Chapters 1, 2 & 3

  - the first fifty pages in three parts - 

chapters 1, 2 & 3



This is not his apartment; he has no key. Nevertheless, when the Man decided to re-enter our lives he did so without even having the decency to stop and knock.

‘Checkmate, girl,’ he said to me as he pushed me gently out onto the landing.

‘I have a name,’ I told him, but he did not so much as pause. He simply continued to coax me out into the corridor as if I hadn't made a sound, each individual fingertip livid against my back.

‘Inform the boy,’ he said, the last words I heard before the door slammed shut behind me.

I stood still while I considered the consequences of this new arrangement. 

Is this a beginning, I wondered? Surely it is, because from this moment on there will be no time for reflection and no point in reminiscing on what came before. It will, in fact, be sensible to now live as if there never had been any 'before'.

I took a deep breath and looked at my watch.

I’m late, I’m late,’ I sang under my breath, ‘for a very important date,’ but there was no joy in my voice.

I had in fact already warned J that I needed to talk to him, suggesting there was an issue. I'd neither summoned the strength to follow this through nor considered fully how I would proceed once we were face to face. Were it not for the fact that this was surely not the season to stand around on stone stairways, I would have been content to spend a little more time mulling over the words I would need to say to him when the time came.

I dragged and slipped my feet as I took to the stairs, my fingertips sliding over the polished surface of the wooden handrail that curved and dropped down towards the entryway where it ended in a smooth, spiral knot. I looked to the doorway and then to the rows of mailboxes that lined the foyer, before I focused on our own. 

‘E and J,’ I read aloud. Cute.

I regarded myself in the wide, full-length mirror by the door, examining the girl that had existed only on the surface during these past weeks and months. She looked exhausted to me. Exhausted and distant and certainly not the lively, free spirit who painted that mailbox door. If I strained my eyes however, if I opened fully, there was, still simultaneously there for me to see, that tall, beautiful woman with the olive complexion and the long, straight, shiny blue-black hair, with facial features feminine and strong and the confidence of a gunslinger who never missed, looking right back at me.

I turned away to look at that mailbox once again. ‘E and J,’ I said one more time. That was enough for me. I quickly climbed back up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, and then I banged my fist hard against our door, three loud knocks.

‘Before I do this,’ I said to the Man, ‘before I do this to him, I need to know. I need to be sure. Tell me who you are!’

‘You know exactly who I am, girl!’ he replied, looking amused. ‘My name is Robert Dark!’ And then, as he slowly raised his arms from his sides and turned his hands towards the ceiling, he added, ‘I am the proprietor of this establishment!’











I looked down from the tall, grimy kitchen windows to the cars and mopeds that swarmed through the wet Parisian streets below and then turned around to look at the plastic clock which hung on the wall next to the refrigerator. It was late in the afternoon, the hour when the rush of traffic was starting to fill the roads and impatient pedestrians were beginning to take up all the available space on the pavements.

It was also time to go and meet E.

As much as this random request had excited me, I didn’t really want to have to go and meet her at this time of the day. She should have known that I wouldn’t want to navigate the streets and Metro during rush hour, yet she had still asked. And that tone she had used, completely undecipherable. Whatever her reason for wanting to see me was, it clearly couldn’t wait until we were both back at home later tonight.

My journey from the kitchen window to the street below was interrupted three times, the first interruption being entirely unnecessary. It came from my phone, and it was my friend, Ken Hutchinson. Hutch.



‘Where are you?’ he demanded.

‘I’m over at Pigalle checking in on Norf’s apartment. What’s up?’

‘Nothing really. Rachel said something interesting though.’

‘Hutch, I’m about to go out into the street where I suspect I won’t be able to hear you. E just asked me to go meet her for coffee and I don’t want to be late,’ I told him. There was silence on the other end of the line. ‘Hutch? I need to go. Are you going to tell me what Rachel said?’

‘Indeed I am! Listen to this; she says the reason I won’t ever leave this city is because I am immature and can’t face the realities of the world outside the peripheral road. She says that’s why you won’t leave either. She said that living here prevents us from accepting responsibility for events out there in the real world. Actually, she may have said “hiding here” and not “living here.”’

‘Don’t listen to her, Hutch. We have everything we need here, all within that road. That road is important. I don’t care much for what goes on outside of it anymore. My life is here and now. And anyway,’ I said, shaking my head as I tried to think of something profound to add, ‘Rachel talks too much.’

‘What do you think I should say in response?’

‘I don’t know! Why don’t you call Stepek and ask him instead?’

‘Stepek? She says that’s why he won’t ever leave either.’

‘Maybe she’s right. In fact, just tell her she is right, that’s always a good approach in these situations. I need to go now Hutch, I’m almost in the street,’ I lied. I could hear him begin a sentence which I knew wasn’t going to end our conversation and so I snapped my phone closed and dropped it into my coat pocket without a second thought.

