He had been surprised at how rapidly he had forgotten her as a physical being. There were dozens, hundreds, of photos, of course, to remind him what she looked like, but unless they were in front of him, he found he could not recall her face. He would try, and fail, and try again with just a single feature: the contour of her nose, her cheek. Her eyes—he knew they were blue, in the sense of it being a fact, but he could not remember her eyes. He could not remember her voice, her laugh, or the way she smelled. How it felt to kiss her, or to be inside her—all of that was lost to him. How her skin had felt. Her hands. Her mouth. What she had sounded like breathing in the night next to him, lost and vulnerable in sleep.
He could enumerate things about her, make a list: she liked shoegaze bands from the previous decade and horror movies and Thai food. She liked going on long bike rides alone. She was afraid of cats. But all of those were just pieces of a person, facts you would put on a dating profile. They weren’t the essence of Penelope, and it was that he felt he had lost.
In Dublin, a soft rain had stolen in and quieted everything, even his racing thoughts. He had come there chasing only a thread, and as he trudged along the Liffey, dodging tourists and commuters and the spray of rain from under the wheels of cars and buses, he imagined that thread snapped, its two ends curling away from one another and he, suspended in the gap between, unsure whether to grab hold of one end or let himself fall.
Falling, he turned, and saw her on the Ha’penny Bridge.
He nearly fell in fact, so great was his shock. Her blonde hair was blowing about her face and she wore a turquoise knit hat he’d never seen before, but it was her, and her name was out of his mouth before any other part of him could respond. “Penelope!” he shouted, and shouted it again, and why was she not turning his way? But by then he was moving after all, shoving people out of the way when he had to, and still she was ignoring him—why would she behave like that? Hadn’t she summoned him here?
He was on the bridge now, running up the wide concrete steps and still she ignored him, until he reached her. He said her name again, and she turned, but the expression that crossed her face was not one of recognition, or anger, or joy, or any strong emotion at all. It was puzzlement.
“Penny,” he said. It wasn’t one of those mistaken-in-a-crowd moments. It was her, it was the quizzical shape that Penny’s eyebrows took when she didn’t know what to say, and the crinkles at the edges of her eyes and the tiny mole at the corner of her mouth.
“I’m not Penny,” she said.
He said, “Stop it. Why are you doing this?” He grabbed her arm, but what made him let go was the look of genuine fear that crossed her face. In that moment, he believed that she truly didn’t know who he was.
“Sorry,” he said, backing away, holding up his hands in a way meant to intimate his harmlessness. “I’m sorry. I thought you were somebody else.”
“Jesus,” she said. “For fuck’s sake.” And she turned and walked away. He did the only thing he could do; he followed her, at what felt like a safe distance, of course, because he had found her at last and obviously something was wrong with her, something had been done to her, or she had done something to herself, or her mind had snapped on its own, a clean break with everything that had come before and most of all him.
In the first few weeks after she went, he had imagined that she had never been. That would account for the gaps in his memory as well. But the truth was that he had not spent a year of his life with a ghost. She had been as corporeal as he was, with a flat in Camden and a flatmate—until she moved in with him—and parents living outside of Hove, whom he’d met more than once and even spent a Christmas with—and friends, a job with an independent film distribution company, and an entire life that a ghost could not have invented, and that he could not have invented on her behalf. And ghosts did not have Facebook pages, Instagrams, Twitter accounts, even accounts that had lain dormant now for far too long. Ghosts did not have friends and employers who also wondered where they had gone, who mourned their absence.
Ghosts did not also walk so deliberately down Aungier Street, nor did they go into pubs as she did, and he stood outside trying to brace himself to follow her in. He could see through the windows that it was one of the old Victorian pubs you still found dotted about Dublin. Heavy wood on the outside, and a sign that announced it as “The Swan”. As soon as she spotted him in there she was bound to be furious, but what choice did he have? She was obviously suffering from some kind of—it sounded ridiculous, overly dramatic, fictional, even as he said it to himself—some kind of amnesia. She needed his help.
He let out his breath in what felt like a determined way and pushed the door open. At first he didn’t see her, and then he realised she had gone into one of the snugs with a group of girls. That made things easier in a way. He went to the bar and ordered a pint and positioned himself in a way that he could keep an eye on the entrance to the snug but still, if necessary, turn away in time to avoid his face being seen.
