A little over three years ago my dear friend Tobias disappeared while he was walking his dog Lucy by the Paddington Canal. It was a dull afternoon in June and not many people were about: just a few walkers and cyclists, a skateboarder or two. No one saw anyone fitting Tobias’s description, either near the canal or along the route he usually took from his flat in West Kilburn. His absence was discovered only when a woman who was passing saw the dog lying beside the canal staring intently into the water. Tobias’s navy blue Marylebone Cricket Club scarf was tied around the dog’s lead. Tobias’s name and number were handwritten on the label. So this passerby called and left a message on Tobias’s answerphone, and two days later the message was heard by Tobias’s girlfriend, Yasuko, when she arrived to find out why Tobias had not been calling, letting herself in with the key he had given her only weeks before. It was Yasuko who called the police. She knew there was no way Tobias would have left that dog alone.
There was an investigation. Police divers searched the canal from Harrow Road to Kensal but found nothing. Drowning was ruled out: Tobias had been a high school swimming champion. Two young constables asked me a series of questions. Had Tobias ever gone missing before? (No, he had not.) Was he in any kind of trouble? (No.) Had he been behaving unusually? (No more than usual.) Was he mixed up with any suspicious characters? (Yes.) Was he employed? (Yes, as an archivist at the V&A.) Was he depressed? (No.) Had he recently experienced a breakup, the death of anyone close to him, a sudden loss of confidence or change in dietary habits? (No, no, and no.) Had he suddenly come in to a lot of money? (No.)
I answered these questions as patiently and honestly as I could. There was nothing out of the ordinary, I said, except that he seemed happier than usual, and had begun to hang around with a guy named Mukhta. Who was this Mukhta, asked the younger of the two officers, the one who did not yet have a moustache. What was his role in Tobias’s life, and where would the officers find him? I did not know. I had never met Mukhta, but had gathered that he was some kind of spiritual teacher, or poet, or yoga instructor—something of that sort. Tobias had been visiting him on Sunday afternoons, and always—if I saw him later—seemed to be in a mellow kind of mood. There was something unexpected going on, for sure, but it had never struck me as dangerous. For all I knew they spent the afternoon reading comic books, or drinking coffee and discussing Camus. “He might have some rooms in Camden,” I said, though I had no idea where that thought had come from. The officers thanked me and left. Three weeks later they called with the news that they had been unable to locate anyone fitting Mukhta’s description in the Camden area, nor any other place. He was, it was implied, someone I might have imagined.
Tobias’s disappearance was difficult for Yasuko. In the first few days she had seemed remarkably calm. Not that she was pleased that he had gone, not at all. It was more like she had fallen into that state that people experience when their car is about to crash: time stops, everything seems still, perhaps their life flashes before their eyes, but above all they are calm. That was the state that Yasuko fell into. She spent those first few days at Tobias’s flat, not really doing anything—just waiting. Sometimes she would sit on the sofa beneath the window out onto Drayford Close, with her legs crossed and her eyes closed. I asked her what she was doing and she said “Meditating,” in a slightly impatient voice, as if I was some kind of moron. She and Tobias were into that sort of thing. That and yoga and eating detox salads from Mildreds. I wondered perhaps if she should do something, like go through his things and look for clues, but she seemed content just to wait, just to “be there for him” if he walked through the door.
She waited a week like that, maybe two; then she went through a phase of doing. She tidied the flat, washing everything—his clothes, his dishes, his sheets and towels, his curtains. She dusted. She went through his things—even his computer, which had some documents from his work, a few fragments of poems, some downloaded essays about obscure topics (relativity and time, cognitive biases, symbolism in Eliot, the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita), and a couple of films (Bruce Almighty and My Life as a Dog). None of it, Yasuko said, seemed to offer much of a clue. We were sitting together on the sofa in the front room as she told me this. Her eyes were hot with tears, her face pink and puffy. She kept rubbing her hands together hard as if she expected to peel away the skin and find him there. “Oh God,” she kept saying. “Oh God, I’m sorry.” As if somehow it was all her fault. I leaned over and took her in my arms and held her, just for a moment, and let some of her grief run into me—it was too much for her to carry alone. “You were good for him,” I whispered. And then regretted saying “were.”
