You never really know anyone. Self-obsession numbs your senses like an opiate, so that when the various melodies of the lives of others come drifting like confused birdsongs from the branches of the great tree of existence, they waltz unnoticed into the drowned maze of your ears. I learnt too late in my life that self-identity comes from relationships, and if all of us are too lonely to have real relationships then how can we ever truly know ourselves? If all the world’s a concert, and every life in it a melody, then we must listen to our own music to make sense of all the noise.
What, I suppose, it was that made me realise how lonely we all are was the case of Byron Sheldon, a boy in the year above me at my 6th Form college. The first time I ever saw him was on my first day of college. I was sixteen. I was with my friend Flora, who had been a close friend of mine since I was nine years old – we had one of those platonic relationships that are so impossible to explain to people who have never been exposed to them. She had a boyfriend called Joel, a jagged character I had never particularly clicked with, but he was not with us that day. We both saw Byron on the bus on the first day of term. He looked around in his seat three times – once to glance at me, the second to glance at Flora, then again to glance at Flora – as all the year 13s did with the new year 12s. Flora and I were just two unfamiliar faces to Byron, like two poppies in a field of daffodils. After that first sighting, I just happened to see Byron’s face around college more than many others. He was one of those white acquaintances, whom you always recognise and whom you are sure always recognise you, but to whom you never quite manage to speak.
That was how it was for a long time, I seem to remember, perhaps a few months. To me he seemed destined to always be someone I recognised but never spoke to. It is strange how you understand things about people you hardly know. You gather information about them by chance, hearing that they play a sport or that they came top of their class. With Byron, for example, I once saw him walking through college headed for a match with the football team, and from then on, to my mind, he was ‘Byron Sheldon, football player’. And in a more profound way, I learned things from his appearance. From his gait I learned that he was confident, but not overbearingly so, like a blue rose among a bed of red roses, perhaps certain of some aspects of himself but less certain of others. I saw the people he spoke to – often fellow football players, loud, muscular types who fill rooms with their presence as air fills a balloon. I surmised that much about them in the same way I surmised what I knew about Byron, which was from a distance. Byron was blue and I was distant, and that was just the way things were.
I don’t mean to make you think that I was in some way absorbed by Byron. On the contrary, he was just another person I didn’t know, like a melody recognised from the radio but which you can’t name. I just picked up things about him as you do with people you don’t know. In fact, I fully expected never to talk to him at all.
But then one day, some months into my first term of 6th Form, just as the sky was splitting like ice into winter, I found I had a facebook friend request from him. I was sitting waiting for the bus after school with Flora, and I flashed the screen of my phone at her to show her my latest notification. Then I noticed that Byron and I had a mutual friend, and it was Flora. Although neither of us had ever mentioned him, we both knew who he was.
“I suppose everyone does it,’ said Flora after a moment’s pondering. “Add people they don’t really know. Maybe it gives them an excuse to talk to them.”
She paused and sat back, appearing to find words to fuel her thoughts in the sky, and I thought to myself how remarkably beautiful she looked that day. It is one of those things you can think to yourself in such a relationship as Flora and I had. Beauty does not simply exist – beauty is only ever suggested, and it is always ephemeral, and beautiful things are always tragic because of it. And it just so happened for me that in that moment that we first discussed Byron Sheldon, Flora was beautiful, and it was the most tragic thing I had ever seen.
Once I was home I took an obligatory glance at Byron’s facebook profile. His page surprised me a little bit. The majority of his photos were of him drinking, usually with a laddish-looking group of boys whom I thought I recognised from the dewy crowds of school. I saw them in repeated pictures and made the vague judgements one does based on people’s appearance. It didn’t mean much to me, it was only a passing interest, but I began to know and judge them from their appearance on my phone screen. And as for Byron, in that two-minute long visit to his profile, his colour began to change, though to what I could not be certain. I found something strangely unpleasant in his social media. All his statuses were about drinking and football. I wondered whether he was really trying quite hard to be a lad, and it put me off him a lot. Lad culture is that borderless, detestable thing that we all submit to, and I disliked that I saw it in Byron, never mind how much or how little it was really in him. He had already changed before me, whistled like a dandelion onto the plains of my imagination.
Perhaps it was because I didn’t take too much of an interest in Byron that I let these slightly unfounded ideas about him settle like dust in my mind. His every slight appearance in the window of my consciousness was now coloured by it, whether it was a sighting of him at school or a comment on the status of a mutual friend. He was a tremor, dust in the wind.
