It’s been three days since Peter switched on his phone. Occasionally, he puts his hand around it, still in his pocket, where he feels it pulsing, despite its lack of power.
He catches a glimpse of her as she collects from the outside tables. She doesn’t smile, a vaguely worried look being her default. Something about the distance and the secrecy excites him, seeing her as others do, people who don’t get to have her and touch her. She looks unhappy, he thinks. Am I not making her happy? But then, when has she ever looked happy? She sighs deeply before re-entering the café and his fingers drift to his pocket again and wrap absent-mindedly around the dead phone.
As he sees it, there are two main possibilities for his situation:
1 – Claire will want to keep the baby
2 – Claire will not want to keep the baby
If it is option one, he is in deep shit. He will have to:
a – Go back to England and be supportive
b – Tell everyone the truth and see what happens
c – Disappear
Disappear. Never answer his phone again, throw it away, get a job in a shop, or a bar over here, never speak to his family or friends again, cause everyone to worry, potentially set off some sort of police enquiry, put her at risk. No, it would never work.
So is it option a?
The idea of giving her up after everything they have already been through makes him feel sick. Surely that isn’t how this plays out? Surely it means something to have found her again? It can’t be for nothing.
So then. Option b. Tell the truth.
It has been three weeks since he flew out here. It feels like three years. His old life, the life he now feels completely detached from, is probably still exactly as he left it: his flat still exists, the mortgage is still being paid, his friends and family all still love him, and here he is, sitting in a café in Estonia, secretly watching the long dead love of his life, who he will later curl up next to in bed.
She glances in his direction and he freezes, even though he knows she can’t see him, the distance and his position at the back of the rival café rendering him invisible.
Is Claire showing? Is her stomach swollen with his child? There is some strange pride, some evolutionary echo deep in him, that is surprising and unnerving. He impregnated a woman with his sperm and his DNA is now replicating and he feels…larger, more sturdy, more confident.
His bank account looms darkly in his mind, but he’s not yet ready to delve back into reality; plus he knows he is fine for money, following a good summer, busy and lucrative. So far, all of his planning has drawn a blank and he has no idea how he is going to make this work, how he can cut himself off from his old life without consequence. Before Claire’s announcement, it seemed difficult, now it seems impossible. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for his own life, Peter is loved and would be missed – his parents love him, his friends love him, he has colleagues who care for him – to leave them all behind with no contact would cause so much heartache, he can’t yet imagine how it could be done.
The summer Josie disappeared, when she had been missing for about a month, Peter saw her parents in the supermarket. He followed them for a while, as they drifted through the aisles like ghosts, not really looking at anything or anyone. He wanted to talk to them, tell them he was sorry, that he loved her too and missed her just as much as they did. He wanted to have her mother tell him it was okay. They wandered, not speaking to each other, just dropping things into their trolley silently, and when they got to the frozen food section, her mother started to cry. It quickly became loud sobs, and then angry shouting. Her husband stared at her blankly, scared and confused, like a child coming across a drunken parent. He put his arms around her to hold her, but she pushed him away and screamed at him. Peter left his basket in the aisle and walked quickly out the back doors.
At the time, Peter was sixteen and friendless and all he could think of was Josie and how she might be hurt or scared or lost. It was then that the darkness started to creep into his thoughts, a ball of fear in the base of his skull that seemed to swell from time to time and threaten to explode.
Life ticked on, second by second. The world felt smaller. Everything felt like lies and pretense: laughter was a lie, but so were tears. He couldn’t understand how everyone could just keep going, knowing that she was missing.
At night, he lost himself in imagining. There she was, throwing pebbles at his window in the dark; there he was, peering out into the night to see her standing in the garden, tears in her eyes, telling him she missed him, that he was the only one who understood her, that she knew how he felt. He saw her everywhere – on the bus going by, across the school field, at the end of a supermarket aisle, in the background on TV; but always out of the corner of his eye. The minute he looked directly at her, focused on her, she was gone.
He never told a soul how he felt. Who would understand? That he knew her, even though he didn’t, loved her, even though he was just a kid who watched her from a distance.
