From the author: Death comes to everyone, but when she came to Wellington she came with a choice. A story of loss, grief and finding new beginnings. Content warning: Cancer. Suicide. Mental illness.
We were connected only through grief, Freya and I. Nothing else in common other than our loss. Through message boards and posts online, we spoke candidly to others like us, of our feelings and our fears. Our words united us and strengthened us, just when we needed it most. Yet we knew nothing of our individual circumstances and experiences, our likes and dislikes, or how we had got to where we were in our lives. Our profile pictures showed only what we wanted to be seen; an echo of our real selves, smoothed out, filtered and enhanced. We always put our best faces forwards, hiding the cracks and the pain.
It was Freya who messaged me. A simple, “Hi” accompanied by a ‘wave’. I recognised her picture, I’d seen her comments on other posts. I’d seen her pose and smile in pictures, her arm around our mutual friend. I replied with a “Hi” of my own, added, “How are you?” for good measure. I saw the little bubbles at the bottom of the message window pulse and flicker; I knew she was waiting on the other side.
“I just wanted to say, I saw your post on his tribute page,” she started. “It was a lovely picture. He would have loved your poem too.”
“Thanks. I don’t really write that often, but I just wanted to try and put something meaningful, you know? Something maybe others could connect with too.”
“I understand that. There seems to be a lot of people feeling really empty without him.”
I waited for a moment. It felt strange, this conversation. Not bad or wrong, just odd. I didn’t feel ready to strike up a new friendship with a stranger, not over the loss of an old one. But I didn’t want to be rude either.
“There was just something special about him,” I typed back. “He definitely brought people together. I’m really sorry, I don’t have time to chat right now, but it was lovely to hear from you. Maybe another time.”
I deliberately left it as a statement rather than a question, to close the door on the conversation for now, but I suppose she read it differently to how I meant it.
“I’d really like that. Is it okay if I send you a friend request? I hope this doesn’t sound weird but I checked out your profile and you seem like someone I’ll get along with. I saw Pencarrow in one of your profile pictures. I spent some time there in the past. It’s one of my favourite places. I’d really like to go back to visit if I get the chance.”
I paused again. I never normally added people who I didn’t already know in some way. Either in real life or from other groups who I felt strongly connected to. I suppose I felt a little awkward. Something about her seemed somewhat needy, yet also vulnerable. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I looked at her profile picture again. She certainly looked normal, but who can really tell from a ConnectMe image?
“My page is pretty boring,” I typed back. “I don’t really tend to post much any more.”
This much was at least partly true. I didn’t tend to post anything publicly, and most everything else was filtered so only specific people could see it. My family saw very different content to my friends. Only Chris had ever really seen and known everything.
“That’s okay,” she replied. “I don’t post much either. I mainly use it to find people. To follow people. I’d really like to stay in touch with you. If that’s okay?”
She was being oddly pushy, but in a nice way. I leaned back from my laptop, thinking carefully. I knew that if I added her I would most likely filter her out of my more personal stuff. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt. Maybe she needed me more than I needed her right now. Maybe she just needed to talk to someone about Chris.
My fingers danced over the keyboard, almost without my control.
Seconds later a friend request popped up on my screen. I moved the cursor across the screen and clicked ‘accept’.
Immediately the system started showing us all the things that linked us: people we knew, places we had been, favourite movies and books. I was surprised at the few things we did have in common, and at the number of mutual contacts we shared. I was wrong. It seemed that it wasn’t just our late friend bringing us together, we shared a secret too.
I didn’t want to ask about it. Not really. Not because I wasn’t interested or that I didn’t care, but more because I had so much of my own baggage to deal with. I only had enough energy for my own problems most days. My ‘give-a-fuck’ budget was running very low.
She mentioned it first.
“We are in the same support groups.”
That was all she said at first. No elaboration or discussion, just a statement of fact.
“We are,” I agreed.
“What kind do you have?” She was so blunt, so immediately straight to the point, that I was quite taken aback. I surprised myself even more when I leaned in to reply.
“Breast. Metastatic. Stage four.”
She didn’t respond immediately and I was almost at the point of regretting being so open with a stranger, wondering what the hell I was doing, when the message window lit up again.
“I’m so sorry. That really stinks.”
I stared blankly at the laptop screen. The words faded and lost focus. She was right. It did indeed stink. Twenty-seven, single, no kids. One terrible and heartbreaking miscarriage and a failed engagement behind me, and now not much of anything to look forwards to. Most days spending my time stuck in bed, merely watching the world through a window as it passed me by.
I was safe, I was warm, and I was fed.
But I also had a terminal illness.
