Updated on May 24, 2015
Footsteps, Part 5
Dougal flew home later than he had planned; there was major disruption to transatlantic flights and he waited in a hotel near the airport. He kept the news on constantly, with sound, and watched the footage of the attacks and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers over and over again, until the images were deeply ingrained. He called home, at first to reassure Niamh that he was alright, and then every time he had more information about his flight. The first night he woke up, panicking, because he had dreamed he was standing at the foot of one of the towers when it fell. In the dark hotel room he took out the papers for his presentation and wrote down every detail of the nightmare.
The next day Dougal began to make extensive notes about everything that he had seen; then he began to plot the story that he would tell his wife and children. He worked out in detail the timings of his movements that day, so that not a single minute went unexplained; he crossed out inconsistencies; he invented people that he had spoken to, what they had said and who they had known in the buildings. It did not take long to commit the story to memory and then he burned the pages in the wastepaper basket. On one piece of paper he wrote down his dream about the lake and his wife – he folded it up tightly and, when he left the room for the last time, he slipped it under the mattress.
Niamh cried when he finally walked through the front door, and the children hugged his legs. He unpacked while Niamh made dinner and put his suit in the wash. All four of them sat around the dining table to eat and, if he had taken the time to notice, Dougal might have realised that this was the place he was meant to be. But he was too busy running through the details of his story and waiting for them to ask him about what he had seen. It was his youngest son who obliged, but Niamh intervened: she looked worriedly at Dougal and said that Daddy might not want to talk about it right now. She asked him to tell Daddy about the school play instead and he listened to his excited son half-heartedly.
That evening, after the children were in bed, Niamh finally broached the subject which she seemed to have been dreading. “Do you mind talking about it?” she asked.
“No, not at all,” he replied. Then he thought that he might be coming across as too keen, so he lowered his voice a little. “It’s hard, but I’d like to tell you.”
She moved to the other end of the sofa and regarded him from a distance with concerned eyes. He began. The story had the expected effects and as he was telling it he was surprised at how closely her reactions corresponded to how he had imagined she would act. For a moment he almost forgot that he was talking and seemed to drift outside himself – his mouth continued to work, spewing the words which played on her face and hands as if he were a puppeteer holding invisible strings. He told her how he had been woken by a crash which he thought was a lorry turning over outside; he described how he could not see the buildings very well from his window (here he improvised, because he had not looked properly out of the window until after the towers had fallen). He had gone outside with other people from the hotel – a honeymooning couple with big, frightened eyes; a businessman who could not stop shaking; a middle-aged woman who did nothing but swear – and they walked as close as they dared for a better view. They watched the second plane hit, through the billowing black smoke of the first, and screamed at the explosion. He related in detail how he had run when the first tower had started to fall, and how he had hidden in a shop with a woman who was clutching an empty lead and asking everyone if they had seen her dog. When it came to recounting the aftermath and the dust he began to relax, until it occurred to him that this part of the story might seem disproportionately vivid, whereupon he became vaguer and more confused, before eventually trailing off into silence.
When he finished Niamh moved closer and kissed him, but did not ask any of the questions he had planned for; she did not say anything at all. They watched television without speaking and, an hour later, she asked if he was coming to bed. He said he would stay up a little longer to watch the news. She found him the next morning asleep on the sofa, with the television on mute.
He was given three week’s leave from work, but he went into the office anyway on the Monday immediately following his return. Only a few people approached him – they smiled weakly and patted him on the back, then walked away leaving a wake of disturbed silence behind them. Everybody else stayed in their booths and pretended not to have seen him. At the end of the corridor his boss leaned back in his chair, spread his arms wide and told him to go home. Dougal said he did not want to. His boss stood up, walked out from behind his desk and firmly took his hand. He told him again to go. Dougal went.
Dougal never told his story to anybody else, but it was a lie that for the rest of his life would replace the feeble dream. Even though his fear would always stay with him, it was this fabricated story that he would use to shore up the broken pieces of his memory. Long after he and Niamh made the decision to move to Ireland, he would continue to retreat into his creation at will and let himself roam free inside it, enriching it with details and nonexistent people. But he did not know where to stop: he continued to sculpt and colour his landscape so that at every imagined street corner there were people with such intricately imagined backgrounds and personalities that they could almost have been real. He considered the interior of every building he invented, the movements of the clouds above the streets he had not walked, even the lives of people who had left their footprints in the dust long before he had seen them. His falsified world was embellished to the point of ludicrousness, but despite his best efforts to imitate reality, he could not make himself believe in it. He always inevitably returned to the pathetic dream.
The further he had walked from Ground Zero, the more people he had encountered. Some sat in the dust crying, others ran around shouting, but most walked quietly, alone or in small groups. Lots of people wanted to talk – they compared their stories, what they had seen, and asked each other if they had noticed some detail that they thought was important. The further away from the epicentre they had been, the more they wanted to talk. There were people talking about luck and why they should have been in the buildings when they were hit, and others saying why their friends and family should not have been. It seemed nobody was where they were supposed to be, but it had taken this for them to realise it.
Dougal was surrounded by the vast human detritus of devastation and as he entered cleaner streets filled with colourful people, his dusty second skin attracted increasing attention. He pulled up his collar, fixed his gaze on his slowly moving feet and ignored everybody who tried to talk to him. Eventually he reached a wide street filled with people, ambulances and fire engines. There was no dust here, and a mass exodus of people – some with bandages wrapped around their limbs or faces – was walking slowly towards a large bridge over a river. Dougal soon caught up with the end of the walking menagerie and joined them, disappearing quickly into the crowd.