Are There More People Alive Than Dead?
The phone rings. 5am. It’s your boyfriend. He is in New York so with the time difference, your wake-up time is pretty much his bedtime. You asked him to call in case you slept through your alarm. You pick up the phone. His voice says:
—-‘Wake up little cat…’
—-You wipe a droplet of drool from the corner of your mouth. ‘I don’t want to go.’
—-‘Come on, get up. Don’t miss your train.’
—-You hang up. If you were honest with yourself, you would break up now because you know you eventually will. But he is nice and you hate being alone, so you stay and even now, you wish he were here with you. Instead, you get up feeling cold; turn on the bedside lamp. Your eyes sting with sleep as you put on the tights, the shoes, the coat. In the bathroom, the light shrinks your pupils black like small cigarette holes. You tie your hair into a bun, drink water from the tap. You yawn once and walk out the door.
—-When you get to St Pancras, the shops still sleep behind their metal gates. Eurostar. Departures. Past security, you go to PRET and buy a fizzy drink. The one called ‘Yoga Bunny’, the one that makes you feel like you’re being good to yourself because it’s got an avocado face and garden pea ears at the front. You once googled “Yoga Bunny”. There was a Youtube review. The man on the video had an accent you couldn’t place and he said the drink was part myxomatosis, part Watership Down. You spent 2 minutes 26 seconds watching him drink the whole thing.
—-Your ticket says seat 66, coach 3. You sit down. Next to you, a woman eats a banana; everything she wears is either black or white. She radiates togetherness, as if she’s been drawn, as if she’s been fully fledged like a perfectly developed cartoon character, complete with motivations and flaws and personal quirks. She inhabits her space so comfortably you know that she must be happy. Or that even if she isn’t, at least everything that’s wrong with her must adjust magically, like in a film and not like with you where everything that is terrible and sad sticks out like an ugly cactus.
Throughout the journey, you keep pretending to look at your reflection in the window just so that you can stare at her.
After the Eurostar, you take a high-speed train and fall asleep. You wake up in Lyon; you order an Uber. Your driver has 4.84 stars. His name is Samir. You talk about the city, about the weather, about politics. When you ask him if he minds you getting changed at the back, he says no so you reach into your bag and you take out the dress. It’s the one you always wear at weddings. You bought it five years ago and it has since attended five weddings. It is the perfect dress: the exact same shade as red wine so you can spill whatever you want all over yourself and no one ever knows. Not too short so not too slutty. Not too long so not too prudish. You slide the fabric over your tights; the colour blinks at you like a bleeding animal.
—-‘What brings you here?’ Samir asks.
—-Behind the sunglasses, you can’t see his eyes. He looks about twice your age. About father’s age.
‘School friend getting married,’ you say. ‘Couldn’t miss it.’ You loosen the elastic band around your hair.
—-‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘I like weddings.’ ‘Me too,’ you lie. ‘Looking forward to it.’
—-The car snakes its way through old white French architecture, yet whenever your eyes fall out of focus, all you see is the flat where you spent your last high-school party. Everyone was there. Pierre-Louis was there and you’re still not sure why he invited you to his wedding today but it would feel like betrayal not to go. You push away the thought and smile; Samir also smiles at you in the rear view mirror.
—-When he asks, you tell him that you are from Paris. He tells you that he is from Algeria. He likes Lyon because the climate here is like back home. Do you miss Algeria? Sometimes, he says, but he is happy here. Do you miss Paris? Sometimes, you say. But you are happy in London.
—-‘The people getting married,’ he asks, ‘do you see them often?’ ‘Not really’ you say. ‘We haven’t talked in a while.’
The car glides away from the city. On a high ridge, you fly past green hills with blue mountains in the distance. It’s still summer here, your London coat is too big for this weather. As you get close, the streets grow sparse, it’s hard to tell if this is a suburb or a village. The car drives up and down the same slope several times. You get lost through deserted roads that all take you to the wrong place. Eventually, Samir tells you that he will find the church, but that he’ll end the ride on the app now so you don’t pay extra money.
—-‘Are you sure?’~
—-‘Don’t worry about it,’ he says. ‘I’m not in a rush. Are you in a rush?’ ‘Not really. The ceremony isn’t until the afternoon.’
—-‘Maybe we can find somewhere to get a coffee. I’m tired.’
—-‘If you manage to find the place’, you say, ‘the coffee is on me’.
