Benjamin Clark was thirty-two. He worked in a call centre, selling medical insurance, and lived in his childhood home with his mother. The course of his life had been changed forever at the age of eighteen due to a single reckless decision made while holidaying in Spain. But by now he had come to learn that each new day could yield up its own sparkling jewels, whatever your circumstances were, and on this Monday morning, he appeared to be in unusually high spirits as he took his fourteenth call of the morning.
“Certainly madam, may I begin by taking some details?”
“Oh, please don’t call me ‘madam’; it makes me feel so old.”
“But you sound so young; I can hear the sparkle of youth in your voice; you shouldn’t be concerned about age.”
“I’m blushing now; it’s a good job you can’t see me.”
But Benjamin could see her. Each time he heard a voice on the phone, he would picture its owner. This ploy was perhaps his way of countering the stress of his job, since the images that his mind would conjure up were usually comical. But while this ploy was helpful to him, it had become a constant irritation to Jennifer, who sat beside him.
“What are you giggling at now?” she would often ask, exasperated.
“Nothing,” he would say, barely able to talk through his snigger.
After another ten minutes of provocation she might add: “Tell me! Tell me! you’re driving me mad!”
“It’s nothing,” he would say; “just a funny thought.”
With offensive callers, Benjamin’s mind seemed to find it helpful to picture them as animals. With the caller before the present caller, he had pictured him as a cat whose coat had been completely shaved off and who wore the drooping belly of a fat, middle-aged heavy drinker and also a tattoo upon each shoulder—the left one of a mouse and the right one of a kipper. And after a further abrasive comment from the caller, in Benjamin’s mind the cat became toothless and also walked with a severe limp. As the caller spoke, Benjamin watched the pitiful cat prancing before the local feline beauties, proudly displaying its tattoos to them while attempting to seduce them with its toothless smile. And each time the caller paused his speech, Benjamin would watch the cat stumble to the ground, only to pick itself back up again and resume its proud prance as the caller continued.
“Yes, sir,” said Benjamin, smirking.
After he had finished the call, Jennifer said, “I don’t know how you do it,” shaking her head in disbelief.
But then came the present caller, Melanie Phenix, who was different. From the moment he heard her voice, its tone had seemed to reach deep into some part of him that had lain untouched for well over a decade. She had simply said her name and this had seemed to induce a tremor at his core, as of a mild earthquake in a land that did not usually experience such things. And from that moment, she had his attention.
“I’m calling about my insurance,” she had told him, and somehow these words had conjured up a soft face with a peach-like glow in her cheeks and golden wavy hair hanging about her as the sweet blossoms of delicate flowers might hang at the height of a sunny Spring day (though he had never in his life witnessed such a thing).
“Yes, that’s right, ‘Phenix’,” she told him.
Benjamin could feel the warmth of that Spring sun within him. “And what is your occupation?” he asked her.
“I’m a dance teacher,” she said. And it was then that his dream came flooding back to him.
The previous night he had dreamt he was a ballet dancer. He was stood in the wings awaiting his cue. He could see the stage extending out before him, the colour of its wooden boards reminding him of The Yellow Brick Road. He had just finishing stretching and he could feel the blood pulsing through his powerful leg muscles and then his cue sounded and his body took flight, or so it seemed to him. He was a passenger aboard some awe-inspiring plane that had lifted him from that spot and propelled him across those boards and into the air. And there he seemed to hang for an eternity, as though time itself had stopped specially to allow him to look around from that great height, to take in the auditorium, the amazed, frozen faces of his audience, the sight of those boards, way down there below him, as if gravity no longer applied to him, and as he looked down, he could see his own muscular legs, frozen in time, the vehicle that had propelled him to that height; he seemed to have the time to examine every powerful bulge, to follow the lines of the muscles along his legs and down to the tips of his toes. He felt as though the purpose of his life had been achieved, all his lifelong goals, his crazy dreams, his tormented longings, had, in that one moment, all been miraculously delivered, and there he hung, suspended in space and time, glowing from within his heart with a joy that he had never imagined possible. And then the passage of time resumed and he found himself in contact with those boards, his whole body being span effortlessly and transported as a feather is blown on the wind, this way and that, being carried by the whim of the wind with no thought for the weight of a human body. And throughout his dance, his whole mind seemed to reside within the powerful muscles of his legs as they transported him.
“Funny you should say that,” he told Melanie, “Last night, I dreamt I was a ballet dancer.”
“Yes,” he told her. He had seldom, in his whole life, been so open and straightforward; but this memory, he could not keep to himself; he did not even notice that he was sharing it; it was as though the words themselves possessed a power that could not be resisted, and no sooner had he recalled this dream than he had to share it. “It was amazing. I felt as though I was flying. I can still recall every detail.”