It was all such a ridiculous charade. Especially given that he was only here in the first place because she’d asked him to come, or so he had assumed. What else could have been the meaning of the postcard that arrived in the mail, a commemorative Easter Rising photo on the front, of all things, and nothing but her signature on it, so faint, he thought now, as to be ghostly. She had always said she wanted to visit Ireland. And she had asked, and he had come, and now, here he was.
He had a right to be here, whatever the case, he told himself.
He fished the photo out of his pocket. He’d had a few of them printed after she’d left. It seemed important to have something tangible. He worried that digital photos might just dissolve into pixels, vanish like she had. This was his favourite, a selfie of the two of them on the beach in Brighton. When he looked at it, he often thought, “Those people look so happy,” as if they were nothing to do with him.
He turned to the bartender, holding it out. “I’m supposed to meet my girlfriend here. Have you seen her?”
The bartender looked at him as if he were sizing him up, working out if he were some kind of stalker, an aggrieved ex, and seemed to find him acceptable. “Aye, she’s here a lot. You didn’t see her? She’s right over there in that snug with her mates.”
He put the photo back in his pocket, drained his pint, and stood up. He walked over to the entrance to the snug, but when he reached it found he couldn’t do anything. He heard her laughing at something one of the other girls said; he stepped outside again, into the rain and the gloaming.
Blue skies above the Charles Bridge and the Vlatava River. Prague in August was hot. He had never been here in summer, had not been here at all in almost twenty years. Then, the city had been recovering from decades of Soviet domination; he, eighteen or nineteen, had been recovering from a hangover, having come over for a cousin’s stag weekend. There had been a lot of drinking and vomiting and boasting; he had not remembered how exquisite the city was, and maybe had not noticed. It was a place that had been special to Penelope, not him. She had lived there for two years, or so she’d claimed. All of her past, everything about her, was cast into doubt now. He clutched the scrap of velvet in his hand that had summoned him there and he waited, sweat beading on his forehead. She must have felt bad about the little stunt in Dublin, and was giving him a second chance.
He had gone to visit her parents once, before Dublin but after she’d left. Sitting at their kitchen table drinking an alleged cup of tea that tasted of hot water and little else, he had been struck by what seemed to be an utter lack of concern from them. “We’d hoped she might have changed,” they said. “We hoped you’d change her.”
He heard it as an affront, an accusation of his own failure. “What do you mean?” he said, and her mother shook her head and said, “She used to disappear for weeks, months at a time. She never told you? The first time she ran away from home she was only twelve years old.”
Her father interjected. “It was the drugs,” he said. Her mother said, “You never want to say you’ve given up on a child. You never do. But her sisters were never like that. I don’t know what was wrong with her. We didn’t do anything wrong. Nothing that wasn’t normal. No parents are perfect, of course, but we weren’t bad. I hope she never told you we were.”
He reassured them that they she had not told him any such thing. He didn’t tell them that she never told him anything, never talked about her family at all, about growing up. When he’d ask her questions about them, she’d answer with monosyllables until he gave up.
But this news. He’d been unable to digest it for a while. It fitted nothing, nothing she had ever told him about herself. On the other hand, it did in a way fit the girl he knew. Mercurial and secretive. You’d never accuse Penelope of being too forthright. She liked puzzles, was a puzzle herself. “I always thought I’d make a good spy,” she said once, and he could only agree.
Her father said, “She was different with you. Gave us hope.”
“Did she really leave without a word?” her mother said, in a voice that said she already knew what his reply would be.
After that he excused himself, and on the train back to London, replayed the penultimate argument—because the last one was too awful to remember. He had said: You’re so self-contained. It’s like you don’t even need me. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know who you are.
He couldn’t remember what they had been arguing about, but he did remember a look had flashed across her face, one he couldn’t identify. He realised now it had been hurt.
You used to love those things about me.
I never did.
And then she was gone—out the door, which she slammed behind her. He remembered thinking: Fuck her. He got high and watched a film, and when he woke up the next morning on the sofa he thought he’d go out and get some pastries at the shop up the street that she loved so much. A peace offering. He crept out quietly so he wouldn’t wake her, he arranged the pastries on a tray in the kitchen along with cups of coffee for them both, he took them down the hall to their bedroom, nudged the door open and—
There was no one in the bed; it hadn’t been slept in. The reason he hadn’t heard her come back last night was that she hadn’t come back at all.
