An Intimate Picture of Loneliness

Cécile Cristofari

In the beginning there was nothing. Then the train came.

It arrived from nowhere in a whirlwind of steam. The cylindrical monster grew larger and larger, wheels furiously pumping the suggestion of a roar – but the train flickering in black and white was shrouded in silence. Bigger it waxed, and in its wake, the landscape came alive. 

People looked around bemused – the very first among us. Men staggered out of a factory. A woman sneezed. What we thought was silence was in fact a low droning, machinery softly spinning one reel after the next, film crackling under the soft sun. We looked around, confused, unsure where this new world would go, and this was how it all started.

Then the train burst through the horizon and disappeared. We never saw it again – but it was said among us that the train would come back, after it had circled this brand new world, and that this day would be the end of times.

In the beginning there were no words. We wouldn’t have known how to use them anyway. Most of the time, you were a man, with a bright white face, shiny dark lips, dark thin eyebrows. I loved that face. Your eyes and your smile spoke so much better than words. Whatever you were, a tramp with a little black moustache and bowler hat and a mischievous smile, a cavorting young man or a plump teenage girl with the pearly skin of a Greek goddess, I liked you best when you gambolled in the bright-lit streets, face flashing with excitement, fear, joy or anticipation, tumbling through windows, hanging from the city hall clock, getting soaked by falling water pipes. 

You always had time to spare me a wink, and once you dropped a bunch of flowers my way, stopping for a few minutes before you realised you had stepped in wet concrete and your feet were getting stuck in the pavement. The policemen and dogs that chased you only had to follow your hardening tracks, but you got away safely. You would, most of the time. 

I didn’t really know what I was then. But it didn’t matter. It was you they were all looking at. 

‘I need to go,’ you said once. ‘I need to go and become… a jazz singer!’

You talk, I first expressed, silently, with raised eyebrows and open mouth. You mistook my surprise for a lack of enthusiasm. You sat down in the moonlight and I thought you would gesture to me why, but then you raised your face to the sky, and started to sing.

I’d never heard anything like it. Suddenly, the ubiquitous piano stopped, and a whole orchestra rose to back up your singing. You sang about yearning for a new life, and then you seemed to forget all about me, and you sang silly songs about pretty girls and loving mothers. I tried to ask what this was all about. My throat croaked, and the feelings I would have gestured with skill I was incapable of voicing. You weren’t listening anyway. 

We were sitting next to that place in the concrete pavement where you’d left your footprints, long ago. You were a beautiful young man with skin pale and bright as the moon, and I – I was short and shy and dark, or perhaps just a sallow-skinned girl, perhaps not even truly a girl – and I knew you would go away soon.

Here’s what you need to understand. I never resented you. 

How could I? Even that day when you announced that you were going away for good, that you had vampires and monsters to chase and girls to kiss, that perhaps one day you’d be a handsome vampire yourself or an anguished monster-man with a skull held together with screws or a screaming girl ravished by a gorilla, I couldn’t be angry. You were so beautiful, so luminous. I could have tried to squeeze a bigger place for myself into your stories if I’d wanted to, though I wasn’t sure I did; there would have been too much make-up to put on, too many moments I’d have needed to be silent when I wanted to talk, too many eyes mistaking me for something I was not. So I was content to stay in the shadows.

As you walked, the breeze smelled of the sea. The dim whirr under the waves was always there. We’d all begun near the sea. When the train blazed its path of light and shadows, the first thing we saw was a railroad by the seaside. 

Do you remember? We were young and confused then, and we looked at each other and exchanged a shy smile – and as I fell in reluctant love, I could already see that your light would never cease to grow, while mine would keep dimming.

Our world was never colourless, though at the start, colour flickered only for a while and then left the landscape. Unpredictable as they were, those flashes came with a certainty: there would be change, soon. 

I’d grown so used to the piano that I didn’t notice it until the orchestra came. The orchestra was nothing, however, compared to the din of voices that would soon follow. One day, I noticed that the oleanders and bougainvilleas on the seaside flashed in bright pinks more often than in greys. I realised that I hadn’t moved, in all this time. Whenever I tried to follow you, you sped away so fast I could only step in your light for a little while, and then I was thrust back, and found myself stranded in the same old spot, that sunny road I’d grown to love. And every time it made me doubt I even had a place in your world.

The day you came back, floating in a white dress, a halo of silver-blond hair around your perfect face and red, red lips, I nearly fell over. I felt all my face twist almost painfully in a smile so large it could have swallowed you, before I remembered we didn’t communicate like that anymore.

‘This is so perfect,’ you said, hugging me. ‘I didn’t remember how perfect it was. How have you been, my dear?’

I smelled Parisian perfume on your skin – it should have felt familiar, but your presence turned it into an impossibly remote picture of luxury. You sat beside me, dress billowing, brushing your hips and breasts. As you sighed and looked around, I took your hand for the first time in years. Your face was wistful, pain and loss buried behind your smile, and I felt closer to you than I ever had. As you just sat and gazed around, your perfume turned into a comforting fragrance again.