The second interruption came from Madame Jasmine, the concierge, who stopped me on the stairway to ask me for at least the third time in recent weeks if the red, triple-X neon sign on the wall outside the apartment window was keeping me awake at night. ‘I try to get them to take it down,’ she said to me as she waved her arms around her head, ‘but they refuse. You must go talk to them, Mister Wunderman.’

‘I don’t live here, remember?’ I yelled, leaning in towards the side of her head.

As I squeezed past her to continue my descent I did assure her that I would talk to them sometime soon (even though I had no intention of doing such a thing) leaving her behind me on the stairs looking just as confused and angry as ever.

The third and final interruption came almost immediately after. My hand had barely reached out for the handle of the main door when I felt my phone vibrate once again. I threw my head back and told myself to ignore the damn thing but of course while this was happening my hand had already dived back inside my pocket to reach for it. This third interruption was from, coincidentally, Paul Stepek himself. I looked at his name on the display, and then, in one slick and well-practised movement, I slid the phone open, snapped it shut and dropped it back inside my pocket again.


*   *   *


I reached the café on time, noticing through the window as I approached the door that E was already seated inside, waiting. I gave her a goofy wave before I entered. The café was situated directly across the road from our small apartment on the Île Saint-Louis in the middle of the city and while I’d always thought that it looked charming enough from the outside, when I actually took the time to consider it, it really wasn’t the kind of place I would normally go into. I’d never heard E so much as mention it before today.

The pleasant exterior gave way to a bare, simple style inside. The tables were small, the chairs were plastic and looked uncomfortable and the room itself was cold, but despite this it was packed with people chattering away to each other over their afternoon drinks.

I crossed the room, weaving enthusiastically between tables before crashing down into a chair opposite E at the small table she had chosen in the cosy window alcove.

The moment I looked at her face my mood darkened. I was reminded of a day I had chosen to forget, a Friday almost two years ago, just a little less than a week after my friend Mose had died. It was the day we had gone to visit his apartment. We had decided to skip the funeral and instead let ourselves into his room to try and make a true connection with him, but we were still in a state of shock at his loss, and a little too high, to be facing all of that. E had not handled that experience well but had thankfully become her usual, vibrant self soon after we had left I seem to recall. But here she was again though, an entire ocean away from that place and after all this time, with that same grim, empty expression on her face.

She looked like she had been crying or, at best, trying not to cry. Her eyes were red and lined, her nose was red too, probably from being rubbed with the ball of greying tissue paper she clutched tightly in her left hand. Her nostrils flared as she breathed deeply, each breath a long, shuddering sigh. Her skin looked paler than usual, pulled tightly across her high cheekbones, her hair a greasy mess pushed back from her face. Despite being reasonably sure that she had slept soundly the night before, she looked to me as if she hadn’t slept a wink. That was the most alarming thing to me about her appearance; the fact that when I’d left this morning she had been lying in bed looking, to me at least, completely normal and as naturally amazing as ever. She had clearly received bad news, so I just sat there dumbly, waiting to hear it, shamelessly hoping that it wasn’t something that was about to have as bad an effect on my life as it was clearly having on hers.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked her.

She swallowed but said nothing while she continued to look out across the street. 

It had started to rain again.

We sat in silence. I was no good at this.

‘I was just up at Norf’s place,’ I said. ‘His apartment. I was just checking everything was okay, you know, just as me and Hutch promised to.’ No reaction. ‘I don’t know why he has that place to be honest, he is hardly ever there, well, he’s never there. I don’t even know if he is in the country right now. Maybe he went home? I never see him obviously.’ I drummed my fingers on the tabletop. ‘Maybe he’ll rent it out or something, make some money from it,’ I wondered aloud, shrugging as my voice trailed off. I looked around the small room. ‘I’ve never been in here before,’ I said, still on the lookout for a hook of some kind. ‘Have you?’

The waiter walked over. E was still looking out of the window so I ordered a hot chocolate for her, knowing that this was probably what she would have asked for under normal circumstances, and a coffee for myself. My heart was beginning to race. It was starting to dawn on me that nothing good was going to come out of this conversation and I began to wish that it was still yesterday, last week, or even two hours ago. I would have made an excuse not to come.

I asked her another two or three times how she was but received no response. I told her that Hutch had phoned to tell me Rachel’s latest theory on why he won’t leave the city and then I told her that Stepek had called just after Hutch and that I hadn’t answered, thinking she may approve. I even began to tell her about Madame Jasmine asking me to go and argue with the men in the sex shop about their neon sign with the three Xs, but I stopped myself as it felt stupid and inappropriate to bring that up right now. 

