Will had expected many things, coming to college for the first time. Things like psychotic Student Union parties that he wouldn’t go to, boring lectures that he would, and spending too much of his loan on mangas. All these things had, indeed, happened. One thing he hadn’t expected was boredom.
He had never realised before quite how much free time he’d have, at least to start with, when he didn’t have much work to do. He seemed to spend hours sitting in his small but neat room, reading, surfing the net listlessly, strumming absently at his guitar, and feeling guilty that he wasn’t reading set texts, or writing, or practising singing, or practising clarinet, or any one of a hundred things that could make him incredibly unpopular. Today was no different. No lecture, no seminars, he had already checked his emails and read all his books. He sighed.
The rain pelted down out of the grey sky, blurring the weird points on the roof of the college chapel and the nearby towers and spires of Canterbury Cathedral, the most easily recognisable landmarks in the city. The paved walkways, running between neat, unimaginative lawns, shone with the reflected beam of a security light with a faulty time switch. More rain pattered on the window, a staccato accompaniment to the hum of the idling computer and Will’s steady breathing as his eyes flicked over a borrowed copy of ‘Chobits’.
Suddenly he stood up and shut the book, dropping it on his made bed. There had to be something else happening on a dreary Saturday… maybe he’d find someone he knew, do something vaguely interesting, go into town, anything. He strode out of his room and his hall, making sure his keys were in his pocket, oblivious to the cold wind and rain on his bare forearms. He liked the wind, and the cold, in a strange masochistic kind of way.
The campus was like a ghost town, windows blank in the rain, rooms unlit or curtains still drawn, people trying desperately not to wake up after the previous night’s excitement. Will wasn’t quite sure what the excitement had been, but he knew he hadn’t been a part of it. His footsteps echoed too loudly on the wet slabs, the sound trapped between tall, close buildings that all looked the same, mingling together to form one vague, formless, grey world without colour, without definition, without limits.
As he wandered, Will’s mind began to wander, as it so often did. Images flowed through his mind, fantastic and bright and clear: a sword, the blue-grey metal gleaming; a river, red as blood in the sunset, silver in the moonlight, gold in the dawn; a storm among high, endless grey mountains; a brooch in the image of a red dragon… disconnected, disjointed and meaningless. He sighed and continued walking, pausing briefly in a covered walkway before rushing up the steps towards the cafeteria. Perhaps he’d get a coffee.
And then he stopped, and stared. Halfway up the steps he paused, not noticing the rain had turned to hail, pelting his body with considerable force, stinging his ears and nose. From this step he could see into the cafeteria, and he saw, staring straight back out at him, the face of a girl. There was no colour in the picture, thanks to the light and the weather: she appeared grey and she didn’t move, her head resting on her hand, almost as though she were asleep with the lethargy of the day that was so pointless to be awake in, but her eyes, beautiful, grey eyes, were peering intently at him from under a spill of dark hair. He waited for what seemed like an age, and when she didn’t move he ran on, desperate to get into the light and the warm, and to find her.
But the cafeteria was empty. Except for the guy on the till who was dozing gently and appreciating the irony of being paid to do nothing, there was no one. Will looked around almost frantically, sure there was some mistake, that he had missed her somehow… but it was true. She must have gone out another way or something. He threw the doors open and stormed out, disgusted, into the bitter weather, and watched the fishes in the small pool darting with an energy denied to any human today. He walked slowly back to his room, then took a shower to warm himself up.
There was an email waiting for him when he got back to his room, feeling the stress rise from his body like steam, leaving him cleansed. He checked it, then deleted it with disgust: the college server was going down, again. Damn thing. The wind blew against the windows, and he was still cold despite the tiny radiator. Eventually he succumbed to it and put the kettle on for a coffee, before wrapping himself up in a blanket and returning to his book, yet another retelling of the Arthurian legends. The kettle heated up slowly, and then once it was boiled he left it still longer, having been told a long time ago that you shouldn’t make coffee with boiling water. He even treated himself to a biscuit.
He lost track of time. He spent hours huddled in that chair, drawn in on himself, not really there at all, his mind wandering through the legends of the past, legends that had survived for centuries. It might not be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but underneath it all was the shape of something that was true, that he always felt that he had known once and had merely forgotten. He was recalled to the here and now by a horribly fake sounding chirrup from the computer that sat humming quietly to itself and giving off considerably more heat than the radiator. He glanced over: apparently another email had arrived. Almost reluctantly he excavated himself from the chair and called up the new document.
Do you always stare at people like that? Some people might call that weird.
For a moment he didn’t know what to do. At first he thought it was a joke meant to creep him out; maybe one of his friends had caught sight of him through a window. But no: the address the message was sent from wasn’t one he recognised, merely an ambiguous nickname on one of the big, free mail providers, no name, no clue as to who the sender was. But it had been sent to his college account, so whoever it was must know who he was. firstname.lastname@example.org How could anyone have known? Well the solution was easy enough… he clicked the ‘reply’ button, and began to type.
Dear ‘Tiger, tiger’, I really don’t know what to say. You could be some stalker, but somehow I doubt that I rate one. You could be one of my friends trying to wind me up, in which case I’m afraid to say that it’s working. Whoever you are, you’ve caught my attention, although I should mention that I’m as bored as hell and any distraction works for me. Why did you write to me? And who are you?
