The flat is silent when she unlocks the front door; it always is these days, but it’s a comforting silence, and she prefers it to the noise of screaming and recrimination, accusations flung with the inescapable accuracy that comes from knowing someone, loving someone so deeply that you can barely separate yourself from them -- until they force you to.
The silence is a balm to her weary nerves, stretched thin by a long day on her feet, face after strange face crowding her in a never-ending stream of people, each forcing a smile over her features, greedy and uncaring of the cost.
She shrugs off her coat, throws her bag in one corner of the sofa and kicks off her shoes to cross the bare floor over to the coffee table, tug open her laptop and press the ‘on’ button with a relieved sigh. While she waits for it to boot, she potters around the house, the familiarity of the layout and the routine soothing her frayed calm. Fill and flick on the electric kettle, pull the tea mug off the drainer, throw a teabag inside. Pour boiling water, set aside to brew while unbuttoning your shirt and wrapping it around a hanger. Unzip skirt and let it fall over your legs, kick off the annoying tights. Unclip the heavy mass of hair, shake it out from the constraining bun. Tug on a soft fleece top, a pair of cotton lounge bottoms, pick up the tea and get your phone out of your bag before curling up on the far end of the sofa, log in.
Her Gmail flashes ten bold lines at her before she weeds out the important from the easily ignored, trying not to let the measly three remaining messages get her down. She opens them quickly, scrolls down, reads and clicks ‘back’ to reply later. Opens a new window, logs into LiveJournal. Sips at her tea in the meantime, wonders vaguely where Jasper has holed up this time. It’s not often that he won’t run up to meet her when she comes home from work, but he, like his mistress, has his off days. His food bowl is still half full, so he’s off his meals again. She wonders if it’s a reflection of being a bad owner, her own tension and unhappiness making him nervous; it’s just one more thing to feel guilty about, a drop in the sea. She’s so tired.
Her friends list is fairly quiet -- it is midweek, and she knows she’s not the only one working all hours of the day. She scrolls down, hoping, willing to find something to draw her in, to let her escape from her own head. She knows this feeling won’t last, but when it’s upon her, it feels like it will never go away.
And then she sees it -- an update from bebackbeforethekick. She clicks on it so quickly that she almost upsets her tea, but it’s been over two weeks without one, and she’d started to worry.
It’s weird, how someone she’s never met, never will meet, likely, feels closer to her than her own mother; how the voice of a stranger has become so important to her that it can lift or sink her, fill her with trepidation for their safety and well-being, make her feel a part of something bigger than herself.
Darling, he writes, always Darling, no name, no way to know whom he’s talking to -- not unless you’ve been following his blog for the better part of two years, not unless you’ve spent countless hours piecing the story together, you and the handful of other followers -- just as dedicated as you, and if you had to guess, just as lonely, as disaffected. As desperate to connect to something.
It’s cold again today; rain splatters the pavement even as I type. It’s easy to remember why I left this city behind almost two decades ago for better things; although in hindsight the ‘better’ part is debatable.
I sat in a Starbucks for two hours today, staring at a Caramel Macchiato. Don’t make that face, I know how much you love them, you can’t fool me. Yes, I know I’m being unbearably sentimental, no need to roll your eyes. Indulge an old man. Anyway, there was this man sitting in the corner across from my table, spent the whole time he was there rubbing a thumb over his wedding ring and staring wistfully out the window. He made me think of you.
I suppose it’s a good thing Christmas is over; my mother has, as usual, been unbearable, all the more because she keeps asking after you. You’ve managed to charm her flawlessly; but then again, it is you. I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t love you -- certain situations excluded, of course, as they should be.
I’ve been thinking of Paris recently, that little passage with the wrought-iron streetlights, you know the one. Found it on the road atlas the other day; it’s exactly four finger-lengths away from where I am right now, isn’t that strange? I bet it’s just as wet and miserable there as it is here, but somehow all I can see when I think of it are wild lilac bushes and sunshine threading through the leaves of the trees branching overhead, your hand warm in mine.
Let's go there, after.
