From as long as I could remember, life has always been a bit of a struggle for me. I didn’t understand why but whilst the other boys and girls were getting to know each other, I was left l by myself throwing a ball against the wall. There was a level of interaction going on that I was not aware of and it was easier to fill in the gaps in my head than to work out what was going on. I have few distinct primary school memories but there is a scene that comes to my mind when all else is quiet, the dark part of my mind’s way of punishing me for some perceived wrong. It was a game the teacher made us play where we were all in a circle and had to throw a ball to each other. The person catching it would have to state a fact or tell a joke. What made it traumatic though was the person passing the ball had to say the name of the person they were passing it to. I realised as I sat down that I didn’t actually know any of my classmate’s names. At first I tried to give the ball to the teacher who told me inhad to pass it to a classmate. Then the other kids worked out why I wouldn’t play and kept giving the ball back to me to watch me squirm. Eventually I snapped and just and threw the ball back as hard as I could before fleeing the scene in angry tears.
High schools brought older and crueller kids. Children are like sharks when blood is in the water and the habits I’d learned at primary school, of keeping to myself and avoiding interaction weren’t enough. Every lunchtime I was herded reluctantly to the playground by a teacher gasping for a fag to be confronted with a sea of faces I’d never seen before. At first I kept trying to politely introduce myself like if been taught. Then one day it clicked with them and with twisted ingenuity beyond their years they ran an experiment to see if I was as stupid as they imagined. I was lined up and introduced to them one at a time and had to shake their hands and say my name. What I didn’t know was it was the same 8 kids over and over, looping round behind me. The game fell apart when no one could breathe any more for laughter.
The penny didn’t drop with me for at least the first few months of high school. What gave it away was seeing someone getting hit in the eye with a conker – yes it does happen! The incident left him with a cataract that finally gave someone a distinguishing feature. That’s when I realised the same people I was in a class with were outside at lunchtime.
Using “Cataract” as a fixed point I started to be able recognise some other boys that were with him a lot. “Tall & Messy” was with him a lot and he was less cruel than the others, mainly because his parents divorcing and his emotional breakdowns left him as vulnerable as me. I had my first friend!
From that moment of pattern recognition I developed better and better coping behaviour until I could make extended small talk with total strangers who recognised me in the street without having to reference their name or where I knew them from. Most people have a distinguishing feature I could tag. A pair of distinctive shoes or a particular gait when they walk for example. Some people are just too generic but they are usually too dull to be worth remembering anyway.
It wasn’t until my 20s that I had a name for what was going on. The spur was when my mother came up to see me on the train. I walked past her twice on the platform because I couldn’t recognise her. As my most familiar face she was my benchmark to compare everyone else so be definition had no distinctive features. Tall was taller than her, short was shorter. Still, even I realised that that wasn’t normal! A bit of internet research and I had a name for it: prosopagnosia. Face-blindness. Reading about it for the first time made me cry as I understood myself for the first time. It’s associated with a lack of sense of direction and the dyspraxia the educational psychologist diagnosed me with when I couldn’t stop fighting at school. Finally I began to understood what was different about me.
My mind compensates for these failings in other areas. I have a freakish memory for lyrics and can recite verbatim any rap hit from 1987-1995. I spot and remember car number plates for some reason so end up following a stranger’s movements around town because I somehow see “YA65SSD” in my peripheral vision as they drive past and remember seeing it elsewhere 2 months previously. Also, I have an outstanding ability to recognise voices. Often I’ll be oblivious to who that actor is when I first see them on screen until they speak and I’ll realise it’s the star of that show I’ve watched for three seasons.
“Ah, you still here then?”.
