the baggy trousered misanthropist

missives issued from the lair

The man was roaring. Eyes screwed tight, tears pouring down already flushed cheeks, fists clenched, banging on the table until cutlery, fine china and, yes, Javin thought, teeth on nearby tables began to rattle.

The weight of the plates on Javin’s tray shifted suddenly but he rode it, skilfully correcting and continuing to pile dirty crockery upon it as though it weighed nothing at all. No one noticed. No one looked at Javin, not the men who counted him onto their buses before dawn and in the warm, close evenings, the ones who inspected his uniform before issuing the day’s instructions or those who barked orders in the kitchens and the hidden, utilitarian corridors where guests were not permitted to roam.

Not even the men who rolled out of his bunk silently to allow him in looked him in the eye. The body heat of a recently vacated bunk had disconcerted Javin at first, but now it was strangely comforting. The closest thing he had in his life to intimacy.

A final fling of the fist and the man sat back in his seat, wiped his face with a white linen napkin and looked about him. The three couples on his table rewarded his humorous, almost certainly ribald anecdote with the same gestures Javin saw in the same play every evening. The men with dismissive waves and gales of their own laughter, the women exchanging smiles and nods, hands clasped. The actors in the play looked the same too, despite changing weekly or even daily, depending on the duration of their stay and their dining preferences.

Apparently satisfied with his performance, the man raised his head and then his right hand, summoning Javin to the table with a click of his fingers. Nodding an acknowledgment, Javin offloaded the laden tray at the nearest waiting station and moved smoothly towards the table, leaning towards the man upon arrival, hands clasped behind his back.

“Sir?”

The man described a loose circle with his finger, enclosing his guests.

“Another bottle of the Chateau Lafite.” he said, glancing at the half filled wine glasses on the table. His own was empty.

“Two.”

Javin nodded, remaining still and poised despite the sudden, thick cloud of garlic and shellfish infused halitosis enveloping him.

“Oh, Philip, you’re so bad!” one of the women at the table said, leaning forward in her chair and laughing with the forced abandon of the mildly inebriated. Javin could see that her carefully applied eye makeup had bled into the tiny cracks around her eyes, tiny cracks that he knew remained wilfully impervious to the Botox that lent the rest of her face a smoothness her natural years pushed her beyond. Javin knew nothing about the process but had developed an expertise in assessing the relative skill of unknown operatives, who plied their trade in cities Javin would never visit. He saw it in the faces of all the women who dined in the most opulent restaurants of the hotel, some of those in the moderately priced venues and occasionally in the low end diners, but not much.

Philip dismissed her protest and Javin with the same flick of his right hand, his contempt for them both evident in the gesture if one knew what to look for. Javin began to withdraw, his attention already drifting in the direction of the bar. Bilal was polishing glasses but Javin knew he was simultaneously sweeping the room for eye contact and caught his colleague’s attention almost immediately.

Taking care of guests, cleaning up the detritus they left in their wake and fulfilling their every whim while looking like it was effortless – a pleasure, even – was an impossible challenge to master at first, achievable only through intense concentration driven by the fear of making an error and being replaced by one of hundreds desperate for an opportunity, but after a while it became second nature and the development of nonverbal communication replaced terror as a method of maintaining a respectable level of brain activity. Javin had studied computer science at Colombo University and like many of the young men he worked with, was afraid his mind would lose the edge he’d sacrificed so much to hone. Javin had worked at the hotel for four months and was able to convey virtually any request, including wine vintages, across a crowded dining room to a distance of thirty feet using only his hands and eyes. He made a small gesture, a simple turn of the left hand to anyone watching, but to Bilal, a specific request, and the tender signalled his acknowledgement by half closing his eyes.

Javin turned back to the table to offer a half bow before leaving, his mind already drifting out towards other tables he was waiting in that section. The fluidity of his movement was broken though, as the cadence of a swimmer is broken by a seaweed frond winding itself smoothly, tenderly, around an ankle, a gentle sensation that suddenly snags, the release of adrenalin as startling as a gunshot.

The woman sitting closest to Philip was virtually indistinguishable from the others Javin served daily. Indeed, he’d led these guests to their table today, taken their orders and listened to the apparently banal dialogues that passed for conversation among the indecently rich and those attracted to the ease with which those conferred moved about the world without noticing her at all.

