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This is what Happens when you Stalk a Girl with a Brown Paper Bag
by Matthew Reynolds

I’m a young man for God’s sake. I’m only twenty-one years old.

Lewis says I look like the sort of person who might one day crack and kill all my co-workers with an Uzi. But then nobody listens to what Lewis says, only that Japanese scrubber he’s been seeing. She has eyes larger than her face – just like in the Manga comics Lewis loves so much. I tried it on with her one night last week, while Lewis was sleeping on the sofa, but she wasn’t interested.

"I is loving Lewis." she told me as I leaned forward to kiss her.

"I is loving Lewis too. That doesn’t mean you can’t give me one little kiss."

You would have thought by now I’d be used to being spurned but it still hurts. On the way to the station that night I burst into tears. I was stupid drunk of course. I always seem to blub when I’m inebriated but that night I think I had good reason to be upset. How could any woman find that brute Lewis more attractive than me?

He’s an incorrigible cad and has no concept of the finer things in life. Yes, his second year major project was lauded around the campus for its (to quote the exhibition catalogue) "revolutionary use of Digital Imaging techniques." Apparently, so our Head of Year tells us, Lewis possesses the priceless ability in the current postmodern zeitgeist to express himself in a medium that is the currency of the future: to "paint with zeros and ones." But the fact is that people are sucked in by his superficiality. If only he knew what they really thought of him. That might bring him down a peg or two.

While it’s true that the chap is a poor orator – useless at expressing his opinions and structuring arguments – he has an infuriating knack of managing to belittle and embarrass me in front of his many hangers on. We seldom spend time alone these days so I snatch at small victories, accepting that may be the very reason Lewis and I spend less and less time together.

* * *

I’d stopped crying by the time I got on the 12:02 from Kings Cross to Watford and was standing in a packed carriage reading The Trial. At the best of times I found Kafka’s languid prose difficult – after five cans of Stella it was impossible to take in more than a paragraph without having to go back to the start of the page and read it over.

I wasn’t enjoying the book and was just carrying it around for show. It had proved useful in the Union Bar for conveying my reputation on campus as an intellectual loner – enigmatic and, I hoped, a little dark and mysterious, but not so dark and mysterious to be unapproachable. Deep down, you see, I crave company. However, I’m afraid my ploy might not be having the intended effect since I’ve no friends (save for Lewis) and the women I’ve mustered up the courage to approach always seem to consider me first with pity then, as soon as I start talking, contempt. The notion that woman might find me creepy used to be alien to me, now it’s a home truth I’m learning to deal with.

The train was moving slowly and we had stopped in the middle of a tunnel somewhere between Hampstead and Cricklewood when I noticed a girl standing in front of me, squeezed between two office workers. As the train came to a standstill and the doors opened she moved against the steady flow of passengers leaving the train and leant against me. I took issue with this. See, I’ve never been a great one for human contact. The thought of flesh upon flesh both excites and repels me.

I was about to say something when she turned to me and half whispered an apology before moving forward, still just inches away from me. Her voice and smile were like a double exposure and the traces stayed imprinted on my mind for the remainder of the journey. The voice had been soft, effortless, sexless, but the smile dripped with innuendo.

The girl had her back to me, her long red hair flowing down the back of a naval trench coat. She was carrying a brown paper bag, the kind you find in those high-end fashion stores. Inside, I could see one eye peering out from the plastic socket of a doll’s head, the type used by hairdressers to model hair. The effect was fascinatingly grotesque.

When she left the train at Hampstead I got off the train too.

Of course it was more than just curiosity. I did want to talk to her, knew that I wouldn’t and that what I was doing amounted to stalking. Lewis’s character assassinations were finding basis in reality. How he’d love to see me now, I thought, as I followed the girl up the station steps onto the main road. Nothing would give him greater satisfaction than to see his best friend resorting to such desperate tactics.

I’d been following the girl for over ten minutes and was about to turn back to the station when I saw her cross the road at a zebra crossing and enter a semi-detached Victorian house. After a few minutes I tracked her footsteps down the street and positioned myself on the corner directly opposite her house. I stood there for fifteen minutes hoping to catch sight of the girl; during which time three more people entered and two exited. I came to the conclusion that the house had either been split into bed-sits or flats. A glimpse from the gate on my way back up to the station confirmed as much – there were a row of buzzers with nametags underneath.

I put my finger on the buzzer to flat #1. A voice quickly announced itself on the intercom.

"Yeah?"

