Excerpt from Harbour 2 by Lacey Li
In those days, Lucien regarded Abigail as a Mona-Lisa kind of character, locked inside her portrait with a smile that shifted with the lighting, now glad, now sad, yet always inaccessible. The picture broke up with its hook that day when Francis burst into Lucien’s lodging with catastrophe wrinkled over his face.
‘We got to go. Abigail’s at the train station. I just received a message from Mr. Morgan.’
Lucien, who had by then decided nothing Francis said could surprise him again, didn’t even look up from his law book.
‘Last time I checked, the train station was a place to leave somewhere without people getting in line after you.’
‘Perhaps. Are you coming or not?’
The simplicity of Francis’ diction convinced Lucien something was wrong.
A tall, grey man in a suit barred the entrance gate. His suit was as clean-shaven as his rhinestone face. Although age stained his hair with its chalk, the lessons it taught were unlearned by his eyes. A 22-year-old commander looked out of his eyes, about to stamp his name on anything with enough space to fill: a blank page, the face of a child.
His life, it seemed, started at 30. Lucien had only an unregistered idea, scavenged out of dinner talks with Francis, that he used to serve in the navy before that age. If so, the man had given up his shotguns to hold pens instead. The thing he wrote best with those pens was of course, his own name. People had praised the twist and cadence of that miniature piece of art. So, being a generous man of good taste in art, he bestowed it everywhere, not only on business documents and banknotes, but receipts, holiday photos, people’s suit tags, dollar bills, his daughter’s diaries, tissues…
A part-time novelist, he had written a series of marine adventure stories, spiced with lawsuits, from the viewpoint of a whale, much in the style of George Orwell. They were published by his own press and had a good circulation among people truly knowledgeable in law or marine lore, namely all of his employees and three of his old navy comrades.
Ever since Abigail’s birth, Mr. Morgan had developed peculiar interest in science. Story had it he learned the whole Periodic Table in a couple of hours, so that he could slip his daughter surprise tests as she was chewing up chicken and not thinking of the elements she was eating.
Abigail herself told this epic while spraying coffee at the subway track, watching the silky liquid lick away at frosted steel or hop up in tiny notes of faded rock n’ roll. Lucien had met her by chance while taking his usual train to class. Somehow Abigail didn’t feel like driving to the bank where she worked as a client. That proved to be the only occasion when Lucien heard Abigail treat the word “father” as more than just a noun.
“Phony stuff. More milk than coffee.” She concluded her tale. The coffee kept falling. Passengers looked down and had no eyes for an underground waterfall. The janitor and the guy in uniform, who did appreciate its liberty, didn’t stop her. No one ever stopped her out there, so generally she had to stop herself. But she was not very good at that either.
’You’d better step away. The train is coming.’ said Lucien to fill the silence. There weren’t even metro winds.
To his surprise, she cut up her waterfall and withdrew from the gutter. Then, she drank the rest of her coffee with her heels balanced on the orange line. She finished it with a gesture of triumph, swaying slightly, so for a moment it seemed she stood on a tightrope, an abyss beneath her.
Somehow that event came back to Lucien as he stood facing Abigail’s father. He could not tell if he had tried to stop her, or if he had asked her to name the chemical elements of her own life and had gotten no answer, instead of the usual ‘Uuo’, 118, unknown and un-quizzed, soon decomposing into plain O2.
It was the element that kept Lucien awake as he drooped over his own periodic table by those dark, flat, rye fields. ‘Uuo,’ he kept picturing it in his head, the halo of protons spiralling up, up and up away, away from rye. Even when he could no longer see the rye, the idea of that rising spiral within the poles of his palm would still, at 2 A.M, pierce through bleached pages, bleached walls, and the whole god-damned city bleached to the point of blindness.
Those were the times he couldn’t read on and knew the words were nothing, that he was nothing. Of course he could be a lawyer, but not a real one. Instead of winning cases, he would mass produce them. So down went a streamline of plastic justices, 20% off. People, people, be you sinned or framed or drugged, don’t miss the real deal…But no, most of the time there was more to it than that. He would never speak a word for someone he knew to be guilty, if there was anyway of knowing.
Abigail also loved that element at fourteen. But unlike Lucien, she simply had to see it. So she browsed the internet and spent an afternoon in the library of Shanghai. Then finally in an obscure corner of her textbook she found the only line dedicated to her element, saying that it was temporary, so unstable that only 4 out of 118 atoms were ever detected. It wasn’t news, but somehow her mind was put to rest. She soon forgot about it, accepting she would never know what that thing looked like.
