I had missed my tram… again. I looked at the announcement panel and saw that the next one, which was also going to be the last one for today, was not due for another half hour. I felt the instantaneous onset of a habitual tram rider’s irritation, which luckily goes away just as fast as it comes on. I took a deep breath, looked around me and noticed that the stars and the full moon were winking kindly in between the rooftops; I also noticed that although it was already the beginning of October the night was mild, windless and balmy. I began walking towards the next stop in a now relatively happy mood.
The streets are empty, which adds to the pleasure of being on your own: I can now carry on a conversation with myself, unencumbered by external distractions, I can stand back from the daylight events involving others.
After a few minutes’ walk something begins to irritate me: I realise it is a constant noise behind my back, which I eventually identify as somebody’s footsteps. I am not scared – the city is reassuringly spread out all around me and, although it’s well past midnight, there are street lights aplenty and an occasional open café with peaceful drunks rounding off their days with one last drink.
I try to walk slowly and see if I can sneak a peek at a reflection in one of the darkened shop windows, but I don’t see anybody walking behind me there. It seems strange, for the steps that I hear sound quite close, as if whoever it was stamping the pavement after me were only a couple of inches behind.
Somewhere right at the very back of my mind there is a little stir of a mild disquiet, but I ignore it. I deliberately slow down or speed up my pace and note that the stranger’s steps are repeating the pattern of my own with odd precision. And yet, there is perceptibly no one behind me. This goes on for a while, and I feel somewhat unnerved.
In my ensuing state of mounting agitation, I don’t even notice that I pass a couple of stops on my tram’s route. I finally see my tram and run to the stop to catch up with it. I climb into the last carriage – there is hardly anybody in there with me.
I slump onto an empty seat by the window and breathe a long sigh of relief: somehow I’ve managed to work myself into an adrenaline pumping frenzy. The things you let into your head after sundown are sometimes a little foolish.
I look into my own face reflected in the dark window: its paler than usual. In fact, it has a vampire-pale quality. The tram is chugging along, its clanking is familiar, peaceful and comforting. I keep staring at the window past my double, scouting the dark shapes silently swishing past. I am all but dozing off, when all of a sudden it dawns on me that out there in the window there is another discernible shape sitting next to my reflection.
You always know without looking whether somebody is sitting next to you; your whole body simply feels the presence of another, and I know for a fact that there is nobody sitting by my side. Slowly, very slowly I turn away from the window – the seat next to me is as empty as it is supposed to be; there is no one there, although, at a closer inspection, the air seems to be somewhat thicker over it than elsewhere on the tram.
I turn back to the window. The figure sitting next to my reflection is still there and the longer I look the sharper it becomes, like a developing photograph, until, finally, rather bewildered and dismayed I observe a conclusive materialisation of a disappointingly bland, although unkempt and messy head belonging to a man of an indefinable age. He does not look particularly ugly, repulsive or aggressive … and yet there is something unpleasant in his whole appearance, something shadowy and untrustworthy. He winks at me – not at my reflection – and, at last, I am afraid.
By now the tram is empty: all the other passengers are long gone and even the driver’s cabin seems to be ominously uninhabited.
I am startled by a knock on the window by my side and when I turn towards it I see that the unpleasant man is banging his fist on the glass from the other side, while waving at me with his other hand in an attempt to draw my attention. I also realise that my reflection has completely disappeared.
I think I am trying to screa, or that at least my mouth is wide open. And then I hear somebody saying my name: the sound is loud, clear, penetrating and insistent. The voice is rich, melodic, powerful, caressing, seductive and urgent.
I am terrified, not of being robbed or beaten or raped: I just do not want to die. For some reason, my mind is flooded with thoughts of my own mortality.
I never, never hallucinate!
What or who am I hearing in my head?
Where does it come from, this velvety, melodious, seductive voice with its “Say yes!” refrain …
I close my eyes and say “Yes!”, and the very instant I utter it clearly in my head I feel a presence by my side; I screw up the last shreds of my remaining courage, turn my head towards it and find myself face to face with an ambiguous stare of a rather unpleasant-looking man without age, his mouth stretched into a wide smirk. My own mouth is still wide open and I still don’t manage to articulate anything vaguely coherent. I feel that I am starting to choke on my own emotions.
“Now, now! Let’s not be so melodramatic!” I hear the man say and he looks anything but comforting.
His voice, however …
I could happily drown in this voice! It promises the security, comfort and contentment of being loved by your parents; it holds all the best possible nostalgia about your happy past life that has never happened; it seduces with the promises of a perfect lover that could never be, of friends who’d never betray; crisp skiing winters in the Swiss Alps, cherry blossoms in the Japan springtime, seaside summers in Greece.
I sit entranced, drinking the voice up. It doesn’t matter anymore what it says, I could follow this voice until the end of the world.
Its only because I haven’t been rid of all of my fears that I manage to look at my newly acquired traveling companion, and what I see does not inspire a great deal of confidence: he looks chubby and deathly pale and his curly longish hair is sticking out in all directions, and his eyes are very, very dark, unsmiling, incurious and calm.
“The thing is”, – says my mysterious neighbour, – “You don’t have to be afraid …yet! He has changed his mind!”
I don’t understand a word, I just sit there totally entranced, wishing for the voice to never stop, drowning in its beauty.
“Snap out of it!” – commands the voice, -“I can’t linger over here for long! You must make sure to make a fuss at the car park – pretend that you’ve lost your parking ticket, anything, just make sure you get the parking attendant!”
“Who are you? What …? Why …?”
I detect an imperceptible shift in his eyes, an impossible mixture of contempt and compassion. He leans his face towards me and breathes out:
“I am your Guardian Angel, fool!”
Somebody is shaking me up by the shoulders, I open my eyes – it’s the tram driver. Looks like I have to get off the tram if I don’t want to spend the night on it.
I start walking to the parking lot to get my car.
I hear steps behind me.