She lurks in her lair, and watches the man in apartment fifteen writhe and sweat and do shameful things without a hint of shame. Leena knows his wife will catch him. Of course she will. They always get caught.
In a dim room bathed in the thin light of computer monitors, Leena watches comings and goings, lies and trysts and betrayals. She sees the secret selves that come out when people think they are unobserved, and the bland surface details that are reserved for public consumption. It always amazes her, the progression of Russian Dolls in which people wrap themselves. Personalities layered within personalities, a different person for every occasion. But which one is real? Leena doesn’t know. Sometimes, she wonders if anyone really knows: about anyone else, about themselves. It’s all such chaos. Maybe everyone is acting. Maybe everyone is blind.
She watches, and she judges. She keeps notes.
Leena is tall and thin, stooped from hours at her desk, pale from days without sun. She is thirty, but she looks…what? Sometimes she looks older. She has seen an awful lot, after all. She has seen it all played out over and again, via her army of cameras. It shows in her eyes. There is a cynicism there, a weariness.
Then again, sometimes she looks younger. Sometimes, she seems barely more than a child. Her hair is long and bedraggled. She only rarely wears makeup, though she has a whole room of the stuff. She buys cheap junk, though she could afford the best, just as she could afford the best food, the best personal trainer and gym equipment, the best dental work money could buy. But she does not want these things; in fact, she wants very little. Only to keep watching. Only to bask in the glow of reflected existence. And if there are times that something stirs - deep and hidden, a want so aching and shameful that she can hardly accept its existence - she grits her teeth and forces it deep, deep down, swallowing it like bile.
There is a hollowness to Leena, too, an innocence in the way she frowns or smiles or laughs (always to her monitors; never to a real person) something that can bubble up without restraint when there is no-one else watching.
Now, viewing the man in apartment fifteen cheat on his wife for the second time that year, Leena shakes her head in disgust. She knew it was coming. She could have told the wife that herself, told her months ago, and saved everyone an awful lot of trouble. But Leena has a strict non-interference policy. She sees it as her moral duty never to get involved. She is a critic, after all. Always a critic, never a player.
Leena has her cameras and her monitors and her dim room. She tells herself that is enough, as the thin seconds of her life are chopped away into relentless eternity, and she dies one day at a time.
Leena is an only child. She was a mistake, too, as her mother used to tell her. Such a mistake. Such a shame.
Leena’s parents had not been built for love. After she was born, her mother had an operation to make sure no more mistakes like Leena would ever come. One mistake was one too many.
Her mother had never hit Leena, never even raised her voice. But there was a vacuum there, worse than blows or shouting, a nothingness where there should have been a connection, and Leena doesn’t think the venom will ever come out. She has given up on wanting it to. She has forgotten she was not born with it, this deep well of poison settling in the centre of her, which her mother bequeathed to her instead of love.
Her father was different. Her father was affectionate, when he saw her. But he was always busy, so busy. The business had to run. Fortunes did not make themselves. It was her father who had built up the whole complex, built it up from nothing. He started with a single house, and a basement room he rented out to the desperate for next to nothing. By the time of his death, the development numbered fifty seven apartments - all expensive, beautifully maintained buildings - not counting the house Leena had grown up in. He had left it all to her - Leena’s mother had died the winter previously - and really, who else could he have given it too?
All the apartments had been occupied - for they were good properties, well located, and very reasonably priced - and it had taken Leena the best part of two years to get all the equipment installed. But she had always been a patient child, wilful and dedicated. And money, of course, was no object. She hired the best technicians - the ones with most skill and least scruple - and paid tens of thousands for cameras that weren’t even on the market yet. She needed them to be small, to fit into the tiny places, behind vents, inside appliances, within smoke detectors.
But at the end of the two years, she had eyes everywhere. Not a room in all 57 apartments remained hidden.
And all the cameras feed here - to her control room, to her dim lair and her banks of monitors, humming endlessly to the hollow house.
