights, was quite unheard of.

“Yes, yes. That could be it.” He took a swig from the bottle; I did the same. The beer was fizzy and cool. Outside, the light was beginning to fade, and the river was falling into darkness.

That night, I could hear you and your boyfriend. His name, let’s say, was Markus. At first, I wasn’t sure. I was in my nook, reading from the light of the street lamp. You had both watched a movie, something frenetic and action-filled, and then readied for bed. We sank into darkness, and silence. Then it started with a slow movement — that I didn’t deliberately listen for; yet in a flat with no doors, sound belonged to all of us.

A moan, you or him.

A rhythmic creak.

I could hear you say his name, softly, over and over.

I listened to you, to the river, to the towers.

I woke up, bathed in light, in an empty flat.

On the dining table, the box of cherries I’d brought, two types of cereal, a half bottle of orange juice. You’d both left for work in a hurry. In the fridge, some fruit and the remnants of our dinner. It hadn’t been the most awkward meal, although you barely said a word. I thought it was because you weren’t comfortable speaking English. Markus kept me entertained — with stories of camel rides in Mongolia, cycling in Vietnam, and mountain camping in Mexico.

On my way to take a shower, I peeked into your bedroom, the bed large, low and hastily tidied, a pile of clothes strewn on the chair. Last night, when I asked you what you did, you said you worked as secretary to a doctor in Basel — an hour away. You must have had to leave early.

I spent the day walking, down the pedestrianised Nationalquai that edged the lake. Once I’d ventured far enough, beyond Carl Spitteler Quai and Luzern Quai, the crowd thinned, the benches emptied, and the greens were occupied with few families, or couples and their dogs. Beyond the clustered reach of the town, scaling the skies — the mountains. The snow-bound peaks of Pilatus and Rigi. All through town I’d seen offers of package tours to the top, train rides and cable car rides, and a multitude of amusements when you got there. Beautiful as they were, the mountains didn’t call me. They were not the reason I was here.

In the evening, I headed back to Old Town; I liked cities at this time. With the lights and long shadows, the sudden mysteries to be followed down every street. I walked past the two-steepled Hof Church, south towards the Pfistern Guild Hall and Dornach House, and eventually back at Kapellbrücke. By now, the Ruess seemed lit from within, and flames rose to its surface, flickering on the water. Perhaps it was the mountains, the feeling of a cold country, but I was struck by an immense and thrilling isolation.

On my way back to the flat, I stopped at a supermarket and picked up a bottle of wine. Close to the blue building, I could hear a tower chime the hour. I let myself in with the key Markus had given me. The flat was in darkness. Somehow, I knew you were home.

“Hello…” I called.

You were sitting in the balcony at the back, beyond your bedroom. Smoking. A book lay open on the table.

“May I join you?” Perhaps the fact that I asked softened you.

Yes. I could. Markus was out, you explained. Every Thursday evening he had drinks and dinner with the boys. “He won’t be back till late.”

Behind you rows of houses rose up a hillside, topped by the white, ethereal Chateau Gütsch. The lights reflected on your hair, which you were wearing long and open. Repeatedly, you pushed away a strand that fell in your eyes. It’s a gesture I now always associate with you.

“How was your day?” I asked, pouring the wine.

The usual.

Was he nice? The doctor you worked for?

You shook your head. He had a short temper, and shouted at you a lot.

It was terrible, I said, that you had to put up with that.

You shrugged. You were wearing a loose jumper that you’d pull low, over your legs crossed on the chair.

“If all goes to plan, I can leave soon.”

We drank our wine in silence.

“And…your day?”

I told you. I’d walked. And read. And sketched.

“Is that what you do? Back in India…”

I nodded. I worked as an illustrator and designer for a publishing house in Delhi, and had recently attended an artist residency at Angoulême in France. I’d travelled back up to Paris, and then here by train.

Your face was sculpted by light. A slice of cheekbone, a long nose, and your eyes looking outside into the darkness. You hesitated, you wanted to say, ask something, but you changed your mind.

More wine. Another cigarette.

“So, what are your plans?” I asked.

You looked quizzical.

“You said…earlier…if all goes to plan…”

“Oh.” You laughed. Your face rounded, softened. You held up the book: Holistic Massage: A Step-by-Step Guide. “I’ve enrolled in a…how do you say? Masseuse course…. And maybe one day, I open my own place.”

