A Little Conversation by Steven Holding
“Is this seat taken?”
The question pulled Veronica from her thoughts, dragging her back into the world. She had been lost once again, trawling through memories, relishing the images of her childhood as they played out in her mind’s eye. It had, of course, been a long time since she had experienced the sensation of sight. Yet her loss of vision, at one time the cause of great anger, was now, thankfully, no longer such a painful subject for her. Her accident seemed to be part of another life, and with the passing of time and the slow healing of wounds, so she had finally grown comfortable with her disability. She accepted her senses for what they were, and in this she had found some peace. She turned her head in the direction of the voice and smiled.
“No, I don’t believe that it is,”
She paused, brandishing her cane, the subtle waggle generating a pleasing swish-swish.
“But you’d probably be a better judge of that than I…”
There was a momentary silence as Veronica attempted to gauge the man’s response. A terse cough, obviously forced, told her all she needed to know. She felt the man’s embarrassment, could probably have warmed her hands against his flushed cheeks if she chose to.
“Don’t take offence, I was just teasing… Please, join me.”
Veronica felt the wooden park bench give as the man sat down. Judging by the drastic sag beneath her, he was a man of some considerable weight.
“Thank you” he said. His voice, whilst soft, contained an underlying croakiness. A definite smoker. Despite the overpowering scent of cheap cologne, Veronica could smell the stale stench of tobacco on his clothes.
“Lovely day” he stuttered, “The sun is out, and the sky is blue, no clouds and… err…”
“It’s ok… You don’t have to describe it for me… I can tell it’s a beautiful day…”
She moved her head slowly, taking in a deep breath.
“I can feel the sun on my face, can smell the flowers, the freshly cut grass… I can hear the kids laughing over there on the climbing frame… It all adds up, lets me build a picture inside my head…”
“I’m sorry… I didn’t wish to appear rude…” whispered the man.
Veronica heard the sound of bikes, felt the sudden displacement of air as they sailed past the bench.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “No harm done.”
“I would hate to upset you,” he continued, ” I see you sat here every day and you always look so happy…”
Veronica felt her pulse quicken. Slowly, she tightened her grip upon her cane. Something felt wrong. The man, seemingly unaware of her discomfort, went on.
“Strange, I would think, that one who is so…. afflicted, remains so positive…”
Veronica began to stand, pushing herself up from the bench.
“I’m sorry, but I really must be going…”
She gasped as she felt a hand wrap around her wrist. It squeezed tightly, the vice-like grip so strong she nearly dropped her cane. Her legs buckled as she crumpled back down onto the bench. Before she could scream the man was at her ear, the aroma of mint failing to disguise something less palatable upon his breath.
“Know this. In my other hand is a blade. I have used it before.”
Veronica felt the press of metal against her cheek, the kiss of cold steel sudden and terrifying. As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. She struggled to control her breathing, panic flooding her body.
“What do you want?” she hissed.
“Just a moment of your time, the lend of an ear if you would be so gracious… Nothing more…”
“Please don’t hurt me!”
“If you do as I say, I will not harm you. A little conversation is all I require, a chance for me to tell you a few things… It’s not too much to ask now, is it? And if you are a good girl, who doesn’t attempt anything… foolish, I see no reason as to why we cannot both enjoy our exchange.”
Even though the tap of her cane upon the pavement told her she was shivering, Veronica could not feel her body. The thought of movement seemed impossible. Everything seemed unreal. She could feel her mind slipping away, her sanity making a slow, deliberate retreat from reality. It was, she knew, essential to her survival that she regained control. She bit at her bottom lip, the flare of pain instant, the taste of blood immediate. The hurt served its purpose, the dull throb in her mouth giving her something to focus upon, pulling her back into the moment.
“How did you lose your sight?” asked the man, his tone now casual, as if the threat of violence had never even occurred.
A… A car…accident,” replied Veronica.
Keep talking, she thought to herself, buy yourself some time.
“I was fifteen. A passenger. My brother was driving. He… He died.”
The man placed a hand upon Veronica’s knee.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. There seemed to be genuine concern in his voice. “God can be… cruel. Don’t you think?”
“I don’t believe in any God!” she spat, the fury in her voice shaping each word.