"Hello. I wonder if you could help me. I’ve just moved into the building and it seems I’ve lost my front door key. You couldn’t buzz me in could you?"

"How do I know you’re not some serial killer or rapist?"

"I-I…"

"I-I… I’m just kidding you dude. I’ll buzz you in," the voice said.

It was that simple. I was in.

The house smelt musty and reminded me of my deceased Grandmother’s nursing home. On the floor in front of me, scattered on the doormat were a pile of letters. I sifted through them - bank statements, electricity bills and a birthday card. Then I hit the jackpot. A postcard from Abigail in Zaire addressed to Rebecca Rayner, Flat 1.

Dear Rebecca,

This is too good to be true. The sun is shining and I’ve shagged three Africans. It’s true what they say. I miss you and love you loads.

Abigail xxx

P.S. How’s the hairdressing going? Write and tell me.

So, she was a hairdresser. Either that or there was more than one girl in this apartment building who cut hair. I moved up the hallway and examined the first door I came to on the right. It was emblazoned with a brass number one. I was tempted to knock on the door and introduce myself, but what possible explanation could I have for entering the house? Of course, I could have walked out to the front door and rang the doorbell, but then what motive could I invent on the spot for calling on her? I decided that whatever I was going to do would require some careful thought.

* * *

The next day I met Lewis in the Union bar. I hadn’t even sat down before he regaled me with sordid details of what he’d done to his Japanese girlfriend the night before.

"Man, you wouldn’t believe the night I had. You’ve got to fuck a Jap man. If I finger her she starts whimpering like a baby, she drips man… and that’s only the beginning… You should hear her when I slip it to her."

" Please," I said although I was already aroused, "I have no wish to hear about your sordid evening. The hangover I’m nursing is making me feel nauseated enough."

"Yeah. Akiko told me."

"Told you what?"

"She just said that you were looking a little green last night. Why, did something else happen that I don’t know about?"

"No, but I’m surprised she can remember anything about last night the state she was in," I replied.

"Come on, pal. What did you do?"

"I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about."

"You tried it on with her, didn’t you?" said Lewis.

"Of course not," I replied.

"Yes, you did. I can tell when you’re lying. The only time you smile is when you’re lying."

I looked at my reflection in the bar mirror. It was true. I was beaming like a Cheshire cat.

"Okay… Maybe I did something," I admitted vaguely. "I can’t remember."

"Can’t remember my arse. You’ve never forgiven me for Sylvia have you?"

Sylvia was a pretentious hippy with whom both Lewis and I had hit it off. The three of us had spent the whole winter together and for once I had felt on an even keel with my bitterest rival – that was until they ended up sleeping together on New Year’s Eve.

"I try not to give the matter much thought." I replied.

"Yeah. I bet you’d give anything to avenge that little indiscretion wouldn’t you?"

"To be frank Lewis I find talking about that particular incident rather depressing. After all, it only serves to remind me of the futility of friendships and what a rare and precious commodity trust is these days."

"Here we go…"

"You’ve never even so much as apologised for what you did to me. I bet you don’t even regret it," I said.

"Hey man, if you’re going to start slinging stones then at least practice what you preach."

"I do practice what I preach because, unlike you, I have a conscience."

"Which is why – Akiko not withstanding – you’ve made passes at my last five girlfriends." said Lewis.

"Oh what nonsense. What makes you think I’d waste my time with any of those skanks?"

"Come on man how can you deny it? If I didn’t hear it from the horse’s mouth, then there were always plenty of reliable witnesses to corroborate your weasel-like behaviour."

"I don’t have to sit here and take this rubbish," I said.

"Kirsty. Spring of 1998. Tried on with while I was taking a piss in the bathroom. Swedish chick whose name I can’t remember. Winter of that same year. Tried on with in the back seat while I was paying for petrol and cigarettes. George. Easy girl with big tits. Called round for a chat while I was away visiting my parents for the weekend."

"I stopped by because I thought that you would be there and whoever told you about Kirsty and that Swedish girl –whose name was Anna by the way – was lying. Maybe if you invested a bit of time…"

"Sarah. Summer 2000. Offered to walk her home then tried it on at the bus stop," continued Lewis.

"… Maybe if you invested a bit of time in your genuine friends rather than the shallow cretins you’ve known for the best part six months we wouldn’t be having this conversation."

"Friendship? What the fuck do you know about friendship man? Sometimes I don’t think you know how hard it is being your friend."

"Now hang on a minute…" I stuttered.

