There was nothing special about the chocolates Simon bought. He asked the girl behind the counter for a selection and she filled the box with truffles wrapped in gold and silver foil. The box was crimson and velvet to the touch. It was shaped like a heart. There was no mistaking the reason for that box. This wasn’t a gift for your mother or a departing colleague.
The shop where he bought the flowers was Dickensian, its painted bow window divided into tiny pains of grimy warped glass, a brass bell hung behind the stiff crooked door. There was nothing wrong with the flowers on the stall outside the Underground station. Maybe they were starting to wilt a little after a long day in the scorching summer heat, but their colours were still vibrant and their scent intoxicating. Still, Simon passed them by, and inside the cool shop he purchased a dozen blood red roses. Their petals were soft and warm like flesh.
He reached Primrose Hill just as the day was starting to fade. The softball players and dog walkers drifted past him as he climbed up towards the bench. A single magpie hopped across the grass. Simon sat and carefully placed the chocolates and the roses down besides him. He took out a fat black marker and on one of the wooden slats he wrote SC+QT. Putting the pen away, he looked out across the panorama of the city. The departing sun stained the western horizon a sandy yellow. Above that the sky darkened through a thousand shades of blue to a radiant purple overhead. A plane slowly blinked its way towards Heathrow. Lights were coming on in the buildings, twinkling through the haze. He turned his head, picking out the BT Tower, the distant Shard, Centre Point, then further round towards the towers of the City —
Simon hadn’t heard the woman approach, hadn’t felt her sit down next to him. She was young and old, blonde and brunette and redhead, with skin of alabaster and mocha and ebony. A thousand images swam together, a confusion of faces and bodies and clothes, each in turn surfacing for a moment before sinking again. Simon’s head span.
“Don’t look at us,” the woman said. Her voice was soft and not unkind. “We are the stranger you pass on a crowded street. We are the glance you steal when you think she’s not looking. We are the face you almost recognise from a moving bus. Your mind cannot hold us. Look away.”
Simon turned his head and closed his eyes until the vertiginous feeling subsided. Opening them again, he caught a movement. The woman was tracing the letters he had written on the bench. The fingers of her hand were slender and pudgy, the nails red and gold and green. He focused on the lights of the city away on the horizon.
“You are a timid little thing, aren’t you?” said the woman. There was a chiding humour to her voice. “We remember when men would fight and kill and die for their heart’s desire. But you are too afraid to even take a blade to wood.”
“I don’t own a penknife or anything like that,” said Simon. He heard the petulance in his voice, took a deep breath, tried to control it. “Apparently I don’t even own a flat head screwdriver. I guess I could’ve used a kitchen knife, but it’s not really the kind of thing you want to get caught carrying around with you. Besides,” he added, “it worked, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “It worked. It worked, and so here we are. It worked, and so now we know your heart, know it better than even you do. And we say that you are frightened. You are afraid to leave a physical trace of this thing which you have mistaken for love.”
“It is love,” said Simon. Somewhere, a siren wailed. A breeze rattled the trees.
“You’ve told yourself that so often that now you honestly believe it.”
“It feels like love. The way my heart races at the mention of her name or the memory of her smile. She’s been on my mind constantly since the moment we met. She’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning. If this isn’t love, then what is it?”
“Poor boy, you sound sick. Struck down by Cupid’s bow. Oh, the arrows are metaphorical but Cupid himself is real enough. We’ve met him. He tried to play his tricks on us once. Only once. He can be a little arsehole. So… indiscriminate.”
“It hurts like love,” said Simon. “The hopelessness of knowing that she’s out there, somewhere in the city, walking the same streets as me, living a life which I’m no part of. That day by day, hour by hour, we’re drifting further apart. Every morning, after that brief thrill, I start to wonder whose arms she’s waking in, whose chest she’s lying across. It hits me like a punch in the guts, thinking that she’s with someone else. All I’m left with is emptiness.”
“When you fall in love with someone,” said the woman, “you tear off a piece of your soul and cast it at their feet. And if they don’t reciprocate, if they don’t fall in love with you in return, you are left incomplete. There is a hole in the centre of your being through which your life slowly bleeds.”
“I want it to stop,” said Simon. “I’ve told myself I’m over her. I’ve told myself that more than once. And every time I’ve had my fingers crossed. I… I just want to stop feeling like this.”
“There are many tall buildings in the city,” said the woman. “They don’t all guard access to their roofs. Or there’s the Underground, with its open platforms.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Tell me you’ve never found yourself drawn by that siren song, the humming of the tracks, the buzz of the live rail. Tell me you’ve never felt tempted to step across the line as the sharp sparking steel approaches.”
“No,” said Simon. “I wouldn’t. And that’s not what I meant.”
“Then there’s always the eternal Thames. The chill embrace of our sister Isis has always welcomed the city’s dead. Why not fill your pockets with London brick and throw yourself into her arms?”
“I would never,” said Simon.
