The man who is going to kill me looks sad, sick and afraid. He stands a little off balance, leaning into the deed, right foot defaulting to a twitchy toe movement.
He is afraid in a way we have no similes for. They always involve pi*****, sh******, soiling yourself in some way; something nowhere near as bad as what you’re scared of.
But this is fear stronger than bowel excavation. Fear as strong as love or hate or orgasm. He is not trembling because of the cold, or because of the weight of the gun, with its long, black vengeful eye that doesn’t see – that shouts. He is trembling because he, like a freshman virgin, is about to make a mark on the act of living, one of the only marks that can’t be worn away. The second cutting of the string. He is trembling because his skin is screaming but his mouth is shut. He is trembling because even if this is the first, every time is the only time. Because this, in capital letters, matters.
He looks 23. Twentysomething. He is medium height, medium build, medium everything. I am going to be killed by an embodiment of mediocrity. Probably he shaved this morning. Probably he wa****. Probably he cried.
I did not cry.
He wears baggy khaki. His eyes are brown. He looks Jewish. I am going to die a racist. I don’t know what colour my ex-girlfriend’s eyes are. I don’t know, for sure, what colour my mother’s eyes are.
Probably he can see, will see, mine now and in his nightmares. He is about to do more to me on purpose than anyone who has ever loved me. We are locked together in a wretched eternity. His eternity.
He holds the gun like he hates but needs it. Looks at me like a jealous lover. Seeing but not seeing. Trying to see what isn’t here. A man who deserves to die. Seeing what is here. A man less scared than himself, about to die.
I almost, but not quite, don’t exist.
I want, of course, to run. I think I also want, in the buzzing synapse stage of wanting, to hurt him. To pound his face into cigarette-butted gravel. To watch him bleed.
Running is not an option.
I am going to die.
What will happen is this.
He will, when it is time, cock the gun, the clickclack sound of death, a 10-second warning. He will shift his balance because that is, in the short time I have known him, what he does: a terrible dancer. He will not take aim, because it is already taken, a marker on the graph of the intractable.
He will hold it. Then his brain will tell his nerves will tell his muscles to contract. To squeeze. Somewhere in the abstract they will. A bullet, clickclacked into position, will move from the chamber into my face or brain or throat with a whine I will never hear. My body will fall, I will twitch, not been told, interrupted signals, and I will be dead. Or dying.
And in that awful if-and-then he will re-clickclack another bullet, move a step, some steps, closer, balance, unbalance and fire another unheard bullet into a body that isn’t mine anymore.
I want to run. I think I also want to scream. Screaming is not an option.
My mouth is hot; farting warm breath back on itself. My hands are tied. I have two options. The first is naked, jellifying fear. An emotion manifestly itself in a can’t, in a won’t, in a never. The second makes sense somewhere to the stupid bit of me that walks differently when people are looking, that sings in mirrors, that likes cooking more than eating.
I have never been brave, but I don’t have much choice. My only option now is to be the footnote in someone else’s story. A story that doesn’t end in my death. All stories, now, will not end in my death. I will never be the star of anyone else’s movie.
Feet. I am looking at his feet, balancing, unbalancing, the poker tell that gives the game away.
It’s three years ago. I am three years away from being dead, in my home, my mum’s home, another scene I don’t have time to fully flesh out, another moment of panic-attack facts and flavours, another pointless moment about to be clickclacked into nothingness.
I am drunk. Angry, wheedling, no one to rage at, whiskeydrunk. The papers arrived in the morning. The call-up. A letter from a man in an office in a London I have never been to telling me it is my legal and moral duty to go to a country I cannot point to on a map and be shot at for a government I was too young to vote for, until I kill them or they kill me or some other man in an office somewhere else I’ve never been to tells us all to stop.
Fingers unfolding the too-clean A4, knowing what it says, rereading it, the child’s I DO NOT WANT TO GO becomes the teenager’s I AM NOT GOING becomes the young man’s HOW THE F*** AM I GOING TO GET OUT OF THIS becomes the coward’s I AM GOING TO DRINK WHISKEY AND FALL DOWN THE STAIRS.
I stomp around the house, wet rolls of sick spin-drying in my stomach, out to the garden – a scrubby building site, excavated soil, a fat, leering f***-off grave, utensils, the smell of earth wet by the nasty dank of winter.
My body knows what it is going to do before I can make it into stumbling spastic sense. Into words. The synapse-stage of knowing and not wanting to know. Like opening the letter. Like a 3am knock on the door. Like standing in front of a man you know is going to kill you.
Quick movements. Hands scraping sh** and worms and clumps of grass off a paving stone, feeling it’s weight, it’s 3d-ness, a heft you can see. Awful. Tangible. I roll it back to the gravel, get the bottle, drink, don’t throw up, take off my shoe, left shoe, and pick up the paving stone. I lift from the small of my back, half expecting it to pop in excruciating shots of pain, doubling me over, doing the job for me, a better job. The perfect crime. An honourable out.
It doesn’t. There is no honourable out. I am young. Everything f****** works.
I have the paving stone at waist-height, fingers tense underneath it, reacting to the weight, the chill of the stone, the bumps. The awful 3d-ness.
The question is: can I?
The question is: how high?
The question is: why am I pausing?
Quick movements are the only way to trick my squirming body into damaging itself, into, let’s face it, destroying itself. A bit. Enough.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I want to defer, to opt out, to take no more responsibility for anything, to not be afraid. I want, like everyone wants, to be saved, or at the very least, spared.
I am not going to be saved.
I am not going to be spared.
What will happen is this. My brain will tell my nerves will tell my muscles to loosen. To let go. Somewhere in the abstract they will. The paving stone, wet, ugly, tangible, will fall to the ground through my beautiful, best-china bones. My body will crumple, white-hot shrapnel through the skin, thudding in and out queasy consciousness, shrieking signals. And I will be crippled.
The question is: can I?
I heft the stone to shoulder height, because a few broken toes are not going to save my life; rebalance, re-aim, want to vomit but don’t, want to run but can’t can’t can’t.
I think of what it means to not exist, of almost-but-not-quite not existing, of stone-shattered bones breaking through white-and-red skin.
The question is: can I?
You know f****** what…
The clickclack brings me back to this awful now.
The man who is going to kill me shifts his balance because that is what he does. Somewhere in the abstract, his muscles contract, but before the whine, the twitch, the interrupted signals, I make my own last mark.
I smile at him: a smile that says YOU ARE GOING TO REMEMBER THIS NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES YOU HAVE TO DO IT. A smile that says I AM NOT DEFEATED. A smile that says I AM NOT AFRAID.
And I, a pitiful deserter.