“That’s amazing,” agreed Melanie. “Do tell me more.”
“It was as though time had stopped. And I could clearly see my legs, and then feel them carrying me around.”
“Do you know what steps you were dancing”
“Or what the ballet was?”
“What the music was?”
“No. I couldn’t hear any music.”
“Oh, that’s strange.”
“Or perhaps I could. I didn’t notice it, anyway.”
“I’ve heard of many people dreaming of being a ballet dancer—believe me—but not anyone who’s actually dreamt of it.”
They talked for a few minutes, sharing thoughts on every aspect of dancing, and by the time they had finished their call they had exchanged Yahoo ID’s, so that they could continue their chat later, and Benjamin removed his headset and wondered what he had done.
Jennifer said, “You’re not smiling; what on earth’s the matter with you?”
That evening, Benjamin logged on to his Yahoo profile and Melanie was, of course, already online. He slipped into his online personality as though into a superhero outfit which, during the day, he kept hidden at the back of his closet.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” typed Melanie.
“And me about you,” typed Benjamin, for he was now in the virtual world where anything was possible, where your words did not necessarily relate to your “daytime” persona, nor indeed to any “real” person, and where you could, if you chose, live out all the frustrated desires of the person who was locked deep within yourself by, perhaps, some freak twist of fate. But here, that person could express his torment, his resentment, his anger, his losses; here, that gagged person could live. Here, that person could have some fun.
“I see you like sports,” typed Melanie. “You’ve achieved so much. I admire that.”
“Yes, I’m out most evenings, rugby, football, swimming, the gym.”
“I only stayed in tonight to chat with you.”
“Yes, I was supposed to be at football practice.”
“Won’t they miss you?”
“Prob. They say I’m their star player but I don’t know…”
“I bet you are. Just being modest…”
“Don’t like to boast. My mother wouldn’t like it...” Benjamin looked away from the screen in disbelief at what he had just typed and he wondered how that snippet of the truth had managed to find its way into his words.
“You’re so funny! And I bet you have a great physique too!” typed Melanie.
“I take care of myself. And I like to have a full body massage once a week. Are you any good?”
“Yes, sure. I’d love to massage you.”
“I bet you would,” thought Benjamin, who had practiced these lines well on many women—and on some men too, but with greater relish. He knew what they all wanted and was sure that they were not going to get it, but some deep part of him needed to lure them, needed them to feel that their pleasure was within their grasp, that they were about to gain that ultimate prize that he himself could never now have. He wanted them to somehow pay for what had happened to him.
A little later, Melanie typed: “Why haven’t you got any recent pictures on your profile?”
“Don’t get my picture taken much. That one of me on holiday was the last one.”
“In your swimming gear? How old are you there?”
The following evening, they resumed their chat. He had been wondering whether to continue. On the one hand, this was his usual game, and the perverted satisfaction that he gained from it fed some deep need within him; and after all (he told himself), this online world was not the real world, so what did it matter? But on the other hand he kept recalling the sound of Melanie’s voice on the phone, and the image in his mind that her voice had conjured up. Her voice, and her supposed appearance, had somehow connected with his heart, and he could not now stop his game, for then he would have nothing.
“Did you have any dreams last night,” typed Melanie.
“I dreamt I was an astronaut.”
“No, of course not. I’m lying.”
Melanie told him about the trials of her day at the dance school, and again tried to coax more details from him about his ballet-dancer dream. How could someone who had never danced, dream a vivid experience of performing ballet steps? How would he have know what it felt like? Perhaps he had been a dancer in a previous life; was he sure he had never danced, not even as a small child? Surely, there must be the desire deep within him; why don’t they meet, then at least she could take him through some steps?
After another ten minutes of cajoling, Benjamin was stood on a chair beside the computer attempting the arabesque pose—or so Melanie thought. Of course, he was still sat in his chair at the computer. Melanie was known for her eccentric methods, and with her more advanced students, she would encourage them to practice certain steps while stood on a chair, since it focused the concentration. “Sink or swim,” was her motto, which, at times, circumstances would force her to paraphrase as: “Fly or fall.”
“Now slowly and gracefully raise your left leg,” typed Melanie. Benjamin had increased the font size in the Yahoo window (as she had instructed), so that he would be able to follow her instructions from the chair. He looked from the computer screen in front of him, to the imaginary chair in the centre of his room where he was supposedly standing on one leg.
