It took a moment for Michael to realise that it was his doorbell that was ringing. He wasn’t expecting a visitor or a parcel and it was weeks now since any flowers had been delivered. His first reaction was dread. He was too raw and fragile to deal with anything or anyone unfamiliar. He even struggled to cope with the man who came to read the electricity meter. To a stranger, Michael looked normal; melancholy, perhaps, but normal. They’d have no idea how thin the ice was. He needed to carry a warning, a sign that read: Fragile. Handle with care. He’d considered getting a T-shirt printed with the word Bereaved but people would probably think it was a band or a TV series. The doorbell rang again, drawing him out of that faraway nothing nowhere place where mourning had taken him of late; a vacant space defined by absence. From the outside, he appeared lost in thought, but if anyone asked him what he was thinking he’d confess he had no idea. He wasn’t thinking anything, he was just bobbing around on a sea of loss, a small vessel cut loose from its moorings, adrift in a dreamless reverie.
He didn’t recognise the face of the youngish, fair-haired man on the small videophone screen.
Is that you, Mike?
Mike. Some people called him Mike, generally people who think if they go straight to the diminutive, it sounds more friendly. But anyone who really knew him knew he didn’t ever go by Mike. The figure in the street stood back from the camera, hands on hips, impatient to be let in. Michael didn’t know who he was but there was something familiar about him that he couldn’t place.
I’m sorry, he said. Do I know you?
He didn’t know anyone called Erik. Thieves were always scamming their way into the building, posing as plumbers or Amazon or the phone company. After the last robbery, videophones were installed and everyone in the building had been warned: unless you can positively identify someone, don’t let them in. Erik was a stranger and even if he wasn’t a thief, dealing with strangers was on the long list of things that Michael could still barely handle. With strangers, sooner or later you have to account for yourself, and he wasn’t ready for that yet. If people didn’t know what had happened, he didn’t have the strength to tell them. He’d only start crying and he was a bit sick of crying. He needed protection, shielding, like someone with compromised immunity, except in his case it wasn’t opportunistic infections he feared; it was raw, unscheduled contact with strangers.
I’m sorry, I can’t let you in if I don’t know you.
The figure flapped his arms, annoyed or frustrated or both. He carried a plastic carrier bag in one hand.
Michael studied the face on the screen. Had he known him once? He didn’t think so. He wouldn’t say he never forgot a face; he forgot a lot of things. What he did forget was where he knew people from. He’d say hi to someone in the street and then spend the rest of the morning struggling to remember who they were. Sometimes it was just context. Like when he passed the woman from the chicken stall in the street, he knew he knew her but because she wasn’t quartering chickens in a bloodstained apron, he couldn’t remember from where.
Maybe you’ve got the wrong address, he said into the machine.
The Erik person shook his head slowly from side to side, almost sorrowfully.
I’m a friend of Leo’s.
Michael caught his breath, the shock of Leo’s name on this stranger’s lips. Erik could have said any other name and he wouldn’t have let him into the building, but he said Leo, and it was like an incantation. At the sound of that name something rose within him, like a guttering candle flickering back to life, something very much like hope.
He pressed the buzzer. Through the speaker he heard the click of the door releasing and saw Erik enter the building. He opened the apartment door and listened to the lift descend to the ground floor, the door open and close, the whine of the mechanism as the lift rose up the shaft. It stopped on his floor, the doors parted and out stepped a man of medium height with short fair hair and bright blue eyes, a scrub of blond beard, and a scar along one eyebrow like a boxer. He felt certain he’d never seen him before in his life.
There was a little too much zeal in Erik’s eyes, something knowing, like someone who’s been touched by a guru or is living a post-revelatory life. But there was something else, a shiftiness, edgy, both furtive and vaguely menacing. He felt himself recoil, suddenly aware that he had invited this stranger in and acutely conscious of his inability to handle the simple niceties of social interaction.
