She was Prissie from Brissie. He was the Nothingman from Nottingham. Why the names? Straightforward where she is concerned. Her name is Priscilla, she is from an Australian city called Brisbane, and Australians generally have a tendency to shorten names.
With him, things are a bit more complicated. He lived in Nottingham, where he studied for a one year MA course in literary linguistics. She spent one year of her studies in English literature in the same city, which is how they met. Initially, she didn't realise that he wasn't actually English. But then she noticed it from little things like the slightest hint of a foreign accent or the usage of a wrong preposition. He wouldn't tell her where he was from. It must have been a country whose citizens don't enjoy a good reputation all over the world. She suspected it was a country in Central Europe.
He wouldn't tell her his name either. But then, this was not so important: everyone knew that he was a fan of Pearl Jam, and he especially liked that song he had named himself after. Everyone just knew him by Nothingman, it was his name.
He was quiet and withdrawn, talked only when addressed, and spent a lot of time lost in his own thoughts. He wanted to be a writer, and was often seen sitting down at some place, with pen and paper, but more often than not the pages in front of him remained empty.
She was open and talkative. She made friends at Nottingham in no time. But it was he who fascinated her most. She wanted to draw him out. She wanted to know what was going on behind this silent and mysterious façade he showed to the world, she wanted to see what his real self was like.
She approached him one day as he was sitting down in a lecture room, way before the lecture started, again with an empty page in from of him. He was playing with his pen, and seemed to stare at it in annoyance.
"Hi," she greeted him.
He looked up and his face turned a bright red. It was not the first time she had spoken to him, but he reacted like this almost every time. It seemed like she had called him back to the here and now from a place very far away, a place that existed only in his thoughts.
"Hello," he finally returned her greeting.
"What are you writing?" she asked .
He looked at is writing pad in frustration. "Nothing," he grumbled. "That's all I ever write. I am not a writer. I just want to be one. But I can't write it down. It's all in my head. But I can't get it out. So I write nothing. And that's me. Nothingman."
"You just have patience," she replied. "If it's in there, it will come out. Eventually."
He stared at her. "You don't think I am wasting my time?" He sounded genuinely surprised.
She shook her head a definite no. "You aren't. You will get there. Just keep on trying. No good thing comes easily."
After that, it was easy. He confided in her more and more. They started to meet outside the university, sat in cafés together, went to bookstores, strolled along the river Trent, and finally visited each other's places. She shared a flat with six other students, while he lived in a small apartment of his own. His parents financed his MA course and everything going with it. He didn't have to work in order to finance his studies, unlike Prissie, who spent three afternoons per week waiting tables in a restaurant. Sometimes she also worked nights.
"Don't you hate that job?" he asked her one night at his place.
She looked at him. "Why should I?" she wanted to know. "I actually like it. I enjoy meeting people."
He shook is head. "I never have, I never will," he mumbled.
She looked at him intently. "Why is that?" she asked.
"They are like the blank pages in front of me," he began. "Or rather, I should say, they are not blank. They have all kinds of things written on them. But not by me. I can't get through to them. It's the words. They are all trapped in my head. Other's people's words can get out. Not mine. So all they see is what I am capable of showing them. Which is not much. A silent observer. An excluded bystander. That's what I am."
She looked at him, touched by his words. Finally she had got a step closer to understanding him. "So you would like to communicate with other people more? But you feel that you can't?"
He just nodded, looking out of the window.
"You should stop being so hard on yourself," she said, after a moment of silence. "You are not the only one who can't communicate his true self to the outside world. Aren't we all a bit like that? Look at me. Everyone just sees me as the cheerful Aussie. But there's another side to me too."
He looked at her with a crooked smile. "Well, there must be," he agreed. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here now, spending time with old Notingman."
She looked straight into his face. "You are not nothing. You are so much more. To me. And you should also be more to yourself."
He stared at her. Looked straight into her eyes, as he had never done before. "Why are you so good to me?"
She just gave a little smile. "Have you ever been with a woman?" she asked.
He turned red again. "You mean, as in, if I had a girlfriend before?"
She nodded, hiding a smile.
He shook his head violently. "Me? With a girl? You are funny. There is an invisible wall between me and the others, at all times. How am I supposed to get close to a girl?"
She couldn't hide her smile this time.
"There is no wall," she told him, trying her best to hide the laughter in her voice. She was not laughing at him. The laughter inside her was one of happiness, about being so close to him now, and close to changing his life along with her own by carefully choosing her next words. He seemed to have similar thoughts, judging from the way he was looking at her.
"There is no wall," she repeated. "Want to try it? Touch me."
His eyes became large and round, but he smiled. He reached for her hand. He did so rather abruptly, as though he seriously expected to be stopped by something mid-air. But there was nothing. He took her hand, in a movement clumsy but firm. His own hand was cold.
"See," she said, smiling at him. "Your theory is wrong. There is no wall."
"Oh," he said, smiling more broadly now. "There is a wall all right. But you are the only one who has ever managed to get behind it. I guess you made a lot of effort. You are extraordinary." He cleared his throat. "I mean, you are special."
"To you?" she asked, her eyes twinkling.
"Nothingman?" she asked, very carefully.
"Yes?" His eyes were twinkling too.
