Lasni taps me on the shoulder. I jump slightly and find myself back in reality. I’m by the dog food section, trolley in front of me and have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.
Thank God for Lasni. I’m supposed to be her boss but without her I couldn’t get through a single night here. She organises me as well as herself. I’m also supposed to file performance reports on her. That is a joke. We do them together because I’ve struggled with filling forms recently.
She looks about forty but she’s a grandmother. All her seven children have gone on to have their own. Her house, large though it is, is overwhelmed. The good news is two of her children have recently been assigned their own flats by the council and will be moving out soon.
She pushes specs up her nose, and asks, “Are you all right?”
I sigh, “Thank you; now I am.” Something grabs my attention and it takes me a minute to work out what. “How can it be getting light already?” Through the mini-supermarket windows a predawn glow has set the stars to flight. I can even see silhouettes of litter blowing across the parking area.
She takes my arm. “You’ve been standing dreaming for about forty minutes. Help me. There is supposed to be a packet of tea nearly out of date but I can’t read the tiny writing.”
She needs new glasses but never spends money on herself. Her family simply don’t have enough for luxuries like that. She leads me to the shelf and I kneel, scrabbling through packets of tea. “No, they’re all in date. Oh, hang on.” I pull a box from behind the Earl Grey. “This must be … yes. It got lost.”
Lasni claps her hands. “Hallelujah! That’s us finished. We can relax. I will make coffee for me and tea for you.” She takes the box and heads for the ‘reduced’ section while programming her label printer.
I shunt the trolley into its corner. “You can go home. There’s no need for you to stay here doing nothing for half an hour.”
“I am not going back into chaos when I can have some peace and quiet here. Besides, I would like to talk to you. Sit down. I will bring tea.”
I was absent for forty minutes? I must tell the doctors. I’m struggling to believe I can do even this simple work, and may have to go back to sick leave – and cripplingly low sick pay.
Lasni sets two mugs on the table. Formica, peeling at the edges, has come adrift from its aluminium retaining strip. “You look worried.”
I can’t meet her eyes. “I’m still not doing a good job here am I? You’re staying just to make sure I don’t get lost in the aisles or make a fool of myself when the day staff come in.”
She puts a hand over mine. “It is hard for you, though you worry too much. I don’t think you realise it but you are getting better. I will look after you until you are back to normal.”
That startles me. “Getting better? Really?” My mug leaves wet ring as I lift it.
She squeezes my fingers. “Yes, really. Tonight has been bad for you but you were better than on your best nights only a month ago.”
I put my mug back onto the wobbly table. I can’t think of anything to say to this wonderful news. If it’s true how come I don’t know it? Is my memory still that bad? Thankfully that’s probably the last comment she’ll direct at me regarding this. Lasni limits herself, knowing I don’t like to talk about it.
She’s watching me very carefully. “I need to rent out the top of my house as a flat. How much do you think I should charge? I was thinking two hundred pounds a month. Is that … realistic?” Her speech is low and tentative.
I shake my head and try to hang on to her question while ridding myself of a flashback. Something pumping onto an upside-down windscreen and the moment I realised it was my blood.
“Yes … no. That’s way too low and how are you all going to fit into the bottom floor?” My head spins. “Wait, I need to think…”
She’s slapping my hand. “Your tea is getting cold and you went off to dreamland again.” She tips her head to one side. “What do you dream about?”
“Nothing … I don’t remember anything usually. It’s almost always a blank.”
She smiles. “Everyone needs a dream.” Good, Lasni has changed the subject. That’s kind of her.
To keep the conversation away from dangerous areas, like my mental condition, I try to keep it going, “Oh, I have a dream, the best possible dream and I’m living it. All I need to do is get better and not make a mistake here and lose this job; too much depends on it. You are helping so much. You are very kind.”
“Tell me about this best possible dream.”
Sunlight pours through the high slit windows. A leaf, momentarily slapped against one, rattles for a moment and is blown away, chased by a plastic bag. I say, “Loviise. Loviise is my dream. Loviise’s dream is mine.”
Lasni pushes her chair back and the table forwards so she can ease herself out. “I will make a new hot cup of tea for you and you can tell me about her. You’ve met my family … nearly all of them but I’ve never met this woman you speak about like she’s a goddess.” She lifts my mug and uses a paper towel to swipe stains from the table.
“Wait a moment. I’m trying to think about two things at the same time.”
“That’s two more than usual.” Lasni laughs and pulls milk from the fridge. Trying to think at all can be very hard but she’s right. It’s getting better. Making mental connections is still a huge problem and she’s just linked accommodation and Loviise. I could really live with Lasni and her family; they exude a feeling of … family. And there’s the whole idea of not only saving money but helping her out too. It would pay for her new specs for one thing.
“Lasni, help me here.” She’s pouring boiling water and steam whips up in mesmeric vortices. “We … I … pay seven-fifty a month for our flat. We’ve never used all the rooms. Loviise doesn’t like too much space. I even have to go with her to the shops when she needs clothes. She can’t handle it well. She holds my hand so tight it hurts and I get pins and needles for ages afterwards. Look, I’ve had this idea. We could use just a couple of rooms in your house and that would leave some for your family.” I bite a lip for a moment. “If I didn’t have to pay all that money every month I could save up to buy her a new computer and rent better software. All she needs is internet and somewhere to draw and move around.”
Lasni flicks a teabag across the room and bullseyes the freshly emptied and washed bin. “Draw? I thought you said she was a dancer. She can draw too?”
“She used to dance. She still exercises three or four hours a day at least, mainly for research. She’s a choreographer.” Lasni looks blank so I clarify, “She creates dances for other people. Tells them what to do, how to move.”