Erik waited, one hand on the door frame, a shade too proprietorial, and flicked his eyes towards the interior of the apartment, as if to say, aren’t you going to invite me in? Michael looked at him blankly. Unable to process this person in the doorway, he’d retreated back to the nowhere place where he kept disappearing, from others and from himself, a suspension of time and space, his own private petit mal. Then he snapped back to the present, standing in the hallway, one hand on the door, the stranger asking to be let in.
His instincts told him no. He should just say sorry, you must be mistaken, we don’t know each other, and close the door, except that Erik said Leo’s name. He imagined Erik as a messenger of sorts. But there was something else that stopped him shutting the door in his face. He was dressed in jeans, red Reeboks, a black T-shirt and a midnight blue leather jacket. It was the jacket that was familiar.
He stepped aside by way of invitation. Erik embraced him lightly, or not so much an embrace as a hand gripping each shoulder.
I’m sorry for your loss, he said. He had an accent, Dutch or Scandinavian.
As he had so many of late, he accepted the condolence numbly, and not as graciously as he would have wished. He nodded by way of acknowledgement. He’d stopped saying thank you for people’s sympathetic words, not that he wasn’t grateful, but it felt unnecessary. That and the fact he had so little to give, even thanks. He’d been hollowed out by loss and stranded in an emotional void.
There was scarcely room for both of them in the cramped hallway. He stepped away so that Erik could close the door. He led Erik past the kitchen where Michael hesitated. Should he offer him coffee? A beer? If he did, and Erik accepted, then he would stay, and he didn’t think he wanted him to. He continued into the small living room and gestured towards a chair. Before he sat down, Erik looked around the room, as though appraising the contents for auction or as a would-be tenant or buyer might.
Nice speakers, he said as he sat down, smoothing the plastic bag on his lap. The bag was from the duty free at Schiphol airport.
Wharfedales, Michael said without expression.
Erik made no response and continued to check out the room, his eyes roaming along the bookshelves, taking in the jazz festival poster; the family photographs, some in colour, some black and white; the ceramic evil eye brought from Istanbul; the Murano glass fish; wilting white lilies in a vase; the sympathy cards on the mantlepiece that Michael didn’t know how or when to take down; the view out of the window on to next door’s washing.
Everyone listens on headphones these days but I like ambient sound. Maybe I’m old fashioned.
Erik raised an eyebrow.
The speakers, he explained.
Oh, right, said Erik. You’re a big Mahler fan, right? Not really my cup of tea, Mahler.
Erik continued his appraisal, this time of Michael, who he held in his blue, aloof, gaze. His lashes and eyebrows were blond, like Boris Becker, Michael thought. He was annoyed with himself. Why did he say that about the speakers? Why tell him anything about himself? And how did he know that about Mahler? All he wanted to know was what Erik had to say about Leo. After that, he could go.
So, how are you managing, Mike?
Mike again. Where did he get the idea of calling him Mike? Not from Leo, that was for sure. He let it go. He shrugged.
It must have been tough, the loss. And so sudden.
Wrong tense, he thought. Is tough, not must have been.
I hear you’ve been kind of depressed.
Hear from who? he said, suddenly defensive. From whom? He corrected himself, instantly annoyed by this futile pedantry.
You know, around, Erik said, with a wave of his hand that took in the world at large.
The leather creaked as Erik raised his arm.
Grief unpicks logic, things unravel and resist order and connection. Even when it’s obvious that the stranger sitting opposite you is wearing a leather jacket that until recently belonged to you, it doesn’t make sense. Grief blocks out the obvious conclusion, that somehow, by fair means or foul, this person has acquired your quite recently stolen jacket. It wasn’t his imagination. Erik was wearing his jacket. It wasn’t that it was exactly the same as his jacket, it was his. How could that be and what did it mean?