“No,” said the woman. “You wouldn’t. It should never be forgotten that hope was in that same vessel of evils which poor dumb Anesidora unstoppered and loosed upon the world. And it’s the worst of the lot. It poses as a friend, whispering in your ear that everything will be alright, that things will get better. And so you continue to honestly believe that, whilst you and she still draw breath, there’s a chance, the merest possibility, that she will change her mind, change how she feels about you, and that you will be together someday. That’s hope’s trick. The somedays which never come.”
“I have to keep believing. What else is there?”
“You only prove my point. Hope seduces you and willingly you continue to endure the pain, drawing out the suffering.”
“You’d rather I killed myself?”
“We do not really care one way or another. It makes no difference to us.”
“This isn’t why I summoned you.”
“No,” reflected the woman. “You summoned us so that we might make her fall in love with you. So ask the question you’ve been dying to ask.”
“Okay. Can you — ?”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“What?” Simon turned to the woman in surprise, then turned away again just as quickly as her swirling shifting visage began to tug at his mind.
“We know,” said the woman, with a small, unhappy sigh. “We are an ancient being of great power — we were born when the first lonely soul walked these empty marshes, his thoughts of longing for family and fireside giving us form — and here we are acting as agony aunt to a whiny little bitch like you. It saddens us. Nevertheless, the question stands. Have you tried talking to her?”
“I — ” began Simon. “I never get to see her. Not any more. Back when I did, when I got to see her just about every day, we never really talked. We never worked together, just in the same office. Maybe exchanged a few words at lunch. And we never saw each other outside work. I…” He took out his phone and held it before him, a dull black rectangle in the gloom. “With this — It’s a mobile phone, it — ”
“We know what it is,” said the woman. “We remember when stone axes were the state of the art, and the men who wielded them — these were real men, mark you — won the respect of their peers and the favour of the women with their prowess as hunters. We remember when bronze was first smelted and iron first forged. We remember the technological marvels of the Romans and the Victorians. We may be as old as this place but we are not out of touch.”
“There are about a dozen different ways I could contact her,” said Simon. “To get a message to her. But I can’t think of a single way to make her read what I want to say.” He stared at the phone. “The silence is the worst part. I can take whatever she has to say — I can stand any insult she can throw at me — but the silence… It lets the voices in. The voices in my head. The ones which say ‘she hates you’ and ‘she’ll never be with you‘ — ”
“‘You aren’t good enough for her’,” supplied the woman. “‘She never thinks of you at all’. ‘You have become a joke to her and her friends’.”
“Yes,” said Simon. He put the phone away. “Those. Thank you.”
“We hear them,” said the woman. “We hear a lot. All the words that go unspoken because fate does not permit. The sparkling repartee of first dates which never happen. The pillow talk of lovers who never were. The discussion of movies seen alone. We hold on to the memories which fade because people have no one else to share them with.”
“It’s knowing that you failed the only test that mattered,” said Simon. “That you didn’t measure up to the only standard that you cared about. After that, all your other successes are worthless. I’m nothing to her, therefore I’m nothing.”
“So you pay a man in a pub to explain the ritual which will summon us. And now that we are here, what would you have us do?”
Simon spread his arms, a desperate gesture. “Help me.”
“What is it you seek? An incantation to make her love you? Take a sheet of copper. Etch your names upon it in entwining spirals. Fold it up and drop it into the Walbrook where it winds its way beneath the London Wall. Or write your names in indigo ink on a sheet of Ritz stationery. Put it in an envelope with too little postage and a smudged address and you’ll be together for as long as the letter’s lost inside Mount Pleasant sorting office. Or scratch your names into the seventh window of the seventh carriage of a train running widdershins around the circle line.”
“Slow down,” said Simon. “Will any of these actually work?”
“They’ll work better that what you are currently doing, which is nothing. Don’t want to try and of those? Maybe you’re looking for word of power with which to steal her heart? Something you can text at her?”
“Is there? I mean, does one exist?”
“Of course not. If one did, those lovestruck fools the poets would have discovered it by now. Words are their tools. Yet still they fail to win their loves, and continue to mope and pine, or to search for inventive ways in which to throw their hopeless lives away. You look disappointed. Would you rather something more direct? How about a potion to enchant her, to turn her into your besotted slave? Some form of magical Rohypnol? Because if that’s what you’re after, we know this bloke in Camden who can hook you up with the real thing.”
“No!” protested Simon.
“No, of course not. We can feel the foolish romantic notion which hope keeps burning within you. You refuse to let go of it, but you’ll never know peace until you do.”
“You’re saying that there’s no hope? That there’s no chance of us ever being together?”
“We’re saying… that your time is up. We gratefully accept your offerings, but they only buy you so long. There are many many lost souls in this city and only the one of us. We will take the flowers and sprinkle their petals on the river, in memory of those who had the courage to recognise when there was no point going on. And the chocolates… Well, we’ve always been partial to chocolates.”
“Okay,” said Simon. “But just before you go — ” Risking a sideways glance he saw that the woman was gone.
He sat on the bench in the gathering dark. Alone. So terribly alone.