“When I’m with you I am with three people. The one who isn’t here, the one who talks about stocking shelves and cleaning floors and the one who fills up with bright light when he talks about Loviise.” Lasni squeezes herself back into the seat and waits for the table to stop wobbling before she puts my mug down. “This thing that she does. Why are you working here and not rich?”
“I gave up art school when I met her. Someone had to look after her. As for money, she’s purely artistic and they are the lowest paid people ever. She mainly works for free or gets very little. Look, come and meet her after we finish today. It would be a good time to work out whether you could live with her in your house.”
“You are serious about moving into my house and paying two hundred a month for two rooms? You can use a smaller room to sleep in and have the biggest room for her to work. She can exercise in it, dance all over it and have her computer at a desk by the window. It looks out over the Firth of Forth.”
“Like she would notice! Oh, you really have to meet her. But … but I think two hundred is too cheap. You mean the room you sleep all the children in?”
Lasni tries to sit back but there is so little space for that. “There is only one kitchen unless I pay for another to be fitted. I’d save that money if you would eat with us. You like Sri Lankan food?”
“Yes … almost certainly. Feed us? Two hundred is far too cheap then. Will you come and meet Loviise?”
“How could I not after all you’ve said? – even though you have said so little your eyes show it all.”
The click and pop of fluorescent tubes heralds the run up to opening time. Light floods everything in bleak.
Lasni and I walk past the turning she would normally take and we carry on downhill deeper into Leith. “Lasni, I have to prepare you. Loviise will be nervous by now; I’m two minutes late and I didn’t phone to warn her about that or that you were coming. The very first reaction you’ll get from her is fear and hostility. She relies on me for so much. Another woman is a threat. I can’t even look at pictures of them when she’s around. After she realises you are a friend and no competition for her, who knows? She’ll probably ignore both of us unless she feels she’s got something to show me.”
Lasni chuckles. “I must meet this woman!”
The door before the stairs to our flat is peeling and rotten in places. Opening it reveals the sticky threadbare carpet. I’ve never looked at it through the eyes of a visitor. I’m not a great cleaner and usually so tied up with Loviise that few things matter apart from basic food and warmth.
I’m stunned by the realisation that since Loviise and I got this flat two years ago it has never seen another person. I open the door at the top and call to her, knowing she’ll be awake – she hardly sleeps at all.
As I swing the bedroom door open Loviise tenses as she sees Lasni. I say, “Loviise, love, this is Lasni who I work with. She wants to meet you.”
Loviise is a striking figure even hunched over her PC and dressed in the T-shirt and knickers she slept in. It won’t even occur to her to feel embarrassed. Her hair, long and lank is still stuck to her gaunt and bony face. I’ll suggest she takes a shower after Lasni has gone. Loviise is taller than me, seriously tall. Broad-shouldered and toned, from the neck down she could pass as an athletic man. She’s dumbfounded by the appearance of a new person. Eyes wide and her face going pale, Loviise grips the edge of the seat and half rises. “I … I will take … make … make tea shall I?”
My heart breaks. That, for Loviise, took a gigantic effort. “No, love. I’ll do it.”
She sits back down and lets a huge breath out. Lifting a drawing pad and pointing to the screen she says, “I’ve done it: look!” I think she’s already forgotten Lasni.
I go behind her as I do every morning. Usually I reach down and stroke her tiny perfect breasts until she brushes my hands away. Not that either of us really need me to do this but any break in ritual and routine disturbs her and she immediately thinks something is wrong. She doesn’t seem to mind me not doing it today. Maybe because Lasni’s here.
Loviise shows me her sketches and a frozen moment in an animation she has made. “Look. She has to be invisible: there, but only to support him apart from her short solo bit. I’ve got the wrists right. I was having problems, the way he only touched her with his wrists. Well, I’ve stopped it looking like he’s detached from her or blocking her or pushing her away. See this bit.” She runs a moment of the animation. “It’s not there yet but do you see what I mean? It’s intense and … and … intimate. He’s caressing her but frightened.” She scrolls to another part. “This bit: look. It’s better here.”
“Why’s his head back?”
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking about that yet. But I will. Yes, maybe forward like he’s feeling defeated at that point. The back of his wrists were, wait, I’ll show you.”
I rest my head on hers and see a surreal flicker of gesture. “Loviise, this is superb. I don’t know how you even thought to make him do that. I doubt many people would even see that move unless it was in slow motion… Ah … and again. I think I get it now. Are his hands free and fingers like that because he’s cutting or pushing webs or something from around her so he can get closer?” I watch for a moment more. “Wait … is that her making more webs? Ah, right … now she’s binding him to her!”
Loviise leans back and, pressing against me, claps her hands and looks up.
As usual I’m lost in the brilliant dancing fire of creation in Loviise’s head and the torrent of art endlessly pouring from her.
Lasni taps my shoulder and I come back to the real world. She winks at me and nods towards the kitchen. Following her there I wait until she turns and says, “How does Loviise take her tea?”
“Um … just the same as me. I don’t think she’d notice whatever you gave her.”
She lifts a mug from its hook. “You take my breath away. I have never known a man so infatuated. All you say, all you do…”
“You’ve seen only a tiny fraction of it. She’s an irresistible whirlpool. Wait till you get to know her more.”
“See? I speak about you and you change the subject to Loviise.” Lasni chuckles. “You have milk?” As I go to the fridge she says, “Come and take a good look at my house when you can. If you want the rooms I’ll tell the family to keep out of her way and not speak to her unless she speaks first. Rashmi is very keen on dancing. Do you think Loviise needs another person to talk to?”
©Gary Bonn, 2017