Can You See Her – S. E. Lynes

‘There are things I don’t know. But I know people are dead, I know I killed them and I know it all started the day I realised I was invisible.’ ‘Mrs Edwards.’ Her chair creaks. She must have shifted position. ‘Do you think you could take us back to that? To realising you were invisible?’ ‘I can.’ Of course I can. Like most people, if my Mastermind specialist subject was myself, I’d win hands down. I look about me, try to settle. They’ve done their best to make this room look like an ordinary lounge in an ordinary house – impressionist landscape in a frame on the wall, me on a sofa, her in the armchair opposite. Neutral shades. But there’s a recording device on the coffee table next to the box of tissues and the jug and two glasses of water, so I’m not fooled. ‘When you’re ready,’ she says. ‘Take your time.’ Her eyes are blue.

The colour of sea on white sand. I want to run in but I’m not sure I won’t drown in the cold water. I’ve forgotten her name. I know she’s telling me to take my time so I’ll give them what they want, but I’m here to give them what they want. It was me that made the call after all. I glance up from fists clenched around a screwed-up tissue on my lap. ‘No one wants to be invisible, do they?’ Blue Eyes doesn’t answer. I obviously didn’t say that out loud. So much is unclear. Words spoken, words thought.

What we hear, what we pick up by instinct. How we achieve affinity with another human being. ‘It was a Saturday night,’ I say. ‘I know that because it was our Katie’s party. We usually get a takeaway on Saturdays. Chinese, normally…’ I tell her how I got home from work that day: sore-eyed, heavy-boned, dog tired; how I put the plates and dishes from the side of the sink into the dishwasher, switched it on and put a cloth round. How I emptied the washing machine and put the clothes over the drying rack. There’s precious little chance of Mark spotting a load waiting to be hung out. Frankly, if he ever needed to find a saucepan, which is unlikely, you’d have to draw him a map. ‘We had quarter crispy duck.

’ I look up at Blue Eyes, but only for a second. ‘Sweet and sour pork, Szechuan king prawn, egg-fried rice and a bag of prawn crackers. We have the same every other week. Mark usually goes for it in the car. We didn’t have crispy beef that week because Katie wasn’t eating, what with it being her party.’ Blue Eyes jots something down. Maybe I’ve put her in the mood for chicken chow mein. Why these thoughts come to me at inappropriate moments, I don’t know. Stress, I should imagine. She looks up, tips her head back a bit.

She has what I’d call natural authority. Regal, if you know what I mean. She did tell me her name, she did, but no, it’s gone. ‘Can you tell me when this was, Mrs Edwards?’ That hushed, patient voice you hear them use in police dramas. She scans the report on her knee but I’ve got nothing to hide anymore. I’ve already told it all to the other two, in the other room. The ones in uniform. ‘This is going back to June,’ I say. ‘That’s Saturday the twenty-second?’ She glances up from my statement and suddenly I’m not as sure as I was. ‘Or was it the week before?’ I say.

‘Hang on, no. Sorry. Let me just… It was the week before… before the girl… Jo. Joanna. I know that because… Hang on, sorry. Sorry, just let me…’ The trickle of water. I look up. Blue Eyes is holding out a glass. ‘Here.’ ‘Thank you.

’ I take the glass and drink. The water is cool in my throat. ‘So, your daughter had a party?’ ‘Yes. We’d been banished from the kitchen, so we ate on trays while we watched a film.’ ‘And then?’ ‘And then the ad break came on.’ ‘And?’ ‘And Mark said, do you fancy a coffee? Which means, can you make us a cup of coffee? Twenty-seven years into a marriage, you get used to what your other half means when he says something, and it must be a year since Mark’s made me a coffee. Or a tea, for that matter. So anyway, I said I’d make it and he said, you sure? And I said, course. The dance we do, like, you know.’ I raise my eyebrows at Blue Eyes, but her face stays the same: neutral, like the colours in this room.

Warm beige with a hint of encouragement. Again, I’m not sure what I’ve said and what I haven’t, what she can hear, what she’s picking up by instinct or police training. Over sixty per cent of communication is non-verbal. I read that in… oh, somewhere or other. ‘So, you made a cup of coffee for yourself and Mark, your husband?’ ‘Sorry, yes.’ I carry on. Carry on regardless, carry on camping, carry on up the Khyber. How Katie had asked if she could have a do and I’d said no more than ten because our house is small. I said I’d chip in for the booze – I’d already given her a cheque towards her holiday in Ibiza so I thought that was fair enough. We used to get the neighbours over for barbecues all the time, and our mates from the pub, and Lisa and Patrick, of course, before they split up.