I’d made peace with it all months ago, back when I’d had enough of the chemo and the constant nausea and I realised that I could claim many victories in battle, but I was never going to win the war. I didn’t see it as giving up like my mother did, more just being realistic, being thankful for what I’d been given. I wanted to focus on the time I had left, not being stuck in a hospital, poked and prodded and drowning in pity. Waiting for the inevitable.
No, I hadn’t given up. I was just so very tired.
I’ll admit, when Chris went, I started to wonder if I was wrong, that maybe I should have fought a little harder. He had kept his dignity and made his own choices right up until the end. I respected that, even if I also resented him for it. I wasn’t certain if I would be given the chance to do the same. I knew it was selfish to be angry. I knew it wasn’t about me. Yet it hurt so much that he had gone and left me on my own. He had promised me that he would stay, would be there for as long as I needed him, and then he had cut that time short. I didn’t know how to process that, and I wasn’t sure if my decision meant I would go on to do exactly that to someone else; to my family and my friends. It was irrelevant now, much too late to change my mind.
The message window flashed again.
“Are you still there?”
I leaned in and typed a reply.
“Yes. Sorry. Just got distracted.”
“Sorry if I was a bit nosey, but I usually find it better to kick the elephant out the room straight away, you know? I hope I didn’t upset you?”
One side of my lip twitched in a half-smile, a quick flash of understanding. I knew exactly what she meant. None of us had the time we thought we’d have. Certainly not enough time to beat around the bush or avoid the truth.
“It’s okay,” I typed back. “You haven’t upset me.”
“Do you know how long you have left?”
This time I did feel aggrieved. That question was far too invasive coming from a stranger. Her bluntness, and matter-of-fact attitude, I could almost understand it, but that didn’t mean I had to engage with it, nor accept it. She was bloody rude.
I was annoyed. I chastised myself for being too trusting, but I didn’t want to be angry at her. Maybe she was struggling. Perhaps she hadn’t meant to be so forthright. I simply didn’t have the patience to talk about it any more.
“Actually, I have to go now. Sorry.”
I logged out quickly before she had time to respond. Her profile page still filled my screen. I moved my fingers over the trackpad, hovered the mouse pointer over the ‘unfriend’ button. I paused. I couldn’t quite bring myself to push it. I didn’t know why. We’ve all said strange things while trying to deal with our emotions. Suffered from the curse of ‘foot-in-mouth’. Maybe she simply hadn’t thought about how she would come across. Some part of me obviously believed she deserved a second chance.
My irritation gave way to amusement as I recalled what I’d typed. I hoped she didn’t take me literally. I chuckled to myself as I closed the lid of the laptop and slid it onto the bedside desk. I felt completely exhausted and my chest hurt every time I took a breath. I sank down into the pillows behind me, desperate for the relief of sleep.
Eric messaged me later that evening. Much later. It was almost 2 a.m. when I heard my laptop chime. That wasn’t unusual though. We all kept odd hours. Often sleeping through the days, sometimes battling long periods of insomnia.
“Hey. Just checking in. You alright?”
“Not dead yet,” I typed back. An old, black-humoured joke between us.
“Sweet,” he replied, as he always did.
“Oh, yeah. Good as gold, eh? I’m totally bloody knackered, I’ve got a mouth full of ulcers, and I’m stuck in the bloody dunny with constant shits. So, the usual.”
I replied with the ‘laughing out loud’ emoji.
It was Chris who introduced me to Eric, around nine months ago. They’d been online friends for years and I’d felt a little guilty when it became obvious that I had become a much closer friend to him than Chris. The youngest son to an Australian couple living in New Zealand, Eric was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was only nineteen. A pain in his lower leg becoming something much more serious. An amputation saved his life but destroyed his plans for a career in professional rugby. He had decided instead to teach sports therapy to fellow amputees, mostly through swimming and hydrotherapy. Just under a year ago he was diagnosed with AML — Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Most people would have been devastated, knowing what they would have to go through, anticipating the fight again; not Eric.
An eternal optimist, he treated his diagnosis like it was simply a massive pain in his arse. It was annoying and impossible to ignore, but as far as he was concerned he’d beaten it once and there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he would beat it again. I admired his confidence. It was one of the many things I liked about him. That, and he was pretty damn attractive. Cancer had taken many things from me, but it hadn’t made me blind.
“How was your day?” he typed.
“Yeah. Okay. Slept most of it.”
I paused. Thought. Added a bit more.
“I got a friend request from Freya today.”
“You know, Chris’s friend. Dark hair, dark makeup. Always dressed in black.”
“Oh, her. Right. The hot Goth chick. I don’t think she liked me very much.” I felt a small prick of jealousy. Eric thought that she was ‘hot’. I told myself not to be so stupid.
“I’m not fully sure if I like her. She’s very direct. A bit rude really.”
“Yeah? I thought you’d get on alright. You Pommy’s are pretty blunt too, eh?”
