When I got to the front door and reached for my keys, something had already happened.
I had a vague sense of this, then a firework exploded in a small patch of sky on the corner of our street. We lived near an American Embassy building, its’ white walls garlanded with ribbons of razor wire, and cameras that swivelled like eyeballs as you passed by. Sometimes they followed me along the hot pavement as I walked home from work, like they did that night, their tiny blue lights flashing.
There were whoops and cheers as each firework burst its hidden constellation into the black sky – each bigger, brighter, louder than the one before. It was Independence Day, and they were celebrating. The conversation floated up, unconnected bubbles of sound – light, insignificant – and the laughter seemed exaggerated and hollow, like it always does when you’re not in on a joke. Underneath all this, a quiet panic hung in the air.
As I stood there still reaching for my keys in the bottom of my bag I felt nerves underneath my sternum – tiny black wings gathering a steady momentum of their own. I felt outside everything, even my own body, as if I was caught in some kind of delay and I was waiting to catch up. The heat of the summer’s evening was sticking to my skin, taking me back to when I first met Ned, when we walked the scorched streets of South London locked together. Even the trees looked like they’d been set on fire, their leaves the palest yellow; dry, ash-like. I remembered the heat following us wherever we went, we couldn’t get away from it.
I turned the lock, pushed the door open and climbed the white painted stairs to the first floor. Sometimes when Ned got home before me, he’d be making dinner, standing by the cooker with a towel around his waist after a shower. It always felt as though I was seeing him for the first time, a kind of abrasive recognition. After four years together my desire for him hadn’t lessened. I had to be careful then, to plant the thought, nothing more. Let him think it was his idea when really it had always started with me.
The lights were on, and the radio was playing our song – the one that was always playing the first summer we got together as if it was playing only to us. I walked through to the kitchen and looked around at the whiteness of it, the cleanliness and order. Vegetables lay neatly chopped in rows on the kitchen top next to the cooker. Everything was on track.
The night we got the keys to the flat Ned got down on one knee, on the old green linoleum floor in the kitchen, and asked me to marry him. I remember sitting on the stairs and crying. I’m still not sure if it was elation at Ned’s surprise proposal or feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work we needed to do, but it was unexpected. When we first bought it, there was woodchip wallpaper on all the walls except the bathroom, which had an olive carpet above the bath like something growing out of the wall – algae or grass, furry, dank. I found the decor oddly refreshing after all the magnolia flats we’d seen, but the first thing we did the day we moved in was tear the wallpaper down. It felt satisfying digging my bitten-down nails under the flaps and tearing off long strips. I was aware, even then, of our frenzied compulsion to erase any of the past from inside the walls – any ghosts of past relationships, arguments that might have happened there. Our first flat together, a new beginning which seemed to necessitate the removal of everything that had come before it.
A year later it was finally finished, and it was all white, like a hospital. I was struck by this – how London houses all looked the same inside – the same white kitchen cabinets, the floors an expensive oak that looked like veneer – as if they’d had the same face-lift by the same surgeon, any quirks or idiosyncrasies replaced by something more quantifiable.
When I looked down I noticed the gas had been left on, turned down low, a ring of tiny blue teeth-like flames. Ned’s towel was lying like a shed skin on the back of a chair. I touched it and it was still wet. His coat was gone, and his keys from the hook by the door. My first thought was he must have gone to the corner shop to buy wine or something he’d forgotten for dinner. I called his phone, anticipating his voice before I heard it. Instead, a buzzing answered me from a hidden place inside the flat. I followed it upstairs, along the narrow hall to the bedroom. It was dark, except for a small blue square of light by the bed. The buzzing stopped and the light faded soon after, leaving just darkness.
I turned the light on in the hallway. There was a naked bulb, and I was thinking I needed to get a lampshade for it when I noticed spots of blood on the floor. I followed them a few paces towards the bathroom before realising they were coming from me. I put my hand between my legs trying to stem the flow, but it was already too late for that. There was too much blood, and it was coming too fast. ‘Please…no!’ I pleaded with God even though I didn’t believe in God. I promised to do anything if the blood would just stop. My head felt light, dizzy. Something was wrong, very wrong. I remember thinking that if Ned was at the corner shop, he’d be back soon but I might have passed out by then, everything was happening so fast. I couldn’t take the risk. I called 999 and waited on the floor curled over like an animal, trying to stem the blood coming out of me. After what seemed a long while on the floor I climbed up to the window. I was high up, listening out for the whirry panicky sound, the sight of flashing blue neon reflecting off the buildings like Christmas lights and an ambulance zigzagging up the street. Then I didn’t hear or think anything. I felt myself falling, as if in slow motion, as if it was happening to someone else, the blood taking me with it as I dropped to the floor. It wasn’t like sleep – warm, hazy. It was like a heavy hit on the head, or a drug so strong it laid me out cold. My limbs felt heavy, like I’d been hypnotised, and I couldn’t move even if I’d wanted to.