Apparently banal because Javin had become familiar with the dynamics proximity to power evoked in people and, in the beginning, had been amused by the narrowness of the path trodden and the competency of those dancing along it, the fear of anonymity and becoming the wrong kind of memorable like cliffs falling away steeply on either side. Now, of course, the amusement had given way to faint contempt and sometimes he hated himself for participating in the charade.

The irony was not lost on him.

The woman was in her mid-twenties, blond hair captured in a clasp on the back of her head, those strands inadequately snared hanging loosely around her face and settling on her pale, vulnerable neck. She wore a light evening dress and jewellery that looked prohibitively expensive, even from Javin’s uninformed perspective. It was, perhaps, couture. The material incorporated the woman’s form perfectly, a feat off-the-peg clothing could rarely extend to.

But Javin was not drawn to her clothing, jewellery or poise. He saw textbook examples of Western beauty ideals every day and would have lost his job a long time ago if they had been capable of distracting him. By sheer chance, in the way the world does sometimes when she is feeling playful and wishes to allude to something more than coincidence, Javin met the woman’s gaze, and the world ceased to revolve on its axis for a split second.

Her pain struck him like a tidal wave. Javin had done a little surfing at Gurubebila beach when he was growing up and had been hit by slabs of cresting salt water enough times to appreciate that Nature only tolerates humanity’s vulgar, pitiful displays of power. And now, in that dining room where the only water was harmlessly contained within crystal pitchers, he was trapped beneath a wave that pinned and pounded him as effectively as any break he’d tried and failed to ride. His lungs and head began to swell and it took extraordinary effort to avoid an involuntary step back.

Javin had seen pain before but emanating from people whose circumstances contextualised it, or at least informed it. The presence of violence, aggression, force, bereavement or hopelessness alongside or shortly before expressions of pain, while always unpleasant, served a function he’d never acknowledged, but only as the wave receded did Javin realise it was the absence of these things that exacerbated his shock.

“Can I help you?”

Javin realised, a moment too late, that his hesitation had been noted. The man, Philip, was staring at him, startled not by Javin himself, because that would be to acknowledge his humanity, but by what he presumed was the impertinence of leaving an order hanging in the air above the table Javin acknowledged his mistake with a shallow bow, little more than a tip of the head, really, but was unable to resist glancing back at the young woman as he turned on his heels.

The well of suffering was so deep that the bottom was a logical conclusion. It had disappeared – been expunged even – as there was no indication it had ever existed. In its place, pale blue eyes gazed blankly at a half empty glass of red wine on the table and fingers lightly touched the tender stem of the glass and she didn’t raise her head to meet his gaze again, despite his mind compelling her to do so.

Javin took his leave, surreptitiously wiping his suddenly clammy hands on a napkin at the earliest available opportunity.

CANDICE

The darkness was complete but Candice didn’t need to see to confirm what she suspected. The inflation of Philip’s chest was signalled by a slighted-walrus-retaliatory-roar that crested, then collapsed into lip flapping accompanied by a bagpipe whistle that was somehow both shrill and deep enough to cause her soft tissue to tremble.

He was definitely asleep. Her attention to Philip’s breathing was as finely tuned as any new mother’s, the fear of his waking unexpectedly having consequences that slithered into darker reaches than a broken night’s sleep. Nevertheless, she remained perfectly still as she glanced at the clock, just to be sure.

The countdown began at the moment he rolled off her and twenty minutes was the average time it took him to descend into a deep enough sleep for Candice to come alive. Despite the bleakness of her situation, Candice always felt a swell of achievement in her stomach if the timing was correct, and even tonight, the night of all nights, it came. Twenty-two minutes and fifteen seconds on the clock and he was gone.

Usually she would allow the swell to push her gently from beneath the bed clothes and into four or five hours of uninterrupted freedom to move around, unencumbered by expectation and propriety, even if that was just slipping out of the lacy underwear Philip chose that caused her skin to become irritable and lying on the sofa wearing just a robe. But not tonight.

At some point in the recent past, snatched moments of darkness and solitude had stopped being sufficient to cool the burning. Candice couldn’t pinpoint when – she certainly hadn’t noticed a change at the time – but suddenly, one morning after the early morning sun had edged her toward wakefulness, she realised the fullness that time alone usually deflated a little, remained swollen and sore in her abdomen.

This moment had been an inevitability since then.

A pillow over his face.

