It all began when I went outside and found Leaper. He was lying on his side and looked like he was asleep, only you could tell that he wasn’t asleep, he was dead because his chest wasn’t moving and his fur was all bloody and there was a big stick in his chest. And I know when there is lots of blood that means something very bad has happened, and Leaper was dead. This made me frightened, so I went inside and got a Coke from the pantry, and drank it because Coke is my favourite drink and it made me feel better. But I still felt frightened so I went to my desk and did some more of my List for twenty three minutes, because when I feel upset I write my List and it makes me feel calm and not dizzy anymore. And when I had done this I felt better, even though I knew Leaper was dead and this made me sad because Leaper was a Very Good Pet, and also because someone had killed him, which was a Mystery.
But I decided I had to be brave and find out who had killed Leaper, which meant I had to do Investigating. So first I decided to look for Witnesses. So I went outside again but it was cold and there was snow so I put my red coat with the white sleeves on, which I use for when I work, but it is the only coat I have because if I have too many clothes to choose from I get confused and sometimes I get dizzy and I fall over. Red is a good colour even though blood is red, because colours can have two meanings, and this confused me when I was younger, because I used to cut myself shaving and it hurt. That is why now I don’t shave and instead I have a big beard which looks like this:
Only it is white and not black.
I went to the shop which takes forty nine minutes to walk to but I don’t mind, because this means that it would take forty nine minutes for anyone to walk from the shop to where I live and I could see them coming and if I didn’t want to talk to them I could hide. People are very difficult to understand and that’s why I live here where there are not many people at all, because that way it’s easier.
I asked the people who work in the shop, “Have you seen anything suspicious?”
And they said, “Hello Nick. What do you mean?”
And I said, “Someone has killed Leaper, and I am investigating who did it,”
And they said, “There was lots of uproar coming from the stables last night, why don’t you check there?”
And then I left because I had found a Clue and I knew they were busy in the shop because tonight was the Big Night. And also the people in the workshop have funny ears which make me feel sick if I look at them too long And that reminded me that I needed to find a replacement for Leaper, because it was a Big Night for me too, and Leaper was supposed to have helped me, but now he couldn’t because he was dead.
I went to the stables, which I like because they are warm from all the animals even though it is very cold outside. It was night, but I could see because there was red light inside. And when I got there I saw that there had been a fight, because there was some more blood on the floor and one of the animals had broken one of its antlers off, which made me feel sick because it made it look uneven, and I like things to be even. But then I realised that the antler which was missing was the one which had been in Leaper, which meant this animal had been the Murderer, and the Mystery Was Solved. But I still needed to find a replacement for Leaper, because it was nearly midnight now and I had to get the sacks from the shop and leave right away.
So I decided to Acquit the Murderer, which meant he was Free To Go.
And I said to him, “Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you light my sleigh tonight?”
Merry Xmas, everyone! Please feel free to share :)
Ahmed is falling, and no-one seems to mind. Not his teachers, who tell him to answer questions in English, but who have tired eyes that always seem to look the other way. Not his father, who spends his days arguing with Ahmed's uncle in scorching Arabic, debating where to buy meat or discussing the finer points of how to gut and renovate their two-bedroom hovel on the Holloway Road. Not his almost-friends, who spend their nights roaming the boarded back-streets and disused rail lines of West London, this rotting city of dark brick and dirty neon and a hundred languages which is now - improbably - his home.
He is falling in lots of ways, but to his amazement none of them seem to hurt. Nothing hurts anymore, nothing can, nothing ever will again, not since the strange, surreal day nearly two years ago when the bomb went off, and the building came down, and his mother said, 'Oh', and died.
Ahmed remembers it vividly, but always at a distance. It is like he is watching it on a super high definition television. The picture and sound are like crystal, but there is nothing more, nothing to touch. No sensation of being there, no sense that it is happening to him. The smoke looks like nothing, like someone is blowing leaves, and his mother seems puzzled by the spreading wetness on her hijab, and she is saying, 'Oh,' and then she is gone.
