(Nibfest Write-a-thon 2014: Special Mention Awarded)

Renaissance

It was a bright day in May and the clocks were striking twelve. I stood beneath a large oak, sheltering from the sun, taking one last look at the school building in front of me; ostentatiously symmetrical, punctuated with full, heavy cherry blossoms along its red-bricked walls, the sun gleaming sharp white off its tall, gothic arched windows. A bell rang and the doors erupted like sliced arteries, dark uniformed bodies spilling out into the sunlight in a surge of human noise, flowing past each other in bubbling streams, dashing to their new experiences, good and bad. A few stragglers, dragging rucksacks and gangly limbs, and then the doors close: silence again. Birdsong and the gentle hum of a bee.

As I turned and walked away, I felt a lightness, a fluidity, a release that I had never known could exist. Adrenaline fizzed in my veins. I could do anything, beanything. I truly believed that.

If only things had worked out the way I planned them.

I was fifteen, and the summer yawned and stretched out ahead of me: a time for friends, outings, adventure, discovery. I knew this because the summer before had been all of these things and more. My first kiss, my first time getting drunk, my first smoke of a cigarette, my first high. All this had happened within that hazy realm between one school term and the next, drenched in hot sun, scented with cut grass, cheap body spray, bubblegum and a light spritz of teenage sweat. I’d spent my days drinking cider, aimlessly winding round the streets on my bike with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth like a cowboy, being stared at by boys from booming car windows. By all accounts, it was a great summer.

But by the end of it, I knew what I had to do.

The dislike I felt for myself was not a sudden thing. It built up slowly but surely, layer upon layer, like plaque on teeth. There was no one thing that had brought me there, no single catastrophic event that haunted me. But yet there I was, aged fifteen, an empty shell of a person with no great redeeming features. The person I was that day in May was not the person I wanted to be. She was not great, or good, or intriguing, or important. And I know what you’ll be thinking right now: I was fifteen, what the hell could I possibly know about anything? But think back to your own fifteenth year on the planet. Were you really that different, any different, from now? In the very core of you, in that part of you that you cling to, I think you’ll find that you have remained the same.

There was a deep, hollow frustration within me that I knew most people didn’t feel. A gnawing, grinding awareness of the passage of time and the mundaneness of life that coloured everything with a nostalgia not yet earned. It ate away at me every single day and pulled me out of myself, out of reality, and into the position of viewer, watching the world as if through a dirty lens, everyone an actor in some long, drawn-out play.

Somewhere inside me was the knowledge, the absolute knowledge, that I was destined for something great. Something profound and vital and urgent. But I knew with equal certainty that the life I was leading would not take me there, that living in suburbia and attending a good school and doing my homework and straightening my hair and flirting with boys and listening to music and eating at the table and hanging around in parks was not going to take me where I wanted to go.

The problem was, clean breaks are hard to come by. Lives are like tumours – the malignant kind – with tendrils growing into deep and unexpected places, merging and bonding with the tissue around them, until you can’t extract them without causing damage. Even after such a short time on the planet, there was no easy way to stop being me. None that would do no harm, cause no worry, allow the world to keep turning just as it did before I came along. I imagine that when they no longer want to exist, most people would turn to suicide, but I had no desire to die. What I wanted was reincarnation, reinvention, a completely new start: to press ‘reset’ and give it all another go.

So how to start again? When you’re fifteen and you have teachers and friends who would miss you, and parents who would go to the ends of the earth to find you, how do you say “Stop. I shouldn’t be here. I took a wrong turn somewhere and I can’t find my way.”?

It sounds so dramatic to say it now, but I know at the time that it wasn’t. I wasn’t seeking attention, it wasn’t a cry for help. I really, truly wanted to start again. I would dream about witnessing a terrible crime that could land me in a witness protection programme, swept away to a new life where I could be whoever I wanted to be. I would dream of faking my death, of leaving my favourite necklace precariously balanced on a windy cliff top over a violent sea. But the search and rescue, the helicopters, the lifeboats, the long searches on grey beaches looking for a hint of something terrible amongst the driftwood. I didn’t want to cause so much fuss.

I wanted to dissolve into the sea, dissipate into the air like smoke and somehow be forgotten by everyone who had ever known me.

So, I walked. The road glowed ahead of me, golden and shimmering. The sky was painfully blue. The world seemed to sing with promise. I stared at the faces around me in a daze, each one more beautiful and more heartbreaking than the last. More than anything, I wish I could have stayed there, suspended for eternity in that moment, never taking another step.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I hope you don’t mind sitting outside,” she says.

