A room with a small bed

I’m asleep. I think.

No, I’m in bed and I’m awake, but my eyes are closed.

No. I am above myself. Watching myself. One of me is asleep and one of me, the one above, is watching. The one below, starts moving. She’s being dragged, actually, by her feet.

No. I can’t see that. I can just see…She’s in the bed and then she’s on the floor. She’s moving into the corridor, the hallway, through the the front door into the night. But she isn’t walking. She is floating, levitating. And it’s like someone, something is dragging her along. Taking her somewhere.

But I’m with her. So it’s not like she can really go anywhere. Because I’m always watching.

It’s a metaphor. I get that now. At first I thought it was a dream, or a vision. Like my subconscious was trying to tell me something, show me something that I couldn’t see in the daylight, couldn’t see with my eyes.

But now I know, it wasn’t trying to show me something new. It was telling me something. I was telling myself something. I’m saying – You watch us. You police us. You won’t less us be free. Except the ‘you’ is me. I’m doing this to myself.


I was disjointed for a long time. There V and there was me. V was an extension, a creation. Polished, controlled, presented for whatever duties I was given. V planned the missions. V conducted the missions. V reported back. I was inside her, moving the arms and the legs but in all the ways that mattered, I was removed. I was removed in how I spoke, how I acted, how I thought. V seemed to be a whole other person, a separate entity who shared my features and my voice and my skills but used them differently. Used them wrong.

Until night.

Night was when the terrors came. The dreams, the memories. Night was when I heard my mother wail for me so loudly, I thought she was in the room with me. Hiding under the bed. In the cupboard. Hanging on the door, just out of sight. I looked some days. Tore the room apart but she wasn’t in there. She was never there. A few times, I called my dad to ask him where she was.

‘Baby, she’s gone.’ He’d say.

‘How do you know that for a fact?’

‘Because I cremated her body.’

It wasn’t enough to silence her voice, though. Sometimes it would simmer down, she’d be more of  murmur than scream. But it was always there at night. She was always asking me why I left her there.

There was only one person who could put my mind at ease. He would sit with me and say

‘What do you remember?’

‘She’s in a room, and she’s strapped to the bed’

‘That’s not a memory. What do you remember?’

And I would think, really think. Think about her hair and her smile. The feel of her hand on mine. Her nails. Her wedding ring.

‘She used to make my clothes. Cardigans and dresses and shorts and socks. She’d sit at the sewing machine and I’d watch her. She’d say

Baby, do you want to help? And I be to shy to say yes. But she’d scoot over in her chair and pat the space she’d made and I’d scoot in. She’d take my hand and put it on material.

Hold it steady now, she’d say. And her foot would start to pedal and the wheel would go round and the needle bob up and down and tug at the material and I would keep it straight.

Did I do a good job, mummy?

And the voice would stop. Gone back to wherever it dwelled. Tears would stream down my face and he’d smile his half smile. Not a joyful one, Not a sad one. Just his smile. The Gray smile.


I used to think the dream was about him. They had started before, but it was worse when we were separated. I used to think it was a warning about how he was leading me astray. Distracting me from aims. Distracting V from her duties. So at night my body, her body, our body was trying to return to its purpose.

Then as time went on and I was climbing the walls, I thought that it meant that our souls were tied. All those nights spent together, telling each other about our memories, we’d accidentally transferred a bit of ourselves into the other. In my sleep, the parts of him that were part of me were seeking him out.

But the more time I spent alone, the more I realised it was about me and V, he and V. About how I was always watching them. Always outside myself watching, the two of us.  I never enjoyed the experience. I just stayed locked in my head, watching him and her. Watching him helping her. Watching her spilling our secrets, willing her to stop. Wondering what his game was, what his angle was. When he was going to double cross, because he would eventually. They always did. It was just a matter of time. So I never relaxed, not until that last second, when my mind was quiet, closing down and he changed, before my weary eyes, from a man to an idea to a light. A night light.

And I would nestle into him, cling to his torso like an anchor to keep me rooted.

I never floated away when I was with him. Not once. I slept and did not dream. And in the morning, I’d wake up where I lay my head. And I took that for granted.

I think that’s what my dream is about. All the the things I took for granted.

 

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At the end

I have this fantasy.

When it’s all done, when it’s all over and we’re eventually stood down, you and I…I know we’re not supposed to but it would be you and I. We’d load up the old minibus. Burn anything else that doesn’t fit. You would stop straightening your hair. I would stop bleaching mine. We’d go to the old house and dig up the ‘treasure chest’ and take only what was ours. Then we’d fill the minibus with petrol and drive.

