It was the sight of the red bicycle that made him linger in the foyer while the voices of the others faded down the stairs. Mounted to a raft and squeezed between two yachts, it bobbed with every breath of the ocean. It shouldn’t be there. This was clear to him even before he allowed himself to remember.
He walked up to the glass wall and fought another wave of nausea. It wasn’t just the purpose of the meeting that made his stomach turn every now and then. The ocean had always had this effect on him.
Taking off his glasses, he blinked and focused his eyes on the bicycle. The paint was peeling from the frame in big chunks, but the block letters were still discernible. It was impossible. Still, he could have named the angles of that very frame in his sleep. Its geometry was etched into his retina from decades-old daydreams of a mother biking between the ports of Europe.
The raft had been her final invention, a tribute to the dead grandfather, whom he remembered only by the scent of liquorice pastilles and the tattoo of a naked lady on his chest. She had built it from driftwood and a flea market bicycle and the summer he turned seven, she had taken it for a maiden trip and never come back. When the bay had frozen, his father had sold their cottage and bought a terraced house, with windows facing only other rows of houses and no shores in sight, on which driftwood or mothers could be risked to be washed up.
It was impossible and still, there she was. Walking across the pier, slowed by the weight of two water carriers. He shoved his glasses into his pocket and hurried down the stairs, pushing through a crowd from the office. Someone said his name and someone laughed, but for once, he didn’t notice.
He just ran, because running and drawing were the only things he knew. The rest was a tangle of pretendings. He had been running, from bed to bed, drawing lines between ears and collarbones. From project to project, drawing walls around people, between people, within people. Within himself.
Mother, he called when he reached the corner of the building, then her name, in case she had forgotten. But there was no reply. In fact, there was no mother, not even a trace of the raft in the rippled surface of the water.
Voices approached from behind. They must have heard. He would not be able slip back unnoticed now. He reached for the contract in his inner pocket, carefully folded, still unsigned. With a sigh, he crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the water. Then he turned and walked away, without meeting their gazes, without looking back.