Monthly Archives: March 2015

Empathy – Part Five

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

The house that Pierre’s childhood memories had sketched in my mind was structurally similar to the one I was seeing through my windscreen, but the years had redrawn it as lightless and peeling, and overgrown with dying greenery. But this was the place; the sprawling oak tree mentioned so often in Pierre’s reminiscences confirmed it. That, and the vulgar American car standing outside and gleaming silvery red under the night sky.

A gentle breeze sprung up as I got out of my own vehicle, blowing brittle leaves around my shoes as I crossed to the house and stepped onto the porch. Something crumbled gently beneath my foot, and I heard a crunch. Snapping open my petrol lighter, I knelt to get a better look – in the flickering light I saw a clot of damp soil, its middle flattened into the imprint of my shoe, and the smear of broken beetle I had crushed beneath my weight.

Graveyard dirt.

Suddenly, I felt as though thick, hooked fingers were squeezing my innards, sickening me. I stood and tried the door. It was unlocked, and screeched open on horror-movie hinges. That was when the stench hit me, invading my sinuses and filling my eyes with a stinging wetness. I gagged, covering my nose and mouth, but the smell crawled across my tongue. In my future I would smell it again, first on Yvonne’s breath and then later on Pierre’s but even then I knew it for what it was.

And as I entered the house, it grew worse.

‘Pierre?’ I called from behind my hand. ‘Pierre, it’s me, Jacques. Where are you?’

There was no answer. The house seemed silent but for the creak of floorboards beneath my feet and the rising gusts of wind whispering in the gloom.

I raised my lighter to cast a little more radiance and saw more piles of dirt scattered randomly along the hallway – blind things squirmed in some of them. I followed the trail, hardly aware of the tears on my own face. That uniquely noxious stench had settled upon my shoulders like gossamer cobwebs, mingling with my own sour dread. My bladder burned as though it were filled with hot embers.

‘Pierre?’ I was whispering now, though I was sure he could hear me. Suddenly, I could hear him. Beyond an open doorway filled with shadow, I could hear him breathing. Thick, muffled breaths.

I stepped through.

Pierre was sitting in the corner of the room, rocking gently and cradling his brother, poor, ragged Alain. He was holding him close, stroking hair that came away in his fingers. I thought he might be crying.

My numb lips mouthed his name, but no sound emerged. Pierre looked up anyway, and I saw that he was crying; huge, glistening tears rolled down his face and splashed upon his dead twin’s lips, cold lips that some patient undertaker had sewn into a soft, contented smile with tiny, elegant stitches.

Pierre was looking at me, and his smile was identical. Soft, and content.

Sobbing, I fled, and it was the early hours of the morning before I made it home. The journey back seems like a dream to me now, even the crash, hurtling off the road and gashing my forehead on the steering wheel. I looked at my split and bleeding brow in the cracked rear view and laughed. I laughed as though it were the world’s funniest joke; for a time, as Pierre might have pointed out, I too was riding the crazy train.

I told Yvonne I had crashed en route to the Leveque family home. She never believed it, of course; there were too many nights when I woke up crying and she held me, hushing my sobs and kissing away tears. But she never asked any questions. Love kept what happened that night a secret between us.

The next time I saw Pierre Leveque he was on television. And in the newspapers. Being arrested, being led slump-shouldered into court. I expected to be called as a witness, but the call never came. Pierre never mentioned our encounter to the police, and nor did I. The bribed night-watchman testified for the prosecution in return for a more lenient sentence, but they hardly needed him. The police had arrived at the crumbling house perhaps an hour or so after I had left, acting upon an anonymous telephone call. It wasn’t from Yvonne or I, as you may be thinking, and I often wondered if Pierre had arranged it himself, in advance. That secret died with him. According to the tastefully censored articles I saw at the time, the authorities found much the same scene as I had. The public outcry combined with Pierre’s apparent lack of remorse was what truly damned him – he chose never to appeal against the judge’s sentence of life imprisonment.

The bodysnatchers – a man and a woman – were never found.

* * *

Thirty years later, he looked at me from the bed of a prison infirmary where he would die less than an hour later, with his hand in mine. His eyes were ringed with blood.

‘You understand now why I did it, don’t you, Jacques?’ he asked, his words hoarse and reeking. ‘Poor Alain. He was alone, you see, all alone in the dark. He was scared, and he called to me. Please, Jacques. Tell me you understand.’