And then what caught me off guard was the evidence that Flora was talking to him. I had thought I’d seen his name on her phone screen once or twice, and then one day at college I saw them together, talking alone. I was surprised somehow, though I was unsure why. Something in the way Flora stood around him and the way she looked at him was surprising, all lit up like church lights in the night. They didn’t see me, and I didn’t say anything, and the event passed like an empty diary entry. But at chance moments I continued seeing them together, and I grew curious.
One day, sometime after Christmas, I asked Flora if everything was okay with Joel. Joel was no close friend of mine, and my position next to their relationship was like a vicar to his parishioners.
“Yes, it’s fine,” she said with a surprisingly defensive snap. Then, perhaps realising she had sounded harsher than she meant to, she added more gently, “Why do you say that?”
“I was just wondering. I haven’t seen you with him too much recently.”
“No… I suppose I haven’t seen as much of him as usual. But everything’s fine. We’re at that stage in a relationship where we can relax without having to urgently see each other all the time. You know?”
I had never been in a relationship like that myself, so I couldn’t comment.
“It’s a funny thing, relationships,” she continued, turning a philosophic streak. “They wax and wane like you wouldn’t believe. Like the moon” – she turned her head away – “or flowers.”
With this apparently thoughtful comment she absented the conversation, and we continued our walk to college in cold, tremoring silence. Joel met us at the gate when we arrived, and after a quick greeting between him and me he turned his requited attention to Flora. They went their own way, and I wandered to the common room by myself.
Before my first class I had time to sit and glance over Byron’s profile once more, and then Joel’s. The two were different, but only slightly. Joel’s, though somehow eking a curious white sense of harmlessness, was still nonetheless peppered with scenes of pubs and house parties and smoking, and statuses reminding the online world of his plans and recent occasions. I found his the more edible of the two. Byron’s was somehow still too fraught with questions and empty spaces where answers should have been, in such a way that you did not feel like you knew a real person through it. But, in all honesty, I disliked both of them. In that incredible way men do with women, I wondered what it was that drew such a lovely girl to such undeserving men.
Then, noticing the door of the common room opening, I looked up and Byron walked in. For a moment our itinerant eyes met, and he gazed back like a hare spotted erect in the corn, twitching and vulnerable and suddenly grabbingly aware of his being alone in such a social minefield as the common room. I felt as if I should say something if he didn’t first. I felt something strange, like a kind of uncanny, knowledgeable communication between the two of us. Then he turned away, and I was glad.
It wasn’t long until suspicion about Byron and Flora began to rack up in Joel’s mind. I began to notice traces of frustration and paranoia in his behaviour, in those few, fragmentary moments in which I could observe him for what I took him to be. Like an unfed lion he was growing ever more impatient with both Flora and himself, mauling the mesh of his imagination in an angry bid for attention and posting thoughtless statuses like “Going to the pub”. Flora became increasingly subdued and unwilling to talk, taking more time every day to gaze out of closed windows and fiddle with the apparently open window of her phone screen. I knew that her relationship with Joel was under strain, but my sense of privacy kept me away. What goes on behind closed doors is, of course, private; the tragedy is when your entire life is behind a close door and no one cares enough to open it. In fact, it wasn’t until May, just before the start of our A-level exams, when I was at Flora’s house, that on a moment’s urge I picked up Flora’s unguarded phone and looked at her messages.
The last person she had text, I saw immediately, was Joel. His name sat atop the list like a king on his throne. A quick glance down the list was interesting but unrevealing. The rest were all girlfriends and the occasional mutual friend of Joel’s (I suffered an odd wave of enthusiasm at the sight of my own name, as if I was seeing myself from the other side). I tapped on Joel’s name to see their text conversation. I had never particularly imagined Joel to be a verbose texter – he was too thoughtless, too gruff for that – and my instincts on first impression seemed to be validated. None of the first group of texts I saw were more than a sentence long:
15:28 – “Where are you?”
15:30 – “Outside by the gate x”
17:09 – “Going to Costa with Fran x”
17:31 – “See you tomorrow x”
At first these rather boring texts told me that Flora and Joel did little more than organise the trivialities of their movements with them. But as soon as I scrolled upwards they suddenly became much longer. The first few I read went like this:
“Are you talking to him?”
