My apartment was small for its location in the city, and only the floor to ceiling window that made up the external wall of the living room gave the impression of space. I opened the heavy curtain with 3 practiced tugs, to be greeted by piercing sunlight. Squinting against the harshness, I fumbled my way to the kitchen and switched the kettle on, then sank against the worktop. My head killed and I had only half undressed the previous night, having drank heavily. The kettle ticked off as I stared into space, and I moved automatically; only returning to reality when my brain couldn’t process why the kettle wouldn’t fit into the cupboard. Right, Coffee. I remained in the kitchen to avoid the sunlight until my head could cope. Caffeine brought some motivation, but not for the task at hand- that could wait. I walked into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, examining myself with worry.
With an effort I pulled myself away from the mirror and back into the kitchen. I opened the fridge, my stomach turned at the sight of food and I slammed it shut in disgust. You can’t even take care of yourself, “It’s true”, I said aloud.
I sat down on the sofa and pulled my laptop from between the cushions. Today didn’t feel like it could get any lower, so I should probably start to address my long overdue problem. Some months ago, I’d had what some might have said was an addiction to methamphetamine; personally, I disagreed. I'd seen addicts, and they barely functioned, let alone wrote books: I would micro-dose the meth to enhance my creative abilities, to great effect, as my novel attested. However the success of my first book had gone to my head a little, and I arrived home one day to a scene you might expect to find in a book: Shelly, her family, my family- even some members of my extended family, all sat facing me with grave expressions. I had listened in stunned silence to their demands; first I was to attend a six-week course in a rehabilitation centre, following that I had to move to the city, and give up my phone, delete any social media accounts and check in with a doctor for regular drug tests. I suppose it was touching. Shelly was almost hysterical, which is what really convinced me; I couldn’t lose her to anything. Looking back, I had gone a little too mad for a little too long, and still had large blank spaces in my memory where I dreaded to think what might end up on the internet.
Anyway, now I had the problem of needing to produce a sequel to my first “Dazzling success” without the secret to my success being available to me anymore. I stared at the white screen in front of me; my editor had called the day before to inform me I had promised her over a year ago I would produce a second book within 6 months of the first. “Yes, because I was on fucking meth Julia” I had felt like sarcastically responding. Nothing I wrote satisfied me anymore, my characters seemed to me to be two dimensional and their motivations contrived to serve my plot; each word I typed produced new imagined letters from critics in my head. I whimpered in frustration as I erased the last paragraph I had typed. I flipped the lid shut and stood up. I would go out and get a real coffee, look for some inspiration; or at least a good conversation. I dressed properly and turned, picked up my laptop, wallet, and keys and let the door slam behind me.
I ran down the stairs, and turned left onto the street, finally feeling a pang of hunger as I did. My usual coffeeshop was open, and my usual conversation sat outside, smoking in the sun. “Alright Al” I said, striding past him to make an order. It was nice not to care about the price of the sandwiches and coffee here, and it was a luxury I’d grown used to
Al looked perplexed when I sat down. “Who’s the bloke?” he asked, I looked about, “what bloke?”. “The one you just came in with” Al said, already impatient, “he was practically breathing down your neck”. I scrunched my face up in frustration “I’m not with any bloke Al, stop being senile”, there had been no one anywhere near me, I was certain of it. He sat up quickly, raising his voice and saying “you just walked in there with that tall thin weird looking guy in the suit, don’t play fucking dim”. I shook my head, pursing my lips and looking him up and down, saying, “You been smoking something funny in those cigars? I’ve just walked in, alone, and queued, alone. and now I’m sat out here. Do you see any fucking suited weird looking guy here? No. Is there one in there? No!” muttering afterwards, “Jesus man.” Al said nothing and his face assumed a dogged expression that told me there would be no conversation today. I let out a heavy sigh and then slapped my legs and stood up, picking up my laptop, sandwich and coffee as I did and saying “Right, Bye then.” He continued to stare ahead, maintaining his silence. I walked off, stiff backed and already regretting snapping at him, but feeling too proud to turn back and apologise; he'd only try to wring more out of it than it deserved, I thought with a sneer.