She lets her head drop back to lean on the cushions behind her, raises a trembling hand to cover her eyes. She doesn’t know why she does this to herself, she really doesn’t -- it makes her feel empty, hollowed out, heart badly mended with old sellotape that’s long lost its stickiness.
She does know, of course, even when she pretends she doesn't because it's too depressing to acknowledge. It makes her feel, and that’s all too rare these days.
She still remembers the first night she discovered the blog -- a snippet of someone else’s life, drawing her in like a lodestone, enticing her with the chance for a little vicarious thrill (harmless but ever so needed, even though she hadn’t known it at the time). Ten months of so much love and longing, peppered with moments of black despair, few and far between but all the more vicious for it.
There are others who follow it, a network of fans all over the world, some of them right from its beginning two years ago, others newer to it, like she is. No one knows the writer, but there’s a whole community centred around the blog, the familiar cursive of its heading Who loved not wisely, but too well curling soothingly over the top of the page every time she clicks through to it. Before she’d found the community, she’d thought that they were nothing more than letters flung into the aether, odes to someone long lost by someone else unable to let go. Then she’d read the discussions, and patterns had started to emerge. The writer was a man, that much had been divined from a few lines more informative than usual. No city or country is ever mentioned, however, but oh how she wishes there were -- the way he writes about the city he lives in, she wants to take the first train or plane out there, wants to wander down narrow streets and find the café he sits at, wants to pretend she’s waiting to meet him and his partner.
That’s another thing that she’s discovered -- the letters aren’t just sent into the unknown, like scraps of paper in a bottle -- there are replies, carefully tucked away in the midst of all the usual comments from their small circle.
Saw a vile yellow shirt two days ago in an otherwise promising shop. I wish I knew where to send it. I guess you’ll have to wait until I can put it on you myself.
Bukowski was onto something. Is it strange that when I read this, all I can think of is you?
S. gave birth yesterday, a baby girl, 7lb 9oz. She says she can't wait for you to meet her.
Male, female, no one knows; the poster of the replies is anonymous, and there’s but a few sparse clues littering the meager lines, meaningless to everyone but those who care enough to look. There are countless debates on how those rare scraps of information fit together. She’d even joined in a few times.
Funny how things work out sometimes, she thinks to herself, opening up a new message in her Gmail and typing in alice_band78’s email. Who could have possibly known that a strange, lonely man, whom she'll never meet, would be the means to her finding that one person -- the one she lives to talk to, who makes her empty life half-way bearable?
She wonders, often, whether A. is that person for E., the one that he needs to talk to so much he's willing to accept whatever consequences or danger -- because why else would this set-up exist, unless it was to protect someone? Untraceable IP, no names mentioned, locations screened, the bare bones of a relationship in the pointless little details one cannot go on without sharing with the other. What would it be like to love someone so much that you would risk everything for them, would make yourself miserable, would pine away for hopelessly, but would walk away from to protect them?
And still to be unable to let go, to crave them more than breathing, to live for the time when you can meet again, when it would be safe to be together.
It would be unbearable, daily torture with no means of escape other than carving your heart out and locking it away under a ton of earth, and still you’d be able to feel it beating.
‘Dear Alice,’ she writes. ‘Open your flist, there’s another one!’ Clicks ‘send’. Smiles. Waits. She can be patient when she knows it’s coming.
Four months pass and spring arrives, tentative and hopeful, and she feels a curious unclenching in her chest, something unfurling, ready to come out at the slightest provocation. She feels like she’s been lying down on the cold ground for years, praying to any deity that would listen to pick her up, set her down somewhere new, miles away from this place; and maybe it's happened without her realising -- everything around her is fresh and different, like the world has changed while she's been waiting -- or maybe it's just her.
E. has been quiet recently. The last missive is over two months old now, languishing forgotten at the start of the blog.
I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of running. I sit here, in this huge, empty house, and everywhere I look I see you -- sprawled on the sofa reading, those enchanting glasses slipping down your fine nose; at the stove, butchering scrambled eggs; putting on one of your delightfully well-fitted suits in front of the mirror in your dressing room. You forgot your Cavalli the last time you were here, and I have been fondling the soft wool like a pervert in the night.
