The first letter arrived on the same day I found the body. It was addressed to her so I didn’t open it. Not immediately. I put it on the mantelpiece. Then I took the dog for a walk. She was the former tenant, but I didn’t have a forwarding address. I could’ve found out but I didn’t have the energy. So I just left it on the mantelpiece and took the dog for a walk. I used to write a lot of letters myself: letters, poetry, stories-I even started a screenplay once, but it was clumsy and overpopulated, and then everything went wrong and I gave it up. It was months before I could summon the strength to write my own signature, but since I didn’t have a checkbook any more I suppose it didn’t make much difference. This was a bulky letter in a good-quality beige envelope. I propped it up beside a photograph frame and took the dog for a walk.
It was a fresh morning, quite cold. The dog automatically headed for the river, tugging nicely on the leash. We always walked by the river. Every morning. When we reached the riverbank I let him off the leash. He ran ahead and skedaddled through the flusters of bracken, sniffing and snorting at twigs and pebbles, letting out the odd hefty yelp at nothing in particular, just glad to be off the leash and running. I distinctly remember the precise quality of ruffle on the water’s skin. I was staring at it when I noticed the silence-that the dog had gone quiet and that, a hundred yards away, he was staring, snout pointed, at something on the river’s edge. He was spooked and trembling. One paw hovered in midair.
I walked over and saw what he saw: it was a young man’s body. A young black man whose face was half submerged in the water, whose head was closely shaven and whose right hand had all but buried itself in a useless grip on the bank’s soft mud. The half of his face that I could see was broken and bloody. He was wearing a bright, baggy ski jacket, and the lower half of his body swayed back and forth in the water, depending on what the wind was doing. He was definitely dead. He was the calmest, quietest thing I had ever seen.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I patted the dog on the head and sat down beside him on the grass, and we both looked at the body for a while. He shifted ever so slightly in the water, languidly back and forth, like a man asleep and dreaming that he was swimming. He was right in front of me but it was as if he was a fanciful and ghostly thing, as if I could reach out and touch his dead head, his chilly, tangled fingers, and feel no sloppy revulsion. I looked up. The raw sky was a suitable and splendid veil for this kind of morning. And then I got a nosebleed for no reason that I could think of. I stood up, fished out a hanky and decided that now would be a good time to walk to the town center and inform the police. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that I had become a cliche: the man who finds the dead body While Out Walking His Dog. It made me laugh, but not much. I didn’t intend to be around long enough to acquire the peacock art of proper or ballistic mirth. I would not linger that long. I’m tired.
I’ve had more than enough for one man. Being a cliche’s a bonus.
When I told the police what I’d found they put me in a squad car, and we drove back to the river. I showed them the body and they very gently fished him out, rolling him over onto the grass. On his back, and dripping reddened water, he still gripped a fistful of mud, while the policemen stood around with radios squeaking and with their hands on their hips, looking sensibly sad and sucking their teeth.
Twenty minutes later a reporter from the regional TV station showed up and wanted to ask me what had happened and how I had found the body. The policeman didn’t seem bothered that I might say anything untoward or prejudicial, so I told him how I had found the body. How did I feel? I don’t know. I didn’t feel anything, really. I mean, I felt sorry for the poor cub, but I wasn’t horrified or anything. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t frightened by what I saw. It was a quick interview. The police had no further use for me, so I went home.
When I got home, in the late afternoon, I had a cup of tea and I opened the letter. I don’t know why. I knew it wasn’t right, opening someone else’s mail. But I had been annoyed by the way the reporter looked at me and I wanted something interesting to think about. So I opened her letter.
It was a love letter. From a man who signed himself simply as F. It was a letter that spoke of the kind of love a man will carry around with him for the rest of his life, because to step aside and do otherwise would be pointless, and would kill him stone dead. It was a letter I might have written a long time ago. It held paragraphs of loss and tender aching, and mistakes shabbily regretted; it spoke of his life then, swiped by stupidity, and of his life now, a poem to ecstatic numbness because he was without her. But mostly it was about love.
Just that. Love. Her every tic and idiosyncrasy, her eyes, her heart full of urgent bounce, her hair and her skin, her color and feathery temper, a lassie rare and horribly involved, always ready to fight the good fight, who had stunned him, perfectly, in the process. And so on. And so forth. Mostly about love.
None of the banal and crusading mousiness that passes for love letters these days. This guy’s love was full, true, rosy cheeked and terrified. Just like it should be.
