I cling to a stranger’s arm. I do not want him to leave.
“Tell me something,” I hear myself asking him.
He looks puzzled, “What?”
“Anything. I want to hear all about you,” I tell him and watch him with unfeigned interest. This is more curious to me than the most fascinating fact. I need to hear his story. If he walks away, I will be alone and I cannot be alone, “Just say something,” I tell him, “Go on, anything.” I know how strange it sounds as I watch his increasing alarm, but I can sense my shadow standing behind me, watching me, getting ready to sidestep, should I suddenly look round. “Go on,” I say, “go on—” trying to hide the desperation in my voice.
The stranger grabs my arm with his free hand and unshackles himself, “I’ve got to go,” he tells me, without even looking at me.
He can see it too; I know he can; he has seen that shadow hovering behind me and he is now running scared, leaving me alone with it, and these words surge up into my throat, I can not help them, “Coward,” I yell, watching his terror as he diminishes in size, smaller and smaller, almost running.
There are people all around me, walking, passing by, this way and that and none of them will stop; it is right behind me; I am now walking, and it is following me. Occasionally I’m sure I can hear its breath; I must stop someone else, talk to someone else.
“Can you tell me the time,” I ask another face, a stranger; I’ll never see him again; I see him for that brief second, when he enters my life, fills it; our eyes connect, see nothing, nothing but fear; our eyes are afraid; we are afraid; and then he is gone and that fear lies between us like a discarded bomb.
I walk too, leaving it behind, pursued by my shadow.
It is not a visible shadow. It’s more of a feeling, a feeling that follows me around; or an idea. No, it’s more substantial than an idea; perhaps an emotion; yes, that’s it; it’s more like an emotion, disembodied, that follows me around. And its mood changes from day to day, from moment to moment. Sometimes it starts to become angry and I can feel its gaze clothing me with discomfort.
I am almost running now as I turn into the library. I like it here. There are always people in here and my shadow stays outside; I can sometimes sense it prowling the streets, watching the windows, waiting for it to get dark, waiting for closing time when I will have no choice but to rejoin it. But for the moment I am calm. I could stay here all day if I wanted to; it doesn’t cost anything. I could just sit.
And then I must go; the librarian’s eyes have driven me away; it’s almost as if they are the agent of my shadow; they are made of the same substance, the same light, the same darkness, that same cloud of heaviness that hangs in the air waiting to descend and smother my breathing. The librarian’s eyes whisper to my shadow as it prowls outside and the two are singing their cloud towards me, as though my shadow had hypnotised the librarian’s eyes and, through them, it could enter the building and pursue me. I stand and make my escape.
Outside I stay one pace ahead of the shadow; if I walk quickly enough, it will never reach me. But then I arrive at my front door. I place the key in the lock and pause. I know that once inside, there will be no escaping it, but as I stand there, paused, I can feel it closing in on me. I turn the key and close the door behind me. I stand, perfectly still and silent for a moment. I think I have left it outside. I cannot sense it in here with me.
I draw a curtain across the door, as though keeping out light would bar its entry. I turn and look along the hall but in the distance I think I catch a glimpse of it running between my kitchen and another room. It seems that it’s already in here, prowling my house around the edges of my vision, waiting for its moment to envelope me, a moment when my guard is dropt, fallen to the floor like a carelessly abandoned garment as the shadow then clothes me instead and I feel the immensity of its nothingness expanding from deep within me, till I am it and it is me, and I am a tiny, aching spec lost amid endless, empty space.
I walk into my living room and close the door behind me, switching on only a small sidelight. Somehow the semidarkness is a comfort, is somehow company. I stand with my back to the wall. If I keep watch, I should be able to resist it. I don’t think it’s yet inside the room with me. I stand for a whole ten minutes, secure, but imprisoned. What am I going to do?—spend the whole of the rest of my life standing against this wall? This is crazy. How can I live like this? I have to face it; I can’t stand here anymore; I can feel it waiting out in the hall, patient, dormant, like an invisible cloud coiled in the form of a snake, sleeping but conscious, waiting in the sure knowledge that I will come to it; I will have to; all it has to do is just sit there waiting, patiently waiting and I can take it no more; this is all crazy; just do it to me; let me have it; and I am opening the door and then I’m out in the hall and I have surrendered and that snake springs and envelopes me. I drop to a sitting position with my back against the wall and my whole being is an empty, disembodied ache.
I have become afraid of this feeling because I know what it wants me to do, and one of these days, very soon, I just might do it. This certainty is the only clear thing left to me in moments like this. It is my constant companion; it is as real as a loved one; it is the only reality I can truly sense and know. I sit here with this clear idea inside me now, and I am not afraid of it anymore, now that it is here inside me, this knowledge that at any moment now I just might enact the simple, final solution. I acknowledge this idea and then feel lifted. It seems to depart from me—for now. It seems it only wanted to know I had not forgotten it.
The hall somehow feels lighter. I stand and resume my routine. And I know that for one more day, my life will be safe.
In the goldfish bowl, Bruce and Sheila Softly were hovering side by side, gazing out into the living room.
Bruce glanced at him, then looked back out to the living room and said nothing.
Sheila sighed again.
Bruce continued watching the living room and said nothing.
Sheila sighed yet again, then said, “Don’t you ever get bored, Bruce, just doing this all the time?”
Bruce said, “Doing what?”
“Just hovering, Bruce, in the same bowl, day in, day out.”
“But you must do.”
“Well... not bored exactly, just—”
“I just feel there should be more to it. All we ever do is hover round this bowl all day long—which seems remarkably like the shape of a human’s head, if you ask me—we hover round this bowl like two disembodied consciousnesses, and convert… convert whatever such consciousnesses feed on, into… into something else. There has to be more to life than that.”
“But we’re goldfish, Sheila; what else is there to do?”
Bruce watched the living room, was quiet for a moment, then said, “I mean, you could think about this for days and days, Sheila, only to decide you wanted to be a bus driver.” He looked at Sheila and said, “And I can’t really see you as a bus driver, Sheila.”
Sheila continued watching the living room, slowly breathed in as deeply as he could, then sighed the deepest and longest sigh he could manage.
Bruce said nothing.