It was a part of my life I sometimes forgot. I was an immigrant from the United Kingdom. A Pommy as he called it. Fourteen years had passed since I had stepped off the plane with my parents and started a new life. If I’d known then what I knew now, would I have even boarded it? If I hadn’t, I never would have met Chris.
My laptop chimed again.
“I talked to her over messenger once, but we didn’t have much to say. Nothing in common. I don’t think I was quite what she expected. And she had zero sense of humour.”
I smiled as I read. Eric quite often wasn’t what other people expected him to be.
“Well, you’re an acquired taste.” I typed back.
“What? I’m fucking delicious!” I laughed out loud for real then. He was right about that.
“So have I been replaced?” he asked me, followed by a winking face.
“Never,” I replied, adding a little face of my own, blowing a red heart kiss.
“Good. Cos Old Stumpy is always gonna be here for you.”
Of course, he had to add an eggplant emoji after that. Typical Eric. It meant nothing. Well, nothing much. He lived in Waikuku, a small town just north of Christchurch. I was four hundred kilometres away in Wellington. We’d never met, and probably never would, but the thrill of flirting kept us both sane. Helped us keep a grasp on normality. We were still living, breathing human beings, with hopes and dreams and impossible internet lovers.
Not dead yet.
“So. I’ve got a joke for you,” he typed. “A little blue penguin and a National supporter walk into a bar...”
I watched and read as he added to the setup, line by line. As usual, the punchline was terrible, filthy and hilarious.
We chatted about everything and nothing until the first rays of the morning sun started to glimmer behind my bedroom blinds. He signed off just before 6 a.m. and I fell back into my pillows and slipped into a fitful sleep.
I was awoken by a coughing fit in the early afternoon. I grabbed the water bottle from my bedside table and took a drink. Tried to ease the dry, scratchy feeling in my throat. Almost immediately, my bladder needed emptying. The bathroom was only next door, but even that short journey left me exhausted and sweating. I needed to shower and get changed. My mother would no doubt come round in a couple of hours. She never said anything, but I always saw the sadness and disappointment in her face if she arrived and I was still in bed or my pyjamas. She had promised me never to discuss my decision, but her eyes said everything her voice didn’t.
I sat on the stool which I kept in the shower, letting the water fall around and over me. I didn’t bother with shampoo, my hair was cropped too short to need it. It grew back thin and patchy after I stopped the chemo, keeping it shaved made more practical sense. I had always worn it long and curled before, frequently dyed many vibrant colours. It still seemed strange to see it short and blonde, the colour that nature intended. Eric referred to it as, “hitting the reboot button”. I wished I could.
I drip-dried in the shower, sitting for as long as I could without the water on, until I got cold. I dried the rest of me with a towel, dressed in leggings and a cotton T-shirt, favouring comfort over style. My old makeup bag was slumped by the sink, tainted with a thin layer of dust. A feeling of curiosity came over me. I unzipped it and explored its contents. They seemed strangely unfamiliar to me after months of being ignored. I darkened my eyebrows, added mascara and bronzer, and finished with a dash of pink lipstick. I was surprised at myself, this was probably the brightest I’d looked in months. My mother should be pleased.
I took the handful of supplements my naturopath had recommended to me with a glass of water, along with a chaser of painkillers. They hurt a little as they slid down my throat. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I poured myself a glass of organic smoothie — my mother brought me bottles of the stuff — and sipped it slowly through a metal straw. Another gift from my mother.
“They’ll last you a lifetime,” she had told me, before realising what she’d said and turning bright red. I had just laughed and hugged her.
She sent me a text just after half-past two, telling me that she was stuck in the middle of a traffic jam. An accident on State Highway 1. She couldn’t get through the tunnel. I was half-way through replying to her when I heard my laptop chime.
I expected to see a message from Eric, maybe even one of my other friends —Amy, Kirsten or Lucinda — but instead it was Freya again. A strange wave of emotion came over me, one I couldn’t quite identify. I was still unsure how I felt about her. She unsettled me, but I didn’t know why.
“Hi Lydia,” she began. “Hope you’re okay? So, weird thing; I found this photo I took a while back of you and Chris, I think maybe at a Pride festival or something. We’ve met before without you realising it!”
She had attached the picture at the end. It was indeed of myself and Chris. I didn’t remember exactly when it was taken, but it looked like it was from over five years ago, well before either of us got sick.
Sick with the cancer anyway.
My hair was long and dyed bright turquoise, his was short and purple. We had rainbows painted on our cheeks and matching goofy smiles. He wore a pride flag draped around his shoulders, like a superhero cape. It was coloured in three vibrant stripes of pink, purple and blue. He looked content; glad to be amongst friends and allies. His arm was draped around my shoulders and I leaned into him. God, we looked happy.