The worry started then, like a low throbbing at the base of his skull. He told himself to ignore it. She’d gone to a friend’s or her parent’s. He’d hear from her later, if she didn’t come home first.
She did—she came home, a few hours later, and they pretended it hadn’t happened. The next time was different.
He didn’t hear from her.
She didn’t come home.
He waited for her on the bridge for an hour. He looked at the velvet in his hand as though it might tell him something more and he let it go. It had been the most tenuous of connections, less so, even, than the postcard, a slip of velvet for a Velvet Revolution—Penelope had loved revolutions, liked the bloody ones best, but a peaceful one would do in a pinch—but maybe he had misunderstood.
He took out the photo and studied it. He had mostly loved it because he’d thought of it as a happy, uncomplicated time, not long after they’d first met, and that happiness showed in their faces. Now he wasn’t so sure. Penelope still looked happy, sure, but he did not. There was a wariness about his features. He remembered how even then he had been so afraid of losing her. That someone might take her away from him.
I’m not yours. I was never yours.
She’d said that to him—to hurt him, he’d always believed. She said he’d misunderstood but that she wasn’t surprised because he misunderstood everything about her.
I’m nobody’s, and I never will be. Why is that so hard for you to understand?
Just then, as he had given up, he saw her. She was with a dark-haired woman, and the two of them were laughing and chatting. They were on the opposite ends of the bridge. This time he wouldn’t let her just walk away. He sprinted to catch up with them. She wasn’t speaking to the woman in English; it sounded like Czech. He said, “Penelope.”
They went on walking and talking. He said her name again, louder, and he reached out and touched her shoulder. She spun around, a look of fury on her face, and the lack of recognition in her eyes he remembered from Dublin. Her eyes. They were Penelope’s eyes. She spoke to him angrily in Czech, as did the woman with him. “It’s me,” he said. “Don’t you remember me? You asked me to come. You sent me the velvet. You didn’t remember in Dublin either. Penny, what’s wrong with you?”
She replied in a barrage of Czech and then turned her back to him, linking arms with her companion. She glanced back only once to look him up and down with contempt as she walked away. He said, “You have to stop pretending. You have to talk to me.”
The crowds of tourists surged, and she was caught up with them, and gone.
It was a warm spring day on the boardwalk along Barceloneta Beach although the locals clearly didn’t think so. They were bundled into jackets and scarves. Nearby, a busker played “The Girl From Ipanema” over and over again on his guitar.
The cab driver at the airport had professed no knowledge of the address. He finally found it on his phone and the cabbie dropped him off, forty minutes later, in a warren of narrow streets near the sea. He went to the address first, a ground-floor flat with a front door that opened right out onto the street, and knocked on the door. An older woman answered. “Habla usted Inglés?” he asked, and she shook her head. He thrust the photo at her and she moved back. “Have you seen her?” he said, desperate and knowing he looked and sounded like one of those idiots who believes that if they say something in English often enough and loudly enough they will eventually be misunderstood.
She finally shut the door in his face. He stepped back, looked at the photo again, and was startled at the sight of himself. He’d never realised he looked downright malevolent in it. If Penelope were with him, he thought, she’d say it was the time she went to Brighton with his evil twin, and they’d laugh, because that was what it looked like. He didn’t feel like laughing though. He wanted to tear the photo in half, to rip evil-twin him away from her, but to do so felt frighteningly metaphorical, as though it would well and truly separate him from her, from any chance of reuniting with her, forever.
He could not think, though, why she would have brought him here, even given him a specific address, only to hide from him again. He had not understood her summons at first, this time: a red, three-pointed star. It was only when he searched online that he learned it was a symbol from the Spanish Civil War. Another of Penelope’s revolutions. The world needs more revolutions, she used to say. He said, People get hurt during revolutions. She said, People get hurt anyway.
He had been so sure, coming here. The specific address; surely that meant that she wanted to be found. But he couldn’t question the woman to find out if she rented rooms or if Penny had stayed there or anything, and she’d seemed so annoyed by him she had barely looked at the photograph. He felt as if he were in a bad recurring dream, knowing what would happen. He would see her again; she would aggressively not know who he was, and he would be left standing there, lost, out another EasyJet airfare and night’s accommodation, and out of hope. This time he had not bothered telling anyone in London where he was going, or that he thought he’d heard from her. It had been too humiliating, the first two times, returning to not just admit defeat, but with stories he could barely recount because they didn’t make sense.
Someone touched his arm; he turned, and there she was. She said his name.
