High Street was busier than usual, especially for a Wednesday afternoon, seemingly stuffed to within an inch of its life. Cristin laboured through the crowds, weaving between those who stuttered and traipsed. She slowed as a couple up ahead suddenly paused, a man in a straw hat edging backwards ever so slightly, prompting Cristin to take a step back herself.
“Watch it, lady,” a rotund man snapped from behind, sweat dripping from his temples as the disgusting heat continued to soar. Before Cristin had the chance to respond, he was already too far gone.
“Prick,” she uttered beneath her breath.
Looking out, the couple who caused the collision had now also been gobbled by the crowd. Gingerly moving forward, a gangly man—this time to her left—knocked the handbag from her shoulder, barging past without an iota of consideration. Readjusting the strap, she was then barged from the other side by a lady in oversized shades, barking monotonous instructions at Siri.
Flustered, Cristin sidestepped toward an alleyway, giving herself a second or two to shake off the claustrophobic angst beginning to seep in. Upsetting the quiet confines of the narrow passage, a buzzing emanated from her handbag, Cristin fishing out her phone, only to sigh at the name flashing across the screen. She waited for the call to ring out—and then for the inevitable ding that signalled a voicemail—before turning it off altogether. Stuffing the phone away, she then braced herself for round two; High Street in all its unforgiving glory.
The automatic doors of Cornerhouse folded in on themselves as Cristin entered, the air conditioning firing out a chilled jet stream that was both soothing and welcome. The place itself was empty, not a soul to be seen, except for the girl who sat behind the box office kiosk massaging her frizzy hair. Walking over, Cristin was welcomed by the girl’s toothy grin, to which she smiled back wearily and paid for a ticket.
With the entire theatre to choose from, she took up her usual seat; on the aisle, fourth row back, centre block on the right. Releasing the bobble from her ponytail, the brunette waves rippled free, resting atop her shoulders. Snapping open her circular make-up mirror, she quickly fingered the bangs drooping on either side and fluffed her fringe. For the first time all day—all week, if not all month—Cristin allowed herself to switch off, the winding carousel of thoughts no longer turning at a relentless rate. It felt good.
She needed this, a respite from the constant calls, the continuous questions, the bombardment that unabatedly chipped away at her soul; it was a comforting solitude she’d been denied for far too long.
The lights went down, bathing her—and the rows of empty seats—in an inky darkness. This was followed by the reverberating growl of the sound system, which rattled into gear and announced the pre-trailer adverts. Slumping further in her seat, Cristin retrieved a hip flask from her bag and took a prolonged swig, resulting in a wonderful silky warmth coating her throat. Relaxed, she was ready to be immersed by the magic of cinema.
As the ads played out, a sliver of light subtly flashed, illuminating the bottom corner of the screen. A shadow briefly stretched into view, promptly erased by the clanking slap of the auditorium door closing. The silhouette of a woman emerged, slim and slender, carrying a bucket of popcorn in one hand, the straps of her satchel wrapped around the other. Despite the expanse of empty seats—all but one vacant—the lady glided effortlessly to the row in front, taking the seat directly to Cristin’s left, much to her dismay.
Frowning, Cristin straightened, contemplating whether or not she should move herself, yet simultaneously conscious of appearing rude if she did. The bucket of popcorn then toppled, the lady managing to just about rescue that particular catastrophe, as she turned and said through a loose smile, “That was lucky.” Cristin said nothing in way of a response, she simply smiled sharply through thin lips and shuffled uncomfortably in her seat.
Turning again, the lady asked, “How long have the adverts been on?”
“Only a few minutes,” Cristin replied, agitation riding the wave of her words.
“So I have time to make a quick call? I don’t want to miss the trailers.”
“I guess,” Cristin said, now feeling her frustration boil like a bubbling pot of pasta.
The lady fidgeted, scurrying through the satchel propped open in the seat beside her, before revealing the flashing glow of a mobile phone. The illuminated glimmer sliced through the otherwise darkness, igniting a fresh irritation to spark within Cristin’s gut, who now found herself audibly sighing at the sight.
After a few seconds, the lady held the phone to her ear. “I’m here,” she said, but it was all she could to manage before Cristin lunged forward.
“What are you doing?” she spat, as if summoning venom, no longer concerned with her decorum.
“Just a second,” the lady said into her phone, before twisting to face Cristin. “You said I had time to make a call?”