I froze, like I always freeze when someone unexpected sees me. I work in a stationary supplies company in a dull 9-5 office job. I like dead end jobs as you so rarely meet new people, maybe a new starter every 6 months or so who are formally introduced and don’t remember you for a few weeks anyway. I’d been there 11 years and am referred to as a “lifer” by some of the youngsters who’s ambitions hadn’t totally withered. Some people arrived and left very quickly, detecting more than a whiff of career death in a regional headquarters of a medium sized family company in an industry in decline. They fear if they stay it would stain their CV for ever. Me, I was happy with regular hours, regular pay and regular people. Routine may not be for some but it is for me.
Thursday was what a handful of the walking mid life crisis’s in the office referred to as “Singles Night”. A chance to bitch about your ex over 4-5 pints of fizzy larger and drive home. Or brag about nailing the boss’s wife in one case which was now getting to be a very old story. I normally don’t partake in the sad ritual until enough time has passed that I forget what it’s like then tag along with the rest of the lads.
It’s a low-stress social setting – this lot don’t exactly like change any more than I do so I can always head to the same old pub and know that the strangers sat at the table by the fruit machine are the same guys that left the office half an hour before me: Dave With The Curly Hair and Tash. He’s the one who had an affair with the director’s wife while he was in India on business. Middle Aged Acne James who supports Manchester City and goes LARPing, Neck-Tat Mick and Comb-Over Rich who have almost no distinguishing characteristics between them. Queue two hours of “Whay-Eye, the Rack on That, Did you see that episode, She’s taking the dog etc”. I can partake in banter but it does get dull fast.
Having run out of excuses not to, they guys had shuffled off home that evening and I’d hung around for my train which was not for another 30 minutes. That’s when he arrived next to me with the familiar greeting that left no doubt. He knew me. I’d never seen him before. A fear of looking foolish is always my first reaction, paralysing my legs and vocal chords so I can’t run or communicate. Over the years however, I’ve learnt to swallow the feeling and reply neutrally until you work out who they are.
“Oh eye. Train’s at thirty three past”. The conversation’s moving. Now dig for clues. “You meeting someone?”.
“Me, yeah, just left work. Meeting the missus”. It’s a colleague then. Think. What’s his defining feature? What am I going to have tagged him with? Play for time.
“Want a pint?”.
A quick trip to the bar gives me the opportunity to assess him. Jeans and trainers, so far so non-descript. Average face and hair, doesn’t help. There – shirt undone one button too far. That’s Pete in Dev-Ops’ tag. Rest of him fits too. Let’s test this…
“How’s the Pegasus project coming along?”
Yep that’s him.
“What’s up with it?”
He started giving me details of unrealistic clients, clueless management, incompetent colleagues etc that you don’t care about, I don’t care about and deep down he probably doesn’t care about either. The connection was made and the conversation had rails to run on so we’re both happy. Eventually his missus showed up and I stayed to chat for a little longer before making excuses and left. It was quite pleasant actually with a feminine influence to take the edge of the boysiness.
Eventually I left the watering hole and headed back to the office where the car was, down the soulless streets of the new build commercial estate. It used to be one of the less classy red light districts in the area and never quite managed to lose that grotty vibe, however spacious the new glass fronted offices were. The longest serving member of staff claims to have seen a sex worker hanging from a lamp post on the street, an image that’s impossible to shift from your head whether you believe him or not.
Our unit was right at the back of the estate and it was dark and deserted by the time I got there. You can’t go through that way to get to anywhere so there’s no reason to be there at that time of night. The road itself is poorly lit so has the effect of looking monochrome in the sodium lamp light and the buildings either side look empty and foreboding.
There’s no street lighting on the last corner so the two men next to the panel van can’t have seen me coming. My fight-flight response alerted me to the presence of a dangerous situation before I was specifically aware of them. I focused on them in time to see a flurry of limbs flailing like a rugby ruck and hear raised voices including the muffled cries of a woman. The scuffle lasted for a few short seconds that felt very long then disappeared around the back of the van. One more loud thud and everything went silent. I stood still. My response to trouble is to avoid it then leave and the only reason I didn’t turn and run was to avoid attracting attention.