Everything since then - his father's decision to leave, the struggle to get out of Syria as the country slowly imploded, the days in boats and trucks and drab, drear camps stretching to weeks to months to more than a year - everything since then seems like a mistake, somehow. It is happening to someone else, not to Ahmed. Soon, someone will realize there has been a mistake. Soon, they will come, the people who are in charge of such things, and they will take Ahmed away from this strange city, and back to his home - which he loves - and his mother will be there and then he will be able to hurt again, to weep for the impossible, awful dream that had mistakenly swept him up. But not until then.
He is falling out of love with his father, who gave up his country and the memory of his wife, who gave up everything to live with a brother he hates in a small flat in West London, and the shop below where he plans to sell kebabs to people who don't give a shit about any of that. He is falling behind at school, and he is falling off roofs, off of fire escapes, off of a bridge one time in Hounslow at midnight, because he is convinced that he can reach down far enough to finish the picture he is painting, spraying in green and yellow and chrome to glitter over the canal in the moonlight forever. His friends say they have him tight, but when the police come, they drop him, and Ahmed falls fifteen feet into the filthy water.
'Things will be better,' his father promises every night, so often that Ahmed loses count. 'You will see. We will open the restaurant, and we will make money. This is just the start. You will see.'
But all Ahmed sees is a million buildings of brick and stone and cold concrete, the endless miles of alien London stretching so far into the distance that there is no possible way out.
Leena lurks. That’s what Leena does.
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.
I Hope you enjoyed this odd little story. As always, please feel free to share the link! :-)
Outside, there was the sound of fireworks. Inside, there was just the steady, muted buzz of the hair trimmer.
Michael felt soothed by the smoothness of it as it passed over the back of his head. He felt the cold metal caress the ridges of his skull. There was something reassuring about it, like being touched by a kind stranger.
He had a lot of hair, but it didn't take him long. It never did. Months or years to grow it long, but only a few minutes to cut it short again. He hadn't shaved his head for some time now, but it was amazing how familiar it felt.
He sighed and began sweeping up the hair from the tiles of the bathroom floor, but it was too quiet without the trimmer whirring away, and he changed his mind.
Instead, he went to the bay window and gazed out at the London skyline. He was not very high up—the higher flats were bigger and cost twice as much, and he could never have afforded one, even if Nick had paid his half of the rent consistently—but that didn't matter, not tonight.
Tonight, the whole world was lit up with red and green and gold. Explosions scintillated and bloomed in every direction he looked. It seemed as if the whole world was celebrating.
Everyone but me.
Michael reached down and heaved one of the large glass panes open, and at once the noise of the New Year rushed in to engulf him. It was like an actual, physical force, winding its way around his legs and sliding cool fingers up his bare chest. He shivered, but the cold air felt good.
It felt like freedom.
The last few days had gone by in a blur. He had been so busy at work, so desperate to get everything finished so that he and Nick could get away as they had planned. Only now ...
Only now Nick was out there somewhere, out in that mass of hot, writhing humanity, drunk and wild and full of life.
And Michael was here, alone in the apartment they had shared for the last ten months.
When the first grief was on him, when the argument had come to its abrupt, shattering conclusion and he could still hear Nick's footsteps echoing up the stairwell, Michael had rushed around the apartment in a daze. He couldn't even remember everything he'd done. He'd snatched up a plastic bin-liner, and filled it up with things, of that much he was sure. But the actual items he'd grabbed and tipped in there ... He had no memory of getting rid of the photograph that had sat on the dressing table, for example, but he must have taken that and shoved it into the bag, because it wasn't there now, and neither were any of the other photographs, the ones they had been so proud of, the ones they had laughed and joked about, and chosen in secret and surprised one another with. It had become one of their little games, one of the ways they had of loving each other.
Now they were all gone, and Michael couldn't even remember getting rid of them.
The first wave of explosions was beginning to die down, and a surge of cheers rushed up to replace them. That was it. The year was done. The book was closed, the story told.
Michael suddenly felt too weary to stand.
He sunk down to his knees and felt the cold wind lick at his face. He thought about the picture.
It had been their favourite, the only one they had both agreed was mutually flattering.