It wouldn’t be so difficult, she’d reasoned. In fact, given the time she’d had to consider the idea, Candice was a little disappointed that it all looked so mundane. A gesture so bold and momentous should surely be accompanied by drama, screaming, perhaps even gunfire and police sirens?

But once the inevitable rejections and doubts had peppered the notion like shells and grenades and it remained standing, she had realised simple was the best way. The only way.

The plump, expensive cushion was heavy in her left hand. Soft yet reassuringly firm. In the darkness, Candice sat up, pulled her knees to her chest and placed the pillow between her body and her thighs. The silk sheet slid down her legs as she leaned forward and pressed her face into the pillow firmly, gently agitating her head from side to side until there were no pockets of air. If someone had walked in on her, they might have imagined she was crying or screaming, using the pillow to muffle the noise.

She wasn’t. She was on a plane, bracing for a crash. Where she had been when the burning mass inside her body coalesced into a coherent form and she had realised what she had to do.

The memory was clear. At least, she had believed it to be. The livery of the plane and the staff, the bland, faintly nauseating smell of reheated food that passengers less fortunate than she were offered, the muffled roaring noise of the engines as they propelled the plane were visible with such clarity, Candice should have easily been able to identify where the flight had been going and therefore the date of her epiphany.

But, she realised, face still pressed into the cushion but with a channel of air cleared for her to breathe, she had no idea where the plane had been going. Those details could have been from any flight. Collated from several. Candice travelled with Philip perhaps three or four times a month to wherever his business concerns took him, and that could be anywhere he wanted. The details didn’t matter. Deference to the Westerner with greater personal wealth than the gross domestic product of a country was indistinguishable from timezone to timezone. There are many kinds of poverty, Candice thought. But relentless proximity to the super rich had taught her that luxury looks largely the same from behind blacked out windows, wherever you are in the world.

She pictured herself in the first class suite with the slider closed. The pilot’s request for passengers to fasten seat belts still fresh in her mind, she fancied she could hear the click in the dark bedroom, although again, that could be her mind filling in the blanks and trying to create a coherent narrative. Even the attendant whose perfectly coiffed and made up form had passed by the suite door and glanced in to confirm Candice had obeyed the instruction, was faceless.

She never looked at them anyway. Not now. She knew what they thought. Candice felt the same.

The one thing specific to that journey was Candice pressing her face into the airline pillow after the attendant had gone. Would it be a sudden drop? She didn’t think so. Planes rarely just fell out of the sky. As her conscious mind sent a minion to rifle through files in her brain to disprove that notion with half remembered news headlines, she imagined a slow, almost gentle descent. If she put her headphones in, there would be no screaming, no panic. A leaf swaying from side to side as it dropped from the sky riding air streams or a skateboarder rhythmically riding smooth walls, the sound of the wheels on concrete like a metronome.

It was almost peaceful. Beautiful. No more, no less disturbing than a carriage ride through Central Park on a snowy winter’s day; the destination certain, if not yet visible to the naked eye.

With a clarity that was almost painful after the fuzziness of the memories, Candice realised that she couldn’t breathe. She lifted her head from the pillow and drew in a lungful of air conditioned, tainted air that tasted like a cool, crisp morning to her protesting bronchi.

Then she had known what she needed to do. The rest was just detail.

Philip’s habits were such that even the most casual of acquaintances would assume a peaceful overnight death in a luxury hotel was connected to his myriad excesses. If not the weight he carried around his waist, then the infamous after dinner brandies that by now must have clawed his liver to ribbons. The tablets to regulate his blood pressure weren’t a secret either – he took them quite openly when entertaining – as though wealth and power could deny or at least temporarily distract death from the pursuit of ailing souls.

Suspicion would alight on Candice, of course, but like a bird on a swaying branch, it would swiftly take flight. Quiet, unassuming Candice, who survived her own ethereal beauty by using it as a shield? Who had learned to deflect the relentless, monotonous attention from middle aged men by exposing her intense vulnerability to their wives and allowing them to think her weak and broken? Murdering Philip Bailey-Black, who had never known a second of subjugation or uncertainty in his fifty-four years? Even Alfred Hitchcock would struggle to make the characters in that sordid little plot plausible.