Then one of them came round the side of the van and I saw him clear as anything in the lamp light. Generic looking. He had hair, non-descript clothes. Absolutely nothing that would lend itself to identification. I heard him urgently call out to his mate
“That’s it, we’re done.”
Then he got in the van and the van coughed into life as the engine revved unhealthily. The van took off as rapidly as it could and, as it rounded the corner past me, I could see the man looking out of the window straight at me. For the fraction of a second that the van was passing me if felt like our eyes had locked.
Did that happen? I saw it but the moment they were gone I couldn’t believe it. I think I just witnessed an abduction! Or did I? As soon as the van disappeared I stopped believing my own recollections. You try to rationalise away extraordinary events as it’s so much more probable that it was a daydream, a false memory or anything but what actually happened. It was a scene straight off a crime show, just like the first victim in The Silence of the Lambs in fact. That’s where I’d got the image from, right? What do I do with this haze of indistinct memory?
I’ve always considered myself to be a good citizen and a good citizen would take this to the police for sure. However, doubts kept creeping in. I’d been drinking, probably too much to be driving home. And what could I tell the police? I’d seen the man clearly as anything but couldn’t give any description to save my life. What if I ended up being asked to do an identity parade? Could I legally refuse? The idea of a line up of people and having to recognise someone was the most terrifying thing on earth for me. What if I got someone falsely convicted? Or destroyed the evidence that would have lead to a conviction? I couldn’t do it! I resolved to sleep on it and reconsider in the morning.
When the morning came I ended up showering and going to work on autopilot as though nothing had happened. The memory of what I believed to have been an abduction was more dream-like and receded with every passing hour. I allowed work to distract me an plunged in with rare enthusiasm. Pretending that things were normal allowed me to avoid the pressing issue of deciding what to do with my knowledge.
At coffee o’clock I joined “Neck-tat”, “Middle-aged Acne” and “Monobrow” by the vending machine as was the routine. We’d drink the awful coffee and carry on the banter.
“Good times, eh?”
“Have you seen what Julie is wearing today? Jesus TF Christ!”
Julie “Brown Bob Hair Cut” worked in marketing and held the honoured position of Recipient of Idle Sexual Fantasy. She was moderately attractive and occasionally dressed to catch the eye like today. The previous holder of the position had left when she worked out what they guys in the office were saying about her.
The banality of the conversation was like an antacid on the heartburn of my guilt eating me up from the inside. I was getting away with this and, surely, someone else would come forward and then it would be Someone Else’s Problem.
“So what did you get up to after leaving the pub?”
I felt a tightness in my chest like a vice. Possibilities ran through my head, tell them, lie, just leave and don’t come back. I was right back to childhood and just wanted to hide under my desk to avoid facing anyone ever again. What if they had been involved? Hell, I could have been looking at one of them clean in the eyes last night and if I hadn’t spotted their tag I’d never know.
I could be talking to a murderer.
“Saw a bit of Love Island me. You wouldn’t fucken believe it”.
I breathed again. I’m not sure I said anything for the rest of the day, just kept my head right down in my work. No coffee, no toilet breaks in case I bumped into anyone on the way. Get through to five thirty and home. Micro-meal for two to myself and bed. I had survived.
Now the die was cast and 24 hours had past. There was no way I could take this to the police now. I’d be wasting their time, or worse, a suspect if something had happened.
The next day was much the same. I tried the strategy of keeping my head down again and it mostly worked until Kevin the Operations Director (fake tan, usually white shoes, working class east English accent) dropped by my desk.
“You seen that cunt Dave?”
Kevin has hated Dave since his wife left him for Dave last year. And probably hated him a long time before that.
“Not since Tuesday night. Why?” I was trying to act calm but my heart was rapidly going through the gears.
“He’s missing. AWOL. Twat’s done it now.”
Looks like Kevin will finally get his revenge. You can’t get someone fired for cuckolding – and he’d tried – but you can for unauthorised absence.
