When people look back on their lives, they have a tendency to stick pins in at key points along the line: little coloured flags that point out the crucial moments. Every moment is crucial, of course – if you remove any single instant, your future falls away from your past – but I’m talking about the moments we choose to view as different. If you do see your life as a line, with points plotted along its course, then it’s far from a straight one, and the truly critical moments are those where the line bends sharply off to one side, continuing at some weird new angle. We mark these points down and remember them, and when we question our current trajectories, it’s these points that we use to explain them. Tapping the board and saying:
The taxi threaded its way uptown, easing along amidst the rest of the traffic. I still had Walter Hughes’ business card between my fingers, and I was turning it over absent-mindedly. The slightly raised eagle crest insignia had worn a rough smoothness to the end of my index finger.
Cause and effect:
I was going to see Walter Hughes because Amy had vanished.
And Amy had vanished because…
Everything about the direction I was heading in was as a result of one moment in time, four and a half years before. I didn’t even know Amy back then. The event in question was one that happened to her, not me, but it sent her line skittling off to one side, like a plane with one engine shot out. She crashed into me, and – for a while – we both enjoyed the freefall, finding it increasingly easy to pretend that we weren’t crashing, just flying in an unusual direction. As we drifted apart, it became obvious that the earth was rushing up to meet us both, but by then it was too late to touch hands again. She was a little ahead of me, but it was still obvious that I was going to hit the same ground that she was, and just as hard. Too late to touch hands; too late to change course and pull each other out of this nosedive. Just too damn, fucking late.
There was a time when I could have pointed us up again. I know there was.
The cabbie coughed.
‘Circle round from the north side?’
He hung a left. I watched the people on the corner as we swung past and then hit the lights a second too late. People were just going about their business, hurrying along. Behind them, in the window of a coffee shop, a businessman was mopping his mouth with a napkin, obscured by streaks of sunlight.
Sometimes, when you look at things just right, you see the world for what it is. Cars look like motorised toys, and human beings look like animals in suits, because that’s all they are.
Across from the businessman, a woman was sipping from a delicate cup, and she looked as fragile and breakable as the glass between us. It was as though I could feel her heart beating and her pulse was as weak as china.
The lights changed to green and the taxi lurched off. Heading up onto the north loop out of the city centre, towards where Walter Hughes was going to provide me with some answers about the text that Graham had found, whether he wanted to or not.
Suddenly, Amy was resting on one elbow. She didn’t so much climb on top of me as just slide over, using her right hand to hold up her breasts from the side and rest them on my chest as she moved above me. I felt their soft, pleasant weight. Her leg slid over, and she was suddenly on top of me, pressed down tight. Her face came down to mine with a smile, and she stared at me, right in the eyes, so close that it fucked with my vision.
‘Is that what you’d say?’
My breath caught slightly, and I was suddenly unable to speak. I could feel myself growing hard.
‘Jesus.’ I touched her back carefully, as though it might shock me. ‘What did I do?’
She grinned, and then kissed my neck gently.
‘What makes you think you have to have done anything?’
‘I just… probably… don’t deserve this.’
She was making her way down my body, kissing as she went. Her breasts brushed against my stomach, then over my cock, then lower. Finally, I felt the pressure of them resting on my thighs. Her breath on the end of my cock.
She took it in her hand and her mouth moved down over the tip: warm and wet. Her hair softly cascaded over the tops of my thighs.
‘Mmmm. That feels good.’
‘Tastes good,’ she said, and then put her whole mouth around it. Her tongue slid over my cock as she moved her head slowly up and down. Her free hand flicked her hair over to one side of her head, out of the way. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
‘You like that?’ she asked after a minute.
‘You know I like that.’
‘Good. I like doing things that you like. Now.’ She moved back up my body, one arm leaning on the bed beside me while the other reached down between her legs and held me. ‘Let’s do something that we both like.’
She moved my cock to the entrance of her vagina and settled down slowly onto it. She was slightly too dry. I rubbed my hands gently up and down her back, kissed her throat.
‘Go slowly,’ she told me, ‘to begin with.’
We started to make love, moving ever so carefully at first: kissing each other almost casually. I traced my fingertips along her side, over her buttocks, back up to touch her face. We smiled at each other. As she grew wetter, we sped up a little. The sex became more aggressive; my touch, slightly harder. The kisses got deeper and more intense. I lifted up my hips to meet her; she sat up slightly and leaned against the wall behind my head, bracing herself; I brought my hands round to touch her breasts, and then lifted my head up to kiss them. The pitch of her breathing changed as I licked slowly around her nipples.
