The Trip II

Later on that day, we all went out for drinks. Adam, the guy from earlier whose name I had finally learnt, was deliberately avoiding me. I went to the bar, took three whiskey shots and bought him a beer. I wanted to make amends or at least let him know that I had the potential to be better.

Potential is such a weird thing. It’s like the future, the promise of something to come. Everyone has potential. Potential for greatness, for cruelty, for kindness, for love. Until you die. Then you just become the sum of your parts. Were you actually kind? Were you actually great? That’s all that matters. What you actually are. And at that point, I wanted Adam to look at me differently.

So I went up to him. He was sitting with my friend Monae’s new boyfriend, Max. I’m assuming Adam was his close friend, because as I approached he stepped in between us.

‘Having a good night?’ He asked, looking past me. He didn’t care about the question. He was just trying to distract me. So, I said.

‘I ran into Ellis earlier.’

And by earlier, I meant the day I had picked up the pills from Ellis. But Max didn’t wait to clarify. He ducked out sheepishly.

I sat down next to Adam and offered him the pint.

‘No, thanks.’ He said, folding his arms.

‘Go on,’ I said, ‘I’ve paid for it now.’

‘You drink it, then.’

‘I got it for you.’

‘Why?’

‘I was rude earlier. I’m trying to show you I’m not always like that.’

He took the pint.

‘Max says you are.’

‘Yeah, well. I think Max is a bit intimidated by me.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Cos I know he was with Monae while she was still with Ellis.’

His eyes widened, and I realised I’d hooked him. That’s why I love secrets so much. If you reveal them at the right time, everything leading up to it is irrelevant.

He asked for details as he sipped his beer and I regaled him with a story that wasn’t mine to tell. I spoke in a whisper so he had to move closer. I looked at his lashes as he took it all in and I thought about how hypnotic it would be being fucked by him. Lying under him as he opened and close those big blue eyes with every thrust-

‘It’s not just Max, though.’ He said, when he’d finished his beer.

‘I know, it takes two to tango-‘

‘No, I mean it’s not just Max saying I should stay away from you.’

So we were back to this again.

‘People say stuff they don’t mean all the time. Like this afternoon, I didn’t mean to laugh-‘

‘They meant it.’

Under the table, I curled my hand into a fist.

‘I think you can tell that I’m sorry.’

‘But you haven’t actually said sorry.’

I dug my nails into my palms.

‘I bought you a drink.’

‘Yeah. Thanks. But you didn’t say sorry.’

His eyes bore into me. He was smirking. It was like he wanted me to be in the wrong. No. It was like he didn’t care who I was, like he’d seen enough. There was no use saying sorry because he’d made up his mind about me.

‘Well, if that’s how you feel.’

I got up from the table.

‘Enjoy the rest of your night.’

I picked up my coat before he could protest and marched for the door. He wasn’t going to get that apology. I was never going to apologize ever again.

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The Trip I

The second and, most importantly, final time I stared death in the face occurred on the same trip.

You won’t be surprised to know that something that started off so badly, ended much worse. After my near miss on the plane, I spent the rest of the holiday light-headed. I felt like I had been dislodged from reality. Like, instead of being in Sweden, I was floating alongside myself, watching the spectacle. Which was ironic, since that’s what most people think dead people do. And now that I’m dead, I can say: we don’t. It’s a very dangerous way to spend your time.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to explain: I remember being at a meal. There was so many of us on the trip. Too many of us for the restaurant. We’d split into fours to get everyone seated, and it immediately reminded me of primary school. So in my head, I named all the tables like they did at school. Red table, blue table, green. But instead, I used less abstract nouns. Dumb table, Obnoxious table, Unbelievably Vain table.

I was having fun with it. I even started laughing to myself. The only other person on my table also started laughing.

‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked.

‘I dunno. You’re laughing.’

‘You just laugh cos other people are laughing?’

‘I laugh cos sometimes I miss the joke. I don’t want to be rude. You know, cos I’m deaf in one ear.’

I did not know he was deaf in one ear. To be honest, that was the first time I had spoken to him throughout the trip. It had turned into one of those open-ended, tell-who-you-want, kind of things and before you knew it you were sharing a bed with someone’s cousin called Ben who you may have met once at a Graduation party or a Housewarming, but no one knows for sure.

