Nomad, a new short story by Bernie McGill

A short story from the new collection This Train Is For published by No Alibis Press

Bernie McGill, author of This Train Is For

Before you ask, I don’t know where she is. The last I saw of her was at your brother’s place in Limone, the time he lent me the house. She must have phoned Neil; she knew I would be there. Have you spoken to him?

I got back to Neil’s place one night, a bit worse for wear, I must admit, and there she was, asleep on the couch. I’d spent the evening with the old boys in the square, shuffling dominoes around a bottle of grappa, timing the moves between shots, calling it research for the book. That’s the thing about a game like dominoes – you don’t need any language to play. You can interpret the gestures quite clearly, and as for the under-the-breath swearing, it’s probably best not to know. You’d be surprised how contentious things can get over a mound of little black tiles. ‘The bone yard’, they call it, when they have them all laid out, facedown. ‘The bone yard’, think of that.

I was watching my fellow players: the gnomish, white-haired one with the silver heart on a shoe lace round his neck; the one they call Gilberto who never takes off his moped helmet, who checks between every move that the strap is secure under his chin; the one with the moustache that curls over his lip, open pores on his nose. I was looking for stories, failing to find them. It wasn’t the language that was the barrier; there was something else standing in the way. I got the uncomfortable feeling, now and again, looking at them, that I was looking at my disappointed self.

I stumbled home in the early hours; found that I hadn’t locked the patio doors. Don’t tell Neil. That’s what sun and alcohol do to you – they make you lazy, careless about the detail. It’s not a good mix for a writer. It’s lucky I have nothing to steal. I don’t know why I went there. Some romantic notion, I suppose, about cloudless skies clearing the head, when we all know that grey light and shadow are so much more conducive to making things up.


I slouched into the salon and there she was, curled up on the divan the way she’s always slept, like a comma, knees up to her chin. Fia, the wanderer: always unexpected; always a welcome sight. She must have heard me come in; you know how watchful she is, but she didn’t speak. I covered her up with a throw, locked the doors, crawled into bed.

I got up around eight, my head pounding, still breathing out the effects of the grappa. I went into her and she lifted her head off the cushion, hair in her eyes and smiled up at me, superior. ‘Morning, Greg,’ she said, ‘Good night?’ Like it hadn’t been months since we’d last met. No preamble, no account of herself. If anything, she looked like she was expecting some form of explanation from me.

She was thinner than the last time I’d seen her, that night of your birthday, and paler, dark shadows under her eyes. No make-up, feet bare, a pair of pumps kicked over the mat, one small black rucksack on the floor, and that tatty little bracelet you made for her from the braided wool of her red blanket, still on her arm after all this time. She kicked off the throw. She was wearing one of those sheath dresses, black, her pelvic bones showing through. It could have been off the peg, I don’t know, white trim at the neck. You know that way she has of making everything look designer, no matter what the price.

She got up and padded through to the bathroom. She has some kind of inbuilt homing device, I think, except it doesn’t take her home, wherever that is now; it takes her to people she knows she can trust. Stepping stones, people like me, and you, and Neil. I don’t know how many of us there are on the list, how much ground we cover.

I brewed some coffee, whisked up a batch of pancake batter, couldn’t resist the theatre of plucking a lemon from the tree in the courtyard, though I knew she’d rib me for it. I stacked the pancakes the way she’s always liked them, soaked in lemon juice, crunchy with sugar. She came back out of the bathroom wearing the black dress, her hair on her shoulders, wet. ‘You’re quite the continental,’ she said, with that wry smile of hers, but she ate like she hadn’t seen food in days.

Some guy she knew had sent for her in Milan, she said, wanted her on his arm for a big industry do. She’d gone, because she was between jobs and Milan was as good a place to find one as any. But there was no work (‘The gaunt thing is over,’ she said), and she tired of the man in the Valentino tux, discovered too late that the air ticket was one-way. She was watching me as she told me this, trying to get a rise out of me. I said nothing. I’m wise to her ways. She doesn’t care about the situations she gets herself into. She’s all for the movement, the lights, the adventure. She knows that when the shine wears off, she can always depend on her list.

She mentioned something about a music video, a magazine shoot, maybe. She didn’t say where or when. She said something about heading south, following the arc of the sun. She dabbed her fingers in the grains of sugar from the counter top, picked up the squeezed lemon, examined the empty chambers like they held some kind of secret. I saw her slip a pip into the pocket of her bag. She hasn’t broken that habit of collecting things.

Remember the coloured paper clips, the endless chains she used to make, the obsession over the pattern repeat, the delays while she waited for a crucial yellow or blue? Maybe she’s still doing that. Maybe we’re her pattern repeat now: the places she feels safe; the people who love her, who look out for her, who’ll be there for her no matter what. I offered her money and she took it. She scooped up her bag, said the world was very grey these days; she needed some sun on her skin. And then she left.

I went into the bathroom after she’d gone. The kidney-shaped prints of her wet feet were fading on the grey ceramic tiles. She’d left the damp towel bundled in the shower, the way people do in hotels where it’s someone else’s job to pick it up and launder it. In the steamed-up bathroom mirror, she’d traced a little tree, and a stick man in a cap, holding the hand of a little stick girl. And it made me think of those walks in the park, by the museum, do you remember, not long after she came to us? When we were still trying to figure out how much she’d witnessed at home; what she’d seen. Not that she ever held my hand; not that she ever allowed herself to touch me; but still, it made me think of that time, when she was small, when we were still married, when it felt like things could still turn out okay. And it felt like a sort of acknowledgement, that little drawing in the condensation, or a thank you, maybe, or the closest she would ever get to one.

That was three, maybe four months ago. I haven’t heard from her since. I didn’t stay long at Limone. The writing wouldn’t come. I thought that stillness was what I needed to think, but it wasn’t that at all. Maybe she and I have more in common than I thought; maybe we both need to move to survive. Try not to worry about her. There’s no point in worrying. She’s a survivor. If she’s missing it’s because she wants to be. She’ll come back in her own time, when the sun moves north again. We’ll see her when she needs something from us. She’ll be with one of her list. Nomad features in the collection This Train Is For published by No Alibis Press