The first time I heard it ended everything. The air breathed it into me, and it was over.
I woke up just like I did on any other day, and lay there grinning at the ceiling, convinced it couldn’t get any better.
“Ben?” My smile widened even more, if that was possible. As long as I had her, I had everything. She came into the bedroom and leaned over me, bringing the smell of L’Aimant. It was what she always wore. I laughed at her for it, but she didn’t care. “What does it matter if it’s cheap?” she’d say. “I like the smell, isn’t that enough?” It was, of course. It was just that it reminded me of maiden aunts and little girls with its sickly sweetness. It didn’t remind me of Anna. She looked as if she should smell of something exotic. Lilies, maybe, or jasmine. Something to make your head swim, and your heart beat faster. But I digress.
“Ben? Sweetheart, are you awake?” She reached out and brushed my hair off my forehead, and I heard it in the whisper of skin against skin. “a..ls..iso..”
“What was that?” I was so cold my heart stuttered before starting to beat as if it wanted out. I felt as if I was trying to breathe treacle.
“What was what? I didn’t hear anything.” The laughter in her voice made me angry.
“Well you weren’t fucking listening, were you?”
She pulled back, shocked, and I was relieved to find that made me feel like a complete bastard. For a second, I’d been someone else. Not a very nice someone, either. “I’m sorry, love. Bad dream, that’s all. Took me a minute to come out of it.”
She just watched me warily, and that hurt. “Forgive a cranky old bastard?” I snaked a hand onto her hip and pulled her closer. She didn’t resist, exactly, but for a moment there she wasn’t about to make it easy for me. Then she relaxed, and sat down beside me, tried to let it go.
“What was it about?”
“This dream. What was it about?”
“I don’t know.” I thought for a minute, but there was nothing except a feeling of unease and the vague sensation that I’d been touched by something that you really wouldn’t want to examine too closely. I looked at her, tried a smile on for size. “I don’t remember.”
She watched me, and I realised she was waiting for something. “I’m sorry.” Smiling now, she came to me, and I forgot all about what had happened.
“What’s it going to take?” I didn't recognise the speaker, and stepped back a little, worried about what I might have walked into on my way along the platform. Someone next to me gasped, and when I followed their gaze I saw that I was standing on the yellow line. I stepped a little further away from the edge, and was taken aback by the disappointment I saw on this stranger's face. I could hear the thundering of an approaching train, and warm air pressed itself against me. The stranger bared his teeth at me, and it took a while to sink in that he was smiling. I moved forward again, and felt oddly gratified when he took a corresponding step back.
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
“I’m no one mate. No one at all.” He launched himself at me and I froze. I even closed my eyes. Then there was the awful sound of brakes screaming as the driver frantically tried to stop, the smack of something wet hitting the wall. After that it was chaos. One woman’s voice cut through the din and I tried to shut it out: “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”
I didn’t want to see. I looked down at my shoes, slightly amazed to find that I was still unharmed, and saw that I was standing in the middle of a pool of blood. There were bits in it. I turned away and walked toward the exit, feeling the vomit rise. I gritted my teeth and held it back. People moved out of my way without apparently noticing me at all. Someone turned and spoke something into my ear as they carried on past, eager to view the scene. “Alsiso.” I felt my stomach begin to churn and bent forward. I vomited for what seemed like hours and not one person seemed to take a blind bit of notice. Underneath everything I could hear breathing, ragged and hot. I didn’t want to meet whatever was breathing like that. I straightened, wiping my eyes, and walked on. I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get away.
I walked through the front door to find Anna sitting on the stairs with her arms clasped around her knees, rocking to and fro. She looked terrified.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
She didn’t answer, just threw herself into my arms and clung to me, sobbing. I held her, stroked her hair and waited for the storm to pass. In the background I could hear the television. She had it tuned to the news, and they were talking about an incident involving a train. That explained everything.
“It’s okay, love. I’m fine.”
“Hardly surprising. I’ve got blood on me and I threw up all over my shoes.” I heard a muffled sniff and a deep sigh and she squeezed me tightly for a moment before letting go and standing back. She stared at me as if I was something new and possibly slightly dangerous.
“But you’re all right. You weren’t hurt?”
“I’m okay. I was standing right next to him, that’s all.”
“God, it must have been horrible.” I walked over to the banister and put my jacket over it as usual. Anna usually complained bitterly about that but this time she didn’t say a word. I sat on the stairs and removed my shoes and socks, let them drop to the carpet. Again, she didn’t say a thing.
