Ever since his daughter’s death, John Bates had all but given up. Eunice had been 17, bubbly and surrounded by friends, keen to leave school behind to study history at university. She’d been a passionate cook and hockey player, not yet ready for a steady boyfriend, and loved absolutely by both her parents. But then one night she had consumed almost an entire bottle of vodka before climbing on to a parapet and leaping into a river swollen by over a week of near-constant rain.
John and his wife Emily had sat numbed for days on end as relatives and neighbours passed through the house, offering solace and paying tribute. Now, six months on, Emily was back at work at the florist’s, increasingly busy as Christmas approached. Breakfasts were quiet affairs, the radio saving them from talking. They watched TV each evening and sometimes walked to the local park, where they’d see teenagers they didn’t recognise sharing spliffs and cans on benches, wrapped up more warmly as the weather turned.
The shops had begun extending their hours, excepting the ones lost to the pandemic. A few media reports had suggested that Eunice’s suicide had been in reaction to the virus, but Bates doubted that. Then again, she had left few clues. He had gone through her bedroom, checking beneath the bed and at the back of the built-in wardrobes. He had eventually gained access to her computer and mobile phone — the phone itself having been left on the parapet, proving itself the nearest thing to a note that she would leave. Counselling had been offered but rejected, though John sometimes caught a glimpse of Emily’s tablet as she digested some online resource for bereaved parents. He thought she even belonged to a group who met via Zoom, though she was careful never to mention it, the meetings timed to take place when he was elsewhere.
He spent his afternoons in the reopened library, or a café or bar. He tried to catch up on his reading. He might get close to finishing the occasional cryptic crossword. It had been his job, many years back, to compile such crosswords for the local paper. That paper no longer existed. John had left anyway, Emily insisting that he should write full-time. The result had been one radio sitcom, a handful of plays and two well-received serio-comic novels. One review had even compared him to Jonathan Coe. He’d hung on to that, while binning most of the others.
He had no commissions currently, his agent blaming (what else?) the pandemic. A stage producer was keen for him to write a spec script based on a 1930s whodunit, but there’d be no fee until an acceptable draft had been completed. His current book publisher appeared lukewarm, sales having not been commensurate with prize shortlistings.
‘Just start writing anything, darling,’ Emily had suggested one night, placing a hand on his shoulder. ‘You might find it helps. God knows, something has to.’
But could he produce anything that wouldn’t be read through the prism of Eunice’s death? Would anyone publishing him do so as if handing over a belated Deepest Sympathy card? And what was worth writing about anyway? No one wanted comedy moulded from tragedy. Despite which, he had found himself this morning picking up his old leather-bound notebook — a gift from Emily after a trip to Venice — and walking to the café. After scanning the newspaper and ordering a second Americano, he had opened the notebook, skimming its pages. There were ideas for projects, alongside character names and the odd smart one-liner, but outnumbered by doodles and crossings-out. The last half of the book comprised blank pages, evidence that the creative well had been drying up long before Eunice took her life. Yet as he ran a thumb through these empty pages, he caught a sudden blur of ink. The words were in a neat hand, blue ballpoint rather than the black he favoured, and comprised a single sentence.
‘I live here now.’
He had no memory at all of writing them. Moreover, they didn’t seem like his handwriting. He flicked back to check, then took out his biro and wrote the words for himself. Definitely not his handwriting. He scoured the rest of the notebook, then snapped it shut and got to his feet.
Emily was busy at the counter, trimming the stems of a spray she was putting together with her usual skill. She didn’t look up until he held the notebook open in front of her.
‘Did Eunice do this?’ he asked, voice shaking.
Emily slipped her glasses on. ‘Could be,’ she answered. ‘I mean, it looks like her writing, doesn’t it?’
‘Does it though? I’m not sure.’
‘She maybe did it to tease you — so you’d get a surprise when you reached that page.’
‘Maybe,’ Bates said, pretending to agree.
‘Remember Peter and Barbara are coming for supper — you’ll buy some wine, won’t you?’
Their favoured off-licence was a few shops further along. Bates plucked a bottle of red from a shelf without really paying attention. There was a homeless man seated on the pavement next to the bank machine. Bates found a few coins in his pocket and bent at the waist to deposit them in the man’s cardboard cup. He hadn’t meant to establish eye contact but it happened anyway.
‘Wife threw me out,’ the man explained. ‘Just need the price of a bed.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Bates said, straightening up and making to walk on.
‘I live here now,’ the man called to him. Bates froze.
‘What did you say?’
‘This street, this pavement — I live here now, don’t I?’
That evening, as the meal ended and his old friend Peter stepped into the garden for a cigarette, Bates joined him, holding out the notebook, open at the relevant page. Peter took it and angled it into the light, widening his eyes in an attempt to focus after the best part of a bottle and a half of red.