For some reason, either the surprise of it or my own shame, I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard that everyone turned to look at me. And I couldn’t stop. At first, the guy opposite laughed with me but then he got really uncomfortable. He kept blinking his big blue eyes like he was trying not to cry and I thought at that moment he had never been, no- No one had ever been more awkward or more beautiful. And I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Eventually, the laughter subsided to tears. I wiped my eyes on the tablecloth and went back to studying the menu like nothing had happened. I felt the eyes on me. Not just the eyes of the guy sitting opposite me, or the people I was with who were now rolling their eyes, or all the other patrons who were looking down their noses. It was my own eyes. I felt like I was standing over myself watching myself. And I didn’t find that funny at all.

 

The Pre Death Jitters

I was too young when I died. Most people will say that, but honestly, I was young in the way it counts. I had just really started to get it. To realise that there was a whole world outside of mine and instead of being liberated by it or excited, I found it overwhelming. It intimidated me and it made me hardnosed and stubborn. I kept butting my head against the unknown, daring it to fight me. Come on! Come and have a go!

And it did. Twice. The first, and unsuccessful, attempt was on the way to Sweden. I had taken two Valiums, or at least two pills that I thought were Valium. I’d bought them from my friend’s ex boyfriend, a guy I shouldn’t even have been talking to, let alone buying drugs from. I’d never taken any drugs before and never would take anything like it again, so to say it was out of character would be true but also, a boring cliche, so I won’t.

The thing was- I’d been having nightmares. Proper scream-inducing, jolting out of bed and wrestling with the covers level nightmares and they stared just before the holiday.

It started like this: I’d be walking up to the AirBnB we had booked. Surrounding the AirBnB was a tall green hedge, circular, like a moat between us and the rest of the world. Every time I turned around the hedge was right behind me, no matter how far forward I walked, how much closer to the door I got. I’d look to the left and the hedge would be there. I’d look to the right and the hedge would be there. I put the key in the door and I could feel the hedge against my back. I’d turn the key and the branches would be pressing in on me. I had no time, no space to open the door before I was slammed up against it, the branches of the hedge starting to pierce my skin.

I know what you’re thinking: She’s scared of a hedge? Everyone I’ve ever told started off with sympathetic eyes but as soon as they heard that a hedge was trying to kill me, their eyes would glaze over. I’d see them mentally check out. Even the most polite ones. The rude ones just out and out laughed.

As I got older (if you can call it that), I realised that the people who laughed probably recognised the fear better than anyone else. They’d almost always grip their seat as I described my face being crushed against the wooden door as thorns punctured my cheeks. It’s crazy how a person can cry and laugh all at the same time.

After two weeks of that same dream, I called the person I shouldn’t have been in contact with. He agreed to give me some of his Dad’s pills if I gave him information on my friend.  He assured me it was above board. He just wanted to know if she was seeing who he thought she was seeing now, and whether they’d started talking before or after he’d finished with her. I lied. He’d asked for information, he hadn’t asked for the truth. When I met up with him to get the pills, he asked me if she still mentioned him.

I said, ‘Yeah. Apparently one night she called your name out in bed. By accident. Or so she said. Maybe they’re into that, though. I don’t know.’

He nodded and handed over the pills.

‘You’re a bad friend.’ He laughed as he walked away.

‘Maybe.’

Maybe to you.

So that’s how I ended up on the plane with 2 pills that definitely weren’t Valium. I popped them like they were paracetamol. I was waiting to melt into a dreamless sleep but the opposite happened.

I got real sweaty and head high. I couldn’t sit still and at some point, I started crying but I don’t know when or why. I just remember my friend asking me why her blanket was wet and I guess I had been using it to hide my face? Who knows. I made it to the bathroom just as my heart started to beat out of my chest. Literally. I am so sure I could see it moving, forcing my whole ribcage forwards and backward and I slumped to the ground thinking this was the end. Thinking, Well, you’ve done it this time. You really have done it this time.

I leaned against the toilet. Just about able to cross my fingers. Willing myself not to die on an Easyjet flight.

To this day I still don’t know what he gave me. A couple of years later, he died of an overdose himself, so I guess he probably doesn’t know either.

 

A Quiet Place

They were going to banish her from the city. That much she knew. As she stood in the docks, legs shaking, she made a mental note of all the things she would immediately miss. The smell of her neighbour’s barbecue. The sound of conversations as people passed her on her walk home from work. The soft fur of the cats that crossed her path. The sound of the bin lorries as they crunched up all the rubbish. The laughter of the school kids at break time.

Not family. Not friends. But the city. The life of the city, its heartbeat. The calming, constant pulse. People come and go but the city is always there, the city is what kept her there.

