Authors: Louise Jensen
The DJ announces midnight and like Cinderella I am trying to make my escape.
‘Let me go!’ I wrench my arm away from the man, stumbling, as he releases me. I find my footing, thinking I can run for the exit – the taxi should be waiting outside – but before I can move he
blocks the corridor with his sheer bulk.
‘What do you want?’ he growls, and I rub my elbow where I’d banged it on the wall.
‘You’re a copper, ain’t you? Coming into my gaff. Questioning all my staff.’
‘God, no! I was in here last weekend with a man. A blind date.’ I study his face, as I speak, for signs he believes me, while I deliberate how much I
should tell him. He isn’t likely to want his bar associated with an attack. ‘I really liked him.’ I tilt my head to one side and twizzle a strand of hair around my finger the way I’ve seen Chrissy do a hundred times before. ‘I can’t quite remember what he looked like. You know how it is.’ I giggle in what I hope is a girlie way, although to me it sounds too high. Too scared.
‘You were pissed.’
‘Yeah – well it was two for one on the shots. Look, I don’t suppose you could help me? Let me look at the CCTV.’
He stiffens. Turns away.
‘Wait!’ I pull out my work ID from my purse. ‘Look, I’m not police, I’m a care assistant, for the elderly.’ I pass him my card.
‘My nana’s in one of them ’omes.’ He taps the card against the back of his hand while he thinks. ‘Okay.
I’ll help you. Because it’s good. You looking after old folk. Cleaning up their piss and shit. This can be my good turn.’
‘For a price,’ he adds.
‘God, I feel rough,’ Jules says for the millionth time. She’s wearing dark glasses despite the lack of sun and clutching a bottle of Lucozade, her go-to hangover cure.
‘I’m not surprised. Thanks for coming with me.’
‘I owe you one. Sorry I was such a bitch last night.’
‘It’s all forgotten.’
‘I still don’t think you should do this though,’ Jules says, but I’ve
already pressed the buzzer on the door. ‘It could be dangerous.’
‘It’s broad daylight and we’ve got each other. Safety in numbers. Carl’s bark was definitely worse than his bite,’ I say but there’s a brittleness to my voice and I can’t force my mouth to curve into a smile.
‘I don’t mean that sort of dangerous,’ Jules says. ‘I mean, what if you remember?’
‘That’s kind of the
point.’ My breath clouds in front of me as I press the buzzer again, stamping my feet to keep warm.
‘But what if it’s too much for you to cope with? Too horrible.’
‘We went through this last night. It can’t be worse than the things already running through my mind.’
‘But this time it’s costing you money. You’re handing over £500 to a complete stranger on the off-chance that
the CCTV recorded you last weekend. And what if it did? What then?’
Before I can answer, the door swings open, and I feel almost victorious as I recognise Carl with his height and width, bulging muscles, sleeveless T-shirt despite the sub-zero temperature, black hair slick with gel.
He slowly appraises me from my head to my toes and back up my body, his gaze lingering on my breasts,
before his eyes meet mine. I can feel my cheeks burn hot as I pull the lapels of my coat closer together.
‘You came back then?’
‘No shit, Sherlock,’ Jules mutters, and I poke her in the ribs.
I step forward but Carl angles his body, blocking the entrance, palm outstretched, eyebrows raised.
I fish around in my handbag for the roll of notes I’d stuffed there earlier.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Jules asks. ‘I think you’re wasting your money, Ali.’
‘You’re wasting my fucking time,’ Carl growls, and I quickly press the money into his hand.
‘Come on then.’ Without waiting to see if we follow, he turns and strides past the sweeping staircase leading to what used to be a second bar that hasn’t been open for months. Sometimes there are barely
enough bodies to fill the downstairs.
Everywhere looks so shabby and old without the mood lighting, the softening haze of alcohol. The toilet doors are propped open, a whiff of bleach overpowers the lingering smell of urine. Jules and I both stop dead as we step into the main space that always seems so tiny but now stretches long and wide.