Michael didn’t care much about clothes, but he loved that jacket. It was Leo who had talked him into buying it. They were on holiday in Palermo and they’d just had a long lunch. So long, the shops were opening again for the evening. They were wandering around, going nowhere in particular, following their feet, feeling free and easy, full of calamari and wine and limoncello, when they passed a shop with the jacket in the window. They’d stopped to admire it. It was a plain leather jacket. That was its appeal. Michael liked clean lines and hated garments adorned with superfluous zips and studs and straps. The jacket was elegant in its simplicity. But it was the colour that got their attention, a deep, midnight blue. Leo pulled him towards the shop doorway.
Come on, try it on. I want to see you in it.
He resisted but Leo had tugged at his arm.
You don’t have to buy it, just try it on.
Leo had that way about him, he turned everything into a bit of a dare. He was always chivvying Michael along, teasing him out of his comfort zone, pushing against his shyness. The shop assistant was young, haughty and camp. He’d gushed all over Leo while flagrantly ignoring Michael. Leo flirted with the shop assistant. He liked to flirt, just for sport, he said. He was so much surer of himself than Michael. Leo explained with extravagant gestures and three words of Italian that Michael wanted to try on the jacket. The assistant gave Michael an up and down, like a farmer assessing livestock at auction, clearly not impressed with what he saw. He flicked through the rail and handed Michael a jacket. He’d put it on, shyly, intending to take it off immediately and hand it back and hustle Leo out of the store. But the leather was so soft, the lining silk, or silky at least. He’d never experienced anything like it with a piece of clothing. It was like a second skin, second but better. The moment he put it on he felt transformed, complete. He felt ready.
You look great, Leo said. It’s perfect. You should buy it, shouldn’t he, he said to the assistant, who nodded while making a moue that said he thought the jacket was wasted on Michael.
Quanto? Michael asked.
The assistant wrote the price on a scrap of paper, assuming Michael either wouldn’t understand if he told him or couldn’t possibly afford it. It was a lot of money, far more than he would ever spend on clothes. Leo and the assistant both stood with their arms folded.
Go on, Leo said. Spoil yourself for once. You know you love it.
Later that evening they’d had an argument, more of a spat really. Maybe it was the lunchtime drinking gone sour, though the jacket seemed to have something to do with it. Michael had made a jokey comment about Leo flirting but Leo took it the wrong way and the evening ended badly, with neither of them speaking. They made it up later, after he apologised and Leo, who had resorted to his preferred weapon – a chilly silence – accepted his apologies and relented.
And now here was this Erik, who claimed to know Leo, wearing Michael’s jacket.
Where do you know Leo from? he said, with unintended hostility.
Oh, you know, from the circuit. The first time we met was at the Berlin festival. After that, we kept running into each other.
So you worked with him?
Yes and no. Basically I’m a facilitator. We’re in the same business but doing different jobs. Were, I should say. I still haven’t got used to thinking about Leo in the past tense.
Michael’s throat tightened whenever someone said Leo’s name, like it was stuck there. He hadn’t yet used the past tense either. Leo was still in limbo between here and there, here and gone. He laced and unlaced his fingers and waited to hear more from Erik. It was only since he died that he realised how many other people there were in Leo’s life and how many lives he touched. He didn’t belong to Michael, or not just to him.
The last time I saw him was in Amsterdam. There was some cock-up with a hotel reservation so I put him up at my place.
This was news to Michael.
When was that?
I don’t remember exactly, a while back.
Funny, I don’t think he ever mentioned you.
That’s not surprising, Erik said. He often talked about you, though.
Often? So you saw a lot of each other?
He was curious to know what Leo said about him, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it from Erik.
Like I said, we were both on the festival circuit. It’s a small world.
Was Erik trying to tell him that there had been something between him and Leo? He searched his memory of any mention of Erik. The search came up blank. Leo was away a lot; it went with the job. His and Michael’s working lives didn’t overlap. There were a lot of people in their lives they didn’t have in common, which they agreed was a good thing, that they didn’t live in each other’s pockets, but it was also a source of friction. Leo’s life was more glamorous than his, or so he thought. He felt excluded and a little bit jealous but struggled not to show it.