It’s freezing cold, but I smile and say, “No, it’s fine.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, puts out her dying cigarette and takes another from a crumpled packet. Who smokes these days? It seems so archaic, yet everyone here seems to be keeping the tradition alive.

I 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 and, though her skin has darkened a little with time, she is still milk pale. Her eyes, green flecked with brown, still sing to me 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 says, not looking at me.

“Why did you do it?”

She smiles a little and looks me in the eye. “Interesting. I expected you to ask how, not why.”

“The how seems less important.”

“Really? For me, it’d be all about the how.”

“There must have been a reason. You couldn’t have put everyone through that for nothing.”

She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, drains her coffee cup and looks anxiously for a waitress. I wait, watching her bird-like movements with a mixture of joy and horror as she orders another.

“You want anything?”

I shake my 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 I could go and talk to her. Most people wouldn’t even have noticed. To the casual observer, she was happy, well adjusted, well liked if not popular. But I was not a casual observer. I was the kid who was madly in love with her from afar and I knew her in ways that other people didn’t. 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 I could see it in her. The vast chasm of sadness when I caught her eye, like looking at the universe through a keyhole.

“Are you going to tell anyone?” she asks.

I think for a moment. “I don’t know yet.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

“It’s been seventeen years.” I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but it seems like something that should be noted. I sigh, look away, catch my own reflection in a window; hair greying and ever so slightly retreating, the start of a jowliness to my jaw. Even my stubble is starting to turn. I’ve never felt so old in my life.

“Don’t you miss anyone?”

For a moment, her eyes seem to shine with the promise of tears, but 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’re alive.”

She looks up, a glimmer of shock in her porcelain features.

“How do you know that?”

“She’s still good friends with my Mum. They talk.”

“But they told her I was dead. That he’d killed me. They found blood in the car.”

“Well, she never believed it. And I guess she was right.”

“No,” she says, “She wasn’t.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It felt like I had been walking for days. The sun beat down hard on me, too hot for the time of year, and everything was high contrast through my squinting eyes. The buildings around me had morphed from soft, white, curtained homes into sharp, grey, industrial boxes, lined with metal fences and surrounded by carparks of black treacle tarmac.

I’d been down this road three times and not seen a soul. The train station was close, I knew that, but it was proving elusive and I seemed unable to find a new route through the tight, grey streets. My initial feelings of elation had faded into a background anxiety that made me nauseous. I’d been gone just over an hour and I only had another two before someone would know that I was gone.

I stopped and sat on the curb, my head filling with an electric buzz as I tried to decide what to do. If I took a taxi, it was more likely that I could be traced, and I was already taking a risk on public transport.

Then a man appeared, walking towards me. He was in his early thirties, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, with dark auburn hair. He walked straight past me, not even giving me a glance, his heavy work boots almost stepping on my fingers. I stood and called after him.

“Excuse me!”

He turned to face me and looked at me with pale grey eyes and my heart flipped in my chest. Something in the way he stared at me, looked me up and down, fully appraising my assets; it excited me.

“Do you know where the train station is?”

He frowned, thinking, looked up and down the road.

“Yeah, you need to get back on the ringroad and take the second exit. It’s only a couple of minutes away.”

I remember looking at his hands, thinking how large and strong they were, how thick the fingers, how I wanted to know what it was to have them circled around my waist.

“Oh, I’m not driving. I’m walking.”

“Ah. Sorry, I don’t know know how to get there on foot.”

My shoulders dropped and I sighed.

“I could give you a lift if you want, my car’s just round the corner. But you’re a young girl and I’m a stranger, so…”

He smiled at me, pushed his hands into the back pockets of his jeans.

“Yeah. Thanks anyway.” I said and picked up my bag from the pavement.

“No worries,” he said, and started to walk away, calling, “Hope you find it,” over his shoulder as he walked under a railway bridge.

The air felt still and thick around me. A van drove by slowly, the driver leering and grinning from the window then beeping the horn. It slowed to a stop just ahead of me and a cold feeling settled over me as I realised how alone I was.

I looked back at the stranger in the work boots, still in sight but nearing the end of the road.

And I picked up my rucksack and ran after him.

I’ve replayed this scene many times over the years. I’ve put myself back on that street in that sweltering industrial estate, with the smell of burning chemicals in the air and the feeling of the skin on my neck tightening as it burned under the midday sun, the sweat pooling at the base of my back and the blisters that were swelling in my new shoes. I’ve tried to remember what I was thinking, what I thought about the stranger I was running after, but the memory has become worn out with my replaying it, so that it’s fuzzy and patchy. Don’t think I was stupid, or naive, because I wasn’t; I knew what men were capable of, what people were capable of, and I knew that life was cruel and disgusting when you scratched the surface, but in that moment, knowing everything that I knew and feeling everything that I felt, I made a call.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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 them lets out a shrieking giggle. I try to tune them out and focus. The initial shock is starting to wear off and now the reality of her in front of me, alive, seventeen years older, is starting to sink in. I’m not sure what to do with the emotions that are boiling up inside me. She stares out into the square, people-watching, then looks across the table as if to check that I’m still there.

