Photograph by Darrin Zammit Lupi, Story by Karen Hamilton
I am not the person I was or wish to be. Today as I stand, indecisive as always, in front of the living-room net curtains, fabric brushes my face. I pull back instinctively, disturbed at the thought of being caught out. But a different, long forgotten feeling takes hold: defiance. I push my face forwards until it rests against the window pane, the netting prickling my skin. 'Normal' people, walk past on the pavement, full of purpose. They have jobs, things to buy, friends to visit. Not like me. No one looks my way. Or, if they have noticed my ghostly face, they ignore me. I don't blame them.
The postman hesitates as he approaches the house, raises his hand, my mail still clenched between his fingers. One package is clearly too large to fit through the letterbox. I stand back, arrange my expression to a friendly one, take a deep breath and open the door.
'Morning,' he says as he hands everything over.
He looks chirpy. I imagine he thinks that I was waiting, staring out the window, desperate for the post containing something urgent and he is now experiencing a sense of pride at having personally relieved me of my agony.
'Thanks,' I say, remembering to smile.
I close the door and exhale. I lean against a wall and slide down until I'm sitting on the carpet. The mat scratches my skin, but I don't attempt to ease myself into a more comfortable position. I assume that I'm going to spend hours here after the effort of social interaction but oddly, it hasn't broken me the usual way. Progress. The large envelope is addressed to Luke even though he moved out a while ago. These occasional reminders still sting.
'I can't take it any more,' he'd said. 'Your betrayal of her memory, it makes things worse.'
I tried to explain why it didn't feel wrong, that it was, in a strange way, helping me to heal. I thought maybe forgiveness would help him too. But it didn't work probably because we were already drifting apart before 'the tragedy' as it was referred to locally. Afterwards, we'd both grieved and blamed in different ways. Yet, when he left, I truly gave up. Everything worsened. Outside conversations became increasingly difficult, especially in a crowd. I couldn't hear unless I was in a one-to-one situation. 'Unlucky,' apparently, to lose so much hearing at my age.
An image of a different man pops into my mind. His kind eyes as they watch me from behind his glasses, his patience, his wisdom, his humble manner. The urge to see him is so great, so overwhelming that I will get dressed today.
I brave the short walk into town. I stopped driving years ago and buses make me feel claustrophobic. I nearly talk myself out of going, the social-club centre is always busy; table-tennis teams, book groups and lectures. But, I don't. And it's worth it because Matt is already there. We both smile a greeting. I sit beside him, pleased that I feel brave enough to do that now. I used to take a seat on the opposite side of the group-therapy circle, afraid of unintentionally revealing my feelings, fearing judgement if anyone else realised who either of us was. Also, I'd been burned having admitted during initial introductions that my hearing wasn't good and from then on, people spoke to me a little differently. I appreciate it wasn't intentional and was definitely motivated by kindness, but all that 'ARE YOU OK? WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO REPEAT THAT?' made me want to go home, hide away and spend the rest of my life online. Luke and I used to run a successful children's party business until we sold it for a massive profit. Therefore I'm lucky. I can choose to cut myself off or not, opt in and out as and when I can face it, my hearing aid offers me freedom. I can respond to the good, ignore the bad.
Matt wasn't like the others, even from the beginning. We'd roll our eyes at each other in complicit affection when people spoke to me in 'that certain way.'
'Frustrating, isn't it?' he'd said as we'd chatted by the refreshments table.
Other times he'd tease me about it. It is a unique friendship. I do understand why Luke felt betrayed, but he understands now. His new partner is pregnant and the gift of a second chance has softened him.
Matt is like me; his pain is hidden, his guilt all-consuming. When he shared with the group his reason for attending, how desperately he wanted to atone for a tragic mistake, my heart, instead of breaking further or constricting in anger, opened (just slightly at first) to him. I glimpsed a different way of thinking: forgiveness, understanding. His suffering was maybe as horrific as mine, despite the difference.
I'm barely aware of other group-members as they speak. I know Matt's been waiting for me to come to terms with our unlikely friendship, ever-respectful of the situation, allowing me to process things in my own way. No else knows our sad secret, we don't link our stories, they remain separate in public.
'Do you fancy a coffee before the next session?' he asks.
I don't hesitate. 'Sounds good.'
Matt walks me home. He doesn't drive any more either. He has never recovered from the accident. He wasn't speeding, wasn't distracted. He braked, swerved, reacted, but it wasn't enough. Jessie had emerged between parked cars, earphones in, face glued to the screen according to witnesses, all the things I'd warned her not to. We both hesitate when we reach the road. We instinctively hold hands, it feels like the moment to return.
The following day, as I people-watch at the window, I consider rejoining the outside world. As a start, I pull back the curtains, baby-steps I know, but I don't wish to hide any more. I hope my daughter, wherever she is, understands.
Karen Hamilton caught the travel bug after a childhood spent abroad and worked as cabin crew for many years. The Perfect Girlfriend is her first novel. It is a psychological thriller about a sociopathic flight attendant, Juliette, who will stop at nothing to win back her pilot ex-boyfriend. www.karenhamiltonwriter.com
is an award winning photographer from Malta. His work for Reuters has been published worldwide featuring in publications such as TIME, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Paris Match, Der Spiegel and others. He holds a Masters Degree with Distinction in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the University of the Arts, London. Two books of his work have been published and his work forms part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Malta, as well as in private collections in different countries. See more of his work at @darrinzl