I saw a Facebook ad for a set of six coasters. Clicked on the link, took me to a website. There were just the six coasters on it, and nothing else, no “about” page, no other items for sale, just the six coasters. And they looked lovely, all geometric shapes and lovely colours, very nice, so I clicked on the buy-now link, entered my credit card details and ordered them. Nice.
That was about ten thirty in the morning. I was working in my upstairs office and heard a package being delivered at about six thirty the same day. I was working, so I didn't go down to see what had been delivered, or the person delivering.
The coasters, including box was small enough to fit through my letterbox.
So, at about seven thirty, I went down and picked the package up from the doormat, wondering what it was, surely the coasters would take a day or two to arrive? But anyway, there were the coasters in the jiffy bag. A beautiful box. I opened it in the kitchen and pulled the top of the coaster box off, and saw the first one. As I looked at it I was instantly taken back to my childhood, the days I'd spent with a girl and the fun we had prancing about and being very silly. Can't remember her name now, but Mum said she wasn't 'all there' and I should not go about with her any more. So, I didn’t. Odd that a coaster should have reminded me about her, all those years ago. I think her name was Jenny.
I took the first coaster out and saw the second one, and it made me smell fresh cut grass and took me back to school, and playing fields and larking about and playfully teasing the girls, and all that, a long time ago.
The third one took me back to university, where I worked with a girl on the course and we seemed to click, she knew stuff I didn't and vice versa, we worked well together, and managed to pass the second year. She somehow didn't turn up for the final year, but I thought nothing of it. Odd, I've never thought of her since, either, I think her name was Imogen.
Then I saw the fourth coaster, and the fifth, but nothing seemed to trigger any memories from these ones, and the sixth seemed to be a pixelated mess, as if something had gone wrong at the printers.
Then, I thought, hang on, these aren't the pictures that I saw of the coasters on the website. So I went back to my computer and brought up the site again. 404 Not Found. The website didn't exist any more, except, well, I do websites and you can create your own "404 Not Found" page and direct people to the home page or search or whatever, but the 404 was odd. The text was oddly formatted, the numbers and letters were in odd places, like they were a ransom note, culled from letters in a newspaper. In Google Chrome, if you right-click on a webpage, and choose "Inspect" at the bottom you can see the gubbins of the page. And the gubbins was a lot more than you could see, because there was a paragraph, the text was white on white, so you couldn't see it on the page, but it was there in the gubbins. The paragraph read :
All my life, Alexander, you've been part of it. All my life, Alexander, you have been there. Alexander, you are my Guardian Angel, yet you reject me at every turn. Our lives are intertwined. And yet you're so ignorant of my existence that you hardly remember any of the times we met and did stuff together. Why is that Alexander? What are you doing with your life that excludes the only one who can be your very soul-mate? Fiona was ok, so was Emily, so was Natasha. They were ok for you. But you seem to forget me, though we've met and bonded in so many ways. I may have been like an apparition, changing names and hairstyles to suit you but still no realisation of Who I Am to you. Please examine your coasters, especially the last one. When you've decoded the simple coding of the last one, the sixth one, you will contact me. And we can begin again. Simple. It's so simple Alexander, I Am The One.
Ha! Bollocks! I'm married to Emily now, and she is fabulous for me, we have a great life. It's pretty good, even by my standards, so I'm not going to "decode" the last printer's error coaster.
Printer's error. I stare at the sixth coaster, and there's a pattern to it. I get a magnifying glass and fuck me there are high quality images. Photographs. Me and some girl, the some girl looks different in every picture, but I don't, I look pretty much the same. I don't remember these photographs (before digital cameras) being taken at all. They must have been taken by someone else other than me and Jenny/Imogen/et al.
Fair enough, I must "decode" these photos, see what she's getting at. All seem to be photos. On closer inspection, with a bigger magnifying glass I see an address. Phone number. Twitter handle. I go online to look at Twitter.
Her profile picture knocks me backward. It's like I have a twin I never knew about. But Jenny and Imogen didn't look like me as I remember. And, well, maybe twin isn't the right word, she doesn't actually look like me, but she seems somehow a part of me, something I've tried to hide, something I've not thought about as my life went from strength to strength since university. Something I've been ignoring all my life. And there she was.
I rang her. There was a phone number, Facebook link etc in one of the photos, really clearly under my magnifying glass, must be really high resolution for a coaster print. Could have cost a lot.
She didn't answer. Instead I got a recorded message saying, "Hello, I'm not available right now, please leave a message after the tone, and if that's Alexander, say something about, I dunno, a coaster. The fourth one. I'll call you back. Incidentally, if that is not Alexander, then you really do have the wrong number."
