WEDNESDAY 6TH FEBRUARY 2019
The way you’re looking at me right now is pure destruction and exactly what I wanted. What I want. You shift slightly in your seat, turning towards me, and I remember all this sentimental crap people say about being lost in someone’s eyes, but I get it. Right now, I totally get it.
“Fine. It’s not nothing,” you say, voice low and steady. “It’s you.”
I do my best to keep what I’m feeling off my face. It shouldn’t be difficult. I’m an expert with years of experience. My whole life has been built around lying and manipulating and layers upon layers of selfish dishonesty, but you look at me and all of that washes away and drowns. “We should leave.”
“Finish your drink,” you say, in exactly that tone of voice, and I almost stop breathing. “We’ll leave when I’m ready.”
I create a mask of something that isn’t persistent need to wear on my face for as long as it takes me to drink the rest of this dirty chai latte and as long as it takes you to decide to shift to a different kind of torture. And I swear to god, the second we get in the car, I’m going to—
My phone rings. My fucking phone rings. It’s Stefan’s number. Not even the number he uses in general, for life, for people who aren’t important. This is his other number. The one only I and the other four who used to be our inner circle have. Had. I don’t know. None of them are part of any circle to me now, inner or otherwise. This is the number he used for people whose lives his carelessness could ruin at any second.
I didn’t block either of his numbers because fuck him, but I remember them even though there has been no physical or digital record of them in my possession since we stopped working together. They, along with everything else about him, still live in some part of my brain that deals with unwanted but indelible information. I have no desire to speak to him and I could simply not answer, but I can’t bring myself to do that. Because of who I am as a person.
Through a jaw clenched so tight it feels like my teeth are going to shatter, I tell you, “I have to take this. I can’t do it in here,” and I walk out with a hurricane gathering at the base of my skull.
“Stefan, what the fuck do you want?”
“It’s not Stefan.” The voice surprises me. It’s not welcome, but it’s familiar. And there’s something like shock in there. “It’s Ollie.”
“I’m sorry. Ollie, what the fuck do you want?”
“Brett, don’t. Please don’t be angry. Not now, I—”
“I will never be anything other than angry with both of you. You have no fucking idea what you almost did to me with your total incompetence.” A woman walking a small white dog glares at me and pulls her coat tighter around her, passing as quickly as she can in a cloud of disapproval. I lower my voice. “Actually, no. You know exactly what you almost did. You both do. Fuck both of you. Hang on. Why do you have his phone?”
“Brett, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I have to tell you. He would have wanted you to know.” Ollie pauses and takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Stef died. He took his own life.”
Her voice immediately takes on some of its old sharpness, exactly what I’m accustomed to from when we used to work together. “What do you mean ‘Oh, OK’?”
“I mean, oh, an expression of mild surprise with no significant emotional resonance, and OK, an expression of acknowledgement and acceptance. Are you not familiar with those words?”
All the softness and apology of a few moments ago leaves Ollie’s voice, and she’s back to sounding entirely like herself again. “For fuck’s sake, he’s dead. Do you really not care? At all? He was your… whatever he was.”
“Not for long. And after that, he was someone who nearly destroyed me. So were you, in case you’ve forgotten. I wouldn’t give a shit if you died, either. I’m not sure how to explain this clearly enough, but I’m going to try. I literally could not care less that Stefan is dead. And I don’t mean that in the way people say they couldn’t care less casually without thinking. I mean, it is completely impossible for me to care any less than I do. I am fully at rock bottom give-a-fuck. Got it?”
“Shit, Brett, you’re fucking cold.”
“That shouldn’t be news to you. I take it you’re enacting Stefan’s in-the-event-of-my-demise plan?”
“Yes, actually,” says Ollie. “I am. We are. He took care of most of it himself anyway, but we’re going over the last of everything. And I’m going to get rid of this phone later today and you’ll never hear from me again.”
“Good. Are we done?”
Ollie sighs, possibly with frustration, possibly exhaustion, or maybe a little bit of both and something else too, something like self-pity. It’s her I’m so much smarter than everyone else and I’m so tired of trying to make them all see it sigh and I was bored of it five minutes after we met. I tolerated it when she was useful and entertaining, but now it feels like vinegar in a paper cut. I want her to shut up. But she doesn’t. “Don’t you want to know how he did it?”
“No.” It doesn’t matter to me. None of this matters to me.
“He hanged himself.”
