Photo by Murillo de Paula / Unsplash
I unhem creation a little, to work out the stitch
(Vincent O’Sullivan, 2006 from the anthology ‘Are Angels OK?')

You arrive in a flurry of hi-vis, and I picture how you leapt off your bike, docked it deftly and unbuckled your helmet as you ran up the stairs. You come in to see that I am looking for you and your smile draws up mine from across the room. As I listen with one ear to the staff briefing, my mind fills with imagined conversation for when we next meet and I select nuggets which I may never in fact offer you.

On my way to the centrifuge room I pass you in the corridor and you flash your eyebrows at me. I grin, searching for a witty one-liner which doesn't come quickly enough. Even so, my smile lingers while I set my tubes spinning.

Later, when a quip comes to mind, I find a job to take to your end of the lab. Putting my head over your partition I say, 'Knock, knock.'

You play your part. 'Who's there?'


'Emma who?'

'Emma a bit hungry, is it morning tea time yet?'

I am rewarded by your chuckle which owns that you are always hungry. Back at my bench I work on through the morning, the knowledge that you are there on the same floor cosy inside me like a cooked breakfast.

The analysers whirr and click around me, a white noise background through which my thoughts wander like snatches of radio frequency. Some linger, distracting me so that I forget which tube I am up to and have to back up. 'Concentrate,' I tell myself, 'no pun intended.' When I hear your voice in the corridor I am glad to be sitting out a waiting time while solutions mix. You poke your head around the door and wave like the Queen.

We work and wait. I am carefully aliquotting a beaker of solution into small amounts which will be the constant for the next test, when the computer chimes. Your email has just two words: 'Catch up?' My reply gives the day and time. We both know where.

I have learnt that there is no need to check that it still suits, even if we made the plan days ago. Outside our local I wait (always the early two shoes) without anxiety, enjoying the anticipation, sure that you will be there. From your slight smile as you walk up I see you are thinking, yes! You knew I would be there too.

We sit over our beers while behind you the bar fills and empties and fills again like a time lapse movie of an experiment. I, who pride myself on a keen sense of an hour passing, have no idea how long we talk. One or other of us will break the spell: 'Another drink? A bowl of chips?' Eventually we pull ourselves off our stools, laughing that our legs have gone to sleep and our bums are numb, to find that outside our contained environment the world has moved on to dinner time or last-bus-home time, and we look about, a little dazed, as we re-engage with the mundane.

I want to mine your memories for the child you once were, to know your teenage angst and the coloured-in world you created from it. I could ask you outright, but why cut the game short? I savour the slow build, the suspense, as I reduce the ore to elements which mix and blend into treasures.

Gradually I learn that your accent is Yorkshire, with a touch of Geordie from your university days at Durham. That the scar on your cheek was caused by your brother's too-vigorous sword fight. That when you were a teenager you thought you were ugly and spent two years in your room listening to the Smiths and hating everyone. That at fourteen your favourite book was Mr Chips and your favourite song 'Another Brick in the Wall' because in your heart you were a rebel even though you won all the science prizes.

Each particle is carefully stored and the next one clicked into place. I note the unfinished edges and hypothesise about what comes next. A good fit delights me, whether or not it confirms my theory.

In turn, I tell you about holidays on my uncle's farm in the tussock-covered bowl of the MacKenzie Country, the dry cold winters and the drier hot summers, the joy of being away from my boisterous scrappy family and under the vast open sky. How I learned to ride and to crack a stockwhip, to herd sheep by flapping my arms and calling, 'Whoop! Whoop!' How, even though I blew myself dizzy under my cousin's tutelage, I never mastered a shepherd's whistle.

I talk about the clichéd misery of boarding school where the lack of privacy grated on my introverted soul and where, instead of lying in the grass watching cloud sculptures against the sky, I was reduced to lying in the bath making pictures out of the mould on the ceiling and hoping for just a few more moments before someone knocked on the door: 'Hurry up!'

You tell me that your earliest memory is of the neighbour's dog howling in response to the command, 'Sing, Goldie!', which you still think of with wonder and joy. I recall lying in my cot watching the breeze tug at the curtain which has been pulled across the open window to darken the room for my afternoon nap. The feeling is one of great peace, to be alone in the warm room, watching sun and shadow alternate to the rhythm of the breeze. A certain quality of light brings back that feeling even now.

Sometimes I take fragments of our talk home to analyse, splitting apart their components and puzzling over them. I fear that you'll hate me for saying that the school of life is the only real education, when you have a highly esteemed doctorate. I berate myself: how could I be such a fool! Back at work it is clear that you don't hate me when you mention in a staff meeting the value of experience and smile across at me. Even better than overlooking my clumsiness you give me back my words refined to their best intentions. It feels like a longed-for homecoming.

Other times I have no idea what we talked about that filled a whole evening. Did I repeat myself? Did I mention the nugget which I had carefully polished in anticipation of meeting you? The content becomes less important than the quality of engaged attention, the medium in which our memories grow into themes and values, scaffolding our lives. I find a phrase which sums up what we are doing: 'To know one another in the spirit.' It sounds too religious and I shy away from quoting it to you.

You suggest lunch on a Saturday and turn up looking younger and softer in jeans and sweater. I eat my panini slowly, careful not to spray crumbs about in my enthusiastic conversation. We linger over coffee and when you get up I stifle a small disappointment that our time together is done. But as we pay the bill you say, 'Have you got a bit longer? There's something I'd like to show you.'

We cross the road to the art gallery. In the foyer you draw me over to a huge canvas where abstract shapes collide and rebound. I choke back resentment that the colours have ambushed me, making me feel stupid and threatening to spoil the outing. I force myself to listen while you explain what you love about it. For a moment, as though seeing through your eyes, I glimpse the painting pulsate. You tell me how the artist has used pigment to play with the way the eye perceives light, to give an experience we can enjoy. 'Oh, as easy as that?' I say. I look again at the painting. It smirks at me.

After a suitable number of days have gone by, I suggest a walk along the beach. We meet at the children's playground and as you come up the path you are looking at the roundabout. I follow your gaze to where three children with brown shining eyes and flying black hair are making the equipment whirl them round. We look at each other and beam in memory of that dizzy childhood thrill. Our conversation has begun without a word.

The late afternoon sun casts our shadows long and thin across the tessellated wave patterns on the sand. I notice how we have fallen into step and our shadow heads lean together as we talk. At the end of the beach we pause to watch the kite surfers scoot over the water, leaping and turning. 'It must be like flying,' you say and I tell you about learning to windsurf, falling awkwardly with aching arms, over and over, until I found how to let my mind go and trust my body to respond to the wind.

At home alone I wonder about touch as a catalyst. Would we be changed if I put my arms around your ribcage, cupped your shoulder blades in my palms, breathed in the smell of you?

But for now I am content to explore how the elements of your life have mixed and combined to make you you.

Shortlisted for the Manhire Prize November 2011