It had been taken by his sister, the first time they had all gone out together, when Michael had been introducing them. They had been in a Greek restaurant—cheap, but not too cheap—and their faces were glowing in the warm light of candles that had been placed on the table. Michael was looking at the camera, a faint, dry smile playing on his lips; Nick was looking at Michael, the first traces of crow's feet showing at the corners of his eyes, the very tip of his tongue just poking out from behind his perfect white teeth.
They had been so happy that day.
Michael felt something lurch inside of him.
He couldn't stand this.
He thought he had been able to, he thought he was still strong enough.
For God's sake, he had been alone for two years before he'd met Nick! Two whole years!
He had got through that, hadn't he?
If he could get through two years of hoping and worrying and going to bed alone, surely he could get through this?
But he couldn't.
Not now, not after having felt the warmth, not after that beautiful, binding closeness.
He couldn't. He just couldn't.
Moving quickly, worried he would change his mind, Michael staggered back to his feet.
Then he lifted one leg up, and stepped through the window and out onto the narrow ledge beyond.
The street was black below, and the wind was very cold.
He shivered, and for a moment he thought he would stop.
But he didn't stop. Instead, he ducked his head and moved his body through.
There. That was easy.
Now all he had to do was bring his other leg through, and it would be done. He wouldn't even have to jump, he was sure. The ledge was narrow and the wind was strong and he couldn't believe he was doing this.
He had always thought of himself as steady, firm, reliable. There was nothing histrionic in him, nothing melodramatic. He would never have dreamt of doing this if he had an audience. He had spoken to his sister earlier, on the phone. She had been worried about him; he had played things down, reassured her, even managed to make a joke or two.
He had put a brave face on.
I'll be fine. It's just a blip. We'll make up, we'll be okay.
She had asked him if he wanted to come with her and her friends, but he knew that deep down she had been relieved when he'd told her he couldn't face the noise and the crowds. Michael loved his sister, and he knew she loved him ... but she was younger, less serious. Right now she would be completely off her face on booze—or something stronger—and she wouldn't have wanted to spend her new years eve babysitting her heartbroken older brother.
Michael lifted his other leg. It pressed against the inside of the window as he raised it up, and he leant further out into the night. He wobbled precariously.
A noise came form within the apartment.
The noise came again, soft but insistent. It was coming from the door that led out into the landing, a strange metallic clicking noise.
Michael lowered his foot back to the floor. He felt exposed now, an animal caught in the midst of some terrible act. He was frozen, undecided.
It was Nick. It must be.
He had changed his mind. He had come back. He would open the door, and they would look at each other, and Nick would realise in an instant what was about to happen, what he had stopped from happening at the last possible moment.
He would come rushing in, grasp the elastic waist of Michael's linen trousers, pull him back in, kiss him with hard, angry lips. His mouth would taste of salt and wine and love. Michael could already taste it.
There was another soft noise, and the door swung open.
A man walked in. It wasn't Nick.
At first, the intruder did not see Michael. He walked in cautiously, head tilted to one side, listening. He was silhouetted in the light from the outside hallway, a small, compact man, wearing a dark jacket and with a woollen hat pulled down over his ears.
He moved further into Michael's apartment.
It was a burglar. He was being robbed.
The man crept towards the wall, and reached a hand out.
I could just jump.
If Michael just slid his leg back through the window and let himself fall, the intruder might not even notice he had been there.
It was an absurd thought: I could still get away with it, as if he were the one in the wrong, as if he were the one who should be afraid of getting caught.
The intruder found the switch, and suddenly the apartment was flooded in yellow light. The robber glanced around the apartment with quick, furtive eyes. It seemed like Michael had a silent age in which he could observe the intruder before he was spotted himself, time to take in the man's face: he was younger than Michael had thought, clean-shaven, certainly no older than twenty or twenty two. His eyes were dark, the colour of water at night, and a slender, pale scar stood out against his brown skin, running from his left temple down to the line of his jaw.
The intruder's eyes darted across the room, taking in the computer, the collection of DVDs, the chest of drawers, the open window with Michael hanging half-out into the night ...
Their eyes met. The intruder froze.
Then the man gave a cry, sprang forward and grabbed hold of Michael's leg.