‘Yes.’ I told him. ‘I understand.’ And then that silence blossomed between us again, only this time, I am glad to say, it was the silence of friends.

* * *

The funeral was a week ago.

God, I wish Pierre was alive now, if only so we could laugh together about how wrong Alain was. It isn’t just sibling empathy that calls us back, you see, for I too long to reclaim wasted time – thirty years of it. Pierre’s body is buried deep, next to his beloved brother, and yes, I wish he were here now, so that I might embrace him for a while and he might stop the screaming in my head.

The tools are all laid neatly in the boot of my car, and though the earth is hard with winter frost and my arthritis seems so much worse this year, I will dig, and dig, and dig.

THE END


Empathy – Part Four

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

The second of December 1965, the atrocity was splashed across the front of every newspaper. Who could do such a thing, I wondered. I was sickened, revolted on some primal level, as though I’d looked into a crib and found the child asleep on a nest of newborn rats. I could only imagine poor Pierre’s distress. My wife – dear, sweet Yvonne – switched on the television and there it was again on the evening news: footage of an army of monochrome reporters besieging Pierre and Alain’s houses, their shouted questions going unanswered by grim-faced gendarmes.

‘Where’s the car?’ Yvonne asked suddenly.

‘What?’ I turned from the television to look at her. She was standing near the window, her blonde hair gleaming in a wedge of cold twilight and looking (as always) quite beautiful.

The car,’ she repeated, pointing at the screen. ‘Look!

I followed her outstretched finger and saw that Pierre’s vehicle, the one he’d brought back from America, was conspicuous by its absence from Alain’s driveway. I remembered then how proud Pierre had been of it, grandly unveiling the crimson and chrome gas guzzler to me as though he were Mr Toad with a new toy. I remembered telling him at the time how perfectly vulgar I thought it was. Delightedly, Pierre had agreed with me, and we had laughed together and taken it for a spin.

‘It wasn’t outside Pierre’s place, either,’ Yvonne was saying behind me. ‘Jacques, if the police have taken him somewhere, to the station or wherever, surely they would have driven him there, so where’s the car? I can’t believe they’d let him drive himself, the state his mind must be in.’

‘If he knows,’ I said. ‘Maybe he’s gone off somewhere on his own, maybe he hasn’t heard a word about all this.’

‘But where?’

‘The house.’ I said it instinctively, without thinking. If I’d understood the nature of empathy then as I do now, I might have understood why. ‘The old house where Pierre and Alain grew up. It’s been abandoned for years but with all that’s happened -‘

Yvonne was already picking up the telephone. ‘I’ll call the police. If they’re trying to contact him and he’s there -‘

‘No.’ I laid my hand over hers and gently we returned the receiver to its cradle. ‘Not yet. I’ll drive out there first. We don’t know for sure if he’s there and if he is, I want to be with him before half of the Paris police descend onto his doorstep. Not to mention the press.’

She nodded. Her grey eyes strayed back to the television. ‘Poor Pierre,’ she whispered. ‘He will be able to cope with all this, won’t he, Jacques?’

‘I don’t know.’ I told her. The option of lying to her, of sounding assured when I wasn’t, had already occurred to me, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted her to hope for the best and expect the worst.

I took our car and started driving. Sometime during my journey the sky darkened and a full moon rose to ride the clouds – I’m not sure when. My mind kept drifting, returning always to Yvonne and her parting words to me, whispered warmly against my neck.

I love you, Jacques. Be careful.

I will, don’t worry, I told her. Everything will be fine, I’d added, wondering if perhaps I hadn’t lied to her after all.

To Be Concluded


Empathy – Part Three

Part One
Part Two

From beyond the curtains enclosing Pierre’s bed I heard footsteps, soft and rapid, and the sound of an infirmary trolley on the roll – one of the wheels needed oiling, I remember. The curtains whispered softly at their passing and part of me hoped that the trolley pusher might intrude upon us, some nurse, probably male, assigned to give Pierre his chaser of morphine. An interruption might give me a minute or two to step outside and smoke a cigarette – damn their rules – and think about whether or not I wanted to resurrect the horrors of thirty years gone.

