Emma had never actually met the dead girl but she had caught glimpses of her on a couple of occasions and she was certain that she was not mistaken. There was the same implacable fragility in her stature and in the way that her eyebrows arched like perfectly ruled trajectories on a scientist’s desk. She was alabaster perfect and alabaster broken.
All those sets of blue eyes leant wistfully towards the other side of the passage and Emma imagined that the little corridor might be about to collapse around them. The eyes could break apart the plaster and then the ceiling would crumple down and bury all three of the teenagers there.
“Ryan?” Emma asked tentatively. She could not manage to look at him; she was so terrified of the room shattering. Why line your halls with dead girls? Why collect victims like trophies? Why hoard them sinisterly in your house? She clutched at herself, at her arms. The passage was thick and tightening, like they were inhaling the innards of a plastic bag. Why piece together the walls with an accidental death? Was the girl an accident or was she a victim? Why smash a girl like a picture frame? Emma tried to swallow although her fear had noosed her throat shut.
Oppressive air. Her fingers wrestled with each other.
“I need to say something,” he spoke but he was no longer boasting. For once his voice was as empty as the folds of his uniform. “I need to explain.”
“Ryan?” She repeated the name because it was the only thing she had left to hold onto. Dumbfounded.
He turned his head against the wall and pressed his cheek against it. Was he hiding? Emma wondered. She could not stand remaining where they were; dowsed by the eyes of a ghost. She needed air, oxygen, truth – for a moment she could imagine how choking to death in the smoked haze of a fireplace must feel.
She made for the door but his hand grabbed hers without warning. It was cold against her wrist and she shivered. Her body recoiled and she backed into a pair of shoes which had been laid like tripwires on the doormat.
“No, Emma. I have to tell you.” As he said it his face was crumpling like the framework had been removed. He was like a half-finished house being wrecked by its own falling scaffolding.
“Let me go.” She was desperate; like the words she breathed out would be the last breaths she ever formed. Was she being unreasonable?
“Let me explain!”
“I don’t want to hear,” her voice rose uncontrollably, like a hiccupped sob. “I don’t want to hear – my dad got questioned for her murder!”
“She killed herself, Emma, that’s the truth. I swear. She killed herself. This is not what you think. I’ve done nothing – she killed herself. The Police don’t know that of course; they think she fell out of the open window by mistake.”
“But you don’t agree?” She edged marginally backwards, docking millimetres from the distance between her and the door. The movement was almost imperceptible but he registered it all the same.
“Please don’t go.”
“What do you think happened then? Tell me and then let me go.”
“I don’t think anything Emma. I know.” He looked so abraded by this secret he was spilling into her ears that she stopped trying to retreat. “Please don’t tell anyone I told you… I didn’t mean to tell you… I mean she told me no, but… well… you should know. I hate lying to you, for some reason.” She tensed every muscle in her body in preparation for the blow she knew she was about to be dealt.
“I’m her cousin see. Hence the photos. She told me; I don’t think she ever told anyone else.” He was giddy with angst; light-headed with his failings. “She wasn’t going to but I met her accidently on a bad day; she said she always managed to hide it from her parents – and from Daniel – because Daniel always took up all their focus and attention but once I was listening it just poured out of her. I think she put all her energy into hiding the problem from Daniel that she had none left when it came to me.”
He paused and the whirling of time seemed to pause with him. It was like the annual two minutes silence – breath held, trying not to be selfish. The hallway was full of emptiness and his eyes were no exception as they beseeched her; they were saddened, almost longing.
“Can we go somewhere else?” He asked. “I hate looking at her. Mum was the one who put the photos up.”
Emma did not resist this time as he directed her deeper into the house to an airy room with a conservatory that overlooked the village.
Emma teetered on the edge of a rugged armchair but thought better of it. She was still unnerved and so she began to pick at the padding on the back of it instead.
“She wasn’t always suicidal at first but it sort of became more and more constant as the stuff with Daniel – sorry, I just realised you don’t have a clue who I’m talking about – with her brother got worse. Sometimes she’d, like, call me up in the middle of the night because I was the only person she, like, felt she could tell about it. Obviously I’d be like ‘you should get some help, like proper help,’ but she’d just say ‘I don’t want to give them something else to worry about’. Like, how stupid was that? She always said it as excuses for not sorting stuff out and now she’s left them with even more to worry about!” His anger was sudden and wild. It peaked and then fell into diminuendo.
