Distance between us

Jack Fraser, from the kitchen of his spacious, uptown condominium, could see, positioned carefully at the edge of a black-lacquered dining table with its hand-woven, Italian spread become space for his occasional creative projects – writing and painting – the closed and similarly glossy lid of his laptop which reflected the late season light through panoramic windows and the lazy sway of sheer draperies in the entering, refreshing breeze.

Jack replaced his over-sized coffee mug on the marble counter top and wondered how long it was since the computer had been opened, powered-up and put to work with his own lean fingers pounding remorselessly and impatiently at the thing's keyboard.

'A week? No. Longer. A month?'

It was it seemed, as he searched for the recollection of what he had been writing, almost an eternity. He felt a pang of guilt as, slowly, the memory returned of the story that had been interrupted – the story of a man and wife, separated by war and - driven by love - their journeys to find one another. Jack felt the absence grow within him; a sense that he was no longer connected to that story and that the compulsion to create it had, somewhere in the intervening time, dissipated, leaving him distant and unattached.

'You're a busy man,' he cajoled himself but felt dissatisfied with the offering – the essential 'excuse' quality of it.

He stared at the near-empty mug on the counter and, internally, queried his body to know if it could receive one more cup without becoming jittery. The response seemed to be affirmative for which he was grateful and the brushed steel carafe of richly aromatic coffee was retrieved from its heating element and versed into the mug, releasing even more of its heady perfume. Jack put the pot back on its receptacle and spooned some sugar into the mug, stirring thoughtfully.

That Jack Fraser was a busy man, there could be no doubt; he worked long hours for an international corporation. He was good at his job – practical, efficient and aggressive – a fact that his own manager was not loathe to notice and comment upon. One of the reasons for his success, he knew, was that he made it look easy. Jack's casual effectiveness and easy-going mannerisms belied little of the acute, analytical mind or of the stress associated with being the go-to guy when situations arose around the globe that required rapid and business savvy responses.

The stress, reflected Jack, gingerly taking a sip from the steaming mug, was very possibly the issue now clawing its way into his private life and preventing him – in a sense, depriving him - from exercising those lighter diversions that provided him with activities outside of work, but also, the pleasurable, endorphin-releasing feedback of accomplishment associated with completing even the smallest of them.

Unfortunately, it did not appear that the stress level was to abate or even ameliorate at any time in the foreseeable future. The recent market down-swing had left the share-holders jumpy and lacking confidence, a fact that was immediately evident as stock prices plummeted. All of this was on the shoulders the behemoth: the 2008 collapse. Seeking to respond more quickly on this occasion, the Directors had decreed that business was to be driven to new heights; that an 8-10% increase during the coming quarter would be minimally acceptable to regain share-holder confidence, solidify the shaky bottom line and return some of the worth that the company had lost. Departments were systematically skeletonised leaving those remaining with unconscionably vast work loads and with fewer hands by which to accomplish what was needed. While successful, the program had its side-effects: tempers grew short to flaring; absenteeism increased and more than a few of Jack's colleagues began to show the same lack of energy for outside interests that he was experiencing.

'I just need to get more energy happening – more enthusiasm,' lamented Jack and replaced the mug on the counter knowing fully that, in his current state, it was not about to happen.

He was exhausted and he knew it well. Whereas, on Friday nights – at least, when he was single – he had been accustomed to returning home to a light meal and, then, tranquilised by the strains of Eta, Billie or Ella, putting himself to work on a project for several hours while the evening faded to night outside of his windows and the city would quieten along with his own mind while focusing on his chosen task. Now, it was a battle to accomplish much of anything.

Sheilagh Dixon had been another casualty of his own degrading situation although, they had come to realise on a final night of lucidity and candor, her own professional life was also projecting itself into private life. The failure of their relationship – an awakening slap in the face to both – had come in the usual phases, progressing from pent-up frustration to anger, tiffs to silences and, through that negative mechanism, slowly extinguished from their eyes and hearts the passion for each other that had formerly been so expressed and vital to their interactions. In the end, even their intimacy had become dispassionate and desultory.

On the phone a few days previously, she reported that she was doing 'better' but, in her voice, Jack detected little of the vivacious woman with whom he had certainly fallen in love. In asking about him, Jack had insufficient to report.

