The glare from my screen attacks the dead space around the laptop like an aggressive, white-blue rainbow. I vaguely remember my eyeballs beginning to ache a few hours ago, but like most symptoms of today’s world it was relieved with perseverence and ignorance. The phantom work emails that reeled me back to my login page after I got home have long since been replaced by news sites and social media.
I shiver at my kitchen table despite the warmth, as if the blue light has seeped its way into my skin. A few years ago the ‘experts’ stopped describing Britain’s summers as “unseasonably hot” when they realised these new seasons are the permanent off-spring of global warming. Wet winters and humid summers mean for a soggy year-round affair in the capital. As if to prove it, a drop of sweat trickles from my stiff neck and down my curled back. The Hunchback of Bethnal Green – I would claim it in a heartbeat if I was the only one of such posture.
The anxiety of my birthright as a twenty-first century citizen whines in my head as I scroll through my newsfeed, greedily consuming celebrity news and and stories of the championed 1% who either have enough money to tantalisingly buy their own privacy, or self-market themselves as leaders of their field. At one point the internet was hailed for making the world a smaller, more manageable place. But then the top dogs of their home kennels realised they needed to be top dogs of all the other kennels, too. Nobody cares anymore if you take home the prize for kareoke at your local pub each week; not until those pipes can take you to star on a world stage.
Despite my name and face being plastered all over the internet I, like almost everyone I know, am an unknown. I exist in the public consciousness as nothing more than a government statistic. My Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are a pre-emptive memorial for exactly that; some of us only exist in memories. And most nights, that “some of us” becomes only me by the time I go to bed.
The photo of a colleague triggers thoughts of tomorrow’s group presentation, but the disruption is quickly dismissed. There is little point to add minutes now to the preparation already done; within a year of graduating university it became clear I had no glorified career path awaiting my innovative footsteps. Baaa. I yawn, closing Facebook and turning to Twitter.
How many raindrops does it take to cause a flood? Exactly how many raindrops fill your throat before you drown? Is it gradual? Or is there a moment when one drop reaches a height in your larynx and you suddenly start choking? For me, each innocuous tweet is like a raindrop, and it isn’t until my clock flashes 3am and the anxiety has drowned out any idea of what I’m doing in the world that I realise just how violently its waterfall newsfeed crashes into my brain.
But I can never stop myself. Like a sober addict eyeing up a dirty needle with one last morsel of his former self begging him “no”, I dive in – or dive it in to me. So as per my nightly routine I search for #TodaysHeroes and my screen floods with pictures, anecdotes, information, obituaries, condolences and biographies. Each biography burrows its way into my arteries like plaque as I endlessly subject myself to the green grass on the other side. My chest tightens when I read of a man who was beaten to death after stepping between a gang of men and a young woman in Manchester. His blood stained the pavement as she escaped. Hot pools form in my eyes when I see the photos. How lucky, I think.
I lose another hour to the details of a couple dying from smoke inhalation after rushing into their neighbour’s burning house in Dundee to help evacuate the young children, and a young woman dying from a severe allergic reaction after performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her best friend who choked on an M&M. Their names and lives are forever embossed as #TodaysHeroes. People will mourn the world’s loss of such brave, intrepid, selfless souls for years to come.
The weight of who I am not hangs around my shoulders like a moulding fur by the time I close my laptop in the small hours of the morning. It will be light soon, and then I will dress, go to work, perform, receive the biggest adulations of my life in the form of a pat on the back, and return home completely devastated by the averageness of it all. My safety and my imagination wear on each other daily like two thugs contained in facing prison cells. I am the victim they left behind to salvage a life in what we all know to be a harsh reality.
I crank out of my hunch and stretch my legs, yawning. Just as I stand, a loud scream rips through the balmy night. My knees lock to keep myself from falling as my senses crackle in the dark. Fear gulps at my eardrums but the adrenaline spiking in my chest propels me to my front door and down into the stairwell before I have the chance to think. I throw my body down the stairs of my building and wrench open the front door. As I run out into the night, I hear other front doors slamming shut on the street. I put my head down and run towards the park, racing the other phantom heroes.
