The people wore the expression they had come onto the train with. They were fish on ice. After today’s lunch, Stewart was relieved.
He knew shouldn’t let Baker’s prank get to him. That would be playing into this hands. For a moment, Stewart had been questioning his sanity. Was someone really there and Stewart couldn’t see him? Had he developed some selective blindness? He had read something about that when he was at university. In one of those books by Sacks. That was the stuff he read back then.
Of course he wasn’t blind. Baker was pretending. And man, was he good! He shook the hands with the thin air, introduced himself, even acted interested as though someone was really talking. Baker was wasting his talents in advertising.
Stewart would have to get him back. It wasn’t just the prank. There was the fact he did it when they should’ve been talking about the Harper account. Baker knew how much this meant to Stewart. Perhaps, he was psyching him out, even leaving the lunch midway because Stewart refused to acknowledge his make-believe person.
The woman across from Stewart got off, so he stretched out his legs. People often spoke about the anonymity of the city like it was a problem. Stewart had grown to enjoy it, especially since taking this new job. He was a stealth fighter, weaving in behind the crowd. Once he would have tried to milked that for some profundity. Now, he knew it was the only bliss to be had.
The man beside him tapped his shoulder.
“I think he’s trying to tell you something,” he said.
Stewart looked at the teenage girl sitting across from him.
“Him,” she said, her words rippled by a sneer.
“No. Not again. Did Baker put you up to this? Did he pay you?” Stewart stood and shouted.
After such an outburst, he couldn’t stay on the train. Their stares were stuck all over him. He fought some elbows and shoulders to get to the platform.
“Are you here? If you’re here, whoever you are, whatever you are, just leave me be,” he said, overcome by the madness of the situation.
A couple were looking over at him.
“Listen to me. Talking to myself,” he said aloud for their benefit, even adding a loud snort a single nod of self-derision.
The couple spoke amongst themselves, still glancing his way. Stewart moved out of the yellow cone of light further up the platform. The tracks soon chimed with an approaching train.
On board, he found a seat between a tourist and someone he vaguely remembered. Did this guy work in Stewart’s department? Or had they met at a sales conference? He could never remember anyone. Only last week, an old uni friend came up to him in the supermarket. Stewart had no idea who it was. A lot of facts piled up before they got down to his former friend’s identity. Even then Stewart was not so certain.
He got home without anyone claiming to see someone he couldn’t. What was he thinking? There was no-one. He’d be glad when he and Thea could move out of this place. It was cool when they were younger but now it’d be nice to have more room. One of those conversions would be good.
“Hi, Babe,” she called as he came in. She was at the kitchen table. They used to work there together when Stewart was still kidding himself that he would be a screenwriter. He used to read lines to her and she’d hum whatever tune she was working on.
Now the two of them just got on with it. Thea still composed at the table. Stewart took his laptop to the bedroom, where it was quieter. Surely, Thea also thought it was better not having him around as a distraction.
“Oh, hi, Stewart didn’t tell me he was bringing a friend over.”
Thea half skipped half ran, her thick curls immediately coming to life, then extended a scrunchy-cuffed hand to the empty space beside him.
“I’m. Thea…That’s an interesting name.”
It couldn’t be. Did Baker contact her? And how?
“Did he? Really? Stewart, why did you give him his name?”
“Thea, do you know someone called Baker?”
“Baker? No, and why do call this guy Aloysius?”
“He said his name’s Aloysius. Is it like a nickname?”
This had to be a joke. There was no way Baker could know. Thea didn’t even know. He’d not mentioned Aloysius to anyone. He hadn’t even thought about him since he was ten or eleven maybe twelve.
“What’s his last name?”
“You should know. You named him. Ask him yourself.”
“Gherkin Heimer. Is that right? That’s kinda odd. Where did you get that from? Okay, what’s going on? What are you to up to?”
It had to be. There was no other explanation. This was the only reasonable, possible and sensible answer and it was utterly insane. Yet, it was just slightly less insane than Thea reading his mind or Baker staging one of the world’s most elaborate practical jokes. He remembered the people in the train. No one could act that well. Not all at once. He was really back.
“He’s my imaginary friend.”
“Your imaginary friend? Then how come I can see him?”
Stewart shook his head and dragged one of the vinyl padded chairs out from the table and fell into it. For that tiny moment, it was the sweetest comfort he had ever felt.