When I woke up, the first thing I heard was a baby crying and I was lying in a pool of blood. I didn’t know how long I’d been there, pain gathering like a fault-line around my stomach. I forced myself up, holding on to the window ledge, but my legs were shaking so much they kept collapsing under me. When I finally got to standing, I looked out. It was dark outside. I focused on my silhouette blanking out the naked bulb in the hall, the lights flickering and sliding in the street below, like a secret code I couldn’t decipher. I looked for Ned’s bike chained to the lamppost where he always kept it but there was just a naked steel pole.
When I needed him most, he wasn’t there.
I first met Ned at a party. He was a faint figure in the corner at first, I barely noticed him. I’d recently moved to London after transferring to do my final year so I could move in with the long-term boyfriend I’d been with since school. The workload was crippling, and I wanted to forget the books piled high on the desk. I’d taken half a tab of ecstasy, which was unlike me. Normally I was careful, considered, but I wanted to escape for one night. Since I’d moved in with Guy, I’d begun to feel claustrophobic, like I couldn’t breathe. We sat at our respective desks studying in the same room, like twins rather than lovers. In the evenings, he’d cook all the latest recipes from the Guardian food pages. At weekends we ate out with his friends, played team games in Regent’s Park, but there was something missing – something vital, like air. I couldn’t say when it happened, and perhaps I only realised it when he went away surfing with some friends for the weekend and I felt I could breathe again.
The tab felt cool on my tongue, and I felt a tinge of regret, the exact moment I knew I’d started something I couldn’t stop. I felt exhilarated, my freest self and I’d never felt free before, of anything or anyone. This new sensation of being untethered. I wasn’t a daughter, or girlfriend. I wasn’t even a friend. The party was in a red-brick tenement building due for demolition to make way for a new apartment block, a warren of small square rooms, each pounding with different dance music. I’d come with a group of people from college, most of whom I didn’t know, most of whom I’d lost except Chloe. She’d made a beeline for me on the first day, determined to make me her best friend and I was flattered by her singular attention. She was one of those people who always needed someone – it almost didn’t matter who it was – like a flimsy piece of paper that couldn’t stand up unless it had something to lean on. We started dancing and soon the edges of people, objects, became blurred so the room began to feel like one amorphous entity. I felt like I was being carried along by something warm and benign and I wondered why I’d never taken it before. Then out of the sea of bodies, Chloe pointed to someone standing in the corner of the room. He was tall, well dressed in a self-consciously scruffy way – an art student perhaps, or so I remember thinking. Otherwise, there was nothing obviously different or special about him. I turned to look at him, expecting him to be looking at Chloe like everyone did, but he was looking at me and he wouldn’t take his eyes away. I felt exposed at first, as if under the lights he could see all the imperfections I’d spent all my life up until that moment trying to hide, as if only he could see me as I really was and trying to hide any longer would be just a futile exercise in self-delusion. I kept dancing, trying to block him out. I looked at the door, but he was standing right by it. Eventually I got used to him. I began to like him, depend on him even. It felt as if he’d always been there and I only existed because he was looking at me, that if he looked away, I would cease to exist. I knew it was the half pill I’d taken that was generating these thoughts, but I also knew nothing would ever go back to how it was before, and I didn’t want it to.
I don’t know how long it was before he finally came over. He tried to say something in my ear, but the music was so loud I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I remember looking at his mouth and thinking it looked like a classical drawing when he bent his head and kissed me. Just like that, as if I’d given my tacit permission. Chloe stood there dumbly watching us like a statue under the lights. It should have been her. It was always her. But that night it was me.
Later outside, we had a stilted conversation, like we didn’t really know how to be with each other after our wordless intimacy earlier. The kiss had happened. There was no way of taking it back.
‘Can I walk you home?’ he said, finally.
‘I don’t think so.’ He shifted around on his feet waiting for me to say more. ‘I live with someone, I’m sorry.’
‘You’ve got a boyfriend?’ he said, and then he laughed.
