Inside the pub there’s the press of people and too loud music. We get lucky and nab a couple of empty barstools, the cushioned seats still warm from strangers’ bodies. The wooden counter is littered with damp napkins, thin, black straws, and glasses harbouring soaked lemon slices and the remains of ice cubes. Everywhere, drinks in various stages of disappearing.
We sip vodka-sodas, his pale, freckled hand heavy on my knee. He talks above the chatter and music, complaining about his day at the office, some trouble with a new employee, Hazel. Hazel second-guessed him, and in front of the CEO. My stomach tilts and my muscles grip my skeleton. He hasn’t made the connection. Has never given my Hazel much consideration. I suppose I don’t say all that much about my best friend’s disappearance at ten years old, but he should at least recognize this obvious trigger.
I’ve told him how Hazel’s blue eyes made me want to go skydiving. Her obsession with caterpillars, too, and what if they didn’t want to change? Her terror that her bellybutton would someday pop open. I’ve never talked about what might have happened to her-thoughts that have hollowed me out over the years and made my eyes sit too deep in my head.
Funny that I can’t remember the last time I was with Hazel. What we said and did together? Our parting words? All I have are scattered memories from those weeks before she was taken. Tiny films in my head that operate on automatic and flicker on and off at will. Flashes of us camping out in my backyard, pretending that tented patch of dirt was our own island, our heads peeking from the tent’s front slit, finding fresh patterns in the stars. Reels in my mind of competitions inside our school’s dappled blue swimming pool, to see which of us could hold the other underwater longest. “You’re the only person I’d let drown me,” Hazel said. Scenes, too, of us tracing each other’s faces with our fingertips, pretending to put on the other’s make up. I had a lot more meat on my frame back then, rust-red hair, and chocolate-brown eyes that over the years have lightened and turned evasive. Hazel’s face and body were juts of bone, lookout points, and her hair was bark-brown. To this day, her sky eyes hang over everything.
What I have no trouble remembering is the last time Hazel and I should have gotten together. She disappeared in the early afternoon, on a Sunday so hot the tarmac on our road bubbled. Hazel going missing on the Lord’s Day, when the sun was at its highest and brightest, and while she was on her way to see me, still makes me feel as if I’m confined to an ICU at night-alone and tied up with tubes, everything dark and static and hissing.
Several nights later he arrives home from work and finds me meditating on my back on our bed, wearing headphones, blinded by an eye pillow. I can sense his disapproval, radiating off him like ripples. He refuses to try meditation. I’m pretty new to the practice, but am already a convert. When I focus on my breath long and well enough, I float, just like I did in that childhood swimming pool with Hazel. Brilliant colours explode in my
head. A startling energy flows through and out from my body, allowing me to spread beyond myself.
He stands at his side of the bed, his legs pressed to the frame and sending a little quake through the mattress. “Is there dinner?”
I remove the eye pillow, and the light hurts. He drives his hand through his sandy hair, tiny flares of temper going off in his eyes. Different sparks used to fly between us, but they somehow cooled and died. He’s not only annoyed that I was meditating, or because the apartment isn’t pulsating with the waft and heat of a homemade meal. Something else is poking him.
”What’s wrong?” I say.
”Hazel is a disaster. Doesn’t know her place. Thinks she’s above everyone,” he says.
“Sounds like a white man,” I say.
“Ha ha.” He tugs at the knot of his tie, all gasping force and wide, gray eyes, as if it’s crushing his Adam’s apple. “I think she’s shagging the boss, too, so I can’t touch her.”
“Touch her?” I say.
“You know what I mean,” he says, eying my white bathrobe, the cool blue returning to his irises. “Are you naked under there?”
I unbelt the robe and splay myself, thinking his skin on my skin will bring me closer to his Hazel. My entire life, I have never encountered my best friend’s namesake.
The next day I show up at his office and offer to take him out to lunch. He doesn’t ask why I’m not at work. Usually, I can’t bear to be away from my students, their young, eager spirits and bracing straight talk, but today I phoned in sick.
I lean over his desk and stage-whisper. “Where is she?”
That groove appears between his eyebrows, like a coin slot in a vending machine. What would I even select from him?
“Hazel?” I say, still trying to sound playful.
He groans and his eyeballs roll. “Don’t remind me.”
I follow him out of his office and watch his broad back with a cold feeling while he struggles into his pinstripe jacket. He and the rest of management occupy glass offices that border the sprawl of orange work cubicles, as though they’re about to ambush the subordinates.
I scan the scatter of employees, wondering which one is Hazel. I imagine she’s twenty-six, a maze of bones, and with forest hair and cloudless eyes. I see us causing a scene, flapping and shrieking like seals. Later, I’ll have so many questions for her and will turn angry.
He reaches the elevator and looks back, frowning. I slow-walk toward him, hoping someone will say Hazel’s name, or something else will give her away. The elevator opens and he gestures with his hand, indicating I should enter first.
