by Rachel Stevenson
Each day when I awake, I kill him again. I turn blurred eyes to the alarm to make sure it’s late enough to get up, stretch, yawn, and then I remember that Dan is dead. Dead as a Dodi. Dead as Diana.
He hasn’t heard the news. His mobile is on silent. He’s in a meeting. He’s lost his phone, the network is down, he’s in hospital with concussion and his ID is still on the train. He has amnesia and is wandering the streets, trying to remember where to go. He has used the attack to disappear and start a new life in Brazil.
Let it be someone else. Thirty-two people dead isn’t that many, it’s hardly the Somme, let it be thirty-two other people, others whom I don’t know. You actively desire the deaths of thirty-two random people. Let it be thirty-two other people’s mum, dad, friend, relative, next door neighbour. You turn into Winston Smith: Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Not me!
Why did he get on the metro when he knew there’d been an attack at the airport? Surely anyone would realise that was only stage one of a two-pronged attack. Why didn’t he get an earlier train? Why did he move to Brussels in the first place? A stupid place to live with its double language and incomprehensible disagreements between people with Ruritania-style names (Walloons: surely a hybrid marsupial, and Flems: what comes up after a night drinking Lambic beer). It didn’t even have a government for a year and a half. Have you ever been to Brussels? It may house the European government, but it’s hardly the bastion of international law. People jump the tram, park on the ornamental bits of roundabouts; once, a car decided to start reversing straight at us out of an underpass. If you ask for cappuccino in a café, you’ll get coffee topped with squirty cream.
He used to live in North Brussels, the Maghreb area, shopped at North African shops, friends with his neighbours. He didn’t deserve to be murdered by one of them. This last bit is unfair, of course. Like blaming some guy in an O’Neill’s pub for the Bishopsgate bombing. But that’s part of the anger, the them and us. This bit fades. You realise that you’re wrong.
Watching a video shot by one of the survivors, trying to spot him, knowing I won’t. Imagining his final moments. Did he know? Did he see? In our new, digital world, ‘Missing’ posts on Facebook replace posters on lamp-posts, and mine was shared thousands of times. How to be a social media influencer: have a friend die in a horrific way. For four days I was hugely popular with hundreds of people wanting to be my “friend”. I ended up worrying that he looked foolish in the photo I used, him making a face, crossing his eyes. He was too daft to die in such a serious way. If he was going to die before old age, it would be falling off a bungee jump or getting run down at a level crossing. Something stupid.
‘What, the one who’s on the news?’ said people at work. ‘It’s all so public,’ said another, as if he’d died in a car crash or had a heart attack, then the outcome would somehow be different.
I didn’t pray. Disaster doesn’t change your fundamental viewpoint. And I knew by day two that he was gone, because even in the worst chaos, someone doesn’t go missing for that long, unless they want to, and he didn’t want to. I didn’t say this. I didn’t say it to anyone. I said: ‘Everyone’s hoping to hear something soon.’
Not one of the recognised stages of giving, but nonetheless it is there. Usually, you can’t go through life thinking terrible things are going to happen, because you’d be in a constant state of fear. But now that the worse has taken place, what’s to stop it happening again? What if his death was the key to some sarcophagus that, now open, unleashes all kinds of misfortune? You hear about them, don’t you, the people who lose a parent and a husband in one year and now their child has leukaemia. What’s to stop the universe deciding that person is now going to be you? Why can’t the late friend be crushed under a bus? Why can’t that mole be cancerous? Why shouldn’t everything go wrong? Death is no longer something that happens to other people and grandparents.
I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. This interior décor should have been enough to make me reflect on the situation.
I had taken the train from the Gare du Nord through a rainscape of pylons, farmhouses, horses in fields, wheat and corn and poppies drooping in the drizzle. The sky was bruised, black and blue, the clouds as full of portent as they were of water. Why we had not met in either of the two major cities was not discussed. In between the mirrors, the restaurant had Ikea-cliché prints on the wall. An absinthe advert, Le Chat Noir, the Manet/Folies Bergeres, even the Edward Hopper one, a little out of place. He looked the same, specs, balding, goofy-looking. He looked exactly the same as in the photo I’d shared on social media. Our mirror images stretched back into infinity and beyond. I have to tell him, I had to kill him all over again.
I’ve got something to say. He eyed me apprehensively.
Are my teeth falling out? That often happens. He checked them.
No. I paused whilst the waiter brought us a cappuccino and a water, placing them on the table the wrong way around. He pushed the coffee my way. I took a sip and frowned.
The thing is…you can’t be here. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, but you died. You’re dead.
I know, he said, I’ve known for quite some time now. Ever since I took the train from Midi and I was the only one on it. That’s not very likely is it? It’s obvious that I’m not really here. I know that I’m somewhere else, somewhere different. I can accept that. He took a sip of water. But how about you?
Rachel Stevenson grew up in Doncaster and now lives in London. She has contributed to Smoke: A London Peculiar, A Cuppa And An Armchair book, The Guardian travel section, and her work has been made into a short film for the Tate website. She was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Royal Academy/PinDrop Story Award.
For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.”
Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press) – and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.
Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.