I tried to think of something to say but Kevin just walked off. He’s not the type to ask what’s wrong with an employee even if he noticed someone having a problem, which he wouldn’t. Word of Dave’s absence went through the office like a bushfire. Theories abounded ranging from him having rage quit to being in some kind of accident. Only I had the extra layer of information that there’d been what looked like an abduction the night before. And I couldn’t say it because by now it felt like I was an accomplice. I don’t think I said a word to another human being for the rest of the day, that evening, and the next morning when I got back to work, day three after the incident.
That’s when things changed. There was an excitement in the office with people in small groups stood around computers. Everyone wanted to be the first to tell someone for the joy of the scandal.
Middle Aged Acne got to me first.
“Get over here, you’re not going to fucken believe this.”
On his computer was the Daily Mail website with a picture of a generic looking blonde. She was dressed up in sequins for a night out. The headline read:
“Murdered in the Woods: Rotherham housewife Emma Stone found dead”
I knew that name. Dave’s misses. Kevin’s ex.
It dawned on me what I’d witnessed and what it meant and felt like that moment on a roller-coaster where the train suddenly drops and and your stomach lurches upwards, only with no gravity to stabilise my free fall. I slumped into the chair next to me before I could fall.
I had left the pub after Dave, headed back towards to office, and seen his girlfriend been abducted prior to her death. And not done a thing about it because I couldn’t. I’d seen everything and been unable to retain nothing. I let out a noise that was some way between a sob and throwing up in my mouth.
Middle Aged Acne and Neck Tat both looked up from the news site at me.
“Jeez mate, it’s a shocker isn’t it. Poor lass!”
“Met her a few times, she used to meet Kev in the office after work. She seemed nice. Terrible taste in men but nice enough.”
“Sorry. That’s out of order. Poor poor lass. Poor Dave.”
“You don’t think… You know?”
“Dave? He fucking loved her. He said taking her off that prick was his Magnum Open, whatever that means. No way did he hurt her. Bet he’s going out of his mind. Kevin on the other hand… “
His voiced tailed off at the implication. I said nothing. My fragile equilibrium was on a knife edge and the slightest push would have toppled it. So, I let my workmates think I was grieving someone I may or may not have met in the past and went quietly back to my desk. All I could do was put my faith in the system and hope that whoever was responsible was caught before I went fully out of my mind.
That morning the rumour went round that Kevin was “helping the police with their enquiries”. I wanted him to be guilty so this would go away. I wanted him to not be guilty. I wanted this all to never have happened. I couldn’t think straight that day but neither could anyone else in the organisation. Everyone just spent the day in cycles of refreshing news websites, spreading the latest reports and gossiping. The trash press had been informed, or likely sold, the story of the “Love Triangle” in the company. By 10:30 the first reporters arrived at the gates and by 10:45 a bulletin went out from HR forbidding us to talk to them. Head down, no eye contact, no conversation, pretend it’s all fine. The English way.
That evening I’d told myself I was going to hide from the news and sure enough I put the news straight on. It was like a bad compulsion, a form of self harm. No good could come from looking but I couldn’t look away. On the TV I was treated to the sight of a curly haired man with a tash, who was helpfully captioned on screen as “Emma Stone’s partner Dave Milson” making a tearful appeal for witnesses. The poor bastard looked like he hadn’t slept, eaten or washed in days. His distraught pleas cut me to the core. I knew something and yet I didn’t. I could help but I couldn’t.
It also came out in the news report that her ex husband Kevin had been released and was no longer a suspect. It turns out he has a solid alibi at the time.
Dave never came back to work. Kevin did but without the cocky bravura. He was a changed man who kept to himself and was hardly seen beyond his private office.
Everything else returned to normal. Money needs to be made and bills need to be paid. Two weeks later and the Premier League had replaced one of our friend’s partner being murdered as the number one topic of conversation. Singles Night hadn’t happened since but it had been mooted.
