‘What was the hardest part, for you?’ a man’s voice asked. I had just risen from my seat, and was standing with my coat over my arm. I was still adjusting to the fact that we were adults in a school room. Surrounded by coloured pencil sketches of the tectonic plates. By posters containing words for things in other languages, and their translations. Their precise questions suited for practical endeavours. For the necessities. Like, ordering food. Or, asking directions. Their concise replies, and the subsequent expressing of gratitude, all set out neatly and clearly in large, black lettering. These were simple exchanges where exact questions yielded the desired answers. Even on the wall, they embodied completeness. And effected their own closure.
‘Will we clear away the desks?’ the counsellor had asked, at the start.
‘Would you prefer to sit in a circle or in rows?’
And then, having worked together to move the tables and chairs on which children sat during the day to learn, she said, ‘thank you,’ and we said, ‘it’s not a problem.’ Because it wasn’t, to do simple things. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Before entering the classroom, I had stood in the strip lit hallway and stared for some time at the mosaic on the wall. I thought of how the tiles used for this seaside scene had to be broken to make something else of them. But what if they didn’t want to be? What if they were quite happy to stay as the tile they were in the first place? How frightening it is to be broken, against your will. How disorienting to become a collection of pieces that can never quite come back together, the way they were before. How nauseating to encounter the sea as it might look, if it were made up of disparate parts of you.
I did feel sick then, the chequered tiles of the floor appearing to move beneath me. My fragments struggling to retain a semblance of the coherence I wished to convey as I entered.
You would have found the mosaic gaudy. You would have shuddered at the thought of being back at school. You would no doubt have wondered why on earth I felt the need to sit in a circle in the middle of a group of strangers and tell them that I missed you. That I did not know how to be. Without you.
But if you were here to ask me that question. To ask me, why? I would not have an answer for you. Even in our own language.
Outside of the simplicity of the translated exchanges that surrounded us, the only completeness I found that evening was in the circle itself. The only closure came when the last vacant seat was taken. And after we had talked and shared, and some had cried, it too was torn apart. Its fragments scattered back behind desks, our shards and splinters shaken out into the street to make a mosaic of our individual journeys home. A static sea of the parts of us that remained, a body that only gave the appearance of forward movement.
As things stood. As I stood, his question still remained. And so I put it to myself.
What was the hardest part, for me?
It was in the internal repetition of it that I realised. His was not a simple question. And I could not know if my answer would be the desired one, for what could that be, anyway? What I did know was that there would be no completeness in what I had to say. And no closure.
‘This,’ I told him, as we moved for the door. As we gathered the broken tiles of us into coats belying our unity, and prepared to split and divide into solitary pieces once loved by those in whose names we gathered. By those that we loved still. ‘This,’ I said, ‘is the hardest part.’
By Emma Hynes