“You would be surprised how many think that, say that, yet in their final moments, almost all call his name. Call for his aid, scream for his mercy… I myself am ambivalent regarding the issue. Maybe he is there, maybe not… If indeed he does exist, he would be the same God regardless of our actions, of our prayers. We may need him, but does he actually need us?”
Veronica felt tears coming, fought hard to keep them back.
“What do you want from me!”
The man continued, apparently oblivious to Veronica’s questioning.
“Now confession, that’s a peculiar thing isn’t it. Admitting one’s sins, one’s weakness, obtaining forgiveness. I must admit, I find the whole thing fascinating. And even if a man isn’t seeking absolution, even if a man has no faith and doesn’t require the pardoning of God, well, I still believe we all harbour a burning desire to… share. To speak of our sins. One only has to watch daytime television. You see it happening on those awful programmes every single day…”
The man squeezed Veronica’s knee once again. She grimaced as his nails bit into her skin.
“But of course, how insensitive of me. You wouldn’t have seen it at all now, would you?”
The man giggled at his own joke, the absurd, schoolboy shrill of his laugh making Veronica’s flesh crawl.
“And I,” he continued, “I am no exception. I find myself filled with a burning desire to share. An audience is what I require. But due to the nature of my activities, it would be prudent for me to remain anonymous. I require a listener who is literally all ears…”
Veronica could sense the man moving in closer to her. She stifled a sob as he nuzzled against her neck, her body quivering with revulsion as she felt the harsh, sandpaper rub of his stubble upon her cheek.
“Will you listen to me?” he moaned softly, his voice gentle, each word drawn out like the tender declarations of a lover.
Veronica clenched her teeth together, fighting the tidal wave of nausea that threatened to sweep over her, pushing her dread, her horror, deep down into the pit of her stomach. One thought, and one thought only, filled her mind. The same mantra that she had clung onto after her accident, holding on for dear life like a drowning man, clutching at the words to keep her safe, to keep her sane.
I AM A SURVIVOR.
She turned her head, her face inches away from the man’s, the tip of her nose brushing against his.
“Go on,” she said, “Go on you bastard… Speak, if you have to… I will listen…”
The man chuckled, his sour breath stinking, sickening, hot on Veronica’s face.
“There’s a good girl…”
She could hear him smile. He coughed, clearing his throat.
“I have killed, I have murdered, I have snuffed out life… So many times, so many times…”
Veronica had no idea how long the ordeal lasted, how long the two of them sat there for, for how long the man spoke. Hours? Days? An eternity? Time became meaningless, formless, shapeless, as she endured the man’s speech. A list of atrocities, ceaseless, never ending, pain upon pain, suffering upon suffering. And when she thought there could be no more, there was more. A catalogue of torture so vile, so poisonous, she could feel the evil infecting her, spreading through her like cancer, turning her heart and soul black. She only knew he was finished when she realised he was no longer at her side.
“Thank you,” said the man, “Thank you for listening… Although I do wonder, whatever must you think of me?”
Veronica turned her head towards him. She reached up a trembling hand and wiped away the tears that had been trickling down her face.
“I think…” she muttered, “I think you are the Devil himself…”
The man laughed.
“If there is, as you said, no God, then it would be fair to say that there can be no Devil, don’t you agree?… And who’s to say that I am nothing more than a jolly good liar?”
Veronica listened to the sound of footsteps as the man began to walk away. The click of heels halted abruptly. She knew that the man had stopped and turned around.
“I have so enjoyed our little chat,” he said, his voice brimming with joy. “Maybe, and please do forgive the awful witticism, you will see me again soon?”
As the echo of his steps receded, Veronica let out a whooshing gasp of air. She pulled her cane close to her, gripping it with both hands, savouring the fragile sense of security it gave her. As the sobbing began, her chest heaving, she clung onto her precious words. Words, she now realised, that had power. Words, she realised, that were her prayer.
She was indeed a survivor. And this was what made her so dangerous.
Veronica slowly rotated the handle of her stick. It made a muffled click as she pulled it away from the main body of the cane. The glinting knife that was slowly revealed as she removed it from its sheath may have been small, but she knew that it would be more than enough.
Next time, she would be ready.