Along the way, we’d have to stop. You’ve never been that far from the city, so you’d want to stop. And I would want to show you it all. We’d eat at cafes and sleep in Holiday Inns. I’d point out the places I’d been, where the good things were done.

You’d take chips off my plate and curl around me at night. We’d take showers together and you’d stroke my wet hair as I drove. You’d buy postcards for the others and I’d lick the stamps. You’d hold the map and I would drive.

We’d drive forever. Over hills and through forests. Cross the country in the beat up minibus full of good memories. At night, we’d lie on the mattress in the back. I’d point to the stars through the open roof and you’d tell me all about them. The weather would be good, and when it wasn’t, we wouldn’t notice. We wouldn’t have to notice anything other than ourselves ever again. We could just focus on us. What we wanted to eat. What we found funny. How long we decided to stay in bed.

And eventually we’d get to the end of the world. The top. I’d park the minibus on the promenade and the first thing you’d see when you woke up in the morning, the first thing you would hear- the birds, the spray, the whistle of the wind.

That’s where we’d go. Where we would stay. Wake up every morning to the water and think, yes. Yes. We did it. We made it out.

They Came in Pairs II

The Uniforms asked for a table to work at, so we made our way, in a slow procession, to the kitchen. I wondered if the bare walls and minimal furniture would seem suspicious to them, given my ‘unique position’. It would have seemed suspicious to me.


According to whispers, a lot of people sold up before they disappeared, or joined the resistance or whatever else the whispers called it. They would write long, winding letters, ceremoniously pay off debts, delete profiles, close accounts, return all their library books. According to whispers, it was all so romantic, so noble. Only the brave would have the willpower to kiss their children one last time. To give their lovers long, lingering looks that could turn ‘bereft’ into ‘proud’.

But I know those whispers are not true. People would just walk out of the door and not come back. Leave a lot of things behind and not come back. Leave everything behind; their family, their friends, their jobs, their soon to be spouses and not come back.


In the kitchen, The One I Did Not Know set himself up at the table, pulling out tools for my submission from his many pockets as I sat opposite, waiting to be probed. The One I Did Know stood behind him at the counter. This did not seem like protocol. Granted every spot check I’d had in the past was in the company of others, but we would be expected to stand while the Uniforms examined us.  I didn’t believe he was doing it to be vigilant. I could tell from the way he would not meet my eyes that he was nervous. Or was it shame? He must have met a lot of old friends along his travels. How many had he sent in for ‘rehabilitation’? It had to be shame he was feeling. To stand in a spot you’d stood in so many times before, laughed and joked before, but now as a bagman could only fill you with shame. But was it the shame of his past or shis present?

The One I Did Not Know produced a cotton swab from his pocket.

Open up.

Aren’t you supposed to ask me if I consent to you taking a DNA sample?

Well, really. I thought we were past all that.

Past the law?

The One I Did Not Know smiled a tight smile. The One I Did Know shook his head quickly.

When you invited us in, I took that as a willingness to be compliant. Don’t ruin it now.

I didn’t say I wasn’t going to do it, I’m just saying, why not do it properly?

You a stickler for rules?

As he asked he leaned in, his head cocked to the side.

When they involve me.

I like that. 

He took hold of my chin and tilted it towards him.

I bet you run a very tight ship around here.

Behind him, The One I Knew braced, and I knew it was because The One I Did Not Know was not talking about my home.


For the longest time, I had no idea what was happening. I’d been there that night, I’d seen him, I’d spoken to him, but none of it made sense. I went over it and over it in my head.

He said he was going on a work trip. Last minute. Had to leave right away.

I knew something was off, given the way he was packing.  He was usually so careful. Even when he was stressed, he had this level-headed control about him- It was one of the things I loved about him. But that night, he rushed from room to room, tucking things under his arm, such random things too. He picked up the first bag he saw, an old laundry bag we had from when the washing machine broke down and we had to ferry our dirty clothes up and down the high street. It was covered in dust and one of the arms was torn. He didn’t even notice, just shoved his things inside.

And there was nothing I could do. He said he had to go, and I trusted him. I had no reason not to trust him. So I just stood aside and watched him.

When are you going to be back?

I don’t know. Could be a couple of days, could be more. 

He turned to me then. Looked me right in the eyes.

I’ll call you. 

Call me. Call me? We never called each other. We’d never left each other’s side long enough to warrant a call. Even when he was at work we were constantly in contact. One time, he forgot his keys and I was asleep so I didn’t hear him knocking. Instead of calling me, he climbed next door’s fence and broke a window.

It was all so wrong but I just didn’t think- I had no reason to think he wouldn’t come back.