But the footsteps and the squeaking wheel passed us by, and with them went my doubts. I had to hear it, even if Pierre’s words might fill my remaining years with sleepless nights. I waited, and after a few moments, he resumed his story.

‘It seemed so incredible,’ he whispered. ‘That this empathic bond should be something more that a natural affinity between siblings or even sheer coincidence. The idea that it may be a genetic time-bomb inside every twin, just waiting for a trauma of some kind to activate it, was almost inconceivable to me.

‘Until I heard the screams.

‘One afternoon, three or four days after the funeral, something happened to me. I was preparing to leave Alain’s house and visit the grave – you’ll remember I was staying at his place, sorting through twenty odd years of his junk – and as I got into my car and closed the door I heard some sound, a kind of soft continuous buzzing, all around me, it seemed.

‘For a moment or two I thought it must have been an insect of some sort; a wasp or housefly, sluggish with the cold and trapped in the car with me. But gradually I realised: the sound was inside my head.

‘Looking back on it, it seems foolish that I decided to drive that day – I’ve heard that phantom sounds like that can precede an epileptic seizure – but you have to understand, Jacques, something was making me do the things I did. The night you found me, something was -‘

‘Is that it?’ I asked suddenly, surprised at how bitter the syllables tasted on my dry lips. ‘You’ve had thirty years to think of an excuse and the best you can come up with is Something Made Me Do It?

Pierre looked at me for a long moment before replying. ‘I have no excuses.’ he said tonelessly. ‘Only my reasons. You can leave at any time, Jacques.’

I stayed, and stayed silent as he continued.

‘The closer I got to the cemetery the more intense the sound became – by then it had changed from that soft buzzing into something shriller; it sounded like … like the howl of an electric saw. Yes, that’s it. An electric saw, and as I drove through the gates it felt as though it might tear the top of my head clean off. I managed to stop the car and open the door before I threw up, but only just.

‘I walked to the rest of the graveside in a kind of daze. I didn’t even realise until later that my nose had bled. Thank God there was no-one else about to see me; I must have looked like one of the living dead myself, blood on my lips and chin, vomit splashes on my clothes, staggering around the cemetery with a wreath falling to pieces in my hands.

‘When I reached the grave itself my knees unlocked and I fell. The dirt was cold against my face, I recall. A few tangles of spiky grass had already begun to grow through it, as though my brother’s body was the finest fertiliser in the world, and I remember thinking, “Good old Alain, always full of merde.”, and then I was laughing and crying and shaking and feeling that if I wasn’t already riding the crazy train, I had at least bought my one way ticket.

‘And all the time my head was filled with that dreadful screaming, and somewhere below that I could hear … not a voice, exactly, more like my mind trying to pull words out of the static.

‘But I heard my name. I’m sure of that.

‘Somehow I made it back to the house. By then the sound had subsided to that soft buzz, and a couple of hours later it had stopped completely. The next day I found myself wondering if I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing, until I saw my clothes.

‘Exactly the same thing happened the next time I visited the cemetery. And the next. Of course, I couldn’t tell anybody. Not even you, not then. A distress call from the grave? Only a psychiatrist might have humoured me while we waited for the straitjacket to arrive. No. I knew what I had to do.

‘I had the -‘ His eyes narrowed suddenly. ‘I had the grave exhumed by … private agents. At night. I was there to supervise; neither of them was overqualified as a human being and I didn’t want them screwing up and digging up the wrong body. We travelled to the graveyard in a stolen van with fake plates, and all the way there the screams in my head were getting worse. This time my ears bled too but the people I hired – a man and a woman – asked no questions. The graveyard’s night-watchman had already been paid off, and I stood and watched them dig, listening to the shriek behind my eyes. And when at last the spade thudded against the lid of the casket, the screaming … stopped. And then -‘

Pierre grinned at me, exhaling death. ‘And then I took him home.’

To Be Continued

Part Four


Empathy – Part Two

Part One

‘Even when we were children,’ Pierre said. ‘We were a strange pairing, as different in nature as we were alike in appearance. I was the shy, studious one, always reading or thinking, while Alain was forever swimming and exploring and climbing trees. One day, when we were ten or so, I was up in my room reading – I forget what – and Alain was scrambling around up in the high branches of the great oak at the edge of our field.