“Anyway,” he picked up his words again, “we’d talk for hours; I wouldn’t let her hang up until I knew she’d calmed down a bit, until I knew she’d still be around when we woke up in the morning.” He gulped and tears began to roll down his cheeks. He was not a pretty crier – not that anybody was – and she wondered if she ought to look away while he did it.
“I killed her, Emma.”
“No you didn’t – we were at Dungeness.”
“That’s what I mean. She asked me to take you there. Once she knew that I’d befriended the only girl who might witness a suicide she begged me to remove the possibility of you seeing it. Obviously I flat-out refused it at first but she wore me down. I just couldn’t stand it, Emma! She was so unhappy. She’d call every night saying how she couldn’t cope with Daniel being so ill and how she felt like she was making it worse and that everyone would be better off without her.”
“Ryan?” She was reeling at the suggestion; unable to string together sentences. She refused to be implicated in it – she did not want that day at the beach to have been part of an elaborate suicide plan.
“I caved in – obviously I did otherwise she’d still be around – who does that? What kind of loving cousin lets their family kill themselves? I took you to Dungeness so that she could commit suicide without an audience. I killed her.”
“I killed my mother and my sister,” Emma found herself saying. “We had been shopping and we were walking back to the car when Anastasie remembered we’d promised to go back for something and started kicking up a fuss. I protested but not enough to stop them going back. I said I’d wait for them – I should have refused, I should have grabbed hold of them and insisted that the new shoes were unnecessary and that we should go home but I didn’t. I let them go back. They’d been gone about ten minutes and I was getting a bit impatient I remember thinking how annoying the whole thing was and then the shopping centre exploded. It was some electrical fault or something; a spark and some chemicals in the changing rooms at ‘La Redoute’ and that was it. I’d killed half my family, destroyed my Dad, ruined my life… you see why I can’t speak French?”
They looked at each other with a mixture of pity and gross understanding. They could stand in each other’s shoes without trouble – they fitted perfectly.
“So we’re both killers and we both get away with it because, as far as the law can tell we didn’t kill anybody.”
“Yes, it’s just ourselves that we’re serving time to. A life sentence of being condemned to know that we should have protested further, that we let it all happen. You told me once that desolation was something that happened against you; do you understand now that it’s self-made?”
“I understand. I understand it all – the whole pointlessness thing. Now I think about it, the whole day I spent killing her was the best warning I could have had against letting her do it.”
“I’m sorry; I suppose I would have been a pretty good warning. If I’d only had the guts to tell you that day what the whole pointlessness thing stemmed from… Sorry.”
“Stop being so goddamn apologetic! This is my shit not yours. I don’t care how perversely self-centred it sounds but it’s mine to deal with.”
Emma breathed hard and looked out the other way, towards the windmill which had not, remarkably, stopped turning. She understood him, of course, it was what she had done; labelling each tragedy as her own fault and her own making. Claiming the ‘shit’ she’d caused so that she’d pre-guessed anyone who tried to shove it towards her. THIS DAMAGE IS MINE – she’d printed it on every inch of her like she was branding boxes of antiques.
“I just wasn’t brave enough to be honest about everything at that stage. We could have called her up and stopped it,” She said eventually.
“It helps to pretend that people are pointless, doesn’t it?”
“Not anymore,” she said sadly. “I know that they aren’t.”
She leaned her head onto his shoulder, taking comfort in the way their bodies fitted together. Their minds fitted together too; they knew the same destruction now. Emma couldn’t help wondering how it came to this conservatory and this view of a carcass village.
How do you end up understanding so deeply a boy you meet while looking for cheese?
She knew that he was haunted and ruled by a failed attempt at CPR and that he was a better reflection of herself than any a mirror could offer. She knew that his shoulder was pleasantly painful to lean on and that she ought to have been horrified by the physical contact but was not. In a different part of her mind she also knew that he was seventeen and she not yet sixteen but she found that it was the other things she knew about him that mattered most.
After his shoulder had risen and fallen beneath her thoughts for a few suspended minutes she began to unpick the exchange. She knew it was selfish but the question that her lips wanted to ask most was not about Jasmine.
“You only took me to Dungeness to get me out of the way?”
“Oh, I probably would have taken you anyway. I think I knew I’d take you somewhere from the moment you approached me in the dairy isle,” he almost smiled. “Dungeness only appealed because of the barrenness. I saw it in you and in myself and in everything, in fact.”
“She told me she thought you needed a friend.”
“How did she know?”
