wishing for alison

This is an older story. I wrote a version many years back, then amended it, and the amended version appeared in the short story collection PS: Ich Tote Dich, and then also this collection a little later on. I could probably keep amending it for a long time. There are bits I really, really want to change – and maybe at some point I even will – but you can go on forever with thoughts like that, so for now: here it is, still very much warts and all.

 

Wishing For Alison

I blow gently on the end of my finger and I make a wish.

Before I do, I close my eyes. This is partly because I don’t want to see the eyelash blow away across the room. When I close my eyes, I can imagine it disappearing from this world, in exchange for what I want most in return, but with my eyes open there’s a good chance I’ll see where it really ends up, and it’s hard to believe your wish will come true when you’ve just watched it land on the carpet and lie there, among all the other crumbs.

But the main reason I close my eyes is because I don’t want to see Alison. Sitting there. Hugging her knees.

I open my eyes again. The wish, at least, has disappeared. But Alison is still there, of course. It breaks my heart to look at her right now, so I stare past her instead, at a front room dimmed by evening. Outside, snow is falling, thick and soft, white against the dull grey sky, with each flake landing as quietly as a blink. The window across from me is slightly ajar. The open curtains are shuffling in the cold, like resentful sentries.

I lean back on the settee, which creaks slightly. It’s old and worn out. We should have replaced it. But then again, we should have done so many things. I look down at Alison. She is sobbing quietly, and it’s such a horrible noise. It’s the sound of too late, far too late, we can’t go back now and all it does is make me think about the wish I just made. The wish that…

Well. You know the rules, of course.

I can’t tell you what I wished for, because then it might not come true.

 

*****

 

It was Alison who first told me you could use eyelashes to make wishes. I’d never heard of that before. Shooting stars, yes. Eyelashes, no.

It was in the third year of University, not long after we first met. In those days, we spent most of our time in her room in Ebberston Row. Alison shared the house with five other girls. Among all the debris from the parties and takeaways, you could have lost a thousand eyelashes on the floor of the lounge without noticing. Alison’s room was much the same. Plenty of place to hide them. One day, she added one of mine.

“Hold still.”

Suddenly, I had a finger in my eye.

She was often like that, though – impulsive; leaping into action without warning – and most of the time I enjoyed it. There was something unguarded and uninhibited about the way she behaved: she’d see something and go for it, unafraid of looking silly or saying the wrong thing; always stepping forward confidently where others would at least hesitate to tread. In my experience, a lot of people who do that come across as irritating, but Alison usually managed to get it right, and that made her popular instead. It was endlessly strange that she liked me, as I could barely string three words together in front of people I didn’t know. But they say opposites attract, don’t they?

And she was beautiful, as well. Very beautiful, in fact. So the evidence for that keeps mounting.

“What the hell are you doing?” I said.

Hold still.” She was concentrating. “You’ve got an eyelash.”

There was obviously no arguing with her, and before I had chance to say Yeah,  I’ve got loads, I had one fewer, lifted from the tickly skin beneath my eye with a delicate thief’s touch. She held it up to the light. A thin black curl on the tip of her finger.

“Make a wish,” she said.

“What?”

“Make a wish and blow it. Come on! Quickly.”

From the urgency in her voice, this was clearly a serious matter. As though there were rules to it – some sort of real, hard science underlying the whole process.

“Okay.”

I thought about it for a moment. Then I made my wish, closed my eyes, and blew the eyelash away.

What did I ask for, that first time?

Well – the natural impulse was to make a purely selfish wish: to ask for something ridiculous, like an enormous amount of money, or to be even half as charismatic and attractive as the young woman beside me. And maybe that was my original intention. But what actually happened, as I pursed my lips and blew, was that I found myself wishing for Alison instead. And I remember thinking why not? as I exhaled, sealing the wish.

It felt good to be selfless – to have made a wish for somebody else’s well-being rather than my own. In hindsight, I suppose it was still selfless. Because it didn’t really matter, did it? It didn’t require me to do anything much. It’s easy to be magnanimous when all you’re talking about is an eyelash.

“What did you wish for?” Alison said.

