Life in the Pluperfect Tense

Alex balanced the empty boxes on her hip as she fumbled to open the lock, twisting the key this way and that until it gave, and she pushed the door open. It clicked shut behind her as she stepped inside. She dropped the boxes and looked around the room. There was a shawl strewn over the back of the sofa and a glass still sitting on the coffee table, as though its owner had stepped out, just for a moment. The sight wrenched at Alex's headert. She remembered that scarf – Penny's sister had given it to her one Christmas. Penny had joked about how ugly it was, and had never worn it out. It seemed she had taken to using it to mop up spills. It lay beside a dark stain of red wine that had evidently been the victim of a half-hearted attempt to scrub it from the sofa. It would be too late to remove it now, Alex thought. She removed her gaze from the stain. It looked way too much like blood.

The flat was quieter than Alex could ever remember it. She had been here so often, but this time was different. Penny had always liked to have music playing: usually some awful dance tune, the sort Alex hated. Now that the music was gone, however, the silence in the flat seemed oppressive.

"I just like the noise," Penny had said, with a shrug, when Alex had commented on the repetitive beat. "It keeps the demons at bay."

Alex had laughed, then, but now the memory was tinged with pain. The demons had been more real than she had ever imagined. She briefly considered putting on the music again, letting it fill the room with some semblance of life, but it seemed wrong, somehow. Besides, nothing could keep the demons at bay for her as she prepared to pack her best friend's life into boxes. She glanced down at the boxes at her feet, wondering where to start. She had never been able to pack up her own stuff, much less someone else's. And this packing was so final. She stood, immobile, knowing that she should pick up one of the boxes and start the difficult process, but afraid that starting would make it real.

Penny was dead.

Alex drew a deep, shuddery breath, feeling the familiar pricking of tears behind her eyes. Penny was dead. It didn't seem real, even now. The words seemed meaningless. The enormity of her friend's death was greater than words could hope to contain.

She wiped the tears away with a sleeve. She would grieve later. Penny's parents were arriving the next day, and she had promised to help pack up their daughter's things. Their pain was beyond imagining. Selfishly, for a moment, Alex was glad that she hadn't been the one to tell them. How did one break news like that? "I'm very sorry, but your daughter is dead?" Or did one slip into the grey area of tasteful euphemism? "She passed away?" "She passed on?" No, it was ridiculous. Passing on was what happened to old people, people old enough to have lived and loved and earned their deaths. What had happened to Penny – what Penny had done – that was something else altogether.

Alex decided to start on the bookshelf at the far end of the room. She crossed the room and dropped a box beside the wooden shelf with its neatly-arranged books. She ran a finger along the spines, taking in the titles. A whole shelf was devoted to travel books; Barcelona, Jerusalem, Tibet, Hong Kong... Places Penny had never visited. Places she never would visit. Slowly, Alex pulled each book off the shelf and dropped it into the box at her feet. Next to go were the romance novels Penny had sworn she never read, and the textbooks she had kept in the vain hope that they would somehow prove useful in the real world. Alex worked in silence for several minutes, engrossing herself in her task in the hope of shutting out the horror of what it meant. She could think about that later.

On one of the lower shelves, she found an old photo album, and hesitated for a moment before opening it. The most recent photos were a few years old. Alex smiled with a heavy heart as she turned through the happy, laughing faces. She recognised Penny's favourite club, and various friends and acquaintances. Did they know? Alex wondered. Had anyone told them? Turning to a page at random, she found photos from their matric dance, and felt tears spring to her eyes again. Her fingers brushed over a photo of four girls in red, as if her touch could bring the moment back to life. The girl on the right, long, blonde hair twisted into an elegant upstyle, stuck out her tongue at the camera, the cheeky gesture so characteristic of Penny that Alex gave a burst of laughter which resounded incongruously in the dead girl's flat. Next to the blonde girl was a taller brunette, evidently self-conscious, smiling awkwardly at the camera. Alex considered the photo, looking at herself and her friend. So much had changed in the six years since they had left school. The photo gave no hint of the fate that awaited its occupants.

Alex wondered whether the laughter in the photo was a lie, whether the despair had plagued Penny even then. She had hidden so much, for so long. Alex frowned at the picture, willing some meaning, some explanation from the tableau, but the stubbornly unchanging faces grinned up at her, locked in time, providing no answers.

"I wish I'd known," Alex whispered, feeling foolish for talking to herself, but letting herself address the photo nonetheless. "Why didn't you tell me, Pen?"

She threw the album into the box with the rest of the books. It was too painful to look at. The books done, she swept on top of them the few trinkets that had grown dusty on the shelf, the snow globes, ornaments and pieces of junk that Penny could never bring herself to throw away.

Alex straightened up, and cast her eyes about the room. There was very little else in it. Bundling the magazines on the coffee table into a pile, she tossed them into the box with the books. She picked up a second box, deciding to start on Penny's bedroom. It was with a sense of trepidation that she opened the door to her friend's room and looked around. This room had the same sense of momentary absence, with its unmade bed and rumpled covers. The windows were open despite the cold, a quirk of Penny's that brought back a thousand painful memories. Alex remembered spending nights freezing whenever she and Penny had shared a room, because Penny could not bear the thought of sleeping with the windows shut.

"I'm sure we won't die," Alex would say through chattering teeth, pulling on another jersey.

"How can you sleep if you can't breathe?" Penny would scoff, as though this were the most natural conclusion in the world, long limbs uncovered in shorts and a t-shirt, somehow immune to the cold.