I had no idea everything he’d told me about himself up until that point was a lie.


I didn’t like the way The One I Did Not Know gripped my jaw. I didn’t like the way he lingered with the cotton swab. I didn’t like how far into my mouth he reached with it. I didn’t like the way he stared into my eyes as he did it. I didn’t like the way The One I Did Know was shifting about from one leg to the other like he was standing on hot coals. Like he had something he wanted to say or do, but couldn’t. And I did not like the fact that I was alone with these men and they had all the power.

I could feel all the hairs on my body rise. This was not the time or the place, but when you feel threatened your body reacts involuntarily. They call it fight or flight. And my body fought in a way that made me a threat, that earned me the tags that broadcast to the world that I was not like everyone else. If this was a test then I was about to fail it.

I tried my best to stay calm. Tried to remember all the letters of the greek alphabet, to tap out the national anthem in morse code with my feet. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms and tried to focus on-

Oh, of course.

Now it made sense.

The Neighbour. Why I was so focussed on the Neighbour.

The Neighbour was-

Holy shit, who was he?

 


I called him every day that week. No answer.

After that, I called his mum. She had no idea where he was.

After that, I called his workplace. No one knew what I was talking about. Worse still they didn’t know who I was talking about.

After that everything merged into one long, terrible blur. I know that I called him a lot. I know that I cried a lot. I know that his sisters came round. I know that his mother asked for the engagement ring back. I know that, all the while, The Neighbour would come out into his garden and smoke a cigarette at the same time I would go outside to smoke a cigarette. Every day, without fail, we would stand facing each other, without saying a word.

By the time I started looking through his stuff, I wasn’t upset anymore. I was angry. I know that when I’m angry, I give off pulses. People like me, it’s how we can sense each other, warn each other before we snap.

So while all of that was happening, while I tore through folders, and spent hours trying to guess passwords, and searched name after name, The Neighbour knew what I was. He was spying on me. He had ratted me out.


Almost done here. Just need to make sure you don’t have any illegal devices in the house. Do you have anything to declare?

No.

Well then, this should be nice and quick.

It was the way he said it. It was the way he smiled. I’d been in situations like this before, situations where something was going on that I was somehow not a part of but also the main event for. The One I Did Not know stood up and stretched.

Care to show me around?

It’s not a big place, I’m sure the two of you can figure it out.

But it’d be quicker if you came with me. Make sure I can get into everything.

I looked at The One I Did Know. He swallowed but didn’t say anything, wouldn’t look at me. I’d seen him like this once before. When he’d stood on the steps of my parent’s house and told me that his mum had died, and he didn’t have any shoes on. I knew I was going to have to go with the other one. And I knew if he tried anything, I would have to defend myself. I unclenched my fist.

Fine.

Lovely.

 

I drew back my chair slowly.

I really don’t suggest we split up.

The One I Did Know spat it out as though he were yelling after someone who was about to go over a cliff. It wasn’t clear which one of us he was warning, though. His partner turned around, a little irritated.

Why not?

Well, she- Have you checked her clearance level?

Are you worried I won’t be able to take her? I’ve had worse.

We have to check it. It’s protocol. I can’t risk her- can’t risk you getting into danger.

His eyes darted between us. He was stalling.

Make it quick.

The One I Did Not Know stood over me while we waited, looking me up and down. The One I Did Know fumbled with his scanner. His partner grew impatient.

What’s taking so long?

It’s not working.

What do you mean?

The Scanner. Hold on. Maybe if I change the batteries.

His hands were shaking. It should have made me feel better that he was trying to help, but it didn’t. Seeing how nervous he was, how angry his partner was getting, was only making me feel worse. I didn’t want to give anything away, but behind my eyes, my head was swimming and I could feel myself slipping out of control.

I’ll do it. 

The One I Did Not Know pulled his scanner out of his pocket and started fiddling with the buttons. He was distracted and if I was going to act, now would be a good time. I glanced at the One I Did Know. Beads of sweat sat on his brows. He couldn’t save me. But I knew he wouldn’t stand in my way either. I parted my lips, about to pour poison in his partner’s ears, when the doorbell rang.

It scared me.

I’ll get it.

It came out in a whisper as I rushed out of the room.

I flung open the door, ready to run into the street.

But I wouldn’t get that far.

It was The Neighbour.

And he held a finger to his lips.

They Came in Pairs

When I opened the door there was two of them. One of them I had never seen before, but the other I knew. Or had known once. He didn’t acknowledge me, his lips were downturned and his jaw was tense, as though he was scared that if he so much as smiled everyone would know what had passed between us. Know what I was, and what kind of man he really was beneath his uniform.

