Carol Vance lifted her balloon, seeking an altitude from which a falling body would have the chance to do some thinking on the way down.
Cursing her oversized NOMEX gloves, she turned up the burners heating the cone of air overhead, sending the gas-filled sphere higher. At last, she judged the balloon had reached 3,000 feet. She could barely see cows facing into the wind, the simplest test she knew for wind direction. She double-checked the harness fastening her to the basket.
She looked toward the sunrise and breathed deeply. Then she turned around and said, “Jack Tyrrell,” loudly and crisply. The moment she finished saying his name, a man appeared in the basket.
He looked at Carol, then at the ground far below. He gripped the side of the basket. Stress contorted his bony face into a death mask.
Carol laughed. “Just like a bad penny,” she said. “You always turn up.”
“So you’ve learned my secret,” Jack Tyrrell said. Watching him grapple for aplomb warmed Carol in the chill air. “That won’t help you. Neither will this childish stunt. Why don’t you land and we’ll–“
Jack grunted as Carol’s boot struck the knot of his Liberty tie. Her kick sent him over the rail and he lost his grip, arms flailing as he fell. Her harness holding her back from the edge, Carol reduced the gas flow to compensate for the basket’s sudden lightness.
“Carol,” a voice said from the business-band radio next to Carol’s picnic basket, “are you all right? We just saw something fall out of your balloon.”
“Not now.” Carol realized she’d lost sight of the falling man. “Jack,” she said. The man appeared before her once again, shaking but alive; Carol swallowed with relief. To her radio, she said, “It was just ballast. Thanks for asking.” She turned back to the dry-heaving man, who had lost a shoe. “You didn’t happen to notice a grey van on your way down, did you? I was wondering where my chase crew had got to, but they seem to have seen you.”
The man shook his head. “Can’t we talk?” he croaked.
“I think I loved you,” Carol said, planting her foot again on Jack’s chest. “I loved you, and you nearly killed me.” His fingers reached in vain for the basket’s edge as she flung him gently into space.
Carol first saw Jack over the head of a mechanical Bengal tiger at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The soldier in the tiger’s mouth represented the British Empire, which had eventually overrun the tiger’s makers. Jack joked about biting off more than you can chew, and held out a smaller hand than Carol’s.
Jack spoke knowledgeably about art; better, he listened to Carol’s opinions with respect. He coughed into a handkerchief instead of his sleeve, and when he went to the gents, he returned with hands freshly washed. His accent had tinges of Essex, but he compensated well. Carol noticed no change in Jack’s behavior when she mentioned she lived in a flat just off Sloane Square. Nor did he seem to hold her cheerfully equine profile against her. When he invited Carol to lunch at Daquise, a subterranean Polish place nearby, she accepted. Over bigos and pierogies, Carol asked Jack what he did for a living and he said he was in the property business: distressed properties mainly. She said maybe he could help her find a new house.
Soon, Carol was seeing a lot of Jack. She had only to mention his name, even just his first name, and he appeared, a show of devotion that made Carol rhapsodize about him. It made buying him gifts like monogrammed boxer shorts difficult, not to mention dishing to her friends. But Jack always rejoiced to see Carol, even when he wandered into a crowded restaurant wearing only a bathrobe, which Carol interpreted as an interesting fashion statement. “Ah, Carol. What a pleasant surprise,” he would say.
“What can I say?” Carol said to her friend Mary. “He can’t tear himself away from me for a second.”
“And you like that,” Mary half-asked.
“Damn straight,” Carol said. “I like a man who knows I’m alive. He’s obviously crazy about me.”
More accurately, Carol was driving Jack crazy. Never the best predictor of his own movements, Jack lost all mastery after he met Carol.
A typical day: Jack had a morning meeting with a bond analyst to whom he wanted to sell a house built over a Saxon tomb whose inhabitant rose every couple of weeks. He arranged a meeting at a cafe opposite Liverpool Street station, then phoned the cafe five minutes beforehand. “Hello,” he told the man who answered. “Could you see if Jack Tyrrell is there, please?”
Jack heard the man yell, “Anyone here named Jack Tyrrell?”
A glare filled Jack’s eyes and he scented lilacs. Then the smell of grease overwhelmed him and he saw a roomful of people eating fry-ups. The bond analyst hadn’t arrived yet. The cafe owner looked around impatiently until Jack identified himself. Then the owner handed Jack the phone and he pretended to talk to himself for a moment.
