The words say, take down the book. We, an implication, are complicit. But look around: there is much beauty here. We are set in a grand old house in bucolic surrounds, with views across the rolling pasture to the shimmer of the lake. Birds make loving music in the trees as she passes by. Our heroine is tall and dark, yet she beams with the ardour of one who has spent many lifetimes reading and rereading the language of stories.
She had a headache. Something wrenched, twisting inside her head, entangling itself. The colours of the world were flashing alarm signals as she hurried down the path towards the doors.
When she left at the break of morning the world had invited her outside. The breezes were flitting through the leaves, tousling earthen colours, enticing her into adventure. Now the wind felt chill and sickly against her skin, and the rustling trees gossiped and taunted. She wanted nothing more than to curl deep beneath a blanket into bed and in the darkness steal away into dream space. The world outside, she had discovered, was impossibly big – cold, empty – and it frightened her. She longed now for the warm and funny worlds that she had made, not the harsh one she’d been made into.
The doors were immense barriers against the inside. She could not remember if they had seemed so on her way out, but she wasn’t sure she could remember much reliably, what with the solid tolling in her head. The headache rhythm made everything thump in sinister synchronicity, and details of texture slurred in and out of focus. She reached for one of the shiny handles and found its shaft painfully cold to the touch; it was stiff, but she budged it. The door was locked. In peaking desperation she wrenched it up, down, one way, another. The door did not even creak. It towered, implacable. She frisked herself, praying that she had brought a key out with her, knowing she had not, pleading to be furnished with one, knowing it was hopeless. The hammering of the blood behind her skull approached a crescendo, a deafening, swallowing climax, and her knees gave way as she slumped forward to grab at the knocker. A tusked face with serpentine trunk leered into relief, and as the wind-whipped trees raised themselves furiously behind her, she dredged the last of her strength to lift the elephant head and batter it down against the brass plate.
Her skull split and a vertiginous darkness swept her down.
It was no dream-sleep. A period of time later, she came around, and her first sensation – beyond the silence of the wind, beyond the cold of the stone floor beneath her, beyond the unfamiliar musk in her nostrils – was the blessed lightness of her head. The smooth flow of thought and impulse along the brain’s pathways was better than any worldly freedom. She relished this ease with clearing breaths. Then, by degrees, she brought her awareness to those other sensations I mentioned. Then she opened her eyes.
She was lying on the floor of some dim cavern. Whatever thin light there was could not cast itself as far as the corners, and so she experienced a feeling of looking into nothingness, into a space of uncertain and possibly endless dimension.
She stood and brushed herself down. It was an entrance hall or someplace similar, the extent of its size concealed in shadow. In front of her were doors, the obverse faces of those she had beaten herself against, appearing to grin as shadows ran along channels in the wood. She was being watched, and teased, toyed with. But she was smarter than that. She knew, for example, that the doors she now faced must be an entirely different pair. Although their size and shape were the same, the hall in which she stood had not been this way when she left, on her way out. She knew it had not.
Or had it? Maybe it was just the lighting that had changed. The illumination.
How quickly uncertainty can shoot up and wrap your thoughts in soft tendrils.
Behind her was a staircase. She turned to it, peering at the darkness to which it ascended. She experienced a sequence of decisive thoughts which went like this:
This either is or is not the same house that I left this morning.
In either case, I am here and nowhere else.
The only way to test these hypotheses is to investigate this current place further.
If I can find the place that I set out from then I’ll know that this is, indeed, the house that I know.
If I cannot find that same place I’ll conclude that, in all likelihood, I’m somewhere else altogether.
In either case, I’ll know more than I do now.
With this banishment of her uncertainty, she set her feet upon the base of the staircase and prepared to climb into the gloom.
She found herself in a corridor. Cast in greying light, the walls of the corridor were uniform and featureless. She could make out its end, distinct somehow from the walls. Approaching in this unhurried step, she noticed the distinction resolve itself into the definite shape of two doors, side by side. Narrower than the entrance doors she had just moved away from, but of the same grain of wood and equally solid.