“She was a pretty observant girl. Special – overlooked but she didn’t deserve to be overlooked – and she was always very sensitive. Even when we were kids she’d be the one to try to put things back together or to figure out what everyone was thinking or why our parents were stressed or what to do for Daniel... I sometimes thought she knew other people better than she knew herself. I suppose sometimes when you’re suffering you believe that no one else’s suffering can compare to yours. And then you get people like her who recognise that you can’t measure things like that.”
“She was better than me then – braver, less selfish.”
“Perhaps. People say all sorts of things about suicide: selfish, tragic, cowardly… and I’m not quite sure where I stand but I know she was brave. I mean, she’s screwed up so much for so many people and sometimes I think what a stupid waste the whole thing was. It seems so dumb and unconsidered and out-of-character. We were always being told how clever she was and then she reached this messed-up conclusion that her suicide would benefit the people she cared about. I don’t know, Emma” He spread his hands around him like he was gesturing to the mess Jasmine had left behind her – like it was written on the walls and the portraits and the carpet they were stood on. “She must have been brave, though. Anyone who cares about other people that much is brave; they have to be.”
“She told me she saw you sometimes when she and Daniel were in the garden, you’d be sitting on your stairs eating biscuits and looking like the world had fallen in around you. When I mentioned meeting you at the supermarket she knew who you were before I did. Told me she wanted me to try to piece you back together if it was the only good thing I ever did for anyone.”
“And then she smashed up everyone else instead?”
“Something like that. It’s been eating me up, all this. I wanted to tell you as soon as I heard all that crap that your dad had done it but I couldn’t bring myself to confess. It’s such an ugly thing to take with you.”
“It took me over four months to tell anyone – you’re the first one I’ve fully told.”
“Should I tell them?” Ryan asked suddenly, “the others, I mean, should her family know?”
“I don’t know them; I’m not sure it’s my decision to judge,” she shrunk away from making recommendations because she was afraid of adding to the damage already caused.
“But if it was you?” he protested. “I mean, you understand, don’t you? Is it better not to know?”
“No,” she tested the word and then repeated it with more certainty. “Not knowing is the worst thing… but then again, it’s not as if the truth’s going to be easy for them to accept. I don’t know…” she didn’t want to look at him because confessions of emotion made her uncomfortable. She stared instead at the wall behind his left shoulder “Not knowing hurts because there’s a fuss and everyone’s ‘sorry’ about it and then they don’t know what happened so they forget to care, they forget that it mattered. It’s so unspecific that nobody wants to address it. Of course, you’re stuck with it – you remember – but other people don’t because humans like being told how things work. We like knowing the truth; we like the way that facts are secure and plastic and self-supporting. So when the cause of death is unidentified everything shuts off apart from you, and it’s just you left unable to move on until you’ve solved it. The people who weren’t involved move onto something else, something concrete like a terrorist attack and you’re left tortured by the fact that nobody knows and that nobody cares to know.”
She put her hand on the wall to keep herself upright; as she closed her mouth behind the flood, the walls containing them shifted colours almost imperceptibly with her dizziness.
When he spoke it was gradual and cautious, he tested the tide of the conversation before committing himself to its depths.
“Won’t it hurt them to know? Because it fucking hurts me…”
“Of course it will but – if they’re anything like us – it’ll hurt less this way. They’ve got a better chance of moving on if they know what they’ve got to move on from.”
“So I should tell them, Emma, you think?”
She hovered before answering and then nodded her head once. “My name is Emmanuelle,” she told him.
Permitting himself a clenched smile that squeezed out the grief from his eyes into two trails that rusted his cheeks, he replied. “That’s probably the most ironic name anyone could ever have thought of for you,” he said, “seeing as you think that God’s an improbable concept, and all.”
She did not want him to touch her but he kissed her. She was scared his hands might break her but was unable to flinch when he caught her honesty on his lips.
She became Emmanuelle again; she outgrew her contraction and her dolls house and, around her name, all the other discarded parts of her returned unstoppably like a tsunami that had been slowly drawing away in preparation. She could no longer be contained within ‘Emma’ and she decided that it was better that Ryan kissed Emmanuelle instead. Emma was infinitely more fragile. A kiss might have blown her to frenzied pieces.
“I thought you were going to pull away,” he said later. “I didn’t think you’d let me.”
She felt suddenly awkward and she ducked her head wondering if she’d done something wrong. Perhaps she wasn’t supposed to let herself be kissed. Perhaps she still had not learnt anything about life – she’d only learnt of the opposite – and so perhaps that ‘life’ had more complicated rules than she’d first imagined.
“My God, I swear, if you say sorry one more time I’ll stab you with a goddamn fork! Just because I’m surprised, doesn’t mean I’m not pleased.”