It all happened so fast, Michael didn't have time to move. He could have let himself fall, but that would have required an instant decision, a commitment to not living that had suddenly vanished from him.
He let his leg go loose, ducked his head, and allowed himself to be pulled back inside his apartment. The man was small, but he was strong.
Once he had pulled Michael inside, the man let him fall. He turned quickly to the window, pulled it shut, and latched it, shutting out the world.
The apartment was very quiet.
Michael lay on the floor, staring up at the intruder.
The young man looked upset.
"What the hell were you doing out there?" the intruder demanded. He sounded shocked.
Michael opened his mouth, but his tongue felt very dry. He couldn't make any words come out.
They stared at each other.
Then the intruder abruptly dropped his eyes, as if remembering suddenly where he was.
He looked at the door, back to Michael, back to the door.
"I ..." he began, let the word hang for a moment, then turned around on his heel and strode towards the door.
This was too strange. Suddenly, Michael didn't want the intruder to leave. A minute ago, he had been ready to let himself fall out of the window and kill himself. Now a burglar had attempted to burgle his flat, and had ended up saving his life. He didn't want the man to go.
"Wait," called Michael, and to his surprise, the man stopped, hesitating, one hand on the doorknob. He glanced back over his shoulder. The corner of his woolly hat had started to ride up, and Michael caught a glimpse of thick dark hair underneath.
"What?" said the man. His voice was strange and soft. He sounded very young, uncertain.
"Come back," said Michael. "Don't go. Not yet. Please. If you go, I'll jump."
The moment he said it, he knew it wasn't true. If he had ever been able to kill himself, that moment had passed. But he was desperate for the man to stay. He wasn't sure why, but the thought of being alone in the apartment again filled him with ... what? Not dread, not exactly. It was something greyer than that, less stark, more cloying. The thought of the man leaving made him feel empty.
"I can't stay," the man said, but he didn't move, and his hand slid away from the door.
"Just stay for a few minutes," Michael said, slowly tucking his knees under his chin. "Just let me get my thoughts together. Please. I wont call the police or anything, I promise."
The intruder hesitated. Then he took a few steps back into the room.
"I didn't think anyone was here," the intruder said. His accent was difficult to place. He didn't sound like he was from London. "I couldn't hear anything, there was no light on. I wouldn't have hurt you."
He sounded sincere, like it was important to him that Michael believed what he was saying. But it was absurd: the intruder was worried that Michael not think he was a thug, violent, dangerous; and yet, this was the same man who had just heaved him back inside his apartment, who had just saved his life.
The moment he thought it, Michael knew it was true.
This man had saved his life. However Michael felt now, however unlikely the thought of suicide seemed to him now, a few moments earlier it had been very real. What if the intruder had come in a few minutes later? What if it had taken him longer to pick the lock?
"I owe you something," Michael said. "You stopped me doing something stupid. Very stupid. I owe you my life."
The man looked dubious. "Your life? Don't be silly. We're only a few floors up. You wouldn't have died, not unless you'd landed on your head."
Michael felt a surge of anger flare in him.
"I was going to kill myself," he snapped, more harshly than he had intended. "Of course I would have landed on my bloody head! You think I'd go to all the trouble of throwing myself out of my window, and then been satisfied with breaking both my legs?"
The intruder looked unmoved. "It's not as easy as that," he told Michael. "It's instinct or evolution or something. People try to land on their head, they try to do it all the time. Suicides, I mean. But they can't do it. They just can't. They twist themselves at the last moment, most of them end up surviving, but with broken backs and things, paralysed. I saw a TV program about it," he added, as if this made it irrefutable.
"Then I would have pretended I was diving into a bloody swimming pool," Michael told the intruder. "The street looked dark enough, it looked like water. I would have pretended I was diving, and I would have hit it head first, and that would have killed me instantly."
Michael stopped suddenly.
When had he gotten to his feet?
He realised he was standing close to the other man, that he was shouting at him, actually shouting at him. He was suddenly ashamed of himself, awfully, crushingly ashamed.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a small voice. He sat down on the sofa. "I've been through ... a bit of a tough time. It's not your fault. I don't know why I'm shouting at you. You just saved my life, and here I am yelling at you as if you're ..."