There’s a bored-looking girl, jaw energetically
working gum, dark roots morphing into a sharp blonde bob, swishing a mop over the floor which I’d never noticed before was parquet, and suddenly I’m transported back to a memory. Mum and Dad perched on too-small grey plastic chairs at the back of the school hall, me a Wise Man, draped in an old sheet, a tea towel covering my head, trying not to scowl at Melanie, who was playing Mary. She cradled
a plastic baby Jesus who actually weed when you squeezed his tummy. A chubby Ben bounced on Dad’s knee, clapping in all the wrong places. Pointing and squealing my name over and over, while Joseph made his impoverished plea for a room for the night.
‘Ali?’ Jules places her hand on my arm bringing me back to now, where, instead of coat hanger tinsel stars, there’s a lonely disco ball twirling.
‘Are you having a flashback?’ Her forehead is furrowed in concern.
I shake my head. I’m not. Not in the way she thinks anyway.
Carl pointedly checks his watch, and I hurry forward again, peeling my shoes off the sticky floor. We pass the booth in the corner and I feel the same uncomfortable feeling wrapping itself around me like ivy. Instantly, in my mind’s eye, the lights strobe,
As we pass the bar Carl tosses the roll of banknotes I’d given him at a girl who is chucking empty bottles into a green plastic grate. Jules grimaces at the sound.
‘Pay the supplier in cash when he comes. Stop him fucking whinging,’ Carl says.
‘What about?…’ The girl starts but Carl has already turned a hard left into the corridor, and as we pass the fire door
I begin to shake.
Please don’t. Please stop.
I touch my cheek, expecting my fingertips to come away wet but I’m not crying, not now anyway.
We push through a door marked ‘Staff Only’ and descend a set of grey, concrete stairs, a draught nipping at my ankles despite the lack of windows. Carl enters a darkened room. There’s a flicker. A humming. The fluorescent tube clinging to the low ceiling
springs to life, and I blink in the glare.
Even with only three bodies the ‘office’ is full. Carl squeezes past me, and my spine presses uncomfortably against the gun metal filing cabinet, but still his skin brushes against mine and I try to relax my features, knowing my face has twisted into a grimace. He leans over the battered desk, one drawer is missing, and fiddles with a small TV
until it fizzes with static. I turn my head away from his armpit. Body odour and danger. An inked cobra wrapped around his bicep, a roaring tiger on his forearm and, touchingly, the word ‘Sharon’ on his wrist in uneven letters, the ‘r’ higher than the rest. I wonder if she’s his girlfriend or daughter.
‘The quality is shit.’ He fiddles with a dial until a fuzzy image appears of the edge
of the bar, timestamped Saturday.
I sink into the faux leather chair, not caring it’s ripped and stained, orange stuffing spilling out like intestines. This could be it. The moment I find out the truth.
‘Most of the cameras don’t work,’ he says but I can’t tear my eyes away from the barman, shaking cocktails, making pitchers. Was one of those drinks for me? Did somebody
slip something in it?
‘There’s hours of footage. I’ll be upstairs when you’re done.’
Without an extra body the room feels even colder, and Jules picks up a kettle and tests the weight for water. ‘Start without me, I’ll make us a cuppa.’
‘I can hardly start without you, can I?’ I say, sharper than I intended as my eyes flit over the fragmented picture. I begin to doubt even
Jules will be able to pick me out. ‘I’ll make the drinks.’
The rims to the mugs are chipped, insides yellow, matching the nicotine stains on the ceiling. I pick out the two cleanest, ignoring the bare breasts pictured on one and the ‘fuck you’ slogan on the other and spoon out coffee.
‘Here you go.’ I set Jules’s mug on the desk. ‘I wouldn’t recommend drinking it, but you can warm
your hands, at least.’ I slide into the chair next to her and study the ghostly faces on the screen. ‘Am I there?’
‘No, but this is giving me some idea of how you must feel.’ Jules turns to me, sympathy in her eyes. ‘Everyone looks the same.’
