“Do you have any photos?” she asks quietly, her mouth half covered by blankets.
“Why would I have photos of your family?”
“I don’t know. You’re a photographer. I’m guessing you take a lot of photos.”
He does. He has photos of her mother at the Christmas table, party hat on her head, he has photos of her father, halfway up a mountain that they climbed together, and, of course, he has photos of her sister, thousands of them, especially from a certain angle, an angle that reminded him of Josie.
“No, I don’t have photos of your family. That would be weird. Anyway, I thought you didn’t want to know?”
“I didn’t. But this has changed things. Meeting you. I feel…different.” she looks away, out of the window, her brow furrowed. “Have you ever used Facebook?” she asks.
The blood drains from his head.
“Sure. Everyone does. Apart from you of course.”
“Do you think you could show me?”
“You’ve never used it?”
“I’ve never used the internet. I’ve never owned a computer. Plus I was too scared to try it, in case I exposed myself or something.”
“It doesn’t really work like that.” he says, as his brain frantically plans a way out of this situation. “We can do that if you like. But I tell you what I’d love to do. Go out. See the sights. I’ve been here almost a month and I’ve basically only seen the inside of your apartment. Not that it’s not a lovely apartment, but you know…”
She emerges a touch from her pensiveness. “Sure.” she says, and kisses his nose. “I think I’m ready though. To find out a bit about my family. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Do you have one of those phones with the internet?”
“A smart phone. Yeah, but the internet doesn’t work abroad.” he lies.
“Oh. That’s a shame. We could go to an internet café?”
“Do they still exist?”
“I don’t know. There used to be loads of them.”
He knows who she would want to look at first. How much would she see? How much of Claire’s profile is open to the public? Would she see him immediately? Would they find a photograph of a pregnancy scan and a hundred angry posts about how he had run out on her?
“Well, maybe we’ll see one when we’re out.” he says. “Grab your coat. I’ll buy you lunch.”
They wander into town. The sun is yellow and the streets are white. Josie points out buildings and relays interesting facts, but Peter can’t focus. He grips her gloved hand and every now and then she tries to loosen his hold, only for him to clasp her more tightly. He wonders if he could he get away to check, if he could unfriend Claire without being noticed?
He has the strongest feeling that everything is darkening. This bubble in which they have been living is running out of air.
They stop for lunch in a café overlooking a cobbled square and order black coffees. He watches the tension manifest in her – the jerky, scratchy moments, the fingers pinching at her skin, the picking, the flitting, restless eyes. He tries to ignore it, but in his worry he can think of nothing to say to distract her.
“Remember that first night?” she says, “When you asked me if I thought about them? My family.” He shifts slightly in his seat to look at her. “I said I didn’t. That’s not quite true.” His hand finds hers and squeezes gently. “I mean, generally speaking it is. I don’t think about my parents, as a rule. But I do think about my sister.”
He stares at her intently. She thinks she sees his jaw tense. Perhaps this worries him, she thinks, this new development. Perhaps he prefers her to be distant and detached. Is it worse to admit that she misses her sister, yet still didn’t go back? Does that make her more or less of a monster? “Do you remember her? I’m not sure if you would. She was younger than us. She went to our school, started the year I left.”
“I think I knew who she was.” he says. “I think everyone did. Because of you.”
A can of worms. That’s what she is dealing with here and she knows it; because there are seventeen years of guilt that she has been postponing, just waiting to be prodded and examined and indulged and wallowed in.
“She was great.” she says. “I feel like I hardly knew her, but I know she was amazing. She was so…light and fun and sweet. Never took anything to heart, just smiled her way through life. Maybe that’s just because she was young, I don’t know. I never knew her as a teenager. That’s when it all starts to go wrong, isn’t it?”
He says nothing.
“I worry. That I broke her. That I changed her forever, made her like me.”
“You didn’t.” he says. She looks up at him sharply and he shakes his head. “At least, she never seemed like that at school. She was obviously pretty sad for a while after you disappeared, but she seemed okay. Well adjusted, popular, you know.”
“I wonder if she had any children.” she murmurs. “I might be an auntie.” He doesn’t answer for a long time and she looks up to see him staring at her.
“How do you know?”
“My mum. Like I said, she still speaks to your mum.”
He looks back across the square, his face heavy.