The investigation had hit a dead end. There was a poster on the company board appealing for witnesses but I was convinced by this stage that I’d witnessed nothing of substance. It was one of those self lies that keeps you functional as a human.
I’d been easily able to immerse myself if work as we’d all picked up a bit of Dave’s job. The official line was he would return but no one believed that. I was just happy to be busy and in a routine again. Days went by and I did my job. They were boring and uneventful and that’s all I could ask.
“Mate, can you take this down to Jim please?”
Not my job at all to deliver paperwork and the request ratcheted up my tension straight off but I was afraid to refuse. That could lead to awkward questions. So this meant finding and identifying Jim.
“He’s in the warehouse?”
So Mullet Jim. Just got to keep going until I see 105kg with a Mullet.
The warehouse was across the car park from the offices we worked in, keeping blue and white collar physically as well as culturally separated. As a result the two tribes only communicated at formal minuted meetings and both blamed the other for the ails of the company.
It was raining and I’d not got a coat. I always dress for yesterday’s weather and yesterday was fine. The warehouse is exactly what you’re picturing, endless racks of beige boxes, all labelled and coded, and a workforce of large men in blue overalls who turn over too fast to be worth the effort of remembering. Mullet Jim was shift superviser and had been there two years. I spotted someone that should be him.
“That for me?”
It was him.
Job done. I was on my way back out into the rain when I heard something that stopped me in my tracks.
“That’s it, we’re done.”
The phrase I’d heard that night. And it was the same voice. 100%, I was more certain of it than I’d ever been of anything before. I spun around reflexively and found myself locking eyes once again with the generic looking man.
I knew he was the murderer. He knew I knew.
He stepped forward and I stumbled backwards. There was hate on his face and I suddenly felt very small, like a bug to his windscreen.
Then he became aware of his co-workers around him and he just ran, sprinting out of the warehouse and he was gone.
“The fuck was that all about?” asked Mullet Jim.
“I think that he is… I don’t know mate. No idea.”
Even now I couldn’t say it without my house of cards tumbling down. My sin of omission would condemn me to hell. I went straight home, citing a stomach bug and locked all my doors. I could not sleep for a minute with the knowledge that a murderer thought I could identify him. Every sound outside was my oncoming death.
But I survived the night and, as ever, tried to maintain a normal routine of going to work. Routine was all I had left. Through the day and home. Lock the doors. Sleep when you can.
The next morning when I arrived, it was like the day Emma’s body had been found but this time jubilant.
“They got the fucker!” Neck Tat shouted gleefully.
“Baz from the warehouse. He tried to do a runner yesterday and got picked up on the border for travelling with false papers. Turns out he had her underwear with him in his van, the sick fuck.”
“Hang him. No trial. I’ll do it myself.”
A fog lifted off of me. I was going to get away with this! I suddenly felt like I’d let go of the heavy baggage I’d been carrying for weeks. The murderer was caught and I didn’t have to identify him. He’d panicked thinking I could and ended up incriminating himself. I’d even helped in my own way! It was over.
Details leaked out that Baz had been mates with Kevin since school. Kevin had confided in him everything that had gone on with Emma and Dave, and Baz had take it upon himself to do his friend a favour. Along with one of his mates he’d done what he thought Kevin had wanted him to. Both were convicted and got a life sentence.
Kevin left the company. The last I saw of him he looked broken. I’ve no idea how you recover from something like that. None of us ever saw Dave again.
“Hello there, you must be Amélie?”
I had her Tinder profile open on my phone just below the table and had her tagged as “fringe down to eyebrows” from one of the photos. Given that she was obviously looking for someone and then looked at me, it was a good bet. She was as her profile described, attractive without being too far out of my league, and best of all, was easily recognisable. Her lips had a slight pale line round the outside and she had a mole to the left of her face, just under the jaw.
“Can I get you a coffee?”