The park is just minutes from my door but those few minutes are all it takes for it to be swarming with pyjama-d citizens. A bubble have formed around the entrance, all turned into face the evidence lying on the road. I squeeze my way into the group, standing on my tip-toes to try and get a better view. I accidentally knock into another woman beside me and she throws me a frown. I smile apologetically and offer an ice-breaker.
“Has anyone called emergency services?”
“Ambulance and the police are on their way,” she replies stiffly.
I nod before adding, “And the press?”
“The first guy here tweeted it to the BBC,” she nods.
“Good, good,” I mutter, still failing to see over the heads of the crowd. Suddenly, they part slightly and I spot an opening as someone backs out belatedly rubbing sleep from their eyes. I squeeze in before the crowd swallows it up again.
I push closer to the front with a little more belligerence this time. Over the buzz of the crowd I hear a soft sobbing. Breaking through the front line, I finally see the owner of the sobs illuminated in the harsh light of a few iPhone torches. The young man is bent over the body of a young woman, muttering to her softly through his tears. Even though she is dead, her body still pumps blood through the gash in her stomach.
“Romeo and Juliet,” I gasp to myself.
“That’s what Twitter’s calling it,” the man to my left answers. “Some bastard tried to mug him and she got between them when he pulled out a knife.”
“Oh my god. Do we know who they are?”
“Don’t you recognise him? He’s an actor.” My eyebrows shoot up.
“You’re right! I’ve seen him in films! I thought he was in L.A… Was the girl his girlfriend?”
“Just a fan, I think,” the man sighs, glancing at the time on his phone. “He’s drunk – I guess she saw the opportunity to help him home.”
“Were they in the same bar?” I ask. The man nods. “Smart girl,” I whisper.
“She’ll have the headlines tomorrow,” the man agrees, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Wonder how many people will wake up tomorrow thinking ‘it could have been me’?”
“Or ‘should have been’,” I counter.
“Not everyone’s made for history,” the man says slowly, shaking his head. “Give her her dues.” He nods at the body of the girl as sirens fill the air. The line of the bubble begins to break as more and more people move away to make room for the imminent police and camera crews. The man looks at his phone again and yawns.
“Right place, wrong time,” he rumbles. “Suppose we’ll have to try harder to be here before the scream next time.” My chin bobs slowly as I watch someone mime to the saved actor for a selfie as the siren wail becomes unbearably loud.
“Good luck!” shouts my temporary companion as we split apart to make way for the policemen running towards the scene.
I give him a thumbs up. “Hope you make it,” I sing-song to myself as I back into the crowd, allowing it to swallow me up and expel me out near the police cars. It’s bad taste to hang around a crime scene once the press arrive. There’s no glory in being the almost-hero.
Realising just how close we all were to existence, the dejected crowd shuffles home in silence, leaving no footprints. I stand for a moment, letting jealousy prick tears from my eyes as the knowledge I have to go on as nothing replaces the adrenaline. As I turn away with blurred sight but clear vision an unmarked police car pulls up and an older man and woman get out clutching coffees. I turn back to watch them, scraping away the tears as I move into earshot. From their dark clothes and weathered faces I assume them to be the detectives.
“-third fucking sacrifice tonight.” The man growls into his coffee. “Honestly, why don’t these people just kill themselves?”
“Suicide suggests you don’t want to live on – and what these people want, more than anything, is to live on,” the woman answers, narrowed eyes surveying the scene as she slams her door shut.
“Weak attempt at immortality, if you ask me. More like a fucking hangover from Christianity.”
“The sacrifice or the fear of suicide?” She deadpans as they march towards the body.
“The belief if you’re not special you’re not fit for heaven – heaven now being a fucking hashtag.” His colleague snorts a laugh and they duck under the tape the officers erected around the famous actor and the dead girl who can never now be accused of wasting her life because she gets to live forever as his Juliet.
I go home and think about killing myself, but realise I can’t do it because I’m not worth dying for. After hours of weeping and bemoaning Juliet’s luck, exhaustion takes me under and I sleep through my morning presentation. Panicking, I call the office. It turns out it doesn’t matter because the boss isn’t in either. His daughter was killed last night. Her name wasn’t Juliet, it was Julia. I hope they can update her biography on #TodaysHeroes