I’m not going to ask

The dance floor is crowded and I’m already sweating. At the far end of the bar, I see a huddle of my good friends. Max is wearing a nice shirt today. Rose has curled her hair. They’ve all made an effort and I’m wearing the same old bomber jacket I always wear because I realised something this afternoon. None of it even matters.

They beckon me over. Loudly maybe, but I can’t hear over the music. I do my best to look nonchalant but it’s already three in the morning and I don’t feel like doing anything other than curling up in my bed with the woman who doesn’t want me anymore.

I know she’s here. And it’s just a matter of time until I see her, until we’re together again. I was nervous earlier, even giddy but now I’m just filled with dread. What do I say to her, if I get the chance? And how do I talk to her without bursting into tears?

I wonder what she’ll be wearing.

Once I’m with the others, I’m passed around like a new puppy. Hugs. Kisses. I swear someone ruffles my hair. I feel like a spare wheel tonight and a circus animal, carefully handled and not at all necessary. But they pretend they’re excited because I stuffed myself into this bomber jacket and came out of hiding.

I can’t even remember the last time we were out like this. All the times before, I was wrapped up in her. Wrapped up in how to get with her, get her home. I was a man on a mission and I never got to savour any of this. The camaraderie. The gestures. The way Max and I can communicate with just a look. The little things. It’s the little things I miss about her too.

I have to admit it’s a struggle not asking where she is. It’s a struggle staying focused, keeping my eyes on the person I’m talking to. I want to enjoy this story about Lexi’s prick of a boss. Or at least pretend. But it’s coming off as overly interested as I lean heavily on the bar and incline my head ever so slightly to take in not just her, but the rest of the room. If she is here, is this how I want her to find me? Lexi touching my arm. Playing with her hair.

I yell at myself in my head. What is going to think if she sees me seemingly flirting with Lexi? Is she going to think I’m okay? Because I am not okay.

What if she’s not here?

Look, I don’t care. I’m not bothered. I’m just here to see my friends and have a good time and who cares that it took me four hours to leave the house? The point is I did it, and it doesn’t matter that the thought that got me out of the door, finally, was of her. How she smells. The sound she makes when I kiss her neck. The way she grips my hair when-

None of it matters. I showed up. That’s the point. I showed up and she didn’t.

So I win. Right? I win.

But as the music swells, and the bodies move away from the bar onto the dance floor, it’s taking everything inside mennot to ask, not to scream at the group that has gathered here for the sole purpose of abounding this issue ‘WHERE THE FUCK IS SHE?’

I need her.

I can’t help it.

Not just tonight, I need her all the time and it’s selfish of her not to show her face. Not to give me something to fall asleep to tonight.

So selfish. She’s so fucking selfish and if she were here I’d tell her.

Once we were in bed together. Again. Like it ought to be. I’d tell her.

For sure.

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I’m not blaming you

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the girl. Some people can’t control who and when they are. That’s probably a good thing, probably even helpful. But for the rest of us, people like me and you for instance, we know only too well the darkness that dwells within us. The anger, the sadness. And we know what that can do to people. Seen it ravage the people we love. Seen it scare away the people we love.

I just think if you can’t get a handle on it, you shouldn’t go out into the world. It’s not fair to the unsuspecting, spreading your vile disease.

Maybe I don’t count as the unsuspecting because I know what she is. It doesn’t change the fact, though, that it scares me. Not because I can’t face her, should I have to. Not because I think, if we met in a dark alley, only one of us would come out alive. But because I don’t want to. Does that make sense?

Because without proper care and thought, a lot of self check ins and journal entries and meditation, I would be the same. So what I’m saying is, it’s not safe for me to be around her. I can barely keep a lid on all of my own issues. What I don’t need is someone coming along- a truly shitshow of a person coming along- and tempting that stuff out of its precariously secured jar.