“Not in here,” Cristin slammed, her voice a hoarse whisper. “Go outside if you want to make a phone call.”
“I’ll only be a minute.”
“I don’t care, outside.” Without realising, Cristin was on her feet and pointing toward the exit.
The lady held Cristin’s stare for a moment, until briefly returning to her conversation. “I’ll have to call you back later… yes, I will… bye, bye.” Remaining side-on to absorb Cristin’s tense posture, she said, “Happy now?”
“Yes. Can you turn your phone off, too?”
The lady grinned, nodding her head slowly and fumbling for the off switch.
While the phone continued to light up the darkened auditorium, Cristin noticed a tattoo of what looked like an astronaut on the lady’s forearm. It swiftly dissipated, merging with the shadowed light as the phone’s gleam fizzled out. She then turned to face Cristin once more. “Have you seen this movie already?”
“No,” Cristin said, the grooves on her forehead etched deep like canyons.
“I liked her last movie, so I’m looking forward to this one.”
“Shush,” Cristin sprayed, spittle breaking free from her lips.
“Okay, okay, I get the message.” The lady spun to face the screen, collecting her bucket of popcorn and muttering something Cristin couldn’t quite decipher.
She grazed on that bucket throughout the entire film, rustling fingers through the fluffy corn and munching so loud, not even the booming score could mask it. Each handful sounded to Cristin like a rustle of foil, with every crunching bite prompting an involuntary wince at the relentless gnaw.
As the credits rolled, Cristin collected her bag and stormed from the theatre. Outside the screen she stopped and drained the remainder of her hip flask, before heading toward the exit. In the foyer, the girl from the box office kiosk was hovering, her hair retaining a vibrant bounce, while her smile remained forever radiant.
“Thank you,” she beamed, as Cristin marched past.
Pausing with her back to the girl, Cristin mused whether or not she should say something. On another day she would’ve let it go, allowed the anger to evaporate, but not today. No, today she’d had enough, deciding instead to make a complaint.
“You know, you really need to start clamping down on cinema etiquette, all the empty seats and that woman came and sat right in front of me.”
“I’m sorry?” the girl asked, a smile still resident, despite her bewildered expression.
“That woman, stuffing her mouth throughout the film, she even tried to make a phone call before it started, it’s not right.” Cristin had said her piece, yet immediately regretted doing so, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks, turning them a cherry red. Suddenly embarrassed, she wasn’t waiting around for an answer, instead pacing from Cornerhouse to rejoin the simmering jungle of High Street. So much for a relaxing afternoon.
Cristin could only bare five minutes of the slow amble, the streets crammed like sardines and the humidity unbearable. To allow for the crowds to subside—or at least filter—she decided to stop in at Night Jar for a drink. Outside, the beer garden was a chorus of bustling excitement, tables crammed tight amidst the flowing tap of alcohol. Inside however, the place was practically deserted, and cool. The hairs on Cristin’s bare arms now stood erect, pricked like cactus spikes, the cooling sensation a blissful paradise.
She sat nursing a gin and tonic, her mind a wash with familiar thoughts, prompting an ache in her chest to flicker. Knowing she couldn’t put it off forever, Cristin reluctantly switched on her phone, a cacophony of shrill alerts screaming as it sprang back to life. She read the first message and instantly felt her limbs turn to jelly, while a clawing sensation reached up over her spine, smothering the nape of her neck. By the third message, Cristin slammed her phone against the table so hard, the echo reverberated around the empty room, rousing an inquisitive look from the pimple-faced woman who kept bar.
The creaking hinge from the door then alerted Cristin, who momentarily peered up at the doorway. In stepped a slender woman, wearing a drooping dark vest and baggy ripped jeans, along with a rainbow infused satchel slung over her shoulder. She took a few paces toward the bar and stopped, looking around at the sparse surroundings. That’s when Cristin recognised it; the tattoo of an astronaut, covering the length of her left forearm. It was the lady from Cornerhouse.
Instinctively ducking down, she felt exposed, with nothing or no-one to hide her presence. The lady clocked her straight away and grinned, striding over with an elevated spring to her step.
“Well, fancy seeing you here,” she said, accompanied by a jovial smile.
“Yeah, fancy that.”
“You were in a rush to getaway earlier, you not like the movie?”
“No, the movie was fine.”
“So, you’re not a credits person then, no?”
“I just needed to go.”
“Fair enough. Mind if I join you?”
