It’s an inescapable feeling. You try to deny it, try to ignore it but eventually it becomes you. There’s the knowledge that it’s wrong, what I do is wrong but fight is not an option. It always wins… that desire… in the end… it always wins.
I need to do this to feel normal… whatever normal is… that comfortable certainty that makes people feel safe, the thing that avoids the unknown…the undefined…and replaces it with the anticipated, the usual. Nothing misunderstood, that’s normal. For me, that normal makes me feel nothing but dead inside. There’s no spark. No life. Just monotony.
I know I’m not right. I know what I do deviates from the way of average people, from the everyday position of human beings. But I can’t help it, I need it. At this time, I need it. The way life is, it’s a temperature scale. The regular position is cold, our standard life, go to bed at 10pm, get up at 6am, get ready for work, go to work, come home, eat, sleep. It’s all cold. There’s no passion to it, no heat, we’re on autopilot.
Every now and again, our lives become hot. We meet the girl who makes us feel real, we do something crazy, illegal maybe to welcome in the adrenalin. Our blood rushes and we feel heat surge through our bodies. But like anything that can become hot, eventually it grows cold again, common, normal, default.
I deviated from that cold. I found heat in my life by doing what I do. It wasn’t always this way. I remember the first time I felt a change, I felt I was different. Three years ago, I was in my final year of University, I received a visit that changed everything for me. Every 20th March I commemorated that moment. It was the anniversary of the end of Henry Morris the boy and the beginning of Henry Morris the man.
That visit dragged me kicking and screaming away from a life where I had a family, a loving mum and a proud dad. It pushed me without defence to a place where I had no one.
The driver that hit my dad’s Saab, my dad’s pride and joy, the possession that was cleaned and polished every weekend without fail; that driver was three times over the limit they told me. That driver was obviously feeling a heat moment in her life.
In an instant, my parent’s journey to dinner with friends thrust me into a reality I never expected. The memory of that situation was constantly on my mind. Three years later, it was on a continual loop whenever I had a quiet moment.
I remember dropping to my knees when I heard the words ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you this…’ I felt sorry for the policeman who had to break the news. The policeman who may have woken up that morning to a kiss from his wife and child, who may have left the house thinking the world was an amazing place… and now he had to face this… me…to share something that immediately turned my world from perfect, happy, comfortable, calm to angry, upset, lonely, solemn.
I recall releasing the cup I was holding as soon as the word “dead” was spoken that first time, hearing the china shatter on the tile floor as what once was whole became a smattering of tiny parts, echoing what I became at that same moment. I remember feeling that I would never be able to speak to my mum and dad again or feel their embrace. I remember crying until all inside me felt dry and arid like a desert knowing rain only as a distant dream.
Then there was a sort of fast forward period between that conversation and putting my parents to rest, like something out of a movie to evoke the passing of time in just a few moments, a week captured in no more than a minute. Settling my parent’s business affairs, telling their friends and organising the funeral merged into one instant flicker of a thought. This distraction hurtled me to the funeral itself. I have no brothers or sisters. My only living relative, an uncle, had moved to somewhere in Canada many years ago. Contact had never been established. It was just he…and now it was just I too.
I remember feeling cold the day of the funeral, almost numb like I was on autopilot.
I still curse myself that I spoke those words without feeling but at that point my body was incapable of emotion. I was almost robotic, it was by way of protection. The words I’d carefully crafted, that brought tears to the eyes of people in the congregation, people I neither knew or had ever seen before; those words just happened without any effort on my part. It was hollow.
That hurt. It’s always that particular episode of the time that I tried to push from my memory but I knew too well I’d never get away from it.
And so, I learned to cope. It was difficult at first but I honed in on that element of human nature that taught me how to survive.
And so here I am….
As I stood there surveying the scene, it was cold, bitterly cold. The kind of cold that people talk about at dinner parties just for idle conversation or to fill an uncomfortable pause. That convention always annoyed me. “Wasn’t it cold last Wednesday,” they’d say and they’d receive affirmation: “It was colder than I can remember.” Then the awkward silence would return or they’d quickly move on to another topic.
They paid homage in deference to the mighty weather. It was the beginning and the end of a conversation in equal measure. People who have those conversations are not truly friends in my opinion, they’re just acquaintances, ships passing.
That was the sort of chill she was experiencing today, the girl who caught my attention. She pulled her coat in tight to shield her exposed neck from the harsh elements as she prepared to descend from the train. What is it about women that constantly made their necks colder than a man? It’s like they didn’t use the same sort of material in the creation process, a flaw maybe… but in my mind, she was perfect. Maybe she felt a sore throat coming and didn’t want to encourage its existence.
She was in her early twenties, attractive without being overbearing. She had blonde to light brown hair around shoulder length. There was something about her, a mannerism; an expression maybe. Whatever it was, I knew as soon as I saw her, I needed to know her.
What was she doing here? I was always fascinated by their reasons for coming to the big city. You could tell she wasn’t a local. It was written on her face and in the way she dressed, plus the amount of bags she was struggling with was an absolute giveaway.
Whatever her reason, I would find out soon enough. The excitement was starting to build. I could feel it in my very core.
Walking along the platform at Central Station, she clutched her bags tightly to her chest, balancing one or two precariously like a circus clown toying with but never quite reaching disaster.
Seemingly searching for her bearings, she placed her possessions on the cold, grey concrete floor and looked around to find a point of reference. Immediately, she looked over in the direction of an exit. I knew then she was meeting someone. The station had a particular exit that people used to meet each other. It was renowned within the city limits but unfamiliar to those outside.
She was about to make her way in that direction when another sign caught her eye, another exit… and to her left, another one. This was going to help me. I knew she was uncertain which to meet at. If only she’d trusted her first instinct. There were seven exits in total and now she was confused.
She allowed her bags to remain nestled on the floor by her feet and pulled her phone out of her pocket, placing it to her ear. She was listening. I could see she wasn’t moving her lips. She was waiting for someone to answer.
The public-address system boomed out another message, it was loud. The station was a maelstrom of noise, of course her friend wouldn’t be able to hear her phone if she was in the station.
I continued to watch. I knew what to do. It was all down to preparation. I’d learnt this over time as my obsession built and my compulsion took hold. I was dressed like everyone else was dressed. I blended in. To such an extent that if you walked past me, you wouldn’t particularly notice. I was becoming skilled.
My heart started beating fast. My gut tightened. There it went, that calm before the storm, my moment of exhilaration, that familiar feeling kicked in. Adrenaline, it spurred me on. I remember the first time I felt it. The first time I ‘discovered people’. The first time I gave in to it.
So, here I stood in that crowded place, about to feed my impulse again. I observed her in such a way that she wouldn’t know it before it was too late.
The first few times I’d been slack. I was a novice then, unused to honing in on each of my senses, unaware how to use them for protection. But over time, I’d perfected my art. I was precautious but definitive. I used the distraction of others to pass over distance unnoticed.
Around me people greeted, sought, embraced, fare-welled, worked, ate and talked. A cacophony of noise coupled with an abundance of activity. In the time I’d been here, many trains arrived and departed. They were coming from and traveling to places I’d never heard of, as well as destinations I’d always wanted to visit.
The station was one of the few places that energised me. It fuelled me. It was also the ideal location for my quest.
I knew it was time to make my move towards her.
She was looking at her phone again. It was like she was reading a message. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it’s from the person she’s supposed to be meeting. I couldn’t delay. “Meet me at the exit” I imagined it said as she looked up and scanned the station. Which bloody exit? She’d have panicked realising just how many there were.
I knew her attention was elsewhere. She couldn’t check each exit in turn because she’d have to carry all her bags with her. I could tell she was in a quandary.
It was difficult for her to get annoyed though. She understood how familiarity breeds certainty. Someone who had arranged to meet people at the station as many times as her friend couldn’t possibly see passed the fact that she may know which exit she meant but that didn’t mean the recipient of her instructions did.
It was likely to be the same exit that everyone arranged to meet at. It was the one that made most sense to meet at. However, her friend hadn’t considered that she was meeting someone who had never been to this station before. The obvious was unfamiliar.
Pressing the button on her phone, she redialled the number. The same result. Ringing, lots of ringing but no answer. She kept the phone to her ear, she was statuesque, the phone redundant for it’s purpose as she considered her options.
I approached with a steadiness. Everything was normal, natural, nothing to see here. I passed excited kids and anxious parents; frantic workers and lethargic day-trippers. No one noticed me.
Closer now, I was within yards of my target. She was still on the phone, or at least had the phone to her ear. She was looking around, lost. She was distracted. It was perfect.
Just a few paces away from her now, she didn’t even see me. How could she? She had so much going on, clogging up her mind. As she turned away to look in the other direction, I bent down slightly and reached towards the faux-leather handle.
I’d picked it out before when I was observing her. I knew which one I wanted, my experience told me. As my hand clutched the handle, I felt the coldness of the plastic brush my skin and I firmed my grip around it. Within a second, it was done.
As I walked away I couldn’t help but look down at the bag I was clutching. I allowed myself a smile. I smiled because I was excited to find out how happy she was, I smiled because in a short while I would be able to discover people again… this particular person.
My focus was on continuing as normal now, being as people would expect. But I knew I would hear it soon, that familiar cry, that realisation. I stopped with enough distance between us to glance in her direction.
She hadn’t even noticed. She was still planning her next course of action. A moment later it was decided. She leant down to pick up her bags but…but something was wrong. She searched around. One was missing. Where was it?
She checked again. All the other bags were there but the one containing her life story, her private possessions, those trinkets and filigrees that were dear to her was missing.
Immediately, she suspected those around her. She looked them up and down for a sign of the missing item. But nothing. Then, like anyone would in such a situation, like she was bound to do, she exploded…
“MY BAG. HELP ME, SOMEONE’S STOLEN MY BAG!” She screamed.
People around her stared, considering what to do. It was an unusual situation and required thought. Some came to her aid and tried to help. Others bent their heads down in an attempt to disguise the fact they were walking away, not helping a stranger in need. It was half embarrassment, half avoidance. It was a moment where some were envious of the others who had their faces buried in a book or a magazine. It wasn’t really the same with a phone or a tablet. A printed medium enveloped you giving you a safe place to hide. A screen was too easily dismissed and didn’t provide enough surface area to allow for protection.
At that moment, her new, free, exciting life had somehow descended into misery and despair.
I turned and carried on walking away, discreetly, confidently but all the while comforted in the realisation that the familiar cry had been uttered… allowing myself one last glance over my shoulder before exiting the station.
Among the crowd of people circling the sobbing girl on the station platform was a familiar face. Her friend, she had finally been united with her friend.
