Thursday, 2 July 2020

It was her own fault she told herself – rather harshly as it turned out. She was so used to ranting about Stuart in her head that when she ranted out loud she tended to forget where she was or whether someone may be listening in. 
She was on the bus. On the phone, on the bus. Never a good combination at the best of times but as Natalie got onto the topic of her ex-boyfriend – despite her mother’s best efforts at trying to steer the conversation away from it – she began to talk louder, particularly as she got into a flow.
“Does he even realise that what he said made absolutely no sense? It’s not just me, is it? He was going on about the price of petrol and how getting the bus to see her for a drink was cheaper than driving down to see me. I mean you don’t base a relationship on who’s cheapest to visit do you? We’ve been together three years and he wouldn’t move out of his parents’ place, would he? Remember when he tried for a while? He said it was for a trial period, remember? Trying what exactly? Then he moved out again saying that the trial was over but it was a success. Do you remember that? What was he talking about? If it was a success, why was he moving out? I mean, what goes through his head?”
Natalie continued asking lots of questions that weren’t exactly rhetorical because she really wanted to know the answers, it was just that she knew that none could ever be forthcoming.
The single-decker bus was two-thirds full of passengers and only those with earphones weren’t listening to Natalie’s side of her telephone conversation. Some people listened as a distraction to their over-familiar daily commute while others listened because they had no choice in the matter given how loudly and passionately she was talking.  
The one who had been listening with the greatest of interest was a man sat two rows back on the other side of the bus. He was on his own and had no bags. He was dressed in a black suit and even though he was strikingly handsome, no-one had paid him any attention as they boarded.
“My stop’s coming up,” Natalie said into the phone as she reached across her seat to press the stop button. She collected her large handbag and laptop case together with one hand and stood.
“Yes. I know,” she said as her mother offered words of condolence. She spoke a little more quietly now as she became more aware of her surroundings and felt a little more self-conscious. “It’s just- Well, you know; unanswered questions and just... wondering what I did wrong. I just don’t understand."
The principal eavesdropper slid out of his seat and moved so swiftly down the aisle that he managed to get ahead of Natalie. 
“Yeah I know. Just ignore me. I’ll be alright. I’ll speak to you later. Love you Mum.”
And there he was, facing her with an endlessly sympathetic smile in his dark brown eyes while his words came calmly and thickly like slow-flowing lava. 
“It never fails to amaze me that no matter how much time you spend with someone they can surprise you with an action that seems to contradict everything you knew about them,” he began. “But then, why should knowing if someone believes in God and the Devil make it any easier to predict if they like the colour green? Or whether they are more, or less-likely to murder someone in self-defence.”
Natalie nodded. Somewhere far away the bus was taking an age to reach its stop. The man leaned in ever-so-slightly. She felt a gentle, cool breeze and smelt a sense of fruit, or fruit trees, or freshly cut grass. If she hadn’t been sinking in the warmth of his dark eyes she may have shivered.  
“It seems to be the unanswerable question: What were they really thinking?” he continued. “Because if we know what they are thinking then we would understand how to manipulate them.”
“Oh but I don’t…” started Natalie but the words faded from her lips like frosted breath. Not once had they broken eye contact; not even as he took the wrist of her free hand and held it at chest height with the soft, pale side facing upwards exposing her veins.
“Rub the inside of his wrist in small circles with your fingertips,” said the man comfortingly. “Tiny perfect circles. And close your eyes and concentrate. Concentrate very hard. Then you will see the way he sees. Then you will understand him.”
So soft and warm was his touch, she barely felt him release her wrist. The doors of the bus brushed open and he was through them in a swirl. Natalie was still holding out her wrist for a second before she realised what she was doing and hurried after him. But she was encumbered by her bags and disembarked only in time to catch sight of his black suit flash like black satin in the sun as he turned a corner out of sight.

Contacting your former partner to request a meeting will never be as straightforward as suggesting a catch-up with friends. At least one of you will have been hurt in the fallout but even the most amicable of break-ups leave an everlasting barbed-wire entanglement to some lesser or greater degree. One moment you’re exposing your imperfections, sharing hopes, fears and saliva, the next even a four-word request of “can we meet up” will arouse trepidation, suspicion and the vaguest thoughts of one last shag. 
For Natalie it felt like going to the dentist for a check-up when you also happen to have toothache – you just have to open wide, expose that sensitive nerve to prodding and prey you’re not in the hands of a sadist. 
Stuart – Natalie’s ex – was mostly suspicious. He wondered why he should go through the hassle? An ex has as much ammunition to embarrass you as your parents but more reason to. The solution is to either keep your ex on good terms or as far away from you as possible and Stuart was an exponent of the second option.
He wanted to know what it was she wanted. Natalie suggested that it would be a shame not to be friends. Stuart asked again what she wanted. Natalie said that they still had some of each other’s stuff, but this led to an argument about who owned what. Then Natalie alluded to sex but Stuart mentioned that he was already getting it in abundance from his new girlfriend – self-preservation (just about) trumped his desire for a quickie.
When Natalie casually referred to a – fictitious – new man in her life she stumbled onto a result. Stuart was now agreeable thanks to a mix of clearly uncomplicated sex and a chance to get one over on another bloke.
And so the messaging stopped and they finally agreed to meet.