We used to put ice in this big plastic frog bucket we had for camping trips and put all the beers in there with a bottle opener tied to the handle with string. Funny the little details that come back to you, but my heart’s not in anything like that anymore. And anyway, when I was growing up, you had your eighteenth and that was that. Katie’s eighteenth cost me a month’s wages. She wanted to hire out the cricket club off Moughland Lane so she could invite the best part of a hundred mates. She’s very sociable, is Katie. Anyway, it was a good do; Kieron DJ’d for it. He played all the old tunes and every single one of us danced the night away, so I’m not saying I regret it. It’s probably the last time I can remember feeling properly happy, although that could have been Kieron making me do a Jägerbomb. But even now I know Katie’ll be angling for another big bash for her twenty-first, because they all do now and if you don’t give them something decent, you’re a tight-arse.

Blue Eyes is making a note. I have no idea how much of that lot made it out of my mouth. ‘Mrs Edwards.’ A warm but businesslike smile from dark red lips. ‘If we could get to the moment you say started things… the moment you say you became invisible?’ Sounds like she’s prompting me. Mark says I drift off topic or off altogether. Get on with it, woman, he’s started saying lately, and I’ll realise I’m either rattling on about something or I’ve stopped halfway through a sentence. He’ll be there going, what? And I’ll have literally no idea what I was talking about. Sorry, I’ll say. It’s gone.

And he’ll shake his head like I’m beyond hope. Which I am. I don’t suppose he’ll be shaking his head at me anymore. Not now. ‘Sorry,’ I say to Blue Eyes. ‘I was in the hallway, wasn’t I?’ I can picture it as if it were last week, so I don’t forget everything, apparently: I can see Katie and her mates through the finger-smudged glass panel of our kitchen door. The music is throbbing against the walls. Clouds of cigarette smoke. There are about twenty kids in there, not ten as we agreed, but it’s too late to make a fuss now, so I just stand there like a robot with dead batteries, one hand on the door handle. They’re laughing and shrieking the way young people do.

The French doors are open to the back garden. Next thing, I’m panting away, both hands pushed to my knees. I’m burning hot. I feel sick, really sick. I get them, these… attacks, I suppose you’d call them. Raging heat and jitters that flush in from nowhere. I’ve been getting them more and more, along with the where-the-heck-am-I moments, what Lisa calls my fugues. One minute I’m all right; next thing I’m not sure if I can go through with even the smallest thing, in this instance, opening my own kitchen door. My chest is tight. I take deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth like they tell you to, then reach for the door handle again and pull myself upright.

With the hem of my T-shirt I wipe the sweat off my face. A few more seconds and the attack passes, dragging bits of me with it like the tide pulling loose pebbles from the shoreline. Meanwhile, oblivious, the kids are looking beautiful by accident the way young people do, and there’s me in my jogging bottoms and slippers having a sweaty little breakdown. I watch them, try to take them in without them becoming aware of me. I’m an intruder, an intruder in my own home. I don’t want to go barging in there. I’m worried I’ll break the spell. I don’t want to make them all self-conscious. I don’t want to ruin their fun. But Mark is waiting for his coffee, so I suck in one last deep breath and open the door.

‘So you went in?’ Blue Eyes’ head tips forward; her eyebrows shoot up. You’re doing well, she says, without speaking. Keep going. The interview room is hot. I take off my cardie and drink half a glass of water. Once I settle again on the sofa, it takes me a second to get back there, to my kitchen full of smoke, to the rushing roar of twenty-odd teenagers all talking at once. The bass thumps in my chest and the smell nearly floors me: sweet weed and fresh sweat, sticky drinks and the hair gels and body sprays young people favour. Fashion’s on a loop, isn’t it? Today’s skinny jeans are just yesterday’s drainpipes, Kopparberg is what we used to call cider and black, and often they’re listening to the same tunes we did, except for them it’s retro. Never thought I’d hear Luther Vandross again, let alone Bon Jovi. Kids think they’re the first to discover everything, don’t they? First to get drunk, first to be felt up in the dark, first to get their teenage kicks right through the night.

