Red ribbons floating on the water. A hand sticking up from the deep. A cold plunge into nothingness. The sky so large, and he so small upon the summer lake. The rise and fall of a voice calling out for help…
The dark descending; too little comfort in the night…
The woman he is with breathes deeply, catching her breath, starts to cough. She sits upright, drawing up her knees, lights a cigarette. He observes her in profile. She isn’t the one for him.
He liked Helga. Helga said yes to too many men. He couldn’t handle it.
It’s senseless to reason with someone committed to actions beyond their control. Helga insisting she had the right.
“Do you want a drink?” The woman asks.
He doesn’t respond, watches her rise. She looks defeated in the darkness. No spring in her step. He should have let her go weeks ago.
It no longer matters; she’ll leave anyway.
Dawn is seeping through the curtain.
He promised to write the novel that surged inside him. He promised to pick up where he left off to become a man again. He made too many promises, and now no one will believe what they can’t understand.
Truth is an unprincipled snake that coils back upon itself, repeating what it has been taught. But truth does not know.
Only a man can know what is inside him. What he feels. The guilt of betrayal. The endless pantomime of false compromise, until it all becomes too much and he must face the consequence of past actions.
The time is long overdue.
The woman slides against him. He’s wondering what happened to Helga.
“Can’t sleep. Try a little rhythmic fucking.”
He fucks, following the soulless routine to get it out of his system. It’s what she wants; what she believes will cure him of the slump he’s in. Her world is sympathetic reasoning, charm sessions, rhythmic movement, trance states; love. He knows she means well. But he’s a lost cause.
As he fucks, he’s thinking about Helga. Helga never once asked him for anything. Never talked about dreams or nightmares. Never wanted him to get better. Helga was alright.
A telephone rings, rousing him from slumber. Light slants through every window. The woman is gone; repulsed by his compulsion to shut down. Sleep tight. Hold hard.
“Why don’t you ever talk?”
What would he say, haunted by the death of a little sister, drowned when they were children. It was his fault. He was eleven, she was six, barely able to stay afloat. A foolish boating accident.
No one to blame the inquest said; he took the blame. His mother rarely touched him again. His father so quiet.
He picks up the landline receiver.
“Yeah?” He waits for a response, but no one talks. “Who’s there?”
A clicking, a buzzing, a disembodied voice repeating. “Strands, strands, strands…”
He sits up sharply, sweat on his face. The day has begun. The terrible business of the day and the world beyond. He hates the apartment. He hates the town. He wants to be where no one will ever find him again.
He gulps coffee. The mobile rings, this time for real. He stares at the screen. A face appears, mouthing. It’s the woman. He can’t make out the message clearly. She wants him to start believing in himself again.
They’re at crisis point.
Helga lives at the same old address. The same old Helga. They kiss, smile, and share a caress. Two years, maybe three. She has a child, no man. A boy named Rolph. He’s a roly-poly bundle, a pink and cream extension of his mother. He smells like all babies do, immensely clean with a whiff of shit. Helga is into yoga and dance. Determined to get her figure back. He feeds her platitudes. “We had some good times.”
“Yes, we did.”
Both want to believe what they are saying. He stares at the child, imagining the man, men, between Helga’s thighs.
“I’m a screw up.” He confesses.
“Yes.” Helga smiles. He can say what he likes, it won’t change anything.
They kiss. Helga isn’t going to be the same person. No one can be. He licks his lips. Salt. He could go on kissing Helga; she’d pucker up.
He wanders to the lake, not the same lake. But he has this idea all water is connected. And if he waits long enough…
A hand sticking up above the surface. Ribbons floating, red, terribly red beneath the ominous sky. The plunge into darkness. The cloying cold depths. Shapes and shadows, a vast emptiness of death. The terrible swim back to land. A search; a pointless search. Rain on the lake the following day.
Darkness… Endless darkness. The sky melting into patterns of strange twisted bodies spiralling madly. His mother; the sound his mother made when they brought his sister’s body home. He couldn’t look at her, his sister. She wasn’t his sister. She wasn’t anything he could put a name to. She was a part of the void again.
He had sent her there, and wanted to join her.
The woman he lives with is cutting up vegetables as he gets home. She points the knife at him. “Where have you been? You didn’t go to work.”
