Voicemail from Brigitte, received at 7.30am: ‘…just get home in one piece. I can’t wait to hold you.’
“Luk a’ tha’, Norma. Ah’ve jus’ blewn ma nose – agen – an’ ouwt came yet anuvver placenta o’ putrid black bogies.”
“Oh, stop yer bluddy whinin’ fer God’s sake. Le’s jus’ave a nice day ou’. An’ puh that ‘anky away! An’ stop lookin’ a’it. ‘Tis inhumane ta stare a’ one’s bogies fer too long. Never yeh mind, Bill.
“Now, ah fink it’s tha’ tall one rite over ‘ere. ‘Tis th’ biggest buildin’ ah’ve ever seen in ma life. Or tha’ one next t’it, tha’ one’s feckin’ massive ‘n’ all.”
“Quit bletherin’ on an’ gimme a couple of yer tissues or summin so tha’ ah can plug up ma nose an’ leak no more sludge.”
“Ar yer even arkin’, yer silly bogger?
“Jus’ be zen an’ fink ov th’picnic we’ll ‘av la’er: cheese cobs, crisps an’ ‘alf a Twinky. Delicious. Tha’ll do yer sum gud. Perk yer up a bit an’ fill yer wi’ sugar.”
“Tha’ won’ ‘elp, yer daft woman. This bludy place is mekkin’ me sik, ah carn’t abide it. Ah’m tellin’ yer, this city is th’ sole cause of ma rammelin’ flu. ‘Tis diffrunt air bak ‘ome.
“Anyway, there’s note fer meh in all these bloomin’ stores that ah go traipsin’ round al’ day fer yeh.”
“Ah only ask fer ya advice on a silly frock. Don’ ger ya nickas ina twist or ought.
“Sumtimes, ah really ‘ave ‘ad enuff ov stinkin’ cow-pat an’ fields. Ah need t’escape ma ‘umdrum life an’ free ma gypsy-soul.
“Dunt th‘aze ov th’ city mek yuh feel like yer on stage? Ah feel like ah’m bak ‘ome, where ah’ve always belonged ov course. If only ah were tall an’ thin enuff ta dance the ballet.”
“Wha’re’yer talkin’ abouwt, Norma? When ‘av yer ever bin on a stage in yer life? This ‘aze’ is note more thun yer own buggerin’ rose-tinted glasses or wotever ‘eck else goes on in tha’ead ov yers. Ah can see rite thru it. Ah used to ‘av 20:20 vision bak in th’ day. Ah cud see thru walls ah tell yer.”
“20:20 vision – my arse. You’ve needed glasses fer as long as a fish ‘as needed ta swim. Oh, jus’ fink ov th’ sarnies la’er, ya mytherin’ buffoon, ‘n’ stop chewin’ me ear off.
“Now, which jitty d’we ‘ead down ta get there? Ah carn’t see th’ oojamaflip nowhere.”
“Giz it ‘ere, yer old trudge. An’ tek meh seriously wud ya? This poisoned air is mekin’ its way inta are systems as we speak an’ fillin’ us up wi’ tar.”
“Ah wud like ta see this fing before th’ suhn goes down if it so suits yer…”
“Supwi-yer? We’re ‘eading in the wrong direction, Norma. Th’ Empire State Buildin’s north fer ‘eaven’s sake.
“Ah carn’t understand why we cuddn’t jus’ go Skeggy an’ visit are Cousin Jean. All ah need is un Atlantic sea breeze, a Mr. Whippeh an’ a donkey ride. Ah wud’ve got more enjoymunt ou’ ov sittin’ in ar back garden, stuffin’ m’odge full ov food, than draggin’ ma britches ‘round this city wi’ you.”
“There’s no life back ‘ome, yer old sod. Carn’t yer feel tha’ famous New York City glow?”
“No, Norma, ah carn’t. All ah can feel is a weight on ma chest. Luk around, everyone ‘ere is miserable. There’s no soul ‘ere.”
“The only miserable fing ‘ere is you, yer mard-arse. Yer behavin’ like an old man.”
“Les jus’ sit dahn an’ave a cheese cob. ‘Ere yer go. Stop yer whingin’ ‘n’ ge’tha’ down yer.”
“This int a cob, it’s a bagel, Norma. Yer no ‘ow ah feel abouwt their food ‘ere.”
“Mardy bugger today aren’t ya? Le’s try one ov these restaurants then. ‘Tis suppost’ta be one ov th’ cool spots ‘ere mind you.”
