the unfinished map of the world,
the mists of slow mountains,
the ache of the whale,
the blue water crescent,
the sulphur-yellow caking
around the volcano,
the wind’s wild whisper.
Take it all and go further.
In the early years when we were kissing, Penny and I would sometimes share the same breath, one lungful flowing between us as long as the oxygen lasted. I would come as close to her in that warm blind join of air as later in the joining of our bodies, dreams, and journeys. But once, on a night in Bombay, when our journey to India had taken me too far, Penny kissed me that way to try to bring me back.
Late that night I’d found myself running through the blue-black streets of the Colaba district. Something was happening to me – I’d been pounding through these streets for hours. A few blocks back I’d given a white-haired old woman nearly all our remaining rupees. When she’d taken them I’d been flooded with relief, but now as I raced towards the hotel the fear was again at my heels.
Rounding a corner, unable to stop in time, I jumped over a body. Ahead hundreds more lay sprawled, Bombay’s homeless sleeping on the pavement. In panic I swerved away from the sleepers and ran down the middle of the empty road. I didn’t understand what was happening to me but I knew I had to avoid getting caught again. I tried to think only about getting back to Penny and the hotel room, and this time staying there. All night as I’d headed back I’d kept seeing more crippled women, blind men or deformed children and kept getting urges; and though I’d resisted them, in the room they’d become so painful I’d had to run out to those people too. And each time that happened the most frightening urge intensified – the pressure in my chest that wanted me not to leave India in the morning, to let Penny fly home without me, and to make these streets my life.
Chest burning, I stopped at a corner lit in hazy yellow light and looked up and down the intersecting roads. A quiet voice made me turn. By a shop window a bone-thin, shawled woman stood cradling a baby. Without thinking I met her gaze – and looked away too late. I’d seen the two bloody crescents of infection, crawling up the whites of her eyes. My mind stilled, then hazed. The new urge landed like a punch.
Come out again to her with your Australian dollars. Or she’ll go blind – left like this by you.
My palms flew to my temples, I turned, and I sprinted.
Ten minutes later I’d reached the hotel and was hurrying past the night watchman, leaping up the staircase, jogging along the passage. At last; in the room again. I slumped back against the door. Penny was sitting on the bed in her T-shirt and undies, face strained and disapproving.
‘Penny, there’s another one.’
‘Joel! You said that—’
‘Will you stop me if I try to go out again? Physically, if you have to?’
For a moment Penny stared. Then her expression softened, and she got up and came over to me.
‘I will.’ She nodded. ‘I’ll stop you.’ Taking my arm, she tugged on it gently. ‘So, now, come to bed.’
The relief her promise brought and the compassion spreading over her face drew out the tears that had been welling in me for the five days since this had started.
Exhausted, Penny fell asleep quickly. Within minutes the urge to go back out to the bloody-eyed woman began to whisper. One last run, quickly, while she’s still there. Save her sight . . .
Sweating, stomach knotting, I tossed and huffed, until Penny moaned and pulled herself to me, draping a warm arm around my shoulder.
‘Sleep, now,’ she murmured. ‘If there’s anything to do, we’ll see in the morning. Now, only sleep, okay?’
With a great effort I managed to lie still.
Two hours later, she woke again. ‘No good?’ She drew herself up to rest on an elbow. In the darkness I felt her hand exploring my face like a blind person’s.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Give me your mouth.’
Leaning down, she kissed me, then breathed gently into my mouth. I took her breath and returned it, and as we breathed like that I felt a caress of calmness for the first time since morning. She air-kissed me again; I felt calmer still. She did it a third time and finally, in that surging warmth, I felt the first gentle tugs of sleep, pulling me somewhere safe.
Praise for Exposure
‘An extraordinary story . . . wry, honest, amusing and evocative.’ Eva Hornung
‘A striking and substantial book, at once compelling, scary, delightfully comic and moving.’ Tom Shapcott