The bond analyst showed up, and Jack launched his sales pitch. As usual, he warned the client not to mention the deal to anyone while it was still in the works. Just as Jack started to make headway with the potential homebuyer, he scented lilacs again. Carol faced him; to her right stood a glass counter full of cakes. He recognized Harrods’ baked goods department. “Oh, it’s you,” Carol said. “I hope you’re not diabetic. I wanted to buy you an unbirthday cake as a surprise. Alice in Wonderland, you know.”
“I know,” Jack said, mustering a smile for his most promising potential client. “It’s a nice thought.” He ran across the crowded shop floor, mentally reviewing the quickest route to Liverpool Street. Of course, the bond analyst didn’t mention his name.
Not only had the bond analyst left the cafe by the time Jack arrived, but someone had stolen his coat from the back of his chair. He shivered and headed for his Bromley flat.
Halfway to Bromley, Jack scented lilacs. Carol stood in the crockery section at Harrods, reciting a poem about him. “And did that noblest brow rejoice . . . oh, hello. It’s you again. This is Mary. We were just talking about you.” Carol indicated the squat Henna abuser to her left.
“Oh yes,” Jack said, pretending to examine tureens. “These would perfectly complement my cream of leek soup.”
Jack headed for Bromley again, only to appear in a low-ceilinged antiques factory near Colombo. “Ah, I just mentioned you,” a short Sri Lankan whom Jack vaguely recognized said. “How is your courier business going?” Jack made small talk amidst thousands of snake masks until the bond analyst happened to complain about him to a coworker in his plush office. Jack tried to regain the client’s trust, but the analyst threatened to call security.
Jack once again headed for home, only to reappear at Carol’s side when she mentioned his good hygiene to Mary. “His hands were still moist from washing. Oh, it’s you.” He set off again, only to be called back to Carol’s side. Jack actually celebrated appearing in Ouagadougou in the mid-afternoon, as a change from the short leash on which Carol’s mentions kept him. In all, it took him ten hours to make the half-hour trip home from Harrods.
Jack’s therapist, a portly man named Walter Beasley, leaned back in his chair as Jack complained. “I can’t get away from her for a minute,” Jack wailed. “The other day I turned up in her car, five miles from Chichester.” Jack talked rapidly, afraid he’d be summoned before he finished a sentence. Beasley’s office dictated calm, from the clock which ticked only every other second to the sound-absorbing Persian rug and velvet curtains.
Jack had first met Beasley when another patient had confessed to deep emotional scars from Jack’s childhood behavior. When Jack had appeared at the mention of his name, Beasley had reacted nonchalantly. “Is this really him? The boy who stole your lunch?” The woman had sobbed and nodded, while Jack had sought an exit. “Well then,” Beasley had said, “this seems a great opportunity to sort out your issues.”
The next time Jack had felt distressed, he’d looked Beasley up.
“Maybe this is a sign you need to change your approach,” Beasley said. “We’ve talked before about how your ‘gift’ reflects your fear of people talking about you behind your back. Maybe you should trust Carol. Tell her the truth.”
“The . . . truth?” Jack hugged his knees and laughed. “Imagine if she knew she could have me at her beck and call just by saying my name in a way that makes it clear which ‘Jack’ she means. The only good thing about my ‘gift’ is that it makes sure nobody ever thinks it strange when I turn up, no matter how often it happens. Oh no. I’m sticking with Plan A. I sell her a ‘distressed property’ as usual, and move on.”
“Meaning a haunted house. You buy cheap and sell at a huge profit.” Beasley kept his voice neutral, but the left side of his upper lip curled slightly in disapproval.
“Something like that.” Jack smiled for the first time. “I have a germ of an idea how to separate her from her money and from me in one deal.”
Soon after, Jack turned up in Carol’s flat for the first time, after she mentioned his name on the phone. “Oh, hello again. How’d you get in here?” Without awaiting an answer, Carol hung up and gestured around her flat. “You can see it’s too small, can’t you? It speaks for itself as to why I need a bigger place.”
Carol’s flat spoke for itself, but it sounded to Jack like a cry for help. The Lady of Shalott and Babar the Elephant looked down side by side from one wall; ermine drapes clashed with mauve wallpaper; a turquoise chaise longue abutted a burgundy sofa. The air smelled of lavender. Jack stared at a bookshelf containing two score copies of I’m OK, You’re OK. “I give them out,” Carol explained. “I’m a giving person.”
“I can tell. And you decorated this place yourself?”
“That’s right. But the bedroom is the fait accompli.”
The malapropism distracted Jack long enough for Carol to lead him into a tiny room dominated by a four-poster bed and an enormous picture of Leonardo DiCaprio’s face. Even without Jack’s “gift,” Carol displayed a knack for getting him places he hadn’t planned on going. “I should probably leave,” Jack said.
