She said she loved him, but she knew she didn’t mean it. How could she have loved him – him? How could he have thought she did, believed such outright lies?
Except, that’s wrong; she didn’t know it completely. Yes, when he confessed to her one day he could never give her children, she looked him in the eye, and said it didn’t matter, they would adopt, be one big happy family – yes, she knew it didn’t matter because she wouldn’t want his children anyway. It was so easy to console and reassure him because none of it had any real consequences in her mind. After all, she was only 16. And besides, he was blind in one eye – a freak accident while on holiday once – so he’d never know how insincere her eye contact really was.
But all the same – that’s all easy to say now, now that everything has already happened. But the truth is she only faintly, subconsciously was aware of this. Closer to the surface, there was this frightened, lonely girl who had never had a proper boyfriend before in her life, and she just desperately wanted to be loved – so desperately that she was capable of putting on such a good show, even she started to believe maybe she really was in love.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he told her, and it was just what she needed to hear. ‘Some day, I’m going to take you to meet my family, and they’re going to be so surprised. They’ll ask who you are, and I’ll say you’re my girlfriend and I’m the luckiest man alive.’
She smiled at him, that same bemused smile she always gave him – like she didn’t quite believe she was awake, therefore she could respond any way she liked without worrying about the repercussions.
‘What makes you say I’m beautiful?’ she played along shamelessly. They were lying together, her in his arms, stretched out lengthwise against the ratty blue sofa in his tiny flat situated behind all the shops, as if it were a garage someone had decided to live in by mistake.
‘Well…you just are,’ he said, pushing knob-knuckled fingers through her dark loose hair.
‘But how would you know? You can barely even see me.’
She remembers he was taken aback by that, and even she has never been sure where that bitterness sprang from. But there it was, cold and callous, and she couldn’t seem to stop it. ‘You’re blind.’
‘Only in one –‘
‘And that makes it better? Face it, the only guy who’s ever found me attractive, and he can’t even see me. Am I meant to be flattered?’ Then she sat up suddenly and glared at him, this time into the good eye, so he knew just how terrible she was at that moment – so he feared her.
She knows better, now. She knows how much she crushed him. To turn his disability into something that shattered her own self-esteem – it was beyond cruel.
Well, there’s nothing I can do about it, now, she thinks. And it’s not just pessimism or weakness, or ego talking. She had the chance a thousand times before. Like when she ran into one of their former mutual friends last year.
‘Do you still talk to…?’ she had asked.
‘Yeah, all the time,’ he answered quickly, knowing who she meant. ‘He’s moved, bought himself a proper house now, up north.’
‘That’s really great,’ she smiled, then made some excuses, exchanged numbers despite both of them knowing they’d probably never use them, and she rushed off awkwardly.
As she boarded the tram home, there was that unrealised inclination to send a message to the phone number she’d just been given. Nothing complex, no desire to get in touch again. Just a simple, ‘Tell him I’m sorry.’ And maybe something like, ‘He’s a good person, and I was unhappy. I shouldn’t have said yes when he begged me to be with him. Maybe we could have remained friends, and I wouldn’t have hurt him.’ Because really her hate had nothing to do with him….
But today, she got a phone call while she was working. She couldn’t answer it at the time, just heard the message on her voicemail. It was that mutual friend. She believes things happen for a reason, and obviously the reason she ‘accidentally’ re-established contact with him last year was so she could get this call.
‘I need to speak to you – as soon as possible.’ He said nothing else, but somehow, instinctively, she knew what he would tell her.
‘He’s dead,’ he confirmed her suspicions later, when she was ready to call. ‘He was all alone, the body was in there for days before someone realised he’d dropped out of contact. They broke down the door and found him at the foot of the stairs.’ His voice was choked. He was half-crying, and she had no idea what to say. Men hardly ever cry – isn’t that the cliché? When they do, her instinctual feeling is that things have really gone wrong.
‘I’m sorry – that’s awful,’ she said weakly.
‘I’m sorry I’m saying all this. It’s just…I know how close you were. I thought you had a right to know.’ That was when she had to end the call.
