I think about amputation, a lot. Not the sort carried out by a scalpel but by the jagged blade of fate, leaving me immobilised, an inmate in my own home and haunted by a phantom limb I didn’t know I had. And so here I am, full of emptiness, tired by inactivity and blinded by a porthole to another self. A self that isn’t me.
Curtains drawn. Darkened room. Transfixed by the glow. Click clicking; scrolling posts. I tremble as each image appears, trying to piece it all together. The four of them on a couch, a male friend, draped across the laps of the girls like a prize trout. She’s in the middle, and by the look on their faces they think this is hilarious. Following their timeline, it seems life consists of nothing but hazy nights in trendy wine bars as they pose, holding cocktail glasses to the camera, while pouting or pulling silly faces.
Each image, analysed, scrutinized, dissected. She’s laughing. There’s a tall guy I’ve not seen before, Italian-looking, chiselled jaw and bright blue eyes. They look like a couple, only they’re not. I don’t think she’s interested but I can tell that he definitely is. He’s called Paolo. He has the demeanour of someone used to getting what he wants. He likes rock climbing, parachuting and mountain biking, a real action man. He’s been to Cardiff university and now works for a law firm. I scan his pictures and see the many girls hanging off his broad shoulders. Probably thinks he’s just the antidote after what she’s been through.
I lean in towards her, those emerald eyes, until all I see are pixels of green.
Now I close my eyes and hear them laughing. They talk about designer clothes and parties and their careers. He’s trying too hard. She confides in her best friend – who I think is Irene; they went to the same primary school and are the same age.
It’s Saturday night. Soon she’ll be out there somewhere, with her friends again, while I’m here, waiting, watching. Despite our connection, she’s moved on from me – from us – but still I try to find a trace of regret.
My phone vibrates: friends inviting me for drinks. ‘Six months and thirteen days. Get back out there and meet new people…’ I can almost hear them check themselves before they add that there’s plenty more fish in the sea, because that wouldn’t be appropriate. Not in the circumstances. So, I pass, save them the trouble of awkward eye contact and embarrassed silences. If living in the dark has taught me one thing, it’s how to see your way through the blackest of black.
When Olivia and I first started dating we’d go out every night. Before long we were content to stay in. We’d take turns cooking, or watch a movie, or invite friends over for drinks. I never thought it would end, not the way it did.
I scroll some more, trying to piece together the clues. She’s wearing more make up than usual: burgundy lipstick and heavy on the eyeliner. With that dress she’s obviously out to impress, the low-cut front reveals more than it conceals. Paolo’s hand dangles casually on her hip, though not by chance, I’m sure. I close my eyes and see them together: she unzips her dress, lets it slip down to her feet; her body is firm and toned as befits someone with a gym membership that starts at £500 per year.
I doubt he’s her type. But after cross referencing their likes, I discover they both have a thing for reality television shows and dance music. They both have albums of trips to Ibiza. They’re probably talking about DJ’s, sunsets and ecstasy, as they sip their Mojito, or Daiquiri or Cosmopolitan.
She posts a selfie and comments – Moving onto Club Brand!
In the bathroom I fill the sink with cold water, my face beneath the surface. Slowly my body realises, my stomach spasms, bubbles gurgle, body against mind, until that very last moment, when the body wins, and I pull back, a gasping, coughing, dripping face in a cracked mirror.
And there she is, Olivia, behind me, half her face in shadow. Pale and lifeless, as I last saw her.
‘You can do this,’ I say in a voice I don’t recognise to a face that isn’t mine.
After putting on a pair of fresh jeans, clean shirt and trainers, I splash myself with the aftershave Olivia bought me for my birthday. She baked me a carrot cake and stuck on twenty-seven candles. I blew all but one on my first attempt. That was a great birthday. Was it the beginning of the end?
It’s time. I order an Uber.
The cabbie isn’t chatty, which suits me. When he parks outside the club, there’s a long queue and I feel the warmth in the breeze as I make my way to the end of the line, checking each face as I go. A couple of guys cut in, but I don’t react. After half an hour I’m about to enter, and the bouncer pulls me aside, telling me to raise my arms while he half-heartedly frisks me. I’ve waited this long, what’s a few more minutes.
Down the steps I feel like a weight going into dark water. The walls and ceiling burn red; the music penetrates, and each chord of the bass sends tremors through the ground, the walls and me. At the end of a corridor I push through the double doors and am hit by a wave; the club is huge, and wall to wall with people dancing, limbs moving in unison. A fog is approaching and I’m in the eye of the storm, the sea swirling around me. I wade onwards, through the colours, the sweat, the dilated pupils and the stench of dry ice, then climb a spiral staircase and look over the balustrade. Below, bodies sway, as strobes flash like lightning.
Her face is everywhere and nowhere.
The bleach-blonde behind the bar asks me what I want. I stare at the tattoo on her shoulder, a serpent wrapped around a sword, and she smiles. With bottle in hand, I wander, checking my phone, but no updates since 22:31. Maybe they changed their plans. Maybe they went somewhere else.
Another drink, then another, and I’m starting to relax, thinking that maybe this isn’t the right time to do what I’ve come here to do. Blood and alcohol mix into a dream, until I’m drifting, weightless, onto the dance floor. Slowly, my body wakens; slowly the music pulses; I move my arms, swing to the beat.
An hour passes.
‘Out of me fuckin’ way, you cunt.’
A bottle hits the floor. Hands on my back, body unbalanced. A frenzied face. Screaming. He can’t take his alcohol, but is with his boys so feels brave. He wants to make something of it, but I’m not here for this. I disappear into the crowd and find a seat at a table in one of the quieter rooms, dark and misty with smoke. No one is here except me. I close my eyes.
One minute passes.
And then another …
I can feel myself sinking inside, further, deeper.
A group clambers to the bank of seats behind me. ‘Excuse me, mate, you don’t mind if I take one of these stools?’
I look up. I shake my head. He takes the stool.
I turn around and see she’s with him. Her. Vanessa. The red dress, those green eyes. A shard of light that cuts into the black.
A cold breeze passes through me.
Our eyes meet, only a moment, before she turns away.
As though I were no one.
I doubt she thinks about how certain paths can cross. How our trajectory was set when she pulled out without due care and attention. Olivia lost her life; Vanessa lost her driving licence. I wonder if she felt that was a suitable penalty. Whether that could possibly have restored balance to the universe.
They babble about nothing. Eventually a silence settles. No flashes, no conversation, nothing. I glance over; she’s staring into her phone, swiping, while Paolo whispers into her ear.
I buy another drink and watch them from a distance. Then I make my way to the toilets and wait for a cubicle. When a guy with long hair and vomit on his chin staggers out, I go in. I don’t care that there’s piss, crap and sick everywhere except in the toilet, I just pull the lid down and place my foot on top. I roll up my trouser leg, unbutton the sheath and take hold of the rosewood handle, tilting the blade so it catches the light, and running my fingers over each of the jagged steel teeth.
I remember as a child, some local kids pushed me into a lake. I close my eyes and am there again, sinking, looking up at a bright and sparkling ceiling, the echo of voices distorted, knowing it will be over soon, when I pull myself up to the surface…