“Simmer and Steep” by Judy Darley, read by Frances Chen

Performed at “Exits & Entrances,” on December 9, 2019.

An old archway around the breezeblocks showed where an entrance would once have stood. Someone had spray-painted a rudimentary door in place over the gritty grey bricks. It even had a pretend handle and windows marked in white.

I passed the door on my way to work, and each day the sight of it lit a smile within me. I felt it wasshouting what none of us dared say – that most of what we did was filler while we waited for something real to come along.

The first time the door snagged my attention, I mentioned it in the office.

“Street art in this city is out of control, Kathryn,” said Tim, reaching for a mug and setting it under the coffee machine’s spout. “Ever since they made it trendy. Mainstream.”

“Yeah, Banksy’s got a lot to answer for,” Jenny agreed.

“This is nothing like a Banksy,” I said. “It’s just a scrappy sketch – no stencil, no polish.”

“Exactly.” Tim nodded. “No finesse. Just jumping on the bandwagon and expecting fame to fall their way.”

“But no one knows who Banksy is,” I said.

“Notoriety, Kathryn. That’s better than fame.”

I wanted to explain the magic of this imagined door within a real doorway, but couldn’t find the words. So I stayed quiet and logged onto my computer, pushing the door far from my mind.

But the door was already inside me. Each time I pressed against the memory of it, the drawn outline strained like a damp-swollen door struggling to open.

Things were changing in the city. Streets across the urban area were being dug up to accommodate a new tramway, so that commuters were continually forced to find new routes. Compounding the problem, climate change protesters were blocking off bridges to declare their concerns. A sense of unease, bordering on anarchy, began to flower on the breeze.

I have to admit, I rather liked it. To me, the uncertainty, the raw emotion, and the filigree of chaos were a stark relief from the monotony of everyday life. And I shared the demonstrators’ anxiety about the state of the planet.

Even my own suburb was growing unfamiliar. I was working at home one lunchtime, half-heartedly editing presentation slides until a sound of buzzing drew my gaze from the laptop screen. My mind conjured scenes of gigantic bees following their queen to a new hive, but the air outside was empty, despite the sound.

Then I spotted a shiver of leaves in the cherry tree opposite, just beyond the confines of a school. A sheared branch clunked down, and then another. By the end of the afternoon the whole tree lay in pieces, dismembered.

A neighbour told me the school was so desperate for income to fund equipment and repairs that they’d sold a small exterior plot of land they owned. The tree had been felled to make way for a new towerblock.

The completed edifice cast a chill shade and presented me with a view of a stranger’s unmade bed instead of the profusion of leaves and pink blossom I’d grown to love. Rather than watching butterflies and woodland birds, I witnessed the curtains drawing back and eyed the early morning yawn of the room’s inhabitant as he ran his fingers through rumpled hair. My mood lifted as I tried to guess what kind of dreams led to that particular disarray, and wondered where the hair’s owner might be going that day and why.

In my head, the man became an eco-adventurer – one day scaling towers and bridges with demands to halt climate change, the next planting and tending to trees in long-abandoned cemeteries. The idea of those fingers pressing into cool earth sent small tremors through me. I took to sketching him in idle moments, doodling the madcap tendrils of his hair and adding sparks of light among the strands.

When I went foraging in my spare time, scouring brambles for plump blackberries and filling tubs with rosehips and hazelnuts, I imagined him beside me, hands and lips stained pink with juice. I simmered the berries with sugar and steeped them in vodka, and waved to him when he drew his curtain closed at night. His smile and returning wave made me beam to myself. As soon as the vodka was ready, I decided, I’d take him a bottle as a thank you for making the travesty of that tower somewhat sweeter to bear.

And all that time, the secret door within me jiggled. Each day I walked past the graffiti on my way into the mayhem of downtown and I found myself smiling inwardly. I’d reach work, pour my coffee, make small talk with my colleagues, and all the while the door would rattle.

I was in a meeting, half-listening to Tim relaying an influx of projected outcomes, when an image of the door opening came to mind. The idea pleased me.

I concentrated on the sensation of the door’s juddering and pushed until I felt a gentle pop. The sensation didn’t hurt – it was more akin to that moment when you’re trying to unscrew a bottle-cap and it finally surrenders.

The door inside me swung ajar. I blinked, closing my eyes for an instant.

When I reopened them, something had changed.

I blinked again; everything had changed.

The table we sat at, the laptops and coffee cups, were all precisely drawn in ink. Tim and Jenny and the others still sat around me, but now they were artists’ impressions of themselves.

Each had been subtly enhanced. Tim’s eyes were cartoonishly enlarged, spilling over with rainbow possibilities. Jenny’s head sported antenna that crackled as she moved. I raised my hands to my shoulder and shuddered with joy as my fingers met a quiver of wings.

I thought of the man with the tousled hair. The gap between our windowsills could be no more than a leap of faith and a flutter.

One of my inward smiles escaped over my face.

“Kathryn,” Jenny said, her antenna sparkling. “Do you have anything at all to add?”

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