Read time: 19 mins

When Things End

by Sarah Balakrishnan
2 July 2024

His name is Harry Joseph, and he is a decorated scholar. Over his sixty-two years of life, he has published eleven books, each of them co-authored with his wife. They are experts in the same subject: African economic history. Harry was lucky to have met her, to have found her the way he did one day, forty years ago, in an Oxford lecture hall. Amidst the noise of students filing up and down the aisles, he had heard her voice wending through the busy crowd, and at once it struck him as so much like his own. She too, he realised, must come from Rhodesia.

Her name was Helen Holland then. She is Helen Joseph now. Her family had been farmers, like his, in the days when they still lived off the flat fields they called ‘their land’. They had provided her an unusually good education. She had attended a boarding school in Britain, unlike him. Harry had not been born wealthy. Yet now he and Helen live in a red-brick manor on Brattle Street, Cambridge, a winding, tree-trimmed lane over whose hill he can see, steeped in the distance, the grey rooftops of Harvard. They were both lured here two years ago from New York where they raised their children: one boy, one girl, each now with families of their own.

The grandiosity of Harvard has not yet grown old on him. Their offices are twice as large as before. Every wall is hemmed with oak bookshelves and glass placards. Their students are smart, and a small number are even African. With them Harry negotiates, as he has always, a tricky relationship. He too is from the continent, yet it takes nearly a whole semester to see this recognition in their eyes. With his colleagues in Africana Studies, most of whom are not African, who have never been to Africa, who are simply Black, he knows he will never see it.

But this does not matter. Harry has ceased to worry for he is proud of what he and Helen have accomplished. They are good scholars and are in good health. They still appear handsome in a striking way. Harry’s eyes are brown with flecks of grey; his hair is grey, with flecks of brown and white. The sides of his mouth are wrinkled, yet above, his eyes shine full of young, confident promise. He is commonly thought to be the expressive one, easily animated, whereas Helen is known as inscrutable and reserved. Even to Harry, she has always figured with a quiet firmness. Ever since the day they decided they could never return to Rhodesia—that they could not live there and endorse the government—she has busied herself making their home in America. Now that their children have gone and they are alone, completely alone with each other, she has decorated their new house herself, and it is much to his taste: traditionally open and African, with corners cluttered and Victorian.

Yes, he is at ease. It is September, and outside a shower disrupts the monotony of the morning, the first morning of the semester, and Harry can hear, beyond the glass windows, the rain making its long journey to the ground. Every first class, these days, is the same to him. He teaches only with Helen, and long ago they developed a routine. He will begin by telling a story of having one day slipped and fallen into a sewer in Accra, Ghana while drunk. Helen will chime in that ever since, she has maintained strict house rules: anyone who is drinking is welcome, but they must wash their own laundry. The students all laugh and Harry will respond: The day that our teenagers started washing their clothes, Helen nearly fainted, for all the wrong reasons!

Out of the morning shower, their students appear, one-by-one, shivering. This semester, they total thirty-seven, mostly boys. Harry greets each with a nod and a smile, every girl with a distinctive ‘Hello.’ Together they wait for the clock to strike twelve; then Harry shuts the door. At that moment, a final student slips through. A female of indiscernible heritage: bronze skin with black corkscrew hair. At once, he debates whether she is Black. He flashes her a smile, but she does not return one to him. She does not even laugh at his welcoming joke.

Harry is a good teacher, skilled with youth of this age, college-going and nearly adult, their whole lives still open before them. As Harry stands against the blackboard, speaking vivaciously, he stares with pleasure at faces filled with rapt attention—at their hands scribbling away in quiet squirrelly flurry, the rapid clip-clop of keys. He notices nonetheless that only the girl with the corkscrew hair is not writing. Her eyes, wide and deep black, watch him, yet her pen still lies on the table. For no reason, the observation irks him. He looks at her, and she looks back at him.

Next to Harry, but seated, Helen subtly flexes her shoulders, letting him know, in the language only they speak, that she would like to say something. Harry acquiesces. He sits down, smiling and gracious. Now he may relax, he thinks, stew in his thoughts for a moment.

Discretely and despite himself, he casts another glance at the girl. She has written nothing. Her wrists, bony and very fine, protrude out of the sleeves of a coat several sizes too large, a shabby thing that she must have thieved from a boyfriend. Her face—plain, with round (perhaps Abyssinian) eyes and a nose he thinks unnaturally small—watches Helen coolly, as if she is bored. Despite his even temper, Harry grows increasingly annoyed. He looks away to the clock.