“I don’t know if that makes me happy or sad. I kind of hoped she’d be settled, a family of her own. I know she would want all those things. She was a real family person. Sometimes I think if she hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t be the way I am. Seeing her be so normal, so grounded and happy, it sort of made me feel less normal. I used to compare myself to her a lot.”
He sits rigidly in his chair and stares ahead. Something is not right.
An ancient feeling dances at the edges of her thoughts, loose and fuzzy, a memory of a memory. Something she hasn’t felt in a very long time that she can’t put her finger on.
“Pete, is there something you’re not telling me?” He opens his mouth, closes it, looks down at her. “Pete, you’re freaking me out. What is it?”
He grabs her hand. “Do you ever want children?” he asks.
“Wow. Big question. Okay, the truth is: no, I don’t.” His hand goes slack, but stays in hers. It’s worse than removing it all together.
“Definitely not? Not ever?”
“Definitely not ever.”
“How do you know?”
“What do you mean, how do I know? I just know. I know my own feelings.”
“But what if you regret it one day and it’s too late?”
“That won’t happen.”
Loneliness. That’s what it is. That black hole that sits in your abdomen and consumes your confidence, your clarity, your self awareness. Solitude she is used to, loneliness she’s not. How is it possible to feel so alone when you’re looking at someone you love?
“I take it you do want children then?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not really thought about it.”
He’s lying; but she understands. He doesn’t want to admit to her that he does want children when she’s so vehemently opposed to the idea. It doesn’t change the fact though, and it will come up again. Women are not supposed to admit that they do not long for motherhood; it is unseemly, it threatens the balance of everything. They are supposed to be willing to sacrifice everything they have and everything they are in order to bring a new life into the world. It’s embedded into their DNA, built into them by evolution, it’s the one and only thing they should strive for. Except, it isn’t. Not any more. They long for more, much more, but can’t admit it. So instead they tell themselves they can have it all, that they can manage everything. They can’t. Josie knows this from looking into her mother’s intelligent, thoughtful, passionate and utterly defeated face. She chose wrong, and there was no going back, and she wouldn’t change it anyway. She was resigned to her fate and Josie saw it every day and it killed her.
“Hey.” he says, putting both his hands over hers on the table between them. “Are you happy?” She nods before thinking about it, so that the sharp stab of fear that follows is almost a surprise. Sadness weaves its way around her heart as the words grow in her ears. Are you happy? She thinks she was for a moment, perhaps she is even now, but if there is one thing she knows for sure, it’s that she won’t be forever and that’s what he means, really. Is she happy to stay here, to keep doing this, to build on this point and keep it in their shared history? That’s what he really wants from her, and it’s not something that she does. Whether it’s a week from now, or a month, or a year, she will feel that rising desperation, curling itself around her, restricting her, holding her breath in her lungs, until it becomes unbearable. She has never lied to him, but this feels like the end of the truth; because the truth is, she will never be happy.
Josie buries her head in a book and smokes. Peter takes out his camera for the first time in weeks and encloses her in his viewfinder. Real but not real. She looks up, covers her face with her arms.
“Pete, no. No photos.”
“Why not?” he asks, lowering the camera.
“Just in case.”
“In case what? In case I email them to your family, captioned ‘Wish you were here’?”
“Sorry. You know I wouldn’t do that.”
“So, why take pictures? I’m right here in front of you. You don’t need pictures of me.”
A huge flock of birds launch into the sky behind her in unison and she tilts her head upwards to watch them. He can’t resist. Click.
“Pete, for fuck’s sake.” She leans forward and tries to grab the camera. He is laughing, she is not.
“I told you, no pictures. I mean it.” she grimaces, gripping his arm too hard.
“Ow. They’re just for me. I won’t show anyone.”
“But what about when…” she tails off, grunts in frustration and downs her coffee.
“No, go on. Say it.”
“When we break up, right?”
“Break up? What are we, twelve?”
“What? How is that juvenile?”
“Can’t we just be us, whatever that is? Seriously, I’ve only known you for a month.”
“Well, no. We’ve known each other a lot longer than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean?”
“Okay, so we were at school together, but you barely even knew my name!”
“Oh I most definitely knew your name.”
“Well, fine, but it’s not like we were friends or anything, was it?”
It’s like a knife in the heart. All the exchanged glances, the secret smiles. They meant nothing to her. Did he imagine it? All of it? Any connection they had?