“So, how much of it was fake?” I ask.

“You don’t understand. It wasn’t fake.”

“Well, you look pretty alive to me.”

I’m surprised to hear my voice come out with more than a hint of anger. “Sorry,” I say. She doesn’t react.

“It wasn’t fake. I was abducted.”

“But you obviously got away. How long did he…how long were you…with him?”

She looks up at the sky and draws a shuddering breath.

“Look,” she says, leaning forward urgently, her hands on the table, a spiral of smoke weaving between us. “Why do you think I moved countries? Why do you think I live in the back end of nowhere? 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.

And then it occurs to me that I have no idea what she has been through. He could have done anything to her. I wince at the very idea of imagining some of the terrible things that could have happened.

When I look at her again, I see something other than the girl I had a crush on aged fifteen. This isn’t that girl.

I study her carefully. There’s 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 I can see. I see 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.

“Is she okay?”

“Who?”

“My Mum.”

“Oh. Yeah, I think so. Still living in the same place. Not remarried or anything.”

“They broke up? My parents I mean?”

“Yeah. About a year after you disappeared. Your dad wanted to have a funeral 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 I talk. Gives nothing away.

My fingers are so cold I can barely feel them, so I pull my sleeves down over my hands. This country is so fucking cold all the time, I don’t know why anyone lives here. I look through the window to the inside of the cafe. 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 my 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.” I say, and wrap my scarf more tightly round my neck.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The car was like an oven, but he made no moves to open a window and instead turned on the cold air. It blasted cool on my face and I closed my eyes for a moment and regrouped. If I could get to the train station in the next ten minutes, I could get back on plan. By the next morning I would be in Scotland, where James was waiting for me. James who would look after me, James who loved me, James who had his own flat and his own money and was my way out of my life.

I didn’t love James. I didn’t even really know him, and he certainly didn’t know me. After six months of emails back and forth and a couple of stilted phone calls, I had painted him the perfect picture of his perfect girl and it had worked. He was desperate for me. There was a joy in watching his love for me blossom, in creating a character with whom he would fall madly in love, and in seeing my plans realised as he confessed his feelings and told me I should move to be with him. I’ll look after you. No one will know a thing. I live on my own, so no one will even know you’re here. I want you with me. I need you near me. I have money. I’ll pay for everything.

He wasn’t a bad guy, I was sure of that. He wasn’t the brightest spark, but he had a good heart and I knew that if I could get there, I could start over.

Grey building after grey building, becoming emptier, sparser, until all I saw was flat, split concrete and abandoned shells of factories with boarded windows like blinded eyes. Dark green shards sprouted from the cracked pavements and walls, eerily still in the heat, wilting visibly.

He leaned forward and turned on the radio; a song by Fleetwood Mac, one that I recognised from my childhood, encased in a memory of my parents and a record player and an evening spent surrounded by colourful square sleeves in our living room, back when I was all pigtails and innocence and potential. It gave me a jolt of terror to hear that song, like a message from the universe, a bad omen sent to warn me; but of what? To turn back? To return to the life that I couldn’t bear to be in for one more terrible, soul-draining, painful second?

I knew that we weren’t going to the train station. A weary acceptance was seeping into me with every moment that passed.Of course. Of course this is what is happening. Silly me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The day she disappeared, I could have sworn that I saw her across the field. It was only a fleeting glance, but I was so familiar with the form of her that it was an instinct to look up when she was near. As I threw my bag down and sank into my seat, my eyes were drawn to the window and a solitary dark figure turning away in the distance.

I thought about telling the police, but I was frozen. Something like fear, or embarrassment, stopped me. But I knew it was her.

So today, when I saw that same dark head in the crowd, the same staccato gait, the same pale glow, I knew straight away that it was her. At first I thought I’d gone mad. I’d dreamt about her a thousand times and I often imagined seeing her again when I felt down. I liked to plan the scene in minute detail and see it play out in my head. It’s ridiculous, I know. I hardly knew her and she only knew me by name. But that summer, her vanishing, it left something open and raw in me that has never healed. I 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.

I pause, trying to muster the energy for a response. It doesn’t come. I can’t manage chit chat with a girl who has been dead for seventeen years. Her coolness is riling me and when she blows out her smoke in my direction, it boils over.