I felt hot tears prick my eyes and my nose began to run. I sniffed and plucked a tissue from the box by my bed. I didn’t want to pick at the scabs of old memories, I’d done enough of that already. I should have let it be. Against my better judgement, I clicked and enlarged the photo, letting it fill the whole of my laptop screen. Chris’s face seemed so unfamiliar to me now, and the feeling hit me like a punch in the gut, a hollow reminder that he was really gone. I might see his face in pictures, maybe even videos, but never again in real life.
The picture was so large, and clear. I could see the fine, white lines tracing his arms. The thicker, pink ones on his wrists. They were accompanied, in stark contrast, by a black semicolon tattoo. It signified a pause, not a full stop.
Chris had always struggled. Unlike many like him, who were often isolated or felt unable, he had at least reached out and asked for help. Many, many times. He saw counsellors and therapists, tried drug after different drug, but nothing seemed quite right.
Chris was an avid gym bunny. He loved surfing, swimming, climbing and running. He gained a clear first at university and did well in his career. His parents and sisters were wonderful and understanding, and they supported him completely. His relationships, although few, were always meaningful, and with kind and loving people. Their separations were never acrimonious.
He didn’t fit the stereotype that other people often associated with his illness, he seemed far too vibrant and accomplished in his life. He didn’t spend all day in bed. He didn’t seem sad or overwhelmed. How could someone like him be so troubled, they’d wonder, when he seemed to have so much?
No-one really thought he was at risk. Not even me. He had convinced me that he was managing it, that he had things under control. I knew the statistics; one in six individuals suffered with a common mental disorder at some point in their lives. I knew the other numbers too, particularly those amongst young males. More people than could fit inside a double-decker bus each year. I wasn’t worried. I never believed that he would add himself to that list.
I knew, as I’d always known, that something inside him wouldn’t let him rest. He was never truly happy. He called it the Beast he could never tame. Not merely a black dog, as it was often referred to, but a slavering, monstrous hell-hound, bathed head-to-toe in midnight shadows. He was bound in the grip of a crippling darkness; his mind often feverish and hollow. His demons were determined to suck him in, chew him up, and swallow him whole.
Like me, Chris was sick, but in a very different way. At his worst, he talked about his life as if it were something he felt forced to endure. He thought his being here was just a phase. I don’t think he was religious, he never spoke of going on to a better place or anything like that, but the best I could understand of it was he never truly believed that he belonged here. His thought his existence was a mistake, that he was here at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
Sometimes he was brighter and excitable. He was here for the benefit of others, he’d said. His presence brought people together. I really believed that. Chris filled the room in ways other people could not. He could put aside his own troubles and listen to everyone who needed him with quiet earnest. He made them feel truly seen. Online, the friends he made created a wide web around him. We needed Chris far more than he would realise. He kept us whole.
His older sister, Lauren, had once confided in me. She told me Chris’s whole personality had been changed when he was fifteen. The victim of an apparently accidental hit-and-run, he was riding to the local dairy when he was clipped by a car. He fell off his bike and smashed his head on the road. He hadn’t been wearing a helmet and was knocked out cold. He suffered a serious concussion and a broken arm. Lauren said he seemed to have all his joy sucked out of him as a consequence. She always wondered if his depression was linked somehow.
I don’t believe it was his accident that made Chris how he was. It could never be as simple as that. Family and friends, they often want to find an easy answer, a reason they can pin all their hopes upon, some way to rationalise or explain the hurt. But the truth is, it’s never easy. Never just one thing.
When Lauren had helped their parents clean out Chris’s room a little while after he had gone, she had found a notebook of his. A story he hadn’t quite finished. She passed it on to me, said she thought he would have liked me to have it. I always loved his creative work.
He was a prolific writer; he’d won many awards for his short stories and poems, and had been published several times, but I don’t think Lauren realised that to Chris, his words were not always fiction. There was a dark theme which undercut all of his work. Emotions he tried to explore and process as he wrote. I’d taken the book and thanked her, and left it on a shelf for weeks until I could bear to read it. It landed open on the floor one morning when I bumped into the bookshelf accidentally. I’d read what was on the page.
There is a place between worlds. Between time. Not bound by the laws of the living and the energies therein. It is a Waiting Room. A holding cell. A place to go and visit but never stay. Where those still tethered by the threads of their existence, push through the thin veil woven between worlds, called briefly off the path of a pitiful Life to the realm of a welcoming Death. Despite what they’ve seen and the things they now know, most do not get to stay. Pushed back through the curtain, destined only to wait until their turn, they are locked in a fragile limbo until their name is called again.
Chris had spoken of the Waiting Room, as he called it, many times. It was an experience we had both shared, yet separately and in very different circumstances.