As if you're Nick.
A thought suddenly occurred to him.
"If you didn't think I was going to kill myself, why did you pull me back inside?" he asked.
The intruder shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do," he said, simply. "You looked like you were in trouble. Also, I suppose you might have landed badly," he added, as if conceding a point under great duress.
Michael felt the corner of his mouth quirk in a smile. "So you admit I might have died, then?"
"It's unlikely, but who knows?" the man said. "I wouldn't want that kind of thing on my conscience. That's bad karma."
Don't say it.
"What, and breaking and entering is okay, karmically?" Michael couldn't stop himself.
The intruder raised his eyebrows. "Yes, as it happens. You've got insurance, haven't you? I wouldn't have taken anything personal. Just small, expensive things. You could have got the money back, no one would have been hurt. And I need the money. It's for a good cause."
Michael shook his head, exasperated. "Go on, then. Show me."
"Show me what you would have taken. Show me how this would have been a victimless crime."
The intruder licked his lips. "Well, the laptop, for a start."
"It's got all my photos on it," said Michael, who had been expecting this. "Those photos are irreplaceable. And what if I had been writing a novel? What if I had spent the last five years writing a novel, and you had stolen my laptop with the only copy on?"
The intruder rolled his eyes. "No-one keeps just one copy of the novel they're writing. Not nowadays. You just email it to yourself whenever you write a bit more."
Michael snorted. "That's not the point! The point is, there's all kinds of personal, irreplaceable files on that laptop. It wouldn't be a victimless crime if you stole it."
The intruder shook his head. "Fine, well I would have taken jewellery, then," he said, a little sullenly.
"Jewellery! That's even worse! You would have taken ... wait ..."
Michael jumped to his feet, dashed into the bedroom, and returned a moment later carrying a golden ring.
"There!" he said triumphantly, throwing the ring to the intruder. "That's what you would have taken, isn't it? That's the most expensive bit of jewellery in the place, and it used to belong to my grandfather, and it's totally irreplaceable. I mean, yeah, it's insured and I would have been able to claim for it, but that's not the point, is it? I'd never be able to get my one back!"
The intruder looked sheepish. He laid the ring carefully on the table, and began pacing around the apartment, glancing here and there.
"Then I would have taken ..." he let the last word hang, as his eyes moved around the room, trying to find something he could have taken that would have supported his theory of victimless theft.
"You know," he said after a moment, "this place is pretty empty, actually. Have you only just moved in?"
Michael felt something slump inside him. All the indignation was suddenly gone.
He shook his head.
"No," he said. "I've lived here for nearly a year. Someone's just moved out."
"Oh." The intruder thought for a moment, silently.
"Is that why you were...?" He gestured toward the window, and Michael nodded.
"Oh," said the intruder again. "Sorry."
He paced for a moment longer, then perched uncertainly on the couch, on the edge, as if worried that Michael might order him to get up.
"Why did she leave?" the intruder asked.
"He." Michael looked at the intruder, challenging him to be outraged, examining him for any flicker of disgust or disapproval.
But the intruder shrugged.
"Sorry, my mistake. Why did he leave?"
Michael licked his lips. "I ... don't know," he said, and understood suddenly that this was the truth. That was what hurt the most. That was what had made everything seem so pointless, so awful. "Maybe he was bored. Maybe he had found someone else. He was always more outgoing than me."
Michael had a sudden image of Nick, how he had looked the first time they had met. It had been in a bar in Soho. Michael never went out to bars to pick men up—he was never good at it, he had always been shy. Even when he was a student, when he had lived in Brighton and it seemed the whole world was going out and kissing strangers and having sex, even then pick-ups had been something that happened to other people, things that had made him feel jealous and left out. Not that he had been alone. No, far from it, he had been with lots of men, had lots of relationships. But he was rarely the one to initiate things, and he had had more relationships begin in libraries and art galleries, and then later online, than he had ever had drunken fumblings in nightclubs, soaked in darkness and sweat, engulfed by pounding, heavy music.