Though simple to describe, they had to go over it a few times. Thea asked Stewart whether he could see Aloysius. Stewart would say “No.” Thea would point to the empty space, her finger becoming increasingly violent and damning. He concentrated on the tip of the finger, trying to catch some response in the emptiness. There was nothing. Finally, Thea gave up.
“Unless, I’m going mad. Maybe, I’m hallucinating. In fact, that could be it.”
She pulled her curls back into a thick nest and fixed it in place with a scrunchy.
Stewart would’ve liked that to be true. It would be convinient to shift the responsibility. Then he wouldn’t have to work out what was going on.
“Except, I know I’m not,” she said to the space. The soft gleam of friendship in her eyes was proof enough. Was she falling for him?
“What if I make us some tea?” Stewart said and went over to the wall of cupboards that was their kitchen. He switched on the stained white jug with the same apprehension, always afraid it would explode. The cupboard door slammed shut as though it would be its last day. The tea cups were about to fall apart. He would be so glad when they could move out of here.
Would Aloysius come with them?
“Hon, there are three of us,” Thea said.
The same final slam. Another cracked mug. He rubbed his hand through his scalp. It still felt mossy. The old length hadn’t returned.
“Oh. Right. I’m not sure if we have…I don’t even…Hon, do we have any…?”
“Oh, you can hear him. Fantastic”
“No. He ate when I was a kid.”
Stewart run some hot water into the sink, squeezed a drop of detergent into it and started to whisk the water with his fingers until it frothed. When they had grown into a fragile lattice, he scooped some into a bowl and put it where Aloysius was apparently sitting.
Rainbows slid across the thin surfaces. Oily pinks and blues bent up and down as one by one the the bubbles disappeared.
“My god. He’s eating it. How can you eat that?” Thea said.
Stewart was about to correct her. The suds were just disappearing. Even as a kid, when he wanted everyone to believe that Aloysius was there, he secretly knew the bubbles were popping out of existence. It was one of the reasons he came up with the rainbow pie. It looked like it was being eaten. Had Stewart been wrong? Did Aloysius actually like the stuff?
“So why are you back?”
She nodded, presumably listening. Stewart watched with resentment. He knew she wasn’t playing a trick on him, yet he felt like he was with Baker. Any moment she would shout, “Ha! Gotchya”
“You must have some idea,” she said.
“Thea. I can’t hear him. You’ll have to…”
What was the right word – translate?
“Sure. Sorry. Aloysius says that he’s been back for a few weeks. He doesn’t remember anything before then. He said he just was. All he knew was that he had to find you.”
Thea shrugged. Stewart wanted her to know. It only seemed right if she could see Aloysius then she should know. That was how it worked with imaginary friends, except Aloysius was his friend.
“You started that job a few weeks ago, Stewart…That’s right he did. April the seventeenth…Have you been around that long? Kinda strange isn’t it?”
“He doesn’t know. You said yourself that he doesn’t remember his past clearly.”
“All this time he’s just been on the streets.”
“What does he want? To live with us?”
“Stewart. He can hear. No, he just wants to go back.”
“Back to where he originally came. I guess that means there.”
She pointed to Stewart’s head. The madder this sounded the more sense it made. He had evicted Aloysius.
“It’s that job, Stewart. No wonder he had to leave,” she said calm and matter of factly, the way she used to talk to him when giving advice about his screenplays. This worked. This didn’t. Maybe you need to think of it from a different angle. Unheated raw objectivity was always hard to stomach.
“No way. I’m not giving up the job, especially not for this guy, a guy I can’t see. If he exists he can get a job like everyone else.”
“But he doesn’t belong here. He’s part of you.”
It was that same impenetrable serenity. He was the only sane one, yet she was calm.
“You’ve always resented that job.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course you have. It’s not arty enough. It’s an embarrassment.”
“Stewart, I encouraged you to find it.”
“And now, this. Whatever this is. I don’t know how you managed, Thea, but it’s not going to work. If you’re so worried about him, take him and go. Christ, I can’t believe I’m saying that. There’s no one there. No one.”
Stewart grabbed his laptop case and took it to his room. Work would settle him. The computer’s chime was soothing. He clicked open the footage for the Harper account. A child in disposable nappies waddles over to his parents. “Harper’s: Protecting Your Greatest Investment” flowed in cursive writing across the screen.
The front door slammed. Stewart put down the computer and went into the living room. It was empty. He knew, now, he was alone.
Ryan Scott, November 2010