“It’s your round,” Stuart helpfully pointed out even though Natalie wasn’t drinking because she’d driven the considerable distance to meet him at the pub for lunch.
As well as booking a day off work for the meeting, Natalie had booked the two days prior. This was partly because she had foreseen the messaging negotiations it would take to bring them together and she didn’t want her colleagues catching on to who she was communicating with as they would have stolen her phone and locked her in the stationary cupboard. The other reason was that she felt that she would need a couple of days to mentally prepare herself. The whole mind-reading thing was stupid, she knew that, but she was willing to try it because there was something about that man on the bus that made her believe anything that he said – particularly if it had been “get your coat you’re pulled”. Also, although she despised herself for it – after all, it contradicted everything that every atom in her body had been screaming – it gave her an excuse to see Stuart again. 
There. She’d said it – if only to herself. Some traitorous part of her hadn’t got the message about hating Stuart. Unfortunately, she suspected that it was the part of her that pumped blood around her body which meant that the rest of her was forced to go along with it. So she heaped a spoonful of self-loathing onto the cake of rejection she’d been feeding on recently and hoped for the best. After all, they had already broken up so what was the worst that could happen?
In contrast, Stuart had booked the afternoon off. In fact, it was the first thing he told her when she pulled up into the car park. She had barely got out of her car when he treated her to the news that he was available for the whole afternoon. Natalie had understood the not-remotely-hidden subtext. Even if he hadn’t said anything, she noticed that he was wearing his muscle-hugging slim-fit white “pulling” shirt (a nickname she’d come up because she had a weakness for him in it), a favoured silk blue tie for “important meetings” (his term and one she was now doubting her interpretation of) and slim-fit deep blue trousers that seemed to be most slim-fit around his arse. And then, just to confirm the feeling that she was a wounded wildebeest in the crosshairs of a hungry leopard, a meeting of their cheeks engulfed her with the scent she recognised as his “Saturday night aftershave”. 
Suddenly Natalie realised that while Stuart’s thought patterns over the last few years had seemed like a mystery without clues, at that moment his intentions felt like a child’s colouring book. 
As Stuart ploughed his way through his ploughman’s lunch, Natalie performed an autopsy on her prawn salad sandwich. She was feeling confused. She was still angry at him. She wanted to shout at him actually – a few centimetres from his ear. She wanted to stake him through the heart with her fork and demand that he give back all the time she had spent with him – all the time she could have been investing herself in someone else. Or investing in herself. Learning a martial art or something.
And yet here they were, outwardly content and at ease in each other’s company. Just as it used to be. Not only that, but seeing him again like this made her realise how well she knew him. How she could read all his little tells. 
“There’s an empty flat about five minutes from here,” he said between mouthfuls. Stuart always had access to empty property due to his job as an estate agent. In the beginning she found it exciting. A couple of years later it made her feel like it said something about their relationship – something transitory and without roots.
“How’s Cassie?” Natalie asked, testing him with a mention of his current girlfriend. 
“She’s alright. Doesn’t compare to you though,” and he gave her a wink. What does that mean? she thought. It sounds like a compliment but really it just throws up more questions. So typical of him she realised. 
And why didn’t she feel triumphant knowing that she was getting one over on her replacement in the way he obviously was when she invented a boyfriend?
Natalie looked down at the clean, shiny bread knife and idly wondered whether it was sharp enough to cut out someone’s Adams apple. Even though she still appreciated where this liaison was heading, she now wished she hadn’t worn her best (as in sexiest, not most comfortable) knickers. It was time to do this now, though in truth she no longer knew why.
“Give me your wrist a minute,” she said.
“I was reading this thing online. I have to rub a part of your wrist. It says something about you.”
“Don’t be stupid. Are you going to eat that anytime today?”
Natalie looked at her lunch which appeared even more unappetising now that it had been broken down into its component parts.
Stuart stood up. “Come on then. Let’s go. Or shall I get another drink in?”
“Maybe I’ll have a drink.” Natalie stood. “I’ll go with you to the bar.”
By the time the barman had placed their pint of Fosters and medium white wine on the bar Stuart had given up trying to deter Natalie from her silly game; mainly because she offered to buy the drinks again if he complied. He took a large drink and then offered up his left wrist. 
It suddenly seemed to Natalie such an intimate thing to do – as if he were offering her the chance to check his pulse or slit his veins. As she took his hand she noticed how warm it felt and that his fingernails needed cutting. She resisted the urge to say anything though and started to make little circles on the underside of his wrist using the tip of her index finger. 
Stuart looked around the pub and shook his head slightly but Natalie had already closed her eyes and her face had become serious. Away fell the pub, the game she was playing, the pretence, the mixed emotions, her feelings of inadequacy and her fears for the future – all that was left was the tiny circle on such soft bare skin.
Only it wasn’t a circle; it was a tunnel and she so desperately wanted to see what was on the other side. She didn’t even have to move; the tunnel drew her through – or receded as if it were a blanket falling from her shoulders. But when she passed through all she could see was herself. She was looking at herself through Stuart’s eyes. She saw herself standing at the bar, holding Stuart’s hand with a stupid, gormless expression. 
Is that how she looked to other people? she thought. No wonder Stuart became bored with her. But this was beyond gormless. She looked vacant. Her eyes peered out of a bad painting, or a simple television cartoon. It was as if she were – dead? – daydreaming. 
Whoa; where did that stray thought come from? Come to mention it, why was she having so much trouble focusing her thoughts? And why wasn’t her body responding to her commands to move?
She wanted to slap her stupid, stupefied face. Instead she reached out to give herself a wake-up shove. Except the arm she commanded was quicker than she expected and stronger; the intended shove turned out to be a violent push. The recipient, apparently unable to make any movement to counterbalance herself, fell backwards, smacking her head against the bar with a ‘thock’ before dropping, stone-weight to the hard floor.
Natalie watched her body as it lay foetal-like on the glossy floorboards. Dark, red blood slowly spread out from the back of her head which made it look as though her body was curling into a spiral. Then she heard angry voices and felt hands grabbing her and swinging her violently out of the way. 
Then the whole world went mad.

