Stella finds herself standing in an unlit laneway. The entertainment strip, in all its tacky glory, glitters in the night a block closer to the river from where she is. It’s full to the brim with people, a seething, oozing mass of bodies heaving from bar to pub to club. Pretty young things, loud and brash and full of the confidence that comes with a little too much alcohol, parade up and down the boulevard like peacocks, trying to draw each other into that ‘come-here-go-away’ ritual dance that happens on party strips in most towns on most Saturday nights. Where Stella is standing, however, feels dark and seedy and completely deserted.
In fact, standing is probably something of an exaggeration. Without the silent, stoic, non-judgmental support of the brick wall that’s holding her up, I doubt very much she would be standing at all. She sailed past the confidence of a little too much alcohol a few hours ago. That’s precisely why she’s here in this laneway. Stella is not just cocky with alcohol; she is hopelessly drunk. She has slunk away because she’s no longer parading; rather she’s stumbling around like an animal that’s waking up from heavy sedation. It’s not a pretty picture, so she’s come here to hide while she tries to pull herself together. I am quietly watching her. That’s what I do. I watch, and I keep her safe.
Stella’s certainly been through the wringer, as they say. She started young, giving herself completely, only to discover he wasn’t the love of her life. Nor was the next one, or the one after that. And on and on it went. It became like washing her hair. Rinse, and repeat. Rinse, and repeat. After a while she realised that, like her overwashed hair, she was becoming dried out and fragile. It was time to be on her own. As it turns out, she can’t even get being by herself right. That’s why she comes here. She wants to be around people, to have fun, but still be on her own and not have to open up to anybody. That discomfort inside is not something Stella wants to share. Or even to feel, really. She’s not ready to face it, so she glosses over it. She’s very good at keeping up that façade. Even her shrink thinks she’s incredibly self-possessed.
She is something of a regular, out on the town, always looking for the most fun with the least commitment. Usually, this involves the consumption of a sizeable amount of alcohol, laughing too loudly at jokes, mild flirting on the dance floor, and finally securing a cab home to flop into her bed and fade into slumber until the heat or the neighbour’s lawnmower rip her back into the real world. It’s a comfortable, familiar pattern. It marks the passage of time, because in her rather shallow and meaningless life there aren’t many other yardsticks she can use to measure the march of days. She has nobody special, no pets, not many real friends; she works through the week at her cashier job and fills the weekends with partying and recovery. Rinse, and repeat.
It’s getting harder as she gets older. The vibrant young things on the strip tonight have reminded her that she’s not considered a prize anymore; frankly, Stella is a faded star. People her age should be paired up and staying in on the weekends, having dinner parties with their other ‘couple’ friends and playing sophisticated adult games. She’s out here every weekend pretending she’s still young and beautiful, that she can keep up. Tonight, though, Stella believes she might have overdone it.
She’s not sure how many drinks she’s had, or how many times she’s bought a round for everyone, but knows she had a few hundred dollars when she left home this evening and there wasn’t much left the last time she opened her purse at the bar. Not a good sign. Not that it matters to her much; she doesn’t have anything else to spend her money on except trying to recapture that first flush of youth that she wasted on people who didn’t really care about her, or who didn’t care about her enough to try and hold on to her. Easy come, easy go.
She slumps against the wall, swaying slightly, and steadies herself with one hand. This has gone far enough, I decide. I need to act. I approach her slowly, cautiously. I don’t know why. She’s so dazed a freight train could be roaring up the alley towards her and she’d have absolutely no idea. She needs to move, but I can’t move her. I’m not allowed; subtle suggestion and coercion are the tools of my trade. I lean in towards her and speak.
The voice she hears sounds exactly like her own, but she knows it can’t be hers because at the precise moment she hears the voice speaking, she is vomiting all over the wall that continues to graciously hold her up, despite the deluge. But it’s me she hears, in a voice identical to hers, over the heaving and spluttering. We who watch, borrow the voices of the people we watch. Some think they just hear their own thoughts when I speak. And, sadly, I am not kind to her.
You silly, silly girl.