The class finishes. Around him, the chairs squeak. Harry stands as Helen slips away for her lunchtime meeting.

‘Professor?’ says a voice, sweet and high, from behind.


Then there she is. Harry swivels and, with surprise, sees the girl standing there. She is only as tall as his neck. The coat, which he’d considered to be a rebellious statement just seconds before, seems suddenly to envelope her, swaddling her in an older, scanter time, before she was born. The thought shames his early judgment of her. The girl is evidently poor.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘A favour—’ she says, half-breathless ‘—I’m supposed to take my Master’s exams soon, but I haven’t got my interdisciplinary examiner. I want to do an exam with you.’

‘In history?’


‘Uh huh,’ he says, now looking away. ‘What subject are you in?’


‘Ah…’ says Harry. For some reason, the sound of her voice makes him say, in a tone that he usually reserves only for the very young, ‘Well, it’s late already…doing an exam in one semester would be challenging.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘I see,’ repeats Harry. The girl waits for him. Turning around, he adds, ‘But it may not be a problem. Why don’t you schedule a meeting? I’ll give you my secretary’s email.’


‘Yes,’ he says, and, looking fleetingly back, he sees, even before he may anticipate it, her mouth open. Her teeth appear bony-white and slightly too large for her lips. He is reminded, unexpectedly, of the teeth on a horse. He watches her smile expand.

‘Oh,’ he says, a softness uncoiling inside him, ‘I suspect that it will be no trouble at all.’


Her name is Selomé Fitzpatrick, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. She is Black, Canadian Black, which although less political than being African American, still leaves him at a loss.

Every Monday, she arrives at his office at nine o’clock, and, together, they prepare for her exams.

Selomé hardly takes notes, which is the first thing that annoys Harry about her. Yet in a week, he discovers her memory to be agile. He can name no author that she does not know. In addition, after each of their meetings, though she writes nothing down and he hardly allows her to speak, she sends him an essay on all they had discussed, and he finds it always to be good, her writing cogent and crisp.

When seated in his office, Selomé’s eyes travel over everything in the room—his books, the gold-framed certificates, the Murdock Map of Africa that hangs over the closet door—though she remains rigid. She reminds him of a cat, stiff with alarm.

‘Selomé,’ he says one day, as she moves to collect the coat from the back of her chair. Her legs are already upright; she is standing, about to go. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he says. ‘What do your parents do? Where do they live?’

Selomé blinks. At once, the despondency he had first recognised in her eyes returns to her. ‘My mum’s a teacher,’ she says, like that.

‘And your father?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Just you alone? No siblings?’

‘Just me.’

Most often, she wears her hair loose around her shoulders, as she had the morning they first met. Other times, she ties it into a flat little knot, braided, which makes her seem especially African and also more severe, and on those days, he is less certain of how to act toward her.

Because she is in Sociology, not History, he doesn’t know who her friends are. He doesn’t see her anywhere but his office, and so the image foremost in his mind is of Selomé sitting on the armchair, her pretty legs crossed and her dark eyes recording every one of his words. She is serious—too serious, he thinks.

One day, as she leaves, he rises with her, walking her to the door. ‘Selomé,’ he says as she turns. He opens his arms. Her limp little body comes into his chest, and he squeezes, holding her tightly around the shoulders.


Every Monday, they meet. The morning light retreats with autumn. By nine o’clock, they face a bitter wind and a white cloud-smocked sun. Every time she leaves his office, he knows that she will wait a few minutes to see whether he comes out. He discovered this one day because he left all of a sudden and saw her slipping away down the hall. The next time, he went downstairs and saw what she had not wanted him to see: Selomé lingering on the lobby benches, eating the leftover food from the staff meeting. It is always good food but messy: hummus, eggs, nothing that she can eat with her hands. She will have to sit there as people pass by.

He is sure from now on to wait half an hour before leaving his office. If he should see her sometime on campus, he shall also buy her a coffee. Her walking about in the cold, in an army jacket thin as the veil of a bride, makes him sigh.

It is not long until her exam. December comes more quickly than he could expect. He had given her eighty books to read at the start of the semester, and now she is nearly done. ‘I would have given you more if I’d had you for longer,’ he jokes.

He watches her pull her heavy backpack onto the chair one day, resting it for a moment as she does up her coat.

‘Where to now?’ he asks her.