He said, “You know who I am?”
“Of course I know who you are. Don’t be stupid. Come on, let’s go get a drink.” She said it in the most ordinary way, like they’d both just come in from work and she was suggesting they head down to the pub. Like she hadn’t walked out on him a year ago. Like he hadn’t endured questions from the police, who clearly thought he’d murdered her, and her friends, who didn’t think he was capable of something like that but seemed to believe he knew more than he was letting on. Oddly, her parents were the only ones who seemed to believe his account. “She’s done it to us enough times,” her mother had said. “She won’t be back until she’s ready. We told the police the same thing.”
He had imagined this moment so often. What he would do. What he would say. How it would feel to be with her again. Instead he simply followed her to a little bar where they sat at a table in the plaza with their glasses of beer.
He said, “I don’t even know where to begin.”
She shrugged. “I needed to get away.”
“Okay, fine. People need to get away. They go for a mini-break or go live with their parents or—or something. They don’t disappear without telling anyone and go country-hopping around Europe!”
“I didn’t disappear. I knew exactly where I was. And lots of my friends did too, just none that you knew about.” She was cool, holding his gaze as she sipped her beer. “I don’t know what you’re all worked up about. We were never going to be a nice normal couple with babies and plans. How could you not know that about me? I never wanted children or those things, any of those things, that people are supposed to want. Houses. Weddings. Careers.” She fumbled in her bag and took out a pack of cigarettes. This was something he’d always hated, how she’d take control of conversations—and silences—by making him wait as she lit a cigarette, drew on it, blew the smoke out, and watched it twisting lazily upwards.
“It was my child too,” he said.
“It actually wasn’t,” she said.
It took him a moment to realise what she’d meant, and when she did, he didn’t even have the capacity to feel anger any longer.
“Look,” she said. “I didn’t want any of it any longer. I wanted an abortion. I was sleeping with other people. We’d been arguing for months. Time was up. Things had run their course.”
“We hadn’t been—”
“We had! How can you just say it like that, like it’s a fact when you know it isn’t?”
He didn’t know. Had they been arguing? He couldn’t remember. He genuinely had believed it when he said they hadn’t. She made him feel so unsure. He leaned in to look at her. She drew back and blew smoke in his face.
He said, “Where’s your mole?”
“The one by your mouth. The other ones had it.”
“What other ones? What are you talking about?”
“I came to see you in Dublin, and in Prague, just like you asked me to. Only you wouldn’t talk to me. You wouldn’t even acknowledge me. You pretended to be somebody else. But I knew you were you because I know you, Penelope, I’d know you anywhere.”
“That’s good,” she said. “It would be weird if you didn’t.”
He said, “But you’re not you. Where’s your mole? Where did we meet?”
“Where did we meet? The first time?”
“Just answer the question.”
“My friend Natasha’s Christmas party. You came with a date. She had too much to drink, was sick all over the loo and left with someone else.” She said it in a bored voice, sitting back with her cigarette. He tried to think of something else he could ask, to trap her, but she’d probably get anything he asked correct. She was that well-prepared.
She said, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He said, “You’re not her.”
“Who her? What are you talking about?”
He was the one who left this time, picking up his glass of beer and smashing it down on the pavement so that everyone turned to stare and then grabbing his jacket and striding off as fast as he could. It occurred to him as he did so that he hated her, and that he had for a long time. He wasn’t sure exactly how long. It was like a refrain in his head: hated her, hated who? Who was she, and who had the Penelope he had loved—or had he?—been?
Once upon a time, he had loved her games. They had intrigued him. They had made her seem desirable and mysterious. Now he found them unbearable. Of course, the stakes had never been so high, and he had never been made the butt of them until now.
He stopped; he was lost in the warren of streets. He had no idea where he was. He took out his phone, but the battery was dead. He started walking, and in a few minutes he’d come out at the harbour, on a wide and open street lined with tourist trap seafood places. There was an Irish pub on the corner; he went into it and ordered a Guinness and sat down on the patio outside with it, half expecting Penelope to reappear again, but of course she did not.
He took out the photo again and looked at it. It really was a terrible photo of him; his features were twisted in a hideous fashion, and he couldn’t think what he had ever admired about it. He tore the photo in half, separating the two of them, and he meant to leave it there, but later, at his hotel, he found it again, the two pieces tucked into his front pocket, as though it hadn’t wanted to be left behind.
This is the end.