When the couple in apartment fifteen finally split up, Leena nods and turns off the monitors. She has been sure this was coming, one way or another. They are both moving out and moving on, tears and screaming and alimony. Leena could not have asked for better, and she says so in her report. She files these reports to no-one, click-clacking words into her keyboard, a detailed critique of one more human relationship. She gives full marks for drama. She thinks the couple were interesting and complex - though she did not actually like either of them, of course - and that the supporting cast of parents and siblings-in-law were sparky and refreshingly off-beat. The dialogue was good, too, though there was a bit too much swearing at the end for her liking. That always seems to happen at the end of relationships, and Leena finds it lurid, gratuitous.
She finishes writing her report, then prints it off and carefully files it away. She knows no-one will ever read them - at least, not during her lifetime, though she has indulged in odd fantasies of eBay fame coming after her death, these lovingly crafted reports, these strange curiosities selling for millions to national newspapers, circulating widely across the globe, her name known to nations. But does it matter? Does it matter that the words she pours into space and time might never be touched again by another human mind? After all, she thinks, it all comes to darkness in the end. Remember Ozymandias.
Afterwards, there is a small period of peace. A warm glow fills her, a sense of satisfaction. For a moment, she almost feels she has a place. She almost forgets the poison in her heart. But then it starts to burn again, and Leena must search. Who should she watch next? Where is the next faint echo of warmth to be found?
In apartment thirty-four there lives an old woman, slithering with snail-slowness towards the grave. Leena knows the old woman killed her husband - drugged him, then smothered him in his drugged sleep - and she wonders idly if death will take the old murderer before the truth comes out. But she does not care that much, not really.
There are other stories of some interest, other lives unfolding gradually in other apartments. All her little projects. That’s how Leena thinks of them. But none of them grab her right now. None of them seem quite right.
And it bothers her, that empty apartment. It always bothers her when one of her projects is left empty. It is like missing a meal. It is like a place she cannot scratch, and nothing ever feels right again, not until the empty apartment is re-occupied.
She frowns, and rattles off an email to one of her agents. They know the drill, they know what Leena wants. She wants the apartment filled, and quickly, and - if possible - with someone who promises some measure of interest. Of drama. Of the life that she can never touch herself.
It doesn’t take them long to find someone.
Leena goes to meet her new resident, as she always does. Of course, she never goes as herself, never as Leena. That would be impossible, completely impossible. Leena never speaks to anyone. Hasn’t done so for years. That’s what the racks of wigs, the wardrobes full of clothes, the makeup and shoes and props are for. She has thousands of items, most of them barely ever worn, hardly ever used. She cannot pluck her characters out of nowhere, however. She cannot create, only recreate.
When she goes to see her new resident, she decides to be Sally. Sally was an energetic woman with a loud voice and lively hands. She lived in apartment twenty a few years ago, before her mother died and she had to move out. Leena likes being Sally. It is nice to feel confident. She reads and re-reads her old reports on the woman, then slips into her clothes and mannerisms and into her life. It is like putting on a glove.
Her new resident is a man, perhaps forty, with dark hair that is going thin, and a strange, slightly puzzled smile. Leena decides she likes his smile. She makes a mental note to study that smile when she gets back to her monitors. She could make use of a smile like that.
“Hello,” the man says, sounding a little embarrassed. “We haven’t met, have we?”
“No, I’m Sally,” says Leena. “I live around here. Thought I’d pop by, make sure you’re settling in. Make you feel welcome.”
“Very good of you,” says the man. He looks relieved. His eyes are warm, and Leena feels warm in his regard. He tells her his name is Michael, which she knows already. His voice is like well-worn mahogany and his breath smells of trees and winter and the world beyond her walls.
She stays longer and says more than she means to. Somehow, he is very easy to talk to. Even when she is someone else, Leena usually finds it troubling to spend time. She is so used to spending it alone, time spent with others usually feels tarnished. Not now, though. Not with him.