Now, I know that’s maybe not the right thing. I know the right thing would be to befriend her, observe her, guide her really, to the place where we are. Able to keep ourselves intact and go about our day without everyone knowing how much vitriol is below the surface. You see a person drowning, and your supposed to help, right? But, the thing is, I can’t swim. I’m just not in a position to do that. I’m not able to save myself and save her too. And no matter how many times you say ‘oh, but she’s different now’ is going to change that.

Sure, you can say ‘well, that says more about you than her’ and you’re probably right. But have you ever heard the phrase: ‘you have to think about what’s right for you’? If I don’t show up for myself, make decisions to look after myself, who am I really helping? If I go on this trip and blow up, if I go on this trip and am miserable the whole time, I’m not doing anyone any favours. I’m screwing it all up, and it seems like you’re going to have enough chaos without me coming apart and adding to it.

So call it selfish, call it self care, I’m not too fussed, but I cannot be involved with this. I’ve spent too much time thinking of other people. I gotta start thinking about me. I gotta start doing what’s best for me.

Traffic light

At the crossing, I waited for the light to turn green.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Sacha has already crossed the road and was now crossing back to me.

I didn’t say anything

What the hell are your waiting for?

The road was quiet. I didn’t even need to come up to the light, I could have crossed anywhere I pleased. But that wasn’t the point. I was taking advantage of the mundanity. Pressing the button, watching the WAIT sign light up, patiently looking at the red, then the amber. It was familiar and new at the same time. More vibrant and powerful than I remembered. Then suddenly it dawned on me.

I grew up around here.

Then you know you can just cross the bloody road when there’s no cars!

He marched off and I followed, quicker than before. More excited.

Around the corner. Here. that’s my primary school!

I pointed at a red brick building, something from the Victorian era. Slate roof. Iron railings. One of the bay windows on the third floor noticeably replaced because Tyler Williams has kicked a ball through it in Year Three.

Congratulations. Sacha said, unamused.

Did you grow up around here?

Yeah.

Yeah, it made sense. Those trainers, I had seen them before on many boys. In the playground, on the benches at the back of the dog park that my mum had told me to avoid. I’d seen them hanging around the off license, stubbing out roll ups. Kicking some poor boy’s head in because he’s strayed too far from his postcode.

Do you think that’s why they put us together? I mused, looking at those trainers as they sped away from me now.

Sacha stopped and turned abruptly.

We are not together. He growled. They placed us in the same neighbourhood because it’s a familiar neighbourhood. That’s all. There’s no ‘together’ here. Do you understand? You’re on your own. I’m on my own. We are all just on our own.

I don’t know why it hurt me. Maybe it felt like a rejection, like a truth I couldn’t utter. But it hit me like a gut punch and all I could think to do was hit him back.

Then maybe I should go on my own. You didn’t want to come anyway. So go. Fuck off back home to your flat and your pasta!

Oh, I will! And no need to thank me! It’s not like you’ve derailed my afternoon.

What afternoon? Eating tinned tomatos and broccoli? Sounds like a hoot.

Better than slitting my wrist or whatever you were going to do.

You’re an arsehole.

And you’re a spoilt bitch.

Then go!

I’m going!

He turned back in the direction of the house and swept past me.

Then a drop of water hit my face.

Oh my God!

What?

Did you just spit at me?

Spit at you? Do I look like the kind of guy who fucking spits on people?

Another drop. I touched my face.

What is that?

I told you, didn’t I? I told you. Hurry. Up. And now it’s raining.

It’s raining?

It’s bloody raining!

Outside

Light.

Not that there hadn’t been light before, but I mean, real light. Natural light.

I couldn’t see the sun per se- the clouds were heavy, jostling it out of the way- but there was something up there. Something real.

There were stairs to the right of the fire exit, concrete with metal bannisters. Sacha descended two steps at a time while I followed along, like a child weary of falling. It felt awkward . I couldn’t work out if I had forgotten how to climb or if I had grown afraid of it.

How high are we? I asked, clinging to the handrail.

Are you going to keep asking me dumb questions the whole way? His voice echoed in the stairwell.

Depends. Are you going to keep answering them like that?

Seventh floor. Camden house. Commit it to memory so I don’t have to go over it again.

