She fell into his arms, soft, crumbling, like grains of rice tumbling from a split sack. She fell to pieces and assumed that only he could gather her up, put her together. He could not. He gaped and stared at the trembling wreck she had become and though his heart meant well, he saw not how he could gather every last fragment of her pitiful, weeping being; so far spread and wrecked was she.
So he held her for as long as he felt he could, then he got up to go and left her to ponder the shattered pieces of herself and to wonder how to fit them back together like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to guide her.
She struggled for hours, days, lifting up each tiny shard, watching how it glinted in the light, what message it held and then absorbed it into herself, flinching with the sweet, sultry pain as it reconnected with the other hidden parts of herself.
He was gone and didn’t come back, but she lost sight of her need for him, for in the relentless task of regrouping, she learnt to fall in love with herself again, her self in every grain of rice that had fallen, pearly and white onto the wooden floorboards. Some had got trapped between the boards and there she left them, a souvenir of herself left buried in this house; the blue plaque that said Sylvie had once lived here, once let herself fall to pieces here on a cold November night when the dark chill of Winter called to her bones like the ghost of a story. She dreaded that dark, chill place where no light ever lingered, where she was ushered into the shadows of herself and set to work weeping.
No man had ever seen her that way and stayed. No man had the bones to stick with her through the depths of the spiralling darkness.
Until one day, the least expected of days. The day of nothing scheduled, no epiphanies predicted. She stumbled in on two men playing draughts at the windowside table of the Cat and Fiddle pub on Western Road. He looked up at her as she entered, showered in raindrops. He looked up at her with two green eyes that glinted like the marbles she collected in a shoe-shaped pencil case as a girl. He looked up at her with such a profound sense of knowing as though he’d been waiting for her arrival that she, shaking the droplets from her shaggy head, smiled and said, ‘Hi’, to a complete stranger.
He wasn’t a stranger for long. Five minutes later, he had bought her a drink and invited her to join the game as a spectator.
Fifteen minutes later, having won the game of checkers, he bid his friend a premature goodbye and turned to Sylvie with the rapt attention of an eagle on the hunt. But his gaze was kind and open, compassionate a Buddhist might say.
Sylvie would count back to this day, back to the day she had met Owen and then never looked forward beyond the now.
Two months later, as November poured in with its darkening days and cold rain showers, she felt the deathly call of the shadows and she thought it was worth a warning.
‘I’m calling to give you a warning,’ she said, phone trapped between ear and shoulder. She was cooking Owen dinner but wanted to warn him first.
‘I tend to fall apart in November. Really fall apart. It could be messy,’ she said without pausing for breath, not wanting to be interrupted.
‘I see,’ he replied in a tone clear of emotion, like she’d just told him the weather report. ‘No worries. I’ll see you at seven. Love you.’
No worries? Sylvie thought skeptically. We’ll see how he copes when I split at the seams in the middle of love-making. What was it about the months of November that was so hideously destroying? But somehow she guessed, wished, hoped that Owen’s reply did not belie his naivety and shallowness but indeed an unfailing groundedness, which thus far, he had managed to live up to.
‘So what is it about November?’ Owen asked in words that uncannily echoed Sylvie’s own thoughts of just two hours earlier. They were sitting on the sofa in her living room, bellies full of risotto and ice cream. Tears started rolling down Sylvie’s cheeks. That’s it, she was gone, she was going, she was sliding down the slippery slip into darkdom.
‘I don’t know,’ she gasped, clutching at her breath between tears.’It just always happens at this time of year. Like old parts of me are dying and I have to..to..find who I am again.’
Owen gazed at her softly, his brow furrowed in concentration.
‘But it is so painful. Like all my darkest thoughts about myself come bubbling up to the surface, sharp, slashing at me like knives from the inside.’
‘Do you feel that happening now?’
‘I can feel it coming. I’m not there yet, not in the depths of it but I’m frightened by the thought of it.’
‘It sounds scary. But you survived last time. You carried on. You came out the other side.’
‘Just about. Although I considered not coming out of it, if you know what I mean.’
‘You wanted to end it all?’
‘End me and my mind, yes,’ said Sylvie, gradually gaining control of her breath and her senses, ‘But they always leave.’
‘They?’ Owen asked, eyebrows raised.
‘The men. Whichever man I’m with. The few I’ve been with. They leave. Can’t handle seeing me lose it. Afraid of what I’ve become. Who I can be.’
‘You think I’m going to leave too?’
‘I don’t know. I should be. But somehow I think or hope you’re different. But you haven’t seen me in that state before.’
‘You think I might not be able to handle it. Like the others.’
Owen didn’t mumble any sentimentalities, didn’t grasp Sylvie’s hands meaningfully and kiss her tear-striped cheeks. He just looked at her with a look that accepted everything she had said and more, all that was unsaid.
Sylvie waiting, not knowing what might come next – a profession, a rebuttal. Silent seconds passed. But rather than intensifying, her expectation eased. She realised she needed nothing from him. She had ridden this wave and crashed many times before. Maybe it was best he leave her to her own devices and that they come back together in December then the storm had passed. She was just about to suggest this when Owen spoke.
‘My Mum. She used to look herself in her bedroom for days. And all I could hear was sobbing and howling. Then afterwards she would rejoin the family, transformed for a time, until she needed to do it again.’
‘It’s just November. That’s my time. I don’t know why…’
‘I’ll stay with you if you want me too. But if you want space to process this stuff, I can give you space and time too.’
Sylvie smiled, grateful for the option to choose. No assumptions, no judgements, no fear.
‘Thanks. When I feel it coming on strong, which could be any day now, I’ll consider whether I want you close or not.’
Now he leaned in, enclosed her in his firm embrace, her forehead nestled into the warm, soft skin of his neck, and held her.