by Chris Castle
He let go of his mother’s hands as he stood up. He pushed some overhanging flowers back into their vase. The nurse came into the room, said his name, smiled. He nodded to her, tried to smile. He watched her as she unhooked the chart from the end of the bed and began to read it. He said goodnight and walked out of the room, out into the hallway and the too-strong fluorescent lights.
He walked out into the canteen, sipped a coffee. The doctor said it would be a matter of days now, rather than weeks. He looked out of the window, saw three ambulances lined up outside the entrance. Strange to see them still, quiet. There were people to call, arrangements to be made. Tomorrow. He would start all this tomorrow. The aunts, the uncles, the work friends. He drained his drink, walked over to the phone box and booked a taxi.
Halfway to his house he suddenly asked the driver to stop. He began to walk down the high street; the shops in darkness, the bars and restaurants lit. He stopped at one place and rang the buzzer for the second floor, the name tag blank, the building bare. A woman’s voice answered and he was buzzed in a few moments later.
He climbed the stairs, stepped into the foyer. A woman stood by, dressed in a short skirt, a vest top. She smiled, invited him in. Three other women sat on a couch nearby, dressed in negligees, see-through dresses. The woman took him by the elbow, led him to a table. She held out a price list that looked for all the world like a menu and asked him what he would like. He pulled out a roll of notes, confirmed he would like a room for one hour. Agreed to coffee, took his change.
It was left for him to pick the girl, from the couch or further down, in another room. He nodded to one girl, the one closest to the doorway and she smiled, took his hand, and led him down the corridor. He heard noises, heard furniture crash behind closed doors, but he focused on her hand, leading him, blocking out everything else.
They stepped into the room, closed it behind them, though it was not locked. She let go of his hand, went and sat at the end of the bed. He sat on the chair facing the bed and looked at her. She began to pull the strap of her negligee down on one side, then the other. She smiled at him as she did, her mouth closed, trying to be seductive. She held his eye the whole time, as if daring him to look down, away. As she began to let it fall, he raised his hand and she stopped, waiting expectantly, her smile frozen in place.
“You don’t have to take that off,” he said. He heard his voice in the room, echoing. It had been so long since he’d spoken in anything other than a whisper, he barely recognised his own voice.
“For what you paid, you can do whatever you want,” she said. Her voice was light and immediately made her younger. He looked at her, holding the straps to her chest, waiting to be told what to do next.
“What is it they make you do? The other men.” He saw her raise an eyebrow, making his question into a joke. “I mean apart from that. Do they do anything... bad to you? Anything that is... wrong?”
“Nothing I haven’t done before.” She let her smile fall. “What is it you want to do to me? You’re shy. I like shy guys. ” She smiled again, this time showing her teeth. Slowly she edged forward, putting her hands onto his knees. She slid towards him. She was smooth when she did it, like she was on water. He put his hands down on hers before she could move any closer.
“I want you to sit on the bed, as you were. Please. Just as you were.” He moved in his chair, watched her walk back. She put her hands on either side of the bed and then tilted back, waiting for him to do whatever it was he wanted.
“I’ve just come from the hospital. My mother... my mother is going to die soon. This time next week she’ll be gone. All she was, all she’ll ever be, will disappear. Whatever she wanted to do, whatever was left for her, is over. She won’t even make it out of her bed now.”
He put his fingers to his eyes, pinched them together. He did it so tight when he opened them he saw stars for a long second, so it looked like she was wrapped in static, in some unreachable place. He steadied himself, looked at her again until she returned to focus.
“That must be hard for you,” she said. She still looked at him, held his eye. Her voice was different, a little stronger. He wondered how many people she had to be in one night in this room.
“You don’t have to... I know you don’t care, not really. You might understand, you might not. I don’t know you. I just want to... Do you work out of the same room each time, or do you have different...” his voice trailed away.
“The same, normally. I like this room. I like hearing the traffic.” There was a small window in the corner, the glass open a little. “Unless you want me to close it.”
“No, it’s fine, really.” He put his hand up, and watched her slip back down. “I like that too. Listening to the cars move by. Like a radio station or something.” He looked up briefly. “See the thing is, I go there, to the hospital. And I sit there and wait. I wait to be let in, to be able to get to her room, for coffee, I wait for everything. I understand that. Why I have to wait. And I wait for her to come round, to be lucid enough to understand what’s happening.
“And she thinks I’m someone else. I had a twin, you see? An identical twin. And he died. He died three years ago. And so now... I have to be someone who’s dead for someone who’s dying.” He put his head to his hands, ran his fingers through his hair. “Was there coffee? I asked for coffee when I came in. Before I met you.”
