By David Martin
The cursor blinks steadily, beating out non-human time without mercy. I break its gaze to look out of the grimy first-floor window. Above the parade of shops, the winter sky hardens and darkens with the presence of the snowstorm it’s trying to hide. A metal sheet stamped with the imprint of a cold sun, braced like a bell for the hammer.
I return to the screen. I swallow. It is an effort to type your name, it feels wrong and it looks out of place sitting in the search field. I realise why; I don’t think I’ve ever typed it before, then or since, it’s a remnant from a pre-internet age, strange as that seems. I hit enter.
I deliberately look away, though I’m aware the search engine has reacted in only a fraction of a second and already has results waiting in my peripheral vision. I concentrate on the sky, looking for any rainbow cast to the light up there betraying that darkness as its true self, a dancing chaos of ice crystals. I imagine a storm of ones and zeros plucked from servers across the world vortexing down to my screen. Then I look. And there you are. Almost at the top of the list, right date and place, a simple register of a death, a shocking number of years ago now. The rest of the results are just variations on your names, people bound to you only by coincidence, chattering about their lives on social networks that didn’t exist when you were alive, in a way that didn’t exist when you were alive.
But there’s one out of place. An address listing on the far side of town, near where we used to live. Seems to be recent, but no further details. I wonder what your imposter is like.
Stalking the dead, or the electronic traces of the namesakes of the dead. The ghost of a ghost of a ghost. There must be better ways to waste time.
It’s easy to convince myself that I’m not going to do this, while contriving a chain of coincidences to ensure I do. It’s not like my day has any structure other than the few rules I half-heartedly impose to ensure I at least get out of bed, maintain a basic standard of hygiene and spend a few hours sat at my desk trying to distract myself from the work I’m supposed to be doing to sustain this whole less-than-lavish lifestyle in the flat over the off-license.
I decide I need a walk before the snowstorm hits, or perhaps to better enjoy it when it does hit, either excuse is good, and anyway I should replenish my coffee supplies at a shop I remember exists on the fringe of the district where we used to live, which just happens to be near the address that mysterious search result pointed to. As I walk I’m fully aware that there are many, many closer shops, but at each corner, I convince myself that I’m letting my feet, or chance, dictate which way I turn.
The sky remains steel grey, expectant, but the snow continues to resist the inevitable. The cold deepens, seeps through clothes, I breathe in invisible feathers and needles of ice. It’s been years since I’ve been to this part of town. I catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window. Beneath the nondescript winter coat, I look like I feel, a sack of grey lard slung on a fragile armature of bone. I have no idea why I am doing this.
Beyond the shops, I find myself turning off the main road into the mouth of a cobbled alley that yesterday I wouldn’t even have noticed, waiting between the houses. It emerges into a warren of terraces. And as soon as I step out into that streetscape, I realise.
I know these streets intimately but I’d deliberately forgotten them. All the other places you and I used to go have been scoured clean of their associations by passing time, drained of magic by the everyday; they no longer belong to us. But here, as I set eyes on these roads for the first time in so long, every angle and junction awakens some anaesthetised memory. It’s as though you’re everywhere. Moments of ours rise up from old stone and new brickwork, each accompanied by its silent double, the absence of you. It’s too much. I press onwards, unable to do anything but feel this rush of lost, broken time.
Eventually I regain some idea of my surroundings. I don’t know how much real time has passed but I’m leaving behind the web of close-packed terraces, Victorian factory workers’ homes opening straight on to the street. I’m on a residential road that starts to border an expanse of grass, the houses growing grander, wealthier, deliberately uncurtained to better show off the warm, money-cushioned family life within to any unfortunates passing in the cold evening. Years ago these were all flats and bedsits, slumbering through the last recession.
I’m wondering what became of them all, when something remarkable catches my eye on the far limit of the grass. I stop to try and make sense of it. A pattern has appeared against the sky, regular geometric lines and shapes in the air, traced by moving black dots.
