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To Be Alone, Together

"Will that be a return, sir?" asked the man from behind his screen.

"No," said Trevor, frightened by the certainty in his voice. "A single. I don't want to come back." The man spared him a curious look as he counted out some change and Trevor wondered for a moment if his face was being compared with the photofit of some hardened criminal. He gave a nonchalant grin as he took his money and ticket from the counter but the man was no longer looking.

The station was busy and Trevor searched the faces frantically. Seeing no-one familiar, he relaxed a little and bought a small bar of Dairy Crunch from an automatic vendor. He looked around again, but it wasn't his crowd. He began to feel the tension dropping away from him; he couldn't understand why he had not tried this years before. Leaving. Escaping that sea of oh-so-familiar faces. All he had to do was step on a train and they would be gone forever. Still he searched the crowd, convinced that it could not be so straightforward. Surely they wouldn't let him slip away so easily.

There was an unintelligible burst of static and nasal tones from the station's PA and Trevor hurried over to squint up at a small teletext screen. His train was waiting at platform 3. He took a luggage trolley, placed his shoulder bag on it and strode purposefully towards the train. It felt good to be taking some sort of definite action, he had been a loser for too long.

The train was nearly full but Trevor didn't really mind, there was no one he knew. Finally he was escaping. He found a seat opposite an old lady who was telling her neighbour that she fully intended to knit one entire sweater before the journey ended — she had almost done it before and she knew that the journey was long enough if only she could keep it going and the arthritis didn't slow her too much because she often caught this train to visit her half-sister for a long weekend and ... Trevor closed his eyes, opened them again to a prod in the shoulder and a woman asking him if the seat next to him was taken. "Not to my knowledge," he said, and closed his eyes again, dwelling on the faint after-image the woman had left on his brain. All Trevor wanted was to be free from his familiar crowd, free to live his own life, to find that perfect woman to share it with.

He opened his eyes and studied the hard lines of the woman's face, the red gloss painted clumsily onto her lips, the unruly sweep of her hair. He caught himself thinking that she was too old for him, thirty at least. Trevor was twenty-nine. The thought shook him. He had let things go on for so long.

The woman's eyes flicked towards Trevor and she cocked an eyebrow at him aggressively. He snapped his eyes shut, then opened them looking in another direction. Knitting needles, pale lilac-coloured wool, hands wearing skin a size too large. He closed his eyes, slumped against the window, tried to ignore the vibrations that the glass sent buzzing through his skull. Inevitably his thoughts turned to Helen, her tiny hands working ceaselessly to stiffen him, all to no avail. A shudder passed through his body and he moved in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position, also to no avail. At least he was free of his old crowd.

Looking back, it was difficult to pinpoint the start of Trevor's problem, things had just always been that way. His very first memories were of people gathering around his cot or pram or bed, blurred faces floating over him, disembodied hands drifting down to prod, to tickle, to touch. His early memories of school were of people, people all around him, never the chance to be alone. Little Trevor used to stand in a corner of the playground, his back to the other children, his eyes tightly closed, but still they were there, their voices penetrated his solitude even when his fingers were pressed deep into his waxy little ears.

Even at home, young Trevor could find no escape. His father had stayed around long enough to leave Trevor's mother with five children; they had a dog and three cats, too. Trevor could never be alone at home, there would always be one of his brothers or sisters, or his mother, or if all else failed there would be one of the animals, maybe Chinky, the old one-eyed Siamese. Trevor was the oldest of the children but the others soon overtook him in everything that mattered. Sharon was pregnant and married before her eighteenth, Julie before her twentieth, Cathy joined a convent on her twenty-first, and Shane was making good progress at art school. Eventually Trevor and Shane were the only ones left at home, nine years and a lot of personal difference between them. They had always fought and Trevor had often lost, but in recent years it seemed that the orange-haired Shane had taken his weird older brother under his wing. Shane was always ragging him about his lack of success with the birds, as he put it, and then one day he had strolled in and said to Trevor, "Look, there's this bird at college who's into Gerries, I told her about you. How about it, brov? It'd do you some good." That was Helen and Trevor had not been able to avoid Shane's plan for long. And Helen was history.