I found myself staring at the glasses of wine on the table next to us.

Finally, and just as I was opening my mouth to ask the question, ‘Why are we in here?’, she interrupted me to say, ‘J, I’m sorry, but you can’t come up to the apartment tonight.’

I blinked. ‘What?’ I said, my mind scrambling to catch up with what she had just said. ‘Our apartment?’

‘And before you ask, you can’t come up tomorrow either. You just can’t come up anymore. There’s…’ she looked out of the window up in the direction of our home, clasping her hands in front of her, twisting and wringing the remains of the tissue. I hadn’t noticed before then but there was a light on in the front room even though neither of us were home.

‘A man comes around now,’ she said looking down at her hands.

The waiter chose that exact moment to dance over with our drinks, placing them on the table and adding some irritating comment about the hot chocolate being perfect in this cold weather. I stared across at E as he dropped the check between our cups, then I placed my hands beneath the table and slid them between my crossed legs. I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath, waiting for the next move.

She lifted her cup to her mouth with both hands and said again, ‘Just a man. He comes around now,’ and then blew into the steamy hot drink.

‘What are you talking about? What man? When did he...?’

‘Today,’ she said, putting her drink back down, looking desperate and agitated. ‘J, you must let me go now.’

‘Are you serious?’ I said. I stared up at our window and then quickly looked back at her face. ‘Today? When? You never said anything! Who is he? Is he there now?’ I looked back at the window again, almost standing, ready to rush up there and cause mayhem. ‘Is he?’

‘Yes.’ She looked directly at me for the first time. ‘J, please sit down.’

I sat. I was stunned. To illustrate this to her I spread my hands wide and then slumped in my chair. ‘And what? You’re leaving me for him?’

She moaned quietly as she looked down into her cup and then whispered something under her breath, sounding exasperated. I had a feeling that, as usual, she believed I was failing to grasp the fundamentals of something huge and obvious, but there was nothing obvious about this situation at all – not to me anyway. I was utterly confounded. Apart from the occasional and natural exception, everything between E and I had been, from day one, nothing short of wonderful. We were partners, friends, and lovers and we had shared almost everything while allowing each other our secrets and we had always given each other more space than we saw in every other couple we knew. We held each other up. This news was shattering everything I had taken for granted for years. It was breaking me. It was also pissing me off.

‘Okay, E, wait a second, please,’ I said, holding my hands up in surrender. ‘Just tell me what you want me to know. I don’t understand anything that’s happening right now. Just tell me.’

‘He’s just a man. He’s... oh J, you know who I’m talking about, he’s …’

‘I just need the facts,’ I interrupted, raising my voice a little too much for my own liking. ‘Are you telling me to leave?’

‘Jonas, listen to me. He comes around now. He’s there. You shouldn’t come up again.’

‘Since when?’ I demanded.

‘It may have been last week it started, maybe longer.’

‘E, it wasn’t last week! We live in the same place, sleep in the same bed. There is no man! We are together every day! You’ve been completely normal until I got here!’

‘He was there last night.’

‘We had dinner together last night,’ I mumbled, lowering my face into my hands.

‘And then this morning, I was making coffee and I broke your favourite cup. I’m sorry, J, I really am,’ she said, ‘but he was there at that moment.’

‘E, you’ve had a weird dream or something,’ I said. ‘Or ... are you high? We were together last night, don’t you remember?’ I thought about the light in the apartment and looked up again. It was turned off now, the flicker of our TV set now appeared to be illuminating the room. E followed my stare.

‘You see?’ she said.

‘But E, last night, you were with me!’ I said, blinking rapidly. I was beginning to feel on edge, frantic. I downed my coffee in one large mouthful.

‘But you and I didn’t do anything last night, J. Yet I was quite sore down there this morning,’ she said, looking down to her lap.

I slammed my cup down. That was enough for me. ‘Jesus E! I’m… I... Good God can you hear what you are saying?’ I snarled at her with no real idea what I was about to follow it up with. I was utterly lost. This was all wrong. I felt sick. I felt unable to speak, terrified of saying exactly what I thought.

‘If there is anything you feel that is important to you, then you should take it. I know you are not materialistic, but maybe a photo or a book. Maybe you could take something like that,’ she said as she pushed her chair back and stood up. She stared at me for a couple of seconds, giving me the impression that she had more to say, but instead she just turned around and walked out of the café.

I couldn’t move. I felt frozen. My mouth hung open and my jaw felt like it was swinging loosely below my face. I could feel a few eyes on me by this time; we’d been causing a minor scene. I turned to watch through the glass as E rushed through the rain, staring numbly as she crossed the road and entered the main door of our building. 



