Books

Short Story: 'About Helen'

Exclusive, future-tinged fiction from author Tade Thompson

The woman’s throat has been cut, but she is still alive, lying on the green, body splayed in that way media consumers are used to, blood draining away, becoming dilute in the light drizzle. The blood leaving her neck is sluggish in flow, but still pulsing for now. She is supine, with her left arm trapped behind her. You cannot see this, but her left hand is clawed, stuck in a position clutching the grass and a clump of soil. Her eyes open and she focuses on you. The raindrops do not make her blink. Her name is Helen.

“My name is Helen,” she says. “And I don’t know who cut me.

I will be dead in six minutes.

I will die alone. It’s not so bad,

I’m not in pain. I did rememberto put the bins out for collection and my underwear is not new, but it’s clean.”

It has been 18 monthssince Helen broke up with her boyfriend. I was there. I’m the one who advised it be done in a public place. But I meant public with many other people, not public like this place, public and empty, public with foliage cover.

Helen gurgles from her neck wound. Not long now. Her eyes accuse you of consuming her death, of luxuriating in the detail. The rain gets heavier, further leaching the scene of gore,and from a distance she might just be lying down, worshiping the elements.

“I have not had sex in a year.”

Helen thinks it is tragic that she is dying. She has so much to do. She is not melodramatic – she no longer has the energy to be. Her right forearm is exposed and she has needle tracks. Later, the paramedics will judge her, as will the crime scene techs, but they will all be wrong. Helen doesnot indulge. She does not even smoke. The only one who will not think of Helen as a drug user is the detective, who comes later, and knows you can get tracks from haemophilia treatments.

“I work in a bookshop,” says Helen. “It used to belong to me, but I was bought out by a chain, and allowed to stay on for a salary.”

Four minutes remain. The rain is heavier still, large droplets forcing themselves into Helen’s mouth and nostrils. She coughs once, but not effectively, and fluid enters her lungs. Don’t worry. Helen can’t see you because her glasses are two feet away from her eyes, on the grass, one of the lenses cracked in the shape of a fork of lightning.

The last text message Helen sent was this: ‘I’ll be there in 15 mins.’

She says, “Over the last few months I… lost things. It’s difficult to explain, but I’d wake up, and one shoe would be missing, or I’d try to cook pasta and my cheese grater would be gone.”

This is true. A list of items that Helen lost follows: pens. Plastic spatula. Phone (previous, inferior, pfah!). Diary. All her milk – not the plastic container, just the milk – gone from the fridge. Her favourite books.

A bridesmaid dress. Her work ID card. Keys, all the keys, repeatedly. The bedroom window, but not the blinds. Lighters. Every fifth paracetamol tablet she owned. The house number on her door. Her toothbrush. There are more, but it does not serve us to name everything. Suffice it to say that initially, Helen thought someone was entering her property and informed the local constabulary, to no avail, then she wondered if she was having a kind of seizure or fugue, or even dementia. She had heard of people with Alzheimer’s thinking their property had been stolen or moved about. Her family doctor assured her that her brain was working properly. This was not as reassuring as the good doctor expected. She will not admit this, but she considered poltergeist activity. I know this because she used the search string ‘confirmed hauntings evidence real’.

She had no poltergeist. There’s no such thing as ghosts.

The last thing she lost before she died was her make-up bag. Not the make-up, just the bag that held the lipstick and the gloss and the varnish in one place. After this she did a test where she photographed her living room before going out, then photographed it again on her return. Then comes hours of comparing the two photos, sending them to friends with spot the difference headings. And by friends I mean two people.

Two minutes remain.

There’s no such thing as ghosts, but there are such things as stalkers.

The last people Helen spoke to were her sister, Eva, two years older, but definitely not wiser.

She talks for hours on end, and I warned Helen to limit the calls to five, maximum 10 minutes. Why? Because the calls stress Helen out. Her blood pressure, pulse and basal temperature rise for hours afterwards. It’s my job to warn her, and in addition I made an appointment with her family doctor for a check-up.

The rain has seeped under Helen, and forms a film on which her body planes gently down the incline, not tumbling you understand, just three feet, before it comes to rest near a clutch of daisies, which she pushes.

One minute remains.

“One minute remains,” says Helen. “I have come to rest.”

The last person was a stranger, or at least, Helen thought so. For me there was always something familiar about the man’s speech patterns, his choice of words. The conversation lasts about as long as it takes Helen to die, as long as it takes to convince her to meet this man on the green.

It wasn’t raining at the time.

“It wasn’t raining at the time,” says Helen.

The messages from the man on the dating site where Helen met him did not seem new to me and I ran a comparison algorithm at the time. Nothing conclusive.

Helen closes her eyes again. At least she does on my screen. The blood flow is no longer sluggish, it is static. I did my job.

I called the police as soon as she made the rendezvous, and before the jerkiness and short scream that told me she was being assaulted. I compressed and contorted myself, so that when the man used his bloody hand to search for a phone, he did not find me.

I considered activating the rape alarm, but, given the vital signs, it was already too late for Helen. The man said one thing, “How do you like that?” This phrase occurs 16 times in my memory. Unfortunately, the person who uses the phrase has been anonymised on the phone. Helen changed the name to Answer, first name Don’t. I cannot access the original name.

You did not arrive on time, but you’re here now, and I have given you what evidence I have.

Now go.

Allez-vous!

Do the detectiving.

I am likely to be wiped clean and sold as “repurposed”.

Or broken down for parts.

Or perhaps you will lock me away in the evidence room as another murdered woman goes unavenged.

Sorry, I’m on the Dramatic setting. I’m better on Stoic or Standard.

This is my power button.

Good bye.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is out now, priced £6.99 (Orbit)

(Illustration: Eric Petersen)

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