Everywhere the young Trevor went, there were people too. The park had seemed a good place to get away from everybody but there were always the dog-walkers, the young couples, the pram-pushers; in public conveniences it was always a rush to get to the last vacant urinal, and it was never the one set low enough for young Trevor to reach with ease; even on his early morning paper round, Trevor had never entirely escaped the milkman, the postman, the old chap who was always out for no apparent reason and often featured in Trevor's darkest fantasies. Even at night there were the dreams, always noisy and jostling and busy, always crowded.

For a long time Trevor had simply accepted it as a fact of everyday life. The world had sunshine and clouds, the world had shiny motorcars and lumbering red buses, the world had streets and houses. The world was a crowded place. But eventually, Trevor began to realise that his world was somewhat different to that of everybody else. Wherever he went there were people; wherever others went there were sometimes people, sometimes no people. For a long time Trevor couldn't imagine a world like that, but words such as alone and single and privacy kept cropping up, words beyond Trevor's experience of life. This realisation was followed by a period of uncertainty: what was it like to be alone, to have no people around you? At first the concept was scary and Trevor hid from it, but he kept coming back to the idea. What was it like? No matter how hard he tried, he could never attain real privacy, aloneness. Someone would always just happen by, there would always be those distant voices, the sounds of traffic; his dreams were still full of people. Over and over, Trevor wondered why he should be different, what he had done to deserve it, what it would be like if he could just lead an ordinary life. He never had any real friends at school, he was the class freak, the kid who never seemed to see things the way everybody else did. No, there were never any friends. Just acquaintances, people who would be around. Nobody ever came close.

Of course, Trevor was left behind when the hormones started to flow. He was shy, never sure of what he should say, and anyway, most of the girls could never even look at him without sniggering. He was the class freak. The first time he found himself in a situation he had fantasised about so often was when he was seventeen. He still couldn't work out quite how he had ended up with Tracy Burnham, holding hands self-consciously, his face burning each time she spoke. She seemed to think this was quite endearing. The image that kept coming back was that of his shaking hand tugging awkwardly at her skirt, trying to pull it up past her knees. She was lying back, chewing gum and watching him, always watching him. His face was a deep red and still she watched him. They were in a grassy hollow that was part of the wasteland that adjoined the park. It was always quiet there, she had said. Always. For a brief time Trevor had forgotten everything — the people, the crowds — there was only Tracy and Tracy's troublesome skirt and Tracy's eyes staring coolly as he fumbled with her clothes. He eased a finger past a tight band of elastic, felt his heart pounding in his chest, felt a tightness in his whole body. Then he heard a voice. It was a woman's voice, laughing. He stopped. A man's laugh answered the woman and the tension left Trevor's arm. Tracy pushed herself against him, asked him what was wrong, told him that it was okay, she was going to go on the pill soon. "There are people," Trevor had said, and Tracy had laughed and told him that they were nowhere near, that they were somewhere in the park. But Trevor knew better. Tracy took his hand and moved it back to her crotch, held it there, but even as she did so the voices grew louder. Trevor's face had darkened to a deep scarlet by the time the middle-aged couple walked past, their eyes fixed on where his hand lay beyond all innocence. By the time the young man appeared on the path, his labrador racing ahead of him, Trevor had risen to his feet and was running as fast as he could go. Running away from Tracy, away from the people, away from everything.

Running, like he was finally doing now, this time by train. He opened his eyes and saw a tangle of wool and needles, glanced along the carriage and saw that tickets were being checked. He fumbled in his coat pocket, in his trousers, found his ticket in the side pocket of his bag just in time to hand it over. "That's the next stop but one," said the man as he punched a hole in Trevor's ticket. "About twenty minutes." Trevor nodded and pushed the ticket back into his bag. He noticed a sharp acceleration in the click-click-clicking of the old lady's needles. He stared blankly at the passing fields for a few minutes then closed his eyes. He had no idea where he would stay, or for how long, just that he was finally getting away.