That was at the point when she gave up on chemistry and the life ambition of being the one to find element 119. Then she found poetry, but couldn’t make much of it. Somehow the pages were filled with fences. Her poems wriggled in dim alleyways, a spiral of atoms that could only go so far. Then she realised containment was a habit, much as freedom was. She lost some of her freedom when she gave up on “Uuo”.
‘Mr. Muv, I’ve been hearing about you.’ Mr Morgan had the kind of smile that embraced the world but kept out its recipient.
Without waiting for Lucien’s answer he turned to Francis.
“She has gone down to the platforms. The train would leave in less than 20 minutes.”
His voice was filled with metal, nearly as low as his daughter’s occasional monologue. Yet whereas her voice was wrapped in her own thoughts, his was a thin cutting blade that pierced the thoughts of others. They had to listen.
What happened? Why did she leave? What were you waiting for? Lucien was about to ask, yet Francis seemed to find these issues irrelevant.
“Is there a way to go in there?”
“Of course.” Mr Morgan pulled out a ticket, signed. Yet Francis didn’t take it.
“I think Lucien should go in.”
Lucien waited for the joke to pass. It never did. He glanced at Mr. Morgan and saw his own mental state on his incredulous face. Francis grinned half in mockery and half in apology.
“She’s running from familiarity, which means presently she would much rather listen to a stranger than a friend.”
“But I’m not a stranger…” pleaded Lucien.
“Never mind. You could both go.” Mr Morgan produced a couple of tickets from inside his suit.
The platform was all light besides bars thrown on the ground by a league of pillars. People streamed along through them. They became a parade of pilgrims, black gothic Crosses poised on their shoulders.
Francis spotted Abigail pacing around on the platform wrapped in her casual Sunday outfit: shirt and jeans. If it were not for that shiny leather sun hat, she could very well be waiting on hot morning coffee, doing laundry or scavenging her stuff for occupation.
A few paces away Francis stopped.
“You’ll have to take it from here.”
“What do I do?”
“Just go talk to her like a bored passenger.”
“So we could be train buddies?”
“No. Try to make her see sense. Deal with her like a runaway kid.”
“I don’t think that’s who she is.”
“What else will you call someone who leaves a note on the fridge and takes off in a train without knowing where she’s going?”
Lucien thought for a while.
“How about a grown-up who wants a few days off?”
“who wants the rest of her life off.”
“Why don’t you talk to her then? Apparently I don’t have your eloquence.”
“There’s nothing I could say to her that I haven’t already said.”
“How can that be? Has this happened before?”
Yet a shade has drawn over the window of Francis’ face.
“Just go for it. I’ll have your back.” he faded into the train.
Lucien cursed Francis silently. By now he had gotten used to falling into his traps. But this time the old swindler had gone a bit too far.
Yet being in the law industry, one thing he couldn’t resist was being entrusted.
Abigail was still pacing around like a moon fighting gravity. Her eclipsed eyes fell on Lucien but did not see him. They were apparently deciphering something concealed in those tangled eyelashes, a mystic poem, or perhaps her own name, which was harder.
He called her name so low he couldn’t hear it himself through all the thumping in his ears. Yet Abigail could always pick out her own name. She turned to him, her eyes half-mooned.
She asked him what he was doing here on a Sunday. He asked her the same question. She said she was visiting a friend who lived in Cambridge. He asked her why the hell was she taking a train to England. She told him there was a Cambridge in Boston. He said he didn’t know that and that where he came from place names are exclusive things. They should be. She told him wherever she went the names of big cities, even countries could be found on street signs. It was totally fine.
Without knowing what he meant he told her it was blasphemy. She said it was but one couldn’t blame small things wanting to sound big. Besides, when it comes to names there’s no big or small anyway. They are all just titles, symbolism, cliche. Those are what all big places come down to eventually.
“Of course, unless you live in them.”
Lucien checked his watch. They had gone on like this for 4 minutes. He had to talk more sense now. He didn’t use to talk like this. No one was born to talk nonsense. Yet a procession of events, each a thinner photocopy of the last, had sliced up his speech to crumbs and left them to dry of meaning in the hot vacuum of his heart. Yet he never liked dried fruits.
The bad taste of his own words was one of the things that drove him to the city, where things would grow thicker. But talking with Abigail was definitely not helping. Perhaps this conversation was also something Abigail was running from.
“You can’t take that train.” He told her simply.
He searched for a reason. Some words found him. It was only after he spoke them that he realised they were Francis’.
“Because you don’t really know where you’re going.”