I sat right up. She pushed away from the wall and put her arms round me, kissing me, rocking slowly to a stand-still until she was just sitting astride me, on me. The kiss broke apart into an exchange of hot breath. I reached up and brushed a strand of sweaty hair away from her forehead. Hooked it back behind her ears.
‘Swap,’ Amy said, staring into my eyes.
She slid carefully off and lay down on her back beside me. I rolled over as soon as I could, not wanting to get lost in a tangle of legs, and then clambered onto her as she spread her legs wide for me. I sucked her nipples for a little while, allowing the head of my cock to rest just inside her. The insides of her thighs gripped me, almost tried to pull me in. I moved from one nipple to the other. She ran her fingers through my hair.
I slid into her, moving up to kiss her throat, and she clenched up underneath me, crying out, holding on to my back with tight little hands. We started to rock back and forth. I kissed at her jawline. She rested her calves over the backs of my own.
We made love like this for a while, gradually relaxing into a more circular motion, bringing our groins into pleasurably bruising contact with every thrust. I reached underneath her and pulled her tight against me while her hands explored my back. I moved myself higher up the bed a little to bring the shaft of my cock hard against her. Used my right hand to gently touch her face, and told her that I loved her.
I was ready to come, but holding back until she was there with me. It didn’t seem like it would take long: we hit a perfect rhythm, where every thrust was bringing her closer to the edge. She’d tensed up a little more, and her quiet cries were growing more eager. This was getting serious.
And then suddenly, it really was. She stiffened up against me in a way that felt entirely wrong: frozen in a fighting position.
Her hands started patting my back in panic.
‘Oh, stop, stop. Please can we stop? I want to stop.’
I stopped immediately. My body objected strongly.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘It’s okay.’
‘No, no. Please can we stop? Please? I’m sorry. I really need for us to stop.’
She was starting to cry.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘We have stopped. Come on. Shhh.’
I slid out of her as carefully as I could and clambered back to my side of the bed, rubbing sweat off my face and then adjusting my cock. Her hands went to her face and her body started shaking. She had rolled over on her side, facing away from me. Her naked back was shuddering gently.
I felt strange: still turned on; frustrated; hurt; apologetic.
The only thing I could really do was move closer to her and put my arm around her. She was shaking uncontrollably. I pressed up against her back and tried to hold her, but it was difficult to find somewhere non-sexual to place my hand, and I had to lean back from her slightly to keep my cock away.
I said, ‘Shhh. It’s okay.’
I said, ‘It’s okay. Shhh.’
She was gripping my hand ever so tightly. It was the only indication I had that she didn’t want me to leave her alone.
I kissed the back of her shoulder gently and told her it was okay.
After a while, she stopped shaking and I could just hear her crying quietly. I gave her body a quick hug. She clenched my hand a little harder in a couple of communicative pulses.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘Here – blow your nose.’ I untangled myself from her and pulled a few sheets of paper off the toilet roll we kept by the bed. She rolled onto her back and took it from me. ‘And you’ve got nothing to be sorry about.’
‘Yes, I have. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be stupid.’
She blew her nose loudly in reply.
I said, ‘Well in that case: I’m sorry, too.’
She dabbed at her nose. ‘Why are you sorry?’
‘Because I did something wrong.’
‘Can I have some more toilet paper? Thanks.’ She blew her nose again. ‘You didn’t do anything wrong.’
‘I must have done something wrong.’
‘It’s not anything that you did. Don’t say that.’
‘All right, then, it’s not my fault. But I still did something.’
‘You didn’t. Please don’t say that. I don’t know why it happened.’
She started crying again, and hit her leg in frustration.
‘Don’t,’ I said.
‘It hasn’t happened for so long.’
‘I thought I was getting better.’
It was dumb, but it felt like I needed to say it a thousand times. ‘I’m sorry.’
I just couldn’t help saying it, and so instead I didn’t say anything.
I had far too many hormones whizzing around my body, looking for somewhere to land, and I didn’t trust myself not to get angry. My cock was still hard and I’d been only seconds away from coming; it was as though I’d been slapped awake. I needed time to adjust, but I could tell that it wasn’t going to work. The world was receding to the size of a pinhead: to a point where nothing mattered to me anymore; where all I could feel was this awkward, badly arranged sensation of self-hatred, anger and disgust. I could have sat staring into space for hours. I could have pounded myself until I just couldn’t anymore.
