Twenty Is China


You disappeared on August 21st, 1997.

Our last conversation was about the job interview you had left and my reminding you we needed milk and toilet paper. I was painting the dining room, taking it back to a bland magnolia whilst Elton John’s Candle In The Wind played on the radio. My biggest concern was getting the paint out of my hair and whether I could hold in the bowel movement, I needed to take until you got home. I remember fantasising about a cup of tea and a good, hot bath.

Looking back, I see that woman with equal parts envy and pity.
Envy of her innocence.
Pity for what she had coming.

Such horrors are not immediate. The evening drew on and my gut resonated with an undefined panic. I left you messages, then like a pathogen, I spread my concerns to your family and friends.

Shadows laid over everything, feeding on my imagination without a care for my concerns or plans. When the police arrived, it held the slow, thick lurch of the inevitable. It resisted my will for you to turn up, flush with apologies. My anger would have been a blessing, better than the slow, grinding horror of what was happening.

That night shaped the rest of my life. Neil Evan Flaherty, you left me in purgatory, because hell signalled I deserved my fate and heaven would have absolved me of it.

You were last spotted at Norwich bus station because you could not afford train fare. You had a carrier bag with milk and toilet paper, stood there with your tie hanging loose around your neck, limp with defeat. Your hair, dark but fine, blew in the evening breeze as you looked at the timetable.

We would sell the house, move in with your parents until things picked up. All the ugly concessions made bearable by our going through them together.

All gone.

I grew sick of the reminders, the restaurant in Gorleston where I threw up outside. The cinema where we held hands and I smiled through the mild discomfort of how sweaty your hand was to hold. All the tight knots of us, they unravelled and I went along with them.

Moving away was necessary. A betrayal of your memory but I bore it all myself. Claiming on your life insurance drew snide comments from your family but it was only enough for me to escape the memories of you.

I dated but my intuition was off, too slow and thick from the scar tissue of perpetual grief to see what choices I made. Dave stole money from me, Chris wore me down with neediness and pathological immaturity. Lee fucked a checkout girl at the supermarket and she gave birth to a baby too soon not to make me feel like throwing myself off a bridge.

You were not perfect but your exile encased you in nostalgia. No one could compete with an unresolved memory and there were so many nights I cried myself to sleep, swollen from eating my feelings.

Suicide was part of the plan but the act of contemplating it was its own remedy. I regained some measure of myself in time but happiness, closure, love were colouring books for the blind. I wore a certain sadness like a favourite coat, believing it flattered me despite the evidence.

It has been five years since I wrote in this diary. It had survived moves, midnight arguments and all of it for a reason.

I saw you, two days ago.

You were at the Natural History Museum with a skinny, pensive woman and a young boy. You had gone bald and your tummy had blown out to a solid drum of a belly but I knew it was you.

The sight of you, your voice echoing over like a skittish predator sucked the breath out of me. You signed the guest book, kissed her on the cheek which made her stiffen with irritation and walked outside back to your life. The three of you, swathed in that perpetual fog of low-key irritation that would never be ours.

I hope you’ve read this far, Neil. Do you remember what day it is?

No, you wouldn’t, would you?

You leave your back door unlocked. I stood in your kitchen, staring at the photographs and the drawings like it was all some hideous practical joke. When they left to visit her mother, it had been three days since I had seen you.

In those two days, I did something you would be familiar with.

I disappeared. Quit my job, put the flat up for sale and left no trace of me.

Not that there was much left for anyone to miss.

I’ve come back to you, Neil.

Please keep reading. I’ve been through your laptop and your phone. It looks like I had a lucky escape.

You won’t.

See, I asked a little earlier if you remembered the date. Today, as it’s just past midnight but I know you stay up when she’s away. I bet you say you can’t sleep, but that’s not true at all.

You reappeared on August 21st, 2017.

Twenty years.


Which is beautiful to look at, but shatters and can cut you if you are not careful.

Happy anniversary, Neil.

We have so much to catch up on.


5 thoughts on “Twenty Is China

    1. Thank you so much. I work at this every day and derive purpose from it. The affirmation comes in the simple fact of anyone taking the time to read my work and the icing is when people comment. What a lovely thing to say and it’s made me feel great.

      Liked by 1 person

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