She leaves forty minutes later, and realises only belatedly that she is no longer wearing Sally’s smile. She has been wearing her own, she has been smiling Leena’s smile - a smile no-one else has seen since her father died - and she didn’t even notice. The realisation is like an abyss cracking open in her soul, and a terrible sense of shame sweeps through her. No-one is supposed to see her, no-one at all.
And yet the shame shades to something else at the edges, something sweet and fresh and alive. It burns, hot and wonderful. And deep inside, the tiniest, most slender portion of the venom she has carried since childhood is boiled away forever.
It takes Leena a week to break the rule she has never before broken, and go to see Michael again. It is her usual policy to never visit the same resident twice. It is too dangerous, she tells herself. What if she were recognised? What if her disguise failed?
What if they saw the real Leena, shrivelled and afraid and so lonely?
And yet she has found the monitors are no longer enough. They are not enough. They do not warm her, not in the way she was warm when she spoke to him, when he looked at her with those warm eyes.
But she can’t go as Sally. Oh, no. That would not do. She thinks a long time, then decides. It is stupid, it is crazy, but she knows who she wants to be. Riz. She will be Riz.
Riz was a young man, brash and interesting, a little dangerous and a lot foolish, and who knows where he went? Not Leena, who watched and re-watched the last tape, the one where the men in masks broke into the apartment and dragged Riz out by his hair. He never came back, and Leena had gone half-mad with frustration for a month, because she wanted to know more about Riz. She hadn’t wanted his story to end, halfway through and unfinished after such promise. But there it is - such is life - no real endings, just missing pages.
But now, she realises, she wants to be Riz. She can bring him back. She will bring him back. She will show him to Michael. She feels sure, somehow, that Michael will understand him.
Leena often walks abroad as a man. It is surprisingly easy. A few clothes, a change in her posture, a scattering of borrowed mannerisms. More evidence - as if she needed it - that she lives in a world made entirely of surfaces, of masks and lies. She can slip into being a man as easy as being a woman - any age, any accent, anything at all, as long as it is not Leena. Being Leena is the one thing that would be too much.
“Hello?” asks Michael, same brown eyes, same half-embarrassed smile.
“I’m Riz,” says Leena, puffing her chest and tilting her head just so. “Thought I should introduce myself. I live down the way.”
They talk and they drink cups of bland, beautiful tea. The words come so naturally, spilling out, spitting out, great waterfalls of pent-up conversation, and before Leena knows what she is doing, she realises she is talking more than she has for a year, for a decade, perhaps in the whole of her strange, unhappy life. She is talking as Riz, and that is clean and easy, another act - for she studied the man minutely, and can reel off complete echoing cavernloads of his conversation - but more and more what she is saying is bleeding into her, into Leena, into the heart of who she is.
The moment she realises this, she freezes. She chokes, she can’t go on.
Michael speaks, talking into the silence, trying to stir up the coals of the abruptly dead conversation.
He tells Leena of his past, of his mother, of a wife who left him and a child he never sees. He tells her of the pains in his joints and his fear of diabetes and of the strange wrongness in his head which means he has such difficulty with faces. All just words, tumbling out, washing over her, battering against her frozen mind. Until the last phrase clicks.
“Difficulty with faces?” she asks.
He smiles his gentle, foolish smile, and explains.
Prosopagnosia. Face blindness. Had it since he was a child.
“I see noses, eyes, cheeks,” he says, almost apologetic. “But they are individual, not one complete thing. I try to compensate. I listen to voices, I’m good at body language.” Now he sounds almost defensive.
All at once, things make sense. She understands why she was drawn to him.
She has found someone, has found the one person to whom she might - one day, at long last - reveal herself. Someone who sees through the masks, because he can’t see the masks at all. Someone with whom she can be anyone: Sally or Riz or - most terrifying of all - herself.
Whoever that is, she thinks, and for a moment she teeters on the edge, feeling as if she could collapse into the poison in her soul, and be lost.
But the poison has shrunk. It is burning away. Perhaps, she thinks, it might one day all be gone. There is hope.
Leena, critic supreme of the lives’ of others, smiles
For the first time in her life, she is looking forward to finding out who she is herself.