A left door and a right door. A choice of paths. A fork, a diversion. Which should she choose? Who was controlling this game?
From her position of ignorance she adjudged all choices to be equal, and pushed against the handle of the left-hand door.
It opened into a bright, furnished space that dazzled her. In the centre of the room a man in a colourful jester’s hat was stretching himself like a dancer. He froze and his wide eyes regarded her. She had not been expected, that much was clear.
Slowly, deliberately, he lowered his arms from their circumspection, and brought his legs to ground. She surveyed the room while he did so, and found its details oddly forgettable, like a room in any modern hotel. There was a door in one corner; a neat double bed; a large window through which the remaining light of the day sparkled, and from which the tree tops could be seen quivering in the wind; and more than that, she could not have said.
“Have you come to measure me?” a voice said, and she realised she was being questioned. “I should warn you that I’m allergic to satin, even if she has insisted on it.” He gave a tilt of his head towards the door in the corner, and the bells on his hat tinkled.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, excellent. That’ll save me a lot of bother later on anyhow.” He leaned himself towards her, lowered his voice, sharing a confidence. “You’ve no idea of the moods she can get into. Such a stubborn will!” He paused, preparing to go on, but then a noise issued from behind the door and he reclined upright.
The door opened and in a whooshing of hot steam a woman entered the room. Although she wore only a full-length robe, its cerulean shimmer and the peached glow of her skin invested her with a radiant aura. The assurance of her poise signified her superiority.
“Who is this person, Japes?”
“The measuring girl you sent for, my love. She’s going to measure me for a fine new double-breasted trouser suit. And excellent decision on the satin, my love.”
“Yes. We don’t want you itching like a hairy baboon when we finally get moving.” She snorted broadly. “It’s so dusty in here. I’m going to bathe again.” She retreated into the bathroom in another flush of steam, rattled the door shut. The jester man, Japes, turned to her.
“May as well get down to business,” he said, and sprang onto the bed, landing rigidly, flat on his back. “Start with my feet if you don’t mind, I’m awfully ticklish everywhere else.”
She gave herself up, amusing as it was to keep quiet and allow his misconceptions to play out. “I’m not here to measure you mister. I couldn’t even say for sure what a double-breasted trouser suit is. I’m no tailor’s girl, that much is certain.”
He sat up, pale astonishment written on his face. “Then who are you? Why in Hosea did you burst in on my practise like that?”
“I live here. I think. I live somewhere. How long have the two of you been here?”
“Ahaha, you’re one of the neighbours! Delightful to meet you! Abi will be delighted you dropped by. And please excuse my manners. I love her so much I get myself in quite a tizz at times.” He was on his feet again offering his hand. “My name is Piotr. Japes, by trade, as if you hadn’t guessed from the hat.” He waggled and chimed his bells again. “And your name?”
“Alessa,” she replied thoughtlessly. “My name is Alessa. I’m just trying to find my way back … to my place.”
“It can get dreadfully confusing, can’t it, this old building. But you’ll find stairs that lead you reliably upwards at least. Abi and I can’t wait to leave, you know. Then our real lives can start. We’re eloping.”
“Oh? How did you come to be here, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“We flew, of course.” Piotr Japes gave her a mischievous grin that betrayed the deliberate enigma of his remark. “It’s a long story, one that doesn’t ever have time for the full telling.”
She did not fill his pause with reply, hoping he would continue. When silence stretched a moment too long he said, “We ran away together. We’re running away together. We’re on the run together. We will be on the run together. It’s been difficult at times but … she’s my queen. I’m utterly devoted to her.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said, without being sure that it was.
“You misunderstand me – she really is my queen. I was first court jester to King Carlolo XIV, for twelve years. Forty-nine long seasons. Then she seduced me – not that there was much resistance on my part – and we fled the king, his court, our country. Abyssinia was tired of the fetters of royal life. She’s a bold, fearless woman. She demands her senses be indulged and pleasured, often in new and untried ways. I find it difficult to keep pace sometimes.”