For a while Natalie thought that she had found a way to deal with it. That is, after she’d gone through something of a breakdown first. Once she had understood – not accepted, because understanding is not the same as accepting – that she had left her own body and entered the body of her ex-boyfriend she screamed and sobbed and pleaded. Everyone thought that Stuart/Natalie’s patently genuine histrionics were due to shock and guilt over the incident and it influenced the Judge sufficiently to issue a more lenient sentence of four years for involuntary manslaughter – a hard shove on an ex-girlfriend was balanced by the apparent depth of grief displayed by the offender. 
Of course, based on what he was hearing from his client, the lawyer representing Stuart came close to adding a plea of diminished responsibility to his case, particularly when Natalie made the mistake of wondering aloud in Stuart’s voice whether it was fair to say the victim was dead when she was in fact still conscious but in another body. Stuart’s complaints and remonstrations however, seemed fitting for his predicament (“I don’t know what happened – she was in front of me and then suddenly she was on the floor.”) apart from complaining that he could hear his ex in his head and that he sometimes found himself saying things he didn’t mean. 
Natalie meanwhile, had to learn to stop making herself heard, particularly when she became aware that the concerned talk around her had moved from suicide watch and onto the possibility of sectioning. But to keep too quiet meant that she surrendered control to Stuart. Her silence meant acquiesce and felt like total submission. So the alternative was to wrest control of Spaceship Stuart but while, for example, learning to urinate differently was one thing, having to hold the penis of the man she had first loved and then hated so vehemently was proving too much to bear. 
And then there were the nights. At night she found it hardest to shut out the anger and his roaring emasculation. Natalie realised that she was still arguing with Stuart in her head as she always had been before that fateful meeting with the stranger on the bus, only now the arguments were real, they never ended and there were never any moments of respite.

Then one day the man on the bus returned. Except this time, he smelt of overcooked meat and hot lard. His hair looked wet and his eyes, Natalie noticed, weren’t dark brown but black as eightballs on a pool table. As he stood in her cell, having walked in through the open door, Natalie wondered if it was actually the same man at all. 
“I’m supposed to apologise. Explain,” he said in a voice that now sounded like dry sand on the wind. “We were discussing the mind-body problem. How much you control your body. How much of its function is just a response to self-preservation. Breathing. Scratching. Your personality. Taken out. What would still work. Do you see?”
Natalie nodded, thought about it and then shook her head. 
“You didn’t give us long, did you, to observe the body before you killed it?”
Stuart opened his mouth but Natalie didn’t want speak.
The man’s face slackened with apathy. His disinterested eyes dropped away and his attention was caught by the scuttling of a spider running for cover under the bed. Something occurred to him. Something that coiled around his eyes and tightened his lips as he looked back at Stuart’s face, into Natalie’s eyes. 
The man made an offer. A way out, as he described it. Of life. He would free Natalie’s soul from the two prisons it found itself in: the building and the body. 
With enormous restraint Natalie explained that she wouldn’t be taking any more advice or accepting any offers from him, whoever he was. All the while she had to hug herself because she felt Stuart’s urge to swing his fists at the insubstantial form standing in front of her. She closed her eyes and when she opened them the man had gone. The first visit had ruined her life and in the second he had offered to take it.

A month later, two weeks from Christmas and barely three months into the sentence, the man returned and Natalie accepted the offer and gave herself up to him, despite the screaming and pleading at the back of her head. 
Then he fed on both the souls of Natalie and Stuart and spirited them away. 
Two for the price of one.