“All right, well, that’s nice. So, you promise I’ll never hear from you again?”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
I should, shouldn’t I? I should at least have some curiosity, or some anticipation of curiosity that I won’t be able to satisfy later if I don’t get this information now. But, “No. Not even slightly.”
“Fuck you, Brett. Seriously. Fuck you. This was at least half your fault anyway,” Ollie hisses, and hangs up.
I think I’m supposed to feel something. I try to make myself have some kind of emotion about it, but I can’t. I don’t. And it’s not as if I’m so upset that I’m numb or anything like that. My life would have been much less stressful for the last year and however many months if Stefan had done this a long time ago, but here we are. Better late than never.
He hanged himself. He choked to death. Or his neck broke. Whatever.
Thinking about the mechanisms behind that reminds me that you’re still waiting for me in Alchemy and we’re going home soon. I slide my phone into my pocket and go back inside, taking my seat and finishing my drink.
“What was that?” you ask.
“Remember I told you about Stefan?”
“Yeah.” Of course you remember. I didn’t tell you absolutely everything, but I told you enough. You know how I felt about him when he and I parted ways.
“Well, him.” I set my empty glass mug on the counter. Next to the coaster, not on it. “He died. He killed himself.” I shrug.
“Oh?” you say, pausing for a moment to peer at my face, waiting for the slightest flicker of emotion that we both know isn’t likely to come. “OK.” You stand up and put on your coat. And you walk round the counter to the till and pay for our drinks and leave a generous tip for Perry and Anna, because of course you do. And you come back and I’m putting on my jacket. And I think you’re reaching for my hand, but instead you wrap your fingers and thumb around my wrist until I can feel my bones fighting not to snap. “I’m ready to leave.”
THURSDAY 7TH FEBRUARY 2019
The agreement we had was nothing visible below the elbow or above the collarbone because we both have things to do today. Places to go, people to see, people to see us.
The reality is I have a bandage around my forearm where I burned it on the stove, except it’s really to cover the deep purple imprints from your fingers. And there’s a subtle but noticeable darkening around your right eye where you should be more careful to close cupboard doors if you’re going to walk about the kitchen in the dark. Except it’s from my fist and it stilled you into a moment of blissful silence before all hell broke loose. Because I absolutely deserved hell, earned it, and asked for it in exactly the language you speak.
And there are more bruises blossoming on my chest and back and shoulders and my ribs ache when I breathe and my feet are barely touching the ground. The reality is painful and beautiful.
Also, I have exploited Stefan’s death twice today already. Both my meetings, first with Byron and then with Max, began with me looking courageously downcast and explaining, “I’m sorry if I seem a little unfocused. I had some upsetting news yesterday, shortly after we spoke. An old friend died. He… he took his own life.”
They both gave me the big sad face about it and some variation of, “You should have said something. This could have waited.”
I measured out a trembling breath each time and said, “No, no, it’s OK. This is important. And it’s better for me to be here. If I was at home right now, I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about him.” Like fuck I wouldn’t.
Anyway, I basically zoned out through the meetings. Byron set up everything so I can do what I need to do remotely and won’t have to come back to Allegra again unless I want to, which he assured me I would be very welcome to do because I will be greatly missed by everyone. He even had someone pack up my office and said he would courier my belongings to me whenever it was convenient, but not to worry about having to arrange that until I was ready.
In the open plan stress pit, Jordan handed me a card signed by a bunch of people whose names I didn’t care enough to commit to memory back when it should have mattered. He said, “It’s been a pleasure working for you,” and shook my hand, then pulled me into a fake macho, back-slapping hug, whispering, “I’ll talk to you at the weekend. I’ve got some good shit coming in.”
Janek was heading down to reception as I was leaving, so we got in the lift together. He looked nervous. He never stopped looking nervous around me. We got out of the lift and I shook his hand, sliding my thumb and finger around his wrist and pulling him slightly closer for a moment. “Relax, Janek. About everything. You’re going to be OK.” Maybe he’s not, but it seemed like the right thing to say. The kind of thing someone might remember their boss saying to them as he left the office for the last time. I never did fuck him.
Max put papers in front me and I signed them. Things are happening with money. The money. My money. It’s irrelevant that it used to be someone else’s and should never have been mine. That’s all ancient history, unprovable, mattering as little now to anyone else as it ever did to me. I have no need to work again for a long time unless I want to, which is both comforting and terrifying.
And I’m free, but it doesn’t feel like it. I hoped for, expected, a sense of resolution to meet me here, but it’s lost. It’s nowhere. And so am I.