I know the routine now, the modus operandi of the victim. I’d observed it often and almost got caught more than a few times as a result of my curiosity. She would tell her friend what had happened. They would curse and hurl verbal barbs in the direction of the thief except they had no idea which direction that should be. Then, rationality kicked in. What do they do now? They would ponder the question and realise the only course of action was to report the incident.
As if timed to perfection and as always was the case, a policeman would show up on the scene forcing the poor victim to live through the story again as he jotted down facts, minor details, his shopping list; the last vowel in a solitary game of hangman… who knew what. As if satisfied by his doodling, he would direct her to the lost property office. Perhaps there was a chance regardless of the impossibility of this eventuality, that someone had found the bag and handed it in to lost property.
They would take a stroll across the concourse as train after train emptied and refilled, the busyness of the station making time feel like it almost leapt forward. They walked passed the café, the ticket machines, the resident fast food outlet and pretty much civilisation, towards a buried corner…to a hole in the wall. Why are they always hidden? It was ironic, like you had to get lost yourself to find lost property. The arduous journey to find it almost always yielded a negative outcome. Hope built, reality crushed.
My exit from the station always added an extra five minutes to the journey home. It was the only way out that you could avoid the CCTV cameras. Although I was now very used to hiding my face, becoming invisible, I didn’t want to take any risks.
It was a 20-minute walk home for me. I never used public transport because they all had cameras now. I knew which streets to take to avoid the cameras out in the open. The world was becoming one big eye, recording your every more. The ultimate voyeur, it fed the greedy curiosity of the intelligence services ‘for our protection’ apparently. It was nothing more than a ‘snooper’s paradise’ as far as I was concerned. Privacy was merely a commodity.
The irony of my thought process made me chuckle… keep straight-faced Henry. Don’t draw attention.
The concrete avenues succumbed to nature as trees started to spring up, bordering the road the further away from the station I walked. The sun was still smiling although a little lower than before as the shy winter daylight started to dissipate. Blue skies turned a hazy blue-grey with the ever encroachment of evening.
There was a scattering of people out and about but many had decided to avoid the cold and stay enveloped in their centrally heated living rooms, Sunday afternoon in the city in winter. To be honest, I preferred it when it was busier. The more people there were the more distractions to help me hide.
The bag by my side was playing heavy on my emotions. I was so excited to see the contents it was as much as I could do not to stop, bend down and take a peak but that would be nothing more than the error of a novice. I’d done it before when I first started ‘discovering people’. It was perhaps my third or fourth take. I’d left the scene and was a good ten minutes away before the urge became overbearing. I took a quick glance around, saw no one so I stopped, leant down and unzipped the bag.
I was nervous. I was shaking with nerves and exhilaration. It made me lose grip of the handle and the bag turned 180 degrees, spilling its guts all over the pavement. A couple walked around the corner, they looked over to me and gestured to help, I looked down and saw a dress, make-up, tampons on the floor. Everything that would have confirmed this was a women’s bag stared up at me. I quickly waved them away, hurried the contents back in the bag and hustled off down the road. It was too close, never again.
I had to be patient.
There it is, the road, my road up ahead. A few more paces now Henry, keep it together. I turned the corner and walked purposefully towards a Victorian semi-detached house guarded by two proud Silver Birch trees and hiding behind a tall but delicately manicured Cherry Laurel bush. It created privacy, a screen to potential watching neighbours.
I didn’t take any chances. You don’t know who’s looking at you in a road like mine, just struggling for an identity between city and suburb. The house itself had a large bay window to the front room, big beautiful windows that I chose to keep covered by my horticultural disguise. I kept it well tended to because a shaggy bush would have created questions and concerns from neighbours. I didn’t want to invite wandering eyes…blend in, be normal.
This used to be my family home. I remember growing up here in a street full of kids around my age. We used to know all the neighbours back then but that was before rising house prices forced an economic decision from willing participants. Most of the people who we knew back then lived in Surrey or Hampshire now. Opting for the commute and greener pastures when the pound sign fluttered its intoxicating eyelash. My parents had paid the house off with their death, insurance had kicked in and I had no reason to move.
Now, I was surrounded by strangers, transient folk who rented or even worse, foreign investors who wanted the commodity but not the lifestyle, barely stepping foot in their vacant lots. It suited me. I didn’t need anyone knowing my business or me theirs. Familiarity bred evidence.
Shuffling in through the half-glazed door, opaque by choice, I placed my house keys on the sideboard and hurried into the living room. Positioning the bag on the floor, I took a few steps back to observe my bounty. I was almost nervous. This happened every time to me. It was as though if I opened the bag, I overstepped a mark. I knew that, but the feeling lasted for only a few seconds… I needed to know.
Unfastening the zip took me to another world, someone else’s space. Someone I would soon know. Someone deep inside me I’ve known all my life. The sound of the zip unclenching its teeth echoed like the opening bars of a song, maybe Leonard Cohen or perhaps even The Velvet Underground. In an instant I peered into their life, this person, my Emily…yes Emily. From the very first glimpse into the bag, I knew it was owned by an Emily, it felt right.
Emily, who was she, someone I just met randomly? No too close to the truth. A cousin maybe? No too easily traced. No, Emily was more than a passing acquaintance or a distant family member; she was my old girlfriend from school. I had had a crush on her through most of secondary school. Eventually, she noticed me, we went out a few times… Yes, she’s Emily, her life…our life was becoming clearer.
Something caught my attention; I reached in and pulled it out, a small but very shiny silver cross. It dangled without purpose on the end of a tiny silver chain with a clasp at the top. It was cared for, clean and maintained. Was Emily religious, I can’t remember? Maybe she wasn’t overtly religious but needed to believe there was something out there. That’s right, that’s why she doesn’t wear the cross. She keeps it with her but doesn’t show it off. It’s her comfort, an assurance maybe that she had a higher place to turn to when things became challenging.
Something about the ‘silver cross’ brought back memories of my parents, no my mum. Why? Why has she suddenly popped into my head? Think Henry? Had they met, Emily and mum? Yes, that’s right. My mum had a Christian upbringing, her father, my grandpa was religious, and they used to go to church each Sunday. I remember speaking with her about it. She said she stopped going when she met my dad and moved out of her family home.
It’s not that she no longer believed, she just didn’t feel the need to turn up to a building with, what were largely, a bunch of strangers each week. That’s why she and Emily must have got on with each other. They were both secretly religious, they both believed. They would have discussed it once over Sunday lunch at our house. Yes, it’s becoming clearer now.
Suddenly a darker mood took hold of me, I thought about religion for a moment. I was still holding the cross and my mum was still in my thoughts. I became angrier. If my mum was religious and believed there to be a person up there, a god, why then did this divine being not save her and my dad that day. Why did this god allow someone to crash into my parent’s car? Why my parents? Why not someone else? They were good people. They contributed positively to society. Always pleasant, they would help out neighbours, taught me the difference between right and wrong. They chastised me when I did something bad. I got my respect for other people from them. Why did he or she let this happen to them?
A tear slowly glided down my right cheek, searching for a destination. I felt the coldness on my skin as it carved out its path. A bird called outside to bring me out of my daydream. I had more work to do…I needed to find out more about my Emily.
Ruffling through the bag, something smooth and cold titillated my fingers, I pulled it out. A bangle made of what was that material? I always struggled to figure it out. Kind of a plastic but almost like china. Was it Bakelite? Maybe. I never remembered what it was called. The bangle was brightly coloured, it looked African in origin. The background was red with yellow blobs and green lines competing for attention around it’s circumference.
My Emily liked to travel. Yes, she was adventurous. She must have got this on one of her trips. Perhaps we planned to travel together. The pieces of her life were coming together. They were starting to form. I felt I knew her. I did know her. It was clear to me now… my Emily.
But something about her possessions showed sadness like she was running from something. I don’t know what it was but I could sense she wasn’t complete. She came to the city to round the ragged corners of her life. It upset me, I cared for her.
It was late when the phone rang. Jack didn’t know how late, he was in too much of a haze, his mind struggling to clear the sleep away. He thought it might be midnight but it could quite easily have been 4am. He looked at his mobile, now flashing impatiently, his eyes focused after a few moments and he saw it was just after 2am. He answered the call.
The reception crackled in his ear. It sounded like the person the other end was calling from the middle of nowhere.
“Mr Wilson,” the caller enquired.
“Yes, this is Detective Jack Wilson, do you know what bloody time it is? Who’s this?” Jack demanded in response.
Jack was used to receiving calls at ungodly hours on account of his job. Police work doesn’t really stop. There’s no start or finish time, especially when you reached the lofty heights of plain clothes.
This was different though, this was a foreign voice asking for Mr Wilson. It was only strangers who referred to him as that.
“Aah, Detective Wilson, this Sergeant Suttikul from Police in Thailand,” the sentence woke whatever was left to be awoken of Jack. His son Toby was in Thailand. It was his way of escaping after college. He was doing his “gap year” ahead of going to University next autumn.
Jack’s mind was racing at a thousand thoughts a second, is he in trouble? Has he done something stupid? Has he had an accident? Is he ill? Is it drugs? The permutations were terrifying and all led to a negative place as far as Jack was concerned.
“It’s about my son Toby isn’t it? What’s he done?” Jack said, hoping beyond hope that his happy go lucky son hadn’t done anything too stupid.
“Sir, Mr Wilson,” the Sergeant’s pigeon English struggled to form the correct grammar for the sentence. “I’m sorry to tell….” The sentence wasn’t allowed to finish. Jack was already thinking ahead. He’d had to make these calls often, he knew the routine. He knew how it ended, it was the same around the World.
It was the one thing he didn’t consider, the one thing his mind refused to acknowledge. He struggled to comprehend what he was hearing.
Jack stared across the room looking for something, anything that he could fixate on. His mind was no longer steering his ship, emotion had taken over. He settled on a lamp, a stupid, pointless lamp. He didn’t know how long he had been staring at it. Regardless, his caller had carried on talking….
“…your son was victim of robbery. He was victim and… unfortunately, no saving. He dead near beach. Can you come, we need body identification.”
Jack couldn’t speak, there were no words left in his mouth. His mind immediately went back to the thought of the last time he spoke to Toby, as he dropped him off at the airport. He was excited, it was an adventure. He told him to take care, Toby promised he would. How could this happen? He promised he’d take care. For a fleeting minute, a stupid, pointless fleeting minute, Jack felt betrayed by his son. He’d lied, he didn’t take care.
“Mr Wilson Sir. You still here?”
His mind then drifted back to the first time he held Toby in his arms. That day at the hospital, he promised to always be there to protect him, to make sure that he would be safe. He held him close and would never forget that feeling, it was beyond love, and it was part of him. He’d broken that promise. He wasn’t there for him.