Or perhaps he’d see through it all. Hitchcock recognised the motivating power of pain and fear and how when suppressed sufficiently, it would pursue avenues from which to disgorge itself anyway, like electricity or water. Her instinct for survival might be obvious to him. She couldn’t be the only woman in history who’d reacted to the sense of entitlement over her body and mind by becoming the very thing they wanted her to be and concealing herself in plain sight.

And how, after a time, escape became less of an option and more a necessity for survival. Anywhere but here.

Somewhere down the hall, raised voices undulated. Ebbing, flowing, ceasing suddenly with the distant slam of a door. She paused, listening for any change to Philip’s breathing pattern that might indicate disturbance, but there were none.

For as long as the notion had remained unacknowledged in Candice’s mind, the possibility of capture and punishment for Philip’s murder had kept it from forcing its way into reality.

Then one day she had been standing next to him at a youth cancer benefit, listening to him sling increasingly ludicrous bids into the air to screams of approval from other attendees. Her feet, encased in 5 inch Giuseppe Zanotti sandals wittily named ‘Cruel’ , had been hurting all day, but as the party had progressed into its fourth hour, the pain had become exquisite; the cramping muscles in her calves and dull ache in her lower back forming an almost note perfect chorus of pain with her freshly blistered toes and heels.

Glancing left, Candice had seen a gaggle of expensively dishevelled men and women at the next table urging Philip into increasingly ludicrous bids for a day’s pheasant shooting at some stately home. The merrier for several bottles of expensive Merlot, their baying and stained mouths reminded Candice of a film she’d once seen. Something about a middle class American neighbourhood indulging in secret occult orgies, featuring scenes of writhing bodies slick with sweat and blood.

“Would prison be worse than this?” she’d thought, staring blankly at the faces. The obvious answer was yes, but as far as Candice was concerned, that very much depended on one’s perspective. There were many interpretations of imprisonment.

A lack of personal freedom. Confinement. Uncomfortable clothing. The employment of role playing as a tool of self-preservation. Unwanted sexual intrusions. She had all of that already.

There was no violence, of course. It would be wrong to intimate Philip was anything other than chivalrous in the traditional sense of the term, but could suffering be ranked? Was there definitive proof that one form of confinement was subjectively worse than another? Candice had shifted in her shoes then and the shriek of pain that followed had suppressed the necessity for debate.

The physical and mental anguish, whose blade had dulled over time, still cut deeply, even tore her flesh sometimes although only she could know that. A new kind of pain, whether catalysed by guilt, condemnation, fear or confinement would be a relief simply for being different. A change being as good as a rest, Candice supposed.

*

Now, having rationalised herself into a position of positive momentum, all that remained was the act itself.

The scene was set. Philip was fast asleep, the room dark. Her grip on the pillow was firm and to change the world forever, all she had to do was sit up, slide a leg silently over Philip’s pelvis, place the pillow onto his face and wait. Her knees on his chest to minimise his chances in the inevitable battle for life and then, within minutes, it would be over and Candice would be free.

She held the pillow, the slippery cover colluding with her clammy hands. Just one movement, a fluid motion she had been practising in her mind for days, would create a domino effect that required no emotional input. She needed to make that one move and it would be done.

Do it.

Anxiety was a weight in her chest that threatened to crush her ribs to dust. The room, despite the air conditioning, was stifling. Candice reached for a breath, missed and a damp warmth settled over her, a sensation not dissimilar to the kind she had experienced as a teenager when she skipped meals. The weakness was overwhelming and completely incompatible with her plans to suffocate a fifty-four year old man who weighed sixteen stone at the last time of measuring.

Candice slipped out of bed and padded through the darkness until she felt the cold surface of the French window on her outstretched hand. The door slid open with the gentlest of tugs and she stepped onto the balcony, the softest of cool night breezes roaming over her exposed skin. A moment to regain composure was all.

“It’s fine.” Candice repeated it under her breath like an incantation, feeling the cold metal of a balcony chair against the backs of her knees and dropping silently into it.

“It’s fine. Fine. Completely fine. You knew this would happen. You can’t feel it now, but it’s coming. You’ll stand up and go in and do it and in a minute everything will be different.”

She rocked gently on the chair, knees rising into her chest unconsciously.

“You’ll do it because there’s something else. Another life that doesn’t hurt as much. Or at least one you chose rather than one you walked into as though you had all the time in the world.”