Even if Cristin had minded, she had little choice in the matter, the lady scraping back a chair despite Cristin’s foot resting on the leg. Cristin looked up at the woman behind the bar, who stared back briefly through worried eyes, before briskly snatching her head away.
“So, what did you think?”
“Excuse me?” Cristin said, her tone harsh and mind faraway.
“The movie. What did you think?”
Cristin could see the tattoo with greater clarity now, the lady’s outstretched arm resting on the table. It wasn’t an astronaut as such, but a monkey wearing a full body spacesuit, grinning wide beneath its visor. It’s a Space Monkey, Cristin thought, I’m being stalked by a Space Monkey.
“I’m sorry,” Cristin said, shaking her head as if clearing it free of cobwebs, “and I don’t mean to rude, but I want to sit alone.”
Space Monkey smiled, twisting a knot of hair between her fingers. “Do you though?”
“Yes, I do,” Cristin replied, although rather hesitantly, the words wavering as they escaped.
Space Monkey shuffled her seat over, coming to within a foot of Cristin. She leaned forward, eyes narrowed, Cristin noticing the sparkling blue that resided within them. “But ask yourself truthfully, do you?”
“Yes,” she shouted, slapping a palm against the table, the thumping sound startling herself in the process. Space Monkey didn’t so much as flinch however, unlike the spotty lady behind the bar, who was now looking across and nibbling on her lower lip, nervously contemplating how she should react.
Cristin swiftly drained the remainder of her drink and leapt to her feet. “You happy now,” she said to Space Monkey, “second place you’ve chased me from today.” Cristin grabbed her bag and left without looking back, yet upon exiting exiting Night Jar she was forced to stop. Abruptly feeling faint and becoming unsteady on her feet, she held herself against the wall with a flailing arm. The ache in her chest grew dull, feeling as if hands were wrapped around her heart, squeezing it tight, and this was all before her phone began to sing its familiar tune.
Having walked aimlessly for forty-five minutes—a failed attempt to clear her mind—Cristin finally succumbed and headed for the subway. She sat in the carriage and stared back at her reflection in the window facing. Even the elongated image couldn’t disguise her sunken sockets, strained from the emotional baggage that had weighed her down for months.
Three stops came and went, but at the fourth, the doors beeped open and on stepped Space Monkey; satchel hanging loose from her shoulder, freely twisting knots of hair around her fingers. Cristin’s eyes bulged wide at the sight, mirrored by an expression that seemed to scream, you’ve got to be kidding me. Space Monkey took the seat opposite, as the doors slid shut and the train departed.
“Three times in a day, what are the odds?” Space Monkey said, her smile beaming bright as ever.
“Can you please sit somewhere else?” Cristin replied, a response which received one or two dubious looks from passengers in the close vicinity.
“Because I want to be alone, I’ve already told you that.” More glances followed, with the lady next to Cristin nudging herself a few inches along the row.
Space Monkey narrowed her eyes again, much like she had in Night Jar, examining Cristin, almost as if dissecting her. “I think I can help you.”
Cristin sniggered. “I don’t need your help, what I need is to be left alone.” More looks shot Cristin’s way, while the lady beside her stood and moved to a neighbouring carriage.
“Be honest with yourself, Cristin, I don’t think you really want that.”
“How do you know my name?” Cristin asked, feeling her pulse ramp up considerably. Space Monkey just smiled back. It wasn’t a deviant or malicious smile, if anything it was filled with love and concern, but that still didn’t prevent it from unnerving Cristin. “How do you know my fucking name?” Cristin screamed this time, before suddenly becoming aware of the countless eyes watching her from around the carriage.
Embarrassed—and not for the first time that day—she slouched back into her seat, glancing up to see Space Monkey staring back. Through clenched teeth, Cristin said, “Just leave me alone,” each word spoken with slow, clear precision. Disappointed, Space Monkey shook her head lightly, reluctantly honouring Cristin’s request.
The silence that rode between the two was deafening, this despite the mechanical rhythm of the carriage slicing through the tunnel, rocking the car up and down and side to side, while it roared over the sparking tracks.
Slowing, the train rolled to a gradual stop, an intermittent beeping announcing that the doors were about to open. A flurry of passengers stormed on, all vying for the last few vacant seats. A man sporting an elaborate bushy beard, his moustache groomed and gelled into a ridiculous smirk, walked across and motioned to sit where Space Monkey was sat.
