The Uninvited Guest
He felt the now familiar sense that someone was watching him and not for the first time thought he saw a shimmering movement out of the corner of his eye, he snapped his head around, but as usual there was no-one there.
Two tables away a small boy, three, maybe four years old sat gape-mouthed, staring at him, a dribble of snot running from one nostril to his upper lip, the kid ran his tongue across it, drawing some of the mucus into his mouth, he smiled and Alan looked away disgusted.
“Anyone sitting here?” a gruff voice asked, and before Alan could reply a tray slapped down onto the opposite side of the table, he looked up, opening his mouth to protest that there were plenty of empty tables in the restaurant, then checked himself when he caught sight of his tablemate.
He was the largest man Alan had ever seen, at least six four, with a shaved head, his sleeveless denim jacket peppered with biker gang insignia; but it was the tattooed snake scales that wreathed his throat that really grabbed the eye, Alan shut his mouth and dropped his head.
Don`t make eye contact, don`t make eye contact, he thought, studying his tray, as the man placed a black full face helmet on the table next to his tray.
“You gotta stop doing that,” the stranger said casually.
Without raising his head Alan looked from side to side, hoping he was talking to somebody else; a hand that had the letters H.A.T.E. printed on the knuckles reached across and scooped some fries from his tray, Alan considered protesting, but thought the better of it.
“Your drawing attention to yourself,” the man went on in the same conversational tone, “they`re starting to notice you,” Alan looked up, still saying nothing.
“Everytime you jerk your head around like that, they notice, start to watch you.”
It wasn’t that the biker was talking to him that unnerved him, nor the man`s easy tone, or even that he seemed to not be paying Alan any attention at all as he spoke, his eyes drifting left and right; no it was that when he did speak, his lips didn’t move.
Alan blinked in confusion, “Are you talking to me?” he asked, the biker gave him a disinterested look.
“Here`s what’s going to happen,” he went on as if Alan hadn’t spoken, “I`m going to tell you things, ask you questions, and you’re going to nod or shake your head, you don’t speak, Okay?”
Alan opened his mouth to answer, “Nod and shake, comprende” the man said, his lips still immobile, an edge to his tone now, Alan bobbed his head to indicate he understood, feeling a sudden urge to pee.
“Good," the man said, "so let me guess, you got this blinding headache one night, two, maybe three weeks ago and haven’t been sleeping properly since?” Alan dipped his head once in surprise.
“And you feel like someone’s watching you all the time, and you`ve been seeing things out of the corner of your eye, but when you look around there`s no-one there, you`re starting to think that maybe you`re going a little crazy?”
Wide eyed Alan bobbed his head again, how does he know all this, he wondered.
“The good news" the man continued, "is you’re not going crazy, the bad news is……… you`re not going crazy.”
To Alan there was a surreal aspect to this one sided conversation, he`d never realised before how much he`d relied on being able to see the other persons lips move.
“To answer your question, no I`m not a ventriloquist, the things you half see, we call them the Glimmers. The eggheads, those that can see them, say they`re out of phase, do you know what that means; out of phase?” Alan nodded to confirm he did.
“As far as we can tell they come from a parallel universe or alternate dimension, someplace else anyway. They can see us, but can’t touch us; but they do have these doohickies that can. Most important, they can`t hear us, they can read our lips, but sound waves, Nada, so now you understand?” he gestured towards his mouth.
The man leaned forward, “There`s three of them in this restaurant right now..... Fuck don`t look around, what’s the matter with you?”
Alan who had been in the process of twisting around in his seat, froze, then slowly turned back to the big man.
“And if they think you can see them they`ll erase…….shit; two of them are coming over, pretend that your burger is the most fascinating thing in all the world, whatever you do don’t react to them, look straight ahead,” the man took his own burger from its carton, staring at it.
Nervously Alan fumbled his Big Mac from its wrapper, wondering what crazy thing the man would say next, when he felt the pressure at the base of his skull, the place that housed the stem.
The primal part of his brain was screaming Danger, Danger, suddenly it felt as if he was being scrutinised.
There was a prickling sensation at the corner of each eye and he saw, did he see something, what were those things shimmering at the edge of his vision.
He focused on the burger, eyes wide, he could hear his breath coming in short gasps, beads of sweat popping on his brow, his eyeballs felt as if they were simultaneously drying out and watering, he was sure he was making small keening noises.
