Inspired by a true story.
Three years, I’ve lain here.
Charcoal snow fizzes on the TV screen. Christmas presents scattered like flotsam.
There’s a rattle at the door. They’re here.
It took so long there’s little more than a shadow on the faded carpet to find.
No worried mother dropped by in all the time that passed. No concerned office acquaintance. Not even an impatient landlord, ready to cut off the electric.
From this you may assume that I was a loner.
You’d be wrong.
Peter loved me the most. Couldn’t quite believe his luck when this exotic beauty with a important government job showed attention to a tubby, pale omega male. His friends couldn’t believe it either. I saw their glances, heard their whispers.
“Doesn’t she have any friends of her own?” they’d gossip at my 21st birthday party, arched eyebrows over creamy layered chocolate cake. “Maybe she’s got another party somewhere else, later.”
There was no other party.
They’re banging on the door now. Clattering the letterbox, probably peering through. They’re calling my name: Ms Francis. It sounds odd like that. I was always just Grace. When I don’t answer, they break down the door. Push past the mountain of post. They grimace and balk at the smell.
Peter should have been grateful to have someone like me. Should have held on tight with both hands. But no. He turned down my proposal.
“We’re too young,” he said, giggling nervously, red dots on his cheeks. “Not yet. Let’s wait a bit.”
So I left. Didn’t like waiting.
Weeks later, Peter was replaced by Trey. New boyfriend, new house, new friends, new life. Reborn.
Trey was no random choice. I had dreams, just like anyone. I was going to be a famous singer. A pop star, a rock star, I didn’t care. Trey was a music producer.
He told me I had the whole package. Looks. Voice.
I told him I could be whoever he wanted me to be.
Footsteps coming down the hall now. First they check the kitchen. They’ll find my coffee. Must be mouldy by now. Or worse. What happens to coffee after three years? Perhaps all that’s left is a dry crust. And the dirty dishes. I never could be bothered with washing up. It drove housemates crazy, but I got away with it with my winning smile, and they’d sigh and start frothing up a bowlful of suds. Washing it all away. When I lived alone it just piled up.
One day Trey told me I just didn’t have it. ‘It’. My voice was fine, my looks were good, but I was no professional singer. I could tell he’d been putting off telling me. Rightly so. I was crushed. But he could be wrong, I knew. Even the Beatles got turned down before they signed.
I had to move on.
New boyfriend, new house, new friends, new life. Reborn. Good as new.
They’ve just seen me. The big man’s eyes have gone as wide as saucers. The woman’s hand has gone to her mouth, she looks like she might vomit. They don’t stay long.
New boyfriend, new house, new friends, new life. Reborn. Good as new. Almost.
Only this time I made a mistake. Selected my new life poorly.
When I arrived at the shelter, the counsellor sat me on an orange plastic chair and asked if I’d been abused. I asked if she said that to all half-caste women, or only half-blacks. Her lips pressed together tightly.
I feel bad for her now. She was only trying to do her job. It was just ironic, that’s all. It was only ever white men who beat me.
Next come people in big white outfits, like clinical burkhas. They pause to look at what’s left of me, but take it in stride. Then gather up my things, put them all in plastic bags, label them with black marker. How odd, to have your everyday things organised in such a way. Strappy dress discarded unwashed, the frumpish work shoes by the door. The gifts meant for loved ones, opened by rubber gloved hands, assessed, bagged and tagged.
After the counsellor came the psychologist with letters after her name. They were always women, as if I was too frail to be in the presence of men. She asked the same questions, over and over. My answers didn’t please her, so I gave her different ones. She liked those better.
She asked me about how my mother died when I was only eleven, how my father had told me as if letting me know the milk had run out. As if I should hurry to the shop to get some more.
As if my whole life would be defined by a single experience.
About how my four older sisters had looked after me, but hadn’t been able to protect me from his abuse.
These were her suggestions for topics of conversation. Not mine.
I left the shelter and went back to Peter. Who else? I knew he’d take me in. One look at his face and I knew he still loved me. I don’t think he ever loved anybody else.
“Of course you can stay.” Tears choked in his throat.
His one bed flat felt like safety, four walls with him inside, a palace inhabited by a prince. While he was at work I would stare at the walls, caress the furniture. Wondering how different this place would be if I’d stayed with Peter. Been a little more patient. How would I have made my mark?
But it didn’t happen that way.
I didn’t tell him about the shelter. I wanted to be the person he knew before. Be whole again. To climb back into the cocoon. So I told him I still worked for the government.
One morning he came back early, unexpected, and found me in my cleaner’s uniform.
“What’s going on?” Betrayal furrowing through his face. “Why did you lie to me?”
I hung my head and told him I’d explain everything that night.
Then I left.
The police won’t try that hard to find out what happened to me. They have enough fresh cases on their plates, and once a case goes cold it goes stale.
A three year old case that’s melted into the carpet, with no one pushing, chasing, crying, demanding – that’s going straight into the filing cabinet.
But many have their theories.
Some say it was the asthma. How I always refused to take my inhaler. Too proud to feel like an invalid. Perhaps it was as simple as that.
Others whisper that it was murder. An ex-lover, the one that drove me to the half-way house. Or maybe even my father, the wildcard in a porkpie hat.
And finally, there are those that think I took my own life. That I was tired of being a chameleon; no more than a reflection of those around me.
So in death as in life, I will keep my secrets and others will be left to wonder.
Inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, who was found dead in her apartment after lying undiscovered for three years. Names have been changed.