As months went by, resignation set in for both of us. It became clear that we were not going to see him again. One afternoon, I visited the police station to find out what was going on. An officer told me that the file had been made inactive, which seemed to be his way of saying they had no clues and had given up. “Perhaps he has skipped the country,” the officer said. “Happens more than you might think. Financial difficulty. Relationship trouble. Chance to start afresh, that sort of thing.” He had a face that looked like bread pudding, and I found it difficult to take him seriously. “Please don’t laugh,” he said. “I don’t see how this is a laughing matter.” The strange thing was, neither did I—it was just something about that officer’s face.
Anyway, Tobias’s flat was cleaned out and most of his things were given away to charity shops. His family took care of all that—it was only right that they should. I offered to do anything I could, but his mother told me there was nothing. “He didn’t have much, poor chick,” she said. She was standing in the doorway, arms folded across her chest. I said I would leave my number in case she changed her mind, but she said that would not be necessary. They let Yasuko help though, and I was glad of that—glad for Yasuko’s sake, and glad for Tobias. I felt like he would want her there—would want her taking care of his things. A few weeks later she called and told me how strange it all was, seeing his life reduced to what he had left behind—his clothes, some books and CDs, a few posters and photographs, some op-shop crockery. “It was just junk,” she kept saying. “Just junk. It sure makes you think.” But she’d saved me a snapshot, one of Tobias and me together walking Lucy beside the river down at Chelsea Wharf, and I thought that was nice of her.
On the anniversary of his disappearance, his family decided to hold a memorial service. It was a small affair—we had all moved on by then, in our own peculiar ways. Which is not to say that Tobias had not left a big hole in our lives—he definitely had. But we had all found some way of avoiding that hole, of growing our lives around it. It was like a big crater suddenly opened up where Oxford Circus had been, and instead of going that way everybody just started taking the Circle Line, or getting off early and walking. It was different, and we’d preferred things the other way, but how things had turned out was okay too. Lucy, for instance, had been given away to some friends of Yasuko’s, which meant Yasuko got to see her every now and then. Once, I tagged along. The dog was like a puppy: jumping around, wagging her tail—she even seemed to be smiling in that way dogs sometimes do. When no one was looking I leaned down and whispered Tobias’s name in her ear, just to see what would happen, but the dog just turned her head and licked my nose.
Yasuko had moved on too. She had a new boyfriend, a lawyer from the city who seemed to have a little of Tobias’s spirit in him, though he was richer and better groomed and more uptight. She seemed happy, although it was clear the memory of Tobias still hung around. I had found my own ways to move on. For one thing, I was writing—just little fragments and poems, diary notes, that kind of thing. “Without attachment or ambition,” as Tobias used to say—just for enjoyment in the moment. I had found a new job, too, working night shift in a warehouse for one of those online book outfits. I was checking the orders, packing up books, and sending them out. It seemed satisfying, in a way I would not have expected. I saw it as something good, sending out these little parcels, imagining people checking their letter boxes, experiencing that little thrill when the books finally arrived. It felt like I was sending out an antidote to loneliness. After a while I started talking to a girl in the dispatch office, and soon we were dating. She was the jolliest person I had ever met, always seeing the bright side of things, always ready with a kind word. I needed that. Her kindness drew me to her.
She had a big circle of friends and they were just the same, always laughing and joking. They seemed happy to make room for one more, that one more being me. Things went along quite nicely, and I almost began to let go of my memories of Tobias—but it seemed there was something that had to happen first, and that something happened after the memorial.
I had noticed Yasuko during the service, while the celebrant was talking. I had expected her to cry, just one last time—but she had not. She sat through the whole thing with this most serene smile on her face. Once or twice it almost seemed like she was laughing. I felt a little angry about that, and afterward I confronted her. She was standing with Tobias’s parents, so I said a few words to them, and then I took her arm and pulled her to one side. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Why do you keep smiling?” She answered this with a smile. “Jesus,” I said. She looked at me in a strange way. Her eyes seemed very—I don’t even know the word. Big? Still? It was like she was trying to see through me—no, it was like she was seeing right through me.
“Come with me,” she said. “I’ll try to explain.”
There was a coffee shop just down the street, so we stopped in there. Yasuko was in a strange mood—she would smile and seem very serene, and then suddenly she would start laughing and talking very quickly, and then she would cry, and then laugh again. It was like a whole series of storms were blowing through her—but that’s what they did, they just went right through, and then they were gone.