—-You do find it, eventually. Samir parks the car near a restaurant across the street. You sit down. He offers you a cigarette. You say you’ve stopped smoking.
—-‘Good for you.’
—-‘Do you often stop with people for coffee?’ You ask. His hair is white and grey. He leans back on his chair.
—-‘Why not, right? This job, it’s about the people. I like talking to people.’
—-The waitress brings over two espressos. You are the only two people on the terrasse, the only two people, it seems, in this entire town when the waitress disappears back into the restaurant.
—-‘How long have you been doing this job?’ you ask.
—-‘A couple of years,’ he says. ‘It’s good, I can do whatever I want. If I want to work, I work.
—-If I don’t want to, I stop. Before that, I used to be a metro driver. That was hard. And shit money.’
—-On the trees, there are no birds. No noise in the entire village, not even a rustling of leaves despite the wind. The question hits your tongue before your brain; you know you shouldn’t ask, but you are bad at leaving things alone. Not that you’re a pyromaniac but you sometimes find yourself starting small fires, just to see how far they burn.
—-‘I heard that in London, underground drivers get a premium whenever someone jumps in front of their train,’ you say. ‘I don’t know if it’s true. Is it true in Lyon?’
—-Smoke tumbles out of his mouth, hangs over the table with caterpillar grace. ‘Not here,’ he replies. ‘Here, you don’t get anything at all.’
—-‘No. It happened to one of my friends. He was driving his train, you know, as usual. Then he went through a tunnel and he felt something hit the front. He called the central control and he said I think I hit something but they said, you’re fine, probably just an animal. So he kept going. Then another train went through the tunnel. And another one. Eventually one of the other drivers saw something in the dark. Women’s clothes. That’s when they realised. This woman, she’d walked all the way inside the tunnel and then she’d jumped. Tunnels, you know, that’s when you start picking up speed. That’s the best place, she must have known that. They sent someone to have a look and there it was. The body and everything.’
—-You shift in your seat. The sun so hot and vertical the light reflects on the table like a flashlight in a mirror.
—-‘Yeah. It was hard for my friend. That’s when I stopped, actually. I didn’t want the same to happen to me. I didn’t want to be the one hitting someone, you know?’
—-You picture the clothes, floating in between the rails. In your head, the woman wears a red dress.
‘He didn’t even get a day off,’ Samir adds. ‘The day after, he was back driving the same train, so I thought, you know what? I’m done with this job. Enough for me.’
After Samir leaves, you feel light-headed; you are hungry and the restaurant has stopped serving food. There is still over an hour till the ceremony so you go for a walk in the village. All stones are bright and beige. Across a small park, you find a pharmacy. The only food they sell is baby food; jars and jars of baby food. The woman behind the counter recommends the ‘six-month old appropriate Douceur Pomme D’Aquitaine Biscuitée.’ In the park, you sit under the nicest tree. You open the baby food and eat two jars, scooping out the granular paste with your fingers, the mixture so sweet it makes your teeth hurt. Afterwards, you reapply lipstick. You check the time on your phone, open a text from your boyfriend:
Have you spoken to him yet?
You’re up early!
The wedding hasn’t even started
The sun tingles between the leaves of the trees.
It’s going to be fine
Be honest, just like we said
Yes, I know
—-You know. You do know how to apologise, it’s a fire-starting side effect. And not the only reason you’re here, but still. Seven years ago, you just left. That wasn’t very good of you, you know that; you let them all down. Pierre-Louis, Alex, everyone else. You could puke at the thought of seeing them today, all smart and fancy in their wedding gear, but it’s healthy to be nice. To wrap things up in a clean way. In the distance, the church square starts filling up. When you look down at the grass, your legs poke out from your body like two dead sticks, straight and brittle as dry pencils.
—-Eventually, a car door opens in front of the church and Pierre-Louis comes out; he wears a bow-tie and smiles at the guests. You make yourself stand up, you walk in his general direction. When he sees you, his eyes mark a small gap, like not really thinking you would come or trying to reconcile your face now with what your face used to be. Not that you have changed much, but maybe you have. He waves at you, you come closer.
—-‘I’m so happy you’re here,’ he says.
—-‘I know.’ You smile. ‘It’s good to see you.’