“No,” Cristin yelled, leaping from her seat with outstretched arms, as if diving to save a falling pot.
The man paused mid-sit, frozen in a sea of bewilderment. He first looked at Cristin, now stood only a foot away, before glancing around at the carriage. “What?” the man asked, his own eyes iced in a state of confusion.
“What are you doing?” Cristin said, pointing at Space Monkey, who was seemingly unperturbed that the man’s rear was about to come down and crush her fragile frame.
“Sitting down?” the man replied, suddenly unsure of himself, the statement therefore taking the form of a question. He glanced at the seat, half expecting to see a discarded banana peel, or something of equal note.
“But,” Cristin stuttered, “there’s someone sitting there.” She again pointed at Space Monkey, whose wide grin stretched like a rubber band, amused by the scene rapidly unfolding.
“Where?” the man queried, peering at the empty seat beneath him.
Light flashed before her, blurring Cristin’s sight and leaving her engulfed in a brief daze. A dizzying sensation followed and remained prevalent for the next few seconds. She turned to a man sat on her left, his head absorbed deep inside a book, a beanie dragged low over his forehead smothering his brow. Cristin nudged his arm with her own, luring him momentarily from the novel. “Tell him,” she said, her voice erratic, while directing a shaking finger at Space Monkey. Only now Space Monkey had vanished, Cristin too, seeing nothing but an empty seat.
A new silence glided over the train, encasing them like a thick fog. The man hovering above Space Monkey’s seat said something, as did the man next to her, along with a woman who approached Cristin from just a few feet away. Their voices were nothing more than muffled static, the words a jumble of sounds carrying no meaning whatsoever. The ache in Cristin’s chest suddenly exploded, that claustrophobic grip returning, squeezing with even greater vehemence.
Breathing short shallow breaths, and on the cusp of a panic attack, Cristin sprinted for the doors before they slid shut. She ran the length of the platform, stopping only when she reached the top of the staircase. Wailing sounds oozed from her lungs, while one solitary thought bounced around her mind like a turbulent pinball; I’m losing my mind.
Back above ground the air remained humid, even if the heat had relented a little. The streets had thinned somewhat, so Cristin made her way to Mayfield Park, looking for a quiet spot to rest, which she found under the shade of a towering oak. Shaken by the incident on the subway—if that’s what you could call it, many would simply refer to it as a woman losing her shit—the hammering thump in her chest continued to resonate.
Cristin shook her head, still shrouded in disbelief. She was there. Wasn’t she? She had to be. She was there. A squirrel scurried close by as she laid down her bag, which immediately buzzed against the wooden bench.
“Fuck off,” she cried through a wave of quivering tears, tired, exhausted and devoid of energy. Hell, she knew what awaited, she could recite the messages on demand, so why even bother looking? Why put herself through that?
Out of nowhere, as if by magic, Space Monkey appeared and sat next to Cristin on the bench.
“Who are you?” Cristin asked, following a short moment of quiet, one filled with the squirrel’s scuttling industry a mere stone’s throw away.
“Someone who wants to help you.”
“But,” she stammered, “you’re not real, you’re just in my head?”
“Just because you’re the only one who can see me, doesn’t mean I’m imaginary,” Space Monkey smiled.
Cristin motioned to speak, but stopped, instead reaching out a hand to touch Space Monkey’s. It sliced through her forearm as if made of vapour, Cristin’s mouth physically dropping open at the sight. In that moment she wasn’t sure what shocked her more; the fact she was seeing a ghost, talking to a ghost, or given her life of late, that she was even remotely surprised by the surprise.
In the distance, joyous calls from families rang true, excited to be out in the late evening sun. Dogs barked and galloped through the short grass, chasing sticks and balls, all while ignoring their owners calls for them to fetch. Listening, it all felt so normal, so nice, so real. Yet for Cristin, it was all so very far away.
“Would you like to talk about it?” Space Monkey asked, breaching the silence.
Sniffing back, tears rolled down Cristin’s cheeks. “Yes,” she said, breaking down as she answered, before unloading months—no, years—of hurt. Bemused onlookers gave her a wide berth and funny looks, looks that insinuated, that girl is crazy. But Cristin didn’t care. Even if it appeared as though she was speaking to an empty bench, it felt so good to finally shed the baggage that had clung to her like a leech.
She had found someone who would listen.
Space Monkey was listening.