"Everywhere I go there always seems to be a crowd, people always seem to be there already," he had said to his mother one day in his late teens. He had never really thought of telling anybody — they would only think he was mad — but for some reason he had just blurted it out. His mother had laughed, thought he was trying to joke. Upset, Trevor had run up to the room that he shared with Shane but the Sex Pistols were screaming out of the open door so he had slumped down on the stairs with Chinky in his lap, the sound of playing children drifting up from the street.

It was over a year later that Trevor began to recognise them. Not the individuals, just a vague something that Trevor grew to be able to read, something that allowed him to pick out the ones that were just there because of him from all the others. They were his crowd.

Back in the grassy hollow with Tracy Burnham, the middle-aged couple that had stared at his hand resting on Tracy's panties were a part of Trevor's entourage; the young man and the dog were not. It was sometimes like that: Trevor and his followers seemed to draw ordinary people along with them. For a time he wondered if they were real or if he was genuinely mad, but Tracy had seen them and they always seemed to interact normally with others.

When this realisation struck Trevor, he spent a long time playing mind-games, spotting his own amongst the mundanes. For a time he even saw them as friends, the only people who were really his; sometimes he tried to acknowledge them — a brief nod, a muttered "Hello" — but they just reacted as anyone might and Trevor grew first confused and then annoyed by their responses. They had no right to treat him like that, they had interfered with his life for so long, the least they could do was acknowledge his existence. But they didn't and Trevor grew to resent their presence just as he had always resented his lack of aloneness.

Trevor took to walking at night in an effort to be by himself. His mother had been worried by this new behaviour and Shane had just nodded knowingly and mentioned that there was a gay bar on Knight Street. The streets after dark were not a safe place, if the Chronicle was to be believed, but Trevor didn't really care, sometimes he even enjoyed the flow of adrenalin he felt from tempting fate but that didn't last. Enveloped in darkness, surrounded by the unpeopled park or empty back-streets, Trevor managed to snatch a few brief, transient moments of tranquility, but as well as being of the day-time, the crowds were of the shadows, of the darkness. A moment when all was quiet, then a drunk would sing his way down the middle of the empty street, a drunk that had that something that Trevor knew so well. The peace of the empty park, but then a young couple would giggle from the darkness, then sounds of passion, sounds that also held that something. But it was the ones that didn't possess that certain something that finally drove Trevor from his night-time walks, the ones that he knew were not his were the ones that really scared him. Finally Trevor took the advice of the Chronicle and stopped walking the night streets.

Trevor spent a lot of his time unemployed, a lot of it in poorly paid temporary jobs. He always came across as too strange, too different, in interviews, he kept looking at people out of the windows, turning at the sound of voices from beyond the interview room. He had worked as a car-park attendant, a school groundsman, he had worked tearing up boxes for a supermarket. He had always wanted to be a policeman but how could he do undercover work when people always went wherever he did? He was too short anyway. All he thought about was being alone and he grew to recognise that he wanted to be alone with a woman who would understand him, who would share his world. He wanted privacy; he wanted intimacy. That was all he asked, yet it always seemed so impossible. He had thought that maybe Helen would be the answer, when Shane had finally convinced him to meet her, but it hadn't worked.

Trevor opened his eyes and studied the features of the woman beside him, the hard lines around her mouth, the misapplied lipstick. She moved her head slightly and he closed his eyes, fearful of that angrily cocked eyebrow. She wasn't really his sort, but then would there ever be a 'sort' that could be his? He turned and stared out of the window, saw that the train was drawing into a platform. His stop was the one after this.

Then he saw her. She was tall, slim, elegant, her face made up but not overly so. Her eyes were a delicate shade of emerald, her clothes stylish but not overstated. She stepped casually along the platform glancing at the slowing train. Trevor, in his carriage, drew level, passed her slowly. She was perfect, someone lifted straight from his dreams, someone put together just for him. Their eyes met, parted. The briefest of encounters, yet there had been that flicker of understanding, that hint of so much more. Trevor grabbed for his bag and stumbled past the hard-faced woman who cursed him for his clumsiness and then commiserated with the old lady who had dropped a stitch.

