Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Bond - H. J. Hampson

I see Suzanne Arnold’s face every time I close my eyes. There she is with her dazzling, sunshine smile, tattooed on the insides of my eye lids. These days - at least - it is not every time I blink, which is how it used to be. It’s curious she’s smiling, really; but, I suspect she is not smiling at me. It’s a replica of a photograph, so of course she’s really smiling at whoever is - or was - beyond the camera lens. Kevin, no doubt. Pathetic, wet, Kevin. He doesn’t deserve her eternal smile.

Her hair is so dark and thick and I long to touch it, smell it. Does it smell of molasses, I wonder? I’d like to think it does. Or caramel, or autumn? She looks like an autumn kind of girl with her hair and her chestnut eyes that could warm you with a glance on a fresh October day. Sometimes when I dream about her, I wake up imagining she’ll be there next to me. Don’t I sometimes feel her soft breath on my neck just before the fragile dreams disintegrate in the stale air of the morning?

She looks so young as well - early twenties at the most and you would never think she was a mother of two. It’s the same in every photo - her sparkling smile lighting up every shot. I’ve seen many photos of Suzanne Arnold. I have, I’ll admit, gone out of my way to find them. I’ve sat there in front of the computer, shivering in the cold and so tired I can no longer sleep, plowing through the treasures Google has thrown up. I don’t want to do it. I try to stop myself, but that little empty rectangle is like a mouth that is begging to be fed her name. The cursor, blinking with impatience, eggs me on.

There’s so many photos - some of her with Kevin, some of her with the boys (Joshua, 6, Billy 3), some of her with friends, laughing, holding a glass of wine with her lipstick stain on the rim. I feel dirty and ashamed looking at these pictures, but they can only blame themselves for letting these photos get all over the internet. Kevin would be so upset if he knew I was looking at them. He’s already said he wants to kill me. It’s hard to take his threat seriously, but still. Poor old Kevin.

It gets worse - sometimes I drive past her house on purpose. OK, ok, it’s not just that- I sometimes go there on foot. I mean, go specifically there. It is my destination, the reason for the journey. I don’t do anything as unseemly such as loiter, though. I just walk past, note the shiny black Pinto parked in the drive, note how tidy the little front garden is, and stroll on. That’s all his work, the garden. He does well to keep it up, I’ll give him that. You can see straight into their front room if you walk past their window at a slow pace. It’s hard to make anything out really, but I do fancy there’s a photo frame on top of the TV. Is it of her? The picture I see when I close my eyes? Possibly.

Sometimes I see him, Kevin, and it paralyzes me with fear. As you’ve probably gathered, Kevin is not the violent type, but still if he saw me, if he knew who I was, Lord knows what he would do. But he doesn’t know. I just keep walking past anyway, head down, minding my own business.

Joshua goes to the same primary school I went to myself, which I find a strange coincidence; and, it leads me to speculate whether, in fact, Suzanne went to that school as well. Is it possible, by cruel irony, that we were there at the same time, running past each other in the playground? By my calculations we may just have been - she would have been in the juniors when I was in the infants, but there’s no way I can remember. I would never have known her then.

Speaking of playgrounds, I’m not the kind that intentionally hangs around at kids’ playgrounds, Christ no, but once or twice I’ve been passing by the park when I’ve seen the boys playing there. So, yes, in those circumstances I have sat down on a bench, pretending to read the paper but instead listening out for their whoops and squeals amongst those of the other kids. That’s all, it’s completely innocent, really.

Why do I do it though? Well, that’s the craziest thing. If I’m honest it’s because I’m envious of it all. When I return to my miserable, little flat, with its gray walls and dark spaces I long for the warmth and the light of that little terraced house, filled with the noises and smells of the boys, filled with love for Suzanne.

I’m envious of Kevin too, of the way he just soldiers on.

And I guess I’m envious of her, for being missed so much. There was someone to cry for her on television, someone to write "Mummy, we miss you" in awkward, spindly letters on the cards, someone to leave flowers tied to the railings.

But most of all, I’m sorry. I wish so badly it could have been different. We’d never met before that night, and just for those few seconds we were together.

She was wearing dark clothes, and I just didn’t see her until her face was right in front of my windscreen, eyes wide and mouth gaping, and then the thud, and then she was gone. I never looked back; I just drove on, my heart thumping and a sick feeling in my stomach. It was instinct, my foot just went down on the accelerator and that was that. I didn’t know she was dead until I saw the appeals, and then I couldn’t go back. Would you? Knowing you’d just driven away and left her to die?

So that’s one thing I’ve got that Kevin hasn’t. A little secret between me and Suzanne, and she’ll never tell on me.

-HJ Hampson lives in London and is currently adding the finishing tweaks to her first novel. This is her first published short story. Her dream is to move to LA and join Chuck Palahniuk’s writing group.

-Photograph by Christopher Barrio

-Models: Left: Nicole Pitoscia, Right: Lisa Damiani

-Special Thanks to Ellen Schafler for the use of her home for the photography.