Josh levelled his hand-held camcorder at the window of his flat, held it up
to the glass and peered through, adjusted the focus slightly, toyed with
the zoom as he panned across the apartment block opposite. He knew he was
beginning to get a bad name in his area; his neighbours told their children
not to play near his home, and the women crossed to the other side of the
street if they saw him coming. It was all a misunderstanding of course; he
was definitely eccentric, he was the first to admit that. But he meant no
harm; he was simply a struggling artist.
Josh was a writer â€" in theory at least. Regrettably, he was yet to produce
anything even remotely publishable. His agent Marcie told him time and
time again: â€˜if you want to get anywhere, darling, you have to make people
care. Its all very well if you write the greatest tragedy since Romeo and
Juliet, but if Juliet is so damn wooden and unrealistic the reader doesnâ€™t
give a damn if she trips over a loose shoelace and breaks her neck or not,
its going nowhere. You know what Iâ€™m saying, love? Characterisation is
Josh understood of course. But people had never been his strong suit. He
had gone from being a shy but endearing child to a shy and awkward
teenager; at this point he had got into writing; generally arrogantly
phrased poetry, the work of someone well aware of their superior vocabulary
and technical ability but with little of themselves in it. As a student of
classical literature he had been academically praised but socially
reclusive, finding little to identify with in the boisterous youth
surrounding him. Now, 24 years old and technically unemployed, he was
facing serious financial problems if he failed to produce the promised
magnum opus â€" which unfortunately required that he create a character about
whom people would care.
And so he had begun this. He observed the life around him, examined
humanity like a scientist would the cycles of an amoeba in a petri dish, in
the hope of discovering the components required to create his hero, his
anti-hero, his narrator â€" whoever the elusive character was about whom he
could make people care. He had studied his neighbours, and each of them
had displayed to him almost distressingly stereotyped characters. He could
have developed almost the same characters from a formulation of the people
he could observe through the dusty window of his ancient black-and-white
television. Yet, like many â€˜telly addictsâ€™, he found himself unwillingly
fascinated with the subjects he began with dispassionately observing.
Their tragedies and celebrations became of more than fleeting interest to
him. He felt towards them almost an indulgent affection from his position
of omniscience, like treasured pets. This startled him at first; this he
had not banked upon. To distance himself again, he trivialised them by
conferring upon each of his subjects a diminutive and generally
alliterative nickname, summing up and generalising their exaggerated
characteristics. â€˜Angry Alfâ€™ he dubbed the blustering and old-fashioned
middle aged man three windows left and two down, whom he knew from his
observance to be the pompous head of the local Neighbourhood Watch that
objected to him so strenuously. â€˜Slutty Sallyâ€™ was the ageing party girl
(two right, one up) who conducted her extremely vocal liaisons with
assorted partners (never the same man twice) in full view, and spent the
rest of the time at home lying in a heap on her sofa nursing either a glass
of Andrewsâ€™ salts or a bottle of chardonnay. â€˜Grumpy Garyâ€™ was the moody
teenage son of number 32, who alternately hung out of his familyâ€™s bathroom
window smoking dope, sulked in front of his television set or conducted
bellowed arguments with his various family members. And there were dozens
of others with similar sobriquets, who gradually bored him with their one-
But there was still her; the different one; the one who caught his eye
around a month ago, who didnâ€™t seem to fall into any single category he
could devise. He knew she lived alone, and didnâ€™t seem to have a
boyfriend, so he had briefly experimented with â€˜Single Sarahâ€™ â€" but dropped
it after a few days, finding it inexplicably uncomfortable to refer to her
by that single damning adjective. Besides which, he knew her real name!
None of the othersâ€™ real names were available to him, nor did he
particularly care to know them. But he had found himself strangely elated
to catch the shouted greeting of â€˜Old Oliveâ€™ (the sweet old granny from two
windows down) to her on the doorstep one Sunday - â€˜Evening, Rita love,â€™ -
and to witness the girl start from her reverie and mutter a friendly, self-
conscious reply before hurrying indoors. When she reached her small,
cocoon-like dwelling place, draped in cheap but richly jewel-coloured
fabrics to hide the cracked plaster and second-hand furniture, she did what
she did every night. Wrapped herself up in a thick cotton bathrobe, and
surrounded by candles (he knew from overheard gossip her power had long
since been disconnected, never to be reinstated on her paltry secretaryâ€™s
wage) settled on her sagging sofa by the window and opened a second-hand
paperback novel. On that significant Sunday, he watched her, filmed her as
she turned the page, zoomed in on her smiling lips as she luxuriated in her
poor paradise of fantasy, and mouthed her new name: â€˜Paperback Ritaâ€™.