I said that sounded marvellous, and raised my glass. We toasted. Again, you laughed. You sipped your wine, delicately. You looked no older than 24 or 25.

“Tell me why did you come to Lucerne?” you asked. “I mean I’ve seen the people who visit…we have Couchsurfers almost every week…I’m tired of them but Markus loves to be generous…but you…” You looked at me over the rim of your glass. “Don’t mind…but you just don’t seem the type…”

And so I told you the truth.

A few years ago, I lost my mother.

Without a word, your hand lifted to your heart.

One of my favourite photographs of her was when — perhaps she was my age, 28, perhaps a little older — my father and she travelled to Europe. Here. On a tour bus, like the ones that swept into the city everyday. And they stood smiling into the camera, young, strong, immortal, with Kapellbrücke behind them, the flowers in bloom. They’d taken other pictures, of course. “But,” I added, “there was something about that one.”

We stayed quiet, and it returned, the immense isolation.

By the time Markus slipped in, you were in bed, and I in my nook, un-asleep.

My last day there I headed first to the Rosengart museum, which I thought, judging by its boxy white exterior, might be uninspiring. Yet on its walls were unexpected celebrations — sketches and paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Chagall, and Klee. Then I crossed to old town and wandered the streets around the Musegg Wall, although I didn’t climb to the top of its towers. You said they offered amazing views, but they were also queued and crowded. Eventually, sometime late that afternoon, I walked up the narrow sloping road leading to the Lion Monument. Someone, you’d forgotten who, had called it the saddest sculpture in the world. Above a pool of fern green, a stone lion lay perpetually dying.

“What did you think?” you asked me later (I don’t know if it was for me that you came home early from work).

I said it was the saddest sculpture in the world.

You smiled.

We cooked, two frozen pizzas hastily shoved in the oven — you said you hated to be in the kitchen more than 10 minutes at any time. “Markus is the one who throws barbecue parties for his guests.” Then we were back on the balcony.

Another bottle of wine. Cigarettes. Markus texted, saying he’d be late at work. Tell her I’ll say goodbye in the morning before she leaves.

“What time is your train?” you asked.

7.30.

You looked down at your book, at the ashtray. “I have a strange request…my exams are coming soon…and I need to get it right…but I can’t practise…May I…on you?”

“You mean…a massage?”

You nodded, your cheeks flushed, by wine, by embarrassment. “If you don’t mind…”

I laughed. How could I say no?

You smiled and leapt up, saying to give you 15 minutes to prepare.

“Prepare what?” I asked.

But you were already gone.

I’d expected something casual, a shoulder rub on the balcony — not anything close to this. You’d transformed your bedroom into a spa.

Well, almost.

Arranged delicately around were lit candles, smelling faintly of vanilla, little bottles of oils, fluffy towels, and, propped in the centre, a massage bed.

You folded your hands and bowed, in a mock gesture of welcome. You giggled.

I laughed.

“Please,” you gestured to the massage bed, “lie down.”

“Wait…in a real spa, wouldn’t people take off their clothes…”

You nodded.

“Would you like me to?”

You held my stare. “It would be…easier.”

I slipped my T-shirt off, pulled down my skirt. Unclasped my bra. I lay face down.

When you touched me, you were trembling.

You said you were using your favourite oil, geranium.

Over my skin, your fingers gathered secret strength, piercing, gentle.

Moving in infinite circles.

“I lost my mother too,” you said. “But not in the same way.”

You left home over a year ago to live with Markus, against your family’s wishes and conservative Catholic beliefs. They hadn’t welcomed you back since.

“I’m sorry…”

“And for you too…”

You leaned over me, your hands around my waist, moving up my sides. Across my shoulder blades — so thin, you said — and down my arms. In time, I turned over, and your hands were strong and warm across my neck, my chest.

I say your name over and over.

It was the first, and last, touch in the world.

When I left the next morning, you were both still sleeping, so I wrote a note — “Thank you…for everything.” I walked away from the blue building, through the underpass, along the sidewalk to the station. In the cool, still air, I waited for chimes to rise from the clock towers, but they stayed silent. I was surrounded only by the sweet rushing sound of the river.

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