One day, when Leo was going to Bruges for a few days for work, Michael suggested that he tag along.
I’ve always wanted to go to Bruges, he said. I won’t get in the way. I’ll do my own thing, go to galleries, whatever, and then when you’re not working, we can have a little holiday together.
It doesn’t really work like that. I think you have a picture of these trips as a sort of junket, an excuse to have fun while someone else is paying, but it’s not like that. It’s work and I hardly get any down time at all.
Oh, go on. You could find time for dinner, surely. That’s all. I know you’ll be busy, but it would be fun.
I don’t think it’s a good idea.
He was hurt that Leo so clearly didn’t want him spilling over into his working life.
Anyone would think you’re ashamed of being seen with me, he said archly. He regretted it. Leo had no time for petulance. Any moment now and he’d call him a princess, one of his favourite put-downs.
You’re being silly now, he said.
Oh, silly, is it? he said, still more petulant, his voice rising a couple of tones, aware that he was digging a hole for himself but unable to stop. Silly to want to spend more time with you?
Leo sighed and plucked a piece of lint from his sweater.
We spend a huge amount of time together, he said, a little coldly, the emphasis on huge implying it was already more than enough.
It’s okay, Michael said, backing off testily. Don’t worry, I won’t cramp your style.
What’s that supposed to mean, cramp my style?
You’re so secretive, that’s all. It makes me wonder what you have to hide.
I’m not secretive. I just don’t think we have to share every single second of our lives. It’s not healthy. Everyone needs a bit of space. You can be so… so smothering sometimes.
Smothering! he exclaimed sarcastically. Well, god forbid. Give the man some air. Let him breathe.
Oh, please, Michael. This is so childish.
Once again Leo retreated into silence, though, with him, silence felt more like an offensive than a withdrawal. Back when they first met, he never imagined Leo would go for him. Leo was vivacious, flirtatious and self-assured. He was arty, and though not an artist himself he moved in those circles, organising festivals and concerts. Michael’s job in human resources was better paid but not nearly as glamorous. He was naturally shy, hesitant and unsure of himself. Leo loved to dance but had to cajole Michael on to the dance floor. Leo moved with a cool naturalness as though the music flowed through him, while Michael had to concentrate to keep the beat and learnt his moves from a video.
Yet Leo wooed him, not that it took much wooing, and what began as a fling became a thing and, had Leo not died suddenly, they would soon have celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary. In love, the die is cast early on and calibrates the mood for what is to follow. So, all along Michael felt lucky – unexpectedly lucky – to have Leo, not that Leo, who adored him, didn’t appreciate his own good fortune. The difference was he believed Michael was nothing more nor less than he deserved whereas Michael never lost the sensation that he was loving beyond his means and that, like all imposters, he would one day be found out.
Leo’s death changed all that, leaving him dwarfed by the enormity of what might have been, with the end of possibilities, not with all they had done together, but everything they would never now do. He wanted news of Leo, which was why he let Erik in, because he said he knew Leo. To Michael, that made him an emissary, like the bit part player in Shakespeare who arrives with news from afar of the protagonist’s wife or his ships. He wanted to hear anything – stories, anecdotes − that would keep him among the living; hearing tales of Leo helped to stave off the cold, implacable fact of his death. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear Erik’s stories. There was something odd about him, something wrong, false even. And he was wearing his leather jacket.
It was the theft of the jacket that had pushed him over the edge, not that it took much. After Leo’s death he scarcely left the house. The outside world was too raw and his skin was too thin. He took nothing in his stride. Even the quotidian miseries of the city clawed at him, the desperate and unhappy people who weren’t getting and weren’t going to get the help they needed. Like the young man who lived on a ledge below a cash machine. His world had been reduced to this small space. He sat there by day and slept there at night. He probably wasn’t much more than thirty although in six months he’d aged five years. He rarely spoke except to acknowledge the hand that dropped a coin into his cup. On a piece of cardboard propped against the ledge he’d written: I was like you once and one day you too could be like me. Leo called him the Ancient Mariner.
