An extract from ‘Accelerate!’, a new short story by Naomi Ishiguro, published in her debut collection Escape Routes by Tinder Press on 6 February 2020.
I met Annalise in an Italian restaurant (I had long since abandoned cooking as an unnecessary waste of time). Annalise with the terrible memory. Annalise who I rec- ognised as trouble or something like it from the moment I looked up from my saltimbocca alla Romana just in time to catch her start singing from the makeshift stage in the corner and for our eyes to meet across the room through that sea of pepper-grinders and birthday party tables and old-couple tables and awkward-first-date tables in that specific way that always seems to happen in movies but never so much in real life. There she was with the words of ‘Hallelujah’ hanging on her lips unhurried – a still point in the chaos.
The thing about Annalise I noticed even from that very first time I heard her sing was how different this specific quality of stillness she possessed was from the other kinds of slow behaviour that so frustrated me in my colleagues and in the tourists or old people who persisted in using public transport during rush hour. She wasn’t sluggish and she wasn’t clumsy. She wasn’t at all inefficient. She was just perfectly comfortable both in her own skin and in the seconds and minutes and hours her body occupied.
As a result she was one of the most beautiful singers I’ve witnessed. The beginning and end of ‘Hallelujah’ for instance were the beginning and end of the universe for her once she’d started on it and something about that – the way she inhabited every line fully and equally with a com- plete lack of any sense that she might be rushing to get to the end of the song – made an audience believe her utterly. More than just believe. Became complicit seems more accurate. Or in any case that was how I felt watching her there. And I didn’t even like ‘Hallelujah’. It was a disap- pointingly obvious choice but still I was hypnotised – not by the words or the melody but by this peculiar alchemy she managed to exercise over my perception of the passage of time when she sang. It was a force and an influence completely opposite to my personal mission of getting my money’s worth out of every passing second – and needless to say I was hooked.
She came over to my table after she’d finished singing – clearly not in any rush to get there as she stopped to talk to every person who congratulated her and thanked her for the music on the way. Indeed her progress towards me was so gradual I started to wonder if I’d misunderstood our moment of electric eye contact completely and she wasn’t even on her way at all. It was all I could do to sit still and wait. I wanted to spring up and dash over to her or give the whole thing up for lost and just leave. I fiddled with my fork the candlestick my coffee cup (I’d moved on to drinking straight espresso by then) and I tapped my nails against the side of a bottle of chilli oil. Then I rummaged in my bag for my laptop and opened it up to start some freelance work I’d taken on – just some copyediting stuff nothing too remarkable I suppose I was just bored by my job not getting enough of a challenge and needing to fill up the new free hours I had since I was getting everything out of the way so quickly. I was well into the eighth page of the document by the time she finally appeared in front of me.
‘Are you OK?’ she said. ‘I just . . . saw you here all by yourself. You looked so tired.’
I ordered us a bottle of wine. I’m usually more circumspect with alcohol but faced with Annalise it seemed the occasion merited it and I was seized with sudden reckless- ness. I told her to sit down.
As we talked I noticed her actions and decision making were even slower than that of a bog-standard human being. That is to say she was frequently almost at a stand- still pausing in conversation in the middle of a thought to sip her wine and take a long slow inhale and close her eyes as she waited for the flavour to die on her lips. Except that was just it. She wasn’t waiting for the flavour to die. That’s what I would have been doing – mentally rushing on to the moment when it would be time for me to take another gulp and so hurrying the whole process on that way. I suppose she was what all those trite time-wasting lifestyle maga- zines would call living in the moment. She hardly seemed to speculate about the future and she never talked about the past – something that is not surprising to me now that I know more about her appalling memory – and she seemed perfect in her actions not because they were superbly time-saving and energy-efficient like my own but because they were very contentedly leading absolutely nowhere. They had no purpose or agenda beyond themselves and so occupied space and time with absolute elegance.
‘You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever met,’ I told her that first evening after my half-bottle of wine.
‘Really?’ she said. ‘Because I thought . . . or at least it seemed just there like you were . . . I don’t know. Like you were angry with me, or something.’
‘I could never be angry with you,’ I told her and reached for her hand across the tablecloth.
I was already bored with so many of the songs she sang before I even met her and she never tried to learn anything new with any strategy or effort. Sometimes in the mornings when I was dressed for work and making the first coffee of the day (I had long since invested in a Nespresso machine) she would shamble out of bed still in pyjamas and then stretching out her limbs in unconscious contentment at the simple way she inhabited all the corners of her body she would pad into the living room pick up her guitar (both she and the guitar lived at mine within a month of my meeting her as I didn’t see the point in simply dating for ages in a non-committal way and then also the thing about Annalise’s extreme present-ness was that it seemed she frequently didn’t get round to organising anywhere to live and was usually in effect rather homeless) and she would yawn and pluck a few chords and then finally begin to sing something different. Except she’d never stick at it. She never learnt any new song through to its conclusion because the second it ceased bringing her uncomplicated pleasure she stopped. Simple as that. I both loved her for it and was appalled. Why would she start learning something if she was never going to finish the process? It was such a flagrant waste of time I couldn’t help but consider it quite spectacular.
Perhaps the contrast in our values and our tempos threw the nature of my sped-up living into sharper relief because the longer Annalise and I lived together the better I felt I was beginning to understand my own abilities. Although I’d fallen into a pattern of consuming between six and eight double espressos by the afternoon I was also beginning to question whether this power I had to accel- erate through the few hours the universe allotted to each particular day was entirely caffeine dependent. The switch in my head that yes admittedly coffee had been the first thing to flick into the ‘on’ position seemed ever more easily locatable for me. I couldn’t help but feel that with a little more practice I might – if hypothetically I wanted to – dis- card the coffee altogether and truly understand how I could speed up my internal timescape independently.
Although occasionally usually while lying in bed with Annalise I did wonder: in accelerating like this was I really cramming more living experience into the allotted hours of my life? Or was I just hurtling towards the end of my own personal timeline with blithe alacrity? Did you have to die young to live fast? It seemed an absurd equation. Real life does not feel like fertile territory for such neo-Faustian pacts. But still I wondered about the trade-off. It seemed too good to be true that you could get more life just by living more quickly – and you’ll remember I’m wary of gambles. I never forget that the house always wins. I wanted to know what Annalise thought. I regularly wondered aloud on this theme and begged her to give me some kind of answer. It was lucky she had such a terrible memory or I’m sure she would have become bored with me.
That was a strange thing – Annalise’s famous memory. It may have kept her free of hauntings from the past but as time went on with the two of us together I started to feel haunted myself not by ghosts of things remembered but by a particular kind of uncertainty. I was always looking over my shoulder to check whether the things I thought had occurred had really truly happened. She never forgot the lyrics to her songs but she forgot our conversations all the time. She forgot acquaintances and sequences of events that led up to what were for me significant moments – and then she forgot those too. She forgot how we met and where. She forgot where we were the first time we kissed. And yet still for someone so forgetful she was surprisingly constant in her feelings. She told me she loved me and I believed her every time. Perhaps she didn’t need an accu- mulation of shared memories to base that conviction on. Perhaps the present impulse was enough. I prayed it would continue to be so and gathered up our memories on my own – storing away for the two of us what slipped her mind so easily.