“Mr Wilson, you come to Thailand Sir?” The Sergeant was unsure what to do, he wasn’t sure if he was still talking to someone or not.
Finally, the rational part of Jack’s brain kicked in. “I’ll come, I’ll be there. I’ll come for my son,” he said defiantly struggling to wipe a tear from his eyes.
He took down the details and the painful phone call finally ended. He sat down on the bed, mentally bruised, uncertain what to do next. It wasn’t a decision he needed to make as his wife could tell what was going on. Her shrill cry was so haunting, it would last in Jack forever.
A year on and Jack still struggled to come to terms with what happened. He was so used to dealing with death, with telling parents their children would not be coming home that he felt he should have been prepared for dealing with this. He wasn’t. Nothing could prepare you for the loss of such unadulterated love. Nothing.
Whenever he shut his eyes he remembered the moment the sheet was lifted off the body on the bed and Toby’s face was revealed. It was only then Jack truly believed his boy had gone. From that point he had become lifeless, unable to find any comfort.
His wife had fared better. Jack truly believed that women were better equipped to deal with such things than men. She had managed to put the pieces of their lives back together. She was the strong one.
She encouraged Jack to talk to someone about his problems. She had her sisters to confide in and it meant that no problem ever went unshared, that was her therapy. Jack on the other hand ignored issues and filed them in the ‘to be avoided’ folder at the back of his mind somewhere.
He finally relented and agreed to see a therapist but one that worked with people in the force. He wanted someone who understood his world and what he deals with day in day out.
An appointment was set up with Meena Sharma, an experienced bereavement councillor who was an approved therapist to the police service. She’d worked with a number of Jack’s colleagues and was highly recommended.
There was still a stigma attached to a member of the police service who had to see a councillor, so he was careful who he spoke to about Meena. His friend Bill had seen her a year or two ago after he witnessed a suicide first hand. Bill was complimentary and Jack was convinced.
Sitting in the waiting room, Jack felt his stomach attempt a somersault or two. He was nervous, he was good when it came to dealing with situations he was familiar with but was more like a kid on the first day of school when it came to anything else, particularly something personal.
He cursed himself when he realised he had arrived 30 minutes early for his appointment. Sitting in that clinical room surrounded by pictures of positivity and magazines he had little interest in left him with nothing in the way of mental stimulation. He wasn’t particularly a patient person by nature, it was becoming excruciating. Finally, after checking his watch for what felt like a record number of times, he was ushered in.
Meena greeted Jack at the door. She was a smallish Indian woman of about 45 with a big smile and a welcoming air.
Jack liked her, she was inherently likable. She made him feel at ease and offered him a drink. He joked about wanting a stiff whiskey, something she’d undoubtedly heard a thousand times before but he couldn’t help himself, it was an impulse.
She presented him with a glass of water and talked about the other police officers she had worked with. She didn’t go into detail, that would breach her patient confidentiality agreement, but she gave just enough information to appease Jack. She was almost speaking in anecdotes.
There was the one about the officer who had deployed a Taser, killing a ‘would be’ armed burglar. It turned out the armed burglar was weak of heart but the officer was still affected. Then there was the constable who was involved in a traffic accident. The road was icy, he was pursuing a violent criminal, the car he was driving lost control and smashed into the car in front killing the driver, a pregnant women in her mid-20s, instantly.
Taking the life of another was something that affected people in very different ways. The burden of guilt that continued to exist after such an act was ever present. Some managed to deal with it, they compartmentalised, justified or even ignored.
Others carried it with them. You could see it in their eyes, in their actions and in the words they used. However each individual managed to come to terms with such a situation, they all found themselves where Jack was now, in this seat, this comfortable seat, facing Meena.
He scanned the room, this place that absorbed so much hurt, so much pain and distress. It was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a corner room so there was a window behind Meena’s desk and one to the right opposite the door to her office. It allowed the sun to stream through. Today, the window behind Meena presented her like an angel. She was almost silhouetted with a glow enveloping her body, it was a calming vision.
There were pictures of her family on the desk next to a big screen connected to a small laptop. That somehow made this whole situation normal. It diluted the pain and turned it into just work, a job. There were plants, lots of plants. It gave Jack the impression that it was easy to breathe in this room, he felt close to nature and inherently relaxed. Undoubtedly, that was the aim.
Jack was sitting in a comfortable but practical chair opposite Meena, by her desk. Behind him there was a sofa and two easy chairs circling a glass coffee table. He pictured himself lying down on the sofa telling this stranger his problems. That was his only experience of such a situation, whatever he’d seen in the movies. He scoffed at the thought, a little too audibly to be ignored.
“You don’t like my sofa?” Meena enquired.
Jack was temporarily shaken from his mental journey of discovery. “What? Huh, no, I mean yes. I mean, I was thinking of something else. Sorry,” he said.
“No need to be sorry. My décor is not to everyone’s tastes. It’s fine. I’m the one who has to put up with it permanently. You, you only need to deal with it an hour at a time,” Meena was smiling.
Jack smiled back. She’d broken the proverbial ice.
“So, what do I call you Detective Wilson?” Meena asked.
“Jack, please call me Jack. I mean, it would sound odd if here I am telling you my problems and you refer to me in the most formal way you could. Jack works for me.”
“Ok Jack. I’m Meena. I hate the term Dr Sharma. Way too unfamiliar. Do you want to start here or would you like to move over to the sofa that you hate?” She asked.
“I don’t hate…” Jack saw Meena’s face break into a smile again. She was teasing him, it felt comforting. She behaved like someone you felt you’d known for a very long time. Jack guessed she had developed that technique over many years dealing with people like him. She was affable, in Jack’s mind it enabled her to unlock the most tightly wound of people.
“I’d prefer to stay here for now if that’s ok Meena,” he said.
“Sure, no problem. Do you have any questions for me? I want you to feel like there are no surprises here because Jack, this is your time and there really are no surprises. You tell me what you want and we discuss, it doesn’t go anywhere else. That ok?”
“Yeah. Yes sure. I don’t really have any questions at this stage. I guess I don’t really know what to ask about. This is all so new to me,” he replied.
“That’s ok, you can ask me anything at any time. Perhaps we should start with what happened a year ago. Do you want to tell me about that night Jack?”
It was difficult and Jack didn’t know what to say but finally he found a position in his story, his personal tragedy, at which to begin. He told her about the night he received the call from Thailand. Interspersed in his story were useful titbits that revealed details about his relationship with his son. Jack mentioned how Toby was always one to help others and how he was a sensible boy.
There were parts of the story where Jack found himself pausing. He felt the emotions well up inside him like a tidal wave and he was compelled to bring himself back to an equilibrium. He wasn’t quite prepared to cry in front of Meena just yet.
He spoke about how proud they were of Toby, how he was going to be a lawyer. He talked at length about Toby’s sporting prowess and how excited he was about his travels. He was adventurous but sensible, he took after Jack in that way.
After skirting around the crux of the story for a while, Jack finally got onto the topic of the phone call and, more importantly, the emotions he felt at the time.
Meena was nodding along encouragingly. She had a notepad in front of her and jotted down different morsels of information as Jack spoke. She made a point not to distract him from his story and interjected only when it appeared that he required a gentle nudge. During the moments where Jack’s emotions were surfacing, she took a step back and let him find his own way through it.
All the while, she was building up a mental picture of what he was like as a person and the deep love he felt for his child. These were always the most difficult clients for her to escape from. She often took the energy home with her after working with people like Jack, people who were so genuine and so emotionally attached to their loved ones. She really felt their pain.
Jack continued to talk about the trip to Thailand, he focused on the moment he realised that, beyond any shadow of a doubt the body lying under that sheet, the lifeless soul in front of him, was his son Toby. Another pause, this one absolutely understandable.
It was all Meena could do not to reach out and reassuringly touch Jack on the arm at this point. Here was a man in such obvious emotional turmoil and he’d been carrying it around for over a year. She struggled to contemplate how he could continue with such a heavy burden.
Just when Meena believed the story had descended to the very boundary of despair, Jack found the courage to talk about the way the Thai Police Sergeant described the reconstruction of the attack that left Toby, his only child, lifeless.
From the witness interviews and forensic information that was available, they believed Toby was coming home from a night out and stumbled upon an attack on another foreign national, a German girl. She was screaming for help as Toby walked passed a darkened alleyway. She had been dragged from the beachfront road into the alleyway by two assailants. They demanded money.
Toby, without thought for his own personal safety, answered the girl’s call and intervened. The assailants threatened Toby but he still persisted. One of the attackers launched himself towards Toby and they were wrestling for a few minutes. Eventually, the other attacker joined in and let go of the girl. She ran away when she saw the man stab Toby multiple times in the chest and neck area with the blade he was carrying. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
The two men were locals and were never caught. The fact Toby was a hero just like his dad provided little respite to the pain and suffering Jack and his wife had endured. That they had not received justice in the form of an arrest and imprisonment had left them feeling cheated.
This part of Jack’s monologue took the longest time to complete. There were more pauses than at any other time in the story as Jack swallowed back his tears and bravely tried to fight through his emotional barrier.
He was hurting and it was plain to see but Meena knew he had to get through this part. Little did she know that this was the first time he had ever relayed these details to anyone.
When he finally finished, he cut the form of an individual who was absolutely drained, mentally and physically. He picked up the glass of water in front of him, his hands struggling to control his shaking muscles and finished it in three long, defined gulps. Meena collected the glass, got up, went to the water fountain and replenished it before placing it back on the coaster by Jack’s right hand.
She delayed speaking for a moment to allow Jack to collect himself. Eventually she broke the silence.
“Jack, thank you. I know that must have been difficult for you but I appreciate you letting me in,” Jack nodded uncomfortably as he heard this, much like a child unused to receiving praise being hauled up in front of the class and positively acknowledged.
He wasn’t sure whether the thanks was justified. In his mind, all he’d done was tell a story but what he didn’t realise was that this was the first time he’d ever told it in such depth to someone he’d only just met. It was all part of the recovery and Meena knew that.
“So, we’re pretty much at the end of our time for this first session. I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable for you,” Meena said, pleased to see Jack shake his head as if to suggest it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
“Where do we go from here Meena?” Jack enquired.
“It’s really up to you Jack. If you found it useful, it would be great to arrange another meeting but there’s no pressure on you. This only works if it’s voluntary. You’ve got to want to be here.”
Jack nodded again. “I want to come back. It helped, I really believe it helped,” he said.