I spread my smile to splitting. “Seriously? You’re not going to point her out?”
”Why are you so interested?” As soon as he’s spoken, knowingness flickers over his face and his cranky look falls away. He appears almost contrite. “Hazel. Of course.”
He’s held the elevator doors open too long and the alarm goes off. Heads turn in our direction. I rush to the exit door and the stairs. As I hurry down the bare, concrete steps, he calls my name, but doesn’t follow me.
Inside my classroom, its air coated with the chemical smell of hand sanitizer, we turn our history books to the chapter on King Henry VIII and the formation of the Church of England. All my students want to hear about, though, are the king’s two beheaded wives. They blurt gory details about spurting jugulars and eyes blinking inside decapitated crowns.
”Crowns, get it?” Sylvia says, chuckling.
Nora, sitting in the back row, raises her hand. “Anne Boleyn gave birth to infants so deformed they died within minutes and people accused her of doing it with her brother. That’s the real reason the king chopped off her head.” Nora’s face looks too hot and her eyes are wide and floating, almost as if she’s aroused. She keeps licking her lips, too, as though she’s trying to get at the last of something tasty. My gaze runs over the rows of pubescent girls, every one a bull’s-eye.
Sixteen years ago, there were elements to the horror of what happened to Hazel that some people also seemed to enjoy-a near exhilaration that it hadn't happened to them or their children, maybe. They liked to re-enact Hazel's last known movements, too, as if there was entertainment in trying to undo it. If only someone had witnessed what happened and raised the alarm.
No one has the fear of God in them anymore, they went on.
Life has no value nowadays.
We need more police.
Bring back hanging.
People placed some of the blame on Hazel, and her parents. Didn't she know not to talk to strangers? She should have fought and screamed. She was let run wild. What were her parents thinking, letting her out in that bit dress?
”What about whoever took her?” I said. “What about what he should and shouldn’t have done?” People looked at me funny.
A couple of nights after Hazel disappeared her parents showed up at our front door and asked my mum and dad if they could borrow me. It still stays with me that they said that. Borrow me. I kept hoping someone was borrowing Hazel and would bring her back home, and soon.
In Hazel’s small, dim kitchen, the smell of burnt potatoes bunched in my nose. Hazel’s dad sat me on his thick, fleshy lap. Her mum cried into the shredded tissues in her shaky hands. “Tell us everything again,” Hazel’s dad said. “Everyone she knew? Everywhere she went?”
Later, when I told my mum and dad they should never have let Hazel’s parents take me, my mum hugged me to her lumpy chest. “Oh, chicken, we would never let anyone take you.” All that night, I couldn’t sleep. No one can promise someone they won’t let anyone take them. No one.
The day he travels to Surrey on business, I return to his office. The receptionist, Sally, starts to tell me he’s out, but I cut her off. If I don’t ask for Hazel right away, I’ll lose my nerve. Sally pulls a yellow pencil out of her dark, messy bun and uses its pink eraser to dial Hazel’s number. The office starts to spin. Hazel answers and even through the receiver I can hear her accent is from Liverpool, not London. Disappointment is a chisel. She’s not my Hazel. Of course she’s not. I knew that.
Hazel and I stand face-to-face, shaking hands. She is blond, brown-eyed, muscular, and in her mid-thirties. I hold onto her for a beat too long and she looks at me, puzzled. I struggle not to bolt. We might become fast friends.
We take the elevator and drop through the building. My body rigid. My heart racing. Even my eyelids are damp. She doesn’t seem surprised by my visit, or curious. Seems to think I work for the company. She lifts her face, looking at the numbers over the elevator doors. We watch them light up and go out.
Over coffee, I repeat that I want to welcome her to the office. I don’t explain who I am exactly and she doesn’t ask. We stab at small talk. She checks her phone and drinks her coffee too fast. I consider telling her about my Hazel, but can’t. Her trigger finger rubs the base of her nose. I should never have taken the afternoon off work, leaving my students a second time for this woman, but the coincidence had glowed like a neon sign.
We exit the café. She gestures over her shoulder with her thumb, asks if I’m going back to the office. I don’t meet her eyes, irises without as much as a fleck of sky. We move off in opposite directions. A white plastic bag tumbles over the footpath toward me. The other day on the Tube, I overheard a tourist say London has to be one of the cleanest cities in the world. Everything that goes on here, and still someone would make such a claim. The plastic bag clings to my feet and I have to do a little dance to free myself.
At home, during Sunday breakfast on the couch, my tongue works a raspberry seed from my molars and I ready the words to finish with him. He won’t be surprised. Won’t put up a fight. He mentions the upcoming office party, to mark his CEO’s retirement. “My money says he and Hazel will run off together, and good riddance.” He drags his hand down his face. “I don’t know why I let her get to me so much.”