“Take a bite,” the man hissed through clenched teeth.
Alan`s stomach roiled, the last thing he wanted to do was put food in his mouth, sure he`d retch if he did, across the table the shaved headed man took a bite from his own burger, then lurched to his feet.
“Goddammit!!” he roared, every eye in the place turned to look at him, saw who was doing the shouting and dropped their gaze just as quickly, only an open mouthed Alan kept watching him.
“Goddammit,” he shouted again as he leafed through his sandwich. “I said no Goddam Pickle in my burger,” he waved the offending green slices at the counter staff, who were desperately trying to ignore him.
“I hate Goddam pickles,” he threw them down in disgust, they made a splat noise when they hit the table top, “Useless Goddam burger flippers,” he bellowed.
He sat down and glowered at Alan who was still watching him, “What the fuck you staring at?” he snarled, and Alan went back to studying his burger, taking a hurried bite from it.
They sat in silence for a minute or more, Alan chewing on the food in his mouth half afraid to swallow, unsure of the consequences.
Then the biker said in a calm voice, “It`s okay their gone,” once he was again Mr reasonable.
And it was true, the shimmering and sense of being watched had passed.
“Sorry about that, but you looked like you was about to crack, had to do something,” Alan looked up again, the man sighed and put down his burger, “T`aint the same without pickle,” he said, “Now where was I, oh yeah.”
“If they figure out you can see them they erase you, they don’t kill you, one moment you`re there, the next,” he snapped his fingers, “You aint, and no-0ne will remember you, fuck knows how they do it.”
“Vhat do they Vant?” Alan hissed through clenched teeth, fighting to keep his lips still.
The man smiled, “Not bad for a first attempt, you want to relax the lips though.”
“You noticed how it seems like everyone and their Ma is suffering from depression these days, like it’s a goddam epidemic?” Alan nodded, there`d been that piece, he remembered, in the paper last week about suicides having tripled in the past year.
“Well that’s them; they got this gizmo they use for siphoning off a hormone called serotonin, ever hear of it?” Alan nodded again. “Anyway it kind of controls our moods, that’s what the eggheads say and when we lose too much, we crash and burn.”
“Here’s the thing, about one in a thousand of us, you and me for instance, we have a reaction to the process, you could say we`re allergic, we get headaches and then we start to be able to see them, you`re nearly there I`d say.”
He smiled again, but there was no humour in it this time, “I remember the first time I saw one of them full on,” he shuddered at the memory, “Whoo boy they are Uggleeyyy, I nearly upchucked,” he studied Alan as if seeing him for the first time, and then in a half laugh said, “Man, you are so fucked.”
“So it’s more bad news, good news, the bad news is, if they know you can see them they erase you, the good news is, if they know you can see them.. they erase you,” he smiled again at Alan`s obvious confusion.
“Thing is they must have a weakness, eggheads think something about being able to see them must make them vulnerable, otherwise why bother, and no they aint figured it out yet, we wouldn’t be having this little chat if they did, now would we?”
“My name is Ted by the way; does that thing have Hotknot?”
Alan glanced down at his cell phone and nodded.
Ted took out a smartphone of his own and placed on Alan`s, “Now you`ve got my contact number and I`ve got yours, remember, voice only, no texts, no emails and don`t tell anybody about this,” Alan nodded dumbly.
As the man calling himself Ted stood, he said, “Oh yeah,” and reached into a jacket pocket, pulling out a foil wrapped bar, and slid it across the table, the label read 100% pure chocolate.
"For the headaches,” he said, “painkillers are no good,” he tapped the chocolate, “the purer the better.”
“One last thing,” he said as he picked up his helmet, “You got a bike?” Alan shook his head.
“Why?” Alan asked as Ted pulled the helmet on.
He flipped open the visor, “Cause they can`t read your lips with your lid on, maannn; they can`t read your lips with your lid on.”
Movement inside is telegraphed through approaching footsteps and a distorted figure seen through the diffuse lens of frosted glass. The door swings wide, I open my mouth to speak and then our eyes meet; I realise words are not necessary.
Imagine looking into a mirror that shows you an alternate reality. Imagine it showing you what you would be like if you were a woman, rather than a man. Imagine it showing you how you would look if you were 30 years older. That’s what I saw. It was pointless to say, ‘Hello, my name is Daniel Barker. I’m your son,’ because the fact that I was hers was painted all over both our faces.