“Not just yet.” Carol patted the bed, and Jack sat and looked at her round earnest face. “Jack, I wasn’t always this outgoing. In fact, I used to be quite shy. I would obsess about people and never speak to them. So if I seem to be overcompensating, I’m sorry. My therapist says I have to work through my obsessional tendencies.”
“I see. To tell the truth, I’m not very good at human relationships myself. I tend to keep to myself when I’m not wanted. People can always find me if they need me.”
“I can see that. And yet you’ve been following me around lately, like a poor lost soul.” Carol leaned into Jack’s space. “Almost as if you sensed a kindred spirit.”
“Well, maybe. The truth is, I do like you, Carol. You’re one of the few genuinely nice people I’ve ever met. That’s why I’ll tell you honestly: you do not want to get mixed up with me, romantically or otherwise. I am very, very bad news.” The more sincerely Jack spoke, the harder he found it to make eye contact with people. As he talked to Carol, his eyes met Leonardo DiCaprio’s.
“But it’s too late. I’m already in my compulsive cycle. If you don’t want me around, I’ll just have to work through it in ways that don’t inconvenience you.”
“For example, I can dedicate songs to you on the radio.” Jack had a horrible vision of appearing in Carol’s home as she called in the request, and then in the DJ’s booth as he read it out. “I can make donations to charity in your name. I can read poems about you to all my friends. You’ll never even have to know.”
Jack tightened his grip on the canopy as if it were driftwood in a maelstrom. “Really,” he said, “that sounds like a lot of trouble. I’m telling you, I’m not worth it.”
“It’s better than sitting around obsessing without an outlet,” Carol said, “or worse still, calling you ten times a day. You know, this is really good. I feel as though I’ve made progress, being able to talk about this with you in a rational fashion instead of being eaten up.”
“Yes, I can see how it would be better to be rational.” Jack wished escaping the curse could be as simple as changing his name. “But maybe I can help. If so, I’m at your service. I mean, it doesn’t take most people too long to get sick of me, and then you can move on to–“
Jack never managed to finish saying “collecting Backstreet Boys memorabilia,” because his mouth was suddenly mashed into Carol’s so tightly he tasted her epiglottis. She pulled him backwards, and it only took a moment of enthusiastic groping before he joined in her newfound way of working through her obsession.
Later, Jack sat up with a headache. “Poor Jack,” Carol said from the pillow behind him. “You have low self-esteem, don’t you?”
“That’s true enough.” Jack rubbed his head.
Carol stroked Jack’s spine. “I know all about that. It’s a trap. It puts you at the mercy of what other people think of you, or whether they think of you at all.”
Carol’s comment struck Jack as oddly insightful, but all he said aloud was: “This is one of the weirder post-coital talks I’ve had. I’d expected you to be one of those people who turns all lovey-dovey after sex.” Even as he spoke these words, they suggested a new strategy to Jack: maybe a constant but low level of unpleasantness on his part would turn Carol off.
Jack lamented the failure of that strategy a few days later, in his next session with Beasley. “It’s insane. She won’t shut up about me, and despite my worst behavior she thinks I’m the cat’s pajamas and she’s the cat.”
“Acting obnoxious only makes some people fonder. Perhaps she senses you’re threatened by her and pushing her away.” Beasley sucked the cap of his pen.
“I’m at my wits’ end. You’re the one with the bust of R. D. Laing. What should I do?”
“Hard to say. Your modus vivendi depends on being able to control how people talk about you, much like a politician or pop star. Now, for the first time, you’re confronted with someone who can’t be manipulated.”
“An admirable summation.” Jack stared at the carpet. “It looks as though I’m going to have to take drastic measures. You remember I mentioned fleecing and dumping Carol all in one deal? Well, I’ve found the house of Carol’s nightmares. Not just one of those pristine houses that melts into squalor every full moon, but something a bit more special. A Lonely House.”
Beasley’s high brow furrowed and his lips pushed out, the closest he ever came to a scowl. “I’m not sure I like the sound of this. But you’ll have to explain.”
“This attractive Victorian mock Tudor house sits off Cadogan Square in a lovely little mews. Not too far from Carol’s current abode, in fact. A hundred years ago, it belonged to a Hepzibah Manton, whose husband had her declared insane. She retired to bed for two decades, while the husband womanized. Her curse remains on the house, so that anyone who lives there becomes as isolated as she was. I had someone try it out. I paid him to sit there for a couple of hours. He spoke my name, and I stayed right where I was. By the time I let him out, he was quite isolated. It creates some kind of damping field, you see. You can hook up a phone line, but your friends will never call you. You can call your friends, but they won’t be at home. Even when you go out, the effect follows you around after a while.”