“Good, I’m glad. I know it’s difficult but it’s so important to face things. I really think you did that today,” Meena said, getting up from her seat and extended her hand in farewell. “I look forward to speaking with you again. Please book a time with Marion in reception and Jack,” she said reassuringly, “It does get easier.”
Jack accepted her hand shake, nodded in response and left the room. With each step he could feel the tautness of his back start to unravel and the burden on his shoulders lift a fraction.
On his way out he noticed a young man in the waiting room. Another lost soul seeking a path back, he thought to himself, I wonder what happened to him. He acknowledged him with a nod.
I felt I knew Emily better than I’ve ever known anyone. I felt renewed, almost complete. I had someone else now, a connection maybe. It felt good, reassuring.
It was difficult to part with the pieces of her that carved out her life to me but I always got them back, they always got them back. I wasn’t a thief. I was just a little lost, in need of a purpose. An island desperately searching for Pangea.
Breaking into the lost property office at the station was easy. I’d done it before. It’s about picking the right moment. There was a period in the morning when the station was quiet, just a few isolated individuals finding their way into the day. The clerk would always open up and then take ten minutes or so to get a coffee. That’s what I loved about ‘normal’ people… routine.
The first few times, I cut it close. I was uncertain then, I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I had to do it in stages over a few days. Trial and error. But now, I knew where the computer was, I knew the password to log in, I knew how to access the programme, I knew where the address details were and I knew how to find the right record using the time of day or the description of the bag.
Tracing the record to the left with my finger, I found the information I needed, an address. The house was about 20 minutes’ walk from here. Something caught my eye inviting it to investigate further to the left, a name… Rebecca. Who was Rebecca? Above at the top of the column it said ‘Owner of missing item’…That can’t be right. This bag belonged to Emily, my Emily. Who the hell was Rebecca? I could feel an anger building inside.
I thought back and remembered, this happened each time. I get so emotionally caught up in what I do that I tend to forget things. They always give a different name. I don’t know why. They never give the name I know. Perhaps it had something to do with privacy. Like the time I discovered Matt, Jane, Alice and the others. Each of them providing a different name to lost property. Luckily, they always gave the right address.
I had to move quickly, my appointment was in an hour.
Hurrying out of the station, the cold wind hit my face like a punch, startling but energising at the same time. The streets were starting to build up, it would reach a crescendo in about an hour. I had the bag securely in my backpack, out of sight. To the left an advertising board shuffled upwards slowly, replacing the offer of peace of mind for my home with a smiling singer whose time had passed but was still clinging on to an annual duets album each Christmas. I stopped and stared at it.
I get fixated on these sorts of things. I couldn’t understand why the advert was still being displayed, Christmas was weeks ago. There was no reason to continue to show holly, snow and santa hats now. It was done. It’s in the details, it’s all in the details. Why don’t people understand that? It really frustrated me.
It would have been some junior member of staff at the advertising or media buying agency sitting there not giving a shit about professionalism, no care about doing a good job. I could see it now. It didn’t matter to them; they didn’t care but it mattered to us… it mattered to me.
I shook the thought out of my head and considered Christmas. It was quiet for me. It had been quiet for the last three years. I made myself dinner, turkey and all the works. My mum would have wanted me to continue the tradition. Each year, Christmas lunch at 2pm. Enough time to have a late breakfast in the morning, open the presents and then take some time to ourselves before lunch, maybe a glass of champagne just the three of us. Although mum and dad were no longer around I still had Matt, Jane and Alice… and now next year Emily can join me.
Her name jolted me out of my malaise; Emily, the bag…I had to get moving.
The house was small but well presented, two storeys with four bright windows smiling to the world, except the curtains were drawn. It’s as I need it to be. Still a little early for the occupants to be awake. For Emily to be awake. The outside was painted an off grey with a purple tinge, one of those modern shades that ‘middle class thirty somethings’ needed, required, adored to make their lives complete. A bright red door exclaimed a welcome.
I looked around to see if anyone could see me. This was all about being normal, blending in, looking natural. Just someone calling around, perfectly legitimate. A plant pot on the porch provided the ideal place to leave the bag securely.
I walked up the short path bordered with small bright flowers, geraniums maybe, I wasn’t sure. My dad was the green fingers of the family. I picked up a little bit of knowledge but it was never something that grabbed me like it did my dad.
The paving was a little worn but it worked and gave the house a lived-in feel, like it was a well-used path…a busy house. I always liked a crowd… I used to like a crowd.
Pulling the backpack around my shoulder, I unzipped it and pulled out the bag; Emily’s bag, placing it behind the plant.
As I walked away I felt annoyed I’d miss seeing the reaction. I had to get to my appointment. I couldn’t hang around and watch. I liked to watch to see their smile when they found their bag. A smile tinged with confusion and then a look around… left and right… not sure whether this was a miracle or an accident. The unexplained always made people behave in the most natural way. There was nothing fake about that reaction.
I was happy. I had a spring in my step. I thought about that for a moment. Why did they call it that? Did you really bounce more after something good happened or is it because you felt lighter? Could other people sense your mood or was it just an internal feeling. Lost in my thoughts, I arrived barely a few minutes ahead of my appointment.
I walked in to the waiting area, smiled at the receptionist and sat down. A moment later, a man walked out of the room and looked over at me. We acknowledged each other. He intrigued me because he was difficult to read. I wasn’t sure why he was seeing Meena…was he as lost as I was?
The first time I met Meena was a few weeks after my parent’s funeral. I always thought therapy was for celebrities or Americans. The thought of going was painfully awkward for me. It’s such a British ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality. Don’t show emotion, never delve into your feelings, ignore rather than investigate…it’s a torrid path to roam.
In a way, Meena was the catalyst for how I am now. It was like I was being fixed but some parts hadn’t been put back in the right place. I was an Ikea bed; it looks complete but there are always extra bits you’re not quite sure what to do with. Meena was merely the Allen key, the means for me to put myself back together.
I always questioned who this Allen character was and how rich he was. Was it even a person? I had this almost romantic notion that it was some old mad inventor in a shed somewhere surrounded by a host of failed projects. He finally struck gold. He invented a tool that would be the absolute fury of every wannabe DIY fanatic around the world.
In reality, I learned later the alternative name was a Hex Key and it was made by a company in Connecticut somewhere. The name Allen coming from the name of the Company, Allen manufacturing or something like that. That disappointed me.
Our first appointment was really just a check in session to see how I was doing after the loss of my parents. I felt ok then, a little bruised but coping, dealing with it. Meena gave me reassurance but neither she nor I felt it needed a long-term engagement. I left after that first session feeling good but without a need for further support.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I called upon her again. Time had continued to act as the backdrop for a growing pain at the loss of mum and dad. It was the little moments, those regular ‘take them for granted’ occasions like Mother’s Day, Christmas, my birthday. It was Saturdays in the summer out in the garden with dad during breaks from school or university. Suddenly all of that was gone and with each passing occasion, another crack appeared in me.
I tried to throw myself into work, I tried to create a life for myself but if losing my parents was a body blow, meeting Giuliana was the knock down punch.
Chapter 5 – Meeting Giuliana, the beginning of the end of the beginning of my life!
I remember the day well, the sun was shining and the air felt warm, almost intoxicating; something told me the day would be a good one. I got myself dressed and left the house. It was the sort of day you could hear birds singing. The spring was gently inviting summer to visit making the mornings brighter and warmer. I found it difficult not to smile.
I worked as a reasonably successful marketing executive for a well-known clothing brand called Prego. My best friend was my work colleague Charlie. It was fair to say that Charlie Thomas was privileged. He’d joined the firm about a month before me but had only applied for the role because his father, Gordon Thomas, had threatened to cut Charlie off if he didn’t get a job.
Gordon was the head of a very successful asset management company and was not to be messed with. He’d expected Charlie to join the business but his errant son had other ideas. Being the archetypal playboy, Charlie enjoying the trappings of his father’s success but didn’t want to be dominated by his dad at work. In fact, he didn’t want to work at all.
He took after his father in that way, the playboy way. Charlie was used to an array of women clutching the arm of Gordon Thomas at different points during his growing up years. It moulded him, almost prepared him in his father’s eyes, the apple and tree in close proximity, aligned.
Everything was going as planned until Gordon had threatened to cut Charlie off from the family wealth. He gave him a six-month ultimatum and in the sixth month, Charlie had caved to the request. Prego happened, maybe through nepotism; and Charlie was allowed back into the Thomas family monetary fold again.
It allowed him to buy a very nice penthouse apartment just five minutes’ walk from the office. It frustrated me but I tried not to show it.
I remember the day Giuliana started at the company. Charlie grabbed my arm and led me towards the stairwell.
“What the hell Charlie?” I demanded. “What’s going on?” At that point, Charlie lifted his finger to his lips as if to shush me and then pointed through the window in the door to the pod of desks where the temps sat. I followed his arm along to his hand and then his finger; and in a moment found myself staring at beauty personified.
Her skin was a golden brown, carved from the sun and sea that encapsulated an exotic location. If beauty was defined by symmetry, her face was one and the same on either side of her delicate nose. There was a doey-ness in her large brown eyes. They revealed an innocence but with a sultry undertone. She was a hunter’s trap able to snap on her victim in an instant.
From what I could see of her body, she could well have been the successful prototype developed by the creator of all things. She was, in a word, a corny word but one without equal, perfection. At least in my eyes she was perfection and they were presently her beholder.
Fearing I would stand and stare at her all day, I managed to regain my senses on that first occasion I set eyes on her and hustled Charlie back towards our desks.
“Who is she?” I demanded.
“All I know is she’s a new temp and she’s Brazilian,” Charlie replied, raising his eyebrow suggestively on the word “Brazilian”.
That was the story of the first time I “met” Giuliana. That was the moment I felt love in my life again. That vision was the one thing that would change my life forever.
We first met properly at an office drinks about three weeks after Giuliana had started at the company. By that time, I’d gleaned that she was from Maceio, the state capital of Alagoas in Brazil. I also found out that she was allowed to work in Europe because she had dual Portuguese nationality and that she was staying with the company for three months at least, but I prayed her contract would be extended. Other than that, I’d never actually spoken to her.
There was a moment in reception when we both arrived at the same time. She appeared to acknowledge me with a raise of her eyebrows but before I could reciprocate, I noticed the woman on the reception desk behind me wave back at her. By all intents and purposes, at that point I was invisible.
However, it only meant I had a timeline to work to and I fully intended to meet her in person. Charlie had a girlfriend, the next in line to walk through the revolving door. I was one of only a handful of young single guys who worked at the company so, if she was available and looking for a relationship, the odds were in my favour but I still didn’t know if she had a boyfriend or was even interested.