Close? She hardly knew him. And he didn’t know her at all, despite imagining he did. He was the one who made out to everyone that they had such a deep relationship. Never mind how much older he was, and how stupid she was, yet how much older she felt in contrast to his impossible underdevelopment. Never mind that they only dated for three weeks. And never mind that she insulted and mocked him every time they were in public and he said something so stupid, she didn’t want to be associated with him in people’s minds. Never mind all that; they were in love.
* * *
He was alone when it happened. All alone, like one of her deepest fears. Not that he cared, at the time. After all, he didn’t know what was about to happen. He was just getting ready to sit in the lounge and watch some morning television and eat a bowl of corn flakes. He had just taken a shower and wrapped himself in his dark blue robe, the one with the ridiculously long belt that hung a bit no matter how much he tied it. He stepped onto the top landing, turned with the stairs. Then, three steps down, he stepped on the end of his belt and tumbled downward. He instinctively tried to stop his fall, and grabbed the banister with his left arm, but the velocity was too strong and all he managed to do was twist his arm and hurtle backwards, finally taking all the impact on his head, at the bottom. It was instant. He lay on the floor three days, arm bent out in a strange direction, neck snapped, head almost backwards. Like a demon had got into him.
* * *
Whenever it’s dark like this, she can’t seem to stop herself imagining how her own death will be – tonight, more than ever. Every time she shuts her eyes, she feels it hanging over her, watching her, like an unacknowledged inevitability. She opens her eyes quickly and surveys the room, only to find that, of course, she is alone. Just like he was.
* * *
‘We’ve arranged a memorial service a week tomorrow.’
‘I, uh…well, I thought you’d want to know.’
‘Yes, I did – I do. Thank you,’ she stutters. ‘I won’t be there.’
Because she never really liked him, she couldn’t wait to be rid of him when he was alive, fought so hard to get away from that part of her past, and now that he’s dead….
‘I can’t handle it.’ And it’s the truth – even if incomplete.
She first sees him on the tram. He’s with three other men. Their clothes are old, worn and unwashed; their hair ragged and unkempt, or cut so short and so badly, they must have done it to each other themselves; their faces desperate as they tip a bag of cheap crisps upside down so not a single crumb is wasted; their smell so strong and repulsive, she wishes she didn’t seem so rude and callous, but she has no choice but to step away from them.
She recognises three of them. She passes them each day on her way to the job she constantly complains about – avoids their eyes, turns up the volume on her headphones and pretends she doesn’t hear them – tries to ignore how much they would kill for that job of hers. She feels guilt, shame, pity, despair at the state of the world – blames the government: why can’t they find these men somewhere to live and eat? And where are their families? She’s never been staggeringly well-off herself, but she always had her family to fall back on in times of need. Somehow, things have always worked out.
She stands motionless now, hoping her heated thoughts will distract her from the smell floating toward her – and her eyes catch on something.
The fourth man.
Impossible…, she thinks. Then, Uncanny…he looks just like him.
Indeed, he has the same fading stature, the same awkward bones almost rattling against each other; the same worn jeans, too big for his frail figure, hanging oddly about his repulsive pelvis; the same facial shape, the skull pushing its way into the near-white skin, the too-short hair, silver-blond, pale lips – and above all, the same eyes. Rather, the same eye to be more precise. One eye freely moves about, from one object to the next, while the other…it sits in place, frozen: glass.
And it’s the same eye he was blind in.
If he weren’t dead, I would swear blind – I would swear that was him. Except….
Except he was always kind, caring – too caring, in fact. He loved too easily, and got over a person not so easily. She wronged him by treating him so viciously. She always knew it. All he wanted was love.
But not this man. Even with just one eye, the look of cold bitter hatred is all over his face.
* * *
She looks at the accompanying note:
‘We’ve put together a small video collection, to keep him alive as long as we are. I thought you might want a copy, to remember him in your own way.’
‘Great, that’s just what I need,’ she grumbles, tossing away the card and staring at the video.
No. Not now.
* * *
‘I love you,’ he said. ‘I love you so much. You are my whole world. I will die without you. I miss you, I can’t take it, I miss you so much. I miss everything about you. I need you. I swear it, I will die without you.’
And he kept his promise.
* * *
The camera first snaps a close-up of him as he struggles with a lighter. He can’t get the candle lit, atop the tacky cake prepared for their friend’s birthday. Then it pulls away to take in a panoramic view of the guests. She stands somewhere at the back so no one can see the expression on her face.
