Arthur glared at the flimsy plasterboard wall that separated his student room from Tahlia’s – it was undulating. He forced his attention back to ‘Enchanted Flora: A Guide’ and tried to shut out the roaring crescendo of thrash metal and the faint tinkling of wind chimes.
It didn’t work.
Again, the wall wobbled, sending his already-cracked picture frames tumbling to the floor. He closed the book, pinched the bridge of his nose.
He’d already complained about the noise to the housing officer, but all he’d gotten was a sympathetic head tilt and a hearty reassurance that it’d be a good learning experience. Even more preposterous were the two neighbours on the other side of the hall, who claimed not to hear or see anything untoward coming from Tahlia in 4b. Not even when purple smoke curled out from beneath her doorway and ingrained itself in the carpet, giving the hall that swirling pattern that made your eyes groan.
His book – and indeed everything not bolted to the floor – suddenly leapt a foot in the air and crashed back down. Arthur, who’d shuffled forwards at the wrong moment, was now slotted between his chair and the table, his coccyx throbbing.
"Right!” He shoved the table away. “That's it!"
He staggered into the hallway, knocked twice on Tahlia’s door, and waited.
“Who is it?”
The screech of guitars subsided to the sound of bare feet padding towards the door. He squared his shoulders, determined not to be distracted this time.
Two weeks ago, he’d banged on her door, requesting that she keep it down. She'd had a party with students from another dimension, making her apartment a temporary temporal node or lobe or somesuch (which apparently, according to the aforementioned housing officer, was so difficult to prove it wasn't worth trying). Somehow, he’d ended up apologising to her.
The door opened. Tahlia stood there, draped in some light-blue contraption trimmed with beads that drew attention to her every movement, and every curve. Not that he looked.
"Everything alright?" she asked.
"Uh no, you see, I was trying to study and my entire room just, well, jumped."
"Oh! I'm so sorry. Are you OK? I must have got the parameters wrong again." She ran the palm of her hand over the wall – their wall – and clicked her tongue. "I bet it's because it's so damn thin."
"Yes, maybe, but in the meantime, could you not—"
"It's just so tricky working with exploding fungus."
Arthur cocked his head; he hadn’t yet reached the chapter on unstable fungi. "I didn't realise it did that."
"Oh yeah! Why do you think they call it a mushroom cloud?"
He frowned. "Because it looks—"
"Come in," she said, stepping aside. "I'll show you."
"I don't think—"
He took one step, and stopped. She’s doing it again, he thought.
"Look, I just want to be able to study in peace," he said. "Can't you ask your tutor or someone for a better containment spell?"
She raised an eyebrow. "It's more complicated than that."
"You manage to keep the others out of the loop.” He gestured behind him. “They never hear anything."
"They wouldn't," she said. "They don't want to."
"What do you mean?"
"They're studying politics, they only hear what they want to hear."
"But I don't want to hear it either!"
"If you say so."
She placed one hand on her hip; numerous bracelets jangled. Was everything about this woman noisy? Even her eyes – big, dark and hooded – were mesmerising in a way that drowned out the rest of the world.
Arthur glanced past her, but the layout didn't allow him to see much from the doorway. Exploding fungus…
"Alright. I'll take a look." She grinned as he slid past her, and told him to have a seat whilst she made some tea.
A forest-green armchair appealed, which would have looked incongruous in any other student room, but not hers. Once settled, Arthur examined the space, enjoying the eclectic style.
A vibrant red dreamcatcher spun by the open window, along with the silver wind chimes. Every surface appeared to be draped in colourful handmade blankets with tassels hanging over the edges. Her room looked more lived-in than his; clearly, she liked to nest.
Or was it that he hadn’t made an effort?
“What were you looking at?” she asked. Arthur flinched, picking up on her snappish tone. Did he do something wrong?
“Oh, just, you know.” He waved a hand. “The wind chimes and that.”
“Uh, the dreamcatcher?”
She froze, and for a second he thought she was going to cry, but then, just as quickly, she wasn’t.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“Of course.” She glided over and placed a steaming mug on the silvery-blue fabric coaster. “Here you go.”
"Thank you." He lifted the mug. "Oh, that's… "
"Ginger and orange blossom."
The vapours tickled his nose and tugged at his memory. He’d had this tea before, but where? Tahlia perched on the wooden chair opposite. Hands clasped on her knees.
“So, uh, why are you studying magic?” he asked. And even as he said it, another part of his mind was trying to remember why he was there.
"My grandmother," she said, smiling. "When I was little, she told stories about all the people she helped with her potions and spells. She was one of those types who lived in a cabin in the forest, surrounded by a temporal field so only those seeking aid could find her."
Arthur nodded. "A lot of prejudice in those days. She must have been very brave."
"I wanted to be like her. Help people."
In an effort not to stare at her, he focused on the pinewood table. The coasters looked handmade, asymmetrical. He liked that. “Did you make these?”
“Oh no,” she said. “My grandmother made those. She loved knitting.”