"Fine..." Alex would always give in, rolling her eyes, letting her friend's claustrophobia dictate the temperature of the room.

The room was cold, now, the air fresh as the breeze stirred the trees outside. There was none of the closeness of death. The wind screamed life, tugging at Alex's hair and stinging her eyes, raising goosebumps on her skin as she stood in front of the open window. She felt it, and shivered, the chill a sharp reminder of her own aliveness.

She shook herself, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Her eyes lit on the bathroom door, slightly ajar, and she hurried to pull it closed without looking inside. The blood was gone, but the memory was still fresh. She could not face it. She leaned against the door, obstinately turning her back on the images it evoked.

She moved slowly towards the bed, intending to clean out the bedside cabinet, which she was sure would house a vast array of junk. She sat down on the bed, the box on the floor at her feet, and the thought of moving was suddenly exhausting, as if her limbs had only just realised what it was they were being asked to do. Alex lay down on the bed and stared up at the plain, white ceiling, imagining Penny doing the same. Penny had always talked about painting it. She had abhorred boring views. It was one of the reasons she had chosen her flat – it was smaller and farther from work than many of the others she had looked at, but the view, she insisted, made it worthwhile. It was a view many would have considered unremarkable – a park with rusted swings and scrubby grass, where trees and cardboard boxes became homes for the park's inhabitants. Penny, however, had loved it. Her enthusiasm had been contagious.

Had been. The oppressive pluperfect. Alex stared up at the ceiling. She had offered to help paint it, of course, in the age-old tradition of best friends everywhere, sure that the idea would come to nothing when a new project captured Penny's attention. Guilt at her unfulfilled promise shot through Alex like a jolt of electricity.

She sat up and opened the drawer, rooting through it, knowing that she should get back to packing. Wasting time would not bring Penny back. Her fingers brushed against a handful of pencils, rattling around at the bottom of the drawer, and Alex smiled. Penny had had a peculiar obsession with stationery. Every handbag had contained an assortment of pens and pencils, post-its and notebooks, "just in case". "Just in case" of what, she had never said. Alex had never asked.

Alex pulled a book out of the drawer and looked at it. It was a small book, wrapped in black paper and plastic. She recognised it at once as Penny's diary. She paused for a moment, the book tempting her to read it. Alex balked at the thought of what she might find inside. At last, feeling like an intruder, she opened it, and was confronted by Penny's familiar scrawl.

A new book. A new start. Maybe things will get better. I know it's silly to feel optimistic like this, but there's something about a blank page that invites so much possibility. Here's hoping.

Alex flicked through the book, pausing here and there to read a page, exploring the thoughts her friend had kept hidden for so long. She could not read more than a few lines at a time. It hurt in a way she could not describe, a mixture of sorrow and a sort of guilty, irrational anger that Penny had kept so many secrets from her best friend.

Another day of feeling like this. I always thought it would go away when I "grew up". Guess I was wrong. Or maybe I just never grew up.

Trying to care. It's getting harder. I don't think I can do it much longer.

The last few pages of the book were blank, never to be filled. Hesitating, Alex turned to the last entry, torn between wanting and not wanting to see the last words Penny had written.

In the end, uncertainty is all there is. I want to believe that there's some point to all this, that things will get better, but I can't. I don't know what to do with my life. People tell me "Oh, don't worry, you'll find out eventually," but I'm not sure that's true. I don't think I ever will. I can't live with this constant sense that I'm failing myself and everybody else. I can't live in a world that doesn't make sense. I can't do it any more. I feel like I've spent all my life expecting that this will pass, that everything will make sense in the end. But it doesn't.

I'm going to do it. I'm scared. I don't know what to expect. But at least the uncertainty will be over. I won't have to keep living like this. I know that my decision will hurt people, and it breaks my heart, but I can't keep trying for them. It's too much. I'm too tired.

That was it. The words rang in Alex's head as though they had just been spoken. They resonated in the deserted room, the final full stop a blow to the chest that knocked the breath out of her. She stared down at the book in her hands with a rage and heartache that she knew no way to express. She wanted to scream at Penny, then, scream that no one knew what they wanted to do with their life, that anyone who pretended to was lying. That it was all a myth. That there was hope even in the midst of all the uncertainty. Alex snapped the book shut and shoved it back into the drawer, wanting to shake Penny, tell her to talk to her, to talk to anyone. Not to give up.

But it was way too late for that.

Alex hugged her knees, her anger dissipating as quickly as it had appeared, to be replaced by a sorrow so deep that she felt sure it would consume her. For the first time since she had heard the news of Penny's death, she let herself cry, sobbing as if her heart would break, crying for the friend she'd lost and the world Penny had left behind. It wasn't until now that she had really been able to believe it – the fact of Penny's death had been no more than words. Reading Penny's diary unlocked a flood of grief and anguish that would not be stemmed. Alex sobbed and sobbed, her head in her hands, unable to handle the magnitude of her grief as she mourned for the girl she would never see again.

Ten years of friendship, and Penny had never told her, not once spoken of the fears that had crushed her, the worries that had driven her so far beyond hope. She had smiled and smiled and said nothing. And Alex had never noticed. She could not remember when last she had even bothered to ask Penny how she was doing. The weight of her failure pressed heavily upon her as a fresh wave of sobs overwhelmed her, harsh and loud in the stillness of the empty room.

At last, the crying ceased. Alex's head throbbed, and her eyes were red and puffy. She wiped her face on her sleeve, and as she sat alone in the room which had once belonged to her best friend, she whispered into the unforgiving silence, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."