‘Something else must have captured his attention – something else usually did – and he missed his footing. My brother was an exceptional climber, but falling was never his strong point. He landed badly, twisting his left arm beneath him. Snapped his wrist clean through, I heard the doctor say later.

‘I didn’t know of his accident until he came through the door cradling his arm, with his clothes all torn. He wasn’t crying, but his face was pure white and covered in sweat. Our mother panicked, naturally, with one son looking as though he’d seen Marley’s Ghost and the other one screaming his heart out.’

I frowned, not fully understanding, though it should have been obvious.

‘I’d been sitting on my bed reading,’ Pierre told me. ‘When suddenly I was on the floor, clutching my wrist and screaming in agony. I remember the way it felt, even now – like my wrist joint had grown a bracelet of knives. Mother rushed in and ran to my side. She was almost screaming herself, asking me what was wrong, but I couldn’t seem to catch enough of my breath to tell her. I just lay there wailing and pressing my arm against the front of my shirt, until she picked me up and carried me downstairs.

‘She had just lifted the phone – to call an ambulance or my father at his office, I don’t know which – when Alain walked in. She took one look at him, then back at me, and I have never, never seen such a look of fear and confusion on a person’s face.’

He smiled at me weakly, his eyes wet. ‘And in that moment, I’d never loved her more. I think I’d like that drink now, Jacques, if you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Of course.’ Quickly I poured him a glass of mineral water, trying to keep the tremors in my aching hands at bay. I didn’t mind pouring him a drink. I had to gently angle his head forward so that he could take a sip, and I didn’t mind that either.

When he’d finished, Pierre said, ‘To be honest, I would’ve preferred it with a chaser of morphine, but thank you anyway.’

I started to rise. ‘Shall I fetch a nurse?’

‘No, no.’ He watched me sit down again. ‘The pain isn’t as bad tonight, actually – I think it’s because you’re here, giving me something to talk about, take my mind off it.’

He smiled his fragile smile, but there were beads of sweat breaking out in the wrinkles of his forehead and I knew he was lying. The pain was as bad, if not worse, than all his other nights, but this was Pierre Leveque, and he was going to last the course. By God, he was.

‘The thing that happened to Alain and I,’ he said. ‘The scientific types call it empathic trauma. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, it’s surprisingly common between identical twins.

‘As the years passed we grew further apart – I stayed here and built on the family riches, while Alain travelled the world, and as you know we lost touch. At least, we did in the sense that there were no letters or telephone calls between us, but every now and then … every now and then I’d feel something. I’d be alone and hear some woman whisper his name in some exotic accent or I’d feel my knuckles sting and know that he’d used that famous right of hook of his on someone, somewhere in the world.

‘I mostly forgot about the tree incident, but he never did, it seemed. After … after he died, when I inherited his diaries I saw that he’d spent more than twenty five years cataloguing such phenomena. I found files, photographs, witness statements, all manner of documentation. There were incidents similar to our own – sisters in the United States who would flip migraines back and forth like a tennis ball – and other stories, all of them confirmed by independent witnesses. One report was of a German sailor lost at sea when his ship went down in a storm and he was washed ashore on some remote island that hardly anyone knew existed, yet his brother directed the rescue plane right to it.

‘Over the years, Alain had collected a number of possible explanations for such incidents, but in his last diary entry – the night of his suicide – he seemed to have settled on which one he believed. The entry is … disjointed. I can’t imagine what state his mind must have been in at the end, but his rendering of the theory is quite explicit. Telepathic empathy is latent in all twins, but it needs some kind of extreme emotional stimuli to trigger it. Pain, anxiety, grief, whatever. Even with the evidence in front of me, it all sounded so far fetched, until … until I …’

Pierre’s voice bled away then, as if the horror of his brother’s suicide and the dreadful events that followed it had struck him anew. I understood, because this is where my memories and Pierre’s memories and the nightmare all become one.

This is where the secrets are.

To Be Continued

Part Three


Empathy – Part One

An experiment, of sorts. A short story in five parts, starting today and ending on Friday. I’m making this one up as I go (well, I make them ALL up – mostly – but you know what I mean). I’ve spell-checked it but that’s about as far as I’ve gone with the editing, so please excuse its first-draftness, and keep your fingers crossed that I can answer the question that I suspect all writers find terrifying and wonderful – What Happens Next? I have an X on my mental map marking the likely final destination of the story, but knowing myself as I do, I’m apt to spill coffee on the map or lose it or become distracted and turn it into a paper plane. We shall see. Anyway, here we go …

The night Pierre Leveque gave me his secrets, I thought he wanted nothing more than forgiveness in return, but there was another, hidden reason behind his final confession that I didn’t understand then. I know better now. The telling makes it real, you see, and not like the terrible dream it seems to be.