One day, his friend Carmen had coaxed him into going out for a drink. Carmen was in for the long run. He sensed that other friends were already weary or repelled by his grief and thought it was time he got over it, time he was moving on. Someone had even uttered the word closure, for god’s sake. But Carmen was prepared to sit it out and let him take his time. She didn’t tell him what he ought to do or how he should feel.
It was a warm, sunny day in late October and they were in a bar in the Plaça de les Olles in the Born. Michael draped the leather jacket over the back of his chair. He managed some conversation in between the petit mal absences that punctuated his day like power cuts. Suddenly, an argument broke out nearby, two men, raised voices. Then, as suddenly as it started, the dispute was over and the two men vanished. That’s when he discovered his jacket was missing. The argument had been staged, a distraction, while the accomplice made off with his jacket. It was an old trick.
As soon as they realised what had happened everyone got up and looked around in case the thief was still in sight but of course he wasn’t. Michael’s mood passed from anger at himself, for being so stupid and for falling into the trap when everyone knew never to leave a bag or a jacket on the back of a chair in this city, to a deepening despair that spread through his being like a stain. Just when he was beginning to haul himself up off the canvas, the theft had knocked him back down. It rammed home his feeling of powerlessness and the inability to exercise control over his life. The waiter came over and gave him a lecture he really didn’t need about leaving things on the backs of chairs. Carmen took him back home to the sanctuary of the sofa. She made him tea. She sat with him until he gave her permission to leave.
You can go, he said. I’m okay.
Except he wasn’t. The grief that confronted him, already insurmountably vast, a Himalaya of sorrow, now engulfed him entirely. The mantra that he repeated to himself, that he had a duty to Leo to live, that he must find the strength to go on because that’s what Leo would have wanted, began to recede and fade like a train pulling away into the night. He slid from mourning into depression, neither wishing to die nor eager to live.
He couldn’t put the loss of the jacket behind him and continued to relive the moment of the theft. The thought of it filled him with impotent rage. He would lie in bed, fists clenched, enacting and re-enacting violent fantasies of what he would do if he ever caught the thief. It wasn’t just the jacket. The jacket was special, it made him feel good to wear it, and it was a memento of him and Leo and Palermo, all of that mattered. But what really got to him was knowing that he’d been had, he’d fallen for the trick like some dumb tourist. The theft had nothing at all to do with Leo’s death but in his mind the two coalesced, even though one loss was so much greater than the other. He said to Carmen: I feel like everything I’ve ever wanted, everything I’ve treasured, is being taken from me. Carmen gave him a hug and he wept into her luxuriant hair.
Since then, he had gone out for a few short walks, though never unaccompanied, and had seen hardly anyone until Erik arrived at his door. Erik studied him with a sympathetic look that Michael was beginning to feel was completely fake. He began to feel that Erik was one of those people who is always performing, who has learnt to seem the way Michael learnt to dance; all surface, no content, a performative human being.
I really should get going, Erik said. I really came here to give to give you this, he said, patting the plastic bag on his lap. It’s Leo’s, a shirt that he left in my apartment. I thought you might want it.
Erik made it sound so natural, too natural, that Leo would leave a shirt behind in the apartment of a man whom Leo had neglected to mention, even though Leo did sometimes talk about his work and the people he worked with, usually if he had a funny anecdote to tell or if someone was being especially difficult or annoying. Evidently Erik was neither amusing nor annoying enough to merit a mention.