I wasn’t the only one getting a visit. I could see, over the wall, two men in the blue uniform were scoring a neighbour’s garden, while he stood in the doorway clenching and unclenching his fist. I kept looking over at him, as the two at my door rattled through their introduction. My eyes would move from The One I Did Not Know, to the chin of The One I Did Know, to the Neighbour’s fist. Clenching and unclenching. Everyone clenching and unclenching.

Are you following?

It was The One I Did Not Know who talked the most. His badge was bigger and shinier and reflected in his high, greasy forehead.

You want to see my tag.

Wrist first, then tag. If you’d be so kind. 

He smiled and I noticed his mouth was full of long thin teeth.

I stretched my left arm out and pulled up the sleeve of my jumper. The One I Did Not Know pulled out his handbook to work out what the symbols that snaked up my arm meant. So they were new to the job. There was nothing worse than dealing with a uniform wearing a baton that he hadn’t had a chance to use yet.

The One I Did Know cracked momentarily. I could almost see the cogs turning as his eyes drifted from my wrist to my hand. I wasn’t wearing my engagement ring anymore. And if I wasn’t wearing that then-

Like I said, it was momentary. His eyes went from my wrist to my hands to my eyes and then to the wall behind me so quickly, I don’t think he even realised he’d done it. I only noticed because moments like this always pass by slower for me. You have to be slow and careful. One mistake and-

Well. It seems we’re going to have to come inside.

I blinked slowly as he closed his handbook.

We believe you may be at risk of radicalization, given your…unique position. May we?

I don’t really have a choice, do I?

Of course, you do. We could either do this the easy way or-

He smiled again and I could see that his thin teeth stretched on infinitely.

The longer way.

He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to. We all know what the long way is. I glanced at the neighbour one last time. He was staring right back me. I stepped aside as he began to mouth something to me. But The One I Know closed the door before I could catch the rest of it.

Grayson Interrupted

The day before I got fired, I bought a TV. A huge one, that I couldn’t afford. I bought it on credit. I bought it in the good faith that I had a steady income. I bought it like how regular people buy stuff. I walked into a nice shop, in a nice shirt. I combed my hair. My knuckles were not bleeding. I exchanged niceties, even banter with the assistant.

I was in a good mood.

‘What do you need it for?’ The guy asked.

‘You watch a lot of films?’

‘Something is about to start that I intend to see in good colour.’

‘What?’

I smiled.

‘Have you heard about the LRI Trials?’

‘Is that the research facility that fucked up all those kids?’

‘Depends what side your sitting on, but it’s that. That’s what I’m going to watch.’

‘On a three thousand pound TV?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re daft, mate. Think of the porn you could watch!’

We laughed.

As he was drawing up the contract, he asked me things about myself. Where I lived, what I did for work. He asked me what my name was. I think I paused a little too long because then he said:

‘You’re not in witness protection, are you?’

I smiled.

‘You’re not one of those kids?’

I didn’t break.

‘Watch the trial. I think it will be interesting.’

He nodded, and handed me the paperwork.

I left with a spring in my step and my TV in the back of a van.

I had to make the place nice you see. I needed to prepare for V.

The Regime: Pause

I slide out from under Partner in the middle of the night. Drag feet as I walk into the bathroom. Sit down to pee, and then realise I don’t need to. Go over to the sink, look at myself in the mirror.

Not Verity anymore. To my astonishment.

Just little old me. Jet black eyes, stern mouth. Special.

I think I’m hungry. Or thirsty.

I think I need to get out of this flat.

Pull hoodie on over T-Shirt and slip out into the night. Walk along the street searching for a light. I think about running away. But where would I go? I don’t know where-

I can’t go home, so what’s the point?

I decide I am hungry when I see a petrol station up ahead. Bright light flashing snacks.

Two cars parked, but apart from that, empty. Quiet. Door chimes as I enter. Boy (Man?) looks up from phone. Nods at me. I nod back.

I peruse the aisles. Chocolate. Wrenches. Crisps. Plasters. I pick the colours that I like and head to the counter. He rings me up.

Fourteen pounds.

I blink at him. Startled, like I’ve never heard of currency.

I don’t have any money.

What?

I look down, hands in pockets. I don’t have any money. I didn’t think-

How much did you say it was?

Fourteen pounds.

I feel about in my pockets still, knowing that I have nothing in them. I could put the snacks back…

But I don’t want to.

I want the snacks. And I used to only do things that I wanted. So, I decide to try that again.

I look up at BoyMan. Smile. He doesn’t smile back but he does watch me long enough for me to form a connection. I reflect his eyes back at him. It’s a weak line; I haven’t practiced in a while. But he’s not a challenge. He works in a petrol station after all.

