The dangers of an online presence

If you’ve ever had any bother with family, colleagues, anyone, then an online presence – as the youngsters call it – is just asking for trouble.  You can get around the dangers a little by having an anonymous account or accounts, but you have to be so careful not to leave any clues about who you really are, especially if whoever you’re trying to avoid is good at putting two and two together.  And if those people are good with technology, you’d better be damn sure you’ve covered your tracks and left no trail for them to follow.  I left a trail.

I don’t really want to go into the details, even though it’s a bit like shutting the stable door after someone broke in and shot the horse with a bolt gun, or whatever, but I’d be pretty embarrassed to write about it because I’m just not one of life’s sharers.  No offence meant if we’ve been internet friends for a while, but I know now that I can’t necessarily trust anyone online and I should have had the sense to realise that earlier.  At heart, it’s what I believed all along but you kid yourself sometimes out of …don’t know …loneliness, perhaps?  But, that being said, I would like to get the main facts off my chest because I’m going to have to delete everything I’ve ever posted to the internet: Facebook, Twitter, My Space (I know!  Shut up!) and this, too, unfortunately, once enough of you have read it.  I might print a few things out that I’ve been proud of.  Maybe not.  Probably not.

So … deep breath and all that …it started a long time ago, so long it’s like I was someone else.  I was very young, definitely a lot more stupid, if you can imagine that being possible, and I was naive.  Maybe ‘naive’ isn’t strong enough: gullible is what I was.  I was taken in by bigger personalities than mine: more interesting, more daring, more glamorous, which wouldn’t be hard because I was never even slightly interesting or glamorous back then and I’m still not.  But I faked it really well, just so they would accept me, and it was obviously convincing; some of them looked up to me, while others resented me very deeply for that respect, which they could definitely tell I didn’t really deserve.  They were able to see through me more than most and they knew that I knew, which made for a tense atmosphere.

Eventually, I got involved in doing stuff that I’m not prepared to disclose on a public forum, even one I’m about to leave forever.  Though I fooled myself into believing I was led into it, in reality, I kind of just lost my head, believed my own bravado and dragged a few others along with me.  I’m so very sorry for that now, but sorry isn’t always enough.  Sometimes, there are only really two options: run or face the consequences; sometimes there aren’t even that many.  I had the choice and I decided to run.  I cut my ties, dropped all my friends, although by then I’d cottoned on to the fact that none of them were really my friends.  I lived for years watching my back.  But I got complacent.

Everyone seemed to be using the internet and I was curious, in spite of being a bit of a Luddite.  At first, I just used the old MSN messenger and then I was commenting on news sites and in forums.  When My Space came along I got that and I stalked Friends Reunited because I’d grown pretty curious about people whose paths had crossed mine.  Then I got Facebook and I made sure I only added people I’d met recently in the real world and nobody I’d known before; nobody from the bad times and nobody I hadn’t actually met.  I was so careful!  Then I joined Twitter.

Now, I started out doing what most people probably do at first, which is following famous people and tweeting about boring things: stuff on the telly, news stories, whatever was trending, etc.  Then I started tweeting jokes and pictures I’d made and I followed back the people who followed me rather than just celebrities.  I started to get more followers than seemed reasonable and, from among them, I made friends.  No!  I thought I made friends.  When you think someone is a friend, you let your guard down and tell them things you wouldn’t otherwise tell anyone; it wasn’t that I just blurted out my life history but instead of sticking to the jokes and suchlike, I got sucked into private conversations in which I let slip little bits of truth, then more bits and more.  The truth, people, will not set you free.

Snippets of information were being shared with people I wouldn’t have chosen to trust, long before I realised; by the time this fact filtered back to me, the grapevine had grown too large for me to shut down and the very bunch I’d been avoiding had found me again. Believe me, you never know who’s hiding behind those cartoon avis, meaningless @ names and eggs.  So, here I am. Telling you this so you know why I’m not going to be around and aren’t left wondering, because it may not have always seemed like it but I have liked some of you and I feel I owe you an explanation.