“Still, your love seems … real. Honest. You are an honest man, Piotr Japes.”
He smiled at the epithet conferred. “Thank-you … Alessa, was it? You’re very kind. Now tell me how you came to be here. You seem a little confused about it. Perhaps articulating will help you to clarify.”
“Perhaps … but the truth is I don’t remember much. I had a pounding headache. It’s difficult to recall much before that. I was outside … it was beautiful, but so … big. Empty. Terrifying. Like the sea must be like.”
“I remember the sea! We were there once, on a boat. Abi says we’ll head back there as soon as we can; she says there are other worlds, if you sail for long enough. Think of that! It is how you say I think – beautiful but terrifying. But Abi is fearless. She savours everything, even her fear.”
“At first, I could, even the fear was enjoyable, in its way. Then the headache got really awful, I was sick, dizzy, all I wanted was to get home again. I made it, but things seem different … stranger even than when I left. Like there’s someone up there punishing me for having an adventure of my own.”
Japes scuttled towards her, stood on tip-toes to speak into her ear. “They do say, I’ve heard, that a beast guards the top floors. Don’t go up too far, kind Alessa.” More noises emitted from the adjoining bathroom, a variety of clunks followed by a wallowing warble.
“But how -” she began, as Japes coerced her, hand on elbow, towards the door she had entered through.
“Sorry, my dear, but I believe Abi wants her shoulders rubbed. An impossibly precise task, one which I tackle with glee and great relish. Call again at any time, we’ll have tea by the window and watch the birds. Cheerio now.” And with that, she found herself standing again in the dull corridor, the door snapping shut behind her.
She paused for a moment to digest the rapidity with which her location had changed, allowing her eyes to readjust to the quarter-light that, now she looked for it, seemed not to have a source.
There was only one choice of path left to her, or no choice at all. She turned the handle of the right-hand door this time, gratified to have it open with ease, and saw, as she had expected, another stairway leading up to another darkened corridor. It was, in fact, identical to the corridor now below her, as far as the unblemished walls and the side-by-side doors at its end. What kind of infantile design is this? she thought.
She reached for the right-hand door, turned the handle. It did not open. Withdrew her hand, considered. Again, reached out, again turned, but still, locked. Sighing she pushed at the left-hand door, and it swung aside, almost willingly.
This room, she saw, was entirely unfurnished, but for a man in an armchair in its middle. The floorboards were bare, the grim plaster of the walls exposed. By some trick of the light the window, same in position and size as in the room downstairs, did not admit much more than a fraction of the outside world by comparison. The gloom of the corridor was alleviated, but not by much.
She had expected some kind of reproach from the gentleman in the chair, but when none was forthcoming she peered closer at him. A scruffy black cat clung to his lap. The man was old, like the cat. His eyes were closed and his breath minimal. His skin looked tarnished and stubbly, and large brown spots dotted the dome of his skull. All over his face it seemed that the flesh was holding desperately to the bone, unyoked from its moorings by the waste of muscle and tendon. The chair in which he sat had a similarly mouldy appearance. She lessened her breathing, unsure of this new situation and apprehensive of disturbing it.
It was the cat that moved first – with the stiffness of a lifetime it jumped to the floor, arched its back, flexed its forelegs. Its claws clicked against the wooden floor. The cat was comically invalid: its back legs could not support its rump, and were so thin they resembled bird bones; its tail was kinked and flapped uselessly, gracelessly, like a fish with one fin; its fur was so sparse and tufty that the sickly grey of its skin was visible, like a desert floor smothered by spinifex; the whole beast was so emaciated, its eyes so clouded, it resembled something that had been mummified and only recently, infernally, reanimated.
It mewled tonelessly, beaded its near-blind eyes at her, and clicked off to a corner in a parody of drunkenness, each of its limbs in solo operation. The old man in the chair snuffled a sudden harrumph and opened one eye. It had the same milky veil as the cat’s, but she saw him scan her fully, face to feet.
“Ha’way pet,” she thought he said.
“She’s just gone to the corner.” The cat was resettling itself on the bare boards, attempting to tuck its battered legs under itself.
“Ey? Wa’sat lass?”
She understood she was being addressed.
“I’m looking for … my place. This isn’t it.”
He opened the other eye now and rotated the nutty lump of his head, stretching his neck. “Ya reet theyar.” She didn’t know how to respond. This man was not loquacious, as Piotr Japes had been, and the parched accent of his voice made it difficult to understand his words. She had no experience of attempting to converse with such people. “Ya g’wan lost yisel’ ha’ye?”
“Em … yes. That must be it. A wrong turning or something, somewhere … back there.”
“Ah, keep on headin’ up lass. Ye’ll find it.”
“Yes, well, the problem there is, the door’s been locked. Can’t get to the stairs. Do you know … ?”
“Aye, tha’ll be old Tom. He locks up te keep the big fella comin’ doon. Y’ask Tom for the key now, he’ll sort yus’oot.” He tipped his head back on his creasy neck and let off a great phlegmy snore. She waited for further movement but he had, it seemed, fallen back into his stupor. She was beginning to feel intrusive and rude, and helpless and stupid. From the corner, the cat sneezed in the dainty way only cats can.
“Did I hear my name?” a small voice croaked.
She looked again at the old man but he was immobile. It couldn’t be – could it be –
“Yes, I’m over here lady. The cat speaks.” The cat was indeed talking at her from its position in the corner. She stepped towards it, incredulous without knowing why.
“But … you’re a …” She didn’t want to offend it by accidentally committing some grave feline faux pas.
“Tom, I know, well I was once. Terrible, terrible … not that you’d understand, of course, being a … and being a …” He flipped a paw at her. “But the nice thing about reaching this age is you forget such things … stop caring.” To emphasise the point his tail flickered and he farted in the dainty, condescending way that only cats can.
“So how do you …”
“Not so well these days, thanks for asking though. You’re a sweet girl. In fact …” He tottered himself upright, performed his crooked stretching ritual and staggered towards her. “I know I’m a bit manky but if you could just …”
Beneath her fingers, the clots of thinning fur. The ridges of the spinal column protruding against the skin, like tumours all along his back. A faint acrid smell.
“Mmm, yes … oh, how lovely …”
“I’d like to get the door open, I need to go further upstairs. I’m a little lost down here.”
A purring vibration through the skeleton, a death rattle.
She pulled her hand away. “I’d like the door open. I need to go up.”
Tom eyed her with his milky-blue slits. “Looking for him, are you? Very difficult to find, I warn you. You could be going upwards for a long old time. But then …”
“Tell you what, keep stroking these rusty hind legs of mine and I’ll lend you the key.”
“Thank-you Tom.” She resumed scratching the lower part of his back. He flickered his tail and pushed his legs into the floor, raising himself.
“Mmm, lovely … oh, how lovely … but, mmm, a word of warning … oh yes … you don’t want to cross him on a bad day, he’s a real beast.”
“I’m not hunting any beast, I just want to find my place again.”
“Well this is all his place. If you live here, you’re his … mmm, quite lovely … pet …”
She stroked some more.
“I’ve had quite enough of this mystery. I can’t wait til I’m in my bed with a warm drink and a good book again.”
“Mmm, yes, very … oh, lovely, very clever … very clever, young lady …”
Then she was upstairs. Having enjoyed his fill of heavy petting, Tom had produced a key, she was not sure how, and with the door unlocked and she’d followed a flight of stairs upwards until she was in another unlit, half-lit corridor. Exactly like some kind of cheap game, she thought again, with a vitriol she didn’t know where to direct.
Another corridor, another conclusion, another double set of doors. Handle, force, resistance. As she knew she must, she pushed open the other door, and for a beautiful moment thought that she had found her place again.
The first and most gladdening thing was the bed, still a mess from her morning, still odorous from her many mornings curled into a foetal ball, book propped on a pillow, wind howling outside, cosy as a kitten. She almost disregarded caution and leapt straight to it, but an impurity in the joyous flash of her recognition held her. She assessed the rest of the room with more care.
Desk and chair were in place, inviting despite their unvarnished solidity. A pencil and a clean sheaf of paper lay upon the desk, expecting her.
The kitchenette seemed to be in order, breakfast plate propped in the drying rack, each of the mugs hanging from their little pegs. Crumbs around the toaster.
It was the bookshelf in the corner, behind the bed, that drew her eye and held it. Something there was not right. Still she’d not moved from the doorway, and for reasons she couldn’t identify the sight of the bookcase repulsed her, made her glad she’d not rushed further into the room. It was difficult to pinpoint whether all her books were there or not – the journey upwards had looked so eerie, so hyperreal, she felt her sense of order distorted. She knew some things had been disturbed, fiddled with, although maybe it was merely her sense of recollection that was faulty.
She stood shivering in the door jamb for some minutes. Alessa entered from the adjoining bathroom, and she screamed in shock. This was her place!
“Hello there. Can I help you?” The voice was identical. The movements of the face, the smile in the greeting, identical. She stood swaying now, utterly gobsmacked. Discombobulated, headfucked, seeing herself.
“What the hell is happening?” She managed to force a whisper. The woman who was Alessa who was her had sat down on the corner of the bed, folded her hands in her lap, smiling dumbly as though nothing at all impossible was happening.
“Oh dear, you must really be lost. Can you remember where you’ve come from?”
She tried desperately to process the matter, to formulate some kind of response; she should start asking questions of this imposter. But here was a woman who was Alessa, who was her; she was no one, replaced in her own existence. Her senses of reason and self, the consistent structures of reality we rely upon when building the world, had been gradually stressed, now utterly obliterated. She felt nothing but a maelstrom of emptiness into which she was teetering. There was nothing to hold her up but for the absolute shock that this her should be sat there asking questions as though she fully expected …
Wait. Hold that teeter. Stabilise, breathe, rationalise. How many other tricks had she endured today?
Mirrors; a disguise; a cloning machine; the effects of a drug; mirrors and the effects of a drug; alternate realities colliding; a careless god intent on mischief. Many things were still possible.
Decisively, without knowing what she had decided, she stepped forward into the room, the door closing behind her. Alessa looked a little perturbed but remained placid in her sitting. Too quickly to allow for further alarm, she walked across the small room and took her head between her hands. She felt the material of this Alessa’s being – felt the smooth brush of her hair, felt its attachment to the scalp, she felt the skull inside the head, she pressed her fingers into the skin around her face and felt it fold up, felt its soft elasticity, felt the wisping down by her ears, pressed her palms against those cartilaginous protrusions and felt them unfurl again when she released, felt her fingers around to the back of the head, the base of the skull, the top of the spine. She locked eyes with this monstrous copy and saw the gleam of wetness on the ball, saw the controlled dart of the pupil, saw the glint of consciousness through those windows.
“Who are you?” She held the face, would not release it. She wanted to feel the vocal vibrations animating the muscles of the neck and jaw. “Why are you me?”
Alessa gulped down saliva she had been afraid to swallow. “I’m not! I’m Elsa. I’m not you.”
She released her hands and stepped back. The other rubbed at her flesh where she’d left pink gouges on the sides of her face. But there was no denying that this woman was exactly the same, however much she wanted to believe otherwise. “Tell me again. Who are you?”
“I’m not you! I’m Elsa. I don’t know who you are, crazy lady.”
“Why are we the same? Why are you living in my place?”
“This is my place! And this is me. Elsa. I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care. I don’t even want to be here.” She flopped herself backwards onto the bed and scowled. “Why did you grab me like that? I should’ve never offered to help you. Angry bloody lady.”
“I … thought you might be …”
“Well I’m not! Whatever you thought, I’m not!” Eyes pricked with tears. “Douglas thought I was too.”
The name meant nothing to her; nor Elsa. Such minute facts were solid enough that she no longer felt that she was staring into a blank abyss, but still she couldn’t get her head straight. This girl, this Elsa – how could she not see? She had seen herself before surely – wasn’t there a mirror in the bathroom? Would she not have seen her own reflection just before coming out? Or was this all a further elaboration of the deceit?
“How long have you been here, Elsa?”
“A little while now. Longer than I’d have wanted, it was only meant to be temporary. I mean, it’s cosy really, I’ve everything I need. But god … we miss each other so much …”
Faint ripples of memory, like the words had cast a stone through the surface of her mind. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know more. A distraction …
“What’s wrong with your bookshelf?”
Elsa turned her head to look. She was intrigued to notice how attractive she was, how supple her movements; soft skin and long, lithe limbs, a body of gentle contours. Such a glossy wave of dark hair, and how it echoed the flow of her profile; such piercing, curious eyes. She’d never looked on her own reflection with such favourable judgement.
“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“It’s not right. I know it’s not right. The books are wrong.”
“Oh … Mr Elephant came to borrow a book this morning. Said he’ll give it right back. But until he does, my top shelf is missing a book. I can get a little particular, I guess.”
She had known it all along – of course! One book missing, removed. All the intersecting junctures thrown into disarray, all the fundamental symmetries of her many lives chaotically renumbered. Consequential confusion, disorientation, sense of absence.
“Who’s this elephant? Why let him take a book away?”
“It feels weird, I know, but what could I do? He’s good with words, very convincing. And it’s his decision in the end. I guess everything here is. He said he’d return it soon. I’m just trying not to think about it in the meanwhile. It might help anyway, as Mr Elephant said, it’s not healthy to be so neurotic about holding on to certain things. He said it might break a pattern, give me some freedom.”
“And this elephant – Mr Elephant – he’s upstairs is he? Maybe I can go up and ask for your book back.”
Elsa gave her a generous smile. Smooth pink lips, eyes creasing, dancing.
“Would you? Thank-you, crazy lady. Don’t say anything, but -” and she actually glanced around and raised her voice to a stage whisper – “he scares me. A lot. Real moody. And so … big! That’s why I keep the door locked. Normally keeps him from coming down here. So here’s where I keep the key.”
Alessa smiled back at her and promised to do all she could to help.
This time she knew what she would find. Stairs, passageway, doors. She pushed open the left-hand door and gasped in happy relief – her place! At last! This was surely her place! The bed – the desk and chair – the kitchenette – the bookshelf. Ah, the bookshelf! Full and complete! She closed the door behind her and sprang to it. Which was the one? Which book had that elephant fellow stolen from Elsa?
Here – this one – her eyes alighted upon a spine that almost jumped off the shelf to her. It was blank, but that was right, this was the book. She kicked off her shoes – at last! – pulled it from the shelf and flopped into the fragrant embrace of her bed. Lovely, she thought, and purred.
The words printed on the cover of the book were – say, memorable, but unimportant.
She turned to the opening page and began to read. Within moments she was losing herself in the strange rhythms of the story, hearing the narrator speaking in an experienced, polished voice in her imagination. It was like the voices of Piotr Japes and old Tom cat and Elsa mixed into one.
This is what she read, the words she heard the voice speak in her imagination.
He was what many people would consider an odd boy, prone to headaches, socially stiff, often without humour, often with an excess of humour, and his behaviour seemed to follow a moral code of his own devising, which shared only spurious properties with the moral code of most people.
They saw that he was different and made fun of him for his differences.
However hard he attempted to fit in, to seem as one among many, a member of the most, they laughed at him all the more, because his attempts at similarity emphasised his peculiarities all the further, until it seemed he could do no thing, not anything, without that action in some way epitomising the peculiar individual that he was.
They shouted things at him, words like freak and loon and nutter, words that didn’t seem bad if he wrote them down, but did when spat with venom in the street, in school, at play.
He often wrote these words down when he was alone to remind himself that they weren’t necessarily bad words, nor even were the things the words referred to necessarily bad.
He found that the more words he wrote down, the more enjoyable it was to write words, and he began to write stories and songs with the words in them, to remind himself that all words have a particular place, and he discovered that although any word could fit into any place at any time, at any given time in any given place only one word among many would fit with snug particularity.
His propensity for isolated hours spent writing increased the effects of his individuality, but by this time he was adult enough not to care about whether he fitted with the many or not, and even enjoyed the fact that he was a strange person, responsible to no one else’s conception of what a person should be or how they should behave.
This is, I am sure, a familiar story for those who have grown up thinking their own thoughts, feeling different from the mass, and have not enjoyed the full benefits of this initially-cruel-seeming-affliction until reaching a more mature stage of life.
One day, much like many other days, shortly after arriving into this late-flowering self-assurance, our hero was walking home as dusk settled.
He heard a sobbing from a nearby copse of trees and, having checked the road for oncoming traffic, went to investigate.
There was a girl, a few years younger than him but not many, hidden in the undergrowth and sobbing, holding her face in her pink hands.
She wore a pale blue dress which was torn and tattered and dirtied at the hem.
She wore socks and shoes and the dress and nothing else, and her arms and legs had turned pink with cold.
He was shocked and did not know how to react, as myriad impressions formed themselves in his mind and jostled for eminence.
When she sensed his presence the girl raised her shot and leaking eyes to him, and they were full of pain and pleading.
The myriad impressions multiplied exponentially.
He sat down on the damp earth beside her and focused on correct procedure, asking her name and age and address and so on.
She could not answer in words but erupted into uncontrolled sobbing.
He gave her his jacket to warm herself and said that he would go to his house, a further ten minutes away, and there phone for help.
She could, he offered, either accompany him home where she could get warm and wait in safety, or she could remain here in the darkening copse and he would return in no more than thirty minutes.
The girl was still incapable of rendering a communicable answer, and wailed ever harder into her reddening hands.
He left her there, on a log among the shadows of the trees, and resumed his journey home at double speed.
Inside the small house he made directly for the telephone, but on his way across the living room his eye alighted on a blank pad of paper, a sharpened pencil ready and waiting to scratch the symbols of dreams and poetry upon the paper, and he found himself assailed by whole sentences, complete paragraphs, an entire narrative of words forming in his mind and demanding expression, asserting an urgent need for constitution.
He paused halfway to the telephone, staring at the white paper, torn.
For the first time in his life he sat down to write filled with real self-loathing, the distinct variety of loathing that arises from doing what one needs to do and neglecting what one ought to be doing, and knowing it.
He wrote two sides of his finest descriptive prose, about the colour of the girl’s skin against the colour of her dress, about the shifting patterns of the shade ripening amongst the trees, about the harsh siren of her wailing in the hazy quiet of the dusk, about the sweet and sickly smells of ivy and rotten wood that pervaded the copse, about the tense and tender yielding resistance of her hair and skin on the back of her neck as he had placed a comforting hand there.
As soon as he had given vent to the most pressing of impressions he dashed to the telephone and dialled for the police, then grabbed a spare jacket and set back to the girl.
As he knew without needing his sense-reliability to confirm, she was not there.
The girl had gone.
“The girl had gone.”
She echoes these words above the voice into the silence of the room. The girl had gone, had gone –
had gone. Footsteps. Hurried. Doors creaking, quickly, quietly.
She rolls out an arm, and the keys she’s been carrying land on the bed, clinking modestly. Four keys. Count them, four.
The sound of an empty house laughing. Her empty eyes impale me.
Wait here –
You did not notice, did you? Nor I. On my own turf, outplayed by a girl.
They’re gone. Piotr Japes and Queen Abyssinia, gone. William Pale and Old Tom, gone. Elsa Gibbet, gone. Doors wide open. Set free, by a girl.
Did I not name you well? Did I not name you too well? Probably the fault is mine. The game is yours now.
But no matter.
She sits up, my confession still clasped open before her eyes. She will read it all. She will know the lengths I have gone to, the sacrifices I’ve made.
The game is hers. But no matter – there’s no one left to help you now – the prize is mine.
It was all for her.
By Isaac Liddle