In The Shadows

You always mocked them. The suited up men, in patent leather shoes with points like arrow heads. Their manicured hands clasped around the gold handles of briefcases as narrow as their imaginations. They dropped their Mercedes off at the Park and Rides, then sat opposite you on the subway, pretending to read the news, or check their phones, some of them wedged in conversations littered with lots of barefaced laughs. ‘Pretending to have job satisfaction and actual lives,’ you commented with a snicker.

Yet look at you now, Daniel.

Sara’s Christmas list for Elouise is longer than my ‘to do’ list. She’s clearly overestimated the salary increase I got with that minor promotion. She doesn’t understand money ‘cause she’s never had to: it’s always been disposable to her. She’s also clearly forgotten it is Elouise’s first Christmas. The kid won’t even remember the day or the presents and what the fuck does she need with a life size baby doll? Elouise is a baby. Maybe I’m just a scrooge.  

It was near Christmas— 19th of December— almost ten years ago now, when it happened. The flickering lights and sharp glint of the bobbles on the tree. The scented candles and the way the tinsel is flames or mirrors, depending on what angle of your mind it catches. Everything reminds me of that day.

You let yourself dream through English and Maths— you were a brilliant musician, so what did it matter? But everything comes down to luck and you didn’t have any. No, you know that is not true. Back then, your self-belief made you, frighteningly, capable of anything. You were the best guitarist in the whole school, because you worked so hard to be. Break times, lunch times and evenings were spend with your beloved Gibson Les Paul. You looked the part of course: skinny jeans, bracelets, floral tops and shirts; long, unruly curls, whose colour depended on your mood; black eyeliner which took countless demonstrations and practise for you to get just right. But hey, everyone liked you because you were so yourself. You didn’t care what they thought— did you? Daniel?

Grace was in the year below me at school, but I never noticed her, until the day she stumbled into my lunchtime guitar practise. She was embarrassed: the skin beneath her freckles burned. She stammered something about looking for the music teacher. She left, and later I searched for her. Of course she was pretty, with her long, golden waves and bright grey/green eyes— like my cats. However, really, it was the movement of her face that got me. The way her head tilted to the left and those eyes rested on me, even before I’d looked up from my guitar. How they stayed in place when they met mine, and conspired with her lips into a smile. It’s beyond simply seeing what’s in front of you— it’s about being interested and caring about it. No-one’s ever looked at me like that since. At sixteen, I didn’t get what love was, but I do now— and I love Grace.

Your uni application had to be completed by January 15th. You managed-just-and all the while the ghosts of your own words tormented you:

‘Only sad-acts apply for Uni ‘cause they don’t know what else to do with their lives.

They’ve no free thinking or ambition, so Uni gives them the illusion of purpose.’

In the personal statement, you had to list hobbies. Your fingers wavered hesitantly over the keys which together spelled ‘MUSIC.’ After all, you hadn’t picked up your guitar in almost a month. You have never picked up one since.

You were accepted for Business and Geography. Subjects that were far removed from you, but manageable. You would have applied for Maths or Science had your brain allowed. You insisted on the university furthest away from home, regardless of how dejected your parents felt.

Sara was a friend of a friend you met in halls. Her appearance: immaculate. Her favourite pastime: socializing. She was silver-spoon and university was a way to kill time and please her parents. She was everything in life you hated. Perfect penance.

My pragmatic parents and friends took pleasure in reminding me that, sure I was the best the guitarist in school, but how many schools are there in Scotland alone? I needed a Plan B.

Grace didn’t believe in plan B’s. She said successful people didn’t have them because they were committed to Plan A. She was a talented singer, with a voice like fine glass, delicate but pure. Regardless of whether she was singing or speaking, her body enacted her words. Every movement she made was at once gentle and precise, hurried and effervescent. Whilst happily immersed in the moment, she was always eager to choreograph the next.  I reckon this is what distracted me from the tremors beneath the surface.

I believed her when she told me she’d just eaten, to explain why I never saw food cross her lips. I ignored the coy bones that jabbed me when I hugged her. Her pale arms were decorated with cuts and burns that spread like wild flames. I only stopped believing they were ‘a statement,’ when I learned that they covered her thighs too. Sometimes she’d be absent from school with no explanation, and go days without contact. The rest of the time she suffocated me. My friends thought she was weird and didn’t take to her. It took three failed attempts, and a few shots of vodka for me to finally garner the courage to break up with her and follow it through. As her fragile frame shuddered with grief, I reminded her that she’d said I should never let anything get in the way of my goals.

To have self-belief and ambition, it’s necessary to be at least, a little, self-centred, so I am not surprised you assumed it was all about you. But Daniel, you are serving a life sentence for a crime you did not commit. You can feel my presence in the shadows of everything you do, but you never turn around to look. You fear that I am following you, but actually I am just waiting for you to let me go.  

The 19th of December, 2007. Two and a half months had passed since the break-up. Grace had stopped coming to school and she’d texted or attempted to call me every day. I decided to go and visit her, seen as it was Christmas: good will and all that crap.

I cared about her and wanted to know how she was.

At first, her mum turned me away, demanding, ‘Do you really think that’s a smart idea Daniel, after the hell you’ve put her through?’

I practically begged on my hands and knees. I showed her the little box, I’d tied with a bow. It contained a bracelet I’d handmade for Grace, in her favourite colours, purple and blue. Her mum agreed that I could have ten minutes, if Grace would let me. The hallway was warm and bright. I knew it was Grace who’d arranged the Christmas tree as all the decorations were hand-made. The rail of the staircase was wrapped in silver tinsel and in it, I believed I could see my face smiling back at me. As I moved up the stairs, I could hear Grace singing and it reminded me of how happy we’d been on the days she’d sung along to my guitar. Her voice grew louder as I neared her bedroom door. I knocked but she didn’t respond, just kept on singing, so I knocked again and walked in.

My ears filled with her voice, and, to my surprise, my guitar. She was singing a song we’d recorded together: our song. The disc was running in her CD player on replay, in full volume. Flickering yellow flames caught my attention next. I turned to her bunk bed. She’d lined the rungs of the ladder and the rail of the top bunk with little cinnamon tea lights. I could see her silhouette at the end of the bunk, filling the gap between the two beds. She looked taller than usual, her head reached the top of the railing on the upper bunk. It was like she was just standing there, waiting. But Grace never stood still.
[Claire J. Kennedy]

Image Credit: Nour El-Issa 

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