And that’s the awful thing: it should have been about Amy and once upon a time it was.
But it wasn’t like that anymore.
And looking back, I don’t know how to feel about how I behaved. It’s easy to judge yourself by Hollywood standards, where a couple of actions dictate your hat colour, but I suppose that life’s not like that. I’d like to think that I was understanding and good ten times out of ten but I wasn’t, mainly because on at least a few occasions it became about me too. There were a couple of times – like this one – when I was too self-centred to do anything for Amy. She had to sit there, propped up on the bed beside me, crying, and handle it all herself.
I hate myself for that. Fair or unfair, I hate myself so badly I wish that cold, hurt, staring version of me could just be dead.
I want to have always been good, not just average and normal. Not just a sometimes-man, like everyone else would have been.
Perhaps that’s the nature of trauma: more like a disease than an actual injury. It eats away at you inside, right in your heart, and anyone you let in there is bound to pick it up themselves eventually. It’s unavoidable. You drop a big enough rock into a lake and it doesn’t matter how wide it is: eventually the banks that hold all that water will feel the vibration as well. And start to erode.
I never did say that to her, of course – I’m not that bad a man – but I think she probably heard it from me all the same. She probably couldn’t help but hear it in the silence between us, which was deafeningly loud. I wish I’d been selfless enough to say something to break that silence and hide that thought every time she could hear it. But I wasn’t. Instead, sometimes, it ended up like this: both of us sitting there, crying for our own reasons, so far apart in so many ways that we might as well have been in different rooms.
There are only two roads in and out of Uptown, but probably a hundred or more ways to actually get there. It’s a strange place. The place was founded about fifty years or so ago, in the northern part of the city, at a time when it was fashionable for offices to let their employees have access to the open space on the roofs of their buildings. The more prestigious companies even started to have their tops turfed and professionally landscaped: sculpted bushes and stereotypically pretty flowers were planted, and the grass was maintained at a very false, but undeniably vibrant, shade of green. You could take your sandwiches up top during your lunch break and catch some sun – and it was one of the few remaining areas of the city where you were actually allowed to smoke. I mean, if you wanted, you could even flick the butts over the edge of the building when you were done. Chances are there’d be nobody important underneath when they touched down.
It was only a matter of time before people had the bright idea of linking up the rooftops. The main points were already there, and it was just a matter of smoothing over the spaces in between. Building firms were drafted in to rig up supporting structures between the buildings, and then enormous, street-spanning platforms were constructed to connect the roofs. These, too, were turfed and tended. The council, unsure exactly how to deal with this, became guilty of letting all this grass grow under their feet, and by the time anybody started to object at the increasingly dark street-level, planning permission had been granted via backhanders to local politicians – which was normal – and large sections in the north of the city were already under cover. The companies with the most money bought roof space on the smaller buildings, extending their empire upside and building elaborate floral logo designs to catch the eye of captive audiences in passing planes. Then the whole thing began to really take off.
Houses. Shops. Whole mini-communities sprang up. Vice-presidents no longer went home for the night, but travelled two floors up and left a bit. Access was immediately restricted, with people once again being forced to smoke secretly in the toilets and grumble about how dark it was outside. They still flicked their butts out of the window, of course, but there were fewer people for them to land on now, and the ones who were still there were even less important than before. And getting paler by the day.
After a while, the council decided that enough was enough. It declared the green land between the rooftops as public property, looped the existing ring road up a few hundred feet, and then negotiated with the various ruling companies to create an effective network of streets and avenues, replete with sponsored signs and traffic police. Begrudgingly, they agreed, and Uptown was born. It became a place for the ridiculously rich to live, and the depressingly fashionable to window-shop and be seen. Underneath the surface – as always – it was a different story.
At the street-level, things were winding down. The air was becoming stuffy and unbreathable. The smaller businesses were either closing down through lack of traffic, or being driven out by the expansion of larger businesses. Disused buildings were boarded up, or cemented into solid pillars. These days, most of Downtown is superficially abandoned – with only the occasional through road, converted into a sealed, amber-lit tunnel, leading to ground-floor access for the richer companies. The rest of it is bricked up and forgotten by the mainstream. Generally, employees access the companies from the roof down. It’s safer.
It’s the same as it’s always been. The companies innovate and rebuild, restructuring a thousand lives along the way, and you’re still left with basically the same as you started with. In this case, everything was just a few hundred feet higher up. There’s talk of renovating the underside and clearing away the debris – turning it back into a proper place to live and work – but there’s always talk. Deep down everybody knows that it’s never going to happen. Because we need somewhere dark underneath it all for the bad things to be swept.