I hung up and looked at the fourth coaster. It was a picture of a large, expensive house, one that was obviously "gated" and had no character at all. I didn't recognise it. I looked at it for something to say when I rang back. Rubbish house? Charmless? What would she expect me to say about it? That was hard, I didn't want to double, triple guess, so I looked at it again, a bit closer, then with the magnifying glass. I could just make out a name plate next to the front door, the house was called "James Simon House". My middle two names.
I rang her up again, and got the same message, except it sounded very different. I thought I could hear a phone ringing too. I was in my kitchen and Emily was at a work do, she would be very late coming back, I didn't mind, we're very easy on each other. We have no kids (yet) so I was alone, but maybe I wasn't. So, I just said "James Simon House" and hung up. There was a knock at the door. We have a doorbell. Should I open it and see what this is all about? Or wait until she rings me back as promised? Could opening the door start off a whole series of awful events that could split me from Emily? I wasn't ready for this, not then, things were going nicely, I didn't want any stress. So I didn't answer the door and resolved not to - until this mystery woman rang me back as promised.
Nothing at all, no phone call that night. Emily came back at about 2am, I was still awake in bed, trying to fretfully sleep, but to no avail. Emily crept in beside me an instantly fell asleep. At about 4am I put my phone by the bed on silent, then I fell asleep.
I awoke the next morning, it was a Saturday, and we usually slept in. Emily wasn't there beside me when I woke, so I got up and into my dressing gown and went downstairs. Emily was making a full English, which is rare but not completely unusual, and it was most welcome. As we sat and ate our fabulous breakfast, Emily said, "Alex, do you have any idea why there is a garden gnome on our doorstep?" I was confused, "Just kids, I expect, there's a gnome in the garden over the road, they must have moved it as a prank!"
"Yes, maybe, except the one over the road is still there, I checked."
"Really? Ok, after this I shall go and inspect our new gnome. Is it a nice one?"
I like gnomes. Emily doesn't, so we don't have any in our garden, which is a pity, but hey, compromise. We have one now though. After breakfast was cleared up, I went to have a look. That must have been the weird woman (now I was thinking she was weird, and well, to be avoided, if curiosity could be squashed, the gnome was certainly helping me think "weird, to be avoided"). It was quite a large one, typical of the usual style of gnomes, nothing modern, just a jolly fellow in a white beard, red bobble hat, brown belt, black boots, hands behind his back. Very nice. I looked at it more closely, checking that Emily was still inside the house. Nothing much to see, it was a gnome. I picked it up, it was quite heavy and there was an envelope underneath it with “Alexander And Emily” written on it. Oh god. Then my phone rang, the number I had called weird woman on. What to do? Emily came out.
"Who is it?" she said.
I answered the phone. If this is all going to be merry hell with some kind of stalker then I want no secrets about it from Emily.
"Hello?" I said.
"Alexander! You like my gnome? Have you opened the envelope yet?"
My skin crawled. Her voice was so very familiar, so, well, lovely, sexy, alluring and it seemed I'd known her all my life. Perhaps I had. In those few words my whole life seemed to pass before me, in glorious colour. I stood transfixed.
"Who is it?" Emily again.
"No, I've not opened it yet. Listen," I said, and weird woman hung up.
"That's not staying there, Alex, we can give it to the gnome lady over the road. What's going on Alexander?" Emily looked concerned.
We went back in and I told Emily all about it, showed her the coasters (with me feeling the same as when I first saw them) and confessed that I'd rung this weird woman last night. Emily was intrigued. Not jealous, just intrigued.
"What are you going to do, go to the police - she could be a stalker?"
"Hmmm, yes. Ok let's see what's in the envelope."
"Are you sure? It might have anthrax in it!"
"Oh god, yes."
This was now getting into a kind of stage two - the first stage was interesting and a bit fun with the coasters. Now it was stalker territory. But the two stages seemed very disconnected. I rattled the envelope, nothing rattled inside. I opened it, Emily let out a gasp. But there was no white powder, just a note which read :
"Alexander and Emily, you are cordially invited to My House for a get together and discussion on the Way Forward. RSVP".
There was an address, not the house on the coaster but in a small village, not far away. We googled the address and the house was a rather nice, thatched cottage, similar to one I stayed in when I was a student, in the middle of no-where. It was for tonight, Saturday at 8pm. There was no name given.
"I think we should phone the police, or Citizens Advice or someone before going, don't you?" said Emily.
"But it's not a police matter at the moment, though is it? I mean, we're not being threatened or made to feel uncomfortable or anything, just curiosity."
"The coasters, the phone message, the knock on the door, the gnome, the invite - all in the space of twenty four hours, we might have a case?"
I phoned 111. They said to keep them informed, obviously don't go to the meeting. They've made a note and we have an incident number.
I went on my own. Emily thought the woman would be more forthcoming to me, if I was on my own. I had a text to send to Emily if things looked dodgy, ready to press send. Emily would ring 999 if she got the text. That was the plan.