—-Back in high school, you were inseparable. He was a nice bourgeois Catholic boy with the complete package lifestyle: brothers, sisters, a huge house, a garden and parents that were still together. In the summer, they would go sailing in Brittany or fishing for lobster. Every Sunday, they would attend mass. They were good, lovely people though his mother hated you because your hair was pink, your ears were pierced, and she was terribly scared you might be fucking her son (you weren’t). Now he stands in front of the church, nervously smoking his best men’s cigarettes. You haven’t seen him in so long, yet he introduces you to all his friends so that you won’t feel alone. As the great big wooden doors open, he makes sure that you sit somewhere nice. And you do hear a few whispers, of course, you catch glimpses of people you haven’t seen in a long time. But you do your best to keep your eyes on the folds of your dress. You wish your boyfriend was here, so you could hide behind him.
The ceremony is followed by a cocktail, then dinner. Then after cake, the party starts. On the dance- floor, you see faces from your high-school days. You think of going to them but you don’t; you talk to an intellectual property lawyer about Brexit until she gets bored and leaves you with a sad-alone face and a semi-full glass of vodka-Red Bull.
—-You spot Alex, standing out from the crowd like a tired meerkat. He hasn’t changed; the only man under thirty-five to wear a tie, not a bowtie, terribly unfashionable in his severe, boring grey suit. When you were eighteen, he used to smoke a lot of weed and lie about it to his parents. He drove a fancy car and you liked that. His friends used to joke that he was so white he could go through an airport with a suitcase full of paper, and no one would ever question it. Whenever he went into his overdraft, he could just go to the bank and point at the figures on his parent’s accounts and the fine would get cancelled. Him and his friends seemed like the right crowd to be with at the time, though you do feel ashamed of it now. Of how much you wanted to be like them.
—-He puts one arm around the woman next to him. Her dress is grey too, she looks interchangeable and you feel like an asshole for thinking it. Seven years ago after the party, the last thing you saw was him, looking down, bent over the balcony railing. You want to explain why you left but your mouth is dry, your tonsils coated in sand. You take a sip, the fizzy-sweetness burns at the sides of your lips; Vodka-Red Bull tastes like being eighteen, like falling out of love or simply falling.
—-You will go to Alex and you will apologise for abandoning him. He will forgive you and everything will be fine. You will say that you did love him (at least you think you did) but that you were a coward. That when you saw Maxime on the ground, you thought you could take it but in fact, you couldn’t. That instead, you moved to London and you made new friends and a new life and that sometimes you regret it.
—-You’re just not really sure that you do regret it.
—-Leave the dance-floor, head for the outside. You sit in a quiet spot, next to the swimming pool. Plunge one hand in the blue, cold water. When the light lands on your dress at a certain angle, you can see a deep stain on the fabric. Then you move an inch to the right and the shadows eat back at the stain, folding it in the night.
—-You sit for a long time before Pierre-Louis finds you. When he does, he sits down. You say ‘nice wedding’, he says ‘thank you’. You talk about his wife and his life and you find it very reassuring, to know that he is happy. You used to miss him, so much, but it’s too late to say that.
—-‘So?’ you ask eventually. ‘Why did you want me here?’ ‘Why not?’
—-‘I don’t know. Don’t you hate me?’
—-‘I do, of course,’ he says. ‘But I’m drunk now, so…’ You laugh.
—-‘It would feel wrong for you not to be here.’
—-‘Yeah well…thanks for inviting me’ you say. ‘Your mum’s wearing a nice hat.’ ‘Thanks, you should tell her.’
—-You chortle into your drink, Redbull fizzing into your nose. ‘I don’t think so.’
—-‘Why not? I’m married now, don’t think she cares anymore.’
—-‘Maybe. You look like a dickhead in your penguin suit anyway. She’s got nothing to worry.’
—-He smiles. You swing your legs back and forth, like a child on a swing. That you could just be a child on a swing, a child that has broken nothing.
—-‘Did you ever find out?’ You ask after a while. ‘What happened?’
—-Pierre-Louis presses one shoe into the ground, his foot leaves a mark on the dust of the floor. ‘I don’t…’
—-‘I’m sorry. It’s your wedding, it’s not the right time.’
—-He nods. He is drunk. Everyone here is drunk except you. ‘Did you feel guilty?’ he asks.
—-‘For Maxime.’ ‘Why would I…?’
—-‘There were rumours, afterwards. I was just wondering.’
