Isaac Nowell



 With my legs dangling down familiarly

Over a crater’s edge, I told myself

‘Pity begins at home.’ So the more

Pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

                                    –  Elizabeth Bishop


That year, I thought summer would never come. Then one day we were lying in the park, watching the sky fade through its various shades of blue, dusty, bruised, smelling the warm earth cooling in the June dusk. Sienna was gazing up, unblinking, through the branches of a plane tree, in whose shade we’d spent the afternoon drinking wine and pretending we were younger than we were.

            At some point in the afternoon, she’d run across the road and bought a packet of cigarettes, and we’d smoked them with a kind of teenage greed, though neither of us had smoked for years. I’m not sure why it had occurred to her, but I was glad. Perhaps it was the sudden arrival of the summer – that feeling that nature, at last, was glutting itself on itself – and why shouldn’t we, too, indulge in excess for the sake existence? – that had prompted Sienna to buy those cigarettes; or, perhaps, it was simply because we’d both reached a crossroads in our lives: the sands were shifting beneath our feet, which we had taken for solid ground. We smoked them one after the other, hungrily, surreptitiously, as if we’d stolen them from our parents, coughing and laughing, until our heads swam, and we both felt queasy. Then we lay back, almost touching, two women barely the right side of middle age, watching the clouds running on across the dome of the sky, and the regular progress of the planes from Stansted. The light was beginning to fade; the first stars were winking overhead and the streetlights had come on along the borders of the park.

            Sienna was one of those people with whom you immediately felt at ease. I remember when we first met, a few years earlier, at Greenwich Naval College, at an event hosted by my husband’s law firm. I was used to attending those kinds of events; I was used to the crowd. I noticed her immediately; she was conspicuous by the boredom in her look. I watched her circle the room, shaking hands with the neat, refined men and women, returning their sateen smiles and a few words, touching her husband’s arm and laughing at the appropriate moment. They circled the room, and made their way towards us.

            My husband, Marc, brushed the crumbs of a crevette-cup from his lips, and called Julian’s name. They shook hands warmly, with what appeared to be a sincere fondness for one another. I’d seen Julian once or twice before, but never Sienna; he and Marc were colleagues at GMV. Marc introduced us: ‘Helena, this is Sienna, Sienna, Helena.’

            And Julian added, grinning: ‘The most abominable woman in the world.’ We shook hands, and Sienna showed her teeth.

            ‘He only means that he believes I am incapable of pity. Maybe I am.’

            ‘She’s merciless,’ said Julian.

            ‘And yet, we’re married.’ Then she whispered in my ear, leaning close: ‘But this party is abominable, don’t you think? How shall we escape?’ And she smiled and moved off, doing the rounds with Julian. She’d said ‘we’.

            We saw each other occasionally, at similar kinds of events, run by law firms and their partners, which all somehow gave the spurious impression of having some charitable cause. Sienna was the oasis in the desert of those events; I always wondered if I would see her, always hoped she would be there. When my head ached with acronyms and juridicial argot, deathly jokes, small talk, self-congratulation, I sought her out, and we’d talk, apart, drinking glass after glass of the free wine.

            That all changed when I learnt that my husband had been sleeping with one of his interns. More than shock, or sadness, or anger, I felt degraded by this revelation, embarrassed to have been married for so many years to a man with so little imagination. For some reason, the fact that she was named Susie made it infinitely worse. We had been about to go to bed; I was removing my makeup, washing my face. He’d left his phone, as usual, and to my perpetual irritation, on the bathroom floor, beside the toilet. I saw a message flash up, and another, and another. I felt cold, suddenly impassive. I returned to the bedroom and asked, mildly, who Susie was – she’d been sending him nude photographs. His expression was almost worth the inconvenience of it all; of course, he couldn’t deny it. He didn’t even put up a fight when I asked him to leave. So, he went to stay with his brother, and I no longer had to endure those parties. But I regretted not staying in touch with Sienna, among other things. Sometimes I tormented myself by wondering if she and Julian had known all along? Had it even been going on the last time I’d seen them, at the last party? I tried to recall their looks. Had there been some tint of knowing pity? But I couldn’t remember, and I fell into a new routine. I spent more time at the office, saw friends. I even went to the National Gallery and left, crushed, with a migraine, exhausted by the endless walls of paintings.