Mine came from a ridiculous and avoidable accident while blind drunk at a party. I had slipped on a discarded wet towel in the bathroom of a student flat, and cracked my head on the toilet cistern. It was hours before anyone realised that I wasn’t merely passed out from drinking too much alcohol. I was saved by an irate flatmate who had apparently tried to veto the party in the first place. She had dragged me angrily to my feet with the sole intention of throwing me out, but then saw the bloody gash on my forehead. She got me the medical care I needed. Much before that, I had drifted in and out of consciousness many times, each time going back to the Waiting Room.
I’d not thought about it in years, but I could still recall it clearly. It was not a frightening experience, in fact later I would be more unsettled at the realisation I had felt no fear at all. Knowing that had I been able to, I would have happily stayed.
I was not alone in the Waiting Room, and all those around me were calm and welcoming. I sat at a long table with many others who smiled and put their gentle hands upon me. A young woman offered me her hand, but I did not have time to take it before I was rushed back into my own body.
The peacefulness and calm feeling had given way to sheer frustration as I became conscious again. Three times I went back. Three times I was dragged away. It was as if I could only ever be an observer, never allowed to linger. I had wanted so much to stay, to embrace the tranquillity and comfort. The real world had often been harsh, and loud, and difficult for me, yet it seemed I could not fully turn my back on it. Not then.
I had found myself wondering what it would be like to return. If Chris was waiting there for me. I sometimes thought that if I could see him again, even if for just one last time, I would do whatever it took. Whatever else the Waiting Room had given me, it had taken away any fear of death.
I don’t know how much time I spent thinking. It felt like I’d glitched, and time had slowed down, but I was pulled out of my reverie by the arrival of another message.
“I’m coming to Wellington for a couple of days. Do you fancy meeting up?”
My initial reaction was to decline. I couldn’t seem to place her motives, why she was suddenly so keen to engage with me. I realised she hadn’t even told me what kind of cancer she was facing, if even any at all. Maybe she was just one of those ghouls who hung around in chatrooms and forums, getting off on the pain of others.
Yet, I was drawn to her as well. In some odd way, I felt like we were connected, not simply due to knowing Chris. We had spoken only very briefly online before, replying to each other’s comments, but I had never taken any time to find out who she really was. I suppose I had assumed that she was an old girlfriend or lover. In every picture I’d seen of them together, they had seemed very close, both physically and emotionally. Her always flashing a full and open smile, Chris with his usual half-smirk. She was always dressed head-to-toe in black and red, her short bob soft and shiny, her lips always painted with colour. Chris was her polar opposite, in white or blue or speckled grey, spiked hair unwashed and messy, a sprinkling of stubble on his chin.
I’d seen similarities too, though. Their features were quite similar, and if I hadn’t known otherwise I might have thought she was a relative, a cousin perhaps. Their eyes were almost identical. I’d never been introduced to her at family parties; weddings, funerals or otherwise, and I had spent a great deal of time with Chris’s family. Almost more than with my own. Maybe this would be an interesting way of finding out more about her. What else did I have to do with my time?
I tapped out a reply.
“Sounds good. Wednesday maybe? There’s a lovely little place on the waterfront, not far from the beach. An old tugboat. The coffee is nice, and we can sit inside or out.”
“Great! I know it. I’ll see you there at eleven?”
It would require me being up and dressed and in the city relatively early for me, but I typed an affirmative and added a smiley face.
“My mum is coming round,” I added, not wanting to get into another online conversation. “So I’ll see you on Wednesday. Have a great day.”
She answered with a smiley face of her own and I closed the chat window. The picture of Chris and I still filled my screen. I saved it to my hard drive before closing the laptop again. It was a lovely picture.
When my mother arrived later we performed our usual awkward dance; she tried hard not to say anything that might upset me, but equally, it was obvious she was still keen for me to go back to the doctors and the specialists, to try and buy myself more time. I knew when I passed she would be on her own. Dad had been gone for four years already, and she had still not fully adjusted. Losing me might be the end of her too.
While some might call me selfish for adding to her pain, the truth is, we had never been close. It took my illness to bring us even slightly close together. My dad was the one I had always talked to, who I had always shared my secrets with. I felt the loss of him just as much as she did, if not more, but we had never been able to share that. It was complicated.
I spent the next day mostly napping, sometimes watching trashy daytime television programmes. I doodled a little bit in a drawing pad, something I’d not done in quite a while. I’d always loved painting and sketching, finding peace through productivity. Before my illness, I’d spent countless hours outside in the bush or by the beach, immersing myself in the beauty of nature. I let my creativity flow over me and through me. Rocks and mountains and ocean waves appeared upon the paper.