It nearly jolts Stella out of her skin. This happens every time, but she never seems to get used to it. She jerks upright, looking around her. She doesn’t see me. She’s wondering how she heard her own voice, when she is so clearly incapable of speaking at the moment. But waves of nausea hit her afresh, and she’s back to relying on the wall to stay standing, while all the money she’s spent on drinks pours out of her stomach and into the gutter, splattering her boots. I sigh. I’ll have to try again.
What on earth do you think you’re doing here?
She just shakes her head, miserable and in no mood to be judged, especially by what she thinks is her own disembodied voice. I try a more conciliatory tone.
You do realise you’re completely alone here. Nobody knows where you are. You could pass out here. This is really dangerous.
She rocks gently against the wall, pressing her forehead against its cool surface. The message doesn’t seem to be getting through. There is no indication that she’s going to take any action. Time to stick the knife in, and give it a good twist. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
And you’re certainly in no state to defend yourself, are you? Anyone could just walk down the laneway here and take you, do as they wished with you and dump your corpse in the river.
I follow her gaze as she looks back down the laneway towards the street, towards relative safety, staring at the single streetlight and the dingy pool of orange-tinted light that’s gathered at its base. But she still doesn’t move. I sigh. This never gets easier. I’ve been doing this for so long. They don’t want to see the danger they put themselves in. And I hate watching them rail so hard against my attempts to keep them safe, but it’s my job. I don’t think she’s beyond caring, though. At least, not yet. I think I can still save her.
You need to get out. Standing down here like this, it isn’t safe.
She takes a sharp breath in, and looks down at herself, as if seeing her body clearly for the first time. With visible effort, she pulls herself off the wall. For one dizzying moment, it looks like she might fall; but she rallies and manages to take the all-important first step, back towards the streetlight at the end of the laneway. She weaves and totters a little but her progress is steady, and then suddenly she’s back on the street, bathing in that soft pool of orange streetlight. Even after all these years I’m still not used to being incorporeal; I shrink back into the laneway even though I know she can’t see me. Nobody can, even if I want them to. It’s against the rules, like moving them. We keep them safe, and they never know we exist. Some have a blind faith in us, but their beliefs are a long way from the truth; we are not all tall, radiant whiteness and feathered wings. Some of us accept our roles grudgingly. Many of us grow weary of the thankless nature of our work, convincing people hell bent on self destruction to take steps back towards safety, watching over the people who are utterly certain of our non-existence. People like Stella.
There’s a public drink fountain near the bus stop across the street. Stella carefully crosses and heads towards it. The cool, fresh water comes bubbling up and she takes mouthfuls of it, swishing it around in her mouth, and spitting it into the gutter. Rinse, and repeat. I watch from the laneway as she straightens up, smooths back her hair, and inspects the damage to her boots. Nothing too obvious, thankfully. She could go back into one of the bars if she likes. I hope not. It wearies me, watching her do this every weekend. I don’t know how much longer I’ll have the energy or the patience for it. But it’s what I do. I watch, and I keep her safe. So often, though, she does the same thing. I steer her out of danger, and she throws herself right into harm’s way again, straight back to the bars to keep on drinking from the poisoned chalice.
Fortune smiles upon me tonight. Stella heads away from the strip towards the cab rank, and climbs into a cab. She’s going home. I watch the tail lights of the cab disappear into the darkness. Something cool and wet lands on my neck, then another on my shoulder, and another on my forehead. I look up as the rain begins to fall, gently at first, and then in earnest. It washes over me, over the streetlight, over the unlit laneway, clearing away all the detritus and grime, the smell and the fear. I look around at the street, now quiet. I hope I won’t find myself back here again next weekend, but that seems like a lofty dream if history is anything to go by. She’ll come back. She always comes back. Rinse, and repeat.
Amanda McLeod is an emerging author with a love of the creative arts. She has been an avid reader for as long as she can remember, and recently rediscovered her passion for writing. In between writing sessions, Amanda keeps her head clear by oil painting and taking long walks with her dog. She lives with her young family in Melbourne, Australia.