Just a quick point: everything that happens here is happening for a reason.
It’s always like that, of course, but in this case there’s something special going on: everything is happening because of just one thing. If you take every event I tell you about apart, you’ll find genetic code leading all the way back to this single common ancestor. Chop out that ancestor, and you’re talking blank pages. Empty from top to the bottom, from first to last.
And – like I said – what happened had nothing to do with me. Weird the way things turn out, isn’t it? What happened is a story.
Amy knew it off by heart, and sometimes – when I asked her nicely enough – she’d tell me. Why did I ask? Because once upon a time, as the stories say, I thought that each time she told the story she might unlearn it a little. It wasn’t something you really needed to remember, and I thought it might help her to forget. But that’s not what ended up happening.
Don’t bother sitting comfortably, because I never did.
A girl was at a student party, Amy would tell me. This girl had gone there with her best friend, and it had been a spur-of-the-moment, last minute decision to go: she was still debating it on the way there, in fact, as they leap-frogged from their shared house to the off-licence to the party. Her friend really wanted to go and so she’d persuaded the girl that it would be good for her to go, too. The girl figured she wasn’t going to know many people there, and as it turned out she was right, but she was chatty and pretty, and things usually worked out okay. It was a student party, after all: you just need to smile and drink, and then after a while a friend is anybody who’s in the same room as you.
This girl lost her friend at one point, but she thought
His name was Jack, and she fancied him from the moment she set eyes on him. It was reasonably obvious that the feeling was mutual and they got talking, but – although he was flirting with her quite openly – she sensed that he was also holding back a little. The reason became obvious when she met the people he’d come with: four male friends… and his girlfriend.
They chatted for a while, and then Jack told her that they were all going back to a shared flat in their halls of residence, and would she like to come? They were going to drink and hang out: maybe play some guitar, listen to some CDs, and it would be fun, so how about it? The girl was drunk by then, and so she said yes. Like a good little girl, she even managed to find her friend, break her off her conquest’s face and tell her where she was going.
It was a quarter of an hour walk through the cold to get there. Jack walked with her, deliberately holding back way behind his girlfriend so that they were out of sight as they walked. He reached around and put his hand on her ass as they walked, giving it a squeeze. She looked at him and smiled. She wasn’t sure why, but she was drunk and she wanted him, so she gave him that smile and swigged from the wine bottle she was carrying. They arrived at half-past ten.
His girlfriend said,
So Jack’s girlfriend and this guy left the flat on a last-minute booze run. A few other people wanted stuff as well, but had been keeping quiet, and so the pair of them went away with quite a list. As the front door closed, someone flicked on a Pulp CD and everybody collapsed into armchairs and sofas. Except for Jack and the girl.
Her heart was beating quickly with the excitement. Jack led her down the hall to his bedroom, and they fucked quickly and gracelessly on his bed.
They returned to the living room to knowing smirks, a few minutes ahead of the returning booze party. And then it all started to go wrong.
What happened was – after a while – Jack and his girlfriend went off to bed and left the girl with his friends, who were yawning and stretching and talking about heading off to bed. Despite herself, the girl was annoyed. She’d had a lot more to drink in the meantime and wasn’t necessarily thinking straight, but she felt rejected, frustrated and angry. She felt used. Hurt, even. The kind of resentful feeling that’s more directed at yourself than anyone else –
All in all, the evening felt like a bad day at work: nothing much accomplished, but she didn’t want to leave, head home and go to bed, because that felt like defeat. Here everyone was, though: a few of them asleep already; others collecting their coats. It was depressing.
So when this quiet boy – who she’d barely even spoken to all evening – wandered over and told her uncertainly that he had some wine upstairs in his room, and would she like to come up if she wasn’t ready to go home yet?, she thought about it for all of a second, and then said
At that point in the story, there was always a break: a fracture. The way Amy always told it, the girl and the boy sat and drank wine in his room, and talked, and then at one point the boy told her that she was going to have sex with him. The girl laughed and said
She was scared – but not properly. It was too soon to be properly scared and, after all, this wasn’t going to happen.
The boy looked back at her.
Then he stood up and took hold of her arm. She tried to shake off his hand, but she couldn’t even move him. He was half as big as her again, and for the first time she started to appreciate what that fact meant.