Two nights ago I wore your shirt to bed. Yes, I’ve lost some weight. Try not to be alarmed, I’ll be okay. It’s difficult to work up any kind of appetite when every time I look at food I remember you bringing home that pail of strawberries, me feeding them to you, red juice escaping your lips and running down your chin, and all I want is to lean over and lick it off, kiss the flavour right out of your lovely mouth.
Nothing tastes the same without you.
I hope this isn’t the last thing I ever say to you, but if it is, just remember -- you are the best thing about my life, and I’ve had enough of sub-par existence.
Wait for my word.
There are four messages by A. tagged on to that last post, each one more frantic than the last.
You absolute idiot, what do you think you’re doing?? For fuck’s sake, DO NOT approach them! We can wait this thing out, just trust me!
Jesus Christ, fine, if you’re this set on it, at least let me back you up. Fuck radio silence, call me so we can sync. DO NOT GO IN ALONE.
Oh god, all right, PLEASE. There, you have me begging now, happy? Just, fucking call me!! If you go in without me, I WILL shoot you, don’t think I won’t.
And this, just this morning--
'Oh', she thinks. 'His name is Eames, like the chair? How bizarre.' The last one isn’t signed, but there’s no doubt in her mind that it’s from A. No one else seems to know for certain who E. is, let alone his name. A. must be desperate -- and she supposes it’s fair enough; Eames had sounded like he was at the end of his tether.
She has a sick feeling at the pit of her stomach about this. A.’s urgency is affecting her more than she could have imagined possible -- she doesn't even know these people, but they have become important to her in a way she could never have predicted. There’s just something about these messages that reaches a place inside her, long welded shut, and pries it open with the slightest of pressure, impossible to resist in its intensity. She’s teetering on a precipice of potential, and there’s two ways this can go -- forward, into the unknown, a leap of faith that seems more and more possible with every passing day -- or backwards, into the cold ground, miles from anything that could make her feel, a ghost without voice.
Her keys jangle as she unlocks the door, a cheery little melody to accompany the mild June air, warm and fragrant with the scent of roses from the little garden outside the house. She drops the keys into the enamel bowl she bought last week at Portobello Market, slides out of her sandals and shrugs her cardigan off, hanging it up by the door. The flash of coral would have looked strange just months ago, amidst the black and grey of her winter coats, but now it blends in with the pale yellow jacket and lavender shrug, a riot of colours that makes her smile.
Jasper trots over, mrowling happily as he twines around her ankles. She almost trips over him on her way to the coffee table, and she picks him up when she bends to press the 'on' key on her laptop. He wriggles in her arms, stretching his claws, sinking them ever so gently into her shoulder in warning. She rolls her eyes and drops him onto the sofa, goes to fetch a drink from the fridge.
There are three messages from alice_band78, and eight new comments on her latest story. She flicks through them, but something makes her hesitate before replying. There's a sense of anticipation in her stomach, even though there's no reason to expect anything new.
She knows what it is as soon as she logs into her Friends page. She does upset her ice tea this time, but it lies unheeded on the floor while she reads with bated breath.
It’s over. I’m okay. It’s safe. Come home.
According to the time stamps, only seconds had passed between the post and the reply.
You absolute, utter bastard.
ETA 14hrs 53 mins.
I love you, you lunatic.
How can she stay still in the face of this? Tears stream down her cheeks, and she’s laughing and crying at the same time, and that thing that’s been waiting dormant inside her chest all this time bursts into glorious, resplendent life. If they can do it, weather so much and still love each other with such furious fire, then there’s hope for her still.
She opens a new message.
I will be at the Starbucks on Trafalgar Square in 45 mins. If you still want to meet, I will wait.
She spreads her arms and jumps, laughing into the wind -- she clicks ‘send’. Jasper jumps up into her lap, rubs his fuzzy little head under her chin and purrs happily. She scratches behind his ears, laughs joyously down at him, free at last. She puts her laptop down, curls Jasper into her arms and jumps off the sofa, racing for her bedroom to tug on her best jeans and a clean shirt. She has somewhere to be.
ETA 30 mins. ;)
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