“I hope you don’t mind sitting outside,” she says.
It’s freezing cold, but he smiles grimly and says, “No, it’s fine.” His heart races in his chest. She takes a sip of her coffee, puts out her dying cigarette and extracts another from a crumpled packet. Who smokes these days? he thinks. It seems so archaic, yet everyone here is keeping the tradition alive.
He can’t stop staring at her. Other than the obvious signs of aging – a few folds around the eyes, some gentle lines around the mouth – she looks the same. Her hair is still jet black, long and straight. Though her skin has darkened a little with time, she is still milk pale. Her eyes, green flecked with brown, still sing to him when she looks up from under her dark, thick lashes.
Her fingers tap and flicker on the table.
“Do you want to ask me anything?” she asks, not looking at him.
“Well, I want to know what happened. Maybe we should start there.”
Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, she drains her coffee cup and looks anxiously for a waitress. He waits, watching her bird-like movements with a mixture of joy and horror as she orders another.
“You want anything?”
He shakes his head.
A memory blooms. Watching her across the school field as she sat with a group of friends, knowing she didn’t belong there, wishing he could go and talk to her. Most people wouldn’t even have noticed. They’d have looked at her and thought she was happy, well adjusted, well liked if not popular. But he wasn’t a casual observer. He knew that when she was uncomfortable, she chewed the inside of her cheek. When she was worried, she scratched at her wrists. When she was sad, she smiled more than usual. And he can see it in her still. The vast chasm of sadness when he catches her eye, like looking at the universe through a keyhole.
“Are you going to tell anyone?” she asks.
He thinks for a moment. “I don’t know yet.”
“I don’t want to go back.”
“It’s been seventeen years.” Fuck knows what he’s trying to say, but it seems like something that should be noted. He sighs, looks away, catches his own reflection in a window; hair greying and everso slightly retreating, the start of a jowliness to his jaw. Even his stubble is starting to turn. He’s never felt so old in his life.
“Don’t you miss anyone?”
She grits her teeth and shakes her head. “I did at first, but then I decided to treat them all like characters in a book. They didn’t exist outside of me. I didn’t think about what they might be doing, or how they might have changed. It was easier that way.”
“You know your Mum still thinks you’ll come home.”
A pulse of shock crosses her porcelain features.
“How do you know that?”
“She’s still good friends with my Mum. They talk.”
“She’s wrong.” she says.
Two girls on the next table are talking incredibly loudly, their sounds harsh and guttural. It sounds like they are arguing, but then one of lets out a shrieking giggle. He tries to tune them out and focus. The initial shock is starting to wear off and now the reality of her in front of him, alive, seventeen years older, is starting to sink in. He has no idea what to do with the emotions that are boiling up inside him. She stares out into the square, people-watching, then looks across the table as if to check he’s still there.
“You do realise people thought you were dead?” he says quietly.
She draws a shuddering breath. “Look,” she growls, leaning forward urgently, her hands on the table, a spiral of smoke weaving between them. “Why do you think I moved countries? Why do you think I live in the back end of nowhere? I’m not proud of myself. I’ve never told anyone about this. Not a single person and I wasn’t ever meant to. If you hadn’t recognised me – ” She scratches at her wrist as she speaks, chews her lip when she pauses.
It suddenly occurs to him that he has no idea what she has been through, what she had to do to survive on her own all these years. Just a girl, alone, no family or friends to rely on. He knows nothing of what she’s experienced.
When he looks at her again, he sees something other than the girl he had a crush on aged fifteen. This isn’t that girl. He studies her carefully. There is a tattoo peeking out of the cuff of her jacket. It looks like a bird, diving, a swift maybe. Her clothes are neutral to the point of invisibility: a thick, black coat, dark jeans, dark boots, no jewellery that he can see. There’s no trace of make-up on her skin and her hair looks like it hasn’t been washed today. A tinge of shadow has begun to form under her eyes.
“Are they okay?” she asks.
“Oh. Yeah, I think so. Your mum’s still living in the same place. Not remarried or anything. I’m not sure where your Dad lives.”
“They broke up? My parents?”
“Yeah. About a year after you disappeared. Your dad wanted to have a memorial service for you and your Mum refused. I think it had been building up for a while. They went through a lot, you know.”
She keeps her features hard as he talks, gives nothing away.
His fingers are so cold he can barely feel them, so he pulls his sleeves down over his hands. This country is so fucking cold all the time, he does not understand why anyone lives here. He looks through the window to the inside of the bar. It looks warm, inviting, full of people living normal lives, having normal conversations about normal things. Right now, it looks like a portal to another world.
She leans back, holding his gaze, her face softening. “I don’t even know if I can tell you. It’s all got so hazy. It was a long time ago and I tend not to think about it. It’s like…I’m not sure I can say it all out loud. But I think I want to. I think I want to tell someone. I’m so tired of it.”