I tried to figure out how I felt but the truth was I felt nothing at all. I was empty. I stood up and unbuckled my trousers; let them fall to the carpet. I tried not to think about the blood that had soaked into the backs of the legs. I turned and made my way up the stairs to the bathroom without looking back.
I found myself watching people after that. I wanted to see if I could pinpoint that moment when something took them over – something dark and mean spirited, that wanted to hurt. In particular, hurt me. Oddly, I found myself doubting everyone I knew. I was seeing things I hadn’t seen before; something was out to get me through my friends and family. Anna was acting oddly, too. I didn’t trust the train anymore, so I started walking to work. It only took about forty minutes, and to be honest I could use the exercise.
It wasn’t long before I started hearing it everywhere. On Monday I was certain I heard a woman whisper it as she brushed against me in the lift at work. On Tuesday, the jackhammer going all day outside my window seemed to be barking: al!…si!…so!…
It made me feel horrible. I wanted to go downstairs, grab the jackhammer off the workman and knock him to the floor. I wanted to see if Alsiso sounded the same when hammered into flesh and bone. The most worrying part was thinking like that didn’t seem to bother me as much anymore. Call it self-preservation, if you like. I do. I have to call it something.
Friday night, and I was sitting in the living room in the dark, watching some sitcom or other. Anna had gone to bed about fifteen minutes ago, and she was waiting for me. We’d just enjoyed a leisurely half hour kissing on the sofa, and she’d gone upstairs to slip into something more comfortable, as she put it. More comfortable than the sofa was what she meant, because all she’d be wearing was the sheet.
I didn’t want to go up there. I could hear its voice underlying the dialogue on the sitcom, and it wanted me to hurt her. It wanted me to force her, to bruise and leave my mark. God forgive me, part of me wanted it too. So I couldn’t. I turned the television off and lay back on the sofa, closed my eyes. When she came in fifteen minutes later I pretended to be asleep. It didn’t take her long to give up and go to bed alone.
I lay in the dark and told myself it was for the best. She was safer that way. The rain that had started slashing against the windows announced alsiso’s displeasure at being denied. I told myself I didn’t care. I told myself I was going mad, having a bit of a breakdown. It was preferable to the alternative.
I managed to keep it subdued for a few days by listening to music very loud on my Walkman, all the time. Radiohead, Coldplay, even a blast from my past, Blondie. Everything started to lose definition, which was fine by me. I existed in a cocoon of sound. Anna was looking at me oddly, but she seemed content to put it down to me trying to relive my youth. “You do realise,” she said, “you’re forty-two, not twenty-four.” I bared my teeth at her, and she took it for a smile. She gave me one last pitying look and left me to my own devices.
Gradually, though, I became aware that there were words under the words. Words that I couldn’t quite hear, and didn’t really want to. They hurt my ears. They hurt my mind. I sat in the armchair and watched my skin change. It grew coarser, it seemed. My fingers became thicker and blunter, my arms and hands heavier. I didn’t want to look in the mirror to see what other changes were being wrought. I was better off not knowing.
Anna wasn’t around as much after that. She put it down to being busy at work, but I noticed she’d started leaving earlier and coming back later, and she smelt of smoke. Neither of us had ever smoked, and I knew she hated it. She’d lost her mother to lung cancer at a young age, so who was smoking?
In bed that night I lay and listened to her breathe, trying to convince myself I was being a fool. She wouldn’t cheat, not Anna. She turned over in her sleep, and I heard her say one word, quite clearly. “James.” Then she was quiet, and I spent the rest of the night laying there, imagining his hands on her. My hands around her throat.
I went into work on the Monday morning feeling as if it was my last day on earth. In a way I wanted it to be. I’d followed Anna to her office on the way in, saw her meet James. He was tall, dark, at least ten years younger than me and ridiculously good looking. I hated both of them.
I sat at my desk wading through the reminder letters that were due that week and kept my eyes firmly on my computer screen. After a couple of hours my eyes felt as if they were on fire, and I took a break.
Everyone was looking at me. The only person there that I actually thought of as a friend was looking at me as if I’d sprouted horns or something.
“Nothing.” He looked uncomfortable, and glanced around for support. None was forthcoming, something that seemed to surprise him a hell of a lot more than it surprised me. “You’ve been talking a bit, that’s all.”
“You have, mate. Trust me on this.”