            A few weeks later, when I was at the supermarket, staring at the various kinds of toilet tissue and  feeling lonelier than I ever had in my life, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard my name. She was wearing jeans and an old wool overcoat, her hair gripped loosely on top of her head; she looked untouchably elegant in an outfit that would have made me look ill or unemployed. ‘Comfort, or cost?’ She laughed, selecting a packet of toilet rolls. She placed one in her trolley and the same into mine. She spoke easily, as though we’d just seen one another, as if our relationship hadn’t been severed in a way that had humiliated and abased me; yet, nor did she pretend, as some of my friends and family had, perhaps out of misplaced tact, that nothing had changed at all, or that she was unaware that nothing had passed. She did not seem to pity me. Perhaps she was incapable of pity: pitiless, after all. I was grateful. Speaking to her at the checkout, I found myself laughing for the first time in weeks. We agreed to meet for coffee, on our own terms, or for lunch, one day that week. A few days later, I got a message suggesting we meet on Saturday afternoon for some food.

             Dino’s was a small, antiquated Italian restaurant near Highbury and Islington station; it backed onto the park. I’d forgotten it was there. It didn’t seem like the sort of place Sienna would spend her time; I imagined her at all the latest and most fashionable restaurants, sipping wine in De Beauvoir Town or Exmouth Market. But she seemed to know Dino, or Dino’s grandson, who currently ran the restaurant. When we arrived, they kissed one another twice, once on each cheek, and he led us to a table half-shaded by an Italian, tricolore awning. Sienna said: ‘Will you take the light, or darkness?’ I sat in the shade; she wore sunglasses. Dino brought us a bottle of white-gold wine from Puglia, without seeming to have been asked to. In fact, I’m not sure we ever ordered any food, but, as if my magic, plates and plates of the most delicious prosciutto, anchovies, cheeses, and pickled vegetables began to appear; more wine, interspersed with grappa, followed by some sweet, elegant ribbons of pasta al pomodoro, topped with plump basil leaves and a light, grassy olive oil; next, crisp porchetta, which fell from the fork and, finally, a single scoop of pistachio gelato, accompanied by some more grappa, and some kind of sweet wine I’d never heard of.

            We ate slowly, and drank well, enjoying the sudden summer heat. I laughed until my cheeks ached. My skin began to prickle with the sun as it passed across the table, and the wine filled my head, brightening the corners. When at last we paid and Sienna said her sentimental goodbyes to Dino Jr. in Italian, I anticipated, with a heavy heart, returning to my empty house; I imagined pacing from room to empty room, lost, feeling the alcohol leaving my system and leaving behind it a hollow headache. I was surprised, and relieved, then, when Dino reappeared with a chilled bottle of wine, which he handed to Sienna, kissed her once more, shook my hand and disappeared. She said: ‘I thought we could sit in the sunshine and have a drink? Unless you have other plans?’

            ‘No plans.’

            We walked once around the park and found some shade beneath a plane tree. Dino had opened the wine and stoppered it with a napkin. We lay down, suddenly tired, giggling. As the hours had passed, I kept expecting Sienna to say that she would be needed at home, that Julian would be wondering where she was, or that she had plans with a friend for dinner, but she just lay there, taking sips from the bottle, staring up through the plane leaves and their towers of creamy blossom.

            I watched her chest rising and, slowly, falling. She had a spray of freckles, like scattered sand, just beneath the collar bone. Once we’d smoked the cigarettes, and the world had stilled, she sighed, turned to me suddenly and said: ‘Do you believe that in life it’s ever really possible to know someone?’ The alcohol was perfectly pitched against the sunlight and the meal we’d eaten and the question seemed natural, expected. I asked what she meant, exactly? ‘In life,’ she said, ‘do you think we ever really know one another? Even those closest to us? Can we, ever? Or do we just concede some image of ourselves, some make-believe idea that suits a purpose, and makes life easy?’