“And you don’t feel any qualms at all about exploiting Ms. Vance?”
“I’m not going to exploit her. This house will be a bargain.” Jack showed teeth. “This stopped being business when I couldn’t take a shower without being snatched away.” Jack sipped tea until a thought occurred to him. “Of course, I don’t know how a Lonely House will respond to mod cons like the Internet, answering machines, and faxes. I’m sure it will rise to the challenge somehow.”
The next day, Jack took Carol to see five unsuitable houses before he showed her the large-beamed and turreted Lonely House. “Jack, it’s perfect,” Carol said. Jack kept his tone neutral as he pointed out disadvantages. But, as he’d promised Beasley, the price didn’t include his usual markup on “distressed properties.”
Since the previous owner had killed himself, Carol could move in immediately. Jack promised to take care of all the negotiations with the house’s agent. He marshaled all his finesse to get Carol signed and sealed as quickly as possible. He even called the movers for her, quietly advising them not to use portable phones in the house.
Carol spent two nights at Jack’s place. Given her habit of mentioning his name in every conversation, it made sense to keep her close. Jack’s name barely came up elsewhere during that time, so he couldn’t escape Carol for long. The more he sloughed Carol off, the more she clung. When the movers called and said the house was ready, Jack was relieved.
“I’m going to be out of town for a week,” Jack said as he walked her to her new house. The sun made halos of the summer horseflies, and distant gardens laced the air with scents, now that Jack had his freedom. Carol walked up the steps to her house and waved shyly before closing the heavy door. Jack returned a token wave and walked away.
Jack’s absence lasted two weeks before Carol fretted. She planned a housewarming party, but her friends proved difficult to reach. Even when she paged Mary, who usually called back within seconds, there was no answer. She left messages for dozens of people about her party, but ended up eating salt and vinegar crisps alone in her massive sitting room.
Bereft of distractions, she pined for Jack. She went to old haunts and just missed people. She went to concerts. She caught up on her investments. She re-read Women Who Love Too Much. Jack had gone from being around all the time, the occasional jutting of his misshapen cheekbones a reassuring sight, to being invisible.
“I can’t tell how much of this is missing Jack and how much is just being alone all the time,” Carol told her therapist.
She looked up to see her therapist staring out the window, his bald spot gleaming at her. He turned and registered her presence. “I’m sorry,” he said. “What were you saying?” She repeated herself, only to have him pick up the phone and make a lunch reservation in the middle of her sentence. Then he noticed her again. “Please do go on.” Finally, he dozed off. She resolved to find a more responsive therapist.
Months went by without any meaningful human contact. The only person Carol could reach was her investment manager at the bank, so she called every day until the manager started putting her on hold for long periods. She would go to Chinatown and simply stand on Wardour street — gambling machines blaring to the left of her and crispy ducks hanging by their legs to the right of her — and weep for the world.
She decided she wanted her death to garner attention. She considered jumping off a tall building, or throwing herself in front of a train, but neither seemed sufficiently flamboyant. She read a wedding planner for inspiration, and learned about a new craze for hot air balloon weddings. Instantly, she visualized a suicide they’d talk about for weeks.
Despite her difficulties getting the attention of her instructor, let alone her fellow students, Carol felt her scalp shiver the first time she learned how to control a balloon’s altitude using the supply of hot air. Mastering the great envelope above and the air currents shaped by contours below fascinated Carol. She was still alone, but she had a horizon for company.
Still, Carol welcomed the approach of her first solo flight and her dying day. She had learned enough about what not to do with the balloon’s propane supply to make a fatal mishap easy to arrange. But she bought some fireworks in the post-Guy Fawkes rush to ensure nobody would believe her death an accident. She hoped it would look spectacular; she almost asked her chase crew to bring a camera with a telephoto lens to capture her last moments.
That morning, Carol started shoving her fireworks and an extra propane cylinder into her picnic basket, then paused at a sudden rustling sound. She glimpsed crinoline out of the corner of her eye, and smelled musk and whalebone. When she turned, she could see nothing but her sofa in the predawn gloom. As soon as she had turned back to the fireworks, the rustling started again. “Who’s there?” Carol asked.
“Perceptive,” a voice said from the dim corner. “You’re the first to see me in a hundred years. Most mourn their solitude so intensely they take no notice of mine.” Carol squinted at the source of the voice, but could only see a pair of pince-nez glasses. “Before you kill yourself, young woman, you might care to learn something about your man, and the house he’s sold you. I wouldn’t bother, but he reminds me of my husband.” Carol put down the fireworks and listened in the dark.
