At some level, I know I am dreaming. This is not how it was. At the time, I didn’t see her so clearly; didn’t hunger for her as I do now. Then the taken-for-granted future stretched before us; now only the severed stump of might-have-beens is left to me.
For a few seconds I am both actor and audience in this mind-movie directed by my subconscious. Seeing myself, drowsy and inattentive, I want to shout “Wake up. This is important. You will never have this moment again.” But I find I can make no sound. Instead my awareness narrows, and I become, for a time, a man who has not yet realised that this is the happiest he will ever be.
“What?” I ask, opening my eyes part way.
Her lopsided smile is just visible in the blush of the post-dawn light, which matches so perfectly our post-coital glow. She is laying next to me, leaning on one elbow, her small fingers lightly touching my chest just above my heart.
“You are the gentlest man I know,” she says.
“Thank you. I think.”
Sex is still new between us and I wonder what I have done that makes her see me this way.
She sits up on her heels, comfortable in her nakedness. Looking up at her, I am reminded of how young she is, ten years younger than me. Her skin is smooth and firm and in my mouth tonight, she tasted like springtime: tangy and vigorous.
Placing her hand on my wrist she says, “Don’t ever change – ever.”
There is something in the intensity of this statement that pulls me from my languor and makes me pay attention.
‘”We all change.” I sound old and weary.
She smiles at my maudlin tone, takes my hand in hers and says, “Then become even nicer. Nice makes me feel warm all over.”
“Mmmmmm,” I reach for her “let me check that out.”
“Yes, this bit is warm…, and this.”
“What about this?”
“Warm but also moist”
“I think you should explore further”
“Exactly like that, except faster and deeper”.
I wake with cum on my belly and tears in my eyes. Nina. Always Nina.
5:45 a.m. I’m alone in a bed that I share only with ghosts: my ghost and Nina’s.
I’m sticky and I need a shower, but not here. Even the shower downstairs seems too close this morning. I throw on some sweats and my favourite Reeboks and decide to run down Haverstock Hill to our office in Camden Town.
Early as it is, there are still people moving purposefully through the streets, running through the mazes of money and need.
At the office, I shower and change. I always keep clothes at work. Once it was so I could change when the working day started shortly after the clubbing had finished. Now it is because I get mornings like this, when I can’t bear to stay in the house in which Nina died.
My office overlooks Camden Lock. Soon the stall holders will start to set out the stands that Nina so liked to browse through, but which always seemed to me to be filled with tat, sold by middle class dropouts, who thought it was cool to pretend to be poor.
Nina would laugh at me for comments like that. “You’re hardly the vanguard of the urban proletariat,” she’d say, “You’re a working class lad in a middle class job. Comes the revolution you’ll be the first to be put against the wall and shot.”
This is a media company so my staff won’t be here until ten or so. I switch on the full size Gaggia coffee machine and make myself a fierce double espresso with Illy coffee; another pretentious piece of fashion-victim posturing that Nina would have treated with playful derision.
Nina had no class hang-ups. She came from a middle class family that had been furnishing the Labour Party with intelligentsia for three generations. In a way, it was the Labour Party that brought us together.
It was May 1996. Mangle Media Productions had just had its first successful year. Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ gang had just kicked the Tories out and we were holding a fringe party (dress code: black tie and Raybans) for the great and the good who wanted to demonstrate their media connections and swig free champagne. The room was dominated by a huge TV screen with a live link to the official Labour Party bash. Tony made his entrance as D Reem where playing “Things can only get better”. He started to give his famous “New Labour, New Britain” speech. I smiled as a cheer went up from the affluent crowd at our party, we could all see the gravy train pulling out of the station and we knew we would be on board this time.
“They’ve already got their snouts in the trough haven’t they?”
I turned my head to see who had spoken. Then I turned all the way round. My body had decided that it wanted to be facing this lovely young thing. In a year when every woman I knew was wearing a little black number, this girl had turned up in emerald silk that clashed wonderfully with her bright red hair.
“Do you speak, or are you restricting yourself to non-verbal communication?” she asked.
I realised I’d been staring and that my mouth was open. I went for the smile. I have good smile.
“Hi, I’m David Jackson” I said confidently.
“I know,” she said “we’ve met.”
Crash and burn I thought. It must have shown on my face.
“Of course, I was much younger then,” she grinned, enjoying my reaction.
How could anyone who was only twenty-two or so have been much younger then?
“I doubt you noticed me. You were too busy trying to fuck my older sister.”
“Nina? Nina Posner?”
“So you do remember me. Did Rachel ever let you fuck her? She never would say.”
Rachel Posner never let me fuck her, she always fucked me. I was a junior lecturer at the Manchester Business School and she was a first year student, yet she was the dominant one. Rachel had shown me what sex could be, perhaps what I had always wanted it to be. She made me see that I’d let shame and guilt and other people’s expectations keep me from what I most desired. My face heated as I remembered how I had struggled against the bonds that held me, erect to the point of pain, desperate hoping that I had pleased Rachel enough to have earned the release her fingers could give me.
Nina was smiling at me, waiting for an answer. It was hard to believe that the innocent-looking girl in front of me could come from the same stock as Rachel.
I focussed my attention on the soft curve of Nina’s smile and said, “I’m not surprised she didn’t tell you. You were only about five and way too young to know such things.”
I was trying desperately to remember just how uncool I had been back in 1986. Shit, did I still have the ponytail then? I hoped Nina wouldn’t remember.
“I was twelve and she wouldn’t tell me because she knew I had a crush on you.”
My cock suddenly turned to rock and I was sure Nina knew it.
“There you are, darling,” the voice belonged to a Hooray-Henry with no chin and an accent that could cut glass, “We really must be going or we’ll miss dinner with Tony and Cherie.”
Neither of us looked at him.
“Nice to meet you again, David,” Nina said. She leaned forward to give me an air kiss. Her hand on my arm felt as if it was scorching my suit. In a whisper, she said, “I still think you’re cute, ‘specially now you’ve lost the ponytail.”
Then she was gone.
My espresso is cold. I’ve been in the office for an hour and done nothing but visit the dead. I need action.
I power up my ThinkPad and check on my Hollowman mail. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved to find nothing from Scar. Maybe she has vanished into the ether.
This morning’s snailmail has already arrived so I flick through it. There is an A4 brown envelope addressed to “Hollowman” and marked “Personal”. There is no stamp so it was delivered by hand. No-one here knows that I am Hollowman. I rip the envelope open, thankful that my early arrival meant I could intercept it.
There are two sheets inside the envelope. The first is a printout from Kyoko’s webpage. It has pictures of her and describes her services and prices. The pictures have been altered using Photoshop. Someone has done a painstaking job of putting a jagged scar along Kyoko’s left cheek.
A handwritten note at the foot of the page says, “Is this what you wanted to do to her?”
The second sheet is a full-page black and white photograph of me coming out of Kyoko’s building. Yesterday’s date is stamped on the picture. On the reverse “Hollowmen” by T.S. Elliot, a poem about debasement through the rejection of good, has been handwritten. The hairs on my neck rise. This poem was the source of my on-line identity. Sections of the poem have been picked out in garish yellow highlighter:
“Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”
“Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the shadow”
And then the only line that everyone remembers but which most people misunderstand
“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper”
A handwritten note in the margin says, “I will be your shadow until you make my world end”.
There is no signature. None is needed. It would seem Scar has not vanished after all.