“Am ah made ov moneh or wot? An’ wot’ll we ‘ave anyway? Everyfing ‘ere is eiver deep fried o’ smoked? Ma stomach carn’t process th’ stuff.”
“Rite, we’ll jus’ keep ‘eadin’ forwards ‘n’ see where we ar.
“If tha’ int th’ Empire State Buildin’ then… Two fancy buildin’s like tha’ eh? Maybe i’s Wall street? Maybe ah’ll snatch mehself a toy-boy or summat…”
“Will ya ‘eck!
“Yer mi wife, whevver ya like it or ovverwise else. Not leavin’ meh fer a yunger model. Yer’v always ‘ah a flare fer th’ dramatics yer ‘av.”
“Ah’m jus’ messin’ wiy’ya. Yuh use’ta luv it bak in th’ day remember?”
“Luk a’ tha’, Norma. Tha’ plane’s flyin’ awful low…”
Brigitte possessed one solitary tattoo, this was a small series of lines on the small of her back. It was a commemoration of her 18th summer, when she had volunteered at a camp for kids with disabilities. The lines were supposed to resemble the action for ‘love’ in sign language, but they had later looked a lot more like a smudged pen or a Chinese writing symbol. At the time, she had wanted a permanent reminder of how fulfilling it was to help others and to do something selfless, but it had quickly turned into a perpetual memorial of the first time that she had cheated.
* * *
It was a muggy and sticky Tuesday evening. All of the campers had already been asleep for hours, but Brigitte found herself tossing and turning underneath her stuffy blanket. She had been born with a restless nature and it uneased her to be static. Exhaling a disgruntled breath she flung back the blanket, so that it crumpled up at her feet. She sat upright and turning to the left, so that her legs dangled over the side, she faced the nearby camper’s poster of The Princess Bride. Her eyes gave a long roll and she moved towards Jamie’s bed. Jamie wasn’t exactly Brigitte’s usual type; he had short hair, a metal-mouth and could solve a Rubik’s cube in less than three minutes. He was nothing like Tom, not that it mattered anyway, Tom wasn’t there and he was.
She shook him, repetitively hard and fast, then stood back and delicately crossed her eyebrows, “I’m so glad you’re awake, Jamie. I can’t sleep at all. Can I get in?”
He couldn’t believe his luck, Brigitte Stokes wanted to share his bed.
She slipped under the blanket and pushed her figure ever so gently against Jamie’s skinny, hairless body. She held his earlobe between her thumb and forefinger and began to rub it lightly in a circular motion, “Could we listen to your Walkman? It might help.”
It felt like his mind had escaped him. Part of it was too busy trying to figure out what exactly the Walkman would help with, whilst the majority of him was preoccupied with Brigitte’s fingers on his ear, her body against his and the erection growing in his pants.
“Yeah, I’ll just erm…”
Brigitte smiled coyly. She knew precisely how to get what she wanted yet she was impatient, this impatience showed on her face by her raised eyebrows. Only after a set of headphones throbbing ‘Push It’ by Salt’N’Pepa lay on the pillow in between them: did her brows relax again.
In less time than it would have taken Jamie to finish a Rubik’s cube, Brigitte walked back over to her bed, finished with Jamie. She sat down and let her eyes linger on the poster. With her eyebrows furrowed, she stood up and tore it down, then shoved it under her pillow, dropping her head on top of them both. She could sense Jamie watching her so she flicked her feathered hair over her shoulder and turned to face the other way.
* * *
Thirteen years later, Brigitte woke up on the outside of her bedcovers, with the smell of tequila harbouring inside of her nose. She shut out the drilling morning with a violent slam and stumbled into the bathroom to start her morning routine. After a swig of water from the tap, she pulled the sequined tube top off over her head and peeled down the leather skirt. It was just one last night of being bad before being good again, she thought to herself as the mirror’s reflection judged her.
One hand reached out towards the radio. She usually turned it on when she got ready, in order to escape from the daily monotony, but this time she refrained. Visions from the previous night clouded her mind: downing shots to ‘Get Ur Freak On’, dancing to ‘Bootylicious’ with her arms wrapped around Pete’s neck, and going back to his place with J.Lo on repeat.
She gathered last night’s clothes up from the floor, fetched a garbage bag from the kitchen and threw them inside. She marched into her bedroom and flung open drawer after drawer, emptying them out one by one and filling the black bag with anything that offended her, until the remnants of her wardrobe lay around the apartment in manic patches. No more low-cut jeans or belly tops. And no more shots at 2am. Actually, she had already vowed never to see 2am ever again – period. Nothing good has ever happened to her in the early hours of the morning.