Jack heard the ground sing a shrill welcome as he fell from the red balloon. He saw his own shadow swell to meet him. Then the aroma of lilacs and the feel of the basket underfoot. He looked at Carol and screamed.
“I had a nice chat with Hepzibah,” Carol said. “She told me all about you, and her house. She couldn’t lift the curse, so I had to move out. A dozen suicidal squatters and a few lethargic rats probably live there now. The one thing she didn’t know was where you got your little ability.” She kept her foot poised on Jack’s chest.
Jack considered rushing her, but he could barely breathe and she outmatched him in brawn, even if she hadn’t strapped herself down. “It came with the membership in my property agents guild,” Jack rasped. “Everyone gets one of the Devil’s attributes. The gilded tongue was in use, so I chose nomenlocation. I thought it would be fun.” He tried to spit, but nothing came.
“I don’t believe you. It must be a punishment!” Carol kicked Jack again for emphasis, and once again the hills leapt towards him alarmingly. Jack remembered the psalm about hills skipping like lambs — fitting, he thought, that his last thought be something Biblical.
Then Carol and the basket reappeared. “What–” Air came with difficulty to Jack. “What did I do to deserve this?” Carol’s only response was to hold her foot against his chest threateningly.
“OK,” Jack said. “So that batty old ghost fed you a line and you believed it. And it gave you an excuse to blame me for all your problems. Do you really think it’s fair–” She kicked him again, and this time he came closer than ever to his shadow before she said his name.
She didn’t wait for him to speak this time. “I’m still obsessed with you, Jack. But I’m afraid it’s turned into something rather nasty.”
“That sounds unhealthy.” Jack tried to sidle around the basket, out of range of Carol’s leg, but she kept it trained on him. “You can’t let these things eat away at you.”
“You remember what I said about obsession, Jack?”
“You like to work through it.”
“Very good. So this is actually therapeutic. For me, at least. For you it might be stressful.” Carol beamed at Jack and drew her leg back in preparation for another kick.
“Wait!” Jack put one hand out protectively, nearly losing his balance in the process. “So you know. But that means you can choose not to have me around at all. Just stop saying my name, and I’ll disappear forever. I promise I won’t seek you out. It’s not quantum physics.” Jack tried to look dignified cringing at the basket’s edge. “Please.”
Carol had stopped beaming and had her leg back in its resting place. After a moment, she nodded. “It’s not that simple. I’ve never had anyone do as much to wreck my life, in as many ways, as you. Now please go away. My chase crew would ask questions if I landed with an extra person.” Carol handed Jack something which he recognized, after a moment, as a parachute, and gave him another kick, this time a fairly playful one.
Jack barely wriggled into the parachute and found the ripcord in time to land painfully but not fatally. He found himself trudging through endless hills. He saw no houses or cars along the road, and he cursed Carol for not giving him a cell phone along with his parachute. At last the lilac-scented flash came and the hills dissolved into a cafe in Balham that smelled of raw yeast.
Carol put a mug of cocoa into Jack’s frozen hand and he nodded gratefully. “I’m trying to look on the bright side,” she nearly whispered. “I have learned to fly a balloon. I have had my faith in the goodness of humanity bludgeoned, which may spare me pain in future. I now own a house in which I don’t live, which must be some sort of Thatcherite status symbol. Help me out. What else good has come of this?”
“You have the power to mess up my life any time you want to.”
“Ah yes. Thanks for reminding me. Sign this.” Carol put a letter on the table. It was folded twice, and Carol’s thumb kept the top two thirds folded over, so that Jack could only see the space for his signature. He started to protest, then thought better and signed.
“Excellent. I’ll post it tonight.” Carol scrutinized Jack. “I hope you have a better suit than the one you’re wearing. You’re now the official Tory candidate in the upcoming Barnet West by-election. I had to pull a few strings with the constituency party committee, but it was worth it. You’ll have to see it through, or I’ll find something worse.”
“Barnet. Isn’t that a marginal seat? Hotly contested?” Jack swallowed as he imagined his name on every lawn and in every day’s newspaper, discussed in pubs and dissected in supermarkets. Satisfied with his horrified expression, Carol left to seal his fate right away.
Jack examined his torn trousers and shredded socks. “It was bound to end,” he told his cuffs. “I had a good run, but something like this was certain to happen.” He stirred his cocoa, creating a foamy vortex. “Of course, maybe there’s a way I can turn this to my advantage. If I actually get myself elected. Maybe I could turn that Saxon burial ground I’ve been trying to sell into a national monument. . . .” Jack allowed himself a bruised-lung laugh, then started thinking how to get himself home.
Copyright © 2002 Charlie Anders
Copyright © 2002 Charlie Anders