Erik held the bag towards him. Michael hesitated. Accepting it seemed to imply accepting more than the return of Leo’s shirt. It implied that Erik had occupied a place of some, if minor, importance in Leo’s life. It felt like collusion. He took the bag from Erik and held it for a moment before he looked inside. The moment he opened it the scent, the indefinable, unmistakeable scent of the living Leo, wafted out. More than any words or photographs or memories, that lingering trace of life overwhelmed him with the knowledge of what was lost. He held the shirt up to his face and began to weep in great heaving sobs, soaking the shirt with his tears.
Erik didn’t get out of his chair. He didn’t put a consoling hand on his shoulder. Michael was relieved; he could do with some consolation, but not from Erik. As the sobbing subsided, he folded the shirt and slid it back into the bag. The two of them sat in silence. Erik could go now, as far as he was concerned. He’d done what he came to do which, along with returning the shirt, was presumably to put thoughts into his head that he’d rather not have, to make him feel bad or foolish or naïve. Perhaps sensing this, Erik got to his feet.
I should go, he said.
Where did you get that jacket? he said.
This? I bought it here in one of those vintage shops. Why?
Erik laughed. It was more of a snigger, sardonic, disbelieving.
Really, I’m not kidding. It was stolen a few weeks ago. It’s my jacket.
I don’t think so. Maybe you had one like it.
His tone was sarcastic now, and aggressive. Erik’s charm, such as it was, slid behind a cloud.
I’m not accusing you; I don’t think you stole it. I imagine it’s just a bizarre coincidence, but it’s mine and I want it back.
Are you serious? I mean, really? Leo said you could be a bit of a head case but this is really off the wall. It’s my jacket. I probably still have the receipt somewhere.
That stung. What did Leo mean, he was a bit of a head case, and why would he tell Erik that? In what context? He felt betrayed by Leo, if he really did say it, and now there was no way of asking him if it was true. If what Erik really wanted was to stick the knife in, there was nothing he could do to stop him.
Why did you come here?
I told you why, to return Leo’s shirt. And to offer my sympathy.
But why did you really come?
Jesus, I really don’t need this, Erik said, moving towards the door. Michael stood in the narrow doorway. He held his hand up.
The jacket, he said. You may well have a receipt. I already said I don’t think you stole it, but even if you bought it in good faith, the jacket is still rightfully mine.
You’re out of your mind.
Maybe so. Look inside. The label says Cusumano, Palermo, and there’s an ink stain on the lining, on the inside pocket in the shape of a heart, or a spade, if you like. Go on, take a look.
Erik’s face hardened. Slowly he opened the jacket, and there was the heart-shaped stain on the lining, and above it the label: Cusumano, Palermo.
You see, he said.
Erik eyed him coldly.
I reported the theft to the police, he lied. I could call them now and say you have turned up wearing it.
That doesn’t prove I stole it, which I didn’t.
No, it doesn’t. But it could be awkward, couldn’t it? Tedious, at the very least. I could make a fuss. The police might decide that here was one case they could clear up for a change.
He could see that Erik was weighing it up. He felt empowered for the first time in months. Erik narrowed his eyes, then removed his wallet from one pocket and his keys from another. He took the jacket off and held it towards him on the end of his index finger, as though it were something distasteful that he’d rather not touch. Michael took it from him, slid open the deadlock on the apartment door, then closed it without a word to the departing Erik.
He sat at the kitchen table until darkness fell. He scarcely ever drank but he took out the Macallan, Leo’s favourite whisky, and poured a couple of fingers into a Waterford crystal tumbler. Leo wouldn’t drink whisky out of any other glass. He was particular about things: the correct glass for red or white wine, demi-tasses for coffee, a cheese knife for cheese; not fussy but particular. He held the glass up to the light, the way Leo did, examining the golden liquid refracted through the faceted glass. He set it down beside a framed photograph of Leo. The picture was taken on the small ferry to Ithaca. Leo wore a half smile, his face was tanned, his arms dark against a loose white shirt. He looked immortal.