I was surprised, I thought I might have lost my talent, but the shapes came as easily as if I were sitting there amongst them, breathing in the coastal air. I fell asleep with my pencil in my hand. I dreamed of swimming in the sea. A bright, hot sun beat down on my pale skin, a kaleidoscope of shimmering colours reflected on the water.
I awoke on Wednesday morning with an unusual amount of energy. I realised with surprise I was quite excited about meeting Freya, my mood very different to the previous days. I pulled on a comfortable sundress, wrapped a scarf around my close-cropped hair and added the makeup I had used the other day. Slip-on shoes with a daisy print completed the look. I regarded myself in the bathroom mirror. I looked so normal. Healthy even. It wasn’t just because of a pretty dress and cosmetics. My face looked pink, not ashy, and less drawn than usual, the shadows underneath my eyes not so dark. Was this reflection even mine? I hardly recognised myself.
At 10:40 a.m. my Uber driver messaged me to let me know he was waiting outside. I grabbed my handbag and went to the front door. A weird feeling of anxiety came over me. Not nerves, no, more an odd feeling of anticipation. As if I were about to make a very big decision. Embark on a journey or a path I’d not travelled on before, despite making it many times. I shrugged it off, told myself I was being stupid. I was just feeling wobbly at the thought of meeting a new person. I closed and locked the door.
Freya was early and I was late, she had already found a table inside the café, looking out towards the waterfront. She stood up and greeted me with an awkward hug. I felt her hands on my shoulder blades and I winced. There was not much of me left to hold.
“Hi! It’s so good to meet you at last,” she gushed. “I’ve ordered myself a coffee, but I didn’t know what you’d like.”
I waved my hand saying, “That’s fine. I don’t really drink coffee any more as it makes me feel a bit sick, but they do great smoothies here.”
I walked to the counter, ordered myself a strawberry and mango drink, and the waitress gave me a number to take back to the table.
I went back, sat down opposite Freya, and looked out across the harbour water. The bright sun sparkled on the blue of the water, dotted with tiny diamonds of light.
“It’s pretty beautiful here,” Freya said, following my gaze.
“Yeah. I really love it. Can’t imagine being anywhere else now.”
“Will you ever want to leave?”
I thought at first I must have misheard her. I floundered slightly.
“Huh? No. Maybe. I thought about moving to Auckland for a while. But I guess I don’t have much choice now. And anyway, ‘you can’t beat Welly on a good day’ and all that, eh?”
Her question had struck me as slightly odd, but I smiled at her as the waitress brought us our orders. I sipped my smoothie slowly, felt the cold, mushed fruit hit my empty stomach and made it cramp. I should have tried to eat something before I left the house. I felt nauseated despite avoiding caffeine.
Freya mixed a spoonful of sugar into her cup and watched me intently. I felt a little unsettled.
“So, how come you’re in Wellington?” I asked her, eager to break her gaze.
“I’m here on business,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.
“Okay. Great.” I sipped my drink again, feeling a little awkward. My excitement about our meeting seemed to have waned.
“So, are you often here? Do you have to travel far or...?”
“I go all over. I’m pretty much always moving.”
I went to ask her another question, but she got in first.
“So, how did you meet Chris?”
So that’s what she wanted to talk about. Maybe she was as curious about my relationship with him as I was about hers. Maybe she really was an old girlfriend and she suspected I had been a secret lover on the side.
“I met Chris when I moved here from the U.K.,” I told her. “He was one of the first friends I made, one of the few people who talked to me at school. All the girls in my class had been horrible to me, and I was sitting on my own in the yard. Chris just came up and said hello. That was it really.”
“That was Chris. Always there for those who needed him. Sacrificing himself.”
Another strange thing to say.
“Umm, yeah. We were both part of a bigger group that ended up going to the same college and then the same university, so we all just drifted around together. He introduced me to climbing, I taught him how to knit.” Now it was my turn to smile. “He was crap at it, though. He always used to gain stitches instead of dropping them. I never knew how.
“People always thought we were a couple, but we actually never were. We just got on really well. He understood me better than most other people. Always knew what to say when I was down. He made me laugh like no-one else ever could.”
Freya nodded, taking it all in.
"He was my best friend. We lost touch for a little while, when I was with Patrick, my ex, but then we found each other again a couple of years ago. He hadn’t changed at all. We talked a lot about how our lives had gone. He said he was considering getting engaged. He was going to propose. I was surprised, I honestly never thought he would ever settle down, but he seemed to be absolutely head-over-heels in love with Sam.”
I stopped, suddenly overcome with melancholy. Freya took a drink and locked her eyes with mine. She stared at me so intently it felt like she could somehow see inside me. For a moment it seemed like her whole eyes were completely black. My head felt strange; both pressured and hot.
“You miss him, don’t you?”