I wanted to tell her, mainly because she would have thought it was sweet rather than silly, but even back then, when the concept of using eyelashes was new to me, I at least knew the rules of wishing in general. Alison did too, of course. She was only playing.

“It won’t come true if I tell you,” I said. “So my lips are sealed.”

She pulled a face at me, but also looked quietly satisfied. A wrong answer that was right. From what I can remember, the rest of the day was typically lovely. They always were. Although we hadn’t known each other for long, I was already in love with her.

Here it is: I wished for her to be safe and happy.

There. My lips aren’t sealed any longer, you see; I can say it now. I can shout it from the fucking rooftops, and I can tell anyone I like. It won’t make any difference anymore.

Because that wish went wrong a long time ago.

 

*****

 

Is it strange, do you think, that wishes don’t work if you tell other people about them?

Maybe. I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. I understand things a little better these days. Wishes are dreams and aspirations, after all, and it’s always best to keep those close, the same as you would anything that’s valuable to you. If you have something that glitters, people just try to steal it. At the least, people without real, heartfelt wishes of their own will hope that yours don’t come true. Dreams are currency, and they should only be shared with a few people, chosen carefully, because most will mock them and want to see them fail. That’s just the way the world works, I think. When your stock is devalued, people are pleased.

Looking back, I think of the dreams I’ve had and the wishes I’ve made as rough stitches in the wounds of my life. Thin threads sewn in place in a desperate attempt to hold my edges together. Sometimes those wounds heal and the stitches fade, and it’s easy to forget that all that got you through a patch of life was hope, but other times, the stitches aren’t strong enough, and you end up half-opened and spilling out, like a battered children’s toy.

What I’ve found myself doing recently is taking all those old, useless stitches out of myself, by thought and by deed. I’m taking all of them back. For example, I once wished that Alison would never have to cry again. I’m taking that back right now just by telling you. And as I do, I can feel the dark cotton of it tickling slowly out of the scar. I pull on it, and my heart feels looser as a result. And honestly, it’s not like that wish ever worked anyway – she’s been crying for hours now regardless. I don’t need it anymore.

I’ve always meant well. I’ve always tried my hardest. And yet my wishes have often been as inadequate as that one.

I lean closer to Alison now, and try to tell her it’s going to be okay, but there’s no response. She just sits there, hugging her knees, sobbing quietly. Not so long ago, if she was upset, I would tell her everything was going to be all right and it would help to keep her upright. It really would. Too late for that now, of course. I wasn’t here for her in time, and I despise myself for it. For failing her.

I settle back on the settee.

I wish that nobody will ever hurt Alison again.

I wish that I will always be there for her in time.

Thread after thread is coming away. I can almost feel it all: the loops of dead hope spooling around me. Before too long, I will have myself entirely unpicked. Every wish will have been pulled out of me, until finally all that’s left will be the wounds, naked and raw and fragile.

At that point, I will stretch my life taut – up on its toes. I’ll turn the face of it to the ceiling and scream, tensing every muscle.

And I’ll see what rips.

 

*****

 

I had reasons for wishing on Alison’s behalf, beyond the obvious ones.

The first time I saw her was in a nightclub. She was very drunk, bathed in flashing, primary-coloured light, and swaying out of time with the thump thump of the dance music. She seemed to have lost her friends. After a while, she went outside, maybe to look for them or maybe just for some air. I waited a minute or so, and then, without even being sure why – a tickle of worry, perhaps, at the base of my neck – I felt compelled to follow her.

I found her sitting on the steps outside the club, head bowed to her knees – and a man standing in front of her. I listened to them talking from a discreet distance, and it became clear that he didn’t know her, but that he was trying to persuade her to go with him. An open taxi waited just behind him, its engine idling softly. She was too drunk to respond, but he was reaching down to take hold of her arm.

“Hey,” I said.

He let go of her immediately and looked at me –  except that’s not quite true. It was more that he looked right through me. When I stared into his eyes, there was nothing there at all. He seemed entirely empty, this person, like some kind of wind-up automoton, and I remember thinking: this man has something missing.

I looked down at Alison instead.

“I don’t think you should go with this guy.”