Brigitte stood in the centre of the room and focussed on the rise and fall of her chest until she caught her breath back. All the while, her gaze was held by a crumpled-up dress that perched on the edge of the bed. She walked to it, picking it up cautiously, as if it would turn to ash in her hands. She hadn’t worn it in years, but Tom had always loved it. Without thinking, she slipped it on and twirled around on the spot, watching how beautifully the fabric rippled and fanned out.
She reached for her satchel and frantically rummaged through it, until her hand found what it wanted and brought it up to present itself to its owner. Brigitte’s eyes shined as she glided the object back to where it belonged, locked around her ring finger. She looped the satchel over her shoulder, put on her shoes and left the apartment to taste the fresh air and make that phone call.
He didn’t pick up. She left a voicemail and wandered aimlessly.
As she walked through the city, she couldn’t help but notice the blemishes that were easily masked by the midnight darkness. It was a different world. All of her seedy hideouts and late-night pit-stops were concealed by the city and eclipsed by trendy vegetarian bistros, bagel carts and clothes stores. She mused her eyes over the spot where she had passed out drunk last week and the manhole that had caught her heel and snapped it off.
No-one understood how difficult it was for her to lead a normal life. Tom’s hours were all over the place, flying up to twenty times a week: to England, Cambodia, LA, Argentina, Italy, and the list went on. She only got to see him once or twice a week, for a couple of days at most. It was enough to make anyone lose it. Everyone needs to kick back once in a while.
Sometimes she would daydream about what life would be like if she and Tom’s positions could be reversed. She would be the one living the high life and exploring new countries every day and Tom would just be. Simply be, because she could never bear to picture Tom living like her, sleeping around and partying a life away.
She was so immersed in her fantasies, that she missed the twinkling ring of her mobile phone.
By the time she had opened her satchel, retrieved said object, all she could do was listen to the voicemail that remained. She closed her eyes, clutched onto the phone and listened intently. She prayed to emblematize the message and carry it on her skin like a tattoo, absorbed into her being.
When she finally opened her eyes, she caught sight of an elderly couple slightly ahead on the sidewalk. They stood chatting with each other away from the road in matching ‘I heart NYC’ t-shirts. Brigitte found herself unable to stop watching the subtle ways that they mimicked the other. When the woman shifted her weight from one leg to another, the man followed and when he scratched his head, she did the same. It would have looked like they were arguing to anyone else, but Brigitte noticed the coy smiles and routine.
She pictured herself and Tom thirty years in the future arguing over which country to visit next and where to go on their next date. They’d put their hands on their hips in synchronisation, and wag their fingers at one another in unison. After all, he was the only man she had ever pictured growing old with; Pete was just a flyby. It was never supposed to be that serious in the first place: it just happened.
That’s when Brigitte realised that she hadn’t been walking aimlessly at all, but towards Pete’s workplace. She didn’t know why and she wasn’t sure if she and Tom would grow into her fantasy, but she was hopeful that this time she would really try, that this time she would stay loyal and that this time wouldn’t be like all the others.
So, she continued to walk forwards, rehearsing exactly what to say when she reached Pete. She smiled to herself, her blue dress twirling, floating in the city air.
And that’s when the first plane flew into the Twin Towers.
You’re still hungover from your birthday party last night and can taste the last shot that fell down your esophagus. What’s worse: the raucous headache or the fact that you didn’t shower or brush your teeth this morning? You feel nauseous, looking out of the 106th floor, regretting the way things turned out.
Will she even pick up the phone if you call? You probably should have called in sick today; you could have done with some time to get your head straight, but you’re far too practical and invested in your work.
Don’t over-analyse, now is not the time. You turn your back to the window and cast your eyes over the office. Computer after computer, suits and ties and coffee… And Frank, standing by the water cooler again, staring out into space. You begin to walk over to him, for some water or a chat, you haven’t decided yet.
You realise that Frank’s eyes are focusing on something behind you, his pupils dilate in awe. He dives under the nearest desk.
An explosion deafens you and you feel the Earth jump underneath your feet. Everything fades to black.
You force your head up from the pillow of carpet and rubble. What happened? Are you hurt? Where’s Frank? Where’s the nearest door? Think. Where’s the nearest door? Where is everyone?