‘Where to?’ she responds. A teasing smile comes to her lips. ‘To one of the rare classes that you don’t teach, I suppose,’ she says.

‘Ha,’ he replies, watching her. She is slow to do up her buttons. Slower still to put on her knapsack. As she fiddles with the last strap, he walks over and looks down upon her. That day her hair is around her shoulders, and, with one hand, he pushes it out of her face.

‘You’re a very smart girl,’ he says, and he leans in and kisses her.


Every Friday, to make their twelve o’clock date, Selomé takes the 69 bus down Massachusetts Avenue, arriving at the Hotel Corleone in Central Square. The lobby floor is made of white marble, trimmed by Roman columns. The front desk opens on to an atrium where businessmen sit with their half-drunk coffees, and women in tight dresses converge in the bathroom or in the queue for the taxi, a shimmering vision of legs and silk and twinkling jewellery.

She can imagine herself in one of these gowns. Older, with her hair neatly plaited.

At the front desk, she gives her name: ‘Fitzpatrick,’ she says, and the valet in the grey suit narrows his eyes.

‘Room 612,’ the man says, passing her the key.

She does not miss how the man’s gaze follows her through the lobby into the elevator, watching the steel doors close around her.

She’s had sex with older men before, but not very much and not nearly so old as Harry.

Her father had been a fuels technician in the Canadian Air Force. When she was thirteen and attending his funeral, her eldest uncle had approached her with a sly, crooked smile. ‘You watch out now,’ her mother had breathed, making her want to shrink inside her skin.

She got it over with eventually, with her shift manager at the Tim Hortons. By then, it felt relieving to demystify the act: to learn a few things to do with her hands that could make men, even the most hateful ones, be quiet.

In this way, Harry’s lofty age is comforting. It seems to answer some of the more troubling questions about where things might go and how long they can continue. She sees in Harry a bear-like protector, sensitive to her needs.

Where Selomé has expected and experienced only cruelty in sex, he is surprisingly gentle. In the hotel bed, his hands are warm and tender, soft and unworked. They are exactly how she wishes her own body to be. Lying flat beneath him, cold and alert, she can feel a certain transformation taking place inside her.

Pleasure is like a vacuum: it pulls her in, rearranges her. At times, she cannot bear the intensity of the feeling.

Harry does not like her to see him naked, she knows. He undresses under the covers every time. He carries the sheet to the bathroom when he pees.

And would she want it any other way? It repulses her a little and thrills her: the white body so much older than hers, entering without a word.

‘You are so dear to me,’ he has whispered, and no one has ever said this to her, not even her mother.


On Fridays, to make their noontime meeting, Harry drops Helen at physical therapy, saying he is going to the gym. Then he parks the car in a busy lot on Massachusetts Avenue. His ringer remains on in case Helen calls. Even at these times, Harry does not consider himself apart from his wife. He does not know what ‘apart’ can mean anymore, although, being a person of intelligence, he understands his behaviour suggests the pursuit of this question.

The girl never asks him about Helen. The need for separation is understood. Only after Harry leaves the hotel—dusting off the jacket he wears so well, his hair still wet from the shower—will she transform. Sitting upright in the spoiled bed, she searches the Josephs’ names on Google. Where they grew up, when they first met, what their children do. All this, the internet offers. But it cannot give her what she really wants to know: where exactly she fits into this picture.

Over the years she has worked various jobs: check-out clerk, motel maid, a bagger at the Utz chip plant. Nothing in life has been gifted to her. She guards this truth warily, knowing, in the end, it is all she has.

There are times that she feels she is suffering from the gentleness of his affection. It leaves her suspicious. In this arrangement, she knows well what she has to gain. But him, what?

The sex will cut in her two if she cannot get herself together. She says to herself: I will get it together.

Nevertheless, she finds reason to draw attention to her unhappiness. She tells him about the valet downstairs, the one who stares at her. To her surprise, Harry only laughs. He cannot be convinced that she is treated as anything out of the ordinary at the hotel. ‘It’s that damned coat,’ he jokes, pulling her to him.

Her father’s old jacket has come up more than once. It offends him somehow, she surmises.

If, on occasion, Harry cannot make it to the hotel on Friday, he will send an email to her university account, stating that it has been too long since their last advisory meeting. By this time, a terrible yearning will have begun, like a sea swimming between the teeth. They quickly identify a time to see each other: noon on Monday, perhaps, in his office—there is no other way.