She processes it quickly, there’s a moment of surprise before her expressive blue eyes well with liquid. She puts her hand to her heart, sucks in a deep breath and says, ‘Hello, again.’
‘Again?’ I’m taken by surprise. I’ve rehearsed this meeting so many times. I’ve imagined almost every scenario; her joy, her anger, her denial, her death. She’s been a teacher, an MP, a nun, an alcoholic…now I’m not sure what she is.
‘Sorry. That was the first thing I ever said to you. Hello.’
All at once there’s a golf ball in my throat because of all the scenarios I played out, I never expected this instant connection, this openness, this subtext of regret.
I’m about to speak when she half turns and a man, greying at the temples and stern of face approaches. He sees me, and halts, his face paling and his lips curling up into what I can only imagine is disgust. He closes his eyes, I can almost hear him counting to ten, and when he opens them again he lays a gentle hand on her shoulder, ‘I’ll go to the pub, let you two talk.’
Her hand comes to rest on top of his, in a familiar gesture of comfort and compassion; he must hate me, but his love for her overrides it all. She says nothing else, only lets him get his coat and walk past. I try to avoid his gaze, and I know he is avoiding mine.
‘Come in,’ she urges, once her husband leaves. She shows me into the sort of living room I always dreamed of having, comfortable, welcoming, a little cluttered with mementos and photo frames. I can’t help but stare into them, seeing for the first time the faces of my siblings, my nieces and nephews.
She folds herself neatly into a chair, resting hands that flutter like a sparrow into her lap. ‘You must have a lot of questions?’
‘No. Well...no.’ I smile, and am again unnerved by how closely our expressions match.
‘You got the letter?’ she asks.
I focus on my knees, looking down at them instead of at her as I say the piece that I have rehearsed so many times.
‘I just wanted to say thank you. I can’t imagine what it was like for you, for your family, to go through what you did. It would have been so much easier for you to have an abortion, to not have me.’
She inhales sharply, I glance up to see that tears have spilled from her eyes, leaving two glistening trails on her cheeks.
‘I want to thank you for the letter, too, for the beautiful lies that you told me in it. It was…so generous of you, to try and spare me the truth.’
‘I met him first,’ I explain. I won’t give him the title of father, not even in my thoughts.
‘Oh. I’m so sorry,’ she gasps.
‘There is nothing for you to be sorry for,’ I tell her, compelled to leave the sofa and kneel before her, to grab her hand and cup it in mine.
‘You…were attacked. He hurt you, in the worst way, and you…you…’ I shake my head because even though I’ve known the truth of my procreation for years now, being faced with her beauty, her grace, her fragility, I am aghast all over again at what that man did.
‘It wasn’t your fault,’ she says simply. ‘I couldn’t condemn you for what he did.’
‘Thank you,’ I say again. ‘For the chance.’
She nods a couple of times, then lifts my fingers to her lips to kiss them.
‘And I’m sorry,’ she says, her words catching in a throat reluctant to issue hard truths, ‘but I can’t have you in my life, even now. My husband was…very angry, he didn’t really understand my choice. My other children were too young to explain it all. We told them I was a surrogate. I haven’t…I’ve never told them the truth. I couldn’t…I didn’t want them to see me as a victim. I wouldn't let him change me, for them.’
‘No, no. I understand,’ I say, ‘I’m not asking that. I just wanted to meet you.’
‘It isn’t you,’ she stresses. ‘It’s just circumstance.’
I look up at her, overwhelmed by the connection that we have after a life apart, the sense of kinship and understanding, of soul parity. I don’t want to leave her, to walk away and never look back will be the hardest thing that I have ever done.
But here’s the thing; I take after my mother. So I thank her, again. I kiss her hand, again, and then I walk out of her house and out of her life. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done, but she has taught me by example to do what you believe is right, not what is easy.
I always was an uninvited guest. The polite thing to do, when you realise that, is to say thank you and leave.
I first became aware of my uninvited – dare I add, unwanted – guest at quite an early age. I shan’t say when exactly because I doubt that you would believe me. My guest is male, except when she is female – which isn’t that often, really and is, I am now convinced, more of a protest against overt masculinity … usually in others, rarely in me.