‘I’ve looked at Eunice’s handwriting,’ Bates told him. ‘It’s similar but not identical.’
‘What do you think it means?’
‘More to the point, what do you think it means?’ Peter asked, falling back on his well-worn tactic when faced with a question he either didn’t like or didn’t understand.
‘I don’t know,’ Bates said truthfully. ‘Is it a sign perhaps?’
‘From Eunice?’ Peter puffed out his cheeks. ‘Were practical jokes her thing, or are you saying she’s suddenly communicating with you six months after her very beautiful funeral? Much more likely you wrote it in your cups, a prospective new title or opening line — it’s intriguing enough for either.’ Peter sucked in some smoke before exhaling. ‘Bloody nice meal, by the way. We must return the favour.’
‘You always say that.’
‘And one of these days it shall come to pass, though I warn you — Barbara’s not half the chef your Emily is. I’m hoping there’s enough pud for one final helping…’
Once their visitors had gone, John did the tidying up while Emily stretched out along the sofa, the TV on and some left-over wine in her glass. He filled the dishwasher, wiped down the dining table and put the good cotton napkins in the laundry basket. He had left the notebook open on his chair next to the sofa, hoping Emily might take another look and come up with an explanation that would put his mind at rest. When he went through, the notebook was on the floor next to her. He picked it up and saw that the page had been torn out. Emily pointed to the wastepaper bin, its bottom covered in a layer of what could have been mistaken for confetti.
‘Now it’ll stop bothering you,’ she snapped. ‘You were in such a bloody mood at dinner.’
‘Why did you do that?’ He lifted out a few slivers. They appeared to be all blank. There was no way the jigsaw could be reconstructed.
‘Forget about it, John. Time to move on with your life.’
‘Life’s not one of your sodding Zoom sessions,’ he snarled, heading to the hall, snatching up his coat, and slamming the front door after him. The night was chilly, the sky clear, a few stars evident. He could see his breath in the air as he walked. How could she? It was an act of destruction, irreversible. He stuffed his fists into his pockets, his strides long and determined. At last he came to a bar he knew and walked in, ordering a whisky, gulping it down seated at a table. The place wasn’t busy — bars seldom were these days. He ordered a refill and tried to concentrate on the TV. Its sound was muted. News and sport by the look of it. The on-screen chyron was detailing a story about unrest in an African country. Then he saw the same four words, clear as day — ‘I live here now’. Bates blinked, looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. The chyron was back to reporting the Africa story, but he would swear he wasn’t mistaken. He watched and waited as a new story appeared, and another after that. Then a break for adverts. One was for a new Hollywood release, its male and female stars big names. Emily had mentioned it as a possible night out. After a few clips from the film, its title appeared, filling the screen.
I LIVE HERE NOW
Bates leapt to his feet, one hand on the table to steady himself. The advert had ended, replaced by one for yoghurt. Bates took his phone from his pocket and tapped in the names of the two leads. He was taken to the website for their latest release, I Love Her Now. Bates expelled a bark of laughter. The barman asked him if everything was all right. Bates just shook his head, finished his second drink, and left.
He made for the bank machine, but the homeless man was no longer there. The florist’s shop was in darkness, too. Traffic was light. It was a week night, keeping the town centre quiet. The local arthouse cinema was advertising a French film. Bates stared at the poster for the best part of a minute, daring it to change. Eventually he moved on, knowing his ultimate destination now. The river, the bridge, the parapet. No one was waiting for him there, just a few padlocks left by superstitious lovers. Eunice’s friends had stopped leaving posies, though he knew they had plans to raise money for a plaque. As he stood there, staring down at the rippling water beneath, he sensed her phone resting near his left hand. He reached out but felt nothing. Nothing at all. He raised his own phone, its screen blank, and stared at it, willing something, anything to happen, willing the world around him to acknowledge his unceasing agony.
Less than a minute later, he hit the water, almost losing consciousness in the fall. The sharp iciness had him flailing at first, but then he relaxed, safe in the knowledge that the water was buoying him up. He saw the buildings above him change, town becoming suburb before petering out to a smattering of industrial units with high walls and fences, beyond which lay motorway, rolling hills and farmland. He had no idea how much time had passed by the time he clawed his way up a shallow bank. He staggered at first, but soon regained his balance, his clothes shivering and shoes squelching. The plod home through deserted streets took numbing hours. The door was unlocked so he let himself in, stripping in the hall and climbing the stairs to where she waited for him. Not the master bedroom but Eunice’s. He lay down on her bed and closed his eyes.
A shadow loomed over him. It was Emily. She looked fearful as she asked him what had happened. When he opened his mouth it felt full of silt.
‘I live here now,’ he gurgled, beginning with painful slowness to sit up.
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