He clicked send and waited, drumming his fingers on the desk. He picked up the guitar and strummed idly for about three seconds before putting it down again and pacing restlessly. When the computer finally chirruped again he dashed to it and read the message quickly.
Will, I’m not a friend. In fact, to you I’m no one but a ghost or a shadow, someone you imagined or thought you’d imagined, and someone who saw the depths of your soul. I wrote to you because of what I saw there. If you now think I’m a freak with too much time on their hands, then don’t reply and I’ll become just another one of the raindrops crawling down your window to be lost in the sun when it shines. Otherwise...
It trailed off and Will, who moments before had been restless, sat down heavily, as if there was no strength left in his body and stared at the words. ‘Otherwise…’ He had no doubts now as to who his mysterious correspondent was. There was only one person it could be, to write that plainly about things so recent and personal. The girl, the girl who had disappeared… she was real. A real person. Of course she was. That made sense. Only, why was she being so enigmatic? He looked out of the window, at the sky that was now darkening to the ugly bruise colour of a thunderstorm, and the drops, falling to the base of the window, caught his eye. Well the message was clear. It was, ‘Ignore me and you’ll never know.’ And he did want to know, he found. His mind drifted back to the face he had seen, to the eyes that gazed at him with such rapt interest, as if there was no one and nothing else in the world. His mind flicked to the mangas he had read, to all those quiet, unremarkable girls and the pathetic, shy nice-guys. He read them because he thought them whimsical and amusing, but just occasionally he would find himself sympathising with a character, merely because he recognised himself in them. He berated himself for thinking like that, but nevertheless the thought was there. His hand hovered over the keyboard.
I want to know more, tiger.
The reply didn’t come until much later, after he had had dinner at the now full cafeteria. He had searched everywhere for the face, but she had not been there, and he had continued as if the place was as empty as it had been before. The chirrup came when he was about to turn the computer off.
I thought so, Will. Tomorrow, same place, same time.
And with that he fell into an uneasy sleep.
He woke early the next day, and spent a little time scrolling through the names of all the people in the college, in the futile hope that a name might leap out at him. It didn’t so he ate a rather despondent breakfast and got washed and dressed. He eyed the bottle of vodka, ‘for emergences only’, which stood at the back of the desk. It was unopened. He picked it up and grasped the lid before putting it down again. No, it really wouldn’t help to go drunk. Outside the rain was still falling, a more gentle, steady fall than yesterday, but the occasional roll of thunder made him think it would be a good idea to turn off his computer. He looked at his watch. Still a couple of hours to go. Damn.
Why was he doing this? The truth was that he didn’t know. He forced his mind away from the subject and looked around the room wildly to find something to distract him. His eyes fell on his sketchbook. Will couldn’t really draw very well, but it wasn’t too bad if he concentrated. He grabbed the pad and a few pencils, already sharpened by tedium, and wondered what to draw. He tried a few things, but they went badly because of the one image that his brain was fixed on. Bowing to the inevitable he started a new page, and began to draw the face in the window.
Now that he had started he found he worked quickly, and almost without thinking. The eyes came first, of course, followed by the face and the hair, falling everywhere like a black waterfall. The mouth was a tiny, slightly down turned line beneath a small, unobtrusive nose, and the eyebrows were neither raised in surprise nor lowered in anger, but drooping like the ears of a sad cat or dog. The chin rested on a small elegant hand… he paused to look at his work. It was almost clearer than the memory, because there was no rain yet. Next the arm, covered with the sleeve of a sweater or fleece, the back slightly arched, the elbow leaning on a railing, the neck almost invisible, a little design on the fleece, the other arm hanging by her side and behind her the chairs and tables and bright lights of the cafeteria. And now the rain, tiny lines all going the same way, a greyish blur to the windows, the picture becoming less and less clear, more and more as he remembered it… and it was finished. He put down the pencil he had been using and looked at his work. He looked for quite a long time, realising as he did so that it was probably his best ever picture.
It was time to go. He walked slowly again, and stopped half way up those wet, stone stairs. He didn’t look at the window at first, studying the ground instead, afraid that she wouldn’t be there, afraid as well that she would. And then he took a deep breath and looked up, his heart racing. And there she was, with the same expression, the same pose, the same deep interest in her eyes. Exactly as he remembered, and yet not…
He took another deep breath and turned around. ‘Hello, Tiger,’ he said gently to the girl who was smiling at him from behind, leaning on the railings of the stairs. ‘What’s your name?’
CorkScrew: Intriguing and very poetic. And as a member of the AssassinsGuild I'm very impressed by how she got Will's email address :)
AlexChurchill likes it. The sentence "He had no doubts now as to who his mysterious correspondent." either needs to gain a "was" or lose a "who". I do like this, rather more than I expected to from the start which unfortunately feels a bit too autobiographical. The concept is nicely evocative. One does want to find out how she found out who he was, and how they get on; but the story ends in the right place nonetheless :)
Yup, much too autobiographical, but it was what inspired me at the time. Think I've sorted out the was/who problem. As to the email address, I still need to decide whether to write more. On the other hand, certainly at this college, there's a directory of all the student's usernames open to everyone, and their address is basically the same. The real question is, how did she know his name? --FR