‘Does it seem that impossible?’ I smiled. He laughed again, turning to walk away before taking a couple of steps back and pressing a cigarette paper into my hand.
‘I’m happy to wait as long as it takes,’ he said and then he turned and walked away, in and out of the pools of orange light to the end of the street until he disappeared completely.
I looked at the tiny piece of paper and he’d written his number on it. It was anachronistic to write his number on a cigarette paper in the world of smartphones, and I smiled at the perversity of it. I knew I shouldn’t be this happy, but I’d never met anyone like him before. I looked at the piece of paper trying to analyse his writing and what it could tell me about him – the squares of the fours, the loops of the eights. When I first saw him I’d imagined he was an art student, and I remember hoping he wasn’t just visiting London only to quickly disappear back to where he’d come from. Even then I’d wanted permanence, despite already possessing it with someone else, and I felt the first sediment of guilt among the feelings he’d stirred up in me. It wasn’t a choice, I reasoned with myself, but something that now had a life of its own. I kept the piece of paper in my pocket until it finally disintegrated but I’d memorised his number by then. I played the few words he said to me over and over again in my head, like a mantra. I’m happy to wait as long as it takes.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I called him. He said he would wait, and I believed him.
I didn’t sleep, just lay awake looking at the familiar patterns of lights from the passing cars on the ceiling. I saw the darkness come and go again, but otherwise nothing had changed. I closed my eyes, drifted off, opened them again and it took me a few seconds to remember what had happened – a shard of normality, a brief delay, before my mind caught up. The anxiety that had felt hot in my chest since the night before turned to a cold panic. A whole night and Ned still wasn’t home. I thought perhaps he’d met a friend when he popped out and had been swept along with their Friday night plans. I’d normally be livid if Ned stayed out without letting me know where he was, but I felt too weak to summon anything as forceful as anger.
I opened my laptop and went straight to his social media where he smiled at me as though nothing had happened, his slightly impish grin, a snowy Alpine scene from his latest skiing trip. There was our recent weekend trip to Paris, too – walking by the Seine, eating French fries in a café, posing self-consciously outside the Pompidou centre while a passer-by took our photo. There hadn’t been any new posts for two days, unusual for Ned. He was always posting about where he was, who he was with, what he was eating. He loved his food. I half expected to see pictures of him out with his new work-friend, Andrew, at the pub they always went to on Friday nights, but it was strangely dormant.
Everything in his cupboard looked untouched at first, but when I examined it more closely, I noticed a few things missing – a white shirt I’d bought him for his birthday, an outdoor jacket he’d taken to wearing recently. He’d dressed deliberately after his shower, which meant he was planning to go out. I re-charged his phone and scrolled through the call history. The last person he called was Andrew early Friday evening. Not me, but Andrew. I pressed call-back and there was a high-pitched garble, as if under water, before it went straight to answerphone.
‘Hi, it’s Arla. Ned went out last night and left his phone behind. Is he with you? …Um…please call and let me know. Or better, get him to call?’ I called Ned’s mother, but she hadn’t heard from him. I called his father next, I don’t know why. He never saw him and in all the time I’d been with Ned, I’d never even met him, so I wasn’t surprised he hadn’t heard from him. I checked the Metropolitan Police homepage and followed a link to the Missing Persons website. If you suspect someone may have gone missing, you do not have to wait 24 hours to call the police. Is their disappearance unexpected or out of character?’ Have you noticed anything unusual in their behaviour during the last two weeks? Have there been any financial pressures or family disputes in the past weeks or months? Any diagnosed mental health problems? Have they ever gone missing before? Then I remembered he had gone missing once. He’d gone to a music festival in Holland with some friends without telling me, taken LSD and was missing all weekend. He was so apologetic when he got home, his toenails painted pink so he must have been out of it because he’d never wear nail varnish voluntarily.
Sweat was sticking to my palms, and I wiped them on my jeans. I typed in Ned’s full name, date of birth, physical characteristics and what he was wearing ‘to rule out matches to criminal incidents, accidents or fatalities on the Police National Computer Database’ and sat awkwardly waiting for a call.
A few moments later my phone started buzzing from somewhere hidden inside the flat. I ran through to the living room where I thought I last had it, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I flung all the sofa cushions on the floor in case it had slipped underneath, and it was lying under the sofa. I grabbed it and pressed speaker so I could hear better, quicker. There was silence on the other end of the line before I heard a voice. It was distant, in another country perhaps. ‘Congratulations Mrs Harper, you have won a free place in our Lottery Draw. To enter please press one and further details will be texted to your phone.’ I slammed the phone on the floor, and when I picked it up again there was a missed call from Chloe. ‘Hi it’s me. I’m at rehearsals so I can’t talk for long. Just wanted to hear your voice. We didn’t manage to catch up, but wanted you to know I’m thinking of you, and er, hope everything is ok. Let’s catch up when we’re both less busy? Anyway, love you. Bye.’