“So, tell me.” he says, and wraps his scarf more tightly round his neck.
The day she disappeared, he could have sworn he saw her across the field. It was only a fleeting glance, but he was so familiar with the form of her that it was an instinct to look up when she was near. As he threw his bag down and dropped into his seat, his eyes were drawn to the window and a solitary dark figure turning away in the distance.
He thought about telling her parents, but he was frozen. Something like fear, or embarrassment, stopped him.
So today, when he saw that same dark head in the crowd, the same staccato gait, the same pale glow, he knew straight away that it was her. At first he thought he’d gone mad. He hardly knew her and she only knew him by name when they were kids, but that summer – her vanishing – left something open and raw in him that has never healed. He never let go. And now it feels like there was a reason.
“So, what do you do now?” she asks briskly, lighting a new cigarette from the glowing stub of the last.
He stutters, trying to muster the energy for a response. It doesn’t come. He can’t manage chit chat with a girl who has been dead for seventeen years. Her coolness riles him and when she blows her smoke in his direction, it boils over.
“Where the fuck have you been? Seriously. Where the fuck have you fucking been? How are you sitting there? We all thought you were dead. How the fuck did you end up here?” He finds himself with his face in his hands, rubbing his temples, eyebrows, nose. “I mean, what the fuck Josie? Why didn’t you go home? Or just let them know you were okay? I do not understand. I really do not fucking understand.”
She lets him finish, then raises her hand. A waiter bustles over and she orders in crisp, fluent Estonian. They share a joke and laugh briefly. Peter’s anger blisters. The waiter leaves and they sit silently, eye to eye across the table, until the waiter returns with two tall, slim glasses and places one in front of each of them.
“You can never know everything about a person,” she says. “You need to remember that. Now drink. I think you need it.” She raises her glass towards him and holds it there. He looks into that beautiful face, the face of the first girl he ever loved, the girl who was stolen away in the prime of her life and stayed young and perfect forever, the girl who is suddenly as old as he is and far from perfect, and he picks up his glass and clinks it with hers and drinks. Vodka. It sends a warm snake down his throat and into his belly and he immediately wants another. As if reading his thoughts, she raises her hand again, motioning to the waiter to bring more.
“People may seem normal on the surface,” she murmurs, “but everyone is fighting a battle with themselves. Some can cope, others are drowning.”
Another shot appears before him and she raises her glass a second time, and he meets it a second time and they drink. His mind begins to stretch out and coast and he’s flooded with memories of her. Glimpses down the line in assembly. A shy smile in the corridor when they were both late for class. Being right behind her in the lunch queue, her hair so close he could touch it. Jesus, he wishes they were there again and he could stop her and say Hey, what’s going on? Are you okay? Do you need to talk?
They’re on their fifth shot now. Her features swim in front of him, melting in and out of memories. He reaches out and touches her hand and she lets him hold his fingers there for a moment before pulling away.
“You should have gone home,” he says. The sound of the words isn’t enough for the weight of them.
“I couldn’t. There was no way back.”
“What does that even mean?” Her mouth opens, closes, and she bites her lip. “Did you not think about your family? Your friends? All those people who loved you. Didn’t you think about how they would feel?”
“Of course I did. That’s why I’m here, on my own, in the middle of fucking nowhere. You really have no idea, do you? I would look at people in the street and feel every terrible thing that had ever happened to them. All their disappointment, all their loneliness, all their fear and self-loathing. I couldn’t bear to have people around me that I cared about. It was too much to know that they would be hurt and die. Because they would. One day they would. And I could not do it.” She drags hard on the burning filter of her cigarette and then stubs it out hard. “Would you rather I were dead? Would it be better if I’d done the decent thing and killed myself, like every other poor bastard who feels like that?”
A wave of nausea fills his throat.
She upturns her cigarette packet and the last cigarette falls onto the table.
“I couldn’t bear being me. It had to end. Do you understand?”
But he doesn’t. He can’t.
They sit in silence, looking out into the square. A thick tiredness hits him. The dimming light and the vodka turn the passing people into a pattern of colourful motion blurs. Then Josie signals for the bill and he panics as he realises she is leaving.
“Can I see you again?” he asks. “Tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. I want you to tell me more. I want to understand.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” she says, placing a pile of crumpled notes on the table.
“Please. I’m only here for three days. Then I’ll be gone and you’ll never have to speak to me again.”
She thinks for a moment, then fumbles in a dark leather satchel on the floor, pulls out a notepad and scribbles something on it.
“Seven o’clock tomorrow evening.” she says, handing him the note without looking up.
Then, without another word, she leaves.