It was that summer that he first picked up an old camera from the attic and wandered the streets, taking painfully pretentious photos of abandoned buildings. Lonely places, scenes of desertion and loss. It was so woefully predictable, but it was the beginning of Pete; the man he is now. Locked away in the family bathroom, he watched images float up through the red light, like ghosts at windows; but every image he took disappointed him, they never captured the feeling of being there, in that empty space, with the taste of loss so sharp in the air. So, he kept trying, he thought about the lighting, the positioning of the objects, the composition of the shots and he made them better, and bit by bit, he got good.
Summer ended and school rolled around again. By then, he was sixteen and had spent two months alone with his thoughts, seeing no one, watching the world through a viewfinder, so the noise and the intensity of school was a shock. He found it refreshing and terrifying in equal measure and threw himself into everything, grateful for the distraction. He worked hard, joined clubs and played sports and it transpired he was good at rugby. The exercise melted away his puppy fat, his teachers grew to love him, fellow pupils started to notice him – boys and girls – and his social status was elevated, and suddenly, to his great surprise, he found himself popular.
At home, however, it was a different story. Without any part to play, reality remained his only option, and as soon as he pulled the front door shut behind him, a desolate panic set in, wide and unending. It would start with a feeling of electricity in the back of his skull, then the terror would start to creep in at the edges of his mind. For months, he spent every evening being sick, not out of choice, he wasn’t bulimic, the terror would take hold and a physical reaction would kick in, his stomach would cramp and he would be forced to run to the bathroom, either to shit or puke, his body didn’t care which, as long as he cleared everything out as quickly as possible.
Somehow, he kept it a secret from his family. He could still manage to eat his tea, talk to his parents and appear normal for a while, but as soon as he was alone, it would hit him, when his mind was allowed to go blank, there it would be: the darkness, lurking in the background. There was no trigger other than the feeling itself, so he had no way to stop it.
Sleep became difficult – closing his eyes would accelerate the terror – so he would stay up playing tetris until the small hours, until all he saw when he closed his eyes were blocks dropping neatly into place. He started to look grey and weak and eventually his mum started to see him more clearly.
“Peter,” she said one morning, as he drooped into his cornflakes, “you look awful. Did you not get much sleep?”
“I slept fine.” he lied.
They sat him down in the living room one night after school and sat ominously across from him.
“We want you to know we won’t be angry with you, no matter what you tell us. We’re really worried about you and we need you to tell us the truth, okay?”
He nodded, feeling the edges of his thoughts begin to fray.
“Peter, are you taking something?”
He was angry. He had assumed that, being his parents, being smart, capable adults, they would know what was happening, and he wanted them to just know, instinctively, and to make it go away.
“No.” he said, but he could tell they didn’t believe him. They looked disappointed. They had hoped he would confess all and let them help. That would be simple.
“Darling, you’ve been acting very strangely and you really don’t look well. Your skin is grey, you look exhausted and you’ve lost a lot of weight. And you seem edgy all the time. Is there anything you want to tell us, sweetie?”
Peter opened his mouth to tell them, but had no idea what words to use. A teenage boy couldn’t know what to call this, he had no reference. He didn’t know how to tell them that he couldn’t control his own brain. He was convinced he would be told he was “mad”, locked away in a padded cell, drugged and tied to a guerney; but he also knew he couldn’t go on like that. His body was worn out from the constant adrenalin, everything ached, his mouth was full of ulcers, it was getting harder to maintain his daytime persona.
Despite his newfound social status – his invites to parties, the girls who hung around swishing their hair whenever he walked down the corridor, the medals he won for high jump, the camaraderie he found with his rugby team, the good grades he brought home – despite all of this, he found himself, just a week after his seventeenth birthday, sat in a fake leather chair in a therapist’s office, being stared at intently by a man in his mid-fifties, with a mullet and glasses that looked so comical Peter wondered if they were fake.
It had taken three years to gain control over the panic attacks – that’s what the therapist told him they were, these episodes of terror that he felt. Three years of trying to change his thought patterns to break the cycle of fear, reaction, spiraling into the darkness, trying to claw his way out, being pulled further and further into the abyss. Three years of writing down his thought patterns and analysing them, to find the weak point, the moment when he could intervene and regain control. Three years to realise that in order to beat it, he had to let it win, to go down, down, into the black hole, through to the other side, where he was still alive, breathing, not broken, not forever at least.
And now, ten years on, it’s as if it never left him.