It was Wednesday morning when Rosa first realised she didn’t exist.
To be accurate, we should say ‘no longer existed’, because she had existed previously, she was fairly certain.
She first noticed the lack of herself when she looked in the bathroom mirror and saw a reflection of the tiles that should have been obscured by her head. The tiles were odd, for a bathroom: they were a dirty beige colour, and every third or fourth square featured a painted bottle of wine and joint of ham. Presumably the landlord had bought them in bulk for very little money.
Rosa looked down and observed that, although she felt as though she was there, there was no physical evidence to support that feeling.
She walked back to her bedroom and carefully shut the door, noting with some interest that at least she could still do that. She looked at the wood, at the brass handle, searching her memory for what they were supposed to feel like: were they soft, cold, prickly, hard? She was aware that when she had touched things yesterday they had moved, just as they did now, but there had been a feeling of some kind on her part. She just couldn’t recall what that was. She wondered what to do next. It seemed unlikely that anyone else in the building could confirm or deny her existence, since the residents had very little contact with each other.
The place Rosa lived was an old Army town with many ugly buildings, but a few streets were occupied by grand Victorian villas like this one. Its red bricks needed re-pointing, held together by crumbling sand, its roof was missing tiles here and there, but it was still a beautiful, proud house. It was now what they call a house in multiple occupation, as were many that surrounded it. In Rosa’s building there were five bedrooms and the residents shared a kitchen and two bathrooms.
One of the men who lived there was ex-Army and walked around wearing a vest and a permanent scowl. His strange, wide-legged gait used to make Rosa wonder if he’d been injured, but it was merely the way he wore his masculinity.
Another resident was a jolly, round-faced man who would say her name in a sing-song voice every time he saw her, but never anything beyond that. She didn’t remember ever telling him her name, but supposed she must have. His mother visited often – every two days or so – but, unlike him, always looked sad.
Then there was the drunk woman who screamed at the birds every morning, and the fifth room was vacant for the time being.
Rosa decided to call her work and let them know she wouldn’t be coming in today. But an odd thing happened: she moved her lips, and she thought she could hear her own apologetic words, but from the other end of the line all that came was ‘Hello? Hello? Who’s there? What the-?’ and an exasperated sigh and then a click as the phone went down.
She looked around the room with the vague idea that she was looking for clues, but everything was the same as it ever was. ‘Everything’ was not very much at all, really. A futon bed, a small wardrobe, a threadbare rug. A stack of items that didn’t belong anywhere else – a couple of books, boxes of pills for headaches, pills for other, more amorphous types of pain, empty photo frames – served as a precarious bedside table for an anglepoise lamp. Rosa had once read a story about a man who gave away all his possessions and said he felt ‘liberated’. But moving into this room with just a couple of boxes, she had not felt that way. She’d felt cut adrift.
She told herself that when something went wrong, when you were sick or injured, there was always a cause: the slightly undercooked seafood you shouldn’t have eaten, the too-sharp turn you took on your bike. So Rosa started to roll the last few days over in her mind, sifting through memories, searching for anything different that had happened that might have landed her in her current predicament.
The only thing she could think of that was different from any other week was that she had spoken to The Bag Man.
During the six months she had lived here Rosa had seen him almost every day, from her first floor window or as she bustled past him on her way into town, standing on the corner. He held plastic bags in both hands and was always alone. She often thought he resembled a bear, with his height, his rounded shoulders and the impression that most of him was covered with grey-brown hair. His eyes were small, almost black and seemed to glitter. He wore a long coat.
On Monday she had been folding herself into her car, in a hurry, when he tried to engage her in conversation.
She was rushing to her job, a thankless job as a receptionist at an old folks’ home (although no-one calls them that any more). She liked the residents, mostly cheerful embodiments of how her own parents might now look, had they lived, but she hated the staff. They insisted on keeping her behind the desk.
There had been wind, and the car radio had clicked on, so she couldn’t really hear him properly, could just see the movement of his lips behind his matted beard. He spoke in confused monologues that didn’t seem to require a response, necessarily, so she cut him off mid-flow with a wave of the hand and a ‘see you later’.