I stared at the screen for a moment, uncomfortably aware that something was wrong with the words on the screen. It didn’t look like the letter I’d envisaged writing. “What was I saying, then?”
“Alsiso.” I looked at him; unsure whether he was taking the piss. He seemed deadly serious. “If there’s something wrong, Ben, let’s go for lunch and talk about it.”
“Yeah, right. Who put you up to it, Dave? Was it Anna?”
“Put me up to what, for chrissakes? I’m telling you, you were practically yelling it at one point.” A few people were watching, hanging on every word, and I started to get angry.
“Even if I was, so what? What’s the problem with one word?”
“I think you’ll find, Ben…” The voice came from behind me and I slumped back in my chair; it was my boss, Glen. King of the put down, and a complete bastard. “…The problem is that it’s all you’ve typed as well.”
I looked at my screen in disbelief. There it was, in black and white. Line after line of Alsiso. Glen carried on talking, and I could hear the smirk in his voice. “Perhaps you need a bit of a rest, Ben? A little chat with someone who’s more…qualified than Dave? Think about it.”
He swept off, and I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. It was twelve o’clock. I pushed my chair back, grabbed my coat off its back.
“Right, Dave. Your round, I think.”
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting at a table in The Duke’s Head. The manager nodded benignly from the bar, and we ignored him as usual. He nodded at everyone, best friends with them all as long as they had the price of a pint or two.
“What’s up, Ben?”
“I don’t know. That’s the truth of it, and I know how pathetic it sounds, but that’s it.” I stared into my pint and waited for him to say something.
“I don’t know that, either. I just hear it, that’s all.”
“You just hear it?”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it? Pay attention!” Heads turned, and I forced myself to calm down. I had an inkling then of what Alsiso was, what it meant, and it was trying to protect itself. It didn’t want to be seen. “I’m sorry. It’s that word.”
“Don’t say it, Dave, I’m not joking. It’s a powerful word.” As I looked up at him I could see his face changing, I got glimpses of what lay behind it, and shadows flickered at the edge of my vision, almost showing me what was real. “I’m only just beginning to realise how powerful.”
The thing that was Dave said nothing for what seemed like eternity, just stared at me. The part that looked like Dave wore a worried expression, what was underneath was gleeful. I didn’t know which to trust anymore. Then he drained his pint and sat back, prepared himself.
“You need help, mate. You’re not right, that’s obvious. Get Anna to make you an appointment with the doc. Have a chat. I’ll tell Glen you went home.” Then he got up and walked away without another word. I watched him go. I watched him wipe his mouth as if he’d eaten something disgusting on the way out.
“You look nice tonight.”
Anna paused in the act of brushing her hair and looked at me in the mirror. “What brought that on?”
“What? Can’t I be nice to my own wife?”
“Of course you can. It’s just that I look such a mess. Look at me.”
“I am looking, you look lovely.”
She snorted, and sighed as she came over to the bed, her face shiny with moisturiser and devoid of make up. She smelt beautiful. “ Flatterer. What are you after?”
“Nothing.” I stared at her, absurdly close to crying. I couldn’t lose her, not now. “I was just thinking that I don’t say…”
“Don’t say what?”
“Anything, really. I take you for granted. I come home and it’s warm and it’s cosy, and that’s because you’re here and you make it that way.” I stopped then, not wanting to continue – not wanting to take that step. I had to, though. “I wouldn’t want that to change. I just wanted you to know that I love you, that’s all. Home is where you are.”
She stared at me, not saying a word, and her face was wet. She cleared her throat, took a step closer. “I love you too, you know that.” Silence, while we both tried to find a way back from what was being left unsaid here. “I have to go, I won’t be late, promise.” I nodded, and she planted a quick kiss on my cheek. Then she was gone. Too late, I realised that I hadn’t asked where she was going.
It was midnight when she let herself in, quietly as she could. I was lying in bed, trying to pretend the room wasn’t spinning and I couldn’t hear something growling. Footsteps were padding around the room, heavy and implacable. I heard her keys scratching the door as she searched for the lock in the dark, and the footsteps stopped. I heard something sniffing the air, and a guttural “al..si…”
“Stop it!” I hissed it as quietly as I could, fairly sure that the sound of the door opening had masked my words. There was a chuckle, followed by “..soo…” The footsteps padded over to the door, and a low growl came once more. I could hear Anna in the hall, going through the familiar steps of removing her coat and putting it on the hanger before placing it on a hook; taking off her shoes – she always lost her balance and ended up leaning against the wall when she did this. She always swore, too, which made me smile. She very rarely swore, found it crass. That was one of the things I loved about her, but only one. Whatever was in the corner was panting now, its breath fetid and somehow hungry. Anna came closer, little bumps and stifled giggles showing her progress. She sounded drunk, another first. Briefly, I wondered what she’d been doing, and who she’d been doing it with. Then the door started to open, and as it swung wide the thing that lay in wait tensed itself, ready to launch itself at her.