“That’s… uh… that’s…”
He reached out and touched one, gently, reverently.
And something happened.
“What’s going on?” He moves to put down the tea, only to find it isn’t in his hand anymore. “Uh, something’s not…”
“Why are you saying my name like that?”
Tahlia blinks. The knuckles clamped together on her knees are white.
"Like you know me."
It strikes Arthur that the room is wrong. There’s too much in it, he thinks. The wind chimes clink, and he turns to look, just as the red dreamcatcher begins spinning. Faster and faster.
Tahlia is not sitting opposite anymore. She is on her knees before him, soft hands cupping his face, drawing his gaze back, her dark eyes search his.
"Because I do know you, and you know me.” Her voice wavers. “Please, Arthur. Try to remember. This is where it all began. Right here, in this room. I just need to find out how… Oh Arthur, look at me. Please.”
He frowns. “But I am looking at you.” His breath becomes ragged as panic overpowers everything else. What’s going on? “Who are you?” he asks.
Tahlia tries to say something, her expression pleading, but it’s too late.
In his peripheral vision, the room dissolves, and then, shatters.
In forty-five years, Tahlia only managed to sneak up on Arthur once.
The flowers had budded early with honey bees roaming everywhere amidst a cacophony of birdsong. Arthur liked to joke that the woods were almost as noisy as her. He was at the bottom of the garden, tending the wildflowers, confident in his ability to hear her coming from a mile away.
At the patio doors, she removed her sandals first, then her wrap-around lilac dress, bangles and earrings, right down to the golden beads entwined in her hair. She left everything in a dishevelled pile, and stepped proudly into the sunlight.
Grass tickled the soles of her feet as she crept past the daffodils and slipped between the delicate willow tree garlands. A field mouse ran across her painted toenails, but she didn’t scream. She dared not breathe, for there he was, on the other side of the cascading fronds. The bronzed skin of his forearms working; the shock of unruly chestnut-brown hair that he kept long just for her.
Then, she leapt out from her hiding place, not bothering to hold her wobbly bits, and charged.
It was worth the effort. To see the surprise on his face, and even more so when, a little while later, she rested her palm against his gorgeous face and whispered, “I’m pregnant.”
His eyes widened and dilated, crinkling at the edges. Disbelief and hope surging, fighting, and he didn’t try to hide any of it. He never did.
“You were right,” she said. “Life did find a way.”
He gave her stomach a gentle pat. “This is love,” he said, leaning in for another kiss. “Love found a way.”
Waiting for her to make the tea, Arthur settles into the armchair and admires the handwoven coasters. He knows her grandmother made them, but not how long they took. He leans forward and traces the pattern with one calloused finger. It looks complex, but what does he know? Maybe it doesn’t actually take that long. Still—
“What did you do?” Tahlia asks. She sounds angry. No. Urgent.
“The coaster,” she says. “It flashed.”
“No it didn’t.” But even as he says it, the strands begin to glow. A slow build of energy.
Tahlia leaves the counter and walks towards him; looking so determined he holds his breath. She reaches out and deftly pulls a thread of that waxing moonlight into her light fingertips and walks to the window, stretching the thread, manipulating it, and links it to the windchimes.
And burns brighter.
Tahlia moves back to stand in front of him. She can tell she doesn’t have much time; the light is already waning. It won’t last. Arthur is older by ten years or so. He was thirty-two when they got married. His hands grip the armchair, his jaw muscle flexing. She can’t let him panic, or she’ll have to start over.
"Arthur," she says softly. "I'm playing a game, OK?"
He relaxes back in the chair, though his muscles are still tight. "Alright."
"This is the day—"
"I know what day this is.” A smile flickers. “I remember."
"But I think you remember it differently than me. This—" she picks up the coaster "—is significant to you, isn't it?"
He cocks his head and his expression passes from confusion to joy. A dimpled smile warms his face. He nods.
"Your grandmother made it for you. It was obviously precious, and yet you didn't keep it on display, behind protective glass or wrapped in plastic in the back of a cupboard. My mother would have done that, but not you. You used it. You loved it."
"I think… yes… this is the moment I knew I loved you. Or at least, when I felt that the possibility existed. It was exciting! I buzzed all over. It was like a swarm of bees trying to tell me that the most exquisite honey was within reach and all I had to do was look."
Tahlia trembles. It's been a long time since she heard him say such things to her. So long since he said anything. And he used to be so romantic, so surprising and annoying and frustrating, and funny!
She misses his laughter. And her own.
"Tally?" he says. She’s given too much away. Concern etches the nascent lines of his face. "This isn't a game, is it?"
Tahlia stands, slowly, cursing her arthritic joints. Reaching out, she dabs the corner of Arthur’s mouth with some tissue she keeps up her sleeve. His gaze passes over hers, not quite meeting it, and her chest muscles constrict, stifling the sob.
How much heartbreak can one person stand? This must surely be the limit. The patio doors are open, and scents of orange blossom sweep in from the back garden, mingling with Tahlia’s freshly made green ginger tea.