“No Joel. I’ve already told you I just had to organise the joint social with him. Please stop being such a child about it. Just because I talked to another boy for a short period of time does not mean you can make such insane assumptions about me. It’s incredibly hurtful. If I can trust you why can’t you trust me?”
“Because I read your texts and they were pretty cosy weren’t they”
“What is your problem Joel?”
“Kieran said he saw you with him in town yesterday”
“We were organising the social!! Stop being such an outrageous idiot! You’re making me so upset. I know it’s because you love me but it’s so bad, Joel, please, if you keep saying it you’re going to make me cry”
“I’m not saying anything im just repeating what Kieran said”
“Please please please just stop”
“But you kissed him didn’t you?”
“Joel” – then – “No. That’s it. I’m crying. I’ve just had to leave the sitting room and go upstairs because you’ve made me cry.”
“I don’t want to see you. I’m blocking you on facebook. When you’re ready to admit it text me.”
But the next few texts between them, sent the following afternoon at 3, seemed far more harmonious. It is strange how the dialogue of our lives is recorded in text until the moments in which we actually meet each other, and then those moments are lost entirely to history…
Then suddenly, as I sat there with Flora’s phone in my hand, a facebook message sprang up with the name written clearly across the screen: Byron Sheldon. I froze, then, with perhaps too fast a finger, tapped to open the message:
“I hate all this secrecy and distance. It’s like there’s this inviolable space that distorts everything between us – all you are to me is words on a screen, less than a voice, not even a voice… I need you to understand. Come and see me. I’m reluctant to have a dream that doesn’t have you in it. Joel doesn’t need to know, please Flora, please”
I heard a door open and, as fast as I could, I replaced Flora’s phone on the table and moved myself away. I felt extraordinarily guilty, like a naughty child aware of stepping too far over the line. When Flora entered she took a glance at her phone and, as if sensing some disturbance, looked briefly at me and exited without a word.
I knew immediately what it was I was going to do after I saw those texts. I had to go and find Byron and talk to him. Flora had somehow become attached to him in a romantic way and I wanted it to stop. He was a bad spirit, much worse than Joel. My aim was to slip silently like a ghost between the cogs of this apparent love triangle and turn them in such a way that I remained invisible, wraith-like and unseen behind my words. I would talk to Byron and explain to him how Flora was being torn apart and hope he would cease to persist, and if he didn’t listen then I would tell Flora to stay away from him. I knew he was not a good influence and I was keen to do my utmost to keep Flora happy.
It took until June to find him. My exams had just finished, and while I was experiencing the mild, anti-climactic euphoria that follows the end of a long period of work, I decided to seek closure. I saw on facebook that Byron was going to a gathering of exiting year 13s at a famously careless bar in town, and I made up my mind that I would find him there. I hadn’t seen Flora or Joel for days; Flora’s phone had remained defiantly silent.
I ventured out by myself that summer evening in the belief that I was certain to achieve some kind of change in life. Time felt like a great cheetah borne out against an African sunset, the silhouette beating the ground like a demon and the dust rising up as a cloud in its wake. Life seemed to be whispering with spirits that evening, and I was just another ghost, floating like dandelion seeds in the wind.
I misjudged the time it would take me to reach Azor’s Bar, and by the time I got there night had already curled its warm presence around the town. Stepping inside was like stepping into the muggy fugue of a Turkish bar. Eighteen-year-old sweethearts were scattered drunk across the space, laughing and swearing convivially with cigarettes dangling from their careless lips. I sidled my way through the crowd, swinging my head to and fro to try and find Byron, and then – ah! – there he was! He was leaning over the far end of the bar with two or three of his peers, a cigarette half-rolled in his drunken hands. For a moment I was made to realise the incredible stupidity with which I had come to find him that night. He was a football lout, I thought, what on earth made me think he would listen to me? But then I took another look at him, and before my eyes his colour began to change. Something in his gait seemed to suggest otherwise… And then I realised with some horror that I had neglected entirely to think of anything to say.
Before I had a chance to get away Byron’s eyes had flickered up and I saw immediately that he had recognised me. He finished rolling his cigarette and took a swig from his beer bottle, then walked over to where I was standing like the sheepish little boy I was. ‘My god,’ I thought, ‘what if he had a voice?’ I had only ever imagined him as words and images. I had never imagined that he might have a voice.
He looked at me solemnly, and for a moment all I could sense was his drunkenness. Then he said ‘Let’s go outside,’ and I followed him out the back door of the bar to the smoking area.