"No you listen - for once in your sad life. I’ve done everything I can to help you. I’ve tried to set you up with girls but you act like you’re above help. You think you’re above everyone. That’s why you’ve never had a girlfriend. You look down on everybody you meet. No one wants a relationship with someone like that -- man or a woman."

"I can’t help it if I don’t relate to people."

"Whatever. Just sort it out man. And let me know when you do because in the meantime I think it would be better if we stopped hanging out." said Lewis.

"How many times have I heard that one?"

"Drink your fucking beer alone you conceited prick."

Lewis stood up and I have to admit I was slightly fearful of what he might do. I had riled him up to the point where violence was a real possibility. I’d never seen him like that before. To see his eyes like that – so full of hate – was unsettling in the extreme.

"Come now Lewis, you know I’m just joshing with you. Sit down and finish your ale."

"It’s not ale. It’s a beer, and you’re not joshing. You’re fucking taking the piss. See you around."

With that he left me alone in the bar. A few of the patrons, alerted to the commotion, were looking in my direction. I pulled out The Trail and began to read as though nothing had happened, though I was deeply afraid that Lewis was serious. It saddens me to make this admission, but he’s the only friend I’ve ever had. What’s more miserable is that I don’t like him that much and at times even detest him.

* * *

Later that day I made my way back to the girl-with-the-brown-paper-bag’s house, determined to gain entry to the flat.

At first I was hit by a sense of purpose stirred up feelings of euphoria. But it wasn’t long before I was feeling my usual lethargic self. By the time I arrived at the house I was sick with nerves.

I pushed my finger to the bell but there was no answer. My meticulous planning hadn’t accounted for this contingency. I was left standing there like a fool, clueless as to what I should do next. I was just about to leave when a lad about my age came up the pathway holding a skateboard.

"Can I help you?" he said as I stepped out of his way.

"I’m here to fix the central heating in your hallway."

"You work for Mr. Swales then, do you?" he asked me.

"That’s right. I won’t be in your way long."

He nodded and let me into the house. Then, without another word, shuffled up the stairs leaving me alone in the hallway.

Inside my tool bag I found a twisted length of wire about half an inch long. I put the bag on the floor next to the radiator and stepped over to Rebecca’s door. I guided the wire into the keyhole, but the wire snapped in half on the first twist. I cursed myself, grabbed the doorknob and gave it a shove. The door was unlocked.

I took a quick glance towards the stairs to make sure that no one was around then entered the room. The curtains were drawn inside. My fingers scuttled for the light switch. I smelt the rush of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol. I settled the door against the latch to allow easy access back to the hallway. My hands were always clammy but now they were drenched with sweat. For a while I was afraid to move for fear that the creaking of floorboards would alert somebody to my presence. There was every possibility that Rebecca was just across the hallway chatting to her roommates.

With this in mind I was spurred into action. There was no time to spare. I scanned the room and saw the doll’s head perched on a chest of drawers adjacent to the window. As I moved around the room its eyes seemed to follow me.

I opened the drawer to a bureau. Inside was a photo album. I picked it up and opened it. The girl with the brown paper bag was in every picture. She was on holiday in a place that looked like South East Asia, possibly Thailand, though I couldn’t be sure. She looked bronzed and beautiful. The only thing spoiling the composition was the continued presence of the meat puppet I assumed was her boyfriend. He looked like an Antonio. Antonios have long curly hair tied back. Antonios are tanned all year round, have perfect teeth and tattoos.

In one picture the couple were smiling for the camera with belts rapped around their arms and needles in their hands aimed at popping veins. In another Antonio was wearing a Saddam Hussein mask, taking Rebecca, in a Tony Blair mask, from behind.

That was enough for me. I decided it was time to leave. I was expecting weirdness but nothing like this. I replaced the photograph and was about to make a run for the door when the buzzer rang.

I froze to the spot. The doll’s head from the brown paper bag kept staring at me. There was lipstick on her lips - I wondered how it had got there. The buzzer rang again. I fought the urge to run. The person who had his finger pressed to the button wasn’t leaving. He appeared at the window. The only thing separating us was the patterned veil behind the curtains. I couldn’t see him clearly, but he was definitely a man of generous carriage.

"Becky? Is that you? It’s no use pretending. I can see you in there. I’ll wait out here all day if I have to."

How this buffoon had mistaken my sickly frame for the voluptuous curves of the girl with the brown paper bag was beyond my comprehension. I concluded quickly that there was something badly wrong with his eyesight.

"Becky? Becky? I’m serious this time. I’ll kill myself if you don’t come out and talk to me."