The drinks were to welcome the summer and all staff had been invited. It was my moment, all those times staring into nothingness led to this.
Giuliana was well aware of my interest. I found out later she’d noticed me that first day and enjoyed the way I was anything but subtle. Apparently, I had that ‘classic British clumsiness’ that she found endearing. From that first moment, she too had been digging for information and she too had a plan hatched for that particular drinks party.
She’d observed me with Charlie by the bar. She’d noticed me notice her and as I made my move, so did she.
She moved away from me and hurried towards the other side of the room to the exit. She went out into the lobby of the bar and back in through another entrance so she was behind me. I was looking around trying to find her. She was mimicking my movements but stayed a few paces behind.
All the while, Charlie watched in hysterics. He could see what was happening and he loved how clueless I was. He took great pleasure in telling me all this later.
After a fair few minutes of avoidance, Giuliana finally decided the time was right and engineered a situation where she bumped into me, literally.
Like the moment you spot something after spending a while knowing what you were looking for but never managing to find it, I was full of suspense by the time I stumbled upon Giuliana. The shock of that first moment when our eyes met was too much for me and my right arm jolted upwards in surprise sending what was left of my drink over my face.
She laughed, I blushed. That was our first meeting and she never let me forget it. Regardless, we talked long in to the night about nothing in particular. The conversation was easy, together, bonded even. We found a mutual wavelength and travelled along it until all around us had gone home. It was only when we were asked to leave that we realised we were the last patrons in the bar.
After the party, we spent every hour we could together. There was an instant attraction. Ours was a relationship that was playful in company and explosive alone. It was cute but tempestuous. It wasn’t necessarily aggressive, it was more a chemical reaction, her Latin fire coupled with my British forthrightness and determination.
It made the sex frenetic and loving and passionate and shared. We responded to each other’s bodies with an understanding borne from exploration. We wanted to know each other and we loved being together.
She never let me forget the first time we actually spoke, the story of the night when she scared me into soaking myself with the drink. Each time she mentioned it, she struggled to get the whole story out without laughing uncontrollably half way through.
I would nod along sarcastically trying to hurry the prose up but secretly loving the sight of her face exploding into laughter. It was a game and we played it together well. We dined out on that story with friends from work on numerous occasions.
After a while, Giuliana noticed that I had very few friends outside of work. She knew little of my family situation but didn’t want to push me to open up. It had only been a couple of months after all. However, she was surprised that I had no old school mates or kids I grew up with to meet for drinks or dinner.
The truth was that I did have friends, lots of friends but I pushed them away when they tried to help during my time of need. The period after my parents died was a time of reflection for me. I needed solace and sought it at every opportunity. People deal with loss in different ways, mine was to fight it alone. I couldn’t change that.
It meant I turned down invites to drinks, parties, lunch even. I then started ignoring phone calls and built a shell around myself to hide away. I couldn’t explain why but I felt lethargic, lazy, constrained, and lifeless. Slowly each friend stopped calling and kept their distance until eventually, I got what they felt was my wish, and I was alone. I’d never had the courage or conviction to heal those relationships so I floated along like a lone ship until I started working at Prego.
It was about four months into our relationship when I finally revealed my story to Giuliana. It meant I trusted her fully. I rarely opened up like that to anyone but I was prepared to let her in. I had fallen for her completely.
I told her about the moment I lost my parents, how I’d struggled to come to terms with it, how I couldn’t form a relationship with anyone as a result, how she had broken down that defence, that means of self-preservation; and how I was thankful to her.
She heard from me how for almost two years I felt hollow inside, like every part of my being had been torn out and thrown away. I spoke about how I had to patiently rebuild the puzzle of me and how she had helped me find and replace that final piece, the one that represented the emotion of love.
The first time we spoke about it she was respectfully quiet. She listened with earnest, with intent. She held back her impulse to hold me, to tell me everything would be alright. She knew I needed to say those words; I needed to get the story out to help me heal after what had happened. She struggled to stop the build-up of tears cloud her eyes. When I finished, she held me; I felt warm and I embraced her absolutely, with every ounce of my being.
That feeling of being cuddled was worth so much to me. It brought back memories of a happy childhood, one that was full of laughter and love. It made me remember my mother and how complete I was when she cuddled me. It located thoughts of my father and how a firm hand placed on my shoulder represented so many emotions, a collection of pride, encouragement, support and adoration.
After I shared what was previously locked away in the vault of my mind, it elevated our relationship to a completely new status, one of absolute trust. I was happy again, truly happy.
Around the same time, I received a promotion. The salary increase was more than I’d expected and it meant that we were comfortable financially. Giuliana had moved in with me when she found out that her role was made permanent with the company. Things were going well for us and living together seemed the logical next step.
So, we embraced the moment and I cherished her, adorning her with gifts at every opportunity. She liked me buying her things and I liked the response I got when I did, so I continued to spoil her. She enjoyed the new-found wealth that we had and she accepted it greedily so she encouraged me to work harder, to seek more success and I obliged. I would do anything for her.
She had a steely determination for us to succeed in life and for her that meant money, the more the better.
As the year went on, she pushed me to take on more responsibility, to put forward ideas and demand attention. She wanted me to get on the next rung of the ladder. She wanted to buy things and live a good life, far different from the one she left behind in Brazil.
Giuliana’s family background was one of survival. Her parents worked hard but she was never part of the elite classes in her homeland. Her father ran a clothes shop in town and her mother cleaned the local school. She watched them struggle, tired and broken after a day’s graft for little reward. It sickened her to see how non-meritocratic her world was. She developed a determination to never position herself in the same way, to exceed the life she started with.
Her home was a modest two-bedroom affair on the outskirts of town. It was cosy and sometimes overcrowded. She had two older brothers and shared a bedroom with them both until the eldest found himself in the wrong part of town and got caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs.
Suddenly, her home was not so crowded anymore. She remembered the night the police called on the family home to tell them what had happened. They were so callous and cold with the news that essentially broke her family unit. Her parents, brother and she wept as one until the night was succeeded by day.
Her surviving brother struggled to cope. As a result of one avoidable incident that rocked their whole family, he lost his inspiration, his idol. He spiralled into a life of drugs and became absent both in mind and body. Her parents tried to intervene but all they could do was cry and argue and beg and plead. Eventually, her brother disappeared. That was over two years ago and she hadn’t seen him since. He could be dead, she didn’t know.
So, Giuliana made a pact to get out of the life she had and swap it for a new one. She had dual nationality through the grandfather on her father’s side, a farmer who came to Brazil from Portugal to find his fortune many years ago; and she intended to be contrarian to him by finding her fortune in Europe but she lacked one thing; money for her plane ticket.
She tried to get work but struggled to find anything that could provide her the money she needed so she made a decision, she used what God had given her and got a job stripping in a men’s club in town. She was attractive and men fell for her quickly, so much so that her parents tried to hide her away from the streets of the town to avoid giving the bad men an opportunity to take her.
That happened frequently in her area. Daughters were stolen from families to work in brothels in the big cities down south. Families tried to protect them by denying them freedom, it only served to push many of them into rebellion.
Needless to say, her parents didn’t approve of her new job as a result of their fears but it was the quickest way she would be able to get the money together to leave and they daren’t risk pushing her away any more.
A friend who she went to school with had encouraged her to try it out. She had worked there for a while and said it was easy money. There were occasions when Giuliana felt unsafe, when men demanded more of her than a dance. Some saw her as a tool for their pleasure but she was never going to allow anything more than she wanted to give and she wasn’t a prostitute.
She did witness her friend disappearing through the cracks of life over time. She had discovered and accepted drugs, from that point she was the archetypal piece of meat. It was sad to watch but it was not Giuliana’s role to judge and her friend would not be the only girl she would witness descend to such an extent during her time at the club.
She worked there for close to a year, she hated the job and herself every time she took to the stage but she had a goal and she had her determination. When she saved enough she went straight to the travel agent and bought the first flight out of Brazil. Her old life was left behind and no one would ever know how she got to England. Her parents found out by way of a letter pinned to the notice board above the fridge in the kitchen… She was no longer theirs.
Her experience of working in her dad’s clothes shop, allied with her stunning looks, presented enough of a reason for her to be offered the temporary position at Prego. Over her initial contract period she had proven herself willing and very able so was rewarded with permanency.
That was the story of Giuliana to date. She had achieved her goal, meeting me was a bonus. However, she had never let me in. She appreciated the fact I had trusted her with my story but couldn’t bear the thought of how she might be judged should her own skeleton find its way out of the locked and heavily guarded closet she insisted it remain in.
I didn’t push and Giuliana didn’t volunteer, it was only months later I found out her story thanks to a drunken evening and a lot of tears. In the beginning though, it worked for us that I wasn’t aware and we were both determined to enjoy the present.
That meant displaying an almost sickening amount of affection towards one another when we were invited out by colleagues. We were the worst couple to see for someone who had recently finished a relationship. We displayed how perfect togetherness could be and found it difficult to tone down as it came so naturally to us.
About a year or so later and after another promotion for me, conversations with friends turned to queries of marriage plans which I took on board more and more as they became apparent. After a few more months, I couldn’t deny my deep feelings for Giuliana and decided I wanted to propose.
In my typical style, I didn’t confide in anyone. I locked this emotional outreach away, preferring to plan everything out by myself. So, I searched long and hard for the right stone to place on the finger of my gem. I hadn’t even conceived an idea of where and how I would propose, but I knew I needed a ring first and foremost.
I spent many hours staring at sparkling stones in a range of jewellers providing excuse after excuse to Giuliana about why I needed time away. After a while, I found the ideal diamond and designed its permanent new home in the form of a subtle but stunning platinum band.
The more I thought about the moment I was planning to propose; the more comfortable I was with the concept. At first, I second guessed himself. I was convinced she would say ‘no’ one minute and then I felt my plan was too tacky the next.
I carefully scoured the internet to research the holiday destination. I decided we were going to the beautiful Beau Vallon Bay part of Mahe Island in the Seychelles, an idyllic beach surrounded by a luxurious resort. It was ideal for couples to escape but with just enough local culture to keep the trip authentic. It was perfect for what I had planned.
That night, after working yet another 14-hour day, my last before our holiday, I felt exhausted but weightless. I knew that for the next couple of weeks, I had the holiday to think about. It was my finishing line and an opportunity to recuperate.
It was as if my senses were heightened the moment I switched off my computer. I could feel the world around me for the first time in a while. As I left the office, I heard the noise of the city, car horns beeping like endless chattering; and the wind rushing through the cityscape like it was navigating a canyon.
I could feel the comfort of the seats on the train rushing me home, a feeling I previously took for granted. I saw lights in houses flicker past the window as towns and villages went by. I remember smiling as if I’d just discovered the world.