He knows, I’m sure, but won’t ever look that deep. I hold his head to my chest and smooth his harsh, wiry hair, his whole ear showing. I remember Hazel telling me that owl’s legs are long beneath all those feathers, and I refused to believe her. I don’t ever get to tell her I know now. He sighs and nuzzles his head against my breasts, seems to fall into me. I get the fleeting feeling I could almost be good at taking care of others.
His company takes over an entire restaurant in Pimlico for the party. Hundreds fill the glittering, sweating space, the men in suits and the women more skin than fabric. The live music drums my insides. The air is laced with the waft of garlic, seafood and roasted meats. Trays of still and fizzy drinks weave through the crowd. Guests work the room like a runway, and the dance floor like a contest. The other Hazel is wearing so many silver sequins, they stick to my eyes.
I track her throughout the night, wanting another chance with her, but don’t manage to get close until toward the end of the festivities. I follow her into the bathroom and this second time we’re finally alone together. I wait in the wall-to-wall mirror while she’s inside a cubicle, the coincidence sign blinking on and off in my head. She finishes on the toilet, and joins me. We both paint our lips deep red. I imagine I’m colouring her mouth while she colours mine, just like my Hazel and I used to do.
”Oh hello,” she says in the glass, still holding up a gold tube of lipstick.
”Nice to see you again,” I say, flashing a shaky smile.
She caps her lipstick. “You didn’t tell me you were his girlfriend.”
”Sorry about that,” I say. “I know you two don’t exactly get along.”
”So what were you doing, spying on me?”
”No, not at all.” My face and ears turn hot. “It’s complicated.”
She jabs the space between us with her bullet-shaped lipstick. “Keep away from me, you hear?” She hooks the straps of her snakeskin handbag onto the crook of her arm, making me think of Mum and a by-gone era.
After she leaves, I stay in the mirror, looking at my gaunt face, and how my eyes look chased. Those old, choppy films flicker back on in my head and the girl I was fills the glass. My Hazel appears next to me and we laugh inside the mirror, all red, wet mouths and missing, innocent teeth. Hazel turns serious and stares at me, waiting.
“I’m sorry,” I say, but she’s gone.
Later, in our bedroom, I tell him to sleep on the couch. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“What’s gotten into you?” he says.
“It’s over,” I say.
“Are you drunk?” he says. “You’ve been acting weird all night.” When I turn away, he says, “Let’s sleep on it, okay? We’re both tired.”
“Admit we’re done, can’t you?”
His bleak eyes narrow. “You push everyone away.”
“Get out,” I say.
“You’re the reason we failed. You.” His spittle hits my cheek.
“You make us sound like an experiment,” I say.
“In an experiment all parties are invested in the outcome,” he says.
“Please just go,” I say.
He crosses the room and stops in the doorway. “Not everything has to end badly, you know. Things can last.” He bangs the door closed behind him.
The thud makes my insides jump. I feel rearranged, like all my parts have come together a fraction differently. I stand looking at the closed door. I didn’t expect to feel anything. Didn’t expect he’d have cared so much.
The day after I move out, I visit the Tower of London. Must be all the talk in my classroom of the Tudors. I sit on a bench beyond the Tower’s tall stone walls, squinting through sunshine toward the Green where Anne Boleyn is supposed to have met her grisly end. The Tower is surrounded by a dry moat, its waterway drained years back and its hollow planted with grass. I picture the long ago stretch of sparkling blue and imagine I paddle a yellow sailboat over the watery void, saving Anne Boleyn.
I imagine I track down Hazel’s kidnapper and hold him captive inside the Tower’s torture room. I whip him, lifting flesh from bone. Stretch and quarter him. Watch his severed head roll at my feet. Amazing how victims’ families and friends hardly ever exact revenge. How they can even sometimes forgive. A thin, blonde girl runs in my direction, her hands two fists out in front, like she’s about to start boxing. She stops in front of the White Tower and stands with her narrow back to me. I watch her, and the empty space beside her, and my throat closes.
A woman, also thin and blonde, rushes at the girl. “There you are,” she says, breathless, relieved. “Don’t ever run off like that again.”
“I want to make a wish, Mummy.” The child’s delicate arm swings out and she throws a coin into the lush, green moat. It’s as if she, too, can see the once upon a time band of water. The mother wraps her ropy arm around her daughter’s shoulders and they remain in place, as though waiting for the wish to come true.
When they move off, I take their place at the steel railing. My hand finds the cool coins inside my jacket pocket. The air aches with how much the moat misses water. Without water, it’s not even a moat. Yet it persists. I bunch the coins in my fist and fire. The rounds of silver and copper fly through the air, not as barter for a wish to be granted, but repayment for any debts owed.
Ethel Rohan is the author of The Weight of Him (Atlantic Books).