Robert Dark was not unknown to me. I may have casually forgotten about him, but I had not forgotten how vulnerable I was, how susceptible I could be to his advances. I had simply become too comfortable, too complacent, and he had taken advantage of this. He had timed it well - he saw an opening, and then he returned to my life suddenly, unexpectedly and with such devastating effect, Robert Dark, commanding and directing, not allowing me a second of space to catch my breath or organise my thoughts. He landed upon me with all of his weight, seized me in a moment of weakness, tightly, with both of his hands, and then he squeezed me until I suffocated and surrendered. There was no time to cry for help - that is not how he works. He had played the long game, waited for just the right moment and then informed me that he had won. Whether or not this was true was of no importance. His self-confidence was enough to convince me that his victory was beyond question.

You cannot hold him back. Something has to give. Cracks form and the tide surges through.

It started with the simplest of things. I broke a cup - J’s favourite, not that it mattered at the time, it could just as easily have been some junk mug that was already in the cupboard when we moved in, but whatever, it was now broken. While I stared at the pieces a feeling that I can only describe as black oil pouring over me, through me, filling me, began to appear like a bad memory. Those pieces suddenly meant everything to me, the jagged edges, the tiny traces of dust. Something is gone, and it’s gone because I didn’t care enough. And this was the precise instant when the tide finally burst through and consumed me, the moment when Dark completed his work. He fell on top of me like an avalanche, he opened his wings and enrobed me, rendered me immobile, caused me to lay down.

This is what it is like to be me.

That momentary and unexpected heartbreak I'd felt at the sight of J’s cup tumbling from my hands and hitting the floor may have been Dark’s moment to strike, but I could see now that the cracks had begun to form long before, way back on the night that Mose had died. I chided myself over the fact that, in those months and weeks that led to Dark finally revealing himself, as he hovered around on the fringes, he had at times been so close that I could have called him out.

During the daytime hours I had felt watched. I would tell myself that this was my imagination at play, that I was adjusting to being in a new environment, a new country, out of my comfort zone and out of our time zone and that there really was no one watching me, especially not the Man. But sometimes, during the night, I would feel him tugging at me. I would touch J’s arm as he slept and snored, but even by grounding myself with this simple action I would still feel that cold, creeping presence in the air. Robert Dark was circling me while I lay awake in bed, waiting for the dead of night so that he could take me, infect me, preparing for the morning to come when he would swallow me whole.

And then, finally, in that waking moment when our mind is briefly a blank canvas, I felt his weight slip slowly from on top of me as he silently left the bed and then the room. It was game over. 

On my knees, while picking up the pieces of J's cup, I looked up and saw him standing there in front of me, standing in our kitchen. As simple as that. J was gone for the day, and there Robert Dark stood, filling the room, filling my senses. Occupying. This time around his presence was more intrusive, more complete than ever before.

Having to inform J was the first problem. As much as I loved and admired him, adored him, I knew it was unlikely that Jonas would truly understand what I was telling him. Since Mose's death he had become completely self-absorbed, looking only at the surface of everything else. Plus, there was the fear that news of this kind would lead him deeper into his own darkness.

‘I will be different now,’ I wanted to say to him. ‘You won’t know me when Dark is around, you won’t enjoy it, you should go.’ But I knew that talk of circumstance, of my feelings, of everything I needed him to understand, it would all be lost in the air between us. Comprehension was beyond him. He would never grasp the subtleties, and so in the end I simply told my story in the easiest, quickest way possible. Anything to get it over with.

I returned here to my place with Robert Dark. Dropping my rain-soaked jacket on the floor by the door I grabbed a croissant and a glass of water from the kitchen counter and then sat cross-legged on the couch, staring at my uninvited guest as he began to go to work on my lifestyle. 

He started by taking everything out of the refrigerator and dumping it on the countertop, then he told me that all the food we had in the apartment was rotten. He put it in the trash, all of it, and then he went into the bathroom and began to pee noisily. I couldn’t finish my croissant, it had taken on a horrid, mouldy taste. I could hardly move, my limbs felt so heavy. Dark left the bathroom and sat down on the amber-coloured armchair in front of the television set and read through some papers that had been lying on the floor, an article that J had been writing, I believe. Dark seemed to find it amusing. He laughed at it. It was not supposed to be funny.

I continued to stare blankly at him. He threw the papers down, yawned and rubbed at his eyes and said he was tired, and then he asked what I had planned for the evening. Ignoring him, I went over to the kitchen area and took all the food he had put in the trash and placed it back onto the counter, but he was right; it was rotten, and it smelled bad.

This is it, I thought. This is the answer to the questions I had asked myself since I was a little girl. What would happen were he to finally catch me? How would he proceed?

Robert Dark will lead me to take my own life, I realised, looking over at the back of his head as he continued to sit. He will lead me to take my own life, just as my selfishness caused Mose to take his.