My house appeared and before I knew it, I was inside its comforting embrace and greeted by the smell of heaven. Giuliana had prepared a special dinner for us and I knew instantly that it was a taste of her home. Walking into the living area, I noticed the dinner table decorated as if to welcome a very special guest. There were two table settings, a bottle of wine with two glasses and a candle.
Giuliana walked out of the kitchen looking ever so slightly flustered but enigmatic with it. A strand of her wavy brown hair was strewn across her forehead and I couldn’t help feeling aroused by the vision of her.
I walked over, kissed her on the cheek and, with my forefinger, gently moved the strand of hair back into place.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You haven’t tried it yet,” she replied jovially.
She sat me down, went back into the kitchen and brought out what could only be described as a feast. There was the stewed goodness of Feijoada accompanied by empanadas followed by a main course of Moqueca. It was amazing, and I barely spoke as I devoured all that lay before me.
When the food was finished, we drank wine and talked long into the night, holding hands and staring passionately into each other’s eyes. When the talking was done, Giuliana led me by the hand to the bedroom. I lay on the bed and she seductively removed her clothes by candlelight as I watched, mesmerised, in complete awe at her beauty.
We kissed and made love until the early hours. She gave herself to me fully and I discovered her deeper than I ever had before. My eyes watered as I savoured the moment and lost myself in my emotions. We slept locked in an embrace that felt like we could never be apart.
The following morning, we packed the last of our items and jumped eagerly into the taxi which, for the first time ever, arrived on time.
We got to the airport in good time and, as if the country was bidding us farewell, the rain started pouring down as we busied ourselves into the departure hall smiling to each other at what we were leaving behind.
The arrival into Victoria Airport was stunning. All we could see was the vision of beautiful crystal clear water and small scattered islands illuminated by sunlight.
Before long we were taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the capital city from the comfort of a taxi. In an instant, we were at the hotel, checked in and ready to discover. The sun was just beckoning the late afternoon to take a degree or two off the heat as the next part of my plan kicked in.
We took a stroll along the beach holding hands and gently nudging each other playfully as the realisation we were actually experiencing the stunning surroundings took hold.
The sand was warm beneath our feet and the water gently lapped against our toes. It was there at the water’s edge where I found the courage to descend to one knee and in a single motion pull out the ring box that had been secreted in my pocket.
“Before I met you I had no direction,” I said. “You helped me to discover life again and all the beauty that exists within it. You made me realise love and for that I'm indebted to you," I continued, "Now I ask for you to make me complete, now I ask will you marry me?"
Completely taken by surprise, Giuliana looked longingly back at me. And as the sun was gently sinking to draw a close to another day in paradise, with a tear appearing in the corner of her eye, she observed the size and scale of the diamond in front of her before simply uttering: "Yes, absolutely."
At that point, from that moment, at least for a while; life was perfect.
It remained that way for a few months. We started planning the wedding and had the usual arguments about who was doing what but really, I knew this wedding was all about her. Neither of us would have family there, it was really a celebration with our friends so we weren’t looking for the lavish, more the enjoyable.
It was then that I should have seen what was happening. Charlie became more involved in the planning. He was my best man. In reality, he was my oldest friend after I successfully pushed away my other friends who played roles in the earlier chapters of my life. He was my best ‘post-parents dying’ friend.
He and Giuliana spent more time together. All the while, I was continuing to put in the long hours in the office. Giuliana had her eyes set on a new house with a garden and we needed a deposit. So, I worked and worked and worked. I became oblivious to everything else.
I remember the day my life fell apart for the second time. Some say that being broken down again after struggling to rebuild hurts twice as much and takes double the effort to come back from. I’m testament to that. It was close to the end of me.
That evening I found myself standing on the edge of the balcony wall on top of the tallest building I could find. Lights lit up the roads below, red and white lines in a blur as they illuminated the direction the cars wished to travel in. My head was filled with the conversation from earlier.
“Henry…” she said. “We need to talk…” Even then I didn’t see any issues, I didn’t spot a problem. How stupid must they have thought I was? “Henry…” she said again. “I’m pregnant…” At that moment elation took over my body. It was unbelievable. I didn’t think I could feel as happy as this. The girl of my dreams had just told me we were expecting a child. It was the one thing I had always craved, a family.
Except, we weren’t expecting a child. “Henry…” she said again as I spoke at pace about how excited I was, how this was everything I ever wanted, kissing her again and again as she stood there motionless and completely indignant to my delight.
“Henry…” she continued. “Charlie and I have become very close recently.” I almost didn’t hear what she said but something deep inside my head forced me to take this sentence in. “Henry…” I started to hate hearing the sound of my own name as realisation took hold. “Charlie is the father.”
I took a step closer to the edge. The cars below suddenly felt much closer. How could I not have seen this? How could I have been so stupid. It’s amazing how, when things like this happen, we’re always so quick to blame ourselves. Somehow, my soon to be wife fucking my best friend was all my fault. After all I was only working every hour god sent to make her happy.
I should have understood, people like me, our story was never meant to be a happy one. Some people are on this earth to face continual adversity. That was simply my lot. My cross to bear.
“Charlie is the father.” The words echoed in my thoughts. Another step closer to the edge. I could almost hear the sound of the traffic as cars whizzed by one another exchanging the occasional toot of displeasure. At least no one would be put out by having to come to the funeral. I had no one now anyway. My life, my tragic existence amounted to this. Nothing, pointless, lonely.
When I stormed out of the house she hadn’t even bothered to follow me. Hadn’t bothered to apologise. What was she sorry for, she had everything she wanted, a rich man. A complete transformation from her pauper past. I was a cheque to her. Money and funds to enable her to change her existence. Charlie was a step up in funds for her. She could now buy the more expensive boots, the bigger house… it was all part of her plan and coming together well… thank you very much! Maybe his father was the next in line for her. Who knew where her ambition ended.
One more step to end the pain of a lifetime. It was a huge undertaking. I was almost there.
The wind blew my hair around as I contemplated my next move.
“Charlie is the father.”
I lifted my left foot and moved it forward to occupy the nothingness in front of me, it dangled loosely in the wind searching for an objective.
At that moment, the strangest thought entered my head. I suddenly became concerned whether I had my wallet. How would I be identified without my driver’s licence. I was concerned that the police would find it difficult to ID me without that. The poor police officer who had to spend hours trying to find out who this mess on the pavement was. It’s not fair to them, I thought to myself.
My hand jutted into my pocket, I pulled my left foot back to loosen the tightness in my trousers. Searching around, my fingers found something that felt like card. I pulled it out, it was a business card. I read the back of it, “Sometimes you just need to talk to find a direction.” I contemplated that for a moment. Suddenly, I had a choice where previously my destination tonight was absolutely determined. As if automatically, I stepped back from the edge and off the balcony. My body was almost robotic as muscle memory moved me away from a destiny that I thought I wanted. There’s someone out there who wants to talk to me. That thought gave me a level of comfort, a purpose almost.
I hadn’t realised it before but I could feel a wetness by my eyes. I had been crying, emotion had taken over and I hadn’t even noticed. I wiped my eyes dry.
That night I checked in to a hotel and the next morning I went to Meena’s office. I was still a little stunned that I was so close to ending my life but it was save by a business card, Meena’s business card. She was fully booked but ushered me in to her office when she saw how I looked. I don’t remember much about the conversation that day but one thing stuck with me more than anything. Meena looked at me and said: “Sometimes we just need to find happiness in life. Sometimes that happiness is all around us in the sounds that we hear, the visions we see or the interactions we have. Henry, do you think you can find happiness in your life?”
That question resonated with me more than anything I heard before. That was the moment my life changed. That was the moment I discovered people again…
Jack felt energised when he went into the office that day. It was as if talking things through with the therapist had released a pressure point. Just having a chance to tell his story lifted a massive weight off his shoulders. Since Toby’s death, Jack had distanced himself from any purpose in life. He couldn’t face responsibility and so drifted onto the more laborious workload; those cases that were uneventful, uninspiring and, to all intents and purposes, like chasing dead ends.
His aggressors were petty thieves and opportunistic con artists, his victims became small corner shops and unfortunate individuals. Murders becoming a distant memory.
He’d put his hand up to take on this brief. It was usually something given to the junior detectives as a kind of induction into plain clothes but Jack said that he needed to do it and his boss, DI Sanderson to his subordinates and Craig to his acquaintances, had already seen it in his eyes. He wasn’t about to argue the point. He knew that he was losing 25 years of experience but he also realised it was for the greater good. Jack would be back, it was in the very character of the man and he knew it. He’d seen it before in people with the same drive as Jack who had also fallen off the horse.
Craig saw that first flicker of life in Jack today. What Jack was feeling inside, he was portraying to those around him who were wise enough to notice.
“Morning Jack, good weekend?” he asked, rhetorically. He gave him a knowing wink as he spoke.
“Very pleasant thanks,” Jack responded even though no response was required.
He sat down at his desk and observed everything before him. The desktop echoed Jack’s life over the last few months, it was a mess. There were scrunched up bits of paper scattered all over the place like a poet struggling to find that opening to the second verse, searching for inspiration. Half eaten chocolate bars and crisp packets filled the voids the paper struggled to overcome. Pens were laying on top like mock paper weights and a tissue box was turned on its side. It was like a mini-hurricane had focused solely on this particular 1.5 metre by 0.7 metre space. A heavily localised storm!
The view surprised Jack. He’d been on auto pilot these past months and hadn’t realised how much of a slob he’d been at work. Grief can do that to you. It can eat you up and consume you completely so the world around you keeps on moving while you’re not even aware. Today…now…this scene he was looking at…this was his moment of clarity.
It took all of his willpower not to exclaim “What the fuck happened here?”
He tidied his desk, restoring some order to his work life. He was a big believer that chaos bred confusion and order bred lucidity. He needed the latter. He required clarity.
He turned to the unopened files. It was his bed now, these pointless, run of the mill cases, so he had to lie in it. Reaching for the first one, he opened a couple of files to get a feel for the case and read the first few pages before he noticed the pattern. A series of robberies, one victim, one aggressor in each case… pretty standard stuff except for one thing, a single bag was taken each time and was returned sometimes but not on other occasions. With case work like this, Jack had learned over many years that you’re not looking for the similarities, you’re actually looking for an oddity.
Sometimes the truth comes out when the abnormal appears. It can mean a bunch of things like the crimes were reaching a crescendo, the perpetrator had a plan and it was nearing its conclusion – that can often be the most concerning thing because it can mean the person is acting erratically, out of control, like they’re trying to complete their project quickly and aren’t being as cautious as usual, they can see the finish line.