He spent a moment asking other smokers for a lighter, during which I felt my underwear constrict as if they were in very, very hot water.
“I suppose Flora’s spoken to you,’ he said. “About everything that’s going on. I imagine that you have the kind of relationship where she tells you everything.”
I assured him of the opposite.
“Oh,’ he said, taken aback. “I see. But you know that something has happened. I suppose I’ll tell you everything.”
I was surprised by his tone, somehow – in fact I was surprised to hear that he had a voice at all. He seemed somehow very amiable, perhaps even avuncular, and even in his drunk state I felt a strange compulsion to hang onto his every word.
The bar was high on the slope of a hill, and from the smoking terrace you could see an assortment of distant and untranslatable lights, each one retaining its own distinct portion of human secrecy within the violent blindness of the night. Byron spoke to me almost without taking his eyes off these distant stars, as if one of them might suddenly open up and welcome him into its impossible story. He told me what had happened flatly.
On that first day we had seen Byron on the bus, he had seen us, and something about Flora had triggered that first, definite fancy within him, enough to make him seek her out in the following days. He had enquired subtly after her, and tried as hard as he could to make himself known to her without it appearing deliberate. After both of them commented on the status of a mutual friend on facebook, he had added her, and the next day had felt it grounds enough to open conversation with her. What it is about someone’s appearance that can make a person so certain about their suitability for one another is a mystery that is both unsolvable and impossibly true. Yet when Byron first spoke to Flora on those ungrounded foundations, he had come away with absolute certainty in his heart.
“Have you ever had that with someone?” He asked me, for a moment taking his eyes away from the night to look pleadingly into my face. “Talked to them for the first time and just known? Because at the end of my first conversation with Flora I just knew. I just knew she was the girl for me.”
After that it was almost as if every place she visited became enchanted; her classroom, her house, even her friends all became impossible symbols of her. Every visit to facebook became a helpless search for her, and every glimpse of her name or face would send a ripple of cold excitement through his body, almost as if he were doing something illicit. He studied her photos until he knew them off by heart, looked far back on her profile until he had read every status and seen every friend’s post. Unwillingly he tracked her life as it appeared before him on the screen; he felt as if he couldn’t help it and his eyes simply sought her out whether he wanted to know or not.
Then, as social secretaries of the football and netball societies respectively, Byron felt audacious enough to suggest to her over facebook a joint social, and she had agreed. And once they had started seeing each other regularly, out of the sight of Joel and the prying eyes of the world, Byron’s heart had bloomed like a flower.
And then, barely weeks before, in an episode of fumbling and a façade of drunkenness to hide their real desires, they had kissed, and everything changed. Flora, realising that her heart had become riddled with Byron, had become impossibly chained to both him and Joel. Joel became angry and suspicious, levelling flagrant accusations at her and threatening to attack Byron physically. Byron, like a wounded cat, had fled to the periphery, and watched with utmost restraint the misery Joel unloaded on Flora. In fact, he claimed, at one point Joel had hit her.
But there was nothing he could do but watch and wait, poring over his phone for any sign of her. His mind was so distracted that he was certain he had ruined his A-levels, but he almost didn’t care because of the fierce attachment he felt for this girl. But when the time came, and Flora eventually had to make a decision, she had text him a simple response.
At this point Byron handed me his phone, on which was a single text, left without a reply. It read: “I’m staying with Joel. You have ruined us. You cannot contact me as I am blocking you on my phone and facebook.”
For a moment I had to check myself, and wonder in bafflement at how wrong I had been. Byron’s story belied so much I had thought about him; I had believed he was a hooligan, a waster, an insecure brute, insensitive and irrational. I had thought that Flora was into a bad thing with him, and that Joel was responding understandably. But I had been so wrong. There had been a screen between all of us all this time that distorted and contradicted everything we ought to have thought of each other. Because of the insularity of our lives I had fallen for other people’s conceptions of themselves; I had confused their online forms for their reality. I felt terrible for myself and for Byron, and wondered where Flora was now. But then I ceased to care, because I did not really know her. Under what delusions had we been labouring? I had to stand back and check even myself to make sure I was still the person I had intended myself to be.
And after Byron left, fuzzy and wordless, I looked at my phone for signs of myself; and as I stared at the screen, confused at the heart of darkness from which other people’s lives seem to come waltzing like birdsong towards you, I wondered: how can you really know who is speaking to you?