I didn’t know what to make of Sacha. He seemed annoyed at me, bored of me and yet he had agreed to take me on this journey. I have never understood why people agree to things they don’t want to do. Was it just so they could feel superior, be unpleasant? Whatever it was, it just made me want to needle him more. I needed to see how far I could push him. Learn his limits, in a unsophisticated way.

Downstairs, I stood on the pavement and waited for the chill to hit me. What hit me instead was the absolute silence. It was the middle of the day, we were on a street that should have been busy. Yet there was no one around.

That’s not entirely true. There were people. I saw a middle aged man pushing a buggy full of groceries and a woman standing by the bus stop with long grey hair. But there were no cars, no kids. No open windows, no music. It could probably be described as calm, but it mostly stirred the disquiet in me.

Hurry up! Sacha moaned. It’s going to rain soon.

He was ahead of me, marching a brisk walk. His feet barely touched the ground. He wasn’t floating, I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype. But he was a step away from running. Speed walking, like an old lady working out in a informercial. I, on the other hand, moved as though my boots were made of lead. The soles of my feet seemed to savour the cold, hard ground and every step felt like I was wrenching two old friends apart. I could see Sacha glancing over his shoulder at my slow progress. I half wanted him to leave me behind so I could actually enjoy the walk, and half wanted to leash him to me so I wouldn’t be left alone. Of all the people, in all this dead earth, I had to be saddled with the reluctant spirit guide.

Outfit

I didn’t realise how long it would take to get dressed. It was my first day trip out and it had to be impactful. I stood in front of the wardrobe and fingered the clothes I had been given. It was all neutral. No loud colours, no patterns. How could I piece together something momentous with a toolbox that only had screws?

I thought about the wardrobe I used to have. My mum bought it when I was about 8, white with a gold handle. I had it all the way until I died and by then then the gold paint had chipped off and one of the doors was hanging awkwardly off its hinges.

Inside hung a mismatch of charity finds. I had long dogtooth coat that I loved. It as two sizes too big and I had replaced the buttons with military buttons that grandad collected. I would wear it over everything, along with a pair of earrings my brother had given me for my 21st. I always wore one of them in the top of my ear. I’d switch them out every couple of months to stop the hole from closing up. It hurt but I liked the sensation.

Now they had been replaced with a plain silver stud. Regulation I assume. I reached up and twisted them round but the sensation wasn’t the same.

Sacha appeared in the doorway.

I said quickly. He frowned when he saw I was still in my pyjamas.

Where’d you get those trainers from? I asked, still examining my new clothes.

These?

He reached down and wiped a scuff with spit and his finger.

I found them, I guess.

Where?

In the house. They were there when I got here.

And they fit you?

It all fits you. That’s why it’s still here.

I turned to him, wondering if he meant to be so profound. But he was just standing with his hands in his pockets, scraping his shoes along the skirting board.

Give me a second.

When I rejoined him on the landing I was wearing a denim skirt, tights, a pale cable knit jumper, a wool coat and a pair of black boots. And just like he said, they all fit.

Ready?

I nodded.

He mooched past me and pushed the fire exit open.

Plastic bag

We stood in the living room kitchenette. Sacha put his bag on the counter and wandered over to the stack of books on the coffee table. He picked one up, flicked through the pages. He held a photograph of a woman underneath a lamppost up to show me.

You buy these? He asked.

No. They were here when I arrived.

He nodded, to flick through the book. I looked at his bag. I could see a packet of fusilli pasta. Fresh brocolli. Salmon.

Where’d you get these?

What?

He turned around.

Oh. The supermarket.

Supermarket?

Yeah. You know what a supermarket is,?right?

Yes. I just didn’t know they had those here.

He went back to flicking through the book.

They’ve got everything here, if you look hard enough.

Everything?

He put the book down.

Didn’t you see it on the tour?

What tour?

When you arrived? Don’t they do that anymore?

There wasn’t a tour. Or maybe there was, but I missed it.

Missed it?

I was…late.

I don’t understand-

I was in Sweden. I died in Sweden.