My mouth opened and words came tumbling out, without me even thinking about them. Feelings that had previously been so difficult to process, let alone share.
“Oh, God, I do. So much. It was so strange when he went. Like, his being here, he was so… large, you know? Not just physically, but in everything he did for people. He knitted us all together, we were the stitches he gained and never dropped. He made things make sense.
“When I heard he had gone, when his sister told me, I thought it was impossible. Some kind of sick joke. No-one that kind, or important, or that special to so many people could just… leave. There would be a gaping hole left in the world without him. His heart was too big. I knew he was sick, I’d always known, but despite everything he went through, I thought, I always believed, that he would win. That maybe I could help him beat it.”
I had to stop. I could feel a lump rising in my throat, heat in my eyes. I blinked and took a long drink, stared at the dark coffee rings staining the wood of the table. I didn’t know why I had told her all of that. I felt naked and raw, like she had stripped something out of me without my consent. I couldn’t look at her. I was afraid I would see those dark pools in her face where her eyes should be. That I hadn’t imagined them.
“How about you?” I asked her, keeping my voice as steady as I could.
“Oh, like you, I knew him for quite a long while, but mostly we kept in touch through writing and stuff. I didn’t get to see him very often.”
“I don’t remember meeting you. I’m surprised he didn’t introduce us the day you took the photo.”
“Chris didn’t ever introduce me to anyone. He was very ashamed of knowing me so intimately.”
I looked up in surprise.
“Really? That doesn’t sound like him. I can’t imagine him being ashamed of any of his friends.”
“Well, our relationship was complicated. I don’t think most of his friends would have understood. He always tried to keep me away from people, especially those he was close to.”
I screwed up my face and frowned. What on earth was she talking about? Chris wasn’t like that at all.
“Okay. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to doubt you, but that really doesn’t sound like him.”
The conversation felt off to me, this whole thing felt off. I didn’t feel comfortable any more. I needed to leave. I started looking for a way to make an exit without causing too much fuss.
She fixed her eyes on mine again, staring deeply and intently. No longer dark, now sparkling stars of green and brown swirled in pools of liquid amber. An ethereal map of unknown galaxies. They were beautiful, and also utterly terrifying.
“Chris knew who I really am, Lydia,” she said quietly. “I think, deep down, you do too.”
She held me in her gaze and I felt smothered. My chest was tight and my body tense, each breath was hard to take. I was paralysed, my limbs like stone.
“I... I don’t know what you mean,” I whispered shakily.
“Yes, you do. I know you’ve given up. That the cancer is eating you up inside. I know you’ve looked long and hard at your life and wondered why you ever bothered to fight it. I know you miss Chris, so much, so very much, and you want to go join and him. Wherever he is. You would follow him to the grave if it meant you could see him again, could talk to him one last time.
“I know how you filled your pockets with rocks one night and walked out into the cold sea. You intended never to return, but you changed your mind at the last minute. You dragged yourself, soaked and shaking, back to the shore.”
I gasped. No-one knew about that. I had never spoken of it, not to anyone.
“You’ve been to the Waiting Room,” she continued quietly. “I know that I don’t scare you. Not even slightly.”
I blinked. The world shifted. Suddenly, finally, I could see past the mask she was wearing. I saw her for who and what she really was.
She had been with me since my drunken fall. Since I’d opened up my skull.
She had been there when I lost my father and my only child.
She was there when I received my cancer diagnosis.
All this time, she had been waiting for me, patiently and quietly. Waiting for me to give up.
Anger rose up inside me before I even realised it, replacing any trace of fear. How dare she be here, sitting and drinking coffee, knowing the destruction she caused? The fear and the shame and the pain she brought. Conversing with me as if we were old friends. I hated her and everything she’d done.
My rage empowered me; I felt stronger than I had in many years.
“Yes. I know exactly who you are,” I hissed quietly. My teeth clenched, my voice full of disdain. “I know what you do and what you take. I should have guessed.”
“You don’t need to be angry with me, Lydia. I don’t make the choices. I’m just a chaperone. You only see what’s left behind. You don’t know how much I care for those who follow me and what I do to ease their passage. You all have to meet me eventually; why treat me as an enemy when I am here to guide?”
“Stop pretending that you care! I don’t want any kindness from you! You fucked up my life, and Chris’s! I’m angry because I want to be angry, damn it! Of course you’re my enemy, what else can you be? My friend?”
I sneered at her then, but she just smiled.
“Yes. I can be if you let me. You’re not afraid of me. Really and honestly not afraid. That changes things.”
“Changes things, how?” The staff and other patrons in the café were all going about their business, ignoring us completely. Oblivious to our quarrel. It was as if we weren’t even there.
“You said you don’t want to leave,” she said quietly. “Do you mean that?”