Candice pressed her fingernails into her knees. She could feel the motivation slipping away, fancied she could feel it dispersing in her mind like deserting troops running for cover. In its place rose anger, red anger.

The first nail snapped, dropped to the floor. The rest followed suit, either remaining embedded in her knees or falling to congregate with the others on the balcony’s stone floor. The glue on one of them had been particularly stubborn and without looking, Candice knew it had taken most of her real nail with it. Wincing, she pressed another nail into the bed, the pain shrieking up her arm and stirring a faint nausea within.

The worst thing, she thought, was that now she could see it had all been an ornate, beautifully rendered structure built on sand. Even as as Candice had been studiously carving out useless decorative embellishments, the foundation of the plan to murder Philip had been tipping and swaying, unsafe on the assertion that his death was what would make the difference.

The truth she’d hidden from herself, perhaps because of the ramifications, was that even if she did get away with killing Philip, once the furore had died down, what would be left? A twenty-nine year old woman who couldn’t look at herself in the mirror. No skill sets apart from how to behave impeccably when dating a rich man, no employment experience apart from how to behave impeccably when dating a rich man.

She could find a job, Candice had reasoned when uneasy thoughts had edged their way in. Anyone could find a job. She wasn’t stupid. She’d received glowing reports from all her teachers at the College, performed well academically. People liked her. They didn’t know she was dead inside.

*

Across the bay, a glimmer of dawn had begun to temper the darkness. A soft purple glow, both comforting and terrifying. Time was running out and Candice was letting it happen. Sitting back and watching grains of sand pass through the tiny aperture in the middle of an hourglass as though she had neither the means nor the manner to reach out and fling the fucking thing at the wall.

Self-hatred suddenly enveloped her like a familiar coat and a rueful, strangled laugh emerged, without warning, from her throat. She had never intended to kill Philip. No more than she’d intended to turn to her mother and tell her that no, she didn’t want to go and learn etiquette and poise at a finishing school with other rich girls, she wanted to tear off the dress that cost more than a family car and run away until her lungs bled. Both were just fantastical notions to delude herself that she had some power, some control that she could exert at will. Philip wasn’t an unpleasant man. He wasn’t exactly a good man, that was true, but given some of the scenes she’d witnessed in expensive club and hotel bathrooms – bruises, loose teeth, blood red scratches on porcelain skin, all communicated in hushed exchanges as though the victims were spies with seconds to reveal their secrets before the window of opportunity slammed closed – a relatively benevolent figure whose expectations were reasonable, under the circumstances.

Killing Philip would be her pain gathering momentum inside her and unleashing itself outward, creating visible damage. Consequences. If finishing school had taught her one thing, it was that emotional eruptions in society’s public places were only slightly less indiscriminately destructive than tsunamis. When Candice’s emotions fomented within to form a fist, that fist had been trained to smash down inside her, crushing flesh and smashing bone, silently and extensively.

She could carry that pain. Was intimately acquainted with its weight and contours and could suppress the outward signs of its insistence upon emerging until it was left with no option but to sneak out in clouds concealed in her breath.

Candice stood suddenly, the metal chair barking on the balcony tile. Below her, between deep blue pools and vivid, forced grass, people scurried like ants on sandstone paths that looked like hairs. That was why rich people preferred the penthouse, she thought, pressing her torso tightly against the wrought iron railing. From that height, everything was inferior. Trees, cars, lives. You can see for miles and you’re closer to god. Untouchable.

Well, perhaps there was another reason. A ninety metre fall would be almost certainly fatal. For people with social standing, reputation is everything and a suicide attempt would imply dissatisfaction with one’s life choices. Weakness. They’d be straight to the throat like a hound on a broken fox. At least if you die you don’t have to live with that.

Almost without thinking (almost), Candice lifted her left foot. As though guided by an unseen force, it slid onto a foothold on the railing, settled. Grasping the rounded top of the railing with both hands, she flexed her right foot and breathed in, all the time staring blankly at the pinkish horizon.

Candice swayed. Control was so close to being a memory, a euphoric wave passed through her body and she shuddered. It was over… just one more fluid motion and she would be the air, the water, the sand in the hourglass. Destination certain. Inevitable. Gone.

“Candi? Are you on the balcony? Will you shut the door? It’s too fucking hot without the aircon working.”

It emerged from her throat without warning, a strangled cry to mourn the death of something Candice never known but would always miss. Then it was gone and her right foot, hovering an inch from the fence dropped to the floor as mechanically as it had risen. The left too.