Let me off this time.

He blinks.

I’ll let you off this time.

Really?

I…think so, yeah.

That’s so nice of you.

I smile.

So, so nice.

He nods, a little dazed. I pick up my treats and begin to leave.

But I can’t. I’m wide awake now. I want to play.

Hey.

Yeah?

It’s easier this time to connect. He waits, slack jawed, for my command.

Empty out the till.

He reaches into the till.I act surprised for the CCTV.

What are you doing?

What does it look like I’m doing?

Put it in a bag and give-

Wrong move.

Put it in a bag and leave the bag in the wheelie bin outside 23 Burns Avenue.

He continues to fill the bag. I head out.

I run, actually. All the way home. I dump all my snacks on the kitchen counter and stare at them.

What have I done?

What a stupid-

What if he can’t find my address?

I stay up the rest of the night, sitting at the living room window, overlooking the drive. I brace every time a car goes past. An hour later, maybe four, I see a figure in a hoodie walking up. He opens the wheelie bin, my wheelie bin, and drops something in it. He looks up at the house and I duck. I don’t know if he sees me. But when I next look out, he’s gone.

I go back to bed like nothing has happened.  Five minutes later Partner’s alarm goes off.

We get up, start our morning routine. I take my pills and the night before fades like a dream. Like with every day, I take the rubbish out to the bins. But when I look inside: There is the bag, full of cash, and what looks like a hand gun.

The Supervisor toots the horn of the car. I drop the rubbish in surprise and go towards him.

I should tell him about the cash, but I don’t.

For the first time in a long time, I lie.

For the first time in a long time, I can see the exit sign.

Not in this timeline

When I finally got out, the world was…It wasn’t the same. Everything was painfully dull. After you watch so many people die, it’s hard to be focused on washing dishes, or brushing your hair. The world is flat and heavy but I feel lighter. Like something otherworldly, floating through it. I have no roots any more, nothing grounding me. Everything I was before, everything I became has been erased. And the weirdest part is, I have no desire to start again. I’m spent. I’ve had enough of trying. I just exist now. Living my life on mute. So when it finally comes time to take me out, I’ll have nothing to miss.

When I meet people their mouths move but I can’t hear anything. When I’m working, I turn the keys and I stack the shelves and I walk up and down with my clipboard, but my mind is elsewhere. I just do what I’m told and live in my head.

I can’t really describe it. This french guy who fixes the vans told me about the idea of multiple timelines. I think that’s close to it. In my head, there are many timelines and I can tune into whichever one I want. There’s this one, where I’m siting in a four by four room with no furniture, smoking cigarette after cigarette until I fall asleep. And there’s another one, where I’m living in a log cabin. Or another, where I have a dog.

My favourite is the one where V and I- I suppose actually we have normal names in that timeline, names like Ben and Rebecca – but we make it. We meet for the first time somewhere normal, at work or at church maybe. We fall in love in a romantic way. Candlelit dinners and picnics and holidays and smiles. We get married, we buy a house. We have arguments, sure, but they’re about such inconsequential things, like what colour to paint the hall or where to host the wedding reception, that they’re more fun than destructive. We get pregnant. Have a child. Have four. We’ve got photos on the walls. Family videos. Tricycles are lined up next to bicycles int he garden. Little clothes hand on the washing line. When we go out we walk hand in hand, kids running ahead.

It is the best part of my day, visiting that timeline. It’s always warm in the house. It smells like pastry. There’s always chatter, always giggling and excited exclamations. As I walk into the living room, someone runs up to me. The youngest, maybe. She has my eyes, and V’s smile. When I hold her, she smells like baby powder and biscuits. She clings to me and I choke up. She’s lost her first tooth, she tells me. Asks me if I’ll stay up and make sure the tooth fairy knows where to find it. Eventually she falls asleep on my lap, and V is beside me on the couch, and we’re just watching TV. It’s getting quiet now. Calm. I carry her up to bed. Swap her tooth for a two pound coin.

Then we’re finally alone. I play those scenes out slowly. They’re part foreign, part memory. I tell I love her over and over. Sometimes she says something back, sometimes she just looks at me. It doesn’t matter. She’s here. She’s here with me. We are wrapped around each other. She’s so soft and warm and mine. Mine, mine, all these things are mine. And no one can get to them. Not even me.

I would never be sick there. I would never be high. Never think about my adopted father, or my dead brother, or all the shit and piss and pain and blood I’ve seen. I’d never wake up in the night screaming. Never hurt anyone. Never leave V.

I’d just enjoy it.

Really, finally, enjoy being alive.