‘They do but I’m learning to pay attention to what people are wearing, how they speak, their mannerisms. Ben’s quite distinctive with his silver
glasses. You always speak with your hands.’
‘Me? I don’t,’ Jules says. Pointedly I look at her hands: she had raised them to her chest as she said ‘me’.
‘Okay. I’ll give you that.’
Without natural daylight I lose all sense of time. My back twinges in protest as I fidget on my seat. Jules’s eyes are glazed as drinkers shoulder bop at the bar to a song only they can hear, as
the barman pours yet more shots. I’m reminded of the black-and-white shorts Dad used to watch of Laurel and Hardy, light and shadows, static and silence. I’d sit on his knee, and every time he shook with laughter, I’d giggle too, only this time nothing is remotely funny. Lost to my thoughts I almost miss it.
‘Jules!’ I lean forward, peering at the screen, ‘Is that me?’ A pale figure in
a strapless dress, long white hair glowing under the spotlight.
‘Christ, I’d almost nodded off.’ Jules wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and fizzes open her Lucozade.
‘Is it me?’ I ask again. It’s hard to tell without colour but, despite the grainy image, I can see the dress is the same style as my green one. ‘That’s my choker!’
‘It’s you,’ Jules says. ‘I’ll rewind
‘Play it in slow motion.’ I’m determined not to miss anything. The tape whirrs backwards before playing once more. I’m standing at the bar waving a note. A man slips in the space next to me. I turn my head, lips mouthing words I cannot hear. Neither of us smiles.
‘That must be Ewan! It looks like I know him, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s impossible to tell.’ Jules is frowning as
she studies the screen.
‘Wait. Pause it.’
Playing the tape again we’re joined by a third person at the bar. Light hair, about the same size as me. She speaks, waving her arms for effect. She looks worried and pulls my arm. I break free. Put my hands on her chest and push her. She grabs me again and leads me away from the bar, and before I disappear out of the sight of the camera
I say something else to the man as I leave.
‘Is that Chrissy?’ I ask although instinct tells me it is. Why would we be arguing though? We never did before.
‘And the man. Do you recognise him?’ I can’t stop staring at the before-all-of-this me. My heart cracking that I can’t warn her somehow of what is to come.
My question is met with a painful pause, until eventually
the silence seems to buckle under the weight of just one word.
Tearing my eyes away from the grainy image I turn to look at Jules. It’s freezing but sweat sheens her skin.
‘Honest,’ she says, but she can’t meet my eye and there’s a catch to her voice.
‘Carl.’ I shout again up the stairs.
Frustration simmers in my veins. I’ve found the footage I need but I still can’t identify Ewan. I wouldn’t even have been able to identify me and Chrissy if it weren’t for my dress. My choker.
‘It might not even be him,’ says
Jules. ‘It could be some random you’ve got chatting to.’
It is him. I’m certain. The jacket. More formal than the other men in their T-shirts and jeans. Recognition nips at my skin with sharp teeth.
‘You done?’ Carl fills the room once again with his hulking frame.
‘Can you print out a photo of him?’ I point to the monitor.
‘What do you think this is, fucking CSI? We’re
hardly state of the art ’ere, darlin’.’
If I don’t have something to take away the whole day has been a waste of time. I unlock my phone.
‘No photos.’ Carl stands in front of the desk. ‘I’m doing you a favour. You’ve seen what you wanted. Time to shift your arses.’
With a last, lingering look at the screen, I trudge back upstairs, and we’re ushered outside into the bitter
‘Are you sure you didn’t recognise him?’ I ask Jules.
‘Positive.’ She’s fishing in her bag for something, and even if she looked up I wouldn’t be able to read her.
‘Shall we get the bus?’ I’m lost without my car.
‘I’ve a few things to do. You’ll be okay getting home?’
The thought of being out on my own is terrifying but she’s already given up most of her
weekend for me. It hardly seems fair to ask her to stay.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I say and my nerves knot inside my stomach as I watch her walk away, mobile glued to her ear.