Every breath she took in as she waited for the verdict brought more memories. Playing on the estate when she was young- scrapped knees, screeching bike tires, mums yelling from the balcony at dinner time. Getting the bus home in her school uniform- unpressed pleats on rolled up skirts, collars popped for your pleasure, tinny music from old model mobile phones, the buzz of afternoon traffic. Getting lunch on a long work day- the impatient office workers, the tap of metal on ceramic, green trees, cigarette smoke, the clip clop of her heels on the paved stones.

All of it to go and be replaced with-

The judge cleared his throat.

‘May I say I something?’

The court room fell into a hush. The ghastly judge in his starched wig nodded slowly, rhythmically, like the chimes of Big Ben’s clock.

She gripped the edge of the dock to steady herself.

‘I know what you’re going to say. I know that you think I deserve it. There are a lot of people that agree with you and I know there isn’t anything I can say right now to change that. I’m not asking you to let me off. I’m asking you-‘

The words caught in her throat.

‘I’m just- I just want to say that I love my city. I love my city. I love the river that flows through it, the lines that run underneath it. The underground tunnels, the sewers, the disused dungeons- they’re all the same to me. All part of me and to push me out-

She pinched her nostrils together to stop herself bawling.

‘I left once. I went to a place that I thought would be the same because I didn’t realise how special, how strong this city’s current was in me. It stirs me, it moves me, it motivates me. Everything I do, everything I am and strive to be is because of this city. Is for this city and no one here can deny that or take that from me. I’ll be the same way anywhere as I am here so you’re not doing me any favours. Sure the sun will beam down on me, sure I’ll feel the grass between my toes. But you have to understand- if the sun isn’t shining on me here, if the grass didn’t spring up from this patch of ground then it will mean nothing to me. I am nothing without this city. Take me out and you may as well sentence me to death again. I will not survive.’

When she was finished, she bowed her head, exhausted. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pooled at the end of her round, youthful chin. The court room was in a reverent silence. One woman in a long black dress quietly gathered her things and walked out. A few others followed, less graceful, stumbling over their mates, trying to hide their faces.

‘My dear,’ The judge started after the door had slammed shut for the the last time. ‘That is why you must go.’

She closed her eyes, defeated, as the judge gave the sentence. One life in the flat plains. One life and then she could come back.

At the end, he asked her if she understood what he had said. She could barely nod. Her fingers dig into the dock and she wondered whether her hands might stay rooted even after they hauled her away.

One life. They said it so casually that you might be mistaken for thinking it was superficial. And maybe to someone else it would be. But she knew she didn’t have it in her. She’d tried that life before, you see. And she knew it would not end well. It would not end at all.

Burnt: Fading Opportunity

Eden Mustafa was getting the bus to work today. She was getting the bus to work because earlier in the day, her car had been repossessed. Her car had been repossessed because her ex-boyfriend had stopped paying for the car insurance, and her ex-boyfriend had stopped making the payments because Eden had stopped answering his calls.

The bailiffs’ knocks woke her up. She sat up, yesterday’s clothes falling off the quilt onto the floor, and looked out of the window. Two men in black uniforms stood on her doorstep, and behind them, a tow truck was backing into her driveway. She didn’t bother to go down. She didn’t have anything to say and she didn’t have the energy to listen either.  She lit a cigarette and watched them pick the car up and drag it away. Some light entertainment before she fell asleep again.

So now she was at the bus stop at 12:45am, waiting for the night bus to drop her off at the station. Two years ago, she would have walked it. Two years ago, she could have even cycled. Two years ago, Kian would have dropped her off and picked her up again when her shift was over. Two years ago seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Across the road from the bus stop, a group of young women was sitting on a wall, eating kebabs. Skimpy outfits, Bedraggled hair, sweat-smeared makeup- Eden wondered where they were coming from. How had they ended up out here? How old were they? They didn’t seem to mind the cold, or the rest of their surroundings for that matter. They chewed and yelled and laughed and spilled things in one fluid movement. Like reflections of each other. Or shadows. One following another, over and over. Like a dance. An effortless, rythmic, life-

Eden almost missed the bus. It came hurtling down the street while she was staring at the girls and she only just put her hand out in time. The bus screeched to a halt. The driver sneered as she got on. Eden fumbled in her pocket pulled out a black wallet and tapped it against the reader.

Nothing happened.

She tapped it again.

Nothing happened.

The driver harrumphed. Eden looked down at the wallet. She flipped it open and saw her face staring back at her. It was her police badge, not her oyster card. The driver, who had been about to launch into a rant, saw the badge and calmed. He nodded her through. Eden shoved her badge into the bottom of her bag and took a seat upstairs.

 

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.