These days he watched her almost exclusively - almost obsessively.
Something about her struck a chord within him that he found it hard to
identify. It embarrassed him, made a mockery of his pretensions to
superiority. He tried to justify it on spiritual grounds; the irony of her
contentment whilst reading about lives of luxury, passion and adventure
which were as far from her own reality as could be was fascinating to him,
he argued with himself; her abject poverty was an interesting social study,
he insisted. But in all honesty, he recognised the simple aesthetic lure
she represented, nestled in her bright Faberge egg of a house, shimmering
gold and red in the light of the candles.
He idolised her soft, achingly vulnerable and utterly oblivious pose, knees
drawn up and curling around her, pressing through the loose robe she wore.
The cloud of soft, fuzzy reddish hair that hung in disarray around her
delicate, fine-boned face delighted him. Her absorbed expression â€" lips
softened and slack as she sank into her beloved novels, glowing amber eyes
half-lidded and cat-like â€" became the subject of several amateurish
attempts at poetry on his part, the first he had written since he was
seventeen. This embarrassed him; but he could not bring himself to end it.
He continued his nightly vigil, ashamed, yet elated by her presence as he
had not been by anything since childhood, when all joys had seemed
limitless and any hurt the end of the world.
Tonight, as he filmed her through the pouring rain, he realised something
was wrong. She had appeared hollow and drained of late, and she appeared
utterly uncaring as she settled on the sofa with her novel. As she turned
the pages of Oscar and Lucinda, tears began to well in her eyes, and fall,
catching the glossy light of the candle-flame, onto the cheap, pulpy pages.
This was not unusual in itself. Her absorption and involvement in her
novels often resulted in a display of emotion â€" a becomingly childlike
smile, an impulsive hug of her thin shoulders, and a touchingly empathetic
nibbling of lip and glimmer of tears on her long lashes. But these fits of
heightened feeling were always brief, always small and under control.
Tonight the crying didnâ€™t stop; he became gradually alarmed as the tears
turned into sobs, great heaving sobs which twisted and distorted her pretty
face, that seemed to be wrenched from somewhere deep and dark within her;
he fancied he could hear it through the rain and wind, these guttural,
groaning sobs which tore at her.
Suddenly, she flung the book away from her, which such violence it flew
across the little room and rebounded off the wall. In a welter of misery,
she hurled over the little table beside her, piled high with other
paperback novels, stacks and stacks of stories he had seen her take such
pleasure in, that he had watched her treasure. She turned her strange,
grief-driven rage against the walls, the dilapidated sofa, and finally
against herself, tearing at her flying hair and ripping at her tearstained
Josh stared, awe-struck, transfixed; how glorious she looked, blazing with
dark passion, burning brown eyes wild and unfocussed pools of pain. He
zoomed in on her, her clenched fists, her mouth contorted with sorrow that
seemed almost a physical pain; zoomed in on the sudden gleam of metal, the
blurring flash of the knife â€" the blood.
It took him literally a minute to truly comprehend what he had seen.
Another few seconds to relate that to reality. The whole business had
always seemed so fictional, so fantastical. This dramatic and warped
culmination seemed almost apposite for a few surreal seconds. Then as she
sank to the floor, pale and unconscious, the camera slipped from his hand,
breaking his stunned reverie â€" and he ran to call the ambulance.
Josh had been unable to watch as they took her away; could only listen to
the wail of sirens approaching and then fading into the night. He was
deeply shaken; how had he become so morally impoverished? When had he
learnt to view people as things, as objects, as images? That he could
watch a girl attempt to take her own lifeâ€¦simply stand and watchâ€¦he hurled
the camera at the wall, flinched as it shattered into a thousand expensive
fragments. He tore the liquid ribbons of tape from the cassettes, heaving
in his breath and snarling like an animal. Then he collapsed into tears on
the floor, great gasping cleansing tears that, when they subsided, left him
feeling raw and broken but at least half-human again. Exhausted, he slept.
It took him a while to pluck up the courage, but the following day, he
found himself outside her hospital room. She was sleeping when he arrived;
no flowers by her bedside, of course, no anxious relatives hanging over her
recumbent form. How small she looked, how fragile â€" a faded, pale shade of
her former self, with huge smudgy shadows under her delicate eyelids. How
unlike the vibrant, enigmatic creature he had adored from afar. But when
she opened her eyes, still that bewitching shade of amber-gold, still
bright and full of glory, he knew he had made the right choice.
She slowly sat up, dazed and confused. She stared at him quizzically,
puzzled â€" and intrigued.
â€œWho are you?â€