As soon as she opened the door, I knew. It was a whirlwind, all my life had been leading up to this, everything suddenly made sense, all my unfulfilled dreams came into sharp focus, everything I'd ever wanted to be, to do, to have, floated into my vision and I knew, from now on, as I stepped over her threshold, that everything would be alright and so exciting! So wonderful!
We talked for days, weeks. I don't remember. We recalled all the times and places we had been together, she was the girl my mother sent away, my student friend, my first work placement mentor, my little fling I had in Italy when working there. She was the lovely woman in the deli I like to talk to when I was in Bournemouth that time, she was the flirtatious one at that party for Roger, way back when, she was the hairdresser that I liked and had to leave because my job had moved me, she was that girl I met, briefly before meeting Emily, she was ... she was, oh, she was Emily.
Distant thoughts were trying to get through my faze. We hadn't been out of her house at all. I forgot my phone, it didn't matter. I was happy, and my life made so much sense now. We got through bottles of my favourite wine (how did she know?) without getting legless, we ate scrumptious meals, served on silver plates to a laid out table with silk tablecloths and pressed cotton napkins. She was a devil and an angel in bed, we danced naked around the living room, the garden and in the spacious loft even. Her hair changed colour to suit her mood and her clothes were brilliant colours, perfectly matching everything, and then we slept like babies for hours and hours. I was in a dream, and it was a marvel.
I never did find out her real name, or the one she was using, for all of the joy suddenly stopped. I found myself sat next to the gnome on our front step. Emily said it was twenty eight days later. The police had raided the cottage, to find it empty and had not been occupied for several months, it was for sale, but no board was outside. The coasters, the gnome (now returned), the letter had all been examined by forensics and only found mine and Emily's prints on. The phone number wasn't registered to anyone and had never been used. I was on the national news. My therapist tried to hypnotise me to see if I could remember anything else about this person, some detail that would tally with real life. The coasters looked just like coasters, and the manufacturer could not be found. The sixth one was confirmed as a printer error, there were no actual photographs on it, just pixelated splodges. The house had a different name, "Belvedere", not James Simon. I have no middle names, Mum forgot to put any on the birth certificate. And why did it only last twenty eight days, and how come I got dumped back to real life so suddenly?
The police lost interest. I tried to contact the childhood friend and the student I worked with and as many of the women I could remember. Not one replied or weren't there with me at the time, though the hairdresser and the girls I met before Email (and Emily herself, of course) were real enough, I still had their contact details. I'd looked for old school friends and old colleagues before, to no avail, so it wasn't much of a surprise.
I tried to write down the whole experience, those twenty eight days, and all I have is what you see above, it is so blurry. Sat on the step next to the gnome I had the same clothes on as that night when I went to her house, but they had been washed and pressed.
My therapist, Mary, is trying to get to the bottom of it for me. A shrink tried to put it down to some kind of mental fizz in my brain, and she did a brain scan and found me relatively normal, as were all the other tests they did on me. Mary is trying to find out from my subconscious were I actually was all that time. CCTV cameras didn't spot me at all anywhere near the cottage, my phone was fully charged when I got back.
And there it is. Mary wanted me to write this down and so I have. Emily and I are still together, and we seem to be just back to normal, no after-effects at all. Seemingly. But I'm in my own world a lot these days, remembering those twenty eight days, trying to pin it all down. Mary says I am to try to put it out of my mind, apart from when I see her. It'd be difficult, but I think I'm getting there. It didn't happen, it's a mystery and there it is.
I've googled it, of course, nothing, just me that pops up from the news. I'm to stop doing that, of course.
These words are in a notebook which has a lot of dust on it. The big 'wobbly' I had fifteen years ago has all but gone out of my mind. I was looking at my old notebooks today, which, as Mary would have said, god bless her soul, is a very bad thing to do, given what happened. Fifteen years old this notebook, and me fifteen years older, and greyer. I'm just adding this bit with that distance. It did happen, I was at here house for twenty eight days, and had the time of my life, not matched since. Emily and I don't have kids. There is a newspaper clipping attached to this page. Read what it says.
So, now, I am transcribing this from the notebook to put up on my SubStack blog, or my website, can't decide. It needs to be out there in case anyone else, well, anyone else.
There is no sign of the clipping, I've looked and looked. I can't quite remember what it said much either, just something about an incident where ... someone else. Or, I dunno.
Anyway, here is my experience, yours may be different, though somehow the same, let's meet. I'll set up an Insta account where my coasters will be (I've been putting this off for years, the coasters are in a box in a cupboard somewhere, definitely somewhere in my flat. I'll get them out, take pictures with my phone and upload them). But, of course, you'll not have coasters, it'll be something else. Let's meet.
My Insta is instagram.com/crowley_28_days