You squint through the smoke and scan the room for any other living thing. All personnel must remain at their desks. You can hear the monotonous drone boom over all intercoms. All must personnel remain at their desks.
You pull yourself up to a sitting position and can see Melissa crying and cradling the office phone, “they’re saying we should evacuate! Ignore the intercom.”
Frank is cemented to his chair, “No, we need to wait it out and everything will be fine.”
“It sounded like it happened only a few floors below,” you say. “We need to head down or the smoke will flood us out.”
You’re focussed now, head’s back on.
You rush over to the door and try the handle but the door is bolted shut. Must be a system malfunction. Smoke has begun to creep in. You take off your shirt and lay it down as a blockade; Melissa removes her jacket and does the same.
You’re running out of air, really quickly. You’re currently fighting to swallow fat pockets of oxygen and struggling to choke it down.
“What do we do? I can’t breathe. Are we going to die?” the office intern asks you. You never learnt her name.
“Frank, pass me that trashcan.”
He hands it over with a glint in his eyes and the whole office gathers around.
You angle your eyes to the floor and pace towards the nearest window.
You’re stuck in this office
You’re not going to survive
You’re going to die
You look over the ledge and feel a wisp of fresh air caress your cheek.
What do you do next?
It’s peculiar to think that there’s a beginning to this story when we all know how it ends. I wouldn’t take my word as Gospel, it’s been a few years and my memory of that day is hazy to say the least…
I can remember what underpants I wore that day. I hadn’t done the washing for a few weeks and the only clean pair were the stupid Shrek boxers Mom got me for my birthday. Steve gave me a real hard time for it when we were getting changed, “Who dressed you today, your mom?” We always joked around in the locker room, like brothers do. It was our home. .
As I was the youngest member of the team, and had not long passed my training, I was left with the truck whilst they joined the rescue mission inside.
Fire trucks have always reminded me of ‘The Destroyer’, the old orange-juicer from when I was a kid. Imagine a fire truck but three times the size and painted an immaculate silver. It had the capacity to hold tens of thousands of oranges and made hundreds of thousands of bottles of orange juice a year. I could never comprehend the machine as a child. It was magic how quickly it could condense everything down to liquid and expel it from just one diminutive pump.
I left Florida when I was seventeen, looking for a new life and an adventure. New York called my name and I ran. I never expected to end up where I did.
I was one of the fighters in charge of ‘managing the situation’. My job was to ensure that the crowd remained behind the barrier and that the survivors remained within, and away from the towers. At the time I was really aggravated that I wasn’t able to go with them, we always stuck together, that was the fireman code, but Steve rebuffed me. Of course I see now that I was far from ready.
A man fell from the sky and turned to pulp on the concrete in front of the truck.
At the same moment a woman in a blue dress climbed over the fence and ran forwards screaming, “Tom! Tom!”
It pierced so violently, like nothing I’d ever experienced, before or since.
I grabbed on to her with such force that we both fell backwards. I squeezed her close to me whilst she sobbed against my chest.
A rugged-faced man stumbled out of the building, shielding a baby as he dropped to the floor. I peeled the woman from my jacket and ran over to help, but by the time he gained consciousness the blue-dress lady had vanished.
He turned his head, urging me to go inside and rescue the mother. I assured him that I had an important job to do outside and a trained member of the rescue unit would save her.
He offered me the baby and pulled himself to his feet, shaking his head all the while like he was trying to shake loose the day’s memories. He looked up at the silver smoking building, whispered something to himself and dove in through the main entrance before anyone could stop him.
I carried the baby back to the truck and looked out at the circling crowd. There were so many faces staring back at me, of all ages, races, nationalities, religions, and all of them dripping with fresh tears. I held the infant snug in my arms, sat inside the safety of the truck and waited…
The child, Jack, was adopted and will be turning 17 this year.
A woman contacted me a few days later; she said that Steve had saved her life. She was trapped somehow and he distracted her by recounting what he did that morning: what brand of toothpaste he used, his breakfast choice, his bike-ride to the station and my appalling choice in underwear fashion. By the time he finished, she was free.
Anyway, Steve – and the rest of my team – had been reported dead that morning, and I guess she just wanted someone to share her story with. I think her name was Melanie or Melissa, I don’t know. I never replied to her email, I was already back home on the farm.
It’s so warm and calm here. I’ve put that day behind me, it’s in the past now. All I have to worry about is juicing orange after orange after orange after…
Voicemail from Tom, received at 7.45am: ‘…don’t worry, the weather’s perfect for flying.’