Candice turned.

JAVIN

He hadn’t been able to sleep, of course. He’d lain on the lumpy, shapeless mattress for three or four hours, silently staring at Anil’s corpulent form pressing through the bunk above him, listening to him honk and shudder through his dreams and wondering about the woman.

He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. Hadn’t tried to, if he was being honest. Watching her pain was dangerously compelling – like staring into the sun – and Javin didn’t blink for a moment, the knowledge that it might blind him present, but ignored.

By five, three hours before his shift began and barely two since he’d tapped Omesh’s shoulder and watched him roll out of the bunk, Javin was dressed and waiting on the street for the bus. He wouldn’t get paid for the extra hours but there was always work to be done and somehow, he thought, he’d feel better if he was at the hotel.

Only when the bus came, he’d climbed aboard and rested his head on the warm, dusty glass of the window, did he admit it. As though if he were travelling, the shame would be less able to pin him down.

Javin had lived with pain all his life and yet… he’d never seen it flourish and thrive in the way it seemed to in her. There was something sickeningly compelling about it and his unwilling finger had spent the night hitting repeat on the footage, examining it from every conceivable angle in case he’d missed something. It didn’t belong in her, was a glaring anachronism in his view of the world, and, instead of averting his eyes from the pile up out of respect for the victim, Javin stared so hard he felt like he’d absorbed it. Her pain had found a foothold in his mind and he was utterly in its thrall.

Stepping from the bus, Javin paused for a moment. The air was crisp and salty, yet to gather into the oppressive mass of heat that made his uniform stick to him, and he breathed it in gratefully, as though he could store some up for later. If they could store air, he reflected, the fresh, clean stuff would no doubt be rationed and sold in expensive bottles to people who could afford it, while the likes of Javin would be left with the gassy, poisonous stuff that led to breathing difficulties and early death.

He wasn’t angry about it. Just… accepting. It was simply a fact, like all the young men of age leaving his village to seek work in other countries, because without them, their families wouldn’t survive. Javin considered himself lucky. At least he had a job away from the building sites, where the buses stopped and men disembarked, not necessarily surviving long enough to climb back on as darkness fell. He’d heard word of boys not much younger than himself suffering catastrophic injuries after falling from scaffolding and simply being thrown into foundations of the modern skyscrapers that were always under construction somewhere. Their mothers would never know what had happened to them.

Imagine.

On a whim, he decided not to walk directly towards the service entrance. Instead he picked up one of the smooth, sandy pathways and meandered with it around the side of the building, accompanied by birdsong and the sweet sound of water droplets from the sprinklers hitting crowded plant beds.

The haze of the dawn gave the grounds an otherworldly feel. Javin allowed his hand to trail through succulent leaves on the path’s borders, feeling the energy coursing through them and thinking about how life always seemed to find a way to flourish. He thought about the rough concreted streets of his village. The main thoroughfare had always been mud, packed down by vehicles and feet, crumbly in the heat and impossibly swampy during monsoon season, but then one day when Javin had been seven or eight, a truck had arrived and some men had poured a thick, lumpy grey mixture onto the ground, spreading it with long, wooden handled tools.

The whole village had come out to watch, Javin and his friends immediately gathering at the edges of the viscous substance. Sachintha, always the bravest, had stuck his fingers in first but they’d all followed suit and before long they were ankle deep in it, screaming with laughter as the cold grey stuff pushed through their toes like sand.

The men had chased them off soon enough, issuing threats of death in loud, aggressive tones until they had run for the jungle and hidden. A happy two or three hours had followed in which Javin and his friends had speculated over the developments while peeling and scraping at the unfamiliar mixture, which had dried to a stiff paste on their skin. Later they’d sneaked back and written their names in it, further on down the road where the men couldn’t see them.

The road was still there now, as far as Javin knew. Worn and broken, but still functioning. As a teenager he’d love to sit on its edge and watch carts, motorbikes and people pass by, fascinated by the way fresh green shoots would force their way through the seemingly impenetrable skin and into the sunlight. The names were still there too, a record of a moment in a few lives that really mattered to no one outside of that village, but it was the resilience of the plants that had stayed with him, given him strength during dark times. Of which there had been so many.