“Where the fuck have you been? Seriously. Where the fuck have you fucking been? How are you sitting there? You were dead. We all thought you were dead. How the fuck did you end up here?” I find myself with my face in my hands, rubbing my temples, my eyebrows, my 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 me finish, then raises her hand. A waiter bustles over and she orders in crisp, fluent Estonian. They share a joke and laugh briefly. My anger boils and blisters. The waiter leaves and she stares at me silently until he returns with two tall, slim glasses and places one in front of each of us.

“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 me and holds it there. I look into that beautiful face, the face of the first girl I ever loved, the girl who was murdered in the prime of her life and stayed young and perfect forever, the girl who is suddenly as old as me and far from perfect, and I pick up my glass and clink it with hers and I drink. Vodka. It sends a warm snake down my throat and into my belly and I immediately want another. She reads my thoughts and raises her hand again, motioning to the waiter to bring more.

“Everyone seems normal on the surface,” she murmurs, “but everyone is fighting a battle with themselves. Some people are drowning in it, others can cope. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Another shot appears before me and she raises her glass a second time, and I meet it a second time and we drink. My mind begins to stretch out and coast and I’m flooded with memories of her; glimpses down the line in assembly, a quiet, timid smile in the corridor when we were both late for class, being right behind her in the lunch queue, her hair so close I could touch it. Jesus, I wish we were there again and I could stop her and say “Hey, what’s going on? Are you okay? Do you need to talk?

“Okay,” she says. “I’m going to tell you.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

His hands on me, his mouth on my neck.Okay, this is okay, just go with it. Then it wasn’t. He pushed and he pulled. No. No, I don’t want this. Harder. Hands on my throat. I want to go home. Just let me go home. It’s all okay now. I don’t mind any more. I understand. Please let me go home. Tighter. Harder. Maybe this is for the best. Maybe I made this happen.

No.

I let go then, let my body go limp. It did what I wanted. It made him pause. I grabbed for the door handle, pulled it, fell from the door onto my knees and my hands, punctured with gravel. Get up, get up, get your knees under you, your feet on the floor. I ran, a sob breaking free, a scream half formed, escaping fruitlessly, echoing into the emptiness. I heard him behind me, scrabbling like a rat in a pipe, knew that he was coming for me.

I looked up from my feet momentarily and in front of me was a vast body of water. It was beautiful and shimmering in the heat, glassy and lifeless, surrounded by chiseled miniature mountains of grey and orange stone. I could see for miles. The ground became rough and loose beneath me. I stopped. I was at the edge of the quarry.

His scurrying footsteps slowed behind me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and face him. I didn’t want to see. The flat mirror of water gleamed beneath me as I shuffled toward the edge. I was ready. I closed my eyes and tipped my head back and leaned forward.

A second passed. In that second, I died.

In the next second, a hand grabbed my wrist and pulled. I fell backwards, towards the ground, towards the solid earth and away from the air and rock and icy water. I opened my eyes as I hit the ground and saw his face, the face of the man who had tried to kill me. He blocked out the sun and was silhouetted. It was beautiful.

I’m not sure what happened next. I know that he reached down to grab me and I remember looking past him, into the searing blue sky, and seeing a bird of prey hovering above us, sitting on a wave of warm air, its wings outstretched.

I kicked out hard with my legs. He fell to the floor as my feet connected with his shins. I kicked out again and he rolled, then grabbed at the ground as his legs found themselves foundationless. His final look was one of surprise and disbelief, just before he disappeared over the edge.

A sickening crack, another, then silence. Birdsong and the gentle hum of a bee.

The world became more still than it had ever been. I sat and watched the birds hover and dive over the quarry, felt the sun on my skin and closed my eyes as a cool breeze soothed me. Then I stood up, walked back to the car and climbed in. I took out my compass and dug the sharp end deep into my skin and pulled, filling my lungs as much as I could with the new air around me as the blood ran dark and sticky from my veins.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We’re on our fifth shot now. Her features swim before me, melting in and out of memories. I reach out and touch her face and she lets me hold my fingers there for a moment before pulling away.

“You should have gone home,” I say. The sound of the words isn’t enough for the weight of them.

“But I was dead. I died. Don’t you see? There was no way back.”

“Why not? Did you not think about your family? Your friends? All those people who loved you. Didn’t you think about how they would feel?”

Her eyes glaze over and she sinks back in her chair. A strange peace settles over her.

“I felt everything and nothing. I felt everyone’s pain a hundred times over but none of my own. 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. 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 my 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 I don’t. I can’t.