            I was suddenly wary; it occurred to me that we were, at last, approaching the topic of my husband’s ridiculous infidelity. What else could she be referring to? I responded with what I felt to be the case: that there are moments of true knowledge and sympathy between ourselves and others, instances of true relation and understanding, but that these are only brief flickers of a candle in the darkness. I remained vague. If she was looking for gossip, I thought, she would have to work for it. I had no qualms, or so I thought, about talking of Marc, but I wasn’t in a hurry to volunteer information. It even crossed my mind that Marc might have asked Julian to put Sienna up to this; was it all a ruse, an excuse to check on me, to see if I were coping without him? This last thought flared painfully in my mind, but my paranoia was dispelled when Sienna added: ‘When I woke up, this Tuesday, I felt I no longer knew who Julian was. And I didn’t.’

            I wondered if Julian, too, had a taste for younger women, but I didn’t want to assume. I asked what she meant; what had happened? ‘Oh, nothing,’ she said, ‘nothing at all. We woke up, one morning, as we always do. I saw Julian on the bed’s edge, rubbing his eyes, like a child drunk with sleep, clumsily pulling on his tracksuit bottoms and slippers as usual, readying himself for a turn around the park with the dogs while I, as always, made us some toast and coffee. And as he rose to leave, whistling for the dogs in that familiar way, with a dying fall, and he leant over to kiss me, as he always did, I suddenly knew that I never had, nor ever could, know him; I knew that this person, this man with whom I had spent the last twenty years of my life, in relative comfort and happiness, even in love, or so I’d thought, was now a stranger to me, irremediably strange, estranged, perhaps, by familiarity – is that possible? – that’s how it felt – does that make sense? – I probably sound insane, in fact I know I do – an unhinged, menopausal woman, you’re thinking – but that’s how it was, and is. That’s how it is, as if through years of intimacy, we’ve grown totally and irrevocably estranged.’ She stopped abruptly. I waited to see if she would add anything, or give some sign as to whether she were joking or not. She looked at me and her lip twitched, almost imperceptibly. Finally, I said: ‘Yes, I believe that is possible.’ She laughed abruptly, and shuddered, as if some charge had run through her body; then she fell back, limp, to the earth, swigging the last of the wine, dissolved in laughter. I laughed, too, but felt uneasy. Then, as if she’d read my mind, she took my hand, in a grip firmer than I would have expected, and said: ‘You mustn’t think I’m joking. I’m deadly serious. And I have no one else I can talk to. You have to understand. No one.’ This last, I doubted very much. But then, I did understand what she meant, and how many people would? For some reason, it occurred to me in that moment that we were both childless, and I wondered if she were unable to have children, or had chosen not to. I never knew if I wanted children and then, one day, the choice had been made for me. It became apparent that she was waiting for some more substantial response. I hesitated, then said, without meeting her eye: ‘Well, perhaps it’s hormonal, or maybe it’s just a phase.’

            ‘A phase? Hormonal? Is that what you really think?’

It was not what I really thought, but I was unsure on this terrain, and I still couldn’t tell if she really meant what she said. ‘Relationships are long,’ I said, a little ashamed of my words, ‘sometimes I barely recognise myself from one day to the next; you pull apart, mutate, evolve, wander, return, perhaps, rediscover one another.’ She was quiet for a while. Then she said: ‘I had thought I would be able to talk to you, of all people; I was wrong. I’m sorry.’

            ‘And why me?’ I bristled at the presumption.

            ‘I’m not playing a game, Helena. Only, I thought you might know what it’s like to feel estranged from someone.’

            ‘Yours and my situation are completely different. My husband was unfaithful with a woman twenty five years younger than him, a girl the same age as any daughter we might have had. As far as I can see, you’re just bored with life. My husband was bored with me. It’s different.’ I felt drunk. My heart was beating quickly. I hadn’t spoken to anyone like this in a long time, so frankly, openly. It felt good.

            ‘Are they so different?’


            ‘You weren’t bored?’

            ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

            Her mouth tightened, and she looked away, across the park. Her fingers were tugging nervously at a tuft of grass, her nails stained by the earth. At last, she said, quietly: ‘You know, it’s not your fault.’

            ‘What isn’t my fault?’ I replied, a little too quickly.

            ‘That your husband slept with her.’

            ‘Obviously.’ I snorted at the notion, but I felt like I’d been slapped.

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, almost meekly, ‘it’s just that, if it were me, I’d need to hear it. Even if I didn’t want to hear it.’