Javin paused in the middle of the path for a moment and closed his eyes, visualising that patch of road, the childlike scrawls and the flowers casting tiny shadows on the concrete. The sounds of the village filled his mind and something very delicate within him cracked a little as it always did when he allowed himself to weaken.

Attempting to break the spell, he opened his eyes and lifted his head, the vast open sky always a salve to his wounds. But his eyes were drawn instead to the penthouse balcony, where the woman he had seen the day before was swaying on the rail like a vine in a light gentle breeze.

He stared, wondering if the lack of sleep was making him hallucinate. Lifting his hands, he rubbed his eyes like a five year old might, pushing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets hard, as though that might somehow recalibrate his vision.

When he removed them, let them drop like slack ropes, she was still there. He couldn’t see her face, he was too far away for that, but it was obvious what she was doing. Her movements were stiff, as though she wasn’t in control of her limbs but they were also purposeful. She meant to climb over the rail and drop to her death. There was no doubt in his mind.

Panic coalesced in Javin’s stomach and burst through his abdomen. Throat full, his cry of shock was stifled and he simply stood, rooted, hands still hanging uselessly by his sides. In that split second, a tiny, utterly useless moment that took hours to pass yet offered no space for action, he realised what it was that had bothered him about the woman. What had frightened him beyond all reason and somehow brought him to this place as it had her.

She wanted to die. That’s what he’d seen in her eyes, what had eluded him until this moment. The blackness he’d seen was fear but certainty too; certainty that all other options had been explored, exhausted and discarded, leaving the abyss yawning open and unobstructed.

Javin had never imagined for a moment that such certainty could exist. He wasn’t naive enough to believe that emotional pain wasn’t sufficient to drive one to such things but… if she, with what he perceived to be the dignity and security conferred by wealth, wasn’t immune to it, Javin certainly wasn’t. In his darkest moments, he’d always comforted himself with the notion that, like the tiny flowers and plants emerging through the concrete, life would find a way. That the sun would always penetrate the darkness.

Despite the warmth, Javin was suddenly cold. Above him, the woman, whose name he didn’t know, was swaying back and forth, gaining momentum so when she did eventually lift herself, tipping over the balcony rail would be a fluid motion. Natural, even.

He couldn’t stop her. If he called out, she might come to a halt out of sheer surprise, but the shock was just as likely to make her lose her balance and fall. Javin felt as though the air had stealthily formed a transparent carapace around him. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t do anything but silently watch.

The distance between them was too great for Javin to have heard Philip call out or seen Candice’s expression change. But he felt it. Mouth open, breath snatched in gasps, he felt the air between them shift somehow, and then, without warning, she withdrew from the balcony rail and turned her back, disappearing from view as though she’d never been there.

Javin stared at the balcony until his eyes felt like they were going to explode from their moorings. Rocking on his feet slightly, unconsciously mimicking her movement, he knew his veins should be flooding with relief that he was in this universe and not the one in which the woman lay, broken and torn, a few feet from where he was standing, but he didn’t.

He tried to force the image, visualise the blood trickling over the pale stone, being absorbed into it so no amount of scrubbing would get rid of the horror and the stone would have to be relaid, but it wouldn’t come. Closing his eyes, he pushed for it, but the images quickly became intangible in his mind, curling and winding away from his grasping fingers like smoke before drifting off on the light wind.

That’s what had happened to her, he saw with a sudden, almost vicious clarity. He knew, as certainly as he stood there, that she was reaching for the vestiges of her last hope, all the while knowing the moment had passed. He’d seen it in her eyes the not before. Something that had taken months to build had now been shattered by an unseen force and she would trapped in her prison until it could be built again. If it could be built again.

Javin didn’t want her dead. But he realised, with a sadness he hadn’t thought himself capable of, that she wanted it. For some people, it would seem, there was nothing in between and far from being a frightening inevitability one had to suppress to survive, oblivion perhaps offered the only hope of refuge. A part of him he didn’t recognise understood that intuitively and while he could try to reject it, he knew it was too late.

Javin wiped his eyes angrily and shoved his hands deep into his pockets, before turning and retracing his steps on the clean stone pathway towards the service entrance. He would never know what, or indeed who, but something had happened on that balcony to arrest her plan and she would live on with the agony he’d glimpsed in her eyes. Somewhere else though, that fateful intervention hadn’t happened, and in that place she might be happy.

Just not here. Not now.

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