It’d be a lie if I said I was simply going offline because I do most of my work via the internet these days, but it won’t be like it is now and you won’t know it’s me, I guarantee it.  I won’t use any of the many names I already have, so it’s no use expecting to find me under @morningstar or satan@sky.com, nor @lucifer1089, and @lucifer666 is already taken – I’ve checked, so don’t bother looking.  I won’t follow you or add you or friend you again.  We won’t talk.  I’ll just be an online presence.

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In the Headlight

The image flashed by so quickly, that it had gone before her brain could register it properly.  Just a flash in the headlights; a moth, perhaps, or something flung across her path by the wind.  She was already so tired her mental processes were a bit slower than they should be when driving, but it would be another half an hour, maybe forty minutes, before she would reach her home.

For months, she’d been searching for a job closer to where she lived.  It wasn’t just the long drive there and back that made it so hard to take; it was also the long hours in the bar, standing the whole time, dealing with idiots making the same jokes every night.  The young ones, convinced she wouldn’t be able to resist their predictable and usually offensive comments, the older, married-looking ones spouting crap about their problems.  And then there were the ones for whom she was invisible; a nobody who didn’t deserve a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’; the ones who wouldn’t even put the money in her hand, but would slap it onto the bar and turn away, already disengaged from her existence.

Her bed welcomed her with a cool, soothing embrace and, in spite of a vague rumble from her empty belly, she was asleep in minutes.  When the light dragged her into wakefulness, she had no recollection of her dream, apart from a nagging suspicion that it had been about a moth or something.

Hours later, as she eased into the bend, the flash in the headlights caught her eye and a sense of déjà vu hit her.  Without much conscious input, her brain ran through a list of possibilities: a moth, a leaf, a ray of light, a reflection.  A reflection?  She didn’t even know how she’d arrived at that idea.  A reflection of what?  All the way home, she couldn’t shake the idea that she should know what it was that she’d seen lit up for an instant in the beam of her headlight.

Every night for the next four days, she saw the same flash at the same place.  On night three, she drove really slowly as she approached the bend: walking pace, almost, yet she still only saw the maddening flash as the compelling image appeared and vanished.  She found herself lying awake, staring into the darkness, trying to visualise what she’d seen in the hope of resolving the mystery.

On the fourth night, she rounded the bend and saw the flash again, but this time she only drove a short way further until she reached a passing place.  She pulled in and turned off the engine.  It seemed as though this torment would drive her mad if she didn’t find an explanation for the vision.  “Round the bend!” she heard herself say to the empty road.

The exact spot where the image was visible was really easy to find now that she’d seen it so many times, but as she stood at the side of the road, there was nothing that could explain it.  Turning slowly, she looked from the floor to the treetops, searching for anything that might project an image, allow a chink of light through from some hidden source or house a nest of flying creatures that might be taking turns to cross her path.  Nothing!  She stepped back a little.  Nothing!  A little more.  Nothing!  Bending, she tried to fix her eyeline to where she imagined it would be if she were in the car and as her hair swished forward she thought she might have caught a glimpse of something shining in the air.  She heard the car before she saw it swoop around the dark bend.  Just in time to glance towards it as it hit her.  One eye catching the light of the driver’s headlights.  Like a moth.

At the end of the pipe.

The room had started to go cold as gusts of chattering wind nudged the curtains into temporary peaks.  Somewhere, a door rattled in the cross-breeze.  Day noises had begun to edge over the horizon with the first rays of light but the buzzing in his ears kept them from registering as anything other than a whisper.  He moved his head a little and his own heartbeat bounded, unwanted, into his peace.  He opened his eyes.