The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor on top of her, and there was no sign of the creature. There was just me, panting at the exertion of leaping across the room, and Anna, crying.
“Get off! You’re hurting me!”
“I’m sorry, I thought…”
“No, you didn’t, that much is obvious.” She was wriggling a little, trying to lessen her discomfort, and I realised I had an erection. Anna realised it at the same moment, and groaned. “Christ, Ben, please tell me this isn’t your idea of foreplay.” Her perfume was all around me, and I could feel every inch of her. Her breasts were squashed against my chest, and I ran my hand up her stomach, eager to feel them. I put my mouth to hers and tried to force my tongue between her lips, pulled back when she shook her head.
“The answer’s no, don’t you get that? You can’t just leap on me and expect me to be thrilled.” I ground myself against her, tangled my hands in her hair. “Is that supposed to turn me on, Ben? Am I supposed to be wet now?” I could feel myself disappearing, and the panting was back. This time, though, it was me.
“I don’t know, love. Why don’t we find out?” I reached down and yanked her skirt up to her waist, grabbed the side of her knickers and pulled hard. They tore surprisingly easily. I lifted off her slightly to pull them off and she went mad, kicking and squirming, trying to get away. “I said no, Ben...”
“Please…please…” I prised her legs apart and let my weight drop onto her as I forced my way inside, ignoring her cries. “What do you know? You’re right, love. You’re not wet at all.” She’d given up struggling now, and just lay there, silent, her face turned away from me. I could feel the wetness of her skin, though, and I licked her cheek. “Not where it counts, anyway.” I didn’t care anymore about whether she wanted me. I pinned her to the floor and I fucked her, hard. I wanted it to hurt. It made it even better.
I woke up the next morning to an empty bedroom, not quite sure what was real. I’d spent the night dreaming of growls and hot breath, and crying. My head was pounding, and I was sore all over. Images of the previous night started flashing in my head, and I groaned. Inching my hand across the bed, I found what I already knew I would. Nothing. The bath was glistening, recently used, and when I retrieved the towel from the floor there was blood on it. Shit. The room seemed to close in on me, and I knew things were irretrievable now, in more ways than one.
I showered, then wandered into the kitchen, a clean towel wrapped around my waist. Anna had left a note on the table. As I picked it up an image of her crying as she wrote it flashed into my mind, and I sniffed the paper. I could smell the tears, and was still in control of myself enough to feel disgust at the way that turned me on all over again. For a note of so few words, it was surprisingly hard to read. She’d gone. No point looking for her, she said, I didn’t know the person she was staying with. Her solicitor would be in touch. I crumpled the note and threw it to the floor, trying to ignore the din that surrounded me. It had been with me all morning, muttering in the background, but now it was back in full force. I looked in the mirror as I threw on a shirt and jeans, and I didn’t recognise the man staring back at me. Or maybe I did. I grinned at myself and started to destroy. I threw books to the floor, emptied letters and wrappers, any paper I could find onto the floor – then I went to the kitchen and found the olive oil. That got sprayed everywhere, and when I ran out of that I found some white spirit in the hall cupboard and started doing the same thing with that. All along I was accompanied by the beat of al…si…so…, al…si…so… It looked beautiful when it burned. I stood in the hall surrounded by smoke and flames, and I felt as if I was emerging from a coma. I could hear something roaring with joy, and laughed as I joined in. I wasn’t quite finished yet, though. Going to the hall cupboard, I threw things out of the way until I got to an old shoebox buried right at the back. I’d forgotten it was there at all. Opening the lid, I took out an old photograph, all curled at the edges, that was lying on top – and I started to laugh. I knew now.
“Anna! Anna!” I stood outside James’s flat, confident that I’d guessed right – she’d have run straight to her lover. I was equally confident that she wouldn’t have told him what had happened. The curtain twitched, and I could see two people shadowed behind it, one holding the other. “Tell James I just want to talk!” That did it. The curtains snapped shut and the light went off. Then the front door was opened with a bang and Anna flew out at me.
