A Day Without Sunshine
by E. Saxey
I don’t waste time. I study, I work hard, and when I go out I can squeeze a month of clubbing into one night. Tonight I’m squeezing it in a nasty place in Peckham, South London: no air, and the walls are sweating. I can’t get drunk–I’ve got a lecture tomorrow morning–so I’m dancing myself stupid, twisting my head so quick that my braids twat me in the face.
But across the delirious dance-floor, in the far corner, there’s a pool of stillness. Nobody dancing, everyone chilling, and you, leaning on a wall. You’re a little guy with lush brown eyes, gazing all around you.
I fight my way through the dancers to get to you. I get tangled in arms, fingernails up in my face, but I finally reach you.
“I’m Michelle. I’m doing law. You a student?”
You’re Hesham, twenty-eight, from Cairo. Not studying anything.
As I look at you, my skin tingles. Then I hear a police siren wailing past–of course, we’re next to the fire exit. That’s why there’s a pool of coolness round you.
“This is all excellent,” you say, waving an overpriced beer bottle at the terrible club. I laugh.
“You must be on some good stuff, fam.”
“I’m not! I like places where everyone’s having, oh, as much fun as they can.” You sound shy, formal. My Ma would call you “well brought up”.
Later, you sneak into my sweaty arms. You’re shorter than me and kind of delicate, but you don’t make me feel clumsy. Just strong, as though I could scoop you up.
Like I said, I don’t waste time. “Are you going to invite me back to yours?”
I reckon you’ll get ripped off by the flaky minicabs hovering outside. But you find us a proper black cab. We sit on opposite sides of the big back seat. Up the mangy Old Kent Road we go, across the dark river with both banks twinkling. Past the City, castles of light.
The taxi metre ticks up and up. “Hesham, I can’t split the fare on this!”
“Oh! I should have said. I’ll get it.”
Your place is a surrounded by high hedges, a big dark old block. “Lights all out,” I say.
“Oh, yes. My neighbours will be in their pods by now.”
“What? Why, are they ill?”
“They pod most nights. Why get eight hours older while you’re asleep?”
“And if they get fed up with the Winter, they pod all the way through to Spring.”
Inside your flat, the thick carpet eats our footsteps. I can’t relax, imagining your neighbours above us and around us, frozen, kept under glass. “What a waste. Missing whole months.”
“But when they’re awake, it’s always Summer.”
Your lilting voice doesn’t calm me.
Everything’s spotless in your flat, everything’s beige. It looks like the waiting room to a posh clinic.
“Don’t you ever use a pod?” you ask.
Of course I don’t. I couldn’t afford it. I’ve never met anyone who has, I’ve only heard rumours. That fan who podded for a month before the Batman film premier (but that was a publicity stunt). I read in a magazine that rich people sometimes pod out a cold (don’t do it, you can get a monster chest infection).
“My mother pods while my father goes skiing,” you say.
I snort. It’s such a ludicrous sentence. Like ‘My polo pony has been at the Veuve Cliquot again’. I don’t want to sound out of my depth. “Hasn’t she got anything better to do?” I say.
“Sometimes she visits her friends in Maadi. Then if my father gets home before she does, he pods until she gets back. They’re very devoted.” You take my hand, link our fingers, and lead me down a corridor.
We pass photos on the wall: a man with a moustache on a mountaintop, a woman wearing tweed and laughing and holding a shotgun. How would it look if my Ma had a snap on the wall of our flat, of her holding a gun and laughing?
We reach your bedroom.
I don’t go in. I freak out. Do you do this every week? Go South of the river, pick up someone like me–someone big and skint and cocky–then mess with her head? With the taxi fare and your show-home flat and your podding relatives?
“Your family’s weird, mate.” That feels good to say. Easier than “your family’s so minted it makes my ears bleed.”
“I suppose so. Yes.” You smile.
“Come here,” I say.
One month together. You take me to gigs and shows and you buy me some pretty sweet meals. But it’s OK, we’re quits, because I know I’m good for you. I’m grounded. “I used to float through life,” you say. “But you make me connect.”
One Sunday morning, I get lost on the way back from your bathroom and I open the wrong door.
It looms at me from the centre of the room.
What the hell is it? A techno-coffin? A giant freaking wine fridge?
It’s a pod. Open, empty, hungry for an occupant.
