This month, I’ve tried to channel Ian McEwan in my own short story, inspired by his work. I hope you enjoy the result.
In my head, you and I are lovers…
There is dust on the picture frame: light dusting of decay, inescapable march of time unhindered. Her smile however remains incandescent, eyes dancing in the pose, all smiles that are about to explode into laughter. This moment was the best, before things began to sour. She didn’t realise the truth, and because of that there was no judgement or condemnation. Instead, this body was light, brilliant and willing to be captured.
Eventually, everything comes to an end. Secondary school biology taught the theory, but only when his father died did the young man grasp the inescapable march of time. There is no way to bring people back: however, you can remember them. The faded photograph of him and dad next to hers is stark contrast: no colour, just memories of that past now long gone. However, this woman would always be bright, spirited: modern photographic techniques means the digital picture is the same vibrancy regardless of light and days.
For her, it was more than that. She hadn’t left him. Somewhere in Central London, this woman remained.
He would find her, and get her back.
The coffee shop’s central heating does nothing to take the edge of a cold, winter day, and Lucy Brandon’s headache isn’t shifting. Rummaging in her handbag for paracetamol, there is too much else on her mind. The elderly couple by the window are about to move, and that’s the seat that’s really needed so that the view down to the High Court is clear and unobstructed. She’d promised Alice to be here for as long as she needed after the verdict, and that was what was going to happen.
The couple have left their copy of the Daily Mail on the table: Lucy’s nausea reappears from a hurried breakfast. On front page is a picture of the man who Alice has stood up in court opposite for the last two days: Andrew Gresham. Serial internet pest, online stalker, professional intimidator. Sitting down, the contents of her opened handbag spill onto the table: half-drunk coffee remains on the table by the toilets, and she is a mess.
A lovely woman brings the cup over and offers to help tidy up, but Lucy doesn’t need support, simply a chance to regroup and swallow painkillers. If this is the acuteness of anxiety felt just by association, how must Alice be right now? This case has become consumingly high profile: countless cameramen and film crews setting up down the road are testament to the interest this judgement has on a wider stage. After all, everybody’s had a problem with somebody like this in their lives. Only now has the Internet allowed pests the opportunity to target countless women with seeming anonymity.
Her mobile lights up, Mum’s picture instant reassurance, and handbag rearrangement can wait.
‘Hello? Are you at Court yet?’
‘Yes I’m here, they’re not done yet.’
‘They said they’d deliver the verdict at 9.30: it’s 9.45 now, have you seen her?’
‘Not yet, there’s a lot of TV outside, I’ll know when someone comes out.’
‘I’m so pleased you decided to move back home Lu, I was worried having you out there on your own with lunatics like this on the prowl.’
‘Mum, he’s not a lunatic, he’s an idiot. He’s an idiot who thought he could get away with hassling a few women online without consequences.’
These aren’t her words, but Alice’s: braver than she could ever be, able to stand up and be counted. If this had been Lucy in the dock she would have folded, crumpled under the pressure of exposure to all these disparate factors. Of the twins, there was undoubtedly a dominant personality.
‘Your sister will appreciate having you at home too. She may not have said as much, but I know what’s the case. Thank you for doing this for us both.’
There’s movement, suddenly: scramble of people by the Court entrance. Lucy’s about to tell her mother to stop talking but time seems to be slowing, oddly detached in her head, as if the drugs taken aren’t paracetamol but some kind of hallucinogenic. At the entrance to the large, stone building there’s some kind of struggle going on: a flash of bright light that could be a camera, pop that might be a car backfiring and then chaos explodes. A man is running towards her, like his life depends on escaping, and her next move is on instinct.
Turning on the phone’s camera his approach is recorded: there’s no acknowledgement from him of the action, blind determination in the sprint away. She can hear her mother desperate for a response, call still active, but instead all that matters is the body of the young woman lying on the pavement of the east London street, blood slowly running off into the gutter.
From this distance, the twin has no idea if it is her sister or not.
This wall is full of newspaper cuttings: not haphazardly placed as some lesser beings might manage but organised, categorised by date and subject. He’s even managed to group by publication: no mean feat considering the number of column inches the gutter press have devoted to his case. Of course, up until yesterday nobody grasped the mistake that had been made, that the Metropolitan police in all their infinite wisdom had arrested the wrong man. He’d left clues, but as yet nobody could work out their meaning.
They’d arrested a patsy, discussed to death on TV talk shows and radio programmes, who looked like he was most likely to offend. It wasn’t unusual: even the police were swayed by the vanities of modern life. If he looks shabby, smells like he hasn’t bathed in a week, is overweight… yeah, he’s a stalker. This man’s misdemeanours, if the quality press were to be believed, were still considerable, but he’d not killed anyone. There’d just been a passing threat or two, nothing truly serious.
