I really wanted us to leave before the next winter set in and I wasn’t sure how long that would be. Sophie watched me, confused and apprehensive, as I paced around the room. I’d run out of ideas about how to convince her that something very horrible was going on around us. I was sure that everyone must have witnessed things but had somehow repressed the memory or explained them away, as Ian had. And then I had to ask myself if it was just me and if so, maybe there was something wrong with me. We didn’t seem to be able to talk to each other as easily as before, but I always went with her when she went out so neither of us would be alone. I thought maybe I could defend her somehow if they came for her. Meanwhile, despite her concern I could see she was losing patience with me.
I talked to some of our friends too, Aaron in particular, but he found it hard to take me seriously, or anything for that matter. Gina had disappeared not two nights before but he appeared unconcerned. He assumed she had just fancied a change of scenery. He was cool about it he said. I kept my fears to myself. The image of Gina, tall, elegant, funny Gina who I had grown very fond of over the months, tied up and cut to pieces left me panic-stricken but I couldn’t think of anything I could do. I’d tried taking Sophie and some of the others around, looking in windows, trying to find evidence. I’d tried asking around, to see if anybody else had seen what I’d seen. I got nowhere.
I don’t know what it was broke my spiral of anxiety. One day I was out in an open area with trees and a pond and I realised that even without the horror I couldn’t stay here forever. And I knew maybe Sophie would come with me if I gave her another reason. Maybe some of the others would too. Sometimes we had discussed our next lives, and what she would do next time around. I’d remind her of our date on the Palace Pier in the year 2000 (or on Devil’s Dyke at midnight, or Kensington Gardens for lunch, as the mood took us. We’d need to sort that out. It might actually happen and then we’d look very silly, waiting for each other in different places).
And then there was the question of how to get out. I decided the only way was to pick a direction and stick to it. I thought we should head east, or whatever the place where the sun appeared from was called in this place. I was sure we must come out eventually. We’d got in somehow. Views from the ship toward the end of the voyage had been of mountains and forests and farmland. It must be out there somewhere. I put all this to Sophie one morning in the kitchen after breakfast. She just huffed and shrugged but said she’d give it some thought. Then she stepped out of her knickers, leaving them in a white figure eight on the kitchen floor, and came and sat astride my lap. It was her way of changing the subject, and to be honest I was grateful for the distraction.
I also met James about that time. Sophie and I were at a party a little like the ones I’d been to before we met. We had been laughing at some skinny girls doing their routines in their underwear and the boys, shirtless, trying to look cool, watching them. I recognised James as one of the elusive lodgers from the hostel and I was surprised to find him being quite extrovert, dancing crazily to some raucous hip-hop. When he’d finished he slumped down beside me, flicked his floppy fringe out of his eyes and clinked bottles with me. I was watching Sophie doing her usual thing across the room, working the crowd. Actually I was bored with it all.
‘Hey dude’ he said.
‘Hey’ I said and I prepared myself for the usual half inaudible, half irrelevant twaddle these exchanges normally consisted of.
‘Torture’ he said in my ear. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. I looked at him quizzically.
‘You were asking people about torture. I’ve seen it too.’
‘Several times. I thought I was tripping. Look, can we go somewhere, you know, quieter?’
‘I need to keep an eye on...’ and I pointed to Sophie and he nodded. We stood up and moved to the other end of the room.
‘I don’t want to leave her alone too long’ I shouted.
‘I can imagine’ he said, raising his eyebrows approvingly.
We stood for a time in the window bay, looking around, sipping from our bottles.
‘Anyway...’ he said, looking at the floor. Neither of us knew where to start.
‘Do you think it’s real?’ I say.
‘I thought so at first, when we first got here, I saw something you would not believe...’
My expression says ‘Wanna bet?’
‘Well anyway, nobody seemed much troubled by it, so I just let it go, but it happened a few times after that. I didn’t leave my room for weeks man – just ran down to the bathroom sometimes.’
‘I saw you.’
‘Yeah, well, then nothing happened for a while and I just got into what was going on. I put it out of my mind, you know? But it’s still in there.’ He taps his head with his finger. ‘It’s all still in there.’