You have your own pod.
Significant omission, mate.
“What is it, sweet?” Your voice laps at me, all loving and sleepy. You’re in bed and you want me to come back.
“I found your pod, Hesh.”
You stumble up behind me.
You say: “It’s not dangerous.”
“That’s not the point.”
What is the point? Why is my heart thumping?
Because we agree–we laugh together–about how messed up your family are, with their rich-people hobbies, their floating from Ascot to the Emirates and podding in between. They’re nothing like me. Head-in-the-clouds versus feet-on-the-ground. And you may be one of them, but you’ve sided with me. Haven’t you?
“I only do it when I need to,” you say. “Do you want to see how it works?”
Because the thought of it shrivels me up. “What if I do it wrong?”
“I trust you.”
So then I can’t refuse because I’d be mistrusting your trust, or some bullshit like that. You show me what to press.
“Wake me up in five minutes,” you say as you clamber in, wriggling down in the headrest just the same way you snuggle into my shoulder when we hug. “Shut the lid, then.”
“Shut it yourself.”
I don’t like needles. I kept my eyes on your serene face as you eyelids lower. Your breath mists the whole visor once, twice, then dwindles to a tiny spot, like the moon in fog.
I can’t keep still. I ought to watch, keep a vigil, but I walk around the flat. Past all the other doors.
Man, I could open every door in the place, snoop around, see what else you’ve got hidden. I never have, before. When you’re asleep you could wake up. When you’re out you could walk back in. But right now, you can’t surprise me.
I march myself back to the pod room and press where you told me. The pod whirs.
You open your eyes and unlatch the lid from inside. You’re dopey from the double shot of drugs: the ones to knock you out, and the ones to wake you.
“Give me a kiss,” you say.
I won’t bend my head down into the mechanism. “Come up here and get it.”
Three months together. I like the pace of us. We see each other every week. You don’t pester me with messages between dates. You respect that I’ve got bare work to do, no spare time. You’re not clingy.
But something’s not right with you. You’re slipping.
When I phone, why do you never answer, always phone back a couple of hours later?
Why did you let me think you’d been to a gig last week, when you didn’t go at all? You just read the reviews and made it up.
Are you cheating? Taking drugs?
You hold me close.
“Michelle, love. You know Anthony and Cleopatra, in Shakespeare? Cleopatra says: give me mandragora to drink, so I can sleep out this great gap of time that Anthony’s away.”
I say: “Who’s Cleopatra in this scenario? You or me?”
“When you’re not here, ‘Chelle, it’s just a great gap of time.”
“So what have you been drinking, to get through it?”
“You know, there are a thousand other poems about how amazing it would be to be with your beloved, all the time. And now it’s possible!”
“What? No. It isn’t. I’ve got to work, I’ve got to study…”
“It is for me. I can kiss you and fall asleep and wake up and kiss you again.”
A light-bulb comes on in my head; a bare bulb, it’s bright and it hurts me. “You’re telling me–you only get out of the pod if we’re going to meet?”
“Why would I want a day without you in it?”
The light-bulb in my head swings, throwing shadows that swerve around and won’t settle. “Are you ill? I mean, do you only have a few years to live, or something?”
“Everyone’s only got a few years to live.”
“Yeah, ’nuff philosophical bullshit. You’re only twenty-eight, Hesham.”
“Some people would think it was romantic.”
“Oh, don’t get me twisted! You knew I wouldn’t like it, or you wouldn’t have lied about it.”
“I didn’t lie.”
You keep podding.
Four months together, for me; twenty days or so for you, I reckon.
I have to cancel a date. You’re as sweet as ever. But I can tell what you’re thinking: that I’ve kind of wasted a whole day of your life.
I think that’s when you decide to wake up just an hour before our dates. There are little clues. Sometimes, by the time you see me, you haven’t scrubbed the pod-breath out of your mouth.
I’m tired one night, so I let you send your car for me. It glides into our estate like a pike in a pond and swallows me up. Slides down weed-filled roads, then races through the City to your neck of the woods, all manicured lawns and security cameras. The high dark hedges round your home seem to part, to let it in.
As it brakes, so gently, I think: you want someone to fight their way in to your weird closed-off life, past your fossilised family, and save you. To give you a reason to stay awake, just for a day, just for an hour.