He was staring straight in my direction. I prayed that this plebeian wouldn’t be good to his word and set camp up outside the house.

“That’s it Becky," he threatened. "I’m going to the traffic island opposite Pound Stretcher. If you’re not there in ten minutes, I’m going to jump in front of a number-nine bus."

After he’d gone I gathered my tools from the hallway and hightailed it out of there. As I made my way up the road I started to feel responsible for the fate of that poor wretch who’d just given me the scare of my life. I found myself walking past the station and up the high street in search of the traffic island he’d been so specific about.

It wasn’t long before I reached it. When I caught sight of him I felt a mixture of pity and pleasure. If his outline had been flabby then in the flesh he was positively obese. Then there was that curly orange hair which made him look like a circus clown and his appalling dress sense – all name brands plastered to his body with no thought. It was obvious that the fool was actually going to commit suicide, too. He was standing on the traffic island like he owned it. I thought about staying to watch but then realised I didn’t have the stomach for it and so made my way to the station, feeling thoroughly depressed with the state of the human race.

When I got home later that night I decided to break the deadlock with Lewis and give him a call but I only got his answer phone. I left a message--"Call me you loser if you’re not still sulking." I opened a bottle of cheap red I’d been saving for a mood as dark as this one and was soon settled in front of the TV watching the first series of Twin Peaks on DVD. By the time I picked up the phone to call Lewis again it was one in the morning and I was drunk.

Akiko answered the phone.

"Moshi Moshi."

"Hello Akiko. Can I speak to that ingrate Lewis, please?"

"Lewis is not speaking. He is very annoying."

"Annoyed. It’s annoyed, dear," I corrected. "Can I speak to Lewis, please?"

"I don’t know what you are talking. Please speak more slowly."

"Lewis-San, the moron you’ve been fucking for the last two weeks. I want to talk to him."

"You is very rude. Lewis told me he does not want you to speak him."

"Now listen here, you bint. Lewis and I have been friends since we were eight years old. So, if you don’t mind, I’d rather talk about this matter with him."

"I’m sorry. Lewis says for you not to call anymore. I’m going now. Bye bye."

She hung up the phone. I was incandescent with rage, all but ready to call her back and demand Lewis come to the phone. If that failed, I’d go round there and confront him man to man. I didn’t want to have to resort to fisticuffs, but if beating some sense into that moron was what it would take to make him see the error of his ways – so be it.

I had the receiver in my hand when I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror on the opposite side of the room. Anger was painted all over my face, pupils pinned to tiny dots and there was an ugly line above my nose. I tried to calm down and think rationally but this had the unwanted effect of making me not only more angry, but also miserable. It wasn’t long before I was balling my eyes out like a baby and sipping on the dregs of the wine bottle.

By the time I recovered it was five in the morning. I fell asleep to the sound of rumbling dustcarts and discordant crows outside my window.

The next morning I awoke with a stinking hangover and contemplated the possibility of being friendless for the foreseeable future. I wondered why my parents never warned me about the loneliness. Surely the most important lesson life has to offer is that bad company is better than no company at all.

After a late breakfast I was bound for West Hampstead. Soon after I was at the girl-with-the-brown-paper-bag’s house and not long after that I was following her up the road.

I followed her all day. This time every mechanical, mundane detail fascinated me. I watched as she paid for a one-day travel card. I marvelled at the way she crossed her legs as she waited for the train and blew her lips whenever she looked bored instead of yawning. We spent the whole day together from, West Hampstead to Kings Cross to Tottenham Court Road to Liverpool Street and back again. I watched her leaf through books in Waterstones, eat lunch in Starbucks and sat two rows behind her in the Warner Village West End while we watched The Last Days of Disco.

The thrill I got from mapping someone else’s drab lifestyle had the cathartic effect of helping me come to terms with the state of my own miserable existence. On the train home, I realised that if I picked out ten people on the carriage to follow for a day it would be more than likely that their day to day lives were filled with the same boredom and frustration.

Their lives might still be infinitely more fulfilling than mine but when it came to the crunch, like me, they’d failed at life and were incapable of bettering their own sorry positions. I’m only a young man but at least I have the foresight to admit the hopelessness of my fate, whereas the fools around me were no doubt deluding themselves that they would one day inherit something better through such abstract and haphazard notions as compassion, hard work and luck. I wanted to shake the man opposite me by the lapels and tell him to stop harbouring these needless desires lest they stop him from dealing with reality and facing life for what it really is – a long series of disappointments with ever so brief intervals of happiness that ends (if you’re lucky) with a few distance friends and relatives meeting for one day in a church in the hope that those gathered will do the same when their turn comes.