The app on my phone tells me that with Sunday service there isn’t another bus for ninety minutes. It’s too cold to hang around the bus station. Usually I’d plump for Starbucks, on the market square, but the staff might
recognise me and think I’m ignoring them. It saddens me to think I might always feel this embarrassment. Dr Saunders warned me that the majority of sufferers of acquired prosopagnosia develop social anxiety and depression. He said it’s important not to avoid social situations as that further reduces self-confidence, but it’s difficult to mix when I feel set apart from everyone else. At the theme
park Dad and I had spent ages in the House of Mirrors. I’d found it disconcerting that the mirror-Dad had morphed into someone too short, too tall, too fat, too thin. His features distorted until he looked like someone else entirely. He had roared with laughter at our reflections; still, it unsettled me, this different image I was presented with. Uncertain, I’d kept throwing sideward glances his
way, seeking reassurance that he was still the same person. Still my dad. That’s how it feels now. I’m stuck in a House of Mirrors but, no matter how many sideward glances I throw, I’m never reassured.
Buying a coffee is something so small, so normal. But I have to brace myself to push open the door to an independent coffee shop, the bell announcing my arrival as I step inside this
ordinary world where I feel anything but ordinary. It’s packed. Tub chairs full of shoppers weary from their exertions. Multicoloured plastic bags adorned with ‘SALE’ crammed under their tables.
Taking a deep breath of cappuccino and freshly baked rolls, I try and calm myself, sensing eyes on me. I tell myself I’m paranoid, but my gaze is pulled left by a loud tutting sound and blood roars
in my ears, along with the sound of hissing machines heating milk, frothing cappuccinos. A face stares at me, and my heart stutters. Is it him? A sharp nod of the head tells me he is tutting because I am still holding the door open, a blast of icy air against the back of my neck. In my panic I let the door crash shut, and there’s a split-second lull in the hum of conversation as almost everyone
turns my way. Behind me, the door is pushed open again and a young mum, swinging ginger ponytail, manoeuvres her pram over the small step, and I am forced forward so she can close the door behind her. Sound swells around me. The walls are edging in, the sense of being trapped overwhelming, but as I look over my shoulder, out of the window at the throng of shoppers, it seems more terrifying out there
than it does in here. ‘If you act like a victim people will treat you like a victim,’ Iris said all those years ago, and at the time I’d thought her cruel and heartless, but today her words resonate with me in a way they couldn’t when I was twelve. Pulling back my shoulders, belying a confidence I don’t feel, I join the queue, my toes tapping with nerves inside my boots as I wait. My eyes constantly
scanning the crowd. Apart from the girl in the crimson coat and the man wearing army fatigues, it’s like a uniform almost – black winter coats, black boots, black trainers, blue jeans – an army fighting the elements, the harsh winter weather winning the war.
A hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s your turn,’ says the woman, rocking the pram, as inside snowsuit-covered legs angrily kick off a blanket.
‘Sorry.’ I stutter out my order, a toffee latte and, as an afterthought, I add a piece of rocky road. Normal. I can do normal. I give my name for the drink and after I’ve paid I carry my plate to a table already occupied by a family of four. Mum and dad, and two small boys roughly the same size. The woman smiles as I sit and raises her eyebrows slightly, as though waiting for me to speak.
I glance at her children again. They could be twins for all I know and perhaps she’s waiting for a comment about how identical they are. Miserably I pick a lump of pink marshmallow from my cake and pop it into my mouth. It feels like cotton wool clogging my throat as I swallow.
Grateful to hear ‘Alison’ yelled from the counter, I fetch my drink, taking a sip as I carry it back to my seat.
The coffee burns its way down my throat. I try to relax, but it’s hard not to watch the men in trainers, one scrolling through his phone, the other reading a paper.
I pull my phone from my bag to stop myself from staring. There’s a text from Ben telling me he needs to talk, and I phone him, but the call diverts to answer service. There’s another text, from Matt, and my thumb hovers over
his name, second-guessing what he might say. Whether he enjoyed our breakfast as much as I did.