This cabin is much larger than they ever needed, especially since Poppy left home, but it’s theirs. Tahlia is responsible for the colourful rugs and ornaments and the rock music that she used to play (she doesn’t anymore for fear of not hearing him call out for her). Arthur can be seen in the rich mahogany bookshelves, the perfectly smooth edges of their dining table, and above all, the garden. That was his domain.
It's one o’clock.
Her colleague from the Academy, Jon, is due to video call. She moves into the kitchen, not wanting to do it in front of Arthur, just in case he can still hear.
“How’s the research going?” Jon asks. Straight to business. “Any change in the patient?”
“Not yet,” she says, resenting the impersonal though necessary wording. “But I’m close! There’s just something I’m missing, something small…”
“Tahlia.” The use of her first name puts her on guard. They’ve been friends and colleagues for over twenty years, but work was work. “It’s been nine years.”
“I know,” she says. “Curing diseases takes time, but I’m getting closer.”
“That’s what you said last year.” He takes a breath. “Listen, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but…” She closes her eyes; knowing exactly where this is going. A cold hard ball forms in her belly. No results mean no funding. It’s not personal. It’s never personal. Jon is starting to ramble in the face of her uncharacteristic silence.
“It’s alright, Jon,” she says. “I understand.”
He nods. “It’s so terrible, but there’re just some things that can’t be healed.”
“No.” She turns away. “No, I won’t accept that.”
“Tahlia. He’s in the final stages. His neural pathways are gone. Who knows what’s going on in his mind? His memories are all jumbled up; their links broken. That cannot be fixed. We – I mean us at the Academy - need to focus on preventative measures, ways to slow down the disease’s progression, and—
She paces, her bare feet smacking on the stone kitchen floor, each turn punctuated with a swish of fabric and a sharp snap of jewellery.
Quietly, tentatively, he asks, “Does he still recognise you?”
Tahlia shoots him a look brimming with hurt. He changes tack.
“Have you spoken to Poppy recently? What does she think about all this?”
“She visits every weekend, and tends the garden for him.”
Jon lets that one slide; the insinuation that Arthur is merely on holiday and will be right back to it as soon as he returns. That he isn’t sitting in his favourite green armchair ten feet away, drifting in and out of consciousness.
“Listen, Tahlia. I’ll only say this once, and then I won’t bother you with it again. But I have to say it. Arthur told me" —he clears his throat— "he told me that he didn’t want this for you. He said that when it got this bad, he didn’t want you to… He didn’t want you to suffer. Those were his wishes.”
“I know what he said.”
Tahlia halts and lifts her chin, radiating defiance.
“Daddy, I’m scared,” Poppy said.
Arthur smiled, his chest swelling; she looked so small and cute with her starry duvet pulled right up to her nose.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be alright,” he said. “Because I got you this.”
From behind his back, with a flourish, he pulled out a beautiful crimson dreamcatcher. Poppy gasped.
“This,” he said, “will catch all the bad dreams and lock them up tight.”
“So, they won’t get me?”
“That’s right.” He thought about it for a second, and added, “And any that do, won’t be able to hurt you.”
He tucked her in, and kissed her forehead. He worked with flowers and herbs all day long, but his daughter’s head, in his opinion, was the best smell going.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too.”
Love always finds a way. His words, echoing in Tahlia’s mind. Nagging her.
She goes back in.
Arthur is in his chair, surveying her room. The room his mind has conjured up. Festooned with snatches of other memories, slipped in when she wasn’t paying attention: the windchimes from their back porch, the dreamcatcher he bought Poppy, the smells of his favourite tea, the thrash metal music that he loathed.
She waits, eyeing him sidelong. Finally, he focuses on the coaster, reaches out and brushes it with his thumb.
It glows, and she leaps into action.
“What are you doing?”
She doesn’t answer. With a speed that belies her real age, she pinches thread after thread of the silvery starlight and darts about, creating a tapestry of luminescent spider silk. Each connection seems to feed the light, making it expand and grow. She forges links with the wind chimes, the dreamcatcher, the cracked pictures of all three of them together, the tea, the bed, the armchair… her.
“Arthur.” The light is now a sphere hovering in the air, blinding in its radiance. “Hold my hands.”
He does so, and for a brief moment. He is him again. The whole him.
“Tahlia, if this doesn’t work—"
“You don’t know that.”
“It has to.”
A thousand suns explode in glittering majesty, showering them. She holds her breath as the threads surrounding them shimmer, flicker, strengthen, and hold.
Not daring to hope too hard, lest it destroy her forever, she leaves his mind.
Outside, she can hear the wind chimes and the soft rush of the afternoon whispering through the patio doors.
She sits on a small footstool in front of Arthur, her hands on top of his.
She looks into his eyes, and he looks right back.
Smiling, he laughs and squeezes her hands. For once, she has no words, so he speaks for both of them…
"I missed you."