‘I want to leave, leave town’ I say, ‘but I don’t want to go on my own.’
He nods, contemplatively, pushing his hair out of his eyes again, taking another swig. Sophie comes over and sits on me as usual. I kiss her affectionately and introduce her. They shake hands lightly.
‘What are you two talking about?’ she asks. I shrug - nothing much, as usual.
‘Didn’t look like nothing much from where I was standing’ she says. She’s been watching me and I’m crap at lying. James looks at his boots.
‘I do know what you’re doing you know’ she says, and abruptly gets up and stomps off. I’ve not seen this before. We never argue normally. I wonder whether to let her go and cool off or to follow her. Then I see she’s heading out to the entrance hall and I’m up in a second, after her.
And she’s gone. I stand in the hallway, I look in toward the stairs, and then run out into the front garden and look up and down the lane. It’s a narrow twitten, and it’s hard to see very far down it. She can’t have gone far – she’s got no shoes on. Hell, she’s got hardly anything on, as usual. I shout frantically up and down the lane, turning in panic circles in the middle of the path. All around are tall houses and rampant undergrowth. I can’t see anything but I am very aware that everything can see me. I look around at all the empty windows and they are like eyes, vacant yet observing, waiting. I am torn between rushing into these places and hunting for her - getting her back before they have a chance to really start on her, and staying where I am and shouting her name because I am so afraid of what they might do to me if I go in alone. I turn around and James is there, looking up and down the way. ‘I can’t see her’ I say, and I think of my beautiful girl and her soft, white body and how badly it would handle being cut and broken.
‘Will you come with me?’ I say to him.
‘Uh uh’ he says. ‘Sorry man. No way.’
I run back into the house and shout at people to come and help me find Sophie, because she’s disappeared into the dark, and I run over and turn off the music and plead with them to help. No one moves. I swivel around and look at their faces – especially the little group of guys she had been talking to only minutes before. I am close to breaking down in frantic tears. I run out again, barging into James on his way in. Then I run back in and half way up the stairs. I’m pretty sure she didn’t go that way. It’s light and there’s plenty of people up there anyway. I go back into the lounge. They’re all looking at me. I remember an episode back in Brighton like this when I had one of my minor freak-outs, everyone looking at me, embarrassed, a little fearful, somewhat pissed off. But no, it’s not like that here. They’re not embarrassed and angry, they’re scared and worried. They all know. They all know but they won’t do anything. I stand in the space that’s been made for me and they slowly turn and go back to their conversations and try to shut it out again. The music resumes quietly, respectfully.
I turn and look at James again. He shrugs. ‘Sorry man’ he says again. I walk outside again. He comes with me.
‘Just walk up and down with me will you?’ I say. ‘We don’t have to go in the houses. I don’t think I can anyway.’ I’m not proud of myself for this. Otherwise I’d do anything for her, I swear.
Another figure emerges from the house. A young lad, calls himself Liam. ‘Can I help?’ he says. A girl trails out after him.
Strength in numbers, we go up and down the lane, looking over fences, into gardens, calling her name. A couple of other people join us for a time, then Liam’s girl wants to go indoors. She's cold she says.
‘Do you think you'll be here in the morning?’ I say to him.
‘Probably’ he says, looking around. Where else would he be? His girl stands with her arms folded by the gate. She lurches toward the entrance and stumbles up the steps. Liam moves to follow but I catch his arm.
‘We can talk then’ I say.
‘Ok, I suppose...’ He heads in after her.
A cold dawn rises and there are five of us hunched on the steps by the front door, dozing or watching for movement. Someone’s brought out some cushions and blankets.
‘People disappear all the time man’ says James, trying to be comforting. It’s not.
‘Exactly’ I say, ‘that’s exactly my point. People do disappear all the time.’
‘You disappeared’ says another one I recognise from the hostel, one of the quiet girls from upstairs.
‘I didn’t’ I say defensively.