He’d been at court to photograph her sister, proving without doubt he could tell the two apart… and then some moron had pulled a gun on one of the other idiot’s victims. Some jealous lover or imbecile trying to protect his own sorry crimes. Running away on instinct, only now did he realise the stupidity of his mistake. Some girl in a coffee shop had captured it on video, an opportunist with a mobile phone, thinking he was the shooter. Sometimes the unexpected was just that, and now nothing could be done to salvage the situation.
The audacity of his ability should be everywhere, TV filled with professional crime. Not this fat, stupid idiot but the calculated, brilliant operator who’d killed dozens across a decade and continued to evade capture. There was clearly no justice in the world.
From the corner of his eye, staring at the top–of -the–range gaming computer, there’s a flash of momentary recognition.
Her sister is awake.
Lucy’s hand grasps, pale hands the same colour as the hospital linen. Alice is alive, sitting at her side, wide smile all that is needed to allay fear. Then she stands up, coming over to hug, solid reassurance from the woman who wasn’t afraid of anything.
‘You gave us quite a shock, you know. Doctors aren’t sure yet, but they think you might have pneumonia, Mum’s looking at the X rays with them now.’
‘I thought… I thought it was you he shot. I thought it was you.’
‘I was inside the lobby when I heard it, thanking my barrister for the thoroughness of her work. It’s easy to see why you might think that at a distance, we looked a lot alike. I was more worried about you though, I’ll be honest, Mum called 999 as soon as you stopped answering her. She’s been thinking you’ve looked unwell for a while… and she was right. Staff found you passed out on the floor: I came here in the ambulance.’
There is something going on outside the curtain that passes for makeshift privacy wherever it is Lucy is lying, and a nurse appears through the gap, with a look of some irritation.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt you but I have a police inspector who’d like to quickly talk to you about the video you took: would that be okay?’
Something is bothering Lucy, at the back of her brain, itch the same as it was when she’d started watching the man, running away. This was not a random stranger she’d managed to capture on her camera phone, anything but. Memory appears, unprompted: the last week of finals, in the bar in Oxford. The quiet guy in her Economics class who’d managed a First class with Honours even before they knew final dissertation results. The loner whose dad had died a year earlier.
The idiot who couldn’t tell her and her sister apart.
Lucy might not possess Alice’s strength, but she knew when she was being stalked. That night, she’d told him in no uncertain terms: there is nothing you can do to impress me. I don’t care what you do, or how clever or organised you are, I am not interested in a relationship. You will never have me, not now or at any point in the future. Go die in a fire.
The female policeman stands with a picture in her hand, graduation photo she remembers being taken. He’d stared at her the entire ceremony, and she’d gone up to him again at the end and told him again. I’m not interested. Leave me alone.
‘Christian Hardwick. I was at college with him. Did he shoot that woman?’
‘That’s what we need to talk about. We’ve been looking for him for some time now.’
Lucy suddenly feels the desire to vomit.
Christian stares at Lucy’s picture with sadness: eventually, all things must come to an end. He’d wanted to kill her the first time he’d seen her: she would have been number three in his series, but was the only woman who ever saw through the veneer, and as a result gained a reprieve. It is ironic therefore that had he killed her then, she would not have been alive to capture his image on video. Now all the careful planning and organisation has been for nothing. She has ruined his final act, the means by which a brilliant run of terror would have been exposed to the World.
The flames begin to consume her digital picture: dad and he have vanished, ash circulating around the ceiling, black marks on perfectly plastered walls that are beginning to blacken and peel. When it became apparent his crime was no longer his own but had been taken by the most brutal of circumstances, it was time to grasp Lucy’s words to heart. She had been the one who had told him to kill himself, all those years ago, and so he will. Nobody will get closure, pain on his actions all the more brutal and raw.
The biggest casualty, in the end, will not be him but her. Photographic memory, incandescent smile. She will remember what was said, and her guilt will be enough.
By exposing him, Lucy condemned herself.
The food on the hospital tray remains uneaten, and she stares into the middle distance, suddenly aware that all eyes in the ward are upon her. At the nurses’ station the staff are in furious conference: they’re already talking about moving her to a private room, that her health is fragile enough without being affected by something this traumatic. She stopped looking at the communal TV five minutes ago, but the female commentator is still discussing the discovery, morbid fascination in detail.
The upper class assassin, they’re calling him. No indicator until now that he’d murdered countless women and men, no sense of the certifiable individual he’d become. The secret room in his Chelsea flat that had been revealed after he killed himself, and several other people. The fire escapes he’d sealed to make sure nobody got out. The care he’d gone to document every murder… oh and the pictures. On one wall of the room, portraits of his victims, and one of a woman police had yet to formally identify.
Lucy’s image is everywhere.