SEE THEM in the porch light.
A long line of people waits on the drive outside my house; on closer inspection they turn out to be a mixture of the old and the young, men, women, and children. They are patient, their heads are bowed, they are waiting for their stories to be told, and it is I who will tell them—I am the author. I watch them for a long time, partly hidden behind my curtain, all the time thinking about the challenge ahead of me. But I am tired now; it is midnight. Tomorrow maybe, I think, yawning. I need a few hours’ sleep. It is hard work to give life to new characters every single day; it is not as if I am God. I am just a tired middle-aged woman trying to keep going.
I watch the ones whose faces are in the shadows. There are so many of them, they are hard to count, and what happens to the ones whose stories I never get to tell? Who will look after them? I press my nose against the window. My breath makes the glass steam up, and I draw a little heart. At the front of the line is a young woman cradling a small bundle, a baby swaddled in a blue towel. She clutches the baby to her chest, her face racked with guilt. What can be haunting her so terribly? She is awfully young, emaciated, early twenties probably. She is wearing a dark coat with a hood, and she wears high-heeled ankle boots. She stands as if rooted to the spot, with the baby in her arms and her head bowed to her chest. Behind her stands a man. He looks somewhat puzzled, and his hands are folded. An unassuming man in his early forties, with thinning hair, he stoops slightly. He is not a religious man, though he might be praying to me; it seems as if he is beckoning me, that he has attached himself to the fringes of my consciousness. Behind him stands a very old man, scrawny and withered. There is no glint in his eyes; he has one foot in the grave and nobody notices him. But God knows he needs to be noticed, I think, and scrutinizes him. Inside his concave chest beats the noblest of hearts. Behind him is a woman, a little thin, graying hair. Could she be me? Will I tell my own story one day?
I realize that it is midnight, and I make an effort to tear myself away. I have to turn my back on them. I’m exhausted. I have drunk a bottle of burgundy and I have just taken a Zyprexa for anxiety, a Cipralex for depression, and a zopiclone to make me sleep, so I need my rest now. But it is so hard to turn my back on them—they continue to disturb me. At times they stare at my window in an intense and compelling way. How many of them are there? I lean against the window and try to count them. More than eleven: that means it will take me at least eleven years to get through them all. At the same time I know that as soon as I have dispatched the young woman with the baby and the man with his hands folded, new characters will arrive in a steady stream. I don’t believe it will ever stop. This is how my life has turned out. I walk down the stairs every morning, then across the floor to the computer, where I delve into the fate of a new character, oblivious to everything around me. Time stands still: I feel neither hunger nor thirst, and I am fixated by the blue glare from the computer. After several hours’ work I finally resurface. The telephone rings and brings me back to life. It is busy outside, a real world with laughter and joy, with death, misery, and grief. While I am absorbed by fiction, I pull the strings like a puppeteer; I make things happen. It’s a passion and a lifelong obsession.
My cat appears on the veranda; I let him inside, where it is warm. This agile gray animal is one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, I think. He walks across the parquet floor silently, softly, ¬elegantly.
“Are you sleeping on my bed tonight?” I ask.
He fixes his green eyes on me and starts to purr. Then he heads for the stairs. Together we walk up the fifteen steps to the first floor and into my bedroom. It is small, cool, and dark. There is my bed, my bedside table with the blue lamp. An alarm clock, an open book. I open up the window, and the cool November air wafts in. By the bed is an old armchair; I place my clothes on the armrest. Then I slip under the duvet, curl up like a child. The cat jumps up, settles at my feet, a warm, furry ball of wool.
For a moment everything is wonderfully quiet, but then faint noises start to come through the window, rustling from the cluster of trees outside. A car drives by; its headlights sweep, ghostlike, across my window. The house sits solidly on its foundation, resting like an ancient warrior. I close my eyes. Normally I am asleep the second my head hits the pillow and I remember nothing else. But now I am disturbed by a sound. Someone is trying to open the front door; I’m not hearing things. My eyes open wide and I struggle to breathe. Fear surges through my body because this is really happening. The sound was very clear; it could not be misinterpreted. Did I forget to lock the door?
Frantically I look at my alarm clock. The green digits glow; it is past midnight. The cat raises his head and I sense his movement through the duvet. The noise is not a figment of my imagination, because cats are never wrong. What happens next is terrifying and eerie. The stairs creak; I hear slow, hesitant steps. I lie rigid in my bed. Then all goes quiet. I’m breathing too fast. My fists are clenched, and I brace myself, lying still, listening to the silence, praying to God that I’m hearing things. It could have been the trees outside, or a deer, perhaps, stepping on dry twigs. I calm myself down and close my eyes.
Finally the sleeping pill kicks in; I drift off and only a tiny fragment of my consciousness is present. That is when I awake startled. Someone is in the room; I sense another human being. A pulse, a smell, breathing. The cat arches his back and sniffs the darkness, and in the dim gray light from the window I see the outline of a man. He takes a few steps toward me and sits down on the chair next to my bed. I hear the creaking of the chair and the rustle of clothing. For several long minutes I lie very still under the duvet, every single cell in my body trembling. Neither of us speaks or moves, times passes, my eyes acclimate to the dark.
A man is in the chair by my bed. The light reflects in his moist eyes. For a moment I am paralyzed. When I force myself to break the silence, my voice is devoid of strength.
“What do you want?” I whisper.
It takes a while before he answers, but I hear how he shifts in the chair; I hear his breathing and the sound of his shoes scraping against the floor. Finally he clears his throat cautiously, but no words come. Not someone to take the initiative, I remain immobile, but my fear is so overpowering that my entire system is on the verge of collapse. Terror rips through my body: my heart contracts violently, then stops, then beats three or four wild beats. Again a soft cough, and finally he says in a deep and modest voice:
“I do apologize for intruding.”
Silence once more, for a long time. I fight my way out of my comatose state and half sit up in bed. I squint through the darkness at him, only a meter away.
“What do you want?” I repeat.
He struggles to find the words, squirms a little in the chair.
“Well, I would hate to be a nuisance. I have absolutely no wish to intrude . . . I’m not normally like this. But the thing is, I’ve been waiting for so long and I just can’t bear it any longer.”
There is a note of desperation in his voice. I frown, confused. I consider the situation from an outsider’s point of view: a middle-aged woman, a cat, and a mysterious intruder.