—-You look at him and you know, that you could just run away. Right now. Run away and walk down the countryside road. Maybe a killer would find you and chop your body into bits. Tomorrow the newspaper would report it: ‘Girl found dead in the woods.’ Maybe that would be for the best. Maybe that would be easier. You don’t run, though. Seven years ago, you’d been flirting with Maxime, of course, he was good looking and smart. You were close, you were friends, maybe a little bit more than friends; you were with Alex at the time and you were playing with fire. But people don’t throw themselves off windows at parties over a stupid heartache. You know that now; you knew that even then.
—-Pierre-Louis pulls at an invisible thread on his shirt. ‘I shouldn’t have brought this up. Sorry.’
—-You wonder what the killer would do with your body if he found you. If your limbs would end up all tangled up like Maxime’s after he dived off that balcony. If your wrist would take on bizarre angles, if the blood in the end would show up on your dress.
—-‘Was he wearing red trousers that night,’ you ask, ‘or is that just how I remember it?’ Pierre-Louis looks down at his beer. Clawing at the label, scratching it off the bottle.
—-‘I don’t think so. I think he was wearing black jeans.’ ‘It’s funny,’ you reply. ‘I always picture them red.’
—-You lean back, so far that you could almost fall into the water. ‘So why did you leave?’~
—-‘Those few weeks before he died, we spent a lot of time together. Too much time, probably. You’d think I would have seen it coming but I didn’t. Then afterward, I wasn’t even surprised. Just made me feel like I knew, somehow.’
—-‘We don’t know if he jumped. Maybe he just fell.’ ‘People don’t fall off balconies.’
—-You wipe your nose on your wrist.
—-‘I’m sorry for leaving’, you say. ‘I just couldn’t stay.’
—-Next to you, Pierre-Louis finally peels the label off his beer.
—-‘It had nothing to do with you, though. Not really. You know that, right?’ ‘I…’
—-‘No one knew. You couldn’t have known.’
—-You wonder which one of your pictures the newspapers would choose if the killer caught you. You wonder if you would put up a fight or if you would just let him do it. If you would ask him to be soft, to sing to you as he slices your throat, because you hate the pain more than the thought of death.
—-‘I need to talk to Alex,’ you say. ‘To apologise.’ ‘Don’t.’
—-You try and stand up but Pierre-Louis puts his hand on your arm.
—-‘Leave him alone, Anna. He doesn’t want to hear it. He’s good now, he’s married. He’s happy with himself, just let him be.’
—-‘I need to talk to him, though.’
—-‘Yeah, maybe. But not everything is about you. Is it?’
—-The next morning you take a train, then a night-bus from Paris and the ferry back to London. On the boat, you step outside. You bend over the railing. Everything is dark, the water is black and loud and you realise that you are scared. The sea is malevolent, it wants to hurt. You can’t take your eyes off it in case something tries to crawl out from the depth, to tear your apart, to scatter your arms and legs on the crests of the waves.
—-You lean forward and your heart screams in your chest. Mouth gulping for air like your brain getting ready to jump. What it would be to jump. As if the only reason a body would hang above water might be to dive into it. You still wear your red dress; the contrast is striking against the white of the rail. The wind is so sharp it burns and gags, you look down at the frothing near the base of the boat, down there the water is white and green and not black like everything else. You hold on for as long as you can, the fabric of your skirt flapping like a sad bird.
—-Then your body shaking; you step back from the railing.
—-When you walk back inside, the wind drops instantly. In here the swaying is almost indistinct. You head for the food court. You are not hungry but you can’t sleep, so you order the full English breakfast. It comes with one sausage one egg two rashers of bacon, four spoons of baked beans and five individual mushrooms. It costs £9.15 with the extra squeeze pouch of brown sauce.
—-You take your tray near a window. Outside, there is nothing, but above your own reflection, the lights of the ceiling reflect into the glass, unfolding like a sheet of stars in the black of the night. You have a missed call from your boyfriend. He’ll want to know how the trip went. To wish you good night or good morning. To tell you that you are beautiful, and brave and unique.
—-You could stop answering his calls. All you have to do is do nothing.
—-Now, you think, would be a good place to end things.
—-Instead, you take a picture of your plate and you send it to him. You wait a few minutes, then he replies.
You are a coward, but you smile.
Laurane Marchive is a French writer and director living in London. Her work has recently appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Review 31 and the TLS. Marchive is a past winner of the French Escales des Lettres and the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association competition. She was recently shortlisted for the Spread The Word Life Writing Prize and, in 2019, she will graduate from the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She also runs a circus.
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