The dots settle briefly then shift into new configurations, they seem both alive and artificial, analogue and digital, constantly exploring some pattern the whole of which can never be seen. A flock of birds, assembling on the telephone wires invisible against the sky. Their restless bodies partially reveal the outlines of the cables, leaping between them like filings drawn to the force lines of magnets, spelling out an ever-shifting code. With a rush, the entire flock rises as one, and passes overhead, the code collapsing into a swirl of noise and wings, whatever message it carried lost on the air.
And then I realise where I am, what happened here years ago.
The last time I saw you alive was an accidental meeting in the town centre. We’d had a brief natter, both on lunch breaks from whatever crap jobs we were killing time in. I remember no profundities, nothing I could later hang significance on. It was one of those conversations people have when they have very little left to say except for the motions that need to be gone through to maintain a connection. The fact was our lives were already heading apart in the usual way. Maybe we would never have seen each other again anyway.
But I do remember a real feeling of dread the night before I got the phone call. Not something I’ve retrospectively imagined. I remember cycling home across town after spending the weekend with a girl I was seeing, and I felt genuinely scared of something, something set all my alarms jangling as I rode back through the airless evening of an oppressive summer day and spent a sleepless night before I got the call in those distant pre-mobile days. And even in the bitter cold of this winter, I can still feel exactly how the sweat ran down my back, soaking my cheap plastic shirt, at the funeral a week or so later. I remember an almost crudely theatrical crack of thunder afterwards as the weather finally broke, my head muzzy from us all hitting the booze and spliffs till late the previous night. I remember your mum, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on her face as she struggled to keep it together, as she tried to thank us all for coming and her voice broke up. And the coffin, I think just seeing the blunt, heavy, awful reality of that thing, that obscenity of polished wood, was when it really hit me in the guts.
And I remember this bit of road is where I saw you again a few days later.
I saw you from a distance, heading towards me on the far side of the street. Your height, your build and clothes. That way you can pick out someone you know or someone you love from a crowd or from a long way off, something about their silhouette or their walk, long before you see a face. You didn’t seem to have noticed me yet, but you were walking purposefully, you knew where you were going.
I remember being drawn across the road to meet you, in a long curve so you could see me coming, I felt gripped by something, not in control of my movements, but not scared. I wanted to see you, to make sure you were ok, say goodbye properly. It wasn’t you of course. Up close they didn’t even look anything like you. But since that moment I’ve never felt like I’d laid you to rest, nor have I wanted to. I suppose you’ve always been with me since, quietly becoming part of me, as I grew around your absence and learned to forget about it, even while it was shaping me in its negative image, shaping me into this creature that cowers in a grubby flat, living this vegetable life. I inhabit a city with a void at its heart; I orbit a cold star.
I turn the corner onto the hill, climbing up through even grander houses with high attic windows, until I can see across the city, the landscape of spires and rooftops opening up. And as I reach the brink, even without looking at the numbers I know which one is the address I saw on the screen.
It stands out shockingly against the regular repeating patterns of the tall brick houses, its roof shattered and open to the sky. Timbers like blackened bones. The top floor windows gape empty, the brickwork stained. It has been gutted by fire, and recently.
I stand outside for a while. The people are gone, whoever they were. The ground floor windows are boarded up. You can still smell the ashes and see the marks on the pavements where the water ran off downhill from the fire hoses.
I only realise it has begun to snow when the first flake strokes my face. It descends in quiet armies, rank after rank against the grey sky, which is now shading into orange as the streetlights come on and the low cloud seems to rest its weight on the city, compressing the light. And then I feel something connecting this moment here and now, to all those others, as though there was something in them that was not visible when I lived them, but only this moment now, standing on top of this hill by this wrecked house in the falling snow, makes them resonate together across time, a circuit connecting itself, a loop closing, a work complete. You’ve led me here, you’re a story that’s sought out its own ending. And now I know those moments were and will always be ours, yet they no longer need us to tend to them. They can never be lost again.
The snow is falling purposefully now, settling fast, doing its silent work of softening edges and muting sounds, as I follow the hill down towards the town, towards home. The cold is bitter, but alive now with falling flakes, its crushing stasis broken. The orange light speaks of warmth, and the snow of a morning to come in a transfigured world.