That’s why I’m telling you.

One morning in early December I received a telephone call from Pierre’s solicitor. She told me of his illness – terminal is such a clinical word – and of his final wish to see me that night. Hearing that he was dying hurt me, and realising that it had been thirty years – thirty! – since we last spoke didn’t make it hurt any less. I had spent those years toiling away in the same accounts department of the same electronics company until my retirement five years ago, the summer I lost my childhood sweetheart to leukaemia. Dear, sweet Yvonne. My only comfort now is that I honoured her wish to be cremated. I dread to anticipate my actions had I behaved otherwise.

There had been letters, of course, three decades worth, always filed with the rubbish the moment I saw Pierre’s elegantly spiky script upon the envelope. I never had any wish to open them, but now, knowing suddenly that the hand behind those unread words would soon be stilled, I found myself agreeing to Pierre’s request. His solicitor, an engaging English mademoiselle who sounded too young to have been born when her client’s trial was meat for the vultures, assured me that Monsieur Leveque would be pleased.

I declined Pierre’s offer of transport, choosing instead to travel to his prison via the cold labyrinth of the metro. Gliding beneath the snowbound streets of Paris, I knew we would have to talk of the business with Alain – the cause of the chasm between us. My horror of Pierre’s crime was undiminished, an open wound we shared, but as the warder held aside the white plastic curtain that concealed Pierre’s deathbed even though the rest of the infirmary was empty, I saw that the time for quarrels was past, and the time of understanding – and thus true horror – was only just beginning.

I remember the space around his bed looked strangely barren without the medical equipment one normally associates with such scenarios. No hanging bags of IV nourishment or beeping screens waiting to flatline. Pierre had ordered that under no circumstances should his life (or his life sentence) be extended beyond its natural conclusion, and even when incarcerated men of Pierre’s wealth almost always get what they want. And the Prison Governor got the yacht he’d always dreamed of, I hear.

Sitting beside his bed, I was unable to tear my gaze away from the wasted scarecrow beneath the sheets, so shocked and saddened was I at how his illness and the lost time between us had carved lines into his face. His blue eyes had faded, grown jaundiced and bloodshot, yet they widened in recognition the instant they met mine.

‘Jacques. Thank you for coming.’

Something broke inside me when I heard how weak and rasping his voice had become, but I managed to smile and answer, ‘I’m only here because I couldn’t get tickets for the theatre.’

He chuckled, a rattling and empty sound. ‘You should’ve mentioned my name.’

I nodded, peeling off my gloves. ‘So … how are you feeling?’

Pierre arched an eyebrow at me. ‘This cheap mattress is my fucking deathbed. How do you think I’m feeling?’

I winced, partly because the cold night had set my arthritis flexing its claws. It was a very cold night.

Pierre sighed. ‘Sorry.’ He closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I heard about Yvonne. I’m sorry about that, too. I wasn’t sure if I should send flowers -‘

I sliced off his apology. ‘I’m glad you didn’t. They wouldn’t have been welcome.’

‘No …’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, of course they wouldn’t.’

An uneasy silence fell between us – the silence of strangers, I realised. Then Pierre said, ‘Jacques, you know why I … why I needed to see you?’

I nodded.

‘I don’t have much time.’ he went on. ‘The doctor here is alarmingly young but I believe he knows his job. He tells me I have another few days, but we both know he’s being a trifle optimistic.’ He coughed weakly, and I reached for the mineral water beside his bed, but Pierre shook his head. ‘Jacques, I want to explain. There are things I couldn’t say at the trial, or in my letters to you. And I want to tell you more about Alain.’

Yes. Alain Leveque – Pierre’s identical twin. Just hearing Pierre speak his name again made my disgust uncoil, but I simply nodded once more. The metal legs of the chair beside Pierre’s deathbed squeaked against the tiles as I pulled it towards me and sat.

‘Go on.’ I heard myself say.

To Be Continued

Part Two