He didn’t even know why he’d come, unless it was for something people called closure. He couldn’t believe he’d come to meet her a fourth time—whoever she was. After Barcelona, he had gone to see her parents again. He’d told them, just as he’d told the police, that he had been to see her and that she was alive and well. He hadn’t talked about moles that vanished, and photographs that changed, but in both cases, he still felt as though they didn’t believe him although they weren’t saying. The police asked him a whole load of questions he couldn’t answer, like how had she gone there and how long had she been there and was she travelling under an assumed identity. Her parents said very little. In fact, after he told the parts of the story he was willing to tell, there was a long silence, and then her father got up and left the room just after saying, “She’s never stayed away this long before,” and her mother, “She would have contacted us by now. Normally.”
He wanted to tell them that it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t have anything to do with it, but he felt that would have made him look even worse. They asked again how he’d known to go to her, and when he started to explain it, it sounded crazy, revolutions and symbols of revolutions and obscure summons to foreign countries, but she was their daughter, after all. They ought to be used to it by now. She wasn’t his responsibility. She’d killed their child, which wasn’t even his—he didn’t tell them that, of course—and she’d run away without telling anyone. She’d made people look at him like there was something wrong with him, like he’d done something wrong, even when her own parents said he hadn’t. Now things had changed, and they looked at him that way too. When he excused himself, he could tell they weren’t sorry to see him go.
This time, at least, her invitation had been a straightforward one—an email, asking him to meet at a pub in Shoreditch. So she was back. It had been a year since she’d left; her suggested date for meeting was the day after that anniversary. He replied, asking her if she’d been to see her parents yet, but he didn’t get an answer.
And suddenly, here she was, sliding into the seat across from him, out of breath and wearing the turquoise knit hat that he’d first seen in Dublin. She had a shot glass in each hand, and she pushed one over to him. “Drink it, it’s whiskey,” she said. He watched her mouth when she talked. There still wasn’t a mole there. And she seemed taller than before, or different in some way he couldn’t identify. “Who are you?” he said, and she said, “Go on, drink it.” She downed her own shot and reached over and did the same with his. Her accent sounded different, as though she were a fluent but not native English speaker. He said, “Why did you ask me to come here?”
She said, “I thought you deserved an explanation. Some kind of one, anyway. But before you got here, I realised I couldn’t give you one.”
He wasn’t even angry at her any longer. He just waited for her to say more.
“I realised I couldn’t explain because I didn’t know. I couldn’t quite remember. Sometimes I think I might be a ghost.” She looked at him then, and tears were gathering in her blue eyes. It felt like the first sincere thing she had said to him in a very long time. “I think I got lost.”
“Look,” he said, and reached into his shirt pocket for the two halves of the photograph he’d placed there. He’d brought it with him like a talisman, as though it could protect him from whatever would pass between them on this cold, rainy afternoon. But it wasn’t torn in half; it had made itself whole again. As if in a dream, he mimed the action again, ripping it in two, ripping his hideous face away from hers. But the photograph remained whole, and his face looked the same again. Normal. Happy. He showed it to her. “Remember how happy we were? For a year.”
She said, “Not a year. A year and a day. That’s fairy tale time. After that, everything changes.”
“I didn’t want anything to change.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know that girl. I never did. And I—she wasn’t happy.”
“If you don’t know her, then how do you know how she felt?”
She shook her head again, harder this time, like she was trying to dislodge something. She said, “This isn’t going well.”
“You had so many secrets.”
“So did you. People should have secrets. People need their secrets.”
“You still have them.”
She smiled at him then. “Not as many as you.” Her smile got wider and wider, until he thought it might crack her face open. He remembered wanting to do that to her. Sometimes, he thought he had, thought the police, and now her parents, were right about him. He looked down at the photograph in his hands, and his hands were covered in blood. He leapt up, knocking over the chair behind him and someone at the table said, “Careful, mate.” He dropped the photograph and when he looked back at her she had that sad smile on her face that he knew so well. Then she looked like Penelope. He looked at his hands again and they were clean. The photograph on the floor had fallen face down, and he couldn’t bear to turn it over because of what he might see. And then she was gone, a scent of jasmine lingering on the air—he remembered, belatedly, that this was what she had smelled like. But now he couldn’t remember anything else about her. He could, he thought, almost believe she had never been at all. He picked up the photograph, and he turned it over.
Originally published in The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, edited by Mark Valentine.