In the half-light, he could see the dressing table strewn with her possessions: brushes, lipstick, curling tongs with the cord trailing onto the floor, tissues in imperfect spheres:  grey roses in the gloom.  And perfume.  So much perfume: tall bottles, tiny bottles, elaborate sculptures with pretentious names and cloying scents.  Everywhere!  Not just on the dressing table, but also … he pictured them … on all the bathroom shelves, on the ledge of the bath itself.  Glass bottles perched precariously on a thin strip, ready to plunge and shatter.  In the way.  All the time!

He remembered the first bottle he had given her.  A third or fourth date gift; he couldn’t remember everything, but he remembered how much she had loved it.

“How did you know?” she had asked.

“How did I know?” he wondered.

Click-click. A light flashing on the ceiling.  Once.   Twice.  An early riser, on his way to work, unlocking his car.  Oblivious!  He closed his eyes again, against the weight of the growing dawn.  He knew it would crush him!  The sheet throbbed; he couldn’t understand how, but he felt it.  He felt it as though it were happening to somebody else, or really far away, like everything!  All that exists at one end of a pipe with him at the other.   Listening, feeling, but only from a distance.  He couldn’t even remember being at the safe end of the pipe anymore and he no longer wanted to be there.

His head hurt.  He couldn’t understand why it would hurt when he had taken so many pills.  In a way, he wanted to lean over the edge of the bed and count the packets, even though he knew there would be five.  Five empty packets and three empty bottles.  The thought of the bottles made his dry tongue tap on the roof of his mouth.   Somehow, wanting to move was no longer enough motivation for his muscles and he knew he would never see those packets or bottles again.  He would never see his favourite book or his car.  He would never see his sister or the people he used to work with.  He would never see the pale green walls of the kitchen, the sink scrubbed clean, gleaming; an island of perfection in a sea of degradation.  The big, family-sized kitchen table his grandfather had made, undulating after two lifetimes of warmth and love and another of tension and despair.  Strong, rough under the fingers but smooth and shiny in patches, marked by constant use.  With his eyes closed and ignoring the buzzing and beating in his head that fought to distract him, he could imagine himself downstairs, sitting at the table with a strong tea and an unwanted view of the garden.

He’d grown up with wonderful gardens.  His own garden was in painful contrast to the ones he remembered from his childhood.  His garden was a tangle of yellow grasses and broken fence posts.   He’d only lived in two houses before this one and they’d both had lush, lovingly tended gardens full of glowing colours, gentle scents that he had always been able to bring to mind, before … well, just before!  He missed those innocent fragrances.  And in those other, better gardens, a multitude of insects.  Some beautiful, some dangerous.   Insects that bit and stung.  Insects that buzzed.  The thought of the buzzing brought him back into the now, where the buzzing seemed louder, or was it just that his heartbeat had grown quieter?  Maybe both.  It seemed as though the sounds were all that was left of his life; although he felt them now, rather than hearing them.  From the other end of the pipe.

The cold poked at him, half-heartedly, and he wanted to say something.  Hold me!  Warm me!  Forgive me!  He tried to stop the words forming in his head.  He didn’t want to hear that voice again but his imagination forced it into his semi-conscious ears.  No fingers could stop that sound: the sounds on the inside get louder if you block out the outside.  “Leave me alone!”  Was that real, or a memory?  Memories are real too.  Some of them are more real than others.  Some have lives of their own.

He knew it was nearly time to die.  Part of him had been dead for so long he could smell it on his words and see it reflected in the eyes of everyone who saw him.  They knew.  And he knew they knew.  He summoned every morsel of strength left in his body to roll onto his back.  The ceiling pulsated and the buzzing became all that existed for a moment.  Or an eternity   He could see her now though, lying there where he had put her, at his side.  On their bed.  Her beautiful hair brushed and curled.  Her lips, meticulously tinted.  Her favourite dress arranged carefully to hide the marks.  But all the perfume was gone now.  Every drop, from every bottle, from every room in the house.  All the perfume in the world wouldn’t stop people from finding her soon.  But when they did …they would find him too.