I’m having a clear out. Do you want the green glasses?
His message brings a sharp, cruel, moment of realisation.
We bought those glasses on our honeymoon in Marrakesh. In our apartment we filled them with bubbling champagne and
toasted a future that looked as bright as the blazing sun. Matt hooked open the doors of the balcony and we lay, naked limbs entwined, watching the sky turn from cornflower to lavender, until we dozed, wrapped in dusk and dreams, waking so late we missed dinner. Now he wants to discard the glasses, as though they are nothing, as though I am nothing. Something shifted lately, I had thought: the late-night
phone chats, the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. My black-and-white thinking had whispered he wanted me back, but pity is grey and cold and lonely. I wonder whether my condition is the last straw. Is it too hard to have a relationship with someone who couldn’t pick you out of a line up? Can’t follow movies. Ignores friends and family if seeing them out of context? It shouldn’t be, should it?
Not if it’s love?
I’ve deliberated so long over what to reply to Matt that it’s almost time for the bus, and I think I’ll nip to the loo before I leave. Stepping out of the toilet cubicle I am stopped in my tracks. Unprepared. At home the mirrors are covered, but here I am faced with my reflection. Tentatively I step forward. My fingers hovering in front of the glass. I trace
the lips that tremble with the effort of not crying, the eyes that are wide and glistening with tears. Leaning forward, my forehead rests against the forehead of the mirror-me that shouldn’t look like someone else entirely but somehow does. I feel a wrenching pain in my chest. Despairingly I think I will never get used to this.
The door swings open, and I straighten up, my face has morphed
into someone else again. My knees feel weak as I steady myself against the basin for support. The girl stands next to me and snaps open a compact, brushes powder over her nose blotting the shine, something I used to do at least three times a day, and there’s something about the way she stands back, her mouth curving into a smile as she appraises her appearance, that breaks my heart. Tearing my
gaze away I pump soap into my hands and rub them together and, when the girl shuts herself in a cubicle, I slam my palms against the mirror and smear oily, green soap all over the glass, as though I can make myself disappear. Only when I am nothing but a ghostly smudge do I allow my arms to drop back down to my sides. In the periphery I can still see the reflection of the cubicle doors, but I am
gone, and it is as though I have never existed at all, and I find this thought strangely comforting.
Back at the table I shrug on my coat and wind my scarf around my neck. Outside, dusk is gathering. The family has gone, under the seats where the children sat, a scattering of splintered crisps.
It isn’t until I pick up my cup to drain the last dregs of my now-cold latte I
notice it. The black X that now crosses out ‘Alison’. The single word that has been written in its place, and that word is enough to cause the cup to slip through my fingers, caramel-coloured liquid pooling on the floor.
Going mad-going mad-going mad
. I must be mistaken. I can’t tear my eyes away from the cup as it rolls. Desperately hoping that once it stills I will see that, of course, my name
is still there. My mind playing a trick on me. But it isn’t. The cup wedges against the table leg, and it’s still there. That word. I bolt for the door, snagging a table, the sharp corner digging into my hip, tea sloshing onto a saucer. I stumble, my hand automatically grabbing the arm of the person whose drink I have spilled, but the second I have gained my balance, I’m weaving towards the exit
again. I don’t stop to apologise, to offer to mop up or replace the tea that is now dripping onto the floor. Panic shimmers dark at the edge of my vision. The voice of the past whispering its cold, sour breath into my ear.
Sarah, written in thick black letters on my cup.
And suddenly everything
that’s happened doesn’t feel quite so random anymore, because I can count on one hand the number of people who know that Sarah is my birth name. Alison came later. Much later. After everything that happened when my family moved away to try and escape both the past and ourselves. As I rush out of the café I steal a glance back over my shoulder, scanning the sea of faces, desperate for a glimmer
of recognition, a clue as to who is persecuting me, but everyone’s a stranger.
Except they can’t be.