And when I’m longing to see you, when I’m ringing your doorbell, I think I could be that fighter.
You buzz me in wearing your bathrobe, just stepped out of your wet room. Your PA has woken you up, timed it to perfection.
After we kiss, you ask, “Would you want to wake me up again, some time? Like you did before?”
I freeze. “Why?”
“I just have this picture of you waking me up with a kiss. But it doesn’t matter.”
I can’t do it. I’m not the fighter.
Five months together, for me. Twenty days, and what–sixteen hours for you?
I see us as wheels on gears. I’m the tiny wheel, spinning round seven times, while you’re the big wheel moving less than one rotation.
Of course, you never have any news. So I ask you about your childhood. Then your dreams. Even if we see all the same things, we can’t dream the same dreams.
“I don’t really remember them,” you say.
Little fights spring up between us like seedlings. One late night we turn into your dark driveway and an urban fox is loping away from us, a big auburn leggy guy. I hold your hand tighter.
“We’ll never know where he goes,” I whisper. “Isn’t it brilliant?”
“We can have a pretty good guess, though, can’t we?” There’s a scratch in your voice. “He goes through bins and he pisses on doorsteps. Just because he’s mysterious, doesn’t mean he’s glamorous.”
“I just like him. I wasn’t liking him at you. You arsehole.”
I don’t want us to argue. I want us to differ.
One time we’re in the Tate Modern, looking at a great battle of blue brush-strokes. You look at the painting, to me, and back again. As though you’re reading my face and adjusting your focus, tweaking your reactions to whatever I’m feeling. Trying to fuse our gazes into a single gaze.
I still think of you as laid-back, not clingy. But you don’t need to be clingy. Because you don’t exist when you’re not with me.
I wish that was why I was breaking up with you. “Hesham, I can’t live without the give and take of different experiences.” That would be so high-minded.
But it’s more shabby than that.
We’ve been meeting once a fortnight, because of my exams. That’s a good thing about our arrangement: you don’t mind how often we see each other. You aren’t twiddling your thumbs, waiting for me to visit. Two days in the pod is the same as a month, to you. Same as a hundred years, probably.
As soon as I get you alone in your flat I kiss you. You taste like hot fresh bread and I melt like butter.
You give me a hug you could give your Grandma and say, “Shall I make us coffee?”
We’re gears. I spin. You only turn a tiny bit.
In my world, we’ve been—ahem–intimate once a fortnight. And in your world, we’ve been doing it every four freaking hours.
I should button my lip, think it over, but I blurt it out.
“It’s not a problem,” you say. “I can fix it. I’ll get a prescription.”
“I don’t want that.”
“What do you want?”
I don’t know. Not this.
“Do you want a pod? One of your own. I could get you one.”
Both of us stare like the other one’s pulled a knife.
Breaking up with you is another thing I’ve done on my own while you’ve been in your pod, another bit of news that I’ll tell you later. I left a letter with your PA. Sorry about that. But I wouldn’t want to waste your time on the conversation.
Six months later. You keep sending begging messages and I give in. Strict limits: in a café, one hour only.
You look just the same.
“How are you? In your pod much?”
“I know you don’t approve.” In your voice I can hear the strain which your unchanged body can’t show. “But wouldn’t it be weird if I’d given it up to please you?”
“Anyway. I’m going to start feeling better soon.”
“Yeah? Good. How?” You could afford a load of therapy, a round the world holiday. Buy a puppy, a puppy who’s trained as a therapist. Man, I resent you. It hurt me too, you know? But I worked hard, and I got over you.
You rub your temples. “My subconscious is working on it while I’m asleep. I just need more time.”
“Time in the pod? That’s not a plan.”
“It’ll be like podding through the Winter. Or podding off a cold.”
“Hesh, you can’t keep moping like a teenager, you’re nearly thirty. And it’s been six months since we broke up.”
“I’m nowhere near thirty,” you say. “It hasn’t been six months.”
About the Author
Esther Saxey received her D.Phil. in English literature from the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has published on the interconnection of sexuality and narrative in various texts, including Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Reading The Lord of the Rings, 2006), the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Reading the Vampire Slayer, 2002) and the Love and Rockets comics series by Jaime Hernandez (2006). She has also provided a critical introduction and notes for the Wordsworth editions of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and Lady Audley’s Secretby Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
About the Narrator
Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis.