I very rarely write short stories. Over the past five, ten years I can probably count them on one hand. When I do, however, I usually enjoy them — and find among them some of my favourite pieces.
I started watching her in the early summer of 1990, when she was in her first year as a fully trained nurse — and I was rather less than what I am now. In retrospect, it’s difficult for me to say what it was, exactly, that attracted me to her. I like to think it was something divine, something beyond the everyday. But, quite possibly, it was something far simpler than that, something chemical, something imbued with nature — even if it weren’t something everyone would easily understand. Even if it weren’t something everyone would easily believe.
She was beautiful; there was no denying that. Her dark, auburn hair and her fair skin — unmarked by time or trauma — held a certain quality that made her appear somehow apart from the rest of her kind. Her hazel eyes spoke of intelligence and wit, a willingness to laugh, a predilection to cry. And her body, even when dressed in the badly fitting uniform of her profession, had a shape that knew when to stop. It didn’t push it, didn’t try to be something it could never be — and in so doing, it achieved a kind of superiority most bodies can only dream of… if bodies dream at all, which I’m sure they do. But it was none of this. Not the hair, not the skin, not the eyes — and certainly not the body — that drew me to her in those earlier times.
Yes, it was something more. Something I couldn’t and still can’t quite put my finger on. Yes, I like to think some god placed a hand on either side of my head and turned it so that and I might see her. For whatever reason, I was destined to watch her — destined to reflect the life she represented. Whatever that entailed.
You might say we had been together for about six months when she started seeing Gregory. Gregory was a nice enough man, if a little slow in picking out the subtleties of his and Julie’s existence. He couldn’t understand the complexity of the relationship he shared with my stunning, highly attractive counterpart. Couldn’t understand it, and never would. No matter how long he sat in her living room, absorbing the names on the spines of the books on the bookshelves, he would never come as close to knowing her as I did — as I do. Similarly, he could listen to every CD in her collection, the rock, the jazz, the new wave and the Country and Western atrocities her father had bought her in an effort to share his passion with her (the kind of obscenity that sent shivers up and down my spine). And still — still he would be ignorant of who she was, and what part he played in her life. He would be forever incapable of understanding the way the two of them meshed — not in the way lovers should, as he would have no doubt liked to imagine, but in a more fateful way.
Gregory could have never understood how important she was to him. Without her, had the two of them never met — if he had just continued to live his life in the humdrum way he previously had — he would never have had to die.
I remember promising myself that I would at least make an effort to explain this to him.
I was there waiting for him when he let himself back into his flat. It was easy. Getting in was, for me, simply a question of a blink, a cough — and wave of the hand. I didn’t have to plan it, didn’t have to think about the mundane things — how to get in without leaving a visible sign, where to conceal myself, how, exactly, to kill him. These things were taken care of, I like to imagine, for me. It was written in the Stars, my fate was sealed with the first exhalation that misted my side of that infinite and variable connection to what, ordinarily, passed for reality.
He moved around the room, the lounge — where I was waiting for him — removing first his tie, discarding it over the back of the settee, then slipping off his jacket (a ghastly looking thing that, I couldn’t help thinking, even his father, who I also knew intimately, wouldn’t dream of wearing) and hanging it on the peg on the back the door through which he had just entered. Curiously, he clearly felt out of place. Uncomfortable. I almost expected him to glance over his shoulder! Had he perhaps sensed that I was there, waiting for him? Crouched in what for me was the most obvious hiding-place? Had something warned him of his fate, perhaps?… I like to think so. I like to think that there was some kind of moment of enlightenment. I enjoyed entertaining the idea that as he walked across the room and turned on the television, sitting down with a can of beer and a microwave meal to watch the early evening news, he understood both implicitly and explicitly that I was there with him — and that no matter what he did, he was about to die.
As is my way, I waited and watched — occasionally using my handkerchief to wipe away the persistent, but rather comforting, mist between us. Truly, Gregory was not a pleasant man to observe. When he was with Julie, it was bearable — for at such times he was on his best behaviour. No farting, no burping (except silently into his hand) and certainly no bollock-scratching. On his own he was, I suppose, a fairly typical nightmare. One I wished to watch only for his long as I had to, for as long as it took.
Naturally, I was relieved when he finally rose to his feet. He placed the beer cans, three of them, and the carton from which he had eaten his microwave dinner on the small coffee table before the fire, and headed for the bathroom.
As he passed the mirror, he glanced at his reflection. And that was all the opportunity I needed.
To say I leapt at him would be something of an exaggeration. Nothing I do is ever as obvious is that. I touched him — that was all. Simple movement, graceful as those ballet dancers Julie was fond of watching on the Performance channel. No drama, no arrogant posturing, just a swift touch of the hand — placed on his shoulder — and he was mine. Granted, there was something of a struggle. There always is on these occasions. He didn’t want to go, didn’t want to die — can you blame him? The poor atheist boy that he was, he was under the illusion that the life he had known was everything. In his understanding of human existence, however narrow and contemptible, nothing followed afterwards. Death. Oblivion. The concept of some part of him persisting, some spirit, some essence, perhaps the glint (what there was of it) from his eye — all of this would have prompted amusement in him. He was a man who laughed at the devout.
I wiped the smile from his face.
“Don’t,” he said. “There’s money in the bedroom — take it. Take — take the video. It’s a good one. Nicam digital stereo — the business. Have it. It’s yours.”
I almost let him go at that point. His pleas were so pitiful, so amusing. There was a child like stupidity about him that was irresistible — or, almost irresistible. He couldn’t see me, of course. I was behind him. But I smiled and I still believe he sensed it, somehow, at that point. For he seemed encouraged. His pleas grew more extravagant… and then he made a fatal mistake. Then he said something that removed completely even that slim chance that I would let him go. He said:
“I have a girlfriend. Take her key — it’s in the pocket of my jacket, over there, on the back of the door. Go on, take it. She’s yours.”
I told him that she already was — whispered it into his ear as though it was a sweet nothing. And that could have almost been true. She was mine. Through him, oddly, I had loved her. Didn’t he perhaps deserve my sweet nothings? I could have held him there, his back pressed against my chest, my grip as tight as a vice — only rather more tender — for all eternity.
I mean that literally, of course. I could have held in there for all eternity. But I chose not to.
Unless you’ve ever killed the way I do, you can never know how wonderful, how truly beautiful, it can be. There is nothing grotesque about it. Once the initial struggle is over, it has a certain poetry — an extension, I’ve always believed, of my graceful movement. The battle to live subsided and part of him — small but vital — became a part of me, a part of my world, a part of my existence.
What is it they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?
Gregory out of the way, it meant, naturally, that I could now give Julie my full attention. But it wasn’t easy, I have to admit. Her life was now full of grief and confusion. Confusion, because no one ever discovered just what had happened to Gregory. No body was ever found and, when the concern of friends — and, of course, his lover, Julie — finally grew vociferous enough to convince someone in authority to do something, his flat was broken into by the police and nothing suspicious was found.
Apart from one anomaly, which even today I find rather satisfying. It appeals to my sense of mystery.
The chain had been on the door. It had been locked from the inside, and yet there was no one inside. And no other means of exit, since it was a fourth-floor flat. How does a person rationalise something like that? I just don’t know — but I’m sure the majority of friends, police officers, and nosey neighbours managed it somehow.
I’m not sure Julie ever did. It is a mystery that refused to leave her alone. It hounded her day-in and day-out. So much so that, within three or four years, when the grief still clung to her like an indecisive and yet it bloated parasite, she was incapable of working. The work demanded too much of her — more than she now had to give. Was he dead, wasn’t he dead? In her heart she knew that he was, I’m fully convinced about that for I watched her cry a thousand times.
So, I watched and waited. And, yes, it was difficult. There were times when I just wanted to turn away — leave her with the privacy she hadn’t had for a very long time. But I couldn’t do that, it wasn’t in my brief. For her sake and my own I had to persist, had to ensure that she was safe, had to ensure that no one was threatening her in any way… had to ensure that she was mine and no one else’s. It meant so much to me, being with her wherever she was. She would go into town on her better days, glance in a shop window — and I would be there. Picking up a teaspoon to stir her tea in a cafe, she must have felt my eyes upon her. I could have reached out and touched her, it would have been that easy. But that would have broken the spell, that would have changed things irrevocably. I had to be patient. I was waiting. For what? That was something I didn’t discover until three days ago.
Julie had been acting differently just recently. For as long as I could remember, since, I suppose Gregory’s disappearance, she had been vague. She would watch the television but not see it. Read the same page of a book ten or twenty times and still put it down without a clue about what she had, evidently, read. People would visit her — especially her father, that obnoxious, self-centred, lecherous creature I would have happily absorbed the way I had Gregory, had I not believed that that would have pushed Julie over the edge — and she would interact with them in only the most perfunctory way. Now, however, there was a new intensity. Now I realised that the book she was holding really did have her full attention, that the television programme she was watching was being understood completely — processed in what I quickly realised was a very discriminating way. Initially, her attentiveness seemed random. Then I saw how wrong that was. There was something uncommonly particular about the foci of her interest.
Then, as I have already said, three days ago, it happened.
She returned home in a mood I could only describe as one of extreme excitement. She moved around a her bedroom, where I preferred to watch her — although not for the reasons you might think — picking up objects, a clock, a paperweight, an empty coke can, then putting them back down again, as if she couldn’t remember why she had touched them in the first place. And I knew that something very different, something she was having trouble holding inside her, was happening to Julie.
Only when she went to the bag she had brought in with her and left by the door did I get a glimmer of an understanding of what that might be.
She removed the thick, breeze-block-sized book from the Waterstone’s bag. At something of a disadvantage, I nevertheless managed to read the title. Reflection.
There would be no going back. This was one of those moments from which there would be no return — either for or her for me. Whatever was about to happen it would be as intractable as Gregory’s death.
Nothing is ever immediate, though. That much I’ve learned. Julie made herself comfortable on the bed, first pouring herself a generous glass wine — something sombre and weighty — then started reading the book.
She stayed like that for a very long time. And as she read, so my mood vacillated. Happiness was quickly replaced by foreboding, foreboding by anticipation, anticipation by delight, delight by fear — fear by a complete certainty that my world was about to change in such a radical way that I’d never be able to recognise it again… and, perhaps, would never want to recognise it again. Before she was even halfway through the book, she set it down and looked around her. It wasn’t that absent look she would often bestow upon the everyday objects around her — this was something searching, urgent and aware.
When she spoke, I understood completely the implication of the book’s title.
“You’re there, aren’t you?” she said. “I know you are. I can… I know you are.”
In a foolish moment, I almost answered her! She had never been so direct with me, had never acknowledged me, had never given me any kind of consideration. No one ever had — unless they were close to death. Now, here she was talking to me directly, addressing me with an exquisite conviction that I could hear her and, furthermore, that I could in some way reply! Is it any wonder that I was almost stupid enough to respond?
Before it was too late, I managed to gain control of myself and merely held my breath and, as you may have already guessed, waited. In a moment, I told myself, she’ll begin to feel silly and stop doing this — stop talking to someone she knows isn’t there, even if he actually is. She’ll pick up the book and continue reading, only now with disdain for whatever nonsense is contained within its pages. She won’t even finish it. That complete will be her detestation of it. The book will go into a drawer, she’ll go to bed — and in the morning she’ll smile to herself when she thinks about it, blaming the wine. Everything would be back in place. Julie might even pull herself together and make some kind of life for herself, allowing me to watch it, to care from a distance, to protect when necessary.
Except, it didn’t happen that way.
Julie moved from the bed and walked over to the mirror on her wall. It wasn’t unusual for her to do this. People do these things. Mirrors are there to be used in this way. Were people not so vain my life would be boring — always assuming I existed at all. Previously, I would not have questioned her actions. Tonight was different, though. This time I had the memory of the words she had spoken, the tone she had used — the directness with which she had applied this, it seemed to me, so pointedly in my direction.
I don’t mind admitting I was terrified. So this was what it was like to be confronted. All this time, I’d managed to avoid suspicion, managed to remain apart from the things I made real by watching them, however touched by them I was. Now I had to deal with her looking into the mirror and looking not at her own reflection, but at me.
Can she see me? I thought.
“I know you’re there,” she answered, placing the tip of a middle finger to the glass. From the other side, I watched the flesh spread, her fingertip turning white with pressure, the moisture from her skin forming a saintly corona of condensation around it.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so close to anyone. Even when I had been holding Gregory in a death grip. To be so near to her, to see her looking into the mirror and seeing me instead of herself, even if she couldn’t really see me in any conventional sense, was both liberating and utterly disconcerting.
“I thought about it, you see,” she continued. “There’s nowhere else you can be. I’ve felt you. For so long. Longer than I can remember. But it just didn’t make sense — until now. You have to be there. I know you are.”
Something was required of me. I knew enough about the social niceties to realise that much. For me to have remained unresponsive would have been impolite. And so I did the only thing I believed I could do under such circumstances. I didn’t speak, believing that that, however much she may have wished it, would have been too much for her — to have her suspicions confirmed in such a dramatic way could have so easily pushed her to a place where I would never be able to reach her. Instead, I simply placed the tip of my finger against hers.
Her pupils dilated and she snatched her hand back his if I had just stuck a pin into it. She stepped back as far as the opposite wall then stopped — not because she chose to, but because she simply had to. A lesson for her. A lesson for us all.
I thought it was all over. There was no way now she would continue with whatever she had had in mind. Whatever she had started when she bought that book had now been prematurely and permanently aborted. Yes, there was still an attraction in it for her, something she wanted desperately — but the fear was insurmountable. Of that I was completely convinced.
Imagine my surprise, then, when she started tentatively walking to my mirror again. Imagine what it was like for me when she placed the flat palm of her right hand against the glassy surface. Try to comprehend the battling emotions experienced within me. Try to forgive me for bringing her over, for absorbing her, for making her more significantly a part of my reality.
Understand, also, the hatred I felt when, as she came over, she said, “I knew you were here — you had to be. I’ve missed you so much, Gregory.”