I had no idea of my end destination, I just walked, feeling completely without purpose. The problem with this book was that it had been a pressure on my life for so long now that I did not even want to write anymore; admitting that to myself brought me even lower and I slumped onto a bus stop bench. The sun had disappeared behind thick cloud, and as I rolled a cigarette the rain began. It felt appropriate for my mood. I lit the cigarette and looked up. The rain was heavy, the street quiet, and across the road I noticed a tall, suited man. I squinted to bring him into focus; he had an odd frame, with shoulders too broad for his emaciated build, I sucked in a breath as I realised I’d been holding it. Something about the man made my heart beat quicken and I knew then that this was the man Al had seen with me at the coffeeshop. My skin prickled with a thrill as the man looked up, slowly, as though from some sinister reverie. I swallowed and stood up from the bench, cigarette forgotten in my hand. The man shifted his weight ponderously, and stepped forward. He had an awkward gait, but each movement seemed to carry him a tenth of the distance between us. Instinctively I knew I had to run; I turned on my heel and sprinted as fast as I could back the way I’d come.
I did not have time for thought as I raced through the streets, I felt awake and focussed, and as I ran on I felt something crack within me. A hard shell of numbness that had been pressing me into something I didn’t recognise was breaking away, and I unfurled. I slowed my pace, feeling more in control of myself, and ready to face the man. What the fuck are you scared of anyway? There’s a camera on every street corner. I thought back to the bus stop, to the feeling of irrepressible fear that had risen in me. I had felt no control, in spite of all that. I grimaced against the rain and set a military pace for my building, only looking over my shoulder once.
When I arrived back at the apartment I sat down on the sofa and rolled another cigarette. “Fuck you, smarmy old bitch”, I spoke aloud of my landlady as I lit the cigarette. I exhaled heavily, luxuriating in the blasphemy. I smoked in the gloom, still feeling uneasy. Writing anything seemed to have faded in importance somewhat. I opened my laptop for the third time that day, blinking against the harsh white light, and felt a stab of the old futility return. With it came the same creeping dread that had come over me in the bus stop and I snapped the laptop shut. My vision flared to an oily blackness and slowly readjusted to the darkness enough to see the road outside; and the figure looking up at me. I settled back against the cushions carefully, trying to contain the rising dread to think, think. My mind drew a blank; call the Police? It all seemed suddenly ridiculous. I stole another glance out of the window and found the road below empty. Maybe I should just go to bed. I had some emergency Valium still- the doctor had given me a trickle of small prescriptions after I came out of rehab, for the 'readjustment period’, and in spite of my promises I had hoarded them. I popped one from the packet and into my mouth and then in a frantic, mindless fumbling popped out three more and knocked them back. I walked through to the bedroom, already feeling calmer, and turned on the light.
The bed here still did not feel like my own and was not inviting me. I decided to go to a more familiar place and pulled a large battered book from beneath my bed; it was satisfyingly heavy in my lap and I flipped it open. My untidy handwriting filled the page in front of me and I flicked through to the last entry. It was not a happy one, my vision shifted in and out of focus as the Valium came into full effect, I smiled blissfully; I could not have felt guilty if I had tried. Making all my movements with deliberate care I took a pen from beside the bed and pressed the top to engage the nib. Lowering it to the page I started to write- as always, I did not think or revise anything I wrote here, it was a steady stream of consciousness that flowed from my pen.
Five minutes past and I looked back at my scrawling in doubt: I could not remember anything I had written and yet a page was filled. I tried fruitlessly to shake my head clear of the valium and focus on the writing. The more I read the more alarmed I began to feel; my writing did not paint a comforting picture of my internal landscape. I gripped my hair in both hand as I read on, the writing did not feel like my own, it was too articulate for something I wasn’t even conscious of writing; too detailed. I felt deeply unsettled, I had written a third person account of my day.. My day being followed around by a tall thin man. My skin prickled in a hot flush and I felt tears fill my eyes, I’m fucking losing it I thought as I looked wildly about for an escape. Time to go.