Oh. He picked up another book. Probably thought you’d figure it out after you walked through duty free.

He flicked through this book with his back to me.

So there’s a supermarket. I said.

Yes. And bookshops and a salon.

A salon?

Haven’t you been outside?

Outside?

He put the book down and looked at me. I don’t know what I must have looked like but whatever he saw made him uncomfortable. He picked up his bag.

I should go.

He rushed towards the door while I stood, mouth agape.

Wait. I want to go outside!

He opened the front door.

Then go.

I- don’t want to get lost.

You won’t. And even if you do, none of that matters anymore.

Please, I said, pleading from the door way. Can’t you just come with me?

He had his key in his front door. It was open and I could see the pastel blue walls in the grey afternoon light. I thought he was about to go in and shut the door on me, but he didn’t. He reluctantly put his bag down in his hall and turned around.

You can go on your own. He said wearily.

I can’t.

We all have to gin our own eventually. Just step out onto the landing.

I can’t.

Just do it. One foot in front of the other-

I can’t!

It came out in a choked gasp. I was annoyed at myself and annoyed at him. He was talking to me like I was being stupid, like I was the unnatural one in the scenario. Silly me for not knowing my around our holding cell. He stared at me with something between annoyance and pity. I stared back with something between dread and defiance. Of course he cracked first.

Go, get dressed. He said wearily. I’ll wait for you here.

Promise?

Hurry up.

I rushed back into my bedroom without closing the door. I expected to hear him slam his door shut and slide a giant heavy bolt across. But he was there, hands in his windbreaker pockets, kicking the doorframe with his dirty trainers, when I came back.

Sometimes I can’t get out of bed

I don’t always do the balcony/alcove/ landing routine. Sometimes I just lie in bed and wail. No actual tears, just the sounds. I’m not sure I can cry here. Believe me, I’ve tried. So instead I resort to this, lying in bed making pained noises.

I’m not aware of the volume. I am only aware of the breathing. The sucking in of air and the ache of it leaving me. I have on many occasions laid there and not breathed. Held my breath for hours. I counted. But it makes no difference. I do not die because I am already dead.

Being dead is so boring. My only source of entertainment is my own pain. I think about my life. All the things that I have missed, am missing, and will miss. And I begin my to wail.

That is what I am doing today. That is what I’m doing when I hear a knock at the front door.

At first I think I must be the pipes. I’ve been here for weeks and the only sound I’ve heard is the boiler rumbling when I turn on the hot tap, or my feet as I step across the floor boards, or the rustle of the curtains when I looming behind them.

But then I realise my bedroom window is shut and I am under the covers.

It’s definitely a knock. Several knocks.

I get up cautiously and tiptoe to the door. I look out of the spyhole and I see- nothing. It’s been painted over.

I hover. I think to myself: if there’s another knock, I’ll answer but if not I’ll sneak back to my bed, and continue with my wailing. I do not wish to be disturbed

Yet, I wait. I hover. I want to turn back but then I see the alcove. Hear the buzz of a party that is yet to happen. I should open the door. Maybe I imagined the knock, but I won’t know for sure unless I-

I open the door.

There is a man in windbreaker and stonewashed jeans, staring at his feet. Brown hair, tall nose. He seems surprised to see me. But not as surprised as I am to see those stonewashed jeans and the plastic bag he is clutching.

What’s going on? He says. His accent is a little softer than mine, but it’s nice. Familiar.

What?

I heard moaning. Loud moaning.

Where?

Here. I’m sure it was coming from here. I stood here and listened. Was it you?

Was what me?

The moaning.

Who are you?

He looks at me with narrowed grey eyes.

I’m Sacha.

How did you get here?

I walked here. I live over there.

He points to the door opposite.

I’m Daphne, I say. Would you like to come in?

Is someone else in there?

No, I say stepping aside and opening the door wider. Just me.

He looks at me. Looks past me, into the hall. He looks as if he’s going to say something else but then he steps in side, with his dirty white trainers. Hands in pockets, plastic bag filled to the brim, rustling at his side.