They can react with little warning and that’s when injuries and/or death happen. It can also mean that cases have been grouped together because of their similarities, the assumption being the crimes were all being committed by the same person. That’s not always the situation and that’s where mistakes happen and why so many cases go unresolved. The investigating officer is searching for the wrong thing.
Jack noticed these robberies had been going on for a couple of years but increased in frequency over the last year. Why? Why were some bags returned to the owners and some not returned? The first skim through of a stack of what should have been mundane cases had got Jack interested, excited even. There was more to this than the pages in front of him were letting on. He continued reading the initial police notes in the first file, he preferred to do this than the official report because he found they were closer to the situation that occurred and often had extra detail in them that later were removed because they were seen as insignificant….
Female, mid-20s arrived at Central Station at around 2pm, 6thJanuary. It was busy, full of people, lots going on and lots of noise. She puts her bags down on the floor to get her bearings. After a minute or so, she notices a bag is missing. She looks around, no one has it. There’s no one running away, no sign of her bag. It happened in the blink of an eye. She hadn’t noticed anyone suspicious beforehand. She had no reason to believe anyone was out to get her particularly. Random crime.
She reported it immediately and I arrived about 10 minutes after the incident occurred. These are the immediate notes taken. I advised her to check with lost and found. I checked CCTV at the station and around the surrounding area, nothing, no sign of anyone. The place where the crime occurred was hidden from view. It was like this person knew the best spot to strike and knew the best exit point from the station. A professional.
Then an addendum was added a little further down…
24 hours later, the woman calls the police station, the bag has been returned to her house. The contents were all there, nothing was taken. In fact, the items inside the bag were cleaned, folded and placed carefully inside the bag. It was like the thief had shown real care and consideration for the bag. Case closed.
Jack closed the folder. He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. Picking up the glass of water at the far edge of his desk, he sunk two large mouthfuls. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if searching for inspiration. Why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a bag in a public place only to return it the next day in a better condition than they found it? It doesn’t make any sense. Are they searching for something? Are they some sort of modern day Samaritan with a warped sense of right and wrong?
He picked up the next file and started reading the notes.
Woman, mid-30s arrived at Plaza Shopping Centre around 10am on 17th August. She’d stopped for a cup of coffee after picking up a few groceries. The food hall had around 20 people also sitting down with a few others milling around. She sat at a table at the edge of the cluster of table and chairs. As she observed the other diners and drank her coffee someone took her bag. She hadn’t even noticed. She looked around but couldn’t see anyone visibly running or carrying her bag. She cried out for help before reporting the incident to me. I advised her to check in the shops she had been to already. I then checked CCTV. Unfortunately, she was sat in an area that wasn’t in view of the cameras. I believe the thief was aware of this. No other CCTV picked up someone carrying the bag she described. The thief had managed to pick the camera black spots when exiting the shopping centre.
Same M.O but a different outcome, this time the bag wasn’t returned. Why? Jack asked himself. He closed the file and placed it on top of the other one he’d just read. He stared at the pile still unopened, somewhere in there is a clue, perhaps the clue to moving this investigation forward. Coffee…he needed coffee. He grabbed his wallet, got up and walked downstairs.
The station was buzzing, a double murder was called in last night. Part of him was jealous not to be involved, the other part was drawn into the bag thief case and wanted a result. His competitive streak was coming back.
In the cafeteria, he exchanged a few nods with fellow officers as he walked up to the counter. He smiled at the Pitbull staring back at him. He knew she was a she because her name badge read ‘Wendy’. He couldn’t recall any males called ‘Wendy’. Her face provided basis for doubt though and in certain lights you’d be forgiven for referring to her as a man.
“What’ll it be?” Wendy said, her voice was slightly north of baritone… it added to the gender confusion.
“Coffee with one sugar and a dash of milk please,” Jack responded, retaining his smile. He did that to make the engagement easier. If you were polite to them, you got no grief. The moment you showed any negativity, you were greeted to the same in spades or, worse still, a diatribe about all the negative things that were going on in their life. He wasn’t there to be a quasi-agony uncle so an impassive but polite expression was the best option.
His coffee was duly delivered and he made his way back upstairs to his desk. He chuckled as he walked along at the absurdity of the interaction between police and civilians in the café, the battle between one side of a counter and the other… It was almost comical but there existed a division of sorts. Was it superiority? Maybe, he didn’t feel snobbish but he knew people were the last to accept their own flaws. Perhaps he couldn’t see his.
That thought brought him back to Toby. He remembered the first time he really knew himself was watching Toby growing from a baby to a toddler and seeing his own mannerisms played out in the microcosm bundle of energy in front of him. For some parents, their offspring are a miniature embodiment of themselves. Subtle gestures, exclamations and characteristics suddenly boomed loudly in Jack’s mind as he saw his inner being unravelled with such vividness.
Suddenly the thought subsided as he pulled his chair out from his desk to sit down. That was progress. That was the first time for as long as he can remember when a thought about Toby came into his mind and he was able to carry on when it left without dwelling on it or crying. He allowed himself a smile, not so much at the progress as to the fact that Toby could still be part of his life without completely taking it over.
The files in front of him shook away the malaise. He had work to do. He picked up the next file on the stack and opened it until he reached the initial police notes.
June 21st, mid-40s Asian male. He was at Martin Street Bus Station waiting for the number 4 bus. The station was busy, it was 5.30pm, rush hour. He had three bags with him and he struggled to get his phone out of his pocket so he put the bags on the floor. About 15 seconds later he leant down to reach the bags and only two remained. There was a stream of people walking past at that point and he couldn’t see anyone with his bag. A person next to him asked what had happened and helped to look for his missing bag. They couldn’t find it. I was at the bus station and noticed the two searching around so took these initial notes and advised the victim to call the lost property number for the bus station. Nothing was handed in.
Bag gone but not returned. Same method as before. Jack scratched the stubble appearing on his chin. It almost provided a feeling of manliness when he had stubble to brush his fingers against. It was a strange sensation. This time, he was using it to collect his thoughts. Where are you? He asked himself trying to figure out who this bag thief was. Clues were few and far between.
Another folder was opened to the initial police notes.
The Potteries Farmers Market, 9.55am 17th August, woman mid-20s was by the fruit and veg section carrying a few bags of shopping when she stopped to take a phone call. She was in the central thoroughfare so pulled to the side and put her bags down including her handbag. After a 30 second conversation, she went to pick her bags up but couldn’t find her handbag anywhere. She looked around but couldn’t spot anyone with it. The place was crowded and it was difficult to see anything. She reported it to the information stall and I was called to the scene. I arrived about 5 minutes later and took these notes. [updated 18th August – the bag has since been returned to the lady’s address. Case closed]
Bag returned, what the hell is going on? Jack asked himself. He closed the file and put it on the ‘read’ pile. He picked up another file and flicked through to the initial police notes. He started reading but then something stopped him and compelled him to pick up the previous file.
He read the initial notes again…
The Potteries Farmers Market, 9.55am 17th August…
17th August, that date was familiar. He flicked through the previous files he’d looked at. Same date as the shopping centre theft. He studied the times, 9.55am and 10am. He clicked open Google maps and looked at the two locations. It was at least a 25-minute journey by foot between the two and 10-minutes by car not allowing time to park. How could the same person get from one place to the next, pick out a victim and plan out the theft for such a professional execution? It was impossible. It had to be two people…
He went back to the other file on his desk and read the initial police notes with increased interest. He picked up another, read the notes and then another and another. The blood was spilt and he’d picked up the scent…He kept a tally, dates, times, bag returned, bag not returned, age of victim, gender of victim, type of bag. Patterns, anomalies, situations, contradictions, complications, issues. Something, he was searching for something.
Like the unravelling of an onion, the Potteries Farm theft and the shopping centre theft at around the same time on the same day had revealed the next layer of skin keeping him from the thief. The issue was, in cases like this, you never knew how many layers you had to peel before you got to the answer, but he’d made a start and it was enough to pique his interest.
He studied the spreadsheet in front of him, dates, times, gender, age, place, bag… it was all played out in right there on the screen. He’d input twenty lines, twenty individual crimes over the last twelve months fitting the same M.O but subtly different in parts. No bag had been returned in fourteen of the crimes, six of the crimes had the bag returned. No further similarities in date. Look at the smaller subsection Jack, he told himself.
Ok six crimes where the bag had not been returned. Any patterns here? Bag type, numerous, inconsistent. No pattern…Timing, throughout the day, again, no pattern… Come on, you’re somewhere? He said to himself. Gender, nothing specific there… His eyes scanned the screen looking for something, anything. A needle to pull out of the dead grass. He studied the columns left to right… come on, where are you?
Suddenly, there it was, age range. All of the people whose bags were returned were in their twenties. He looked at age range in the other fourteen cases where bags were not returned to see if there was a similar pattern. Perhaps those in their twenties make better targets. Perhaps they have more disposable income, more trinkets to steal? He scrolled down to see a wide range of ages from late teens to sixties. No pattern. There’s something in this he thought to himself. It’s small, coincidental maybe but enough to work with.
He sat back from the screen and noticed the DI’s office door was open. He got up and poked his head through waiting for the most opportune moment to announce himself. Craig’s office reflected his persona, ordered, programmatic, tidy.
“Do you have a moment Craig? I think I have something on the bag theft cases,” he said.
“Sure, come in Jack. What’s happening?”
“Ok, so it may be something or it may be nothing…” Jack said before being interrupted…
“But your instincts tell you it’s something, right?” Craig jumped in. Before waiting for an answer, he continued. “That’s good enough for me Jack. What have you got?”
“Ok so I studied twenty cases overall out of thirty or so on my desk. I noticed a pattern. Some of the cases showed the thief had returned the bag, while others showed they hadn’t. Then I spotted two robberies taking place on exactly the same day around five minutes apart but it would have been impossible to have covered the distance between the two locations in time.”
“Two different thieves?” Craig asked, already knowing the answer.
“Two different thieves,” Jack confirmed. “It has to be. So, I looked at the smaller subsection, the incidents where the bags were returned. There were six in total. Every single victim was in their twenties. Checking against the other subsection, there’s no matching pattern, all the age ranges are different, sporadic,” Jack continued.
“What do you think that means?” Craig asked, this time in search of an answer.
“I think it means this thief is stealing from within their own age group. It’s not much, but it’s a start,” Jack concluded.
“Excellent work Jack. You think they’re targeting people they know best, people who are similar to them. That makes sense but we need to figure out why. Where next?”