Properly scared now:
Afterwards, a sympathetic policewoman would tell this girl that the decision as to whether or not to press charges was entirely hers, but that she needed to be aware of certain things. The first was that both she and this boy had been drunk, and she’d gone back to his flat voluntarily in the early hours of the morning with the intention of getting more drunk. She didn’t know this boy, but she’d already had consensual sex with one of his friends earlier on that evening, and she hadn’t known him either.
She said it like that –
Instead, she gave the address; the policewoman made a note of it.
Without much in the way of emotion, the policewoman told the girl that there was very little chance of Jack’s girlfriend not finding out. She said they’d have to interview everybody who’d been at the party, including the girlfriend. In fact, if they took the boy to court, his lawyer would probably explain to everyone present how the girl had had sex with an attached stranger only two hours earlier. He’d go into detail.
The policewoman had a wedding ring on, but she was sympathetic anyway.
The girl started crying again.
The policewoman remained implacable.
‘And it bothers me that the girl didn’t fight back,’ Amy told me once. She wasn’t looking at me: she was just staring into the distance between her toes, moving them slightly beneath the duvet. We always had these conversations in the middle of the night, with an emergency lamp flicked on to wipe away the nightmares.
She said, ‘I think she should have done, maybe.’
‘I don’t think she should.’
What an impossible question. I just said what I thought might help.
‘I think maybe she should have, though.’ Amy frowned, intent on her main character and her motivations. ‘It could all have turned out very differently. Because she didn’t fight at all. Maybe she could have got away if she did.’
‘You could have got hurt more than you did.’
Amy ignored the slip. To be honest, there were times when I didn’t really need to be there.
‘I mean, she
‘But she didn’t fight him.’
I said, ‘She did the right thing.’
Amy actually looked at me then. Generally, she’d have stopped crying by now, and this occasion was no different.
‘Do you think so?’
‘Absolutely.’ I put my arm around her shoulders. Her body felt soft and fragile. ‘He was a big guy, wasn’t he? He could have hurt her very badly.’
She leaned against me.
‘This girl,’ I repeated, ‘she did the right thing.’
Amy told me that the girl thought long and hard, but in the end she decided not to press charges.
Like all good storytellers, she knew the boy’s name; I asked her, and she told me. And like a good background researcher, I went looking. Do you know how to go looking for somebody? Neither did I back than. It certainly didn’t work out the way it does in the movies, because what I hit – time and time again – was this one fact: the University Halls of Residence were bound by the Data Protection Act. They wouldn’t even confirm whether the boy had ever lived there, never mind where he might have gone when he left.
Amy never knew I went looking. I could never have let her know either, because it would have felt like a betrayal: like I was hijacking her tragedy and trying to turn it into some drama of my own. People need to have ownership over the stories in their past, and it’s wrong to take them and try to make them yours. You don’t have that right. But I did it anyway. And then, with nothing to show for it but a growing sense of my own inadequacy, I stopped.
I threw that sense of inadequacy away, aware that it was an aimless, unfocused thing I shouldn’t keep. Amy did her best to forget, too. I sometimes wondered how she dealt with it; on one occasion I asked her, and this is what she told me:
She said that she’d been doing this ever since she was a child, and that the story of what happened to the girl at the party was just one more thing to pile inside. After a while, she hoped, she wouldn’t know the story off by heart anymore. After a while longer, she wouldn’t know it at all.
And for some time it seemed to be working. When we first met, it was quite common for the narratives of her dreams and the story to dovetail together, and it wasn’t the kind of story that you slept soundly through. I imagined her mind drifting upstairs to this imaginary attic and opening this imaginary trunk: the story would leap out at her and she’d wake herself up screaming. In the middle of the night, there’s no such thing as just a story. There’s no past tense. No third-person.
But there was probably a period of about a year when she stopped having nightmares altogether. The sex became easier: more relaxed. We hardly even thought about it. But it never went away entirely, and when it started to come back again I wasn’t as young as I used to be: not as able or willing to help. I don’t even want to think about some of the things I didn’t do, or some of the right words I didn’t say.
An example. You have a hundred dreams about people dying in your life, but you only remember the one where you woke up to the news that your mother died during the night. Some people base their whole world-view on it. Well, it’s the same with relationships. I don’t remember the thousand and one good nights I had with Amy, only the handful of bad that seem to define everything about us. That’s certainly how it was in the last few months, anyway, when we could barely speak to each other and all she did was surf black websites trying to understand what had happened. Trying to read between the lines.
The worst thing is that she seemed happier before she disappeared: it was a mystery to me back then, but I understand it now. She had her plan. Her investigation.
She seemed happier, and so I never saw it coming.