With Nick it had been different. He was everything that Michael lacked, everything he hated himself for lacking. He was confident and sleek and socially forward. Michael had noticed him standing outside the bar, as he and his friends had arrived, a tall man, a little older than Michael, a few streaks of grey in his dark hair, a cigarette clutched lazily in one hand, tight blue jeans and a leather jacket, and quick, curious eyes.
Nick had come up to him a few minutes later. He had known one of Michael's friends, only vaguely; later Nick had told Michael that he detested that friend, and would have probably tried to get away without being seen, if he hadn't noticed Michael and been interested. Of course, Michael found this flattering.
"Did you know it was coming?" the intruder asked, and Michael was back in the present. He started, and gazed for a moment at the small, dark stranger who—he realised—was the first person he could be honest with about what had happened.
"Yes," Michael said, though he had told his sister the opposite when she had asked him. "I'd known for weeks. We both had, I think. We never talked about it, but it was there. It was in the little things. We were spending more time apart. He went out without me. I worked late. I said I had to, and it was true, work was busy, but ..."
"But that wasn't the only reason."
Michael nodded. "I knew it was coming, but it still hurt like hell. I'd got this whole thing planned. We were going to go away. A cottage in the Lake District. We'd been there before. I booked it months ago. It was going to be beautiful, so romantic. There's a little fireplace in the lounge for burning wood, we were going to curl up under the blankets, listen to music and watch our favourite films. It was going to fix everything. And then ..."
Michael shook his head.
"And then he left. He'd been planning it. I know that, because one moment we were screaming at each other, and the next he was standing there with his bags. They were all packed, everything that was his. He must have been getting ready for a while. He was just looking for an excuse."
"He sounds like an idiot," said the other man. "You shouldn't treat people like that. It's bad karma. It won't do him any good in the long run."
Michael barked out a laugh.
"Karma again?" he said. "What, are you a Buddhist?"
"No, I'm not religious."
"How can you not be religious but believe in karma?" Michael demanded, suddenly irked again.
"Just because I'm not religious doesn't mean I can't have a spiritual dimension to my life," the man said, and for the first time there was a note of anger in his voice. "There's more to things than atoms and clockwork. I can think that without having to believe in an invisible man who watches everyone all the time and who only priests can talk to."
As he was speaking, the man raised one hand to his woollen hat and pulled it off. It was warm in the apartment, and he was starting to sweat. His hair was very dark, Michael noticed, much darker than Nick's had been, almost black. His skin was smooth and his eyes were intelligent and danced warmly.
He's beautiful. Handsome was the wrong word. Nick had been handsome, tall and strong, with his salt-streaked hair and dark stubble. The small man, however, was beautiful. There was something about his compactness, the subtleness of his features, the dark smoothness of his skin. His hands were clean and slender, but they looked strong, too.
"I don't know your name," Michael suddenly blurted out, not realising he was going to say it until the words came tumbling out.
The small man hesitated.
"Call me Richard," he said, and Michael laughed because it was so obviously a lie.
"What?" demanded the man who called himself Richard. He looked hurt.
"You're name isn't Richard," said Michael, surprised by how confident he felt. He would never have dared challenge someone like that usually. What was wrong with him? He was sitting in his apartment with a complete stranger who had broken in and then saved his life, and he was laughing at him because he had come up with such a ridiculous false name. This was really not how he had imagined he would be spending the first day of the new year.
"I could be called Richard," the man protested, sounding indignant.
"Yes, you could," agreed Michael. "You could, but you're not."
"Fine. What do you think I should be called, then?"
"I don't know, Abdul?" he said.
"That's so racist!" said the small man, outraged. "How dare you call me Abdul? This is 2012, for God's sake!"
"Not anymore," said Michael, looking at the clock on the wall. "Now it's 2013."
"Well then, even more reason!"
Michael looked away.
"Sorry, I'm sorry," he said, trying not to laugh. "Go on then. Tell me your real name. I promise I'll stop being a racist if you tell me your real name."
"Fine," said the small man, sounding slightly mollified. "My real name is Hammed. Are you happy?"
"Happier than if you had continued to call yourself Richard," said Michael neutrally.