"You can get even closer to me if you like," she said in a conspiratory voice. "Come on. Kiss me."
And from there they went on. But it was never easy. She had to constantly reassure him. It was a lot of work. She had her own worries too. But she did not share them with him, or just to the smallest degree, as she knew he would not understand them. He would be swamped by the task of advising her, and incapable of helping her.
"I am fed up of working so much," she once told him, without thinking.
"Then quit working at that place," he said, without hesitation. "I can see it's tiring you."
"You are a cutie," she retorted, half annoyed. "I need the money. I can't just quit."
He studied her with this big eyed look of his. "Is it money you need? Let me help you. My parents give me some each month. I can spare part of that sum."
She couldn't believe it. "Let'sjust pretend I didn't hear that," she said, barely capable of keeping the anger out of her voice. "I don't need, and don't want, a man to look after me. I am earning my own money. And I never want to have this discussion again."
He was quiet, and never metioned the topic again.
He continued to talk to her about his isolation, his hopes, and his dreams. She was still proud to be the only person who had ever been close to him, and she wanted things to stay that way. It was just that sometimes she was so tired, from work, from studies, and there he was, always, with his never ending desire of being close to her. If she didn't want to meet him one day, he immediately took that as a sign of her having gone off him. He was always afraid of losing her, and she couldn't bear the sign of fear in his eyes, the uncertainty in his voice, so she spent almost all her free time with him, day after day. She neglected her studies, she neglected her friends. They were heading for disaster, she thought, but it was like being on a roller coaster, she couldn't get off, she didn't know what to do.
"You know what my favourite place in this world is?" he asked her one day, while they were in bed, faces still glowing from the things they had done before.
"What is it?" she asked him, with a smile that was no longer as natural as it had been in the beginning.
"Have you heard of the Aran Islands? In Ireland?"
She nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, sure," she said, "I was there before I came to Nottingham. When I went travelling around Europe. I saw a couple of places in Ireland, but the Aran Islands was one of the spots I liked best."
Memories came back to her that seemed to belong to another life. The stone walls of Inis Mór, the whitewashed cottage that had been her hostel. She had travelled with friends then, she had been carefree, with no ties, no guilt, and no expectations in her, apart from the hostel owner who expected to be paid the nightly fee for the bunk bed in the dormitory she slept in.
She had walked and cycled all over the island with her friends. She had got drunk in pubs at night, she had even considered smoking marijuana, but backed out in the last minute. She had been alive then. But what was she now? Where was her life?
His voice startled her out of her thoughts.
"I've been to the biggest of the Aran Islands a couple of times. Inis Mór. I really love that place. It's magical, it just oozes peace. It makes me feel whole, even when I am alone." He looked at her with a solemn expression. "It was my safe haven, a place to restore my batteries in. I mean, before I met you."
She decided to ignore his last sentence. "Are you planning on going there during our term break?" she asked, almost desperately hoping for a yes.
He stared at her. Then a slow smile crept into his face. "You mean, you want us to go there together?"
The hope in his eyes made her want to slap his face. This was more than enough. She did need some time away, no matter what it took.
"No," she said, sounding colder than intended. "I meant, you can go there on your own. I need to work. And if you always went there alone, why not do it again?"
This insecure look came back into his face instantly. "I thought…" He broke off, started to scratch the top of his head, twisted his fingers. She watched him with growing impatience.
"I thought things were different now," he finally managed to say. "I thought we had found each other. I thought no one of us had to go through life alone any more."
"Each other? No one of us?" she called out. "You really do live in a different world, do you? Just think about it. Just once. What makes you think about each other? It's always about you, you, you. You are unhappy, right? I'm sorry about that, I really am, but it seems like it's not within my powers to wipe your unhappiness away. I can't do it alone. You must help too. But you don't want to. Well, we can't go on like this. We need to talk things over. Go to this island. Take some time to think. To recharge your batteries. Then we can take it from there."
His face closed down like a door as she spoke. "So that's it," he said matter-of-factly. "I am getting too much for you. You want to send me away."
"I don't," she replied. "I just said we needed to change things a little. And I think a holiday on the Aran Islands would do you a whole lot of good."
"All right," he retorted curtly. "I will start packing then. Would you please go home?"
"Don't be ridiculous. The term break has not even started yet."
"I have finished all my asssignments already." His face was defiant like a little boy's.
So she got up and turned to go. She just couldn't take his behaviour any longer.
And he really left. He vanished from one day to the next. He never made contact with her. To e-mails he didn't reply, and he had never possessed a mobile phone. Prissie waited for the term break to come, then took a few days off work. She took a plane to Dublin, a bus to Galway and a ferry to the Aran Islands. She would look for him, talk things over, and then everything would be all right.
She waited for him down at the pier in Kilronan. She was sure he would pass there some time, but he never came. So she took to looking for him in hostels and B&Bs all over Inis Mór, but it was hard to find someone without even knowing his name. She kept on looking, until she started doubting to believe that he had ever existed. In the end she went back to Nottingham, then to Brisbane. Her old life with Nothingman now seemed to her like a piece out of a surreal dream. She didn't know what it had been, though sometimes she felt a vague yearning for it. And then she wondered whether Nothingman was somewhere out there at all.