“Bastard! How did you find me here?”
“Thanks, nice to see you too.”
“What did you expect after…” she stopped, not willing to come right out and say it, especially not with James lurking behind her in the doorway. I could smell his aftershave from the street.
“After I what? Raped you?” She flinched, and I almost felt sorry for her. Then I remembered how it had felt, and grinned instead. “What? You didn’t tell him? Rape’s a bit of a strong word, though, Anna. You are my wife, after all.”
“So what? No is still no, you used to understand that.”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” She eyed me warily, not quite sure of what was going on. That was fine. I saw her looking at the shoebox I was still clutching, and drew it out. Opening it, I rifled through the papers inside, though by now I’d remembered almost everything. “Did you ever wonder why I picked you, Anna?”
“What do you mean, picked me?”
“Come on, you’re not stupid. Did you ever wonder why I found you attractive? I used to.” Ouch. I hadn’t intended to be quite that harsh, but it didn’t matter. Worse was to come, after all. I just wanted to lead her into it slowly. “I don’t mean that I didn’t find you attractive, just that I used to try and analyse it.” I was closer to her now, close enough to smell her, and I itched to touch her. “It’s not something you can analyse though, is it? It’s something you feel.”
“What’s in the box, Ben?”
“You see, that’s the funniest part of the whole thing.”
“Ben. That’s hysterical, when you come to think of it.” She stepped back a bit, not sure what was wrong exactly, but she’d got my scent, I think. She’d worked a little bit out. “Ben is so new. And he fit so well for the longest time.”
“You’re scaring me.” I reached out, touched her face - gently stroked her cheek. She did her best not to flinch. She almost made it. “I know I am, love. And I’m sorry. But that’s part of the process, don’t you see?”
“No. I don’t. And I don’t want to, Ben. Stop it.” She took another step back, and came to a halt against the wall. “Please.” I leaned forward and breathed in her fear. It smelt so good.
“I worked out what I was hearing. It took me far too long.” I looked down at myself, at this shell that I was heartily sick of. “That’s what I get for being too fond of Ben. He was a nice guy, wasn’t he?” I gazed at Anna, waiting. I really wanted to hear her answer, to know if she’d been as fond of him as I was.
“Yes.” She swallowed, sounding close to tears, “yes he was.” The tears came at last, and she made no effort to wipe them away. “I loved him very much.”
“Did I tell you about Alsiso?” She shook her head, crying hard now. “No? Oh well, it doesn’t matter that much I suppose. Except that that’s where it all started. This time. I kept hearing it, you see. Didn’t matter what I did to try and block it out, it was still there underneath.” I’d lost her attention. I could see her gaze shifting as she tried to work out how to get to the gate without me stopping her, and I could see James opening the door a bit more, ready to haul her in should the need arise. He’d been quiet for far too long, and I knew I didn’t have long before the sirens would be audible. Time to move on. “You’re not the first Anna, did you know that?”
“What?” That did it.
“I chose you because you reminded me of her. See?” I held out the photo that I’d kept for so long, long after the first Anna had rotted. The girl smiling out of the photo had Anna’s smile, the same blue eyes, although the hair was different. I pulled out the photo I’d taken of the first Anna after I’d finished with her and held it out. Anna’s hand flew up to her mouth, though whether to stop herself from screaming or being sick I had no idea. “She lost her looks, didn’t she. They all do.” I stared at the picture for a while; it had been so long since I’d reminisced. “Do you think it’s something to do with the pain?”
She ran. She was fast, too, she almost made it to the front door. I got there before her, though, and slammed it shut. James took one look at my face and stepped back. He didn’t want to get involved anymore. Funny, that. I pulled her forward and slammed her head into the door, then let her sit on the step. “I heard my name, you see. Not just my name, that probably wouldn’t have done the trick.” I heard her saying it all over again… ‘Al sees…oh!, Al sees…oh, Al sees, oh Al sees!” In my head I saw her again, on the phone to her lover, panic writ large in her eyes. It hadn’t made sense at the time. ‘Al sees’. Should be Al saw! Then I realised what she meant. ‘Al sees everything, I can’t hide.’ I still couldn’t believe how long it had taken me to realise that was what I was hearing. “I take it you get that Al was me. Al, now Ben, perhaps I’ll be Colin next time, or Chris. Who knows? I do know one thing, though…”
She stared at me blankly, and barely whimpered when I squeezed her breast. “There’ll always be an Anna.”
©2004 Marie O'Regan
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