Hammed nodded. "And you?" he asked "What's your name?"
"Abdul. No, I'm just joking. Sorry. Sit down. It's Michael. I'm Michael."
Hammed looked at him suspiciously. He hesitated for a moment, then sat down again.
For a few moments, there was silence. The two men looked at each other, as if seeing one another for the first time.
This is so strange.
But Michael liked it.
He liked Hammed, he realised. There was something honest about him, something sweet.
Even though he was about to rob you?
"So what's the good cause, Hammed?"
"What's the good cause? The one that meant it would be OK to steal my computer, karmically speaking."
"Oh," said Hammed. He licked his lips. "You don't want to know. It sounds like you have enough on your plate."
"No, please," pressed Michael. He wasn't just being polite. He really did want to know.
"My ... cousin," he said. "He's not well. He's sick. He needs money, to pay the doctors."
"He lives here?" Michael asked, but Hammed shook his head.
"No, back home. I haven't seen him for several years, but we were close. I study, and in the evenings I work, but it's not enough. So I decided ..."
"You decided it would be OK to rob someone to pay for your cousin's medical bills."
Hammed looked him in the eye. "Yes. That's what I decided."
Michael nodded, thinking.
Shall I say it? Do I dare? If I'm wrong, it's going to sound awful.
But he wasn't wrong. He didn't know how he knew, but he knew. He was sure.
"He's not your cousin, is he." Michael spoke the words softly. It wasn't a question.
Hammed started and looked like he was going to leave, and Michael felt a bolt of pure, unreasonable fear shoot through him.
No! Don't go! Please!
But then Hammed relaxed and slumped back down into the sofa. He shook his head. "No," he said after a moment. "He's not my cousin. He is ... he was my ... my friend. My close friend."
Michael licked his lips. "He was your close friend? What happened?"
Hammed looked away for so long that Michael thought he wasn't going to answer. At last he said, "It's not like London back home."
Michael didn't say anything. He waited for Hammed to go on.
"We grew up together," Hammed said at last. "We both came from good families. We were not poor. We were best friends since as long ago as I can remember. His father had a shop. He sold furniture, good quality stuff, and we used to help out there. When we were very young we just used to do little jobs, run small errands, that sort of thing. As we got older, my friend's father used to leave us in charge of the shop. We used to open up in the mornings, before school, and after school we would go and work there for a few hours before closing time."
Hammed paused again. He was picking his nails absently, and Michael found himself staring at those small, strong hands again. The nails were cut short and were very clean. There did not seem to be an excess ounce of fat anywhere on his body. Michael could see the way the muscles moved under his warm skin, precise, delicate.
"Then one day he kissed me," Hammed said, all at once, as if he had been struggling to force the words, and they had exploded out from the pressure. "It made me so angry, at first. I felt betrayed. I felt dirty. There were words for people who did that sort of thing. None of them were nice. People who did those things got punished, or worse. I slapped my friend, I pushed him away. I pushed him to the ground, and I ran away."
Hammed looked up, as if he were afraid of what he would see in Michael's eyes.
"It was wrong of me, I knew that even then. It wasn't my friend's fault. When I let myself see it, it was bound to happen sooner or later. We had been more than friends for a long time." He smiled, sadly, and shrugged his shoulders. "And so I went back. I went back to him that same night, and we locked the door of the shop and we held each other and touched each other and cried because we were so happy."
Hammed looked older than he had before, despite his smooth, unblemished skin and the smallness of his body. His eyes are old.
"It was the happiest time of my life. But we were foolish. People notice things. Little things, touches and glances, things like that. And then his father found out. He caught us, in the middle of ..." He waved a hand vaguely and trailed off.
"I don't blame my friend," he said, after some time had passed. There was something raw in his voice, but Michael found that he believed him. "After all, what choice did he have? What kind of a life could we have made for ourselves? He loved his family. He loved me, and I thought he loved me more ... but no, it was his family who he loved the most."
"You didn't blame him at all?" Michael asked, frowning. "You thought he loved you, and he dropped you as soon as his father found out, and you didn't blame him?"
"I didn't mean that," Hammed spoke quietly. "I meant I don't blame him now."
