Lucy Peters

Don’t go, Jason Waterfalls

Since the break-up I hadn’t started spending any more time with my friends, or my parents, or going on dates; instead I got up early on Saturday mornings and went across town to the British Library to drink rocket-fuel coffee and translate obscure texts out of ancient Greek. That morning I had called up from the stacks a shabby edition of somebody’s collected writings that looked like it probably hadn’t been opened since the 1950s, and paged through it more or less at random, because the point wasn’t really to get into the spicy detail of political machinations in 170 AD; it was to crack open my Liddell and Scott and write in neat pencil on alternate lines until the reading room closed in the mid-afternoon.

This weekend, though, my stamina seemed to be low. After only a couple of paragraphs I looked up, and then glanced in turn at the remote-looking faces in front of me and the laptop screens on either side of me, both of which were displaying Facebook. I flicked to the book’s introduction, commentary in English like an open expanse of green fields after the dense forest of the Greek. It turned out that in the opinion of the compiler, my writer had been an under-recognised influence on European thinking over hundreds of years, though there didn’t seem to be very many examples given. There was one, however, that gave me pause. The caption said ‘The same text rendered in an unknown 16th-century language, possibly used by occultists or alchemists’. The image showed a closely written page in the narrow, slanting writing known as Chancery hand, letter-tails swooping in between the lines like curving worms. I’d never wanted to read anything so much in my whole life.

For some reason, Yağmur was the first person I thought of. I took out my phone and sent a message right away. Zie messaged back within only a few moments: Steal the book!

After Yağmur and I ended things, we stopped speaking in the sense that we stopped speaking in person. On our phones, the messages continued, even through the loneliest months, as if the devices had a life of their own, an unbroken connection that was stronger than our mutual urge to stay out of each other’s beds and apartments and workplace – Yağmur left the gallery to go and work at Christie’s, while I remained. We no longer got into long arguments over WhatsApp, the way we had when we were dating; we just messaged each other updates about writers and artists and composers we liked and gossip about our friends – I didn’t see them any more, but I liked being kept in the loop. Our jokes continued, not real jokes really, just words nobody used but us, and references that only we understood, funny because we kept doing them, call-backs that each time meant more.

I studied modern languages at university and, as I mentioned, I can read classical ones too, but Yağmur was trilingual, so completely at home in each language that I sometimes felt like I was dating three different people, only two of whom I knew. Zie was casual about the fact that zie could write elegant poems in three different tongues, but did obtain suspiciously uproarious enjoyment out of mistakes in English. Zie loved mondegreens, which is when you hear song lyrics as something that makes sense only to you, like ‘it doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not’ by Jon Bon Jovi or ‘don’t go, Jason Waterfalls’ by TLC. If a stranger had read our messages in English and French and Turkish and uncontextualised quotations from the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, I would have been proud of their confusion, because I was sure it meant that I was loved.

It’s not very easy to steal a book from a British Library reading room. When nobody was looking I put the book in the waistband of my trousers, which was concealed by my baggy jumper (the BL is very cold for a place that won’t let you read wearing your coat). I walked slowly over to the desk by the door and let the attendant check inside my notebook and my bag. When I’d picked up my duffle coat from the locker room and got outside the main doors, I looked at my phone again. Yağmur had written, Enochian? Runes?

Roman text, silly, I messaged back.

I didn’t have anything else to do that afternoon. At home, I typed some of the text into Google but got only a couple of pages about a brand of Finnish shoes and some suggestions from the search engine: make sure all words are spelled correctly; try different keywords. I found some coloured pencils and underlined repetitions, the same groups of letters used in what looked like the same way. I looked up an English version of the Greek online, to speed things up.

I didn’t know whether Yağmur would find it funny if I wrote to zir in the language. Can you read this? Do you understand me? Or: Help! I’m trapped in the 16th century! I decided zie would, but it took a while, mostly because I couldn’t work out how many cases there were for nouns. Eventually I cobbled together a sentence and zie replied almost instantly. What is this Jason.

Zie often called me Jason. My name is Alice.

The book I stole from the library, I reminded zir. I’ll send you a pic of the whole text.

While I waited, I surveyed my bedroom. Living in London meant you got used to furniture that managed to be worse than Ikea, that previous tenants had separated from its casters or covered with nail polish, but in this room the curtains were spotted with mould and it was annoying to have to keep so many of my books in fruit boxes under my bed. In the two years I’d been dating Yağmur I didn’t seem to have made any improvements on my living space; I hadn’t really noticed it. Now I realised that I hadn’t invited anyone but zir to see it for a long time. If anything I avoided my flatmates, who had like me chosen the flat for its central location and unlike me spent the whole time at work or the gym.