They think they invented all of it. In the corner, a semicircle of girls, faces blue in the light of a smartphone. Judging by their sly expressions, they’re gossiping about whoever it is they’re looking at. They wear so much make-up now. These slug eyebrows that are all the rage – what’s that about? – and not one of them has her belly covered up. I suppose it’s for their Instagrams and their Facebooks. They have to be supermodels now as well as everything else. When I was a kid, as long as you scrubbed up OK, you were all right. Quick squirt of Sun-In on the flick, strawberry lip gloss from Woolies and off you went. By the time I got to Katie’s age, Doc Martens were in, so we could walk miles no bother.

These kids know what they look like from every possible angle; we had about four tatty photos of ourselves in a drawer. You went to school on foot – that was exercise. No one went to a gym, no one. ‘Mrs Edwards? Mrs Edwards?’ Blue Eyes throws out her hands and fixes me with an earnest expression. ‘You went into the kitchen…’ Get on with it, woman. ‘Sorry, yes. Yes, so I kept my head down like a soldier dodging bullets and made for the kettle…’ I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, Katie had made that very clear. She’d still not forgiven me for saying ‘the Antarctic Monkeys’ in front of the boyf. I wouldn’t mind – I’d got the right band, just the wrong pole, that’s all, but Katie can get in a nark about absolutely anything, more so lately. Anyway, as I was waiting for the water to boil, a girl I recognised as an old school friend of Katie’s slotted herself between her boyfriend’s spread legs, and while he swigged from a bottle of cheap vodka, she turned her head and stared at me.

I was about to wave and mouth hello, but she pulled the vodka out of his hand, closed her eyes and tipped the bottle to her lips. And I realised she hadn’t been staring at me; she’d been staring through me. Blue Eyes leans forward. Against her pale skin, her ruby mouth twitches at the corners. I hear you, Blue Eyes. I’m picking up your impatience even though you didn’t say anything. but we’ll get on to that later. ‘I made the coffee,’ I say. ‘We always have decaf of an evening, though I don’t suppose that’s relevant anymore, and of course I suppose I wouldn’t be allowed near a kettle now.’ A quick glance at her tells me I’m not wrong… What we hear in words, what we pick up… ‘I walked back down the hall into the living room and I… I sat down on the sofa.

’ My chest inflates, deflates. My eyes sting. ‘I sat down on the sofa. On the television, a man dived out of shot against a backdrop of flames. That was the hero. The baddie was in the fire, finally got his comeuppance. Revenge equals a world put to rights, according to Hollywood, and then they lecture us on raising our kids not to be violent.’ ‘Mrs Edwards…’ ‘Sorry, yes, so I put our coffee cups on the table, on top of my Prima magazine so they wouldn’t stain, and I said, “Coffee,” and he might have grunted but he didn’t look up.’ I make myself meet her eyes. Take a dive into that blue.

She’s hanging on my every word, as if what I have to say is important. She’s looking at me, really looking at me. She reaches forward, tops up my glass of water and hands it to me. There is such kindness in the gesture that my own eyes fill. I take a sip, wait for my breathing to slow down a bit. ‘I think that’s when it hit me,’ I tell her after a moment or two, my voice so quiet I can barely hear it. ‘That’s what I’m trying to explain. All this, the terrible things I’ve done, why I’m here, started there. You see, I’d been worried about disturbing my daughter and her friends. I’d listened at the door like I do outside Katie’s room sometimes, chin pressed to an armful of laundry… I’d crept into the kitchen.

That’s where I’d got to in life. Creeping about in my own house, cringing at my own footsteps like a maid from Downton Abbey or something. It was my house and there I was, scared of disturbing them. ‘But the thing is, the thing I need you to understand, is that I didn’t disturb them. The kids, I mean. They weren’t rude to me. They didn’t stop and stare. They didn’t stop at all. They didn’t ignore me either, because they’d have had to make a conscious effort of will to do that, wouldn’t they? I hadn’t spoiled their fun or made them self-conscious, no. The music carried on playing and they carried on kissing and fighting and gossiping and flirting and smoking and drinking and posing and preening the way of kids everywhere.

They hadn’t been embarrassed or inhibited by my presence. Not at all. ‘The truth was, I’d had no effect on them whatsoever. They hadn’t noticed me come in or go out. I had no presence. They hadn’t seen me. And when I got back with the coffees, Mark didn’t nod or say thanks or take any notice of me. He hadn’t seen me either. ‘I was invisible. I no longer existed.

Like I’d vanished from my own life.’

.

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