I can’t remember now when the first time he appeared was, but it was obviously some time after he had died.
He comes all the time now. I sit there, in my toll booth at the end of the Kingsway tunnel, handing out change, over and over, and he appears, out of nowhere. I don’t even jump anymore. He says, ‘What are you doing with your life, Lauren?’ I say, ‘Leave me alone, John,’ and he vanishes.
It’s particularly cold and wet tonight. There are two kinds of drivers on nights like these. The ones that all wrapped up in their car, cosy and cheery, just thinking about that nice cup of tea at the end of their journey. They have a smile for you. Then there’s the grumpy ones, annoyed at the world, the rain, everything. They’re especially annoyed at having to pay in order to get through that ‘stinking tunnel’. It’s after they drive off that John appears.
It’s two years now since my older brother left us. He had been sick for so long that, well, he wasn’t in pain anymore, and I guess that’s something. He had said to me that he couldn’t remember what it was like to not be in pain. To not hurt all over every single day. He wanted it to be over.
But when it happened, everything fell apart.
I was in the middle of writing my dissertation at the time. It was something like three weeks before it was due in. From Brooks to Moss: How Party Girls Changed Fashion. I was granted an extension, obviously, but every word I’d written seemed so superficial, ridiculous. The musings of a silly ignorant girl who went to university to drink and, well…
I thought about going back at one point. Maybe study medicine. See if I could save lives, stop someone else going through the pain I was living with. But I’m not clever enough, definitely not rich enough. So I got this job. It’s boring, but it pays the bills. Plus, I work a lot of nights. It’s quieter, and I don’t have to come up with excuses not to see people, because they know I’m working. I just can’t face it. Going out, getting pissed, getting laid. What’s it all for? Nothing. If I’m going to drink I’d rather have a nice malt, neat, by myself in the quiet and the dark where I can appreciate it.
‘What are you doing with your life, Lauren?’
‘Leave me alone, John,’ I say, rubbing the tears out of my eyes.
‘No, not tonight.’
What? That’s new. I dry my eyes with the back of my sleeve and look at him, in the corner of my booth, smiling. He looks exactly the same as he always did. Well, the same as he always did, before. I’m hallucinating. I’ve lost it. I pick up my phone and stare at it. A distraction. That’s what I need to clear my head.
‘That’s not going to make me go away, Lauren,’ John says. ‘Besides, no-one ever texts you or anything now anyway.’
‘Wh-what do you want?’ I stammer, the screen blurring through my tears.
‘Ah, first night memories,’ he says, leaning back laughing. ‘Are we going to go through it all again, or do you remember it as fondly as I do?’
I put my head in my hands and can feel my breath getting quicker. I feel sick. This can’t be real. It isn’t happening.
‘Come on, Lauren,’ John says, pleadingly. ‘Please don’t be like that. I thought you’d gotten used to my visits by now. I thought if you could get used to me, you would talk to me. You’d started to seem so flippant about it and –’
‘Shut up!’ I yell. ‘You’re not here! You’re dead!’
‘Yes, I am,’ John says. ‘I’m dead. My life’s over, done, finito. Everything I had, everything I was, everything I wanted, gone. Just like that. And you’re here wasting the time you have.’
‘You’re not here, this isn’t real,’ I whisper to myself, over and over. I rub my eyes with the back of my hand. I look in the corner of the booth and John’s still there grinning widely. ‘What do you want?’ I ask, slowly.
‘I want my little sister to live her life. I want her to stop sitting about in the dark. I want her to stop avoiding everything and everyone,’ John says, quietly.
‘I’m doing OK,’ I say.
John laughs ruefully. ‘Do you know what’s at the other end of that tunnel?’ he asks, nodding towards the small window.
‘’Course I do,’ I say. ‘Liverpool.’
‘No, Lauren,’ he says. ‘At the end of that tunnel is the world. What are you doing with your life, Lauren?’ he asks. ‘What are you doing with your life?’
‘I get by,’ I say.
‘Nothing, nothing, nothing. Nothing at all,’ John says, as if I hadn’t said anything. ‘You’re throwing it away living in a box at the end of a tunnel. But that tunnel could take you somewhere, if you would just let it. Come on, Lauren. When you got this job you told Mum and Dad it was temporary. You just needed some time and then you’d go back to university. Fashion, medicine, whatever. Fuck’s sake, no-one even cares if you want to work in here for the rest of your life, but you don’t. You’re miserable. People only want you to be happy. What happened to your dreams, Lauren? Why have you given up?’
‘When you got sick,’ I stammer, tears streaming down my face.
‘When I got sick, I died,’ John says. ‘You didn’t.’
I look up at him. My big brother. How he was, before. Strong. Always taking care of me. ‘I have responsibilities,’ I mutter.
‘No, you don’t,’ he says, laughing. ‘What? Mum and Dad have each other. Their only worry is you. You rent your house. You and Tom split up last week.’
‘How do you know about that?’ I ask.
‘All seeing, all knowing,’ he says, tapping his temple. ‘Comes with the transparent complexion.’
I frown at him. ‘You haven’t changed,’ I say.
‘No, neither have you,’ he replies. ‘That’s the problem.’
‘Are you real?’ I ask.
John just smiles at me and reaches out his hand. ‘Come on, kid, this is your last chance. I don’t think they’ll let me come again.’
I glance out of the tiny window at the cars passing through the tunnel. Everyone’s going somewhere, and he’s right. I’m going nowhere.
‘No-one’s been to my booth for ages,’ I say, confused.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ John says. ‘They don’t need you anymore.’
He reaches out, and I take his hand. It’s cold but surprisingly solid. He gently pulls me up and then we’re in the tunnel, passing over cars as if they aren’t even there. I can see a light ahead, but it’s not the light my brother went through two years ago.
I cling a little tighter to his hand. He smiles at me, and says, ‘There I was thinking you wanted me to go away.’ And he laughs and I laugh. I hear him whisper ‘You’re going to be fine’ in my ear before I realise that it’s daylight and I’m walking into John Moores Uni, for the first time in forever, my nails embedded deep in my palm.