She nodded absently. The whole time, the man said nothing to me, but he stepped backwards slowly, eyes still fixed on me, and I had the strange, shivery impression that he wasn’t really a man at all, but some kind of elemental force – some dark mannequin the world had conjured up in an attempt to take Alison away. One that could be faced down easily enough, as I just had, but only if you arrived in time.

Anyway – that was how I met her.

The more I got to know her, the more that odd initial impression was confirmed. Alison was beautiful, and full of enthusiasm and innocence, but the thing was, I began to realise that life doesn’t like that. With Alison, life kept throwing things in her path in an attempt to derail her. As the months passed, it became increasingly clear that somebody needed to wish for her – and wish long and hard, at that.

I was determined that somebody would be me.

One time, a guy in her lectures took to following her around campus. She’d bump into him almost every day. An accident – except of course, it wasn’t. He kept bothering her, wouldn’t leave her alone, and when I eventually confronted him I saw the same emptiness in his eyes that I’d sensed in the man outside the nightclub.

On another occasion, she was chased by a couple of men on the way from her house to mine. It was nine o’clock at night, and she was walking down a well-used, hundred-metre-long ginnel. It should have been safe, but that night the world seemed to orchestrate things so that it wasn’t. Suddenly, there was nobody else around, and no lights in the windows. Alison made it to me, but in future I never let her walk that way on her own again.

It wasn’t always that serious. It might just be that I’d return from the bar, carrying our drinks, and find a man had taken my seat and was talking to her.

Not always serious. But constant.

Sometimes we even joked about it. I attract weirdos, she’d say. I had my stock response: well, thanks. But it wasn’t funny, and the jokes were few and far between. She knew how much it bothered me.

And of course, I knew that she wasn’t really being hunted; I didn’t really think there was anything supernatural going on. It was just men. Because there are men out there who are malformed inside, and a woman like Alison always catches their attention. They need to possess her for themselves. When they can’t, the absence inside them doubles in size and floods them with resentment and hate.

So. Almost every wish I made, I made for her. Wish after wish, all for her safety and happiness. There have been a lot of eyelashes over the years. A sneeze: one for a wish, two for a kiss. A few shooting stars, even, here and there. I used them all for her. And for a while, despite the continuing incidents, those wishes seemed to be  almost enough.

Until another empty man moved in across the street from her.

Until he saw Alison one day and – just like all those other empty men – saw something in her that he wanted.

 

*****

 

I blow the next eyelash out through the open window. On the far side of the street, there is a light on upstairs in his house: a pale, peach-coloured square. He must have left it on before he came calling. The eyelash is gone almost before it has left my finger. Lost amongst the falling snow. My wish travels away with it.

I wish you’d never been born, you piece of shit.

I stare out for a second.

It’s okay to tell you wishes like that, by the way, because you can’t change the past. The facts remain, regardless. The man was born, whether I like it or not. He did move into that house. One day, he did see Alison. He did become interested in her. There’s nothing I can do about any of that. Those things are set in stone.

So I wasted a wish.

So fucking what.

“I should probably close the window.”

My voice is a shock, both to me and the room behind me. Alison doesn’t acknowledge it. I let the silence regroup before I close the window, and then the curtains, shutting away the sight of the house across the road.

I move back over to the settee, stepping carefully over his blood on the floor. When I’d walked in, I’d surprised them both. They’d been in bed, I think. He came down first, with Alison following when she heard the commotion, but too late for him by then.

“John,” she says.

It’s not my name. Alison is looking at the man’s body, sprawled on the floor, and there is an empty resignation in her voice, almost as though she’s already dead too. Her eyes are red-rimmed with tears.

“It’ll be all right,” I tell her. “It’ll be okay now.”

Because there’s always hope, isn’t there? Always space to dream a little.

I pick up the tweezers from the settee and crouch down over her. She doesn’t struggle anymore; she gets it. We need all of the wishes we can get tonight, and I ran out of my own eyelashes hours ago. The room is quiet as I ease back onto the settee, placing one of hers on the tip of my finger, then raising it to my lips. But what to wish for?

I wish you’d given me a chance, Alison.

Just once.

You can’t change the past though. You can only really wish for what might happen, can’t you? So I blow gently on the end of my finger, closing my eyes against the soft, warm light of the living room. And I can’t tell you what I wish for, because then it might not come true.