(Why can’t he even light a candle? How hard is it to do this one little stupid thing? I feel like grabbing the lighter and setting him on fire. Then he’d see how simple it is to make it work.)
Next, a shot at the bar –
(where he spent every waking moment of his life –)
laughing along with friends at some joke that hasn’t made its way onto the tape.
(It wasn’t funny, anyway.)
The image of him dancing to some music blaring into the camera’s microphone until the sound is distorted. He seems so happy –
(‘You’re so beautiful –’)
surrounded by so many friends –
(‘How the hell would you know?’)
people who love him –
and I was never really one of them. It was all a lie.
* * *
He stops her as she steps off the tram, and she almost screams when she seems him. His double.
It takes her a moment to realise he’s asking for money. A completely negligible amount. It wouldn’t hurt her to comply with his pitiful request. Yet –
‘No,’ she shouts. ‘I don’t owe you anything!’ And she turns and runs home as fast as her feet will carry her.
* * *
When he approaches her again, the following day, she freezes in surprise. She was up all night going over the incident, deciding her reaction was, of course, absurd. The poor man probably had no idea what she was talking about. After all, it’s not like he’s some ghost, come back to haunt me, she laughed it off. Now, upon seeing him again, she’s not so sure.
‘What do you want from me?’
He looks back at her, either highly confused or all too knowing; she can’t be certain. Then, impatiently, ‘Fine, you want money? Here,’ and she presses some coins into his cold, shaking hands – and again runs away.
* * *
When she sees him again, the next day, he seems to have been waiting especially for her. She cannot help but ask, ‘Why me? Why don’t you ask someone else? I’m sure there are others who will give you money.’
He looks back at her, one eye on hers, never moving, and the other moving a little too much, sizing her up in a way she doesn’t like.
‘Come on, what do you want?’ she rattles nervously.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he suddenly makes out – and it hits her so sharply, she can hardly catch her breath.
* * *
He says it again the next afternoon. ‘You’re so beautiful.’ And this time, he even adds, ‘I’ve always wanted a woman like you.’
‘You don’t even know me,’ she spits out venomously, and he stares back at her as though recognising her words – like they’ve had this conversation before.
Except she’s never met him before. He’s a bum, isn’t he? Nothing more than a bum. She passes him each day on the streets –
Wait…no, I haven’t. In fact, I’ve never seem him on the streets. Not like the others on the tram that day, I knew all of them.
And come to think of it, none of them actually interacted with him. I just assumed they were together because he looked like he was falling apart. God, I can be so mean – but he did. But now that I remember it….
And, on top of all that – how is he riding the tram every single day without ever getting caught for not buying a ticket?
This is insane; you’re losing your mind. He’s just some ordinary bum who happens to bear a resemblance to someone you used to know. So what? They say everyone has a double out there somewhere. It’s genetics, not some evil spirit. After all, there can be only so many confutations of features.
You know what’s happening to you, though, don’t you? You’ve been on your own too long. You’re getting paranoid. You know you don’t do well alone….
And it’s not like you don’t have good reason to be afraid of being alone. After all, that’s what killed him.
* * *
He follows her down the road this time, and she’s scared to go to her house, for fear one day she’ll look out the window and see his face impassively staring back at her in the dark.
She stops in place and spins around to face him nervously, then shouts, ‘What the hell do you want from me?’
Unfazed, he answers, ‘To talk. Not for long. Just a little bit – to know you.’
‘What are you? A bum? An eccentric?’
He considers her words a moment before saying, ‘I was once as you are today – and I am now what you will be one day.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘No. A simple truth.’
Internally, her mind fights for a solution to this unpleasant situation, and at last she agrees to comply. ‘Alright. 15 minutes, tomorrow afternoon, on this street.’
* * *
‘Do you have family around here?’ she asks him, as they walk up and down the same road, complying with her rules that they don’t stray too far.
‘No,’ he speaks slowly. ‘At least, I can’t speak to them anymore.’
‘Severed relations?’ she guesses, ignoring the other idea whispering in the back of her head.
‘Something like that.’
‘No. No one talks to me. I’m all alone.’
