While I am away and doing internet cold turkey for a couple of weeks I’ve left you a brand new two-part story. Is Oliver delusional? Or is there really something sinister happening on his computer?
It is there again, rippling the surface; an outline surfacing and receding against the background. Oliver rubs his eyes and peers again at the blue screen. Now there is nothing under the desktop shortcuts. He makes a mental note to take the laptop into town.
He stretches, rises and walks to the tall wall of glass where he gazes out over the cityscape. It is an arresting view, even for one who lives such a large part of his life in front of a screen. The city stretches away, a pleasing mix of old and new dotted with ancient steepled churches and elegant, high rise skyscrapers and further away the sweep of the harbour with a variety of shipping docking and embarking day and night. Immediately below his block the silver snake of the canal winds its way around the parks and estates on its way out to port. But Oliver does not glance down, ever. He prefers to see further into the distance and away.
His phone buzzes, breaking into his thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
Melanie. She has assumed responsibility for his wellbeing despite his protests that he is fine.
“Yes. I’m alright. You don’t need to keep ringing.”
Mel laughs. “You’re such a charmer, Olly! I’m only looking out for you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Have you been out today? You should get out. It isn’t good to sit at home brooding.”
“I’m not brooding. I’m working. And I do have to go out because my laptop’s playing up. I may need to get a new one.”
His sister sighs. “Is that the only reason to go out? You could just walk! How about meeting for lunch somewhere? Or come here to eat this evening?”
Oliver shudders. He’d have to sit around the table with noisy, prattling kids, make small talk, Mel and Charlie tiptoeing around his feelings like bomb disposal experts.
He grabs a jacket, stuffs the errant laptop and lead into its bag, grabs his keys and steps out of the apartment to summon the lift. In the lobby he grunts a peremptory reply to the doorman’s greeting before exiting through the revolving glass door and down the steps to the street. Pulling his collar together tight against the blustery wind he turns left and left again rather than continuing along to Canal Street, which would be the shortest route into town. Oliver has not walked along the towpath for eight months and has no intention of going there again, ever.
Nerina haunts his thoughts as always, day and night. As he walks he tries to picture her but succeeds only in conjuring parts of his wife- her smooth, white throat as she laughed, the black curls that fell down her back, the velvet soft touch of her and her husky voice as she spoke in her accented English. How she’d mocked him, her sly, sideways look as she posed in front of their mirror before telling him she had to go out. The way she dressed, a sensuous smile as she pulled on a sheer stocking or applied glossy, red lipstick.
At the store counter he unpacks the laptop, explaining the issue with its screen. The assistant, Paula according to her badge, turns the screen to the side for him to show her the fault. But there is nothing; no vestige of the movement he’d been witnessing. Oliver frowns, feeling a heat rise to his face. Paula smiles an open, sympathetic grin.
“Don’t be embarrassed! It’s common for devices’ faults to disappear like magic as soon as customers step through the doors with them. It’s almost as if the threat of repair is enough to make them behave!” She laughs; a deep, throaty bellow that forces Oliver to stare up into her face. It is a broad, guileless face, not pretty but honest; a face accustomed to laughter. For a moment he feels his shoulders relaxing, feels the tension draining down towards his feet. He nods at Paula, stows the errant laptop in the bag and thanks her.
“Bring it back if it starts playing up again” she advises him, before turning to another customer.
Oliver feels lighter as he exits the store and heads for home. He’ll try and eat something then get on with the figures he is supposed to be producing for a company report.
In his kitchen he can think of nothing he wants to eat and opts instead for a couple of the prescription tablets, standing at the sink, pressing the tiny, white capsules from their foil wrapping and swilling them down with a mouthful of water.
At his desk he opens the laptop lid and switches on, waiting for his password prompt and taking the deep breaths he’s been coached to employ if he feels a sense of panic. As he taps in the password his palms grow damp and he wipes them on his jeans as he waits for everything to load. The desktop shortcuts appear, nothing else. He exhales and thinks of Paula’s kind, friendly face as he clicks on his work folder and scans the files for his current spreadsheet. The white screen underneath the figures is flat and stable. Oliver breathes, closing his eyes to relish the relief.
He begins to work, clicking on each cell, highlighting, deleting and replacing. Needing to refer to some previous notes he rifles through some papers in a cardboard folder beside the laptop. Sheet in hand he turns back to the screen. It is heart-stopping. Oliver feels his pulse thumping as he takes short, shallow breaths, the blood draining from his face. He stares. The outline has reappeared, more defined now, undulating but clear. It is a face; a face he knows; the pronounced cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Nerina. He starts as her eyes flash open, the paper dropping to the floor. Her sensual lips part in the shape of a word as the image floats on the screen. She smiles, continues to mouth the word.
Oliver has dreamed of hearing Nerina’s husky voice; has lain awake at night bathed in perspiration, longing for her but now he dreads to turn on the volume switch, fearful of listening, although he knows what it is she is saying. He should switch off. He should shut down, power off, pull the plug. He shudders, transfixed by her rippling features, strands of her curls drifting in a rectangular pool…
Check in to Anecdotage next week for Part 2 of ‘Ripple’.