Authors: David Belbin
‘His mum rang an hour ago. She assumed, because of the best man thing, that we were close. They found him this morning. It wasn’t spur of the moment. He’d been saving the pills for weeks.’
‘Did he leave a note?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I have to ring Zoe.’
‘Wait. Give yourself a little time to get over the shock first.’
He’s right. I have to sit down. Someone I know well, someone I have slept with, is dead. People our age aren’t supposed to die.
My phone rings. Zoe. I try to gather myself.
‘Sweetheart, I’m with Mark. I only just heard.’
‘How could he? He didn’t even write me a note.’
‘Nothing at all?’
‘His mum said he’s scribbled sorry for everything on his repeat prescription pad. She said she knew what he’d done when she found the bedroom door locked. She said she’s been expecting it since Huw... but nobody said anything to me. Did you think he’d do this, Allison? Did you?’
‘No. If he was going to, I’d have thought he’d have done it ages ago. Not now, when he was about to get...’
‘How could he do this to me, Allison?’
‘It wasn’t about you,’ I tell her. ‘It was about him.’
There’s more, but she’s crying a lot and so am I and we’ve already said all that can be said. I promise that Mark and I will see her soon.
‘I have to get out of here,’ I tell Mark when the call is over. ‘Can we go for a walk?’
We head down the hill, along the tram line, and before we get to town, turn in to the Arboretum, which is a big, public park. We walk aimlessly, circling the bandstand, pausing by an ancient cannon, hardly talking. Mark asks about my mum.
There’s no change. I don’t want to think about what’s happening to her, so I say what’s on my mind.
‘I don’t think I can forgive him.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We haven’t got the right to take our own lives. It’s cowardly.’
‘When you’re gone, you’re gone. What does it matter?’
I try to explain. ‘He did something stupid, something thoughtless, but he didn’t do it on purpose. He cared about what he’d done. Now he’s hurt more people. He should have found ways to atone, to live with his guilt.’
‘He tried, didn’t he? But he couldn’t forgive himself.’
‘None of us can forgive ourselves. That’s not how it works.’
‘You getting religious on me?’
‘I wish I could.’
He puts his arm around my waist and we carry on towards the other side of the park, passing office workers at the end of their day, school kids with sports bags coming home from posh private schools further up the hill.
‘I spoke to his step-dad,’ Mark tells me. ‘Keith reckoned the healthier Aidan got, the more guilty he felt. He tried church, but it made him feel worse. The marriage thing was his last throw of the dice. Poor Zoe.’
We walk in silence until we’re nearly at the park entrance on North Sherwood Street.
‘I don’t want to be alone tonight,’ I tell Mark.
We go back to my flat, where I make us both a sandwich. We split a beer and watch the news on TV. Later, Mark borrows my toothbrush and sleeps beside me in the narrow bed. We’re both in our underwear. Nothing sexual happens.
But it will, sometime soon, I’m pretty sure of that. Aidan has brought us back together. We hold each other tight, all night. Neither of us sleeps much. The bed is too small and we are both preoccupied.
Where is Aidan now? Aidan was religious, while Mark is sort of agnostic. Some days, he goes on about the stupidity of all religions. Other times he says that atheism is arrogant: he believes in a vague form of reincarnation. As far as I’m concerned, there is no god, no heaven or hell. Only what we do here on earth. This is where it counts. Believing this makes the worst of our crimes worse, even more unbearable.
But what if I’m wrong and Aidan has just compounded one mortal sin with another, consigning himself to eternal darkness? How could he kill himself if he believed that? Maybe he only made himself believe in God because otherwise he would have had to kill himself sooner.
Somewhere around four or five, it is very still and quiet. I can tell that Mark is wide awake, as I am, but I ask, just in case, and he whispers back, ‘Yes.’
‘Do you want to talk?’
‘Please. I’ve missed you. Tell me what I’ve missed.’
And I tell him what happened to me over Christmas and he holds me tight and apologises for not being there for me and for being so fucked up the night we went out for that meal. Then he tells me about what happened with Helen over the holidays and how she was always threatened by my relationship with him and what was said when they agreed to break up for good. Later I ask if I ever said about what happened with Bob Pritchard when I was seventeen.
And he says ‘no’. And I tell him, all the time holding him tight, feeling him breathe. And, although we don’t say it tonight, we have said it before and meant it and for once I’m sure that I do still love him and he does still love me and even if he doesn’t or if he does but we don’t end up staying together, we will always know that we have been loved, that we have been as close to somebody as it’s possible to be and that if love can happen once, it can happen again, so the world must be a place where it’s worth staying, no matter what.
This is how we pass the long, cold night, holding each other close and talking softly until it is no longer dark and we are ready to face a new day together, to get out of bed and find out what happens next.
Many chapters of this novel first appeared as short stories in magazines and anthologies over the last twenty years. It was only when I became a part-time university lecturer and began to look back on them that I realised I had most of a novel. I am grateful to Nottingham Trent University, where I teach Creative Writing, for the research leave during which I rewrote and added to these stories.
Some chapters first appeared in anthologies edited by students on NTU's MA in Creative Writing. ‘Nets’ first appeared in
magazine. The chapter ‘Eating Out’ first appeared in
Sunk Island Review 3
as ‘Scenes In Restaurants’. Thanks to Mike Blackburn, its editor, for tracking me down a copy. The opening chapter also appeared in a Five Leaves anthology of Young Adult stories by East Midlands authors,
In The Frame
In addition to the work included here, there are two more Allison stories that first appeared in
magazine, 'I Think We’re Alone Now' (
) and 'Different Ways Of Getting Drunk' (
, also in Heinemann’s
Best Short Stories Of The Year: 1993
the Minerva Book of Short Stories: 6
). Both take place after graduation and have different continuity, so didn’t belong here.
‘A gripping writerly thriller that pulls you in from the first page, and keeps you turning the pages, The Pretender is pacey and smart’ - Jackie Kay
From an early age, Mark Trace shows a remarkable talent for literary forgery. A gap year in Paris sees his skill exploited by an unscrupulous manuscript dealer. Hurrying home, Mark fetches up in London, working at one of the UK’s oldest literary magazines. That’s when the trouble really starts. Hemingway and Graham Greene are only the beginning. What starts as a prank soon becomes deadly serious. In this literary thriller David Belbin writers about originality, desire and literary ambition in the voice of a character with the capacity to deceive everyone, including himself.
Available as an ebook and in print.