“Next I need to figure out how this thief knows where to return the bags. How do they know where their victims live? Surely, they can’t be pursuing them from their homes, that would be way too risky and the nature of the crimes makes them far more opportunistic than overly planned. Also, in my opinion, the victims can’t all be known to the thief. The victims come from completely different backgrounds, totally different back stories. It just couldn’t be that neat and tidy.”
“It’s a great start Jack, keep me posted,” Craig said. “…and welcome back.”
Jack smiled, patted the edge of the desk and strode out of the room.
It always took me a while to warm up when my sessions with Meena started. That second time I met her, when my life was a mess and had almost expired; that was one of the most difficult but important conversations I’d ever had. It took all of my willpower to enter her building, and then the rest of it to start speaking. I told her about Giuliana and she was visibly moved. She already knew about my parents from our previous meeting many months before. She was almost lost for words when I talked through the time in between.
I must have looked a mess. I’d barely slept and had spent most of the previous evening on top of a tall building, open to the elements, contemplating ending my life. Since then, I’d been seeing her once a week to begin with and now once a month as my apparent normality prevailed.
As time went by, the sessions got easier but I always needed a few moments to feel at ease. It was the same M.O each time. Like then, today Meena greeted me in reception, invited me in to her room with the same warm expressions as always. I accepted the invite, walked into her room and then walked over to the walls to study the artwork. The same artwork that had been there when I first met her. It was like each time I came to meet her, I’d forget about ever seeing the artwork. It intrigued me with a renewed vigour each time I set my eyes on the paintings. Maybe they made me feel at ease? Maybe I needed them?
There were dramatic scenes from the past of people on mountains or in valleys. The painter had caught the inclement weather so well you could almost feel the wind battering the trees and the mountainside. I always found myself lost in the visual for the first five or so minutes of our sessions.
“Henry, if you like the paintings so much, I’ll buy you some copies,” Meena said, interrupting me in the softest way possible. She knew we had things to discuss.
I nodded in her direction and provided a half smile. Walking over to the chair by her desk, I thought about how to start the conversation.
“I bumped into an old flame from school the other day,” my opening gambit.
“Really, who was that?” Meena asked.
Over the last few months I’d been telling Meena about the people I’d met. She was concerned I was spiralling into solitude and actively encouraged me to meet people. To pull down the barriers I’d put up and embrace life again, embrace company. Was I ready for that? I wasn’t sure.
“Emily,” I said. “Her name was… err… is Emily.”
“That’s great Henry,” Meena said. “How do you know here?”
I told Meena how Emily and I had gone to school together, how she was an old girlfriend, how my mum had really liked her, the Sunday lunches, how we’d met at the train station yesterday, how we were catching up again soon. I was so convincing I almost made myself believe that she was real, the Emily I had in my mind.
The way it works with me, there’s almost an on/off switch. When I need them, when I need support or company my brain enters this realm of almost fantasy where I honestly believe these people are real parts of my life. Other times, I can switch them off and I know that they’re real people but their back story is mine, made up, fake. It helps me to move on. It’s part of the process I chose to fix myself. One day maybe I’ll be in the right place mentally to meet someone in reality. For now, I know my sanity is balancing on a precipice similar to the one my life was when I found myself on top of the tall building those many months ago. I’m comfortable with that…for now.
It’s a dangerous game playing with fact and fiction so flippantly. Your mind can take you to some very believable places, sometimes it’s a struggle to come back from them. I always need to retain an element of control. It’s not always easy. Maybe one day I won’t return. That was always the concern, the challenge. But for now, I need it like this.
“So, tell me more about Emily? What’s she like?” Meena asked.
I described what I found in her bag, her bangles and love of travel, her belief system portrayed by the silver cross, the blood red lipstick that showed a slightly wilder side, the side I was drawn to. I recalled a perfume bottle I found, her scent being citrus in part, refreshing, natural. There was also a book…
“She loved to read,” I said.
“What was her style of book? Fact, fiction, romance, thrillers?” Meena continued her line of questioning.
I knew what she was doing. She did this each time I spoke about someone else I’d met. She asked a lot of questions about Tom and Alice. I remember trying to figure out why she was so interested but then I realised she was trying to maintain my interest. She realised how important it was for me to have these connections and she wanted to keep the positive energy flowing so I’d continue to retain those connections.
I needed to continue playing the game, showing enthusiasm, making her believe, keeping my belief.
“She liked what I call proper literature,” I said referring to the book I found in her bag.
“She’s re-reading Oliver Twist.”
Then I thought about it. Then I thought about the book and the story. An orphan, with no one in their life, led by people trying to take them in the wrong direction. Like me, like my parent’s dying, like Charlie and Giuliana leading me astray, playing me for an idiot behind my back. I felt the darkness come down. That familiar sense that I wanted to close up, I wanted to curl into a ball and protect myself. Why was she reading that book, my Emily? Was she mocking me?
“Is everything ok Henry?” Meena asked sensing I was shutting down. She’d seen it before.
I was drifting back into the fantasy realm. I could feel it happening. I had to try and stop it. I had to continue to play the role but not let the role play me. I took a few deep breaths.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“It’s the book isn’t it or rather what it relates to. You see it as your life?” She enquired. She knew me so well, she knew people so well.
I talked about how it made me feel, I needed to get it out there. The appearance of this darkness, these ugly thoughts were a sign that I needed to speak about them. I was losing balance. I told Meena about how the book makes me feel, how it captures starkly the reality of my situation, how it echoes my life in many ways. Meena knew better than to dissuade me. She knew what I needed was assurance not confrontation. Before long, she looked at her watch.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” I said, anticipating what she was about to say.
“Yes, it’s time but we can pull the next catch up forward if you like,” she sensed I needed more support. I sensed it too.
“I think that would be good. Can we meet next week?”
“Sure,” she said. “Make sure you catch up with Emily, maybe give her a call or something. I think it would be good for you.”
“Ok,” I replied knowing full well that would never happen.
I left Meena’s office with an urge to find someone again. The talk of the book had opened up a part of me that I needed to fill. The shopping centre was a five-minute walk away and it was mid-morning. Busy enough not to be noticed but not too busy to create too many obstacles.
Outside the sun was shining and there was a chill in the air. It was like one of those picture-perfect winter days where you wanted to keep yourself busy for a few hours so you could justify sitting in front of the fire watching the world go by when you got home.
It only took a few minutes inside the shopping centre when I saw her. Ok Henry, take it easy, remember the steps, remember the process, be natural. There it was, the calm before the storM, the fatherly advice before the childish act. I could feel it burning inside. I could feel the itch needing to be scratched. I needed this. This was my panacea.
My breathing quickened and my muscles tightened as I considered my next step. She was wondering by the shops heading towards the food court. She was attractive without being overbearing. The kind of person who you’re drawn too but she doesn’t know why and she doesn’t exploit her presence, her beauty. Am I attracted to her? What about Emily? My conscious embroils itself in a wrestling match of two sides. It’s fruitless because I know… my mind is clear enough to realise… no matter which side wins the tussle… I will never know either girl. Not truly.
Long blonde-brown hair nestled gently against her neck teasing but not quite reaching her shoulders. She was casually dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a pink or was it fuchsia jumper, fluffy, comfortable, ideal. Either way, it suited her perfectly and she wore it with such utter abandon as though she felt absolutely content in that moment. A knitted scarf encapsulated her neck causing her hair at the back to jut out slightly. I wanted to know her… I NEEDED to know her. From my position, I would say she had a slightly Scandinavian look… Germanic for sure but maybe just further north to where the days disappeared for half the year and the night sky was kissed by a dance of lights. I imagined what her upbringing was like in a small town in far north Sweden or Norway. How much she was surrounded by nature… enough Henry… focus.
My eyes were instantly drawn to her bags, she had three. Almost a perfect number, enough for one to go missing unnoticed, at least for a brief moment, my brief moment. I just needed to wait, I needed that patience that was always so difficult to find in this situation but I couldn’t risk being caught. I’m not ready to give up discovering people yet. It’s still too soon.
She carried on walking towards the food court. My hope was that she was thirsty or hungry. The food court was a much easier place to get away with a snatch. Actually, she wasn’t walking at all. She had the grace to be able to glide effortlessly to her destination. It was almost poetic to watch her. I’m far too into her. I need to hold off. Part of me things I should run away, find a different target but intrigue formed the better part of common sense. I NEED this.
In that moment…when I’m absolutely focused… my senses are heightened and things become more vivid, louder, smells stronger. I can hear the incessant chatter of other shoppers around me, the whirring buzz of the air conditioning overhead, I can smell the leather of the bag shop, the undeniable aroma of the cookie shop teasing me into wanting. I’m there. I’m in the right place. I’m ready.
She walks into the food court, grabs a coffee and a piece of cake and sits at a table close to the perimeter walkway. It always happened like this. When there were fewer people around, it took a brave and slightly arrogant sole to sit right in the middle. I found that humans were naturally drawn to privacy, safety even. The safety provided by not being exposed, but by being discreet, hidden. She wasn’t arrogant, just as I thought. Now I just needed to wait for her to be comfortable, occupied, carefree, lackadaisical.
I stood by the information board. Nothing to see here, just a guy trying to figure out where the shop was or the bathrooms. This was part of my strategy. Blend in, be normal.
She took her phone out of her bag and started pressing the screen. Perfect, a distraction. It looked like she was reading something. Even better. A phone call would have given her eyes cause to wonder but when the eyes were occupied, it weakened awareness.
It was now. My stomach muscles tightened and my limbs started to feel that impatience of wanting. I began walking towards her table, she was still focused on her screen. Maybe she was reading an article. Even better. An email only kept the attention for brief moment, an article for much longer.
I kept an even pace as I got closer… just a matter of yards now… so close… I focused on the bag, my bag, her life story. I was close now. The bag had reinforced handles so they protruded upwards. It was as if they were calling me. They wanted to acquaint with my hands. I could feel it, I could feel them.
Walking next to her now, I bent my knees slightly and extended my arm and hand downwards. Her eyes were still fixed on the screen as I clasped my fingers around the handle of her bag. I’d already spotted a group of mums with toddlers a few yards beyond my target. Now they were my cover.
I picked the bag up and walked through the crowd. My pace was steady, nothing to see, perfectly normal. From here, my muscle memory took over. I had an exit plan. It avoided the cameras. In a matter of moments, I would be out of the shopping centre. I hadn’t even heard the scream. She was definitely reading an article and I couldn’t wait to get to know her. In one motion, I swung my backpack off my shoulders, the same backpack that secreted Emily’s bag this morning. I quickly deposit the new bag into the vacant space. Was that cheating on Emily? Had I forgotten her so soon?
Something nagged at me. I shook my head to clear my mind. I had what I needed…