“I’ll go get it, if that’s okay?” She waited until he nodded and then she walked past him.
He sat, not moving, listening to the traffic, hearing the sirens, the horns, people calling out, cheering, screaming. He wondered how many others had been through here tonight, this week. How much skin and dust was settled all around him now, settling on his clothes, his shoes. The door clicked open and he turned. She walked back in, put the cup by his chair on the desk. She made her way past him, sat in the same spot, laid her arms down in the same fashion — identical.
“Thank you,” he said, nodding as he lifted the cup. “Are you not having any?” He looked up. She shook her head.
“Coffee breath,” she said, and smiled a little. He thought that was how she would actually smile, away from all this. “Your mother...”
“Yeah. So I have to be him, when she says his name. I have to say what I’m doing, who I’m seeing... and you know what the saddest part of it is? I say stuff that I want; the perfect job, the girl I knew. I pretend with my own dreams. And it makes me happy, you know that? I lie and pretend and I almost feel it. I almost believe in it. I mean you must understand this, right? All the pretending you do... all the acting... do you understand what I’m saying to you?” He heard his voice tighten, and then unravel. He sipped his coffee again, waiting to regain control of himself.
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer any of that. It’s none of my business. Your reasons are you own. My twin, he used to say that about people. I used to get mad at him about it, say it was a cop-out, but I think he was right all along. I don’t know.” He shrugged, finished his drink. A door slammed, making them both jump. There was a brief shout then footsteps, then nothing. They listened to it together, both looking away and following the commotion, then coming back to each other.
“Guess you get trouble sometimes, huh?” he said, putting his cup down, putting his hands on his knees, leaning forward a little.
“Sometimes. Not as often as people think,” she said and shrugged. “What was your brother’s name?”
“Leo. His name was Leo. Sometimes... sometimes I say that’s my name. When I meet people, in cafes or places. I imagine I’m him. Never did when he was here, but now... It’s like we can be together sometimes. I can answer with what I think he would say. I think that keeps him here... existing. To my mother. To me.” He looked up, saw she was following him. She nodded, didn’t speak.
“He was always the escapist. That’s what our mum used to call him. He’d always come up with schemes and plans and ideas. If you’d met him, he would have said something, maybe just one small thing, that would have stuck in your mind after he’d left. There would have been something. He just had something about him. And I guess she was right, seeing what’s happening now. He’s still here, finding a way out, even after everything. He’s still escaping. I wish he’d taught me that. How to escape and still be around. Escape standing still; that was his best trick.
“I tried to remember him. Got his name tattooed on my arm. Shaved too close and tried to nick a few of the scars he carried on his cheek, but I healed at a different pace, so they’d never look the same. Sometimes I’d sit in a bath full of scalding hot water, try to burn away some of my skin, so there’d be less layers, less of me, and then put on his clothes still dripping, try to get some of him into me. I know it sounds strange.... is strange, stupid, even, but I just wanted to believe something would work and keep us close. And now, after my mum goes... there’s going to be no-one to find him anymore. And then he’ll be lost, just like her.”
He stopped talking. He felt his throat go dry. There was no sound of traffic outside the window, no calls from people in the street. His eyes were closed even though he didn’t remember shutting them. And all he could hear was the sound of her arms shuffling from side to side on the bed. And he cleared his throat and didn’t open his eyes, not being himself, or Leo. Instead he was just the darkness.
“I came here because... I don’t have anyone to talk to. I don’t have anyone... It’s okay... I don’t mind, but it’s true all the same. And that time... at the start when we walked down the corridor to here. When you held my hand. That... felt good. Can I sit there with you and hold your hand again?” He forced his eyes open, made himself come back. Made himself look at her as he spoke.
“Yes you can do that,” was all she said. She didn’t smile then, didn’t put up a front. She simply nodded.
So he rose, sat next to her on the bed. It was firm and comfortable. He brushed against her shoulder and let her take his hand. He took in her perfume. It was too strong, but that was okay. And they sat together, in the silence until the hour came up and there was a gentle rap on the door. He stood and walked to the door. She asked him his name and he told her. He asked in return and she told him. Neither knew if the other was lying but they both smiled and said goodnight as two people should.
Then he stepped out, closing the door after him, past the women, the waiting men and out into the street. He walked out under the stars, not knowing the time, not waiting for the morning, just walking and waiting, feeling the sting of her hand in his, the stars and the moon, until at last he escaped.
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Castle