‘Come with me,’ you said. ‘It’s so lonely out there. Everybody’s watching, but they don’t see… They don’t want to see… Please?’

‘I’ve tried to,’ I whispered. ‘You didn’t even notice how I followed you around.’

‘It’s different this time. I need you. Please.’

You held my hands tight in your lap and I thought it would be true, just this once. It was me you were looking at with those desperate eyes, not the myriad adoring faces that followed you wherever you went. The light scared you, I could see it. You longed for the shadow I always seemed to carry around, me, small, dull and unknown, and I still didn’t know who I was. We had that in common now, I understood. You didn’t know what you were either, and for a moment I thought we could get away from that glittering world together, find a quiet place to start anew, away from the blinding colours and the violins, and I tried to forget that this could not happen. Bring a light in the shadows and it can brighten them slightly, for a while; leave it there and its brightness will become so insignificant it is bound to disappear.

A breeze lifted your dress and you suddenly looked up. Your face gleamed. You held your eyes wide open, as if you couldn’t see, but still had to drink the light, as if your very fears dragged you back into it.

‘I have to go,’ you breathed. I couldn’t tell if it was terror or elation in your voice. You rose as suddenly as you had sat. 

‘I’ll be back soon! You’ll come with me, won’t you?’

‘Of course I will,’ I said. But I didn’t move.

You blew a kiss and whirled away, and then you were gone. 

Sometime later, I heard a story of scandal and drugs and a lonely death, and a whole world mourned. I was sad, though not surprised. However badly you’d wanted me near you then, you never saw me when I came to walk by you. You’d been drawn to the light, as you always were. That’s were the only visible path is. Walk towards the darkness and you’ll only get lost.

You never came back, not like this time. 

You whirled and darted back, then you were gone in a blur. You wore too many faces to count. You were a blonde beauty gliding in a fountain, a brooding man on horseback, a space captain, a bearded samurai, a handsome killer in an evening suit, and though you still pretended to call me to your side sometimes, you never waited. You fled screaming from murderers, you took out hordes of monsters on your own, you battled criminals and your own inner demons, and I envied how soft your demons were, how there always was a solution to tame them and emerge even brighter out of the ordeal. There were car chases and explosions and violins, hypnotic colours. Along you sped, in a world that never ceased to love you. 

Sometimes I saw you holding someone by the hand, a shadow that looked like me. You seemed to think it was me, and at times, it was enough. At times I was furious that you could be so naïve. In a softer light, where colours are more muted and nuances flicker rather than shine, I could have appeared to you just as I was. But there is no soft light where you dwell, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

I never stopped waiting. 

Somewhere in a land where winter nights are warm and soft but can last forever, I still wait for you. 

There’s a place in the pavement where you left your footprints, and sometimes a lonely dog smells them, as if recalling a long-gone moment of fun. I hear there’s another pavement where you left your handprints, in a land that’s always warm, though no warmer than ours. I hear whispers sometimes, that the glittering lights over there captured so much of your soul that you forgot everything down to your own reality, and that you will soon dissolve, sublimed into something brighter, more evanescent than sunlight.

The whispers are wrong. We are real, you and I. With the two dimensions of our bodies shimmering under glaring lights, with the music flowing from the sky, we are still real. No one wondered at the pain and loneliness the harsh spotlights would expose you to, because they needed you to be bright, to be clear, to bring the light and comfort you could never feel yourself to places in people’s lives where it is too dark to see. You have eased the lives of multitudes without ever knowing rest. And no one wondered who lived in the shadows around you, the places they didn’t pay attention to, so little I sometimes doubted I existed at all. But I do, as do hundreds others like me, silent ones, unseen ones. You can’t make a whole world out of light. And in that shadow where I know you cannot live, I still wait for you.

I know what you’d reply, if you could hear. I want to gaze at your light as much as anybody else, even though it is the very light that dooms me to the dark. And there would be doubt in my voice, and I could only answer: maybe. There’s only one thing I’m certain of. I love you, I crave you, I’d beg you to come back if it could be of any use. 

Somewhere there is a land that came alive when a train blazed through it, in a whirr of brand-new machines. In that land, my stories unfold, and as we watch you drift away, we make our own legends, too. We listen for the hoot of a locomotive in the distance, for the day the train comes back for us, and in the meanwhile, we’ll build our own little world, our own quiet stories. We’ll make them softly glowing, ebbing and flowing like the waves, constant like the tideless sea, softly whispering words that don’t always make sense at first. We’ll make it beautiful and we’ll make it quiet, and somewhere in that world, there’s a pavement with your footprints in the concrete, dogs listening for ghosts where I’m standing, an intimate picture of loneliness, bathed in the gaslight glow. ∎

After working in Québec for a couple of years, Cécile Cristofari settled in her native South France, where she teaches English literature and writes stories when her son and daughter are asleep. Her stories have been featured in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Reckoning and elsewhere. She can be found on her website: Stay where people sing. Bad people don’t usually sing.

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