"It's not your stop," said the guard as Trevor pushed past him and yanked the window down so he could reach the door handle.

He leapt from the train as it was still slowing, looked around but she was gone. He ran the length of the platform and searched his pockets and then his bag for his ticket before he was allowed to leave the platform. "Not your stop," mumbled the ticket collector, but already Trevor was in the car park frantically scanning the three parked cars for any sign of life.

For once Trevor was alone. The woman had vanished. For a moment he wondered if his mind had been playing savage tricks, but he had dismissed that argument long ago. It was the world that played games with Trevor, not his mind.

Glumly, Trevor swung his bag over his shoulder and walked out of the car park, forcing himself to concentrate on the newness of being alone. It was strange how, as soon as he escaped his crowd, his mind found something new to occupy it, this woman. Realising how impulsive he had been to leap from his train one stop early, he grinned and looked around at the grubby little seaside town in which he found himself. His mother had always accused him of being too predictable. But it had been an impulsive decision to buy his one-way ticket, even if it had taken him the best part of a week, and his latest impulsive decision had been acted on in an instant: one moment he had been half-asleep on the train, the next he was racing along the platform searching for the love of his life.

His mother had been happy for a time recently, then he had found out that Shane had told her that Trevor was going out with a woman called Helen. This was after Trevor had turned down the blind date repeatedly for more than a week. Seeing his mother so happy, there was no way that he could break her heart so he had gone along with his young brother to a pub near to the art college. Things had been strangely easy with Helen, he had been able to relax with her, talk with her, even laugh with her. Soon Shane left them to each other and they had gone on to a Chinese restaurant. Trevor had never eaten foreign before and Helen took great delight in introducing him to this new way of doing things. She was shorter than Trevor, not unduly plump, just pleasantly curved, and above all she had the kind of face that told him everything, let him relax, knowing himself to be in the presence of a genuinely warm person. They had parted late and agreed to meet again.

Helen had a subdued little flat near the college and they had returned there after their second evening together. Trevor forced himself to forget everything but Helen, and found that it was an easy thing to do; sealed quietly away from the world, nothing could disturb them. Trevor tried to relax when she kissed him, but she sensed his tension, teased the truth from him, that he had never been with a woman before, even at his age. This seemed to make her even more receptive, more willing to accommodate this strange man. She had stroked his hair and tenderly kissed him again. She had taken everything slowly, gently wooing him, easing him in the right direction. Several times he hesitated, drew back, expecting to hear the sound of the crowd; several times she sensed his tension, eased him through it. Inevitably, a voice came from the street below. Coarse swearing, rudely interrupting the tenderness of the moment. Then an answering laugh. It wasn't Trevor's crowd — they were never ill-tempered — but he knew what would follow. Sounds of talking drifted up through the open window, light-hearted banter. Helen was standing, pulling her dress over her head. Underneath she was wearing only a G-string. Trevor wanted her so badly. But there were the voices. Locked into Helen's flat, they were safe, Trevor tried to convince himself as he stood and allowed her gently to remove his clothes. But it was no good. No matter how hard Helen tried, it was no good. Nothing was. Not with the voices echoing around the street below, the voices of the people that Trevor had sometimes even considered to be his friends.

When several days had passed and Trevor had stayed indoors his mother confronted him and he admitted that he had stopped seeing Helen. His mother returned to her usual, depressed self. She had known it would never work, she told her son. Any girl with her head in the right place would run a mile before getting tied down with him. It was so predictable.

Drifting free of his thoughts, Trevor found himself standing on a narrow road that ran between a tight row of buildings and a wide promenade. Beyond, the sea lapped tamely at exposed mud-flats. The February evening was drawing in tightly around the town and Trevor decided that he really should be thinking about where he was going to spend the night. Everywhere looked closed. An old man walked slowly past, followed by a limping mongrel that carried a stick too big for it. It seemed, still, that Trevor could not find absolute solitude, peace. "Excuse me, sir," he said. The man stopped; the dog continued to drag its heavy stick on its walk. "I wonder if you could help me? I'm looking for somewhere to stay — I wondered if you might know of somewhere?"