I understand you, Yağmur messaged, in the language, and I laughed out loud in the empty room.

I would actually argue that keeping each other company by text is even better than doing it in person, when you have to think about where to sit and whether somebody needs to make drinks and what you ought to do at the end of the conversation. Messaging makes things so clear and so funny, distilling a friendship down to its very best. As the day wore on we tried to identify the language by googling nouns and sentences, speculating about its history, attempting to understand its rules.

We managed to agree on some features – it seemed to use agglutination, so that some words were made up of strings of recognisable morphemes. On the other hand, whenever we’d agreed on a grouping, some part of it would pop up far away, at the end of a sentence. The language had definite quirks – verbs that should have formed matching past tenses incorporated new syllables each time, so that Yağmur wondered if these expressed capability or possibility, or some other distinction of mood that was important to the writer.

I realised that there was nobody I would rather have been trying to solve this puzzle with than zir. I had also awakened an appetite I’d forgotten I had – the urge to unravel something difficult without a safety net, to speculate, to create like a person with a real stake in the world. It came with a physical rush, my heart beating faster, my cheeks flushed, time opening out dreamily so that I untangled a chain of words and looked up to find half an hour had passed, before another message from Yağmur pinged through with a new question.

Hours passed in which Yağmur messaged back again and again. We sent each other several messages in the language and they were getting longer and more complex. Eventually, I raised my head from the pad of paper I’d been scribbling on, propped up on my elbows on the bed, and realised that it was two in the morning. All at once, a wave of exhaustion made me dizzy.

I have to sleep, I messaged in English.

In moments I received zir reply. What do you mean? What’s wrong?

I stared at the message. I had been so caught up that I had forgotten how things could be with Yağmur and me. A spike of anxiety went through me – it was that old problem again; I was going to have to put into words what I’d thought zie would understand without explanation. Somehow I had thought that now we had broken up, I wouldn’t end up feeling like this any more.

I need to go to bed, I wrote. Work tomorrow. I’m tired.

I waited for the reply, crouched stiffly on top of the covers, staring at my phone. It came after a longer wait than it should have done.

Okay! Sleep well

The words were too polite, as if we had been huddled together, whispering, and now zie was standing a few paces away, ready to turn on zir heel. Like that, the evening was over, and all my excitement; I tried to feel it again, but it seemed like something that had happened days or weeks ago, and here I was surrounded by crumpled balls of paper, in a darkened room.

At work there wasn’t anyone who would be interested in the language, and so I barely thought about it until I left the office and began to make my way home. I checked my phone walking over Waterloo bridge and found a message from Yağmur: stopping with the water flowing below me, I tried to work it out. What zie’d written was so unexpected that I made a little involuntary noise without anyone there to hear it. We hadn’t used the language in this way before. With one sentence, zie’d unlocked a whole different aspect of it like a level on a computer game. Based on past principles, I could see the formulation zie’d used was possible, inevitable even, but it conveyed something totally new. It was like poetry, the way an unusual selection of words can open out a sentence like an origami flower and show you something you didn’t see before. What zie’d written was strangely direct, decisive in a way I hadn’t encountered in any other language.

Yağmur had once taught me the Turkish word ‘keyif’, for which zie said there is no English or French translation. Zie described it as ‘experiencing pleasure without a particular goal’; sunbathing on a beach or sharing dinner and conversation with friends. I suggested ‘guilty pleasure’ but zie explained that while keyif was not necessarily good for you, you didn’t have to dismiss it either; you could climb a mountain and ultimately judge the experience ‘keyif’. Since our holidays in Turkey had involved lots of lying on beaches and long, drunken dinners with Yağmur’s school friends, during which I was as happy as I’d ever been, I felt that the word ‘keyif’ conveyed a type of enjoyment that Turkish people knew how to have and English people didn’t but, as Yağmur had introduced me to both word and experience, this hypothesis might have been biased.

I believed that I now understood more about the language and its speakers, the force that lurked in its grammar, the ruthlessness of their dealings with each other. I checked the photograph in my WhatsApp images to select the right words, and then wrote something back. Using the language this way was like being in an argument and saying something unanswerable. It even made me feel a little different about myself.

