Sarah Penwarden: Two Solitudes

Oct 2023 | Short story

The Black Boar Inn, London SE1


A slate sky and a whiff of the river. Richard zips his jacket against the chill. Theyd nabbed an outdoor table, even though it was just nine degrees; the bar staff had turned on the outdoor heater which had lit up with a roar.

His two colleagues are deep in talk about hedge funds and house prices. He gets up and walks to the edge to look down.  The Thames: low water line, wind fresher still, tugs churning upriver as they plough a middle course along its length.

He thinks of Abby. He often thinks of her when he’s standing near a river or the sea. He wonders if theres something liminal about water; whether it reminds him that she is across the seas. In that other place.

Looking out at the Thames, he allows himself to think about their last conversation on Zoom. The delight of seeing her. The warm feeling that struck him on and off for an hour or so after that. But also the sensation of unease in case she wanted to talk about where they are, and what they are doing as a couple.

He doesnt relish those conversations. Sometimes he looks down and sees that one of his hands is clenched, nails digging into palms.

Richard looks at his phone and realizes he hasnt texted her that day. He starts forming word as a train rumbles across Blackfriars bridge; the noise and smoke of blackened carriages, the shudder of rail.


Green Bay Dog Park


Abby arrives at the park in the afternoon just as it stops raining. A warm spring rain, filling up flower heads, sprinkling the grass, loosening mud on the track. She fishes a stone out of a gumboot while Stella whines, impatient for her walk.

Abby and Stella start on the loop track. They usually walk the loop twice, stopping at different points for Stella to sniff a tree stump or bound into the bushes. The smell of damp ferns rises up.

Abby likes the time alone with Stella. She even likes the quiet at home, with just the two of them. She can spread out as a starfish in the bed.

Richard is a ghost in the house, his possessions everywhere she looks but not his presence. She likes her own space but knows she doesn’t want to get used to the way it is. This is a temporary state. The real life is the two of them together.

The rain starts again and drips on her hood, covering Stellas fur in a layer of damp. They turn the bend of the track. Up ahead at the end of the path, a man in a purple rain jacket and baseball cap. Quite tall and lean. He is walking a dog that looks like Stella. Abby allows herself to imagine for a moment that it is Richard.

She watches as he turns around and sees her. Then after a while, he turns back and keeps on walking.


Richard’s Personal Meeting Room, Zoom


He sees his face appear on the screen, enlarged. His eyes move around, trying to meet her eyes and also at the same time, look at her whole face.

He knows she feels him there, behind the screen.

He can see she is pale, perhaps from troubled sleep.

I thought I saw you today. Abby leans back against the pillows.

Thats weird.

I was just walking Stella and there was this guy down the end of the path with…

Maybe it was my doppelganger? Richard says, and smiles. They say we all have a double somewhere in the world.

I spoke to your mother today. She ignores his attempt to joke. Shes praying youll be home by Christmas. I said, dont get your hopes up. Not with the current MIQ system anyway.

Richard can hear an edge to her voice.

Im trying not to imagine me and your mother crying into our glasses of fizz on Christmas day, Abby says carefully. And then smiles.

Ill be crying into my own wineglass over here, dont you worry, he says.

An emotion moves across Abbys face. He watches as she struggles to say something. Her mouth crumples slightly and he can see her lip trembling.

You okay? Richard asks.

She shakes her head.

I know its hard, he says, a bit tightly. You going back without me. But we decided it together, didn’t we? For me to stay here for six months or a year seeing the job is so good.

I know, I know, she says, sounding impatient. “Its over a year now. Its just that I miss you. Being in the house here on my own. I don’t want to get used to it. It’s not how it should be.

He feels a stab of discomfort. You have Stella, he says quickly.

She misses you too.

Richard looks away from the screen, around the room.


The Kings Consort, London W1


Friday afternoon work drinks at the old pub. He holds his wine tumbler, cupping the bulb of the glass and swirling it round. Red, deep, peppery. Hes finding it hard to concentrate on what Mike and Neil are saying about football and politics.

They’re in the snug, in a wooden booth with high walls, plush cushions and a round table. Mike and Neil have started up again about remoaners’. For a moment, Richard imagines Abby here, yawning aloud and changing the subject to something she wants to talk about; swerving so fast Neil and Mike would protest, but go along with it.

Abby was like that. She had a subtle way of getting people on her side, through cheekiness and a breezy confidence in herself.

Her image in his mind floats away, as the chatter of the others in the pub brings him back to the present.

He’s realized lately that he likes this solitary life. Sometimes he goes a whole day without thinking he has a partner. Then theres a stab of remembering.

At night, just before falling asleep, her scent comes back to him, the smoothness of her body. Her slip is still under the pillow next to him. At night, he relives their London life, tracing many of the places they’d walked, eaten. The bars where they drank. The places that ripple with memories. And sometimes he remembers their first years together in West Auckland, in the house near the dog park.