“I was seeing a friend. Don’t question me.”
The woman grows fierce. Her angry chopping becomes more aggressive. He ought to calm her fears, instead he watches the agitation burn in her arms and shoulders. There are red blotches on her cheeks.
He’d like to be angry. He can’t be angry. Too passive.
Soon she’ll turn and confront. Make her demands. It’s like a play by Ibsen, Strindberg. He’s seen them all, trying to get to grips with the meaning of human relationship.
Some of it must have sunk in, but he’s like a sieve.
“No.” He answers, before she can speak. “I didn’t sleep with her, although I would if she asked.”
The knife tightens in the woman’s fist. She’d like to hurl it, burst his balloon. With shaking hands she places it on the chopping board. Pours herself a stiff drink. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Yes.” He answers. “Yes, most probably I will.”
Outside, there’s a full moon. He gets out the bike, his trusty mountain bike, intending to ride. He rides anywhere, just to ride. And he can leave his head where he wants. He doesn’t need to take it with him. The bike becomes his body, the arteries and sinews linked in. The pedals turn mechanically, and unless he has to stop he will ride for hours.
Red ribbons floating on the water.
He recalls her smile; tiny blonde curls. She was third youngest. He always thought she knew more than him. His older sister was the brainbox in the family. She refuses to talk to him. Cut’s him dead.
He has a baby sister, lives by the sea. She’s no longer a baby. Her lover is a curious woman. A peculiar breed who moves like a dancer, sliding across the floor. When they first met, she touched his brow.
“Ow. So painful…” She stepped back as if she’d been burnt. “Your brothers on fire, and not in a good way.”
She was the first to notice.
Over alcohol and conversation she fanned the flame, drawing him out. He wept as his sister held him. He doesn’t want to cry again; it was far too painful. Far too insightful and real.
He’s ridden into trees. A forested area. Sitting beneath bright stars, looking up. He’s thinking of making a fire, staying out all night. There are notices pinned to trees. ‘No fires.’
There’s a bottle in his back pack. He’ll consume what he needs. If there are wild animals in the darkness, he’ll put up very little fight. A ride home at dawn will either break his neck, or bring him back to his senses.
If the woman is there, she’ll shun him. If not, he’ll call on Helga. She’s the only one didn’t pity him. Didn’t hate him. Didn’t want to make him explain.
It was an accident. A childish prank. No one was supposed to get injured, or drowned. No one was supposed to suffer the rest of their lives.
He raises the bottle to his lips. The spirit burns away the brittle defence he retreats behind. Even through darkness he can clearly see red ribbons floating on a watery grave. A small hand breaks the surface. He clutches for it wildly, but it slips away.
The woman is not there. He doesn’t visit Helga. He sits in a chair. Somewhere, upstairs in the apartment block, music is playing. He listens to the far away strains.
The telephone rings; he doesn’t move. The doorbell chimes. All these calls on his time. He wants to sink to the bottom of the lake. He wants to be eleven again. He wants to be held and told. “This is not your fault.”
Red ribbons float; he touches them and they melt away.
How easily they melt away. He stands at the window. In the distance, the trees and hills lose themselves beneath a heavy rain. There are ghosts everywhere; ghosts that ebb and flow.
He knows he will kill himself. He just doesn’t know when.
The woman returns to find him sitting in darkness.
“What happened to you? Did you spend the night, with her?”
He’s forgotten about Helga. He’s forgotten about the fight they had.
“I only came back, because…”
He stares her way. She’s crying. Why is she crying? She isn’t grieving. He’s the only one allowed to grieve.
“Don’t cry,” he says.
It’s an instruction he doesn’t believe in. Perhaps she should cry, and why not? He rises slowly. She’s in his arms. He holds her, feeling the sobs rock her body like a dance. Another rhythmic dance.
He doesn’t know what he feels, about her, about himself.
She breaks away.
“I’m a screw up,” he says.
“Yes.” She answers. “Yes, you are.”
Helga smiled, this one simply stares.
Every summer red ribbons are tied around his sister’s gravestone. And each time he returns, they’ve melted away. The rain, or the wind, or some passing element. But there are ghosts… He sees them. They follow him. Calling him home.