“But we…I used to see you. At school. You would look at me and…” Confusion settles over her features, and maybe the slightest stroke of fear. “Did you even know who I was?” Peter blurts in desperation.
She rolls her eyes. “I knew your name. I mean, literally speaking, I knew who you were.”
“But you recognised me. When I saw you again in the square. You knew me straight away.”
He feels her retract, knowing he looks manic, that his voice gives too much away, that he’s leaning in too close.
“I recognised you, yes.” she replies, a sudden flatness in her voice. Her face becomes a mask, the Josie he first met that day over coffee and vodka.
Frustrated, he reaches for her cigarette packet, takes one out and puts it between his lips. She looks on blankly. “Since when do you smoke?” Ignoring her, he takes her zippo and lights it.
“Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think.” he replies, regretting it immediately.
The mask is set hard now. Her eyes are dead, their depth and sparkle gone.
“I’m not playing games with you.” she monotones. Her coolness takes his breath away. “You know the situation. You’ve known it the whole time we’ve been together. If you have an issue with it, you do not need to be here.”
Peter watches the table as her chair scrapes slowly back and she collects her things and leaves. His body pulses with adrenaline. He clenches his fists, closees his eyes and he is suddenly back in his old flat in London, alone on the sofa, Claire closing the door softly as she left for the last time. How different that was. How detached he had been, how cool and calm.
Everything hinges on Josie. Everything. His life has been a series of apparently pointless events, all converging to here. Now. Her. How can it all be going so wrong?
The sun sets early, at about five. He stays and drinks alone in the café as the day bleeds out, moving on to whiskey, which he hates, but it feels fitting. The taste of cigarette lingers in his mouth, no matter how much he drinks.
At seven, he pays his bill and wanders the streets, drunk and frozen. There is nowhere for him to go. Josie obviously doesn’t want him at her place, his hotel room has probably been stripped and filled by someone else, and he remembers with a start that a suitcase of his is still there. In all the drama, he hasn’t even thought to go back for it. The snow has seeped into his boots, making his toes soggy and icy. Couples pass, engrossed in each other, and he watches them enviously. What has he done to end up in this situation? He is not a bad person. He has tried his best to live life as a decent human being. He’s made mistakes, who hasn’t?
He stops in at a bar when the cold gets too much, steam rising off him as he pushes through the crowd of young people. Blonde girls in revealing outfits surround him, grinning at him, drinks in their hands, and he feels energised. He wants to forget, to be himself again: Peter, the popular guy at school, the guy who got the pretty girls. Music pulses in his bones, bodies press against his. A young girl, about nineteen, slides in next to him and purrs in Estonian and he grins at her, shakes his head. English he says. I love older men she says, especially English men. Laughing, he puts his hand on her waist. Really? Have you met a lot of English men? She smiles a filthy smile. A few. Her hands are resting on his chest. Josie. Claire. Drink? He says and she nods. She winds her way to the bar, pulling him along behind her by the hand. Anything you want, it’s on me he shouts. She orders champagne. He gets a bottle. It’s expensive, but he doesn’t care. They sit in a booth, more girls arrive, they giggle and smile and contort their bodies to please him and he laps it up, buys more champagne, tells them he’s a model scout, sent to find the most beautiful girls for the UK market. This gets them all very interested. He brings them all shots, four rounds. They fawn over him, stroke his hair and face, put their hands on his thighs, until one of them starts to rub his dick through his jeans. The room is slowly turning. He excuses himself and makes his way to the men’s room, where he queues for a cubicle, swaying.
Some time later, he wakes to find himself staring at a puddle on the floor by the cubicle door, with his head resting on the wall. Out of habit, he reaches for his phone and then remembers where he is. The smell of piss floods his nose and he pukes onto the floor in front of him, splashing his own shoes and trousers, which, it turns out, are round his ankles; but it makes him feel better. He moves in waves, pulling up his puke-covered trousers, doing up his belt with his head leaning on the door, laughing, making his way out of the toilets on an undulating path, through the bar, towards the door, out into the icy night. It hits him hard in the face and he gasps. Josie. Josie, I want you. Only you. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll leave it all behind for you. Think what you like, I’ll make it work. You’re my fucking dream girl. You’re the girl I could never have and now I have you. I fucking have you and I won’t let you go.
One foot in front of the other. Get to her. Tell her. Tell her you love her. Tell her you can’t live without her. That she’s always been the one. Tell her. Tell her everything.