            ‘You’re not me, and you can’t know what you would or would not need.’

Her lips curled a little, and her eyes caught the last of the light.

            ‘You’re so jealous of your own slight,’ she said. ‘Shall we build you a pyre, right here in the park?’ She showed her teeth, in that way of hers, and I couldn’t help smiling, though my hands shook. She was right: I did need to hear it. Those words affected me more deeply than when I’d seen the messages flash up on my husband’s phone. I tried to steady my breathing, when I felt her hand on mine. It was almost dark, now, and a chill had come into the air. I said: ‘I’m sorry, I obviously haven’t moved on as much as I’d thought.’

            ‘No, I’m sorry. I’ve never been one for social graces. You know, those abominable soirees are insufferable without you. I’ve even disgraced myself, recently…Julian didn’t talk to me for a week.’ 

            ‘Pitiless, still.’ I said.

A smile flickered in her eyes, but didn’t reach her lips.

            Then she said, serious: ‘But pity is a base emotion.’

Her hand was still on mine. It was cold. I stretched out my fingers, and laced them around hers. ‘And do you not pity me?’ I asked. Her gaze was far off again, in the dark spaces of the park, where the lawn met the deeper darkness of the trees. Some drunken teenagers were shouting near the road, laughing; I heard the sound of a bottle smashing.

            ‘And do you want my pity?’ She said.

            ‘Less than anything.’

 I felt her fingers tighten around mine.

            ‘It’s getting late.’

            ‘It is.’ But neither of us seemed to want to move. So, I said: ‘What’ll you do, about Julian?’

            ‘Well, what would you do? Would you live with a stranger? Share a bed with a stranger? Let them touch your body, put themselves inside you, as if it were their right? Make decisions for you? Presume to know your desires, and needs?’

            ‘No, but – ’

            ‘I can’t.’

            ‘So, you’ll leave?’

            ‘I suppose I don’t have a choice. People are fond of saying that you always have a choice. They’re wrong. There may be options, but who you are dictates whether an option is a choice.’

            ‘But what will you do? Where will you go?’ I had begun to shiver. I felt sober now, and as the glow of the wine faded, I felt how the earth had been soaked by the cold, and it entered my body.

            ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’

            I was surprised to see tears in her eyes, glittering in the light of the streetlamp.

‘If you ever need anywhere to stay…’ She turned to me, and I wiped a tear from her cheek. She kissed mine, and I felt, for the first time in years, that familiar heat, the burn of love, the pull. ‘We should go.’



I next saw Sienna a few months later, at a Legal Technology forum in Billingsgate. I’d taken Marc back, of course. He’d come to me, imploring, desperate. He looked awful, unshaven, old. He couldn’t live without me, he’d said, kneeling at the foot of the bed, in an absurd parody of proposal, while I sat there on the bed’s edge, feeling dead. What he meant, really, was that he did not have sufficient imagination to live another life to the one he had led up until then. It was only a lapse, he’d said, with tears, real tears in his eyes, a moment of weakness, he said, of insanity; it had taken that lapse to realise how much he needed me, how much he needs me: how much he loves me. That last word, love, made me recoil, as from a sudden heat or cold. He does not love me, I’d thought, nor I him. But I pitied him; he was pitiful. Would I have had the imagination to live another life? If nothing else, those months taught me that life is a fundamentally creative endeavour. And that pity is a base emotion.

            I saw Sienna’s face across the crowded room, among the glass and wine and teeth. She was on Julian’s arm. Her eyes were an oasis in the desert. When at last we reached each other, Marc said: ‘You remember Sienna?’ I laughed, and he glanced at me.

‘Yes, I remember. The most abominable woman in the world, as I recall?’

            ‘Devoid of pity,’ Julian said, catching on.

            ‘Perhaps not,’ she said, ‘after all.’ As she kissed my cheek, she whispered: ‘Look how young we’ve become.’ And I felt the warmth of her breath on my skin, as she disappeared into the crowd.


Isaac Nowell is a young writer living in London. His first poetry collection, The Fountain, was recently published by Partus Press. His prose may be found in the TLS, the LARB, and Oxford Review. He is currently editing his first novel and can be found on Twitter.

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