She looks down at her black-booted feet and nods. ‘So am I,’ she finds herself telling him.
‘Why are you alone?’ he asks with genuine interest, and for the first time it occurs to her that it’s winter and he, in just jeans and a t-shirt, seems oblivious to the cold.
‘I’m not sure,’ she says. ‘I’m sure it’s my own fault, though. I…I push people away. They think I’m mean or arrogant. They don’t realise actually I’m just very shy.’
‘Why would they think you’re mean?’ he questions, and she looks at him suspiciously.
‘Um…because sometimes…sometimes I am, I guess.’
‘Yes, you are,’ he agrees coldly, making her glare at him sharply.
‘How dare you! How can you stand there and judge me as if you have any idea who I am!’
‘I know you better than you think. I always did.’
Her eyes grow large, unmoving from his face – but he just walks on, steadily, head forward and calm, his expression hard but blank.
‘I used to have a brother. And a mother. I loved them so dearly, you know. I would love them to meet you, if I could speak to them now. They would be so proud of me, to see me walk in with such a beautiful woman at my side. To be able to call you mine.’ He says all this without pausing or blinking.
‘I will never belong to anyone. That isn’t love.’
‘Then – what is?’ he snaps, jerking his head in her direction, one eye still looking somewhere to the side of her, locked. ‘You must have some explanation for love if you can tell me my own is wrong.’
She is so startled, she hardly knows how to respond. Then, ‘Well…I’m not sure exactly. But it’s about giving each other the freedom to be oneself – not being ashamed of who you naturally are, not having to compromise yourself –‘
‘And have you always done this?’
‘And have you ever said you loved a person, but not lived up to your own definitions?’
‘I…I’m sure I have. I’m sure everyone has, at some point,’ her head drops down to look at the ground again, with growing anxiety. No, no, no, it isn’t him – even if I forget the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts…he’d never speak to me this way…it’s not him, it’s not him, it’s….
‘Tell me about myself,’ he orders in a menacing, commanding tone.
‘What – what do you mean?’ she’s shaken out of her thoughts. They both freeze in place, at the side of the road. She stands but a foot away from him and mentally calculates how long it would take her to run back to her house.
In answer to the question she asked but has already forgotten from fear, he says nothing but burrows his glare into the sockets of her eyes.
She finds herself spluttering, ‘I cared about you, I really did. At first. Well, no. I don’t know if I cared. I just…you were the first one to really fall head over heels for me. I’d never felt so desirable before. All anyone else tried to do was use me. They never said I was beautiful, or even just pretty – which sometimes means even more than beautiful. And then there you were….
‘But you fell too hard, wanted me too much. You gave me too much power. I could do whatever I wanted to you and you didn’t seem to care. You just sat there and took it – and I lost all my respect for you. You were so weak.’
He takes a step forward, and likewise she steps backward, away from him. ‘Did it ever occur to you,’ he suggests, ‘there’s a lot of strength in ignoring abuse and understanding your abuser’s own unhappiness – in forgiving, and continuing to love?’
‘What are you saying?’ she makes out, darting her eyes sideways toward her house down the road.
‘I’m saying,’ he looks at her levelly, ‘that you were the one who was weak – you were the one who was blind! You think you understand people so well, but you know nothing. Let me tell you about yourself:
‘You have never known how to talk to people, or reach out. You were offered the opportunity of love, and you rejected it, saw it as a weakness. You trampled it and ridiculed it. Then, when even you developed a conscience about it and wanted to apologise, you couldn’t even bring yourself to say two little words. And now, I’m dead. You can never make amends or find peace inside, because it’s over.’
‘You bastard,’ she cuts out in charged breath. ‘You never loved me. You just wanted a trophy to bring back to upstage your brother. You were shallow and easily infatuated. And now I’m face to face with you again, all I want to say is that I hate you. I have always hated you, because you’re like a symbol of the lowest point in my life. That is why I walked away, why I couldn’t open the doors again. I never wanted to return to that place, I swore I wouldn’t go back. I wanted to die – and I am not about to become that person again.’
And now he smiles, one eye still glassy and motionless. ‘But you never moved on. You’re still that person. You can run from everyone who ever beheld you at your worst, but in the end you can never run from yourself.’
