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Krishan Coupland

It was incredible, really, the way he lost everything – that the plane which carried Fin’s mother and father should fall with such precision onto the car that contained his wife and child. Fin could not believe it at first, when the policeman came for him at work. Yes, he said, he would like to see the bodies. He sat there in the back of the police car, still calm as a tightrope walker, as an electrified rail. Nothing was real. Not the policemen nor the hospital nor the cool efficiency of the mortuary. Even the bodies were elaborate fakes, dressed dolls made up in shades of blue. Actors, perhaps, lying there barely containing their laughter at this wonderful prank they were playing on him – wonderful for its sheer scale, for the taking out and bringing home again of his soul… except there was no bringing home, there was no end to it, and the bodies never lifted themselves smiling from those metal racks, never rose warm into him again like returning birds, and he was alone and alone and alone.

After the funerals Fin lay on the sofa and watched TV. He watched Friends, and when he was lonely he would talk to them. To Joey and Phoebe and Chandler, lost in the petty dramas of their lives, so comfortable and safe that he felt drugged. Oh no, Joey and Chandler lost the baby. Oh no, Ross said Rachel’s name at the wedding. He dozed there for months, for lifetimes, skin drying in his dressing gown like some shallow terrycloth cocoon. He marked time only by the impulses of his body: ate when hungry, drank when thirsty, pissed when he needed to piss. It was bleak, endless. But Oh no, Rachel told Joey her boss wants to buy her baby. The utter happiness of it, that he had known, that he himself had known some time ago – it made him feel as if something were pushing at the inside of his chest, trying to escape. He put his hands there, against the tufted towelling of his gown and held it back, held it behind his ribs.

Mail accrued on the doormat, and sometimes Fin would go to the slew of papers and stir them with his foot, but nothing more. Sometimes the phone would ring, and Fin would wait for it to stop. Once, it didn’t stop, and Fin counted fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred rings before he went to it and ripped the cord from the wall. After that nobody called again. He hauled the heavy dresser from the front room and wedged it against the door. He kept the curtains shut, turned the TV up loud to drown out any sounds from the street. In the dark the screen threw out light and Fin couldn’t tell where that world ended and this world began. He fell asleep in front of it, and in his dreams he was safe and unburdened, and the things that afflicted him were small, funny, bearable things. A sick duck. A missing lunch. A chair he could never possibly afford. The screen was the first thing he would see when he woke, and to his sleep-softened brain it seemed unbearably real.

Fin didn’t go upstairs. Upstairs was the past. Upstairs was a memorial or a museum exhibit, old bones held together by wire. Upstairs was where the grief lurked like a mugger, ready to come running from the shadows and shuttle itself into his chest. If he went upstairs he would cry again, he knew it. Fin hated to cry, being inside the sound of it like a man in a failing submarine. That animal whine extruding from himself, pathetic and lonely as childhood. But what could he do? Keep a watch? Sit up at night to make sure those old bones didn’t come creeping down to touch him while he slept? In the end he hauled the bookcase from the front room and toppled it awkwardly against the steps, as much a barrier as he could manage.

A month after that, in the middle of the night, Fin woke to silence. Everything was dark, and that itself struck him like a snakebite. He sat up. The TV was blank, the room cold enough for his breath to make vapour. When he tried it the light switch did nothing and, cold, he returned to the sofa and his duvet. He tried not to think. He could hear the grief moving around upstairs, pawing through drawers, trying on his clothes, admiring itself in the mirror. He got up and wrapped his coverings around him like a cloak and went to the foot of the stairs. The quiet was awful, pressing on his eardrums, occlusive and dark. He wondered what the Friends were doing right now. What it was that he was missing. He went to the cupboard under the stairs and felt out the box of trip switches and clicked them this way and that to no result. He felt faintly sick. What would Chandler do if he were here? He paced for a while, to help keep warm, then went and lay again on the sofa. The rest of that night he did not sleep.

They came for him soon after that. Fin heard them knocking on the door, shouting his name through the letterbox, and he went out into the hall. He could see them over the top of the dresser, their faint shapes made angular by frosted glass. Two women dressed in blue. They were shouting his name, but he didn’t reply. We know you can hear us, they said, and then they started hitting the door, hard, and Fin was afraid. We’re worried about you. Lots of people are worried about you. Fin went upstairs, scrabbling up over the smooth back of the bookshelf. He wasn’t scared anymore. Not now that it was quiet. Not now that they were coming for him. He went to his daughter’s room and sat on her bed and took her soft toys, her lions and cats and bears and seals and held them and tried to find some scent of her on them. He took them and went to the room he and his wife had shared. He lay on the bed. The room was musty, damp-smelling. There was no grief waiting for him behind the door. He barely remembered, anymore, the exact shape of her face. He turned over the photographs beside the bed, and hugged the soft toys and waited.

Downstairs they were shouting through the letterbox again. You can’t stay in there forever, they yelled.

Fin shut his eyes. Yes, he thought, I can.

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