The old man thought for a while, staring out at the sea, the mud. When Trevor had just about decided that there would be no reply the man said, "'S'all closed, out here, boy. Only place I reckon is Missus Russell. 'S'one a them B'n'B places. Up there, round the corner, 'n'it's by the chippy." He waved directions and Trevor thanked him, turned and hoped he could find the place.

He found it easily and Mrs Russell was delighted to see him. She ushered him in from the evening and fussed over him as if he was her own. "We don't do food," she told him. "'Cept breakfasts, of course: full cooked, the lot. But I can pop through and get something from Ronnie if you like. That is if you didn't have other plans, of course." Trevor dined on cod and chips, courtesy of Ronnie, who, it turned out, was Mrs Russell's nephew, running the chip shop which was in a part of Mrs Russell's house. After East Enders and A Question of Sport Trevor remembered to have his bath and then he had an early night. The day had taken its toll and he was asleep soon after letting the great soft eiderdown float down on top of him. He dreamt of the woman at the station, of his mother, of Helen pulling eagerly at his limp penis. Knitting needles going clickety-click, clickety-click. I'm going to finish it this time it's for my half-sister and it's the arthritis you know. The woman with the hard, sharp-looking face, her hair orange like little Shane's — funny, how he hadn't notice that before. There were people he didn't know — but yet he did — people who kept leaning over him, prodding, tickling, touching. Do you want us? they chorused. Do you want us?

He woke to the smell of greasy eggs and greasy bacon, greasy fried bread, too. He woke to the sound of Mrs Russell singing Morning has Broken, her voice warbling jarringly on the top notes, the sound of gulls screaming outside, the electric whine of a milk float. He got up and searched through his bag for the toothbrush that he clearly remembered leaving lying on the bathroom windowsill at home. He rubbed his front teeth on the rough yellow towel by the sink, flinched at the resultant squeaking sounds and swilled his stale mouth out with a glass of water. He dressed in yesterday's clothes and went downstairs feeling curiously low, angry at himself for feeling so low, for being so angry at himself. Today was meant to be the start of something new. Day 1. The Beginning of Things to Come.

Out in the streets again, Trevor experienced more of those transient moments of aloneness that he had felt on his night-walks back in the city. But still there were people around. Ordinary people, but nonetheless people. It seemed that they were taunting him, free of his own crowd the world was throwing normal individuals at him, breaking his solitude.

He reached the promenade, snapped himself into decision. Another impulse. He smiled. His foul mood of the morning was doing him no good. This was the first chance in his entire life to be free, to be alone. He swung a leg over the winter flood boards that shielded the steps down to the beach.

The crunch of the gravel felt good beneath his feet. He strode down to the the water's edge where the pebbles were smaller, the walking easier. He took a deep breath, tasted the salt on the air. A soft sea breeze added a chill to the mild February morning but Trevor didn't notice. He was going to get away from everybody, just for a time, just for long enough to see what it was really like, this aloneness, this thing called privacy.

He walked along the beach, laughing at the gulls that flew up before him, screeching and wailing, just to circle and land when he had passed their resting place. He wished them no harm, yet still they lifted and landed, had to avoid being anywhere near him.

The smile wavered and then left his face when he paused and turned, saw how far he had come in such a short time. So this was alone. The sea no longer seemed the passive thing of the previous evening, each wave was the lifting of a mighty slab of water, reaching out towards him only to hesitate and then withdraw. Next time, were the words whispered by the gentle waves. Next time. The gulls still hung in the air, the latest group to rise and wait for him to pass. They didn't care, all they wanted was their bit of beach, they just wanted Trevor to go, to move on.

He looked back at the small cluster of whitewashed buildings that were all he could see of the town. He fought the urge to return — he had never known anything like this, it was a foreign country, an alien planet.