‘You did as far as we were concerned bro’ says James, and he actually sounds hurt about it. He’s got a huge mug of black coffee in his hands. I want to know where he got it from. I go in to look. They may be right about the disappearances, but then, maybe whoever these horrors are, maybe they rely on the fact that people come and go all the time here and no one pays much attention. I find the kitchen and the coffee machine and stew up a fresh batch. As I’m heading out into the hall again I see Sophie coming down the stairs followed by a dishevelled and confused looking boy, trying to work out which way his sweater goes on. I look at her, relieved and crushed at the same time. She looks guiltily at me from beneath her fringe. ‘Bye Gareth’ she mumbles as he passes disappearing out the door. ‘Nothing happened’ she says irritably to me, and slides past me into the kitchen, avoiding any sort of contact.
I tell the others not to worry about Sophie. She’s turned up, and they all give me the ‘I told you so’ look and make their goodbyes. I make another coffee and sit with Sophie in the lounge. We sit as close as we can, but it is not cosy. It is terribly cold.
‘Do you trust me?’ I say. She looks warily at me. ‘It’s not a trick question.’
She sits silently for very long time.
‘You think I’m mad don’t you’ I say.
‘Nobody’s mad here’ she says, still very cross. ‘It’s not possible to be mad, apparently’
‘Ok, gravely mistaken then.’
‘I don’t know’ she says at last, shaking her head. ‘Can we go home now?’ and I am relieved to say yes. I hunt around for her flip-flops and we get up to go. She looks so weak and sorry and I hold her all the way. At one point she makes a grab for my penis up the leg of my shorts, attempting to be playful but I can’t and she pulls away and walks on her own.
‘Now you don’t even want me any more’ she says, pretending to be a little girl sulking.
‘I’m just so tired babe’ I say.
‘It’s not possible to be tired here either, at least not physically’ she says and I know she’s just being pedantic to wind me up.
‘Ok, perhaps I'm not physically tired, but I have been up all night worrying about you.’
‘I never asked you to do that. You sound exactly like my mother.’
‘Look, I know you don’t think there’s anything to be scared of but I do, and I believe I have good reason. Can’t you at least respect that?’
‘Not if it means you thinking you can tell me what to do’she says, really angry now, striding ahead.
‘Oh look, I’m not your bloody mother. And I don’t think I’m mistaken. You can’t know what it was like, imagining your body, what they do to it. I couldn’t stand it. I was terrified for you. Ask the others. I was a mess.’
‘I heard you’ she says.
‘So why the hell didn’t you...?’
‘I didn’t feel like it. Why the hell should I?’
I want to say ‘Because we’re together’ or ‘Because we’re in love’ or maybe ‘Because I want to spend all eternity with you’ but perhaps the truth is I’ve done it again - gone completely silly over a woman who just wants to have fun. Anyway, we walk in silence the rest of the way. She appears to take a casual interest in a flower, a cat, some wind chimes. I can’t take my mind off the argument. When we get back she goes through for a shower and I take my clothes off and lie on the bed. Now I want sex. I just want us to be together, at least physically.
She takes longer than I expect and so I go down to the kitchen to see if there’s some wine in the fridge. One of the other girls is down there and observes my de-tumescence coolly. I just don’t care any more. Half the town has seen me naked by now anyhow.
When she comes in I am sitting in a wicker chair by the window with a glass. She has her kimono on, a diaphanous purple silk thing.
‘Have I been a bad girl?’ she says in a small voice. Normally this would be the trigger for some soft and silly S&M games but today I take it as an apology. Anyway I never felt entirely comfortable with my role as authority figure (and never found it sexy to be in the submissive role). I think one has to have at least a trace of misogyny to really get off on it, and I’ve been glad to discover I don’t. I like her too much. Normally I go along with it though, and her response can be very exciting, but today I just can’t. Today I just want to... I suppose ‘make love’ is the phrase I’m looking for.
‘Come here’ I say, holding out my arms and she comes and curls up against me and I kiss the top of her head and we spend the day there, reading, watching old movies, eating fruit and eventually, carefully, tenderly, making love. It’s going to be our last time together. I think we both knew that, even as we were doing it.