Green Bay Dog Park


Stella’s yelping with anticipation, swiping her paws against the glass front door, as Abby clips on the lead. They start on the walk to the park.

Abby finds it meditative to be completely silent and follow Stella; watching the falling of dry leaves and the eddying of the dust on the path. She raises her face and leans into the wind.

She has always known herself – always had a plan for her life, even as a child. She knew it was right to move in with Richard. Theyd had some good years together. And then the move to London.  It did come as a surprise, but they’d made a lot of memories, and it had benefitted both their careers. Then the pandemic hit. She’d heard the call to come home. There was a brief time when she felt it was an almost unbearable weight – to decide whether to stay with Richard in London or go back home to Auckland on her own. But when he too confessed that he wanted to go home – soon, just not yet – she breathed a sigh of relief.

She would go. He would follow. It seemed clear then.


A year later, its just her and Stella in a house full of memories. Sometimes she thinks she hears him; she sees a flash of his back at the edge of her eye.

Sometimes she can see their joint life going on in the house near the dog park in Green Bay. That life moves through her own as a ghostly double. She imagines them going for walks, out to parties, to work, family gatherings, drinks on the deck on a summer evening, breathing in and out, people coming and going from their lives, saving money, spending money, planning a family, putting down roots, having a family, life going on, life passing by.

She can’t free herself from the what ifs. Does he want this kind of life with her? Does he see her as his future? Are they still a match for each other, or have they both travelled too far down their own paths?

Tiny specks of rain freckling her jacket. Stella tugging at her leash. Walkers with masks. A dog bounds into a pond after a lost ball; another one follows. A chorus of barking.


Abby’s Personal Meeting Room, Zoom


Stella snores and moves her long thin legs as if running in her dreams. Abby reaches down and smooths her grey flank.

On the bed.

The bed her and Richard shared when their lives were together. Their joint lives; the joining of two solitudes into something bigger than both of them. And then their paths branched.

Are we going to split up?” she wants to say, but the words weigh on her chest, quickening her breathing.

His face flashes up on the screen.

She turns her face into a smile.

Are we worth it? she wants to ask. Are you going to keep investing in us? Or are you going your own way?

How are you, love? Richard says, and doesnt wait for a reply. I cant talk too long. Ive got to meet the guys at The Kings Consort for dinner later and the trains are taking ages at the moment.

She looks down and takes a deep breath.

Is this going to work? The words are out before she can stop them.

What? Richard says, his face showing confusion, some helplessness.

Sorry, I know youre probably not prepared for a state of the nation talk right now…” She gives him time to nod his assent. But I am. She takes a deep breath. I cant do this, Richard. Have a long-distance relationship with my partner. Its not its not what I want.

I know I know, he says, looking away.

But are you really hearing me?

He looks at her then, carefully, holding her eyes for a time.

I am,” he says, and the words tumble out. “We are doing this together. That’s one thing we said, didn’t we? Whatever happened in the future, we’d face it together.”

He continues to look at her.

She nods.

But what about leaving London? she asks. Can you handle living somewhere quiet like this? Smaller? Its true what they say. Once you migrate, you can never really go back home. It doesnt ever even look the same.

I know. But we do have our own life there, dont we? Our house. Our friends. Stella.”

She can see he’s watching her carefully, through the webcam.

“Itll be fine,” he says. “Well pick up where we left off. Well just continue on as we were. Weve still got our life there together.

She holds his gaze again, and her breathing steadies.

Its our life. Its hard to talk about. But…” He takes a deep breath and stumbles over the words. I Its not the same without you here. I like my own space thats true and my privacy, but my life is so much better with you in it.”

He smiles and she can see the intensity in his eyes.

“I dont want to be here permanently without you,” he continues. “I know I know we said six months to a year, and its been over a year but This is temporary. Ive been looking for jobs in Auckland.

Her eyes widen.

I know its time to come back.


The Black Boar Inn, London SE1


He looks through the picture window with a view out to the South Bank. The Thames flows past, sluggish but moving. He watches the grey London skyline, the ombre clouds and swoops of black-headed gulls. Everything around him is alive.

He gets out his phone and drafts a text to her; carefully crafting the words to say again what she means to him – what they mean to him.

She buzzes right back. He looks at his phone, startled by it by her replying this time of the day in real time.

He presses video call and watches as her face appears.


Green Bay Dog Park


Abby cleans the droplets off her glasses. She moves to one edge of the path to avoid the mud puddle. Stella has bounded up the track. Abby looks ahead and sees how, beyond her, the path splits. She stops and looks at it: the logic of that image. How the one path breaks into two. She shakes her head and tries to clear the picture in her mind. She continues walking, as the damp ground starts to sweat and steam.


Sarah Penwarden is a therapist based in Auckland. She has had poems published in Poetry New Zealand, Turbine, Meniscus, Southerly, Mayhem, Cordite Poetry Review and takahē. She has had short stories published in tākāhe, brief and Meniscus, and a story broadcast on Radio New Zealand.

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