The stairwell door banged shut behind me and I marched up the road. Time to get out of London, time to get home. I might be losing my mind but I’ll be damned if I can’t get the fuck back home. You might be losing your mind; uncertainty wormed its way back to my consciousness and my quick stride faltered. Panic rose unhelpfully and I continued on, realising I had made no plan at all. Did trains run at this hour? What fucking time was it? I dragged my hands into my hair as I looked down at my phone, it was quarter to one.. “HOW??!” I bellowed in my panicked frustration at the empty street, straining my voice and causing several lights to flick on in the windows around me. “Fuck it, taxi” I breathed, only about £300 at this time, fuck it. I sat down on a garden wall and googled a number, as I hit dial I looked back down the street, and whimpered; a tall, suited figure was dimly illuminated by the yellow lights. The hair on my body crept upright, it was not moving. From a great distance, I heard a woman’s voice, and looked in bewilderment at my phone. Taxi, fuck, right. My voice shook as I answered in a rush, “Hello, I need a taxi as soon as possible, now, going to Thame, Oxford, I know that’s a long way, I’ll pay whatever rate anyone wants, I don’t care”, I did not take my eyes off the figure, it had not moved at all, it just stood, ominously regarding me. What the fuck did it want? Was it really there? Have I actually lost my mind? “Hello, sir? Hello?” came the voice on the phone again, “What? Yes?” I replied, she spelled out the next sentence slowly; “Where do you need your taxi from?”, “well I.. where are you? I’ll run to you now” I replied distractedly, she told me the address, sounding like she thought I was on something. Mercifully I knew the street; without a second thought, I turned my back on the man, and ran. He was blocking the way to the taxi office; I would have to go a longer way. I looked around a few paces later. The man had gone, I slowed my pace, fear changing to overwhelming frustration and loneliness, was I hallucinating? Was it just a man?
The alley was longer than I remembered, and the streetlight faded behind me; I peered mistrustfully into the darkness ahead, fighting my instincts to slow down. I emerged unmolested into the street beyond, not far now; in my mind the man's awkward gait carried him unnaturally faster and faster towards my destination, and in spite of myself I began to run again. I kept on straight past the office, skidding to a messy halt and hastening back to the door. A middle-aged woman with a worried face looked up at me from behind a broad desk. “Thame?” she said abruptly, “yeah” I gasped back, pushing sweaty hair out of my face. “He’s waiting out back, and you’ll need to pay here for such a long journey”, I nodded my assent, still desperate for air; I don’t know when I’d become so unfit. I waited as she fiddled about with a card machine a lifted it up to me, not meeting my eyes and clearly keen to get back to whatever was on her screen. To my horror I felt myself biting back tears, I really needed some human contact, some comfort; “I’m not on drugs”, I blurted as I pulled out my card. She looked up at me, finally making eye contact; her expression was bored, and pitiless, I felt my chest tighten with anxiety and I fumbled to enter my PIN. Twenty agonising seconds later the door was banging behind me. I made my way around the building and heard heavy footsteps behind me, maddeningly close. I refused to look round. I could see the car, the rotund driver inside playing on his phone. The skin on my neck prickled and I clenched every muscle in my face and neck I will not look round, it’s not there. Ten paces to go; a foetid stench rose around me, a slimy, decaying foulness that made my gorge rise. Five paces, I could hear the detail to every step it took, the scrape of each individual stone underfoot. I was at the door, I finally caved to my every screaming instinct and looked around with a start and a shout. The yard was fucking empty.
The driver got out and nodded at me, “Thame?” he asked in a thick Romanian accent. I nodded fervently back and got into the car, rubbing my arms and instantly wishing I’d got in the rear seats. The driver seemed to agree and he entered the car slowly, casting me a baleful glance. I covered my mistake, rolling a cigarette and saying “do you mind?” he shook his head and I pulled a generous five from my pocket and placed it on the dashboard. I lit the fag I didn’t even want, smoking half of it quickly, casting all about me, eyes straining against the dark to see. I threw the cancer to the ground and got into the back of the car. cont soon.