“You’ll never guess what,” she said.
She was right, I never would have. I didn’t even try.
“What,” I said. “Tell me, what.”
“I got a letter,” she said. “From Tobias. Only this morning.”
“How,” I said. “How is that possible?”
“Mukhta delivered it,” she said, “by hand.”
“Mukhta,” I said.
“Yeah, Mukhta,” she said. “He’s a little Irish guy who rides a Kawasaki.”
“So, he’s all right,” I said. “Tobias is all right?”
Yasuko just smiled again, and reached into her pocket. “Here it is,” she said, and handed it over.
I hope it is not too much of a shock to be reading this. I hope too that the last year has not been too difficult for you, or for my friends and family. Please trust that nothing has been left to chance.
I cannot explain what happened to me, not in any way that begins to convey the wholeness of it. You might think that a crime was committed, and that my body was dumped somewhere the police did not think to search. But that would be a small and irrelevant part of an endless picture.
If you close your eyes, Yasuko, perhaps you will know what I mean. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of it, and know that it is real, and, if you choose, you can let go and drift right into it.
You can float and float in its nothingness, and then one day turn around and look back into the world you once thought was yours, and see it like a tiny snow globe, filled with tiny snow houses and tiny snow people.
When you see that, Yasuko, even for just a second, you can never be hurt again. How can you feel pain when you are everything?
If this makes no sense, just wait, and see, and in the meantime be kind to yourself. It is wonderful to see you here, in your yellow sweater, sipping your coffee. I am glad you wore red—it is a colour of love. And I am glad you are showing this to my friend. Show it to everyone. Ask them what they see.
I am yours, always and forever,
I read the letter for a second time, and a third—and then I handed it back. I looked into Yasuko’s eyes. They seemed to contain so much space, it was as if you could fall right into them and travel anywhere—out to the moon, past Jupiter and Saturn, off into that depthless stillness that no one can even imagine. Perhaps I was falling in love with her—or was that just grief, just the strangeness of the moment? The letter had destroyed any certainties I might once have held. I didn’t know anything. Could Tobias really have written it? Where was he? How did he know I was there? Who was Mukhta? Who, for that matter, were Yasuko and I? The questions spun from me little comets, and I watched them flare and disappear.
“Well,” said Yasuko. “Thank you. I’ll be going now.”
I got up, feeling confused, and watched as she paid for the coffees. Outside, I hugged her and said goodbye. I walked away without looking back, and I haven’t seen her since.
But even though years have passed and everything has changed very much, I have never forgotten Tobias, or Yasuko, and I have never forgotten that letter. It had to be some sort of trick, didn’t it? Some sort of nasty hoax played by that Mukhta character? I mean, when I think of it now, could we even be sure it was Tobias’s handwriting? And how could he have known she would wear red? And yet, I have never been able to escape the feeling that something changed that day, and for the better.
Not long afterward I married the girl from the book warehouse, and about the same time one of my stories was accepted for a journal. Somehow that turned into a contract with a publisher of detective novels. I’m on my third book now, and the royalties have seen us through since the warehouse closed down. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to go on with.
Outside the window, as I am jotting down these notes, our children are building a snowman. Seth, the oldest, is standing with his hands on his hips, giving orders. Bella has just put in the eyes, and Lily has come inside, perhaps to find a carrot for the nose. It is a little wonky, this snowman—the body leans slightly to one side, and the head to the other: it could fall at any moment. But its smile—a row of twigs—is mad and gleeful. Soon Lily will be back with its nose, and then it will be complete. A real snowman, with real hopes and dreams.
It will not last, of course. Tomorrow, perhaps, the children will knock it over. Or the wind will take it. Or it might stand until spring and then melt. But for now it is here, grinning. It can see everything. The stars, the moon, the endless space between. The children, the little brown mop-eared puppy they will get for Christmas, the mother at the door and the father at the window, both of them watching. For now, the snowman sees. For now, this is all there is.
Bernard Steeds has published one collection of short stories, Water (Penguin Books). He has won several awards for his short fiction and journalism, and his work has featured in several anthologies including The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories. He lives in New Zealand with his partner, two daughters, and an anxious dog.