The next day I called in sick, and didn’t bother to shower or get dressed; I just made some coffee and opened my laptop. I googled sentences and phrases I invented in the language, the most innocuous I could think of, but based on what I now guessed about the people who wrote in it: ideas they might have had; what might have been important to them. I even invented some vocabulary, though this got me nowhere. But when I finally started to think about getting up and eating something, I found myself staring at a Google meta description in the language. There were new words, but it was recognisably the same, and now I was actually holding my breath. I tapped through.

The website was a database of Medieval and Renaissance texts that seemed to have been typed up by volunteers, maybe themselves people who enjoyed the Humanities I reading room on Saturday mornings. This one had a long title in Latin which I barely paused to translate, identifying only a couple of words: ‘secret’ … ‘chemistry’. Perhaps the volunteer had not been able to read Latin, or had thought they were typing some funny Renaissance variety of it, because as I searched the document I found long passages in my language, rendered with pathetic faithfulness, as if they could have been read by anyone except Yağmur and me. I downloaded the whole thing; I had forgotten about my hunger and the sweat rolling down under my arms. I had enough text here for several hours of translation. I sent it to Yağmur, who responded with a series of questions in English about where I had found it and what it was, which I ignored. I sent back words and fragments I found that interested me, and as I did so I felt its curious resonance channelled through me, reflecting me back to myself as stronger, wiser, more certain and merciless.

Yağmur seemed to be trying to talk to me now about magic in the Renaissance, the alchemists who believed that through science you could discover both wealth and ethical enlightenment, like the medical students I had met at university. Zie wondered if our language might have something to do with John Dee, the 16th-century academic who joined the court of Elizabeth I as a cartographer, adviser and magician. Eventually he surprised everyone by getting obsessed with finding a language he could use to talk to God. He met a man who told Dee he could communicate with angels using a crystal ball, and who dictated to Dee a language called Enochian. This had an alphabet of 22 symbols and a grammar that’s disappointingly similar to English.

I wanted to say that I had moved on past thinking about the language in its time, the smoky, candlelit rooms in which people in unfamiliar costume dreamed of sea-battles and Greek philosophy, biblical apocrypha and the beginnings of chemistry. Now I was interested in nothing but using guesswork to translate this text without a codebook. It was hard to explain that it had started to show me real people, their desperate hopes and pathetic secrets, their wildest imaginings, a dark and brutal world springing up around them like the shadow of a roaring fire flickering against a wall.

I had begun to glimpse the meanings behind the most innocuous images. I suppose it’s easiest to describe by doing the same in English. Think of the colour green and you’re one step away from the idea of youth, springtime, new shoots, rolling fields, a forest, a jungle – or maybe your mind moves in the other direction, towards envy, jealousy, sickness, the rotten, the uncanny, death. But I’m told that for people in the Philippines, green means desire, while the ancient Greeks used the word chlōros not only to mean green but also to describe dew, tears, limbs and blood: what these things had in common for the Greeks were freshness, fertility and life. Translating like this, seeing the connections between things, I found myself learning the rules of this new world, in which, for example, green was associated with a sensation you could obtain only in very specific circumstances, through actions you could more or less refuse to be ashamed of. I won’t go any further, or get into the connotations of red.

I kept messaging zir, and after maybe an hour or two, Yağmur began to respond, picking up the new words I had found and spotting some more vocabulary. A word would set off a series of associations in my head that had never been there before, like the light trail left by a sparkler when you draw it through evening air. I found that this was true for Yağmur too. The language was making sense to us faster and faster, and we explored its corridors and rooms like a game, like two children losing and finding and chasing each other, hiding and jumping out. We blew the dust off discovery after discovery, took it in turns to run ahead.

When Yağmur joined in, something else started to happen that hadn’t been there before. After a little while, I realised that we were talking more truthfully than we had ever done when we were dating, the frankness of the language allowing us to see old hurts and misjudgements from fresh angles. I revealed things I’d always been reluctant to share since I’d never believed zie would respond as I hoped. Zie told me things I hadn’t realised, and things I’d previously dismissed, and I finally understood how unsympathetic and self-involved I’d once been, compared to the person I now felt myself to be.

In the time when we had been a couple, we used to sit down after arguments at zir kitchen table, with a couple of beers, and talk things through. The windows would be open wide to the black, gusty night so that zie could smoke, and I could faintly smell the jasmine in zir next-door neighbour’s garden, beneath the shadowy trees. We might have fought long and hard but afterwards we were careful of each other; working out our hurt feelings was like playing Jenga, or the time I accidentally stuck our hair together with chewing gum. Looking back, I was struck by the feeling that I was safe, that safety was something you could make true with somebody’s help. But even as this memory tugged at my mind I realised something was going wrong.