‘That’s not true! I’ve changed!’ she screams, ‘I have a job, I’ve got a house, I exercise, I’m happy! Fuck! Don’t tell me I’m not – I’ve fought long and hard to be this person. I deserve this. I don’t need you coming back here and bringing up the past – you’re dead! You’re fucking dead – I am the future!’
He doesn’t laugh this time, just stares impassively again.
‘Your 15 minutes are up,’ she snaps and runs home.
* * *
She feels it as she turns the corner onto her street. Nothing physical, just a mental sensation, like someone’s standing around that corner. It slows her down, stops her and makes her cautiously peer her head around to see. Nothing there. Like all those times she’s been in the lobby at her office when the lift has suddenly pinged for the next boarder – arrived, opened its doors, waited for someone invisible to climb in, then shot off to deliver no one to some other floor.
She still can’t shake that feeling, as she approaches the darkened drive of her house. It narrows at the back near the fence. Someone could be hiding in the shadows, could have snuck through the dodgy fence, into the garden and be waiting out back for her.
Or maybe they’re hiding behind the enormous bush that covers the front of her house. That’s what she thinks as she walks a bit further past the building and looks behind her, just in case. Again, nothing there.
Frantic anyway, she hurriedly digs her keys out of her bag. ‘Of course, at a moment like this, I can’t find them,’ she mutters, shoving things around until she finally manages to spot them, only to find her hands shaking so much, it’s hard to get them in the lock and actually open the door
Entering, she almost runs in, slamming the door behind her before she can see whatever it is she has the inexplicable impression is standing behind her, trying to follow her in.
But then, once inside, she feels it all around her, invisible fingers running along her arms, or waiting out of the corner of her eye.
She storms through the house, slamming on every light in every room – spinning about, taking in every angle, every nook and cranny, assuring herself nothing is there.
‘That’s what I thought,’ when she sees she is, indeed, alone and all doors and windows are locked. ‘You’re just stressed out. You need to relax, have a bath or something.’
But as she goes up the stairs she feels it moving behind her still. Trying to ignore it, fighting it with logic, she continues upwards.
When she reaches the landing, she hears the TV flash on in her bedroom.
‘That’s impossible,’ she says aloud, like that makes the statement more real. ‘All of this is impossible.’
But what’s the alternative? That you’re hallucinating? That you imagined an entire conversation with a dead man just a short time ago?
Standing with her back pressed into the wall (at least no one can come at her from behind), she takes some long, deep breaths. ‘There’s got to be a reasonable explanation for all this,’ she talks to herself. ‘I’m just going to go in there and face it. It’s only a TV.’
Shakily, she enters the room and sees the camera moving in close on his face.
‘All I ever wanted was to love you,’ he whispers.
‘Stop!’ she pounds her fists on and into the television until it turns off.
And behind her, some girl’s voice from the distant past: ‘Why did you stop speaking to me? We were such good friends.’
Then, from somewhere above her head, as though buried in the lamp, a boy who once sat beside her in an English class, ‘I never knew why you disappeared, or even where you went. I was so worried – I thought you hated me.’
‘I didn’t hate you!’ she cries to the ceiling. ‘It was me, all me! I just couldn’t handle it, knowing you might always be remembering what I used to be like – ‘
‘Why – why – why – why –‘ a chorus chants through the windows.
And from under the floorboards, the rattling, ‘I never understood –‘
‘I loved you,’ the TV flashes on again –
‘Stop, stop stop!’ she screams, her voice breaking in terrified tears. ‘I wanted to tell you, to tell you all, to explain. There was no way we could have been friends again – but I did want to find you at least, to tell you how sorry I’ve always been! I wish I could change it all, could change who I was, could find you, could tell you, could make you believe – but I can’t – ‘
Then she feels it – like some amorphous or even invisible force, gnawing on the outer layer of her skin, digging and clawing, tearing at the flesh on her chest, pulling her hair out and ripping into her scalp – tunnelling its way inside, despite her thrashing struggle – until she feels it deep in her brain, and in her heart.
She runs out of the room, still struggling to fight off her attackers, when the force bites too hard inside her.
And, as her chest seizes up and she hurtles downstairs to her solitary death, the thought flickers through her mind: Who do I have left, to come looking for me?