Rosa decided to walk into town, noticing how easily her non-existent legs carried her. She felt a bunking-school sort of freedom, a sense that she could do anything now. She’d told herself that surely she would wake up – the next morning, or sooner, startled out of what must be a dream – and things would be just as they were. So she may as well enjoy the fact that for once, things were different.
‘I could walk around naked,’ she said aloud, and as she did so she realised that she wasn’t feeling the cold, even though it had started to snow.
She queued up in the newsagents with nothing in her hands, just because it was her morning habit. People repeatedly stood in front of her – well, they would, as they couldn’t see her – and at first this made her laugh, a barking sound which she heard but no-one else responded to. Then she reflected that this had happened before. There had been other times when Rosa had felt as though she didn’t exist, but she had never seen (or rather, not seen) the evidence quite so clearly. This time, she did something she hadn’t done before.
‘Get out of the way,’ she hissed, ‘it’s my turn.’ Nobody looked around.
When the queue died away and she was facing the twenty-something boy at the counter, the one with the wavy hair and kind eyes, she said,
‘You are beautiful. I think this every day. I hope you have happiness and love in your life.’ Then she turned and left the shop.
She walked some more and in the course of the afternoon found her non-self standing in front of two former homes: those of her parents (long dead) and her husband (long re-married). There were new curtains, different plants flanking the front doors. Unfamiliar cars outside. Everything that used to be Rosa was here in this town, yet seemingly so distant.
On the Monday evening, Rosa had hurried from her car and up the path with her head down to keep the hammering rain from her eyes. When she reached the front porch she found it almost completely filled by the Bag Man’s shivering bulk.
‘I was keeping dry,’ he said and made no effort to move, so she had to sidle next to him to get her key into the door. In the small space she was overwhelmed by his smell: stale sweat, damp clothes and something else, something underneath. It was acrid and base, in the way that faeces are, and old urine, and dried vomit, but it was none of these things, or it was all of them. She gave a tight smile and tried to hold her breath but the odour crept into her nostrils nevertheless. She pushed open the door and leaned into the hallway with a gasp. Still he stayed in the porch.
‘It’s very cold,’ he observed, ‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’ Rosa stared at him then gave a quick nod, closed the door on him and hurried to the kitchen.
Her space in the crockery cupboard was kept very neat. When she moved in she had made a little sign that said ‘Property of Room 2B’, drawn a smiley face and sellotaped it carefully to the front of her shelf.
She was careful not to use any of her best mugs for the Bag Man’s tea. Of course her absolute favourite, hand-painted for her a lifetime ago, she kept in her bedroom, wrapped in a towel, at the bottom of her wardrobe. It had her name on it, and flowers.
She went back to the doorway, half expecting the man to be gone, but the rain was still coming down and he was still there. She handed him the cup (in the end she had chosen a plastic one, the kind you use for camping, that she had forgotten she owned. It had been a long time since she’d been camping) and he jostled his bags into one hand so that he could take it.
‘You said “see you later”,’ he said, bringing the cup up to his lips. Rosa blinked at him, confused. After a moment she said, ‘It’s just an expression,’ and closed the door on him.
The next morning she had found the empty cup in the porch, and on Wednesday she’d woken up and found herself not really there.
The snow was coming down more enthusiastically when Rosa made it back to the house, and the street lights were sputtering into life. It was the kind of snow that makes people say things like ‘I think it’s going to stick’, and children were already trudging up the street dragging their sleds to the park. Rosa remembered being that age and opening her mouth, tilting her head to the sky, to wait for the dancing flakes to land and melt into liquid on her tongue.
She glanced toward the corner, but the Bag Man was not there. She had been thinking that this time, she would give him a proper mug and would stand out on the porch with him for a few minutes.
Inside, she passed the round-faced man but he didn’t say ‘Ro-sa’ in his musical voice today.
She shut the door to her room and switched on the little lamp, which cast a disc of white light onto the wall. She heaved open the sash window, causing a whoosh of air and a flurry of snowflakes to pour in, and sat and looked out at the sodden grey sky. It was nice not to feel the cold – not to feel anything – but she pulled the duvet off the bed anyway and wrapped it around the place where her self would normally be. She fell asleep watching the empty street corner and wondering whether either of them would be there tomorrow.