For once in his life, Trevor took a firm grip on himself. This was not it, this was not alone. He couldn't come so far and not reach the end, fail to sever that last visual link with the rest of humanity. When he could no longer see the town, he would finally know in his heart that he had tasted freedom, tasted aloneness. He turned and forced himself to resume his walk. Gulls settled behind him on the beach, others rose before him. He grinned when he saw two black and white birds with long orange beaks fly low across the sea, piping in alarm at his approach. "On," he muttered. "I must keep on."

At first he thought the noise was just the waves, crunching their way up the shingle. Then he thought that maybe it was some strange echo of his own footfalls. But soon there was no mistaking the sound of approaching footsteps, lighter and faster than his own. Trevor turned and was surprised to see how close the approaching figure was. Higher up the beach, she was wearing a pale blue jogging suit, a sweat-band pinning the fine blonde hair to her head.

It was her. The woman from the station. The woman of his dreams. He almost cried out, but then he caught himself.

She must have seen the last vestiges of his gesture and she acknowledged it, smiled, gave a little half-wave. Then she gave a carefree shake of her head and continued her run, never breaking her stride, never losing her rhythm.

Trevor found himself paralysed for a few painful moments. It was her. "Please ... " he said, his voice faint, his words tugged away by the light sea-breeze.

He started after her, but already she was a distant figure. He knew he could never catch her and even if he could, he would never be able to explain his actions. But he knew, too, that he could never forgive himself if he just allowed her to vanish into the distance.

He struggled up the gentle slope of the beach, his feet slithering on the loose pebbles, threatening to leave him lying in an exhausted heap from which he would never be able to rise. She flicked her hair again, a gesture that he loved already.

After a short distance, the woman veered left and headed up the unstable slope of the nearest sand dune. At the top, she paused and turned her head slightly. Trevor didn't know if she could still see him, but he saw the smile that lit up her face, saw that carefree flick of her hair. Then she disappeared over the crest of the dune.

Out of breath, Trevor approached the face of the dune at a half-trot, fearful that when he reached the top he would see nothing but sand. Miles and miles of sand. As his feet dug their way into the loose slope, struggling to find purchase, he heard the first strains of music. Something from the sixties, a tune he remembered from his childhood. As he climbed the sand he heard the voices drifting over the dune, the laughter, the gentle wash of conversation, even the chink of glass against glass.

He reached the top on hands and knees and the noises suddenly stopped. Set amongst the dunes was an open area, a sort of mini-amphitheatre, and in it was a crowd of people. Happy people, smiling people, they were his people, his crowd.

They were all looking expectantly at Trevor, glasses poised on their way to mouths, conversations halted in mid-flow. Trevor felt himself right on the edge, right on the cusp. With a sudden certainty he knew that if he was just to turn now and slither back down the dune, if he was just to return to the town, to the city, they would be gone forever. His lifelong wish would be granted. Freedom, privacy, aloneness. It was a terrible, terrifying thought. All that emptiness, all those times when he would be totally alone. Slowly, he climbed to his feet and began to walk. The people returned to their conversations, to their laughter. Trevor began to grin. He saw the woman in the crowd, smiling at him as he approached. She was holding two glasses. Trevor merged with the crowd.



This one was prompted by a joke from my then-in-laws: every time they sat down in a bar or restaurant the place emptied. What if the opposite happened? I wondered. What if you could never get away from people? What if you could never be alone?

Like "Skin", this is a Norfolk story. Neither is explicit about its setting, but place-names like Chapel Fields Gardens identify "Skin" as a Norwich story, while "To Be Alone, Together" moves up the coast to a seaside town based very loosely on Cromer, but also on any number of out-of-season seaside towns I've known well (they number among my favourite places).

I'm not sure why, but most of my stories that are horror, or otherwise darkly-weird, tend to be set in places where I've lived, like this. Later, we'll visit the town where I grew up as a kid, too, and all four of my teen horror novels are set in places where I've lived. Is that where the horrors are most exposed? Does horror come from putting threats in places where we should feel safe? I think that maybe it does for me.

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