I have mentioned the jokes we shared but I didn’t mention the other thing, the comments that never meant the same thing to both of us, and were only ever understood by one of us at a time. Back when we were together, zie’d bring up a sweet, curly-haired baby zie’d seen on the tube and I’d feel myself collapsing inwards, rage lying on my tongue like a flat, heavy pebble. Or I’d say something about zir therapist, a woman with impressive leg tattoos whom I mistrusted and disliked, and zie would ask a sharp question that I couldn’t answer for days. Something Yağmur said now, as I sat on the floor of my room, staring at my empty coffee cup, reminded me of one of those disagreements, the ones that never got properly sorted out, and in our new, ever shifting domain, with our recently discovered pathway to truth, it struck me, with mysterious persuasiveness, as a good time to bring it to light.

What I typed seemed to me well judged, even intelligent. But instantly, Yağmur gave a sharp reply, unleashed in the language’s relentless invective, and at once my mouth was dry. I tried to explain what I meant, but my thoughts emerged with an air of steely purpose, giving the impression that to disagree was to admit some humiliating weakness, enter a category of everything that was incoherent and undeserving of a voice. I searched for a different way to express it, but however I twisted and turned the sentence it was the same. I wrote more and more, my hot thumb sliding over the button that made it send. I was in despair, but as I read in a frantic rush over everything: the words I’d sent, the texts on every tab of my laptop screen, the pages of the book which had finally detached from its spine and fanned out all over the floor, it came to me more than ever that the language was beautiful, its devastating rhythms, its almost inconceivable symmetry, the chiaroscuro of its possibilities. I gazed into it the way you look at a face so gorgeous it doesn’t seem real.

I heard someone shouting in the street, their voice sounding far away. I switched on my bedside lamp and, more slowly, read the words I had written, and as their meanings shifted I realised all the ways in which they could unfurl and penetrate the mind of the reader, imagining it until the blood drained from my face. The reply came after a moment, worse than I could have imagined, something nobody had ever said to me before. I took a breath; I tried to calm my hands; my eyes flicked back and forth across the screen. I tried to convey my feelings in the old, familiar way that we used to speak together, but what I wrote was faltering; hopeless; there was no way to get out of what we had done. I sat on the floor of my room, the carpet pressing a pattern into my hands, for a long time before I realised that there would be no reply.

Dawn came and birds twittered on the single tree in the garden of the estate. Streaks of pale colour veiled the sky as if the city had been made new, and everyone who walked its streets could begin the morning with their whole lives smoothed away, like dust in a fall of rain. I was starting once again to read the passages online from beginning to end, setting out to follow the author down into the dark labyrinth through which they stubbornly kept insisting they wanted to go. My eyes burned, and for a moment I let the lids flutter down over the dry ache, then looked up from my work at my room which no longer meant a room, the floor which had lost the meaning of the word floor, my hands which I didn’t recognise as my hands.

I don’t know what you’d call it, the feeling when your texts go unanswered, when the mind that was always there waiting to receive you slips away beneath the surface of the city, everywhere and nowhere all at once. The flatmate had let me into the bedroom; all bright excuses and a refusal to stop talking and meet my eyes; they thought she might have gone on holiday, to visit her parents, maybe even started things up with me again. It was empty. They let the door close behind me and I moved slowly across the carpet, to the neatly made bed, the dusty desk, nothing out of place. Her phone and keys were on the window sill. Her shoes were by the door. On every wall rose the shelves, dragging the eye away from the little window and its view of towers of identical flats, which mirrored the block I was in, their balconies covered in laundry and brightly coloured toys. Stacked from the bedroom floor to the ceiling, the notebooks and folders of papers seemed to loom inwards. I wanted to tear them into tiny pieces, scatter their pages in scraps, so that each one became a snow globe, its own miniature world.

Lucy Peters is a writer and editor who lives in London. Her work has been awarded and shortlisted in competitions (the Vogue Talent Competition; the Bridport Prize) and published in journals and anthologies (Mslexia; 3 of Cups; Strix; Ellipsis; The Citron Review). Lines from her poem ‘Live Forever’ can be heard on Spotify, spun into song by musician Emily Manuel. Her favourite reading room in the British Library is Maps. She is currently writing a novel.