Someone named Erik called by today, he said to the photograph. Or that’s who he said he was. He said you used to work together, or not together exactly, but you knew each other through work. He brought me your shirt; the apple green one we used to call your Granny Smith shirt. I don’t know what he was doing with it. He said you’d left it in his apartment, which seems strange. I don’t know whether to believe him. The funny thing is, he was wearing my leather jacket, remember, the one I bought when we were in Palermo. It was stolen a few weeks back. I didn’t tell you at the time; I was afraid what you would say, like what was I thinking leaving anything on the back of a chair in this town, and in the Born of all places.
It seemed like a sign, Erik wearing the jacket, though I don’t know of what. Just a weird coincidence, I suppose. I don’t think you would have liked him; he was a bit creepy and sort of supercilious. The sort who thinks they’re better than everyone else, or smarter. Bit of a dick, frankly. Just for once I was glad you weren’t here because he’s just the sort of guy who presses your buttons. You probably would have told him where to get off. Now that he’s gone, I realise none of it makes any sense. Why did he have your shirt? Why was he wearing my jacket? He kept calling me Mike, like we were old pals, but you know no one calls me that. There are a hundred questions I should have asked him but I can’t think straight. Sometimes I really feel like I’m losing my mind.
But the shirt is definitely yours, Leo; it still smells of you. I didn’t really think you had a particular smell, though I guess everyone does, and I didn’t know I missed your smell till now. But then there isn’t anything I don’t miss about you. I keep finding out more things, more ways that you are absent. It’s like when your house has been robbed and for weeks afterwards you keep finding things missing. I didn’t like Erik, but what I really didn’t like was that he had your shirt. It made me wonder if I’d missed something, failed to see the signs. Was I blind? Love blinds – that’s what you used to say, love blinds. Maybe it does.
Every night for the past six months when he talked to the photograph, he ended up crying, but this time the tears didn’t come. He turned the photograph face down on the table and finished the whisky. The jacket hung on the back of the chair. Reclaiming the jacket was like making good on the lesser of his losses, not the one that really mattered. It was just a jacket, not a triumph over adversity, not one he’d got over Erik. He knew he’d never wear it again. It had lost its allure and would forever be associated with, and tainted by, Erik.
He picked up his keys. The gaunt homeless man was in situ on the ledge by the bank. Michael handed him the jacket. He took it and rubbed the leather between his thumb and forefinger, assessing it quality, but made no comment.
It’s Italian, Michael said, foolishly, as though that mattered.
He didn’t try the jacket on. He lay it on the ledge beside the rolled up sleeping bag and the flattened cardboard boxes. He held up the paper cup and rattled the few small coins it held. Michael patted his pockets and shrugged apologetically.
I’m sorry, he said. I’ve nothing on me, then looked away rather than face the man’s look of contempt and disappointment.
He sat in the dark at the kitchen table. Since Leo’s death he felt diminished. Losing Leo felt like losing so much more than him. He had lost the sense of himself, at sea with no compass and no idea which way the land lay. He felt like he’d been cheated because Leo had been cheated out of what should have been the rest of his life. He’d have done anything for that not to be true, for Leo to come back, no questions asked, no need to explain; and they could just carry on as before like nothing had happened. But that was before Erik arrived with the shirt. That changed things; in a way, it changed everything. The jacket could just be a weird coincidence, but not the shirt.
It wasn’t that he chose not to believe that Leo and Erik had been lovers, he simply chose not to think about it at all. All the same, something had shifted. What felt impossible, unthinkable even, drifted within reach, like a ship emerging from fog. He felt released from the burden of believing that seeking or even stumbling upon a moment of joy amounted to betrayal; that to be happy in Leo’s absence would be proof of his unfathomable shallowness. As the fog lifted, he saw a way back into the world. He had been paralysed by grief and loss, unable to see a way forward or back. His life had been on pause. The mere fact of being alive felt wrong, leaving him no option but to shut himself away and grieve. But Erik’s visit, distasteful though it was, had opened the door. He had permission and he had choices; he could choose life.
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