Sometimes people leave for personal reasons, it concluded. It’s not illegal to disappear.
I went back to Ned’s social media for any new clues as to where he could be. No new posts. I checked our mutual friends’ pages, before I started befriending his friends and friends of friends, trawling through hundreds of badly taken pictures of parties and gatherings. I looked at the backs of people heads, the way they stood, but people all looked the same – pale and ghoulish, their eyes red in a flash of a camera phone. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and Ned was the needle, that small fleck of silver I kept thinking I saw before I realised it was someone else.
It was 3am before I went to bed, and I couldn’t sleep. I laid awake, half dreaming about what could have happened to him. I drifted off and was jolted awake when I saw his face under water, eyes wide open. There was a cut on the side of his head and his hair was floating like a sea anemone. I drifted off again and there was the sound of a baby crying. It was distant and it wouldn’t stop. I walked through doors trying to find it, but it only seemed to get further away.
I lay there for a long time – maybe hours – until the dawn bled slowly through the curtains and I fell into a sleep so heavy and silent I didn’t dream.
It took me six months to end my relationship with Guy. I waited until both our finals were over before giving the usual weak excuse of ‘it’s not you it’s me’, and even though it was true it didn’t make it any easier. Our relationship was over long before I met Ned, not that Guy would have believed that. I moved my things out of the flat one weekend while he was away visiting his parents, and I remember my hands shaking as I dialed the number stored safely in my head.
‘Where are you?’ he asked almost immediately. His voice was faint, and I had to push the phone closer to my ear so I could hear him. ‘Are you alone?’
‘Yes,’ I replied hesitantly.
‘Shall I come over?’ he said, and I smiled.
Half an hour later he was outside on the doorstep holding a bottle of vodka. It felt a bit wrong him coming to the flat I’d shared with my boyfriend for so many months, but I reasoned with myself that he was away, and I’d already moved out most of my things. The flat was almost empty without them and there was nowhere to sit. There was nothing in the fridge either, so we drank neat vodka shots on the wooden deck outside the back door. We sat often wordlessly, making tentative conversation like people from different countries trying to find a shared language. It was a June night and I remember it was hot, so hot I could feel the sweat gathering in the creases of my skin. I wiped them away with the back of my hand. I didn’t want to feel sweaty if he touched me, when he touched me. We could have been in a foreign city the heat was so intense, the sound of crickets emanating from the green darkness. The BT Tower was close by and there must have been a laser show that night because beams of light were flashing across the city – red, white and blue – but I was too preoccupied to think what they could be celebrating. Something nationalistic I had no interest in when my life was exploding in ways I couldn’t yet begin to quantify.
Later we walked down Camden High Street to the 24-hour garage to buy more vodka. It was 2am and the pavements were alive with people on their way between the pubs and clubs, bursts of late-night hysteria, groups of men and women in fancy dress on stag and hen nights, the carnival of Saturday night loud and alien. I remember them looking at us as though we were reified, other, and feeling removed, in our own world even as early as that first night. On the way back he pulled me onto his feet, and we walked home like that laughing, our arms around each other. I had the strange sensation of being one body, of there being no separation between us, like I had that first night on the dancefloor when he kissed me.
When we got in, we stood in the hallway suddenly awkward and distant again in the new enclosed space. ‘I’ve been thinking about you every second of every day,’ he said, after another of our characteristically long silences. ‘I feel I’ve been losing my mind. Do you feel like that too?’ I nodded, relieved I hadn’t been deluding myself, that I hadn’t been going quietly mad on my own. ‘What have you done to me, Arla?’ he said, putting his face in my neck, breathing me in. Then he bent his head and kissed my check, my lips, his stubble cutting into my skin. He lifted up my vest, kissing my shoulder, my breast, claiming each part. ‘How do I get inside you?’ he said, and there was no way back. We had sex on the kitchen table, looked on by a bare bulb and I remember thinking I must replace the lampshade I’d taken off it earlier that day. There had been such a build-up it was over quickly, but it wasn’t long before we did it again, and again. There was a need in us that couldn’t be satisfied however hard we tried.