I had become so self-absorbed that I had failed to see that we are all passengers aboard the same ship. I often think of myself as intellectually superior to most of those around me and in spite of my low self-esteem believe myself to be artistically gifted to boot. I had invented my own safe haven free from such hindrances as criticism and practicality. The long and short of it is that I had become so out of touch with the world that I believed that I was somehow at the centre of it, that everything good or bad that happens starts with me. I know the whole idea is ludicrous but I think that deep down I actually believed it.

* * *

Two weeks have passed since I made that realisation. Lewis still hasn’t called and I haven’t bothered to phone him. I saw him the other day in the college canteen but he blanked me.

He was sitting at a table, with the latest bunch of sycophants he calls friends, boasting about how two curators had entered into a pitch battle to exhibit his work. He gave me a sideways glance as I passed by the table and made some derogatory remark about how artists resistant to change are likely to suffocate in a quagmire of their own making. It was all I could do to stop myself walking straight up to him and punching him square in the face. In more civilised times men would have duelled to the death for far less. It’s a pity differences aren’t still sorted out in the same way. Then cowards like Lewis Jones would be forced to settle grievances in an honourable way – man to man – rather than through their barely coherent girlfriends.

As for the girl with the brown paper bag, after that last day of stalking, I decided to retire. I came to the conclusion that the true measure of a good stalker is the ability to make himself known to the stalkee. Not once had the girl with the brown paper bag been aware that I was following her. A couple of times I’d tried to be obvious about it, by sitting opposite her on the train and walking past her in the many shops and stores she browsed in, but she was too lost in her own world to pay me any attention.

The next time I saw her was quite by accident and only a few days after I’d abandoned any notion of following her again. I was sitting in a greasy spoon in Cricklewood, a great little hideout run by a Turkish family, called George and Nikki’s. All the Irish drunks and down-and-outs lived in the place and rubbed shoulders with more well to do sorts like myself. For three pounds fifty patrons are treated to generous helpings of eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pudding, toast and bottomless coffee or tea. For someone of my meagre income it proved to be an irresistible draw and at least three days a week I found myself in the place.

One afternoon I was sitting by the window waiting for my order when the girl with the brown paper bag entered the café looking deeply troubled. She shut the door to the café and took a seat a few tables away from me. A waitress asked her what she wanted to order and she asked for a glass of water. When she was told she’d have to leave if she didn’t order any food she asked for a mushroom omelette and cup of coffee.

I pretended to read my copy of the Guardian while shooting glances at the girl as she sipped at her coffee. She kept looking out onto the street for something or somebody, her eyes darting uncomfortably around the room until they set upon me. They stayed fixed there on my face, or rather hovered in my general direction. Then she stood up and walked over to me.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do you mind if I sit here?"

I nodded, trying to remain impassive.

"Thanks. I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just I think someone’s following me."

"Following you?"

"Yes, that man over there. The one standing next to the bus-stop with the crutches and orange hair."

Across the road was the fat man I’d last seen standing on the traffic island near her house. Not only was he holding crutches, but his legs were in plaster and he was wearing a neck brace. His face was also badly bruised. Evidently, the suicide had not been successful.

"Have you seen him before?" I asked.

"No. I think I would have remembered him."

"Do you know me?"

"I’m sorry," she said, misunderstanding my question. "Why should I bother a complete stranger with this? I’ll leave you alone."

"No, please. My name’s Richard."

"I’m Becky. God, this is so embarrassing."

"Don’t worry."

"No. I mean it."

I looked over at the girl with the brown paper bag and then back at the fat man with orange hair and crutches. Even from this distance I could see the pain writ large on his pathetic face. I found myself feeling sorry for him.

"I know this is forward, but could you do me a favour and walk me home?" she said.

I nodded yes.

"Thanks," she said.

Our orders came. She ate her omelette and I ate my full English breakfast with a side order of chips. While we ate, neither of us talked or looked back at the fat man.

Eventually, we settled the bill.


Matthew Reynolds was born in Devon, UK, in 1973, the first son of a local businessman. In 2000 he graduated from the University of Westminster with a BA in Film and Television. He then moved to Tokyo, Japan, where he remained for three years, working as an English Teacher. He is author of two feature length screenplays: 22 Degrees Celsius (Clear Skies), winner of the 2002 Studionotes Contest, and more recently Autumn Twins, optioned by Samson Films Limited in 2004. He lives in Chicago with his wife.

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