I paused for a moment, unsure how to respond.
“What are you asking me?”
“If you stay, will you make the most of the time you’ve been given? Will you let Chris go and make new memories, without him? Will you stop torturing yourself about not replying to his message that night; how you told yourself your text could wait until the morning? It was late. You were sick. There was always going to be another time?”
I felt the tears on my face, tried hard to blink them back. I thought I’d mourned enough. I didn’t want to cry in front of her.
“You couldn’t save him, you know. It wouldn’t have changed a thing. He reached out and you caught him, time and time again. But you can’t heal someone’s pain by taking it away from them. You can only be there for them when they need you. You can listen to them. Acknowledge them. See them when they want to be seen. You did that for Chris. You did enough.”
She took a sip of her coffee and leaned back in her chair. Kept me locked in her stunning yet devastating gaze.
“Grief will keep you in all kinds of prisons, if you let it. And yet it is, at its most simple, love. Two seemingly opposite emotions, yet both arrive in your life unexpectedly, and flip your world completely upside down. You grieve now because you loved him.”
I scoffed loudly and shook my head in disbelief.
“Of course I loved him! I loved him and you took him! How can you talk like that when you stole him from me?”
“My presence is inevitable, Lydia. I don’t take anything. I am merely there at the end of all things. Your existence presents to you a multitude of pathways and many choices. Some of those you get to share with others, but most you have to walk alone. Your souls are not pennies you can keep in glass jars; you have to spend them to keep them free. To let yourselves grow. Whatever happens, whatever hardships you face, life continues on until you meet me. With you, or without you, life always goes on.”
I put my hands over my face, I couldn’t stop myself. I felt my cheeks and palms grow damp. The sobs in my throat almost choked me. I wanted her to stop, but she continued.
“Most people do not get to decide how and when they die, they only get to choose how well to live. I am here to offer you that choice. As your guide, and, yes, your friend. Because you came here and you faced me. You met my gaze and did not cower. Because you are not afraid of what comes next.”
Her words felt thick and heavy, they smothered me and enveloped me, and yet they also brought me calm. Death gave me comfort. She offered me peace.
“Don’t make this decision for anyone else, make it only for yourself. I can only tell you that you matter. That you are important, even if you do not ever see it, or realise how or why. The stones you cast on the waters of the world, they send out ripples all around you. Those ripples reach out and touch others in ways you can’t imagine, you cannot see.
“You thought Chris was the glue who held you all together. Did you never stop to think it was you too?”
I struggled to breathe, to clear my throat. To push all my anger, my fear, and my denial, down deep into the darkest part of me. A hundred thoughts raced through my mind.
Thoughts of my friends, of the secrets I had kept from them. The weight of them like great stones around my neck, dragging me and holding me down. Why had I never been honest?
Thoughts of my mother and how scared she was, how much she needed me. How much I needed her. She could never find the words to tell me, and I never went ahead and said them first.
Of Chris; how I had loved him so utterly and fiercely, even though I knew he could not, and would not, ever love me back. How he was never really able to let himself love anyone properly. Not even Sam. Especially not himself.
Of Eric; how he was always there for me. I should have gone to him, hugged him, laughed with him in person. I could have pulled him close and kissed him. If I had only bloody tried.
Finally, I thought of myself. Of all the things that Freya had told me. I was twenty-seven. Single. Childless and dying. I’d focused so blindly on the things that had gone wrong for me, the things I’d lost, I’d forgotten about all the things I’d had. I’d wasted so much of my time. There was so much more I could have done.
“It is your choice, Lydia,” she whispered. “Only you can make it. Look into my eyes and tell me, honestly. You can come with me now, I’ll stay with you until the end. Or you can stay. Make yourself a new life.
“Which do you want?”
As my head swam and my body shook, I spoke my final words to her.
“I want to live.”
I woke up alone on the golden sands next to Oriental Parade. I had absolutely no idea how I had got there. The sun blinked and shimmered on the gentle waves, and I looked out across the harbour to the sea. Freya was gone. I’d see her again, that much I knew. But not now. Perhaps not any time soon. We had made an agreement. There were promises to keep.
My mobile beeped, alerting me to a message. A text from Eric.
“Just checking in. How are you doing today?”
How was I doing? I felt light. I felt happy. I felt well. I had so much more than I’d had yesterday. I had hope.
I smiled as I dialled his number. It was about time we talked together properly.
The line connected. I heard his voice. It was a beautiful day.
Strange creatures lurk in the shadows of the Beehive, while a beast From The Deep is determined to destroy us all. Being Neighbourly might just change your life, and if you listen closely you can hear demonic Whispers in the wind. So sit back, take a sip of A Good Cup of Coffee and question all The Things You See. In the city, there are no Second Chances and every chapter might be your last.
Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.