The office is a different challenge, they both know: a stage that tests its actors. It is not possible to keep the same roles. He must resume the burden of professorship, she the handicap of the student.

Yet it is also thrilling, resuming the part of their real lives. Harry does not know that, before him, Selomé had never been inside the office of a professor. Despite her grades, none had invited her.

On his mahogany desk, a colourful minnow circles a tank of blue water. A gift from Nadine Gordimer, Harry chuckles, when he and Helen had first taken this job.

The books on his shelves are each yellow and dog-eared. He had read them before, or he bought them all used. He was so clever, as she saw.

They never named what existed between them. Intuitively, she understands that naming it would somehow require them to laugh a bit at themselves, to make things less than what they are.

When things end, it will be easier for the lack of names, she thinks. In the future, when people ask her whether she ever worked with him at Harvard, she will be able to say honestly: ‘He was my teacher, for a short while.’

To get to campus, Selomé takes the Green Line underground then switches to the bus.

From his office window, Harry can spot her the moment she arrives, the bus levelling itself to the street, panting white clouds of exhaust. He cannot stand the sight of that shy body in the winter cold. One day, as she rises from his office chair, he says, ‘I’ll buy you a new coat.’

At once, her face is open, distressed.

‘What will I tell my mother?’ she says finally.

‘Does it matter?’

He cannot be convinced that embarrassment outweighs the benefit of being warm. Firmly, he grips her shoulder. ‘I want to,’ he says. He watches an angry red thumb sliver through a hole spooling on the sleeve.

When she turns to go, he murmurs: ‘Take a book from the shelf. In case anyone asks.’

The girl nods gravely. She knows that he means the spectacled secretary who looks out the window when she passes.

‘That’s what I told her,’ she whispers. ‘I said I was here for a book.’


One Sunday evening in March, they drive up to Cape Ann when Helen has gone to a conference in Connecticut for the week. In the town, there is a nautical museum he likes to visit, displaying the carved prows of old ships and anchors dug from the depths of the sea. The carvings on the ships are equally mesmerising to him: long-haired women with vixenish shoulders, batting brave, unmoving eyes.

Afterwards they take a walk in the springtime air. The sky is pewter grey, hazy with mildew and scudding cloud. On a scraggly cliff that had seemed flat as slate from the distance, Harry feels a sudden twisting inside his chest. He stops walking.

‘What is it?’ she says.

Concern in her eyes, Harry is surprised to discover big black spots covering his.

They drive to a hospital in the nearby town. Harry is taken into a small white room at the end of a corridor while Selomé parks the car. She has a licence to drive—at home, she drives all the time—but never an SUV, like this, without a key that turns and so many buttons to control the gears.

On a chair in the reception area, she waits alone. Cocooned in her new winter coat—an ash-grey jacket that he bought with some help from a clerk, made of the same affordable Melton wool that his mother had ordered from England when he was a boy, sheathing him on the lowveld when the winter sun turned cold—she does not earn a second look, not even from the nurse who takes her to see him, in whom she confides: ‘I am his granddaughter.’

It is only angina. Not lethal, but serious. A fat file is written up for the doctors in Cambridge. Hasty excuses are made on the phone to Helen: he’d been hiking alone, very foolish. What can he say? She knows that ever since they came to America, he has missed the smell of the sea.

Selomé boards the city bus back to the Greyhound station, but not before she catches sight of the stylish, silver-haired woman filing through the doors of the emergency room, coming to sit on the same chair as she had, hands crossed in her lap, like a wife.


Two weeks, three days: that is how long he is put on bed rest. Time begins to impress new meaning on Harry. The days draw listless light across the shape of his bed. At sundown, he awaits Helen’s return from campus, her briefcase stocked with thoughtful cards from their students and well-meaning colleagues, her arms laden with the books for him that have arrived that day in the mail.

It is a new feeling: waiting for Helen. The sense of anticipation strikes him like a papercut. The same rituals of daily life have produced a new result.

Had he stowed a part of himself away from her, somehow? Or was it she, from him? How else can he explain, Harry now wonders, the sudden sense of distance that he feels, the sharp relief of rediscovery?

Love can expand your world and, as easily, contract it. Already there is the hollowing that begins before something disappears. The sense of shame, judgment and guilt.

He hears the key turn in the front door. Footsteps enter the hallway, the bags set down with a whoosh. A shuffling of the coat, the car keys, the closet door. Then always, always, the steps up the staircase—to him.