"What happened to you?" Michael asked.
Hammed settled back in the sofa and shut his eyes. He looked tired. "My family were less forgiving. I had to leave. It was best that I left. If I had stayed, there would have made things more difficult for my friend. This way, people could say that it was my fault, that I had ... led him, corrupted him."
Michael shook his head in disbelief. "And you were happy with that?" He sounded angry. He couldn't stop it. It made him furious.
Hammed opened his eyes.
"Like I said, home wasn't like London," Hammed sighed. "We were lucky things worked out as well as they did. It could have been a lot worse, for both of us. Anyway, I had always wanted to travel. To see more of the world. That's why I came here."
"But he left you!" Michael was shouting now, actually shouting. "He should have stood by you, he said he loved you, he said ..."
And then he was crying, crying so hard that he thought he would never stop, sobbing and heaving and he couldn't breathe and he had left him why had Nick left him how could he have left him and he was alone and ...
And then there were arms around him, warm, strong arms cradling his head, stroking the short hairs that the trimmer had left on his scalp, rubbing him, caressing him. They felt so good, the fingers were so soft against his skin.
Michael leant his head against Hammed's chest. He could hear the beating of his heart through the thin shirt the younger man was wearing, he could feel his warm breath tickling his ears.
He looked up with tears in his eyes and suddenly they were kissing. He lifted his hands and ran his fingers through that rich, dark hair.
The sofa was soft underneath them. They lay there for a long time, touching, breathing, not speaking.
At last, Michael drifted downwards. It wasn't sleep, not quite; but his mind closed inwards until all there was in the world was the warmth, the safety, the body breathing softly next to him.
Some time later—he could not tell how much later—he felt Hammed move against him, felt emptiness, and he stirred awake. They had turned the light off during the night, and now the faintest tinge of dawn was beginning to creep in through the window.
Hammed was standing by the window, looking out through the glass as morning gathered in the corners of the sky and opened a new year over London. His bare chest looked almost golden in that early light, but his back, which was still in shadows, rippled in darkness, hidden and beautiful.
Moving slowly, cautiously, Michael came to his feet.
Hammed must have heard him stir, because he half turned his face, so that he was looking back at him from the corner of one dark eye.
Michael reached out a tentative hand. It had all felt like a dream. He was scared that if he moved too fast, dared too much, the dream would burst and collapse like something sodden, broken.
But he dared. He placed his hand on Hammed's shoulder, and Hammed covered it in his own.
"You carry people with you, you know," whispered Hammed. His voice was very soft.
Michael stood beside him, enjoying the warmth of his body. Beyond the window, the sky changed colour almost moment to moment. The dark purples were leeching away, being replaced by clear, warm blues and gentle violets.
"I know," said Michael.
He thought of Nick, of all his thousands of mannerisms, expressions, little sayings and phrases and turns of speech. He had loved some of them. He had hated others.
He would never see Nick again. He knew it with complete certainty.
He had always known it, from the moment Nick had picked up his bags and walked out. No, he had known it before then. Nick was strong, handsome, confident. And he had loved him.
He had loved Nick, and Nick had probably even loved him, too. At least, in the beginning.
But things had changed. They had used one another up, they had each taken what the other had to offer. And that was okay.
It wasn't Nick he had been mourning, not Nick he had been furious with, not really.
Could it ever have worked? He wasn't sure. They had been so different. It had been wonderful, it had been exciting, it had been special. But it was in the past. It was burnt up and blown away, yesterday's ashes.
It was too fresh now, too close to the surface, but in time, he knew he would take something from it; everything positive that could be dredged up and recycled, he would take with him. That was how people grew. They loved and they experienced and they lost and they cried. Then they picked up the broken pieces and rebuilt themselves, and there was always at least one new piece that had belonged to someone else before, something to take along with you.
He pictured Nick one last time, how he had looked in that favourite photograph of theirs, looking away from the camera, tongue just peeking from behind those perfect white teeth. Then he breathed out and let it go.
He wrapped his arms around Hammed's shoulders and kissed the nape of his neck.
Outside, the sun sparkled golden as it rose above the horizon.
What happened next was up to them.