“You know, you can't keep doing this to yourself, Jack,” Sheilagh emphasised.

“I know,” he responded without malice.

“Look at it this way,” continued Sheilagh, “we are both well paid and successful but, in doing that, we lost each other – that is a detriment to both of us considering how positive our relationship was. It is also the effect of what we have been allowing to happen in our lives. If we don't start making different decisions, we are both going to continue making the same mistakes personally and professionally.”

“I couldn't agree with you more, Sheilagh,” affirmed Jack, enjoying the sound of her voice despite what it appeared to lack – that she was trying to be strong and positive for him but, perhaps, her own state of mind was little different from his own. They had concluded with a promise to meet for coffee and a mutual pep-talk over the long weekend.

'It's about relationships – the ones that work,' thought Jack, frowning at the bitter taste in his mouth. He versed the remaining contents – grown cold and sickly sweet - from the mug into the sink, washing them down the drain liberally with cold water while his gaze strayed back to the glistening, reflective lid of the laptop on the work table. His mind told him to go – reconnect with those characters that he had so blithely left behind and help them forge on – but his body, lacking the forces to conjure, stood immobile while, in his mind, the thoughts continued to accumulate.

'There are,' he reflected, 'so many kinds of absence.'

'One,' he enumerated, internally, 'is to simply go away and remove physical presence – the act of leaving.'

He thought back to his and Sheilagh's tearful separation when, the painful, necessary decisions made and her car loaded, he had been left to simply close the door of the condo and turn to find it sterilised of all but the lingering scent and ghost of her presence.

'At the other end, there is absence in the mind. It is when the passion leaves – packs its bags.' He smiled, ruefully, at the suggestion.

'I see the look on myself. I saw it in her, too.'

The thoughts continued to snowdrift while he continued to lean heavily against his retro-flexed palms on the counter.

'Then, there is madness,' Jack conjectured, '- absence from the self.'

He continued to stare at the computer but he was scarcely moved to traverse the few meters – the psychological distance – where, lingering, the story was there, abandoned and...

Aliyah moved in fits and starts – now quickly and, now, cautiously seeking cover where it was possible, through the smoke-shrouded streets of Tripoli, avoiding contact with anyone while, beneath her scarf, her long, black hair was slick with the sweat of tension and the oppressive heat. Nearby, to her left and toward 'Revolution Square', there was a burst of gunfire and, cowering low, she ducked to a protected angle between two shops.

The trip, by bus, across the desert from the remains of Cairo to the, then, relative safety of Tripoli had been their decision.

“Aliyah, my love,” said Ishmael, gently stroking her hands with his, calloused and hard. “Go as best that you can – you will be safe there. I will follow with what I can in the coming days.”

“No, my husband.” Aliyah's heart was rending with the thought of leaving him. “I will stay and we will leave together.”

“It is too dangerous now,” he said with conviction and stopped, his voice occluded by emotion.

“Aliyah,” he continued, “you are my heart. If I should lose you, I will die. Therefore, I will keep my heart safe.” He offered a tentative smile. “Go. I will join you in days.”

The situation had deteriorated far faster than anyone could foresee. The borders quickly became impassable and, Aliyah, stranded in a strange city that was rapidly collapsing, could do little but search and hope.

Nearby, a bullet ricocheted, sending a snow of plaster dust to cover what was exposed of Aliyah's fair skin. She summarily brushed the annoying dryness from her hands and gazed warily into the street wondering where to go next. A man appeared from an adjoining street – a familiar looking man with the build and crisp movements of her husband.

“Ishmael!” Her scream was raucous – her voice made unrecognisable by the dust and tension. The man did not turn to her but, simply traversed the open space and disappeared into an opposite ally.

Aliyah collapsed in the corner and wept, covering her face with the folds of her scarf while, inwardly, a thought surfaced insidiously.

'What if he is not coming? What if he is already dead?'

'No,' she responded, automatically. 'He is coming.'

Viewed through her spread fingers, the street was a desert war zone and, alone, her eyes dulled, becoming absent. Cautiously, she rose and, furtively, retraced her steps away from the noise and violence.

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