One day, Harry does not arrive at the hotel. Selomé is alone in the room. She cranes her neck over the little balcony, afraid, at the same time, to be seen.

Waiting for him, she had stood in front of the floor-length mirror, dressed in the coat he bought her. Piece-by-piece, she had disrobed: the jacket, blouse, long skirt, black nylons, the flimsy pair of cotton panties. Like a painting transformed with the knowledge that the model was once the artist’s lover, at every glance she thinks: I am a new person. I have changed.

Still, he doesn’t come. Two hours, no email, no word. Annoyed, she walks down to the lobby.

‘I’m supposed to meet someone,’ she says.

It is the steely-eyed valet at the desk.

‘Mister,’ she says. ‘I’m supposed to meet someone—here.’

The man takes her name, though there is no need; she is certain he remembers.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Someone came an hour ago. Paid for the room.’

‘He didn’t come up?’

‘Can’t say.’

A despair, like bile, in the throat. It is silly—practically foolish—but she presses on: ‘And no one had a medical emergency, did they? In the lobby?’

‘No,’ the man says. Adding with his eyes: Of course not.

Of course not.

The date is 28 March. Black leaves under the snow are turning to mulch that will bring blooms for the semester’s close. A column of anger rises up her throat, turns to a boil but has nowhere to go. In the part of the world where she is from, it will be weeks before they feel the relief of the warming sun.

Harry had given her no warning. Or had he? He’d been a little distracted lately, his head atilt when they spoke, eyes wandering the room. All this, she had chalked up to his illness.

It was the twenty-first century. Campus offices still had landlines. His number was publicly available in the university directory. But she would not stoop so low as to call him. She would never ask him for an answer. She made this vow immediately.

You’re a very smart girl, he’d once said to her. She could connect the dots.


He could not have known that the coat he’d replaced had once belonged to her dead father—she tells herself this in the coming weeks. She steels her heart against hate.

The coat still holds the scent of the Altoids he liked to carry, in a box that had broken open one day in her front left pocket. She could not afford to have it dry cleaned. She simply rubbed the grime off, insistently, just as he had rubbed her off.

He couldn’t have known, she repeats to herself. He was thoughtless, not sinister.


For longer than just the changing seasons, memory itself mouldered. Dying leaves fell and turned to dust. The sky opened like a sea-blue crater.

There she sees, as if for the first time, the old man sitting naked on the edge of the bed, in the hotel room. White sheets crumpled around the ankle, the failing body, which nonetheless had held her close.

She sees this image not with love, but with sourness: the after-love.

She had been an adult in the legal sense; that much was beyond dispute. Still, as her body continues to grow and change, as his once had—becoming fuller, stronger, surprising even herself; confidence is something one can read on the skin—she thinks, if I am a woman now, what was I before?

No answer comes. Just: before.


The sun is flush against the quiet lawn, students stepping with care between the roped-off paths that cordon the library from the far-away dorms, the day that he sees her again.

It has been three years since they last spoke. In that time, he has dutifully avoided the one library he knows she prefers, as well as the Sociology building with her office and desk.

Nevertheless, he has learned that she will graduate this month with honours and that she has received a professorship at a private college out west. He had taken care to learn this information from a distance. He would not want her to think of him as prying.

The sun is beating on the back of his neck when he and Helen turn down the familiar garden path to find her walking toward him. The older face beneath the corkscrew hair lifts for a moment, her dark eyes widening perceptibly in shock.

The path is only so narrow. They are sure to brush, shoulder to shoulder. The moment she passes, he turns his head.

‘Hello!’ he calls to her suddenly.

At his side, Helen continues walking. He cannot stop, he thinks, even for a moment. ‘Hello!’ she calls back.


He does not explain himself.

‘Thank you!’

Then that is all: the head turns back toward the falling light, locks closing around the shoulders.

At his side, Helen coughs loudly to let him know that he is walking too slowly, that she is trying to be patient with his ailing heart. He quickens his step to catch up with her. For a moment, just for a moment, he believes he is exactly where he belongs.


About the Author

Sarah Balakrishnan

Sarah Balakrishnan is a Canadian writer from Cambridge, Ontario. She is a graduate of McGill University and Harvard University. She teaches classes on history at Duke University. Sarah was the 2022 Narrative Prize winner, the 2021 winner of Narrative Magazine’s 30 Under contest, and a 2021 finalist for the Cecilia Joyce Johnson Award for Short […]