The unnamed, faceless guest took up residence and refused to budge, though there are dormant periods … but they are few and far between these days. Ah! Voices in my head – I have sensed your assumption, your conclusion. People always want conclusions, especially around these kinds of issues and their own assumption is to be preferred because it carries with it the illusion of conviction, wrapped up in the blind certainty of familiarity.
Do I see anything? No, of course not. I am not delusional. But I do sense his presence and there are, it’s true, words, sentences in my head but I can’t say it’s actually a voice. That would be going too far. There is also a stifling, deafening silence when he begins – a silence that buries all other sounds, other voices in a world with which I have only the most tenuous links. Barely hanging on some days. It’s why I only hear about 20% of what anyone says to me. The silent voice, a non sequitur if ever there was one, intervenes: my uninvited, unwanted guest. So if you do decide to speak to me, speak slowly and say little – simply be there. For he will be seizing on any ambiguity to force me to leave the task of listening and explore, instead, the labyrinthine meanings within what you said, desperate to find the ones that place me further and further from you. Yet I would dread your complete silence most of all because it is then that he will roar, tear up our history savouring the destruction of my ties with you.
It’s quiet right now; well, I am writing this, lying in bed, contemplating. I don’t want to get up because movement would commit me to involvement in the day, in routines, in the perils that shift surreptitiously around me. These perils have teeth, you know, and my guest is capable of arousing them with a seemingly insignificant memory; then within seconds I am in danger of being devoured by the failures, regrets, consequences of my past. Worst of all is the sense of injustice – even when it was my fault, was it really so bad that I have to endure this? Perhaps yes. That is the influence of my guest. Right there. “Perhaps yes” … he wrote that, not me.
Dismissal is the worst injustice. That moment when you realise you simply don’t count. You have done your bit, served your purpose. But you are not real, you have no place amongst those who matter, those who are valued simply for their presence. Then my guest becomes at once tyrannical and cannibalistic, slowly stripping pieces of flesh away, flesh that confirmed my existence. And I begin to disappear. Soon I shall be nothing more than a skeleton. He assures me that when I am dismissed it is my due, I merited it; it’s my karma.
I sought medical help, following advice from the friend I talked to who quickly became too embarrassed to stick with it and be with me. You need a doctor, a psychiatrist, a counsellor. Someone. Not me. I added “not me”; my friend didn’t say it … but I heard it. The doctor reached for a box of tissues when I began to cry.
“You have the following options,” she said. She could have been the disembodied voice I hear when I call the number of my bank. Ignoring her list of options I went to work and brushed it off. I smiled and people said hello but they didn’t see me.
Massenet’s “Thais Meditation” reaches a climax and the composer’s notes state “with a little more passion”. Then the ending has the violin playing harmonics above the subtle blending of harp and orchestra in chords that barely register. Forget the passion of the climax and reach instead for this moment of peace. Peace within the harmonics, not within the notes. It is almost enough to silence my uninvited guest, at least for a few minutes. Peace.
My uninvited guest pours me a drink some evenings as soon as I arrive home. It’s a dangerous move because it inevitably leads to a postponement of dinner – sometimes until the following evening. But I continue with my lie that I eat well; it’s a half truth. I do eat well when I can be bothered. I enjoy cooking when I can muster the enthusiasm. I want someone to cook for, someone to be here. Love might be a step too far. So I can settle for someone simply being there … someone besides my uninvited guest. But I am afraid. I don’t love well. D was my latest love and possibly my final one. Nothing to say except that we fed off each other like parasites - but D proved stronger and, in leaving, drove the final nail into my straw coffin. Love is not the answer after all … I just wanted it to be.
My daughter sent me a photo of her son - my grandson. He is sitting on a little stool, gazing into the open dishwasher, hands on his knees, lost it seems in contemplation. He is two and a half. The Buddha of the Dishwasher. The photo means everything and nothing. Except I was like that once, sitting in the open doorway of my childhood home watching the rain bounce upon the road outside and gush towards the drain in the gutter. Everything and nothing.
My daughter made a casual comment and my guest placed the barricade just behind my eyes. It isn’t constructed; construction takes time. This is instantaneous. I can’t speak. I can do nothing. I smile and pretend. Pretend to be engaged. Pretend to be there. I am not.
Since this is a narrative, there ought to be a sense of a journey, of development – movement towards …. what? A tragedy? Salvation? Perhaps simply hope? An elliptical glide towards possibility, at least. But there is only tomorrow. And tomorrow is today unrealised.