“And with your right arm extended… feel the flow. Can you feel it? You can tell me in a minute. I want all the details. Yes, I can imagine you there. That’s it. A nice long line between your fingertips and toes. Perfect.”
And so it went on for at least five minutes. Benjamin was sat at his monitor while his doppelganger performed ballet steps on an imaginary chair in his bedroom. And so practised was Benjamin at creating imaginary worlds that his doppelganger even wore tights and a white, flowing tunic. Finally, Melanie commanded him to return to the computer.
“How did that feel?”
“Not so easy on a chair.”
“Ahhhh. So you HAVE done it before.”
“No. Just a figure of speech.”
“I think you practice ballet secretly in your bedroom. You’re afraid of what your macho mates might say.”
“No. This was the first time.”
“Come on, no need to lie to me. I won’t take no for an answer.”
“Well, I guess it will have to be yes then.”
“I knew it. No-one could have dreamt that without experiencing it.”
“You’re the expert.”
“And you do want to meet really. You keep blowing me off, but I know you want to.”
After a long pause, Benjamin typed, “Of course I do,” and he had never felt more exposed in his entire life.
“So, when shall we meet?” typed Melanie.
Benjamin held his head in his hands. What could he do? Where could he turn? Melanie was different. Her voice and the image of her face, with her flowing, golden hair, had somehow got inside him, was now somehow a part of him. He could not go on lying to her, deceiving her; that was like lying to himself, torturing this tender part at the centre of his own heart; he could not go on doing this. But where could he turn? What could he do? There was no way out.
“Benjamin? … Are you still there?”
“Shut up! Shut up,” he started shouting at the monitor.
“Where are you? …. Speak to me…”
“I can’t do this anymore,” he typed.
“I can’t meet you. I can’t talk anymore.”
“I can’t. I’m crying. I can’t do this.”
“Why! What went wrong?”
“I’ve gotta go.”
Just before Benjamin turned off his computer, he saw the last words that Melanie had typed: “I’m crying too now. I do have feelings as well…” and as he sat back in his chair, all he could see in his mind was those last words of hers: “I do have feelings as well.” He recalled the sound of her voice from their first phone call and he could imagine her saying the words, “I’m crying too now…” and in his mind, that sweet image of her face transformed, became tormented, and he felt her pain as though it were his own.
He recalled that photo of himself at eighteen. He was stood on a Spanish shore in his swimming trunks. There was a low cliff face rising from a pebble beach, and along the cliff, the sea lay in pools of differing depths. He was stood about two metres above the sea with his friends and they had been swimming and playing beach games all morning. The midday sun was intense and transformed the sea’s surface into a furnace of sparkling jewels which seemed to be dancing with joy. He could still hear the yells of his friends, also jubilant, and in particular the voice of Alan, who had called to Benjamin to “Try that one!” while pointing at the small lagoon immediately beneath them. He meant Benjamin to dive into the water, as they had been doing all morning, only (Benjamin would months later discover) Alan had only been jesting and he had truly thought that Benjamin knew the true depth of the water. Perhaps Benjamin was dazzled by the sun, or by the joy of the moment, or by the exuberance of his own youthfulness, but whatever the reason, it was then that he had made that single reckless decision. He decided to follow Alan’s command and he dived. The granite of the sea bed lay less than half a metre beneath the surface of the sea and as Benjamin’s head hit the granite, his neck bore the full force of the impact and he never walked again.
In his bedroom, fourteen years later, he wheeled his chair back, away from the computer, as his mother had been calling to him from the kitchen.
“Okay, okay,” he shouted.
When he had heard her voice, it had seemed, as it always did these days, to connect with a message that she had planted within his heart. For the first few years after his accident, she would advise him to accept his disability and move on; she would see him eaten up with anger and resentment, and see him attempting to conceal it as best he could; she could feel his inner turmoil and she would hold his hand and hug him and tell him, “Just let go,” holding his hand warmly, “What’s done is done; you’re still a beautiful person—to me. Just let go of your past life and move on. Otherwise you’ll destroy yourself with this anger,” and he would sometimes not be able to hold on to his tears and she would hug him and tell him, “Just let go.” And sometimes while he was asleep, she would watch over him while whispering in his hear, “Just let go. Accept your loss; move on and smile to the world.” And week in, week out, she would repeat her whispered message to him, “Just accept it. Smile to the world and then you’ll be happy, my child,” until her message had finally become lodged within his heart, and to the outside world he appeared to be miraculously happy.
He heard his mother’s voice calling to him from the kitchen and he wheeled his chair back, away from the computer, and shouted to her, cheerfully, “Okay, okay; I’m coming.”
3 August 2010
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