I read it several times. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she looked like, what she sounded and smelled and felt like. In my mind’s eye, while my stomach Hipped-I don’t know why-I saw a lurid smart-ass of a girl, clever, with strawberry-blond hair and metal glasses and a full, lacerating smile. Shortish-five foot four-dressed in a bright, tosspot cardigan, gray jeans and brilliant boots. A firefighter on her day off. I read the letter again. And again. And with every reading more of her became smackly visible-her eye color, her voice, now smoky, her weight and every ingenious pore-I had her completely after a while. She could’ve been with me in the room. She felt that real. It could’ve been her who turned on the TV set to listen to the sad report on the young, dead man in the river. I looked weird on television and my voice had no timbre. And they cut my line about my not feeling anything. They probably thought I was a bit odd-looking.
I taped it anyway.
The second letter arrived five days after the first. I opened it straight away and read it over breakfast. Then I walked into town to collect my benefit. A few people looked at me as if they knew me. They knew my face. I’ve been here for a couple of years. But because I had been on television they looked at me differently. I was silently, slightly famous. I felt like the big, ever-present bald fellow on EastEnders who’s been given one or two lines over the last couple of years. It surprised people. It was as if their wallpaper had come to life, and they wanted to have a chat. I liked the soaps. I watched all of them. So many interesting lives. So much life.
I especially liked the fact that I could drop out at any time.
And drop back in. And things would be pretty much the same. Or I could drop out and stay out. The thread carried on without me. I found that very reassuring. And I liked the corrosive shambles of all those fake lives. So many problems.
La-di-da. So much pain. How about a nice cuppa? Death, disfigurement and all the rest. Beautiful weather! For the time of year. Yes, I loved my soaps, I could crowd-surf and stage-dive and mosh impeccably, and know that I wouldn’t even suffer a sprain. Been there. A couple of older women in the butcher’s looked at me as if I was some kind of villain, madder than most. As if by tripping over death I was now carrying its odor around with me. I stared at them. They looked away and went back to their bacon. Ladies, you watch too much telly, I thought. Well, I thought, this is a nice, quiet, sucking publicity. I’m not too sure about this. Not that it matters, I thought. Not that it’s going to matter, I thought. I didn’t buy anything. I left and I went home.
That evening, after Brook.side, I was reminded of the hospital and I read the letter again. Five days. He hadn’t even waited for a reply. This one was shorter but no less full of worship, a beguilingly scrappy howl of adoration. The more I read it the harder I tried to imagine what it must be like to love so much. To love in that way. I had been in love once, but it didn’t work out. No. It could’ve been perfect.
It was me that didn’t work out. Whatever. This letter spoke of specks of hope, his plans for their future, if only she would call him, if only she would take his calls. I’d had the phone disconnected as soon as I moved in. His handwriting was truly lovely. Old-fashioned and careful. He must’ve been a good ten years older than me to have had a hand as immaculate as that. I read it again. And then I read the first letter again and compared the two. I imagined him to be a reasonably presentable man in his early forties, with moderate tastes and a huge and shattered heart. What were they like when they were together? I placed myself in both camps. Outside, a car went by, but quietly so. I put on the tape of myself on the news. I was shivering by the riverbank and saying how sorry I felt for the poor cub, then I was cut off in mid-syllable, before I could say that I felt nothing. Before I could embarrass anyone with words ripped out of context. I turned off the TV and read the letters again. I disappeared into them. I just disappeared, like the minor celebrity who’s been written out of the series. The next person who says “get a life” within earshot of me I will kill. If I have the energy. If I give myself enough time. Some of us don’t want to. Some people can’t because it just hurts too much.
I was in and out of the ward for six years and, in the end, I guess they just got tired of me. Since I wasn’t tuning into His Master’s Voice or climbing the walls anymore, I was deemed a safe enough bet for the outside. I was twenty-one when I first stood on the railings of the bridge, looking down. I went and stood there many times in that high and tall place, usually in the small hours, looking down, wanting any kind of ropy existence, any kind of life, just so that I could take it with me. On my twenty-third birthday I was there, on tiptoe in the dark, when a thin voice beside me said that he would take my place. He was pale and familiar; he had been two years above me at school. Everyone thought he was a nutter.
I was numb and perfectly sane and sad, and barely listening but I heard him say that he would take my place.
His eyes were mad, mad with a celestial light, but for one moment I thought he was joking. He grabbed my waistband and I landed hard on the pavement. He said again that he would take my place because that’s what Jesus wanted and when I looked up he was gone. I heard a dull thud but he himself made no sound beyond those words. He had promised to take my place and he did. He took my life; and I let him.
I don’t remember the week after that. I was told much later that I screamed and cried for the first two days on the ward, and was quite violent. But I don’t really remember it. It was all a long time ago. But sometimes I feel as if I’ve never moved from that spot-as if I am still on tiptoe, hovering in the dark, with my legs getting weaker and the wind growing stronger. Wondering forever and stoutly teetering, like a brave and stupid child who has traded his last card and has nothing left to bargain with.