The sounds of London rolled over Ralph in a wave, and he flinched a little further into his heavy overcoat. For a moment he thought of sand and too-bright sun and tropical air clinging to his skin, but he caught himself and forced the memory away, back down where it couldn’t hurt him.
He’d thought coming to the city would be better for him, that being surrounded by people and buildings and the drab steel grey of London skies would make it easier to forget. There had been a time when he’d loved the house out in the country, with its wide open spaces and the ponies nosing over the fence to say hello. Even the ponies couldn’t make him smile anymore, though, not when he was always looking over his shoulder, anxious to be out of the open.
Ralph lifted his hand to his mouth and absently gnawed a cuticle as he scanned the crowd around him. It was a habit he’d developed since coming to London for school, always searching the faces about him for any sign of Roger or Jack. Every time he caught a flash of ginger hair his heart skipped, then thudded against his chest like a drum. He knew he was being daft, knew what little chance there was of meeting any of the other boys after all these years.
Still, he searched faces anyway, and every time he caught himself at it he reminded himself that he couldn’t recall what they’d looked like when they were kids, so there’d be no way to recognize them now.
He hurried a bit faster all the same, shouldering his way through the crowd until he reached his flat. Once he’d closed the door behind him he slumped against it, back pressed to the solid wood and taking a few slow breaths. Perhaps his mother had been right; perhaps he wasn’t ready for university, wasn’t ready to be away from the quiet calm of their country house. But he’d had these spells at home as well, and he couldn’t bear to see the shame in his father’s face and not be able to explain just why he’d come home from the island so changed.
He never talked about it, not with his parents and not with any of his friends. Not that he had many friends these days; most of them had given him up as a bad job ages ago, and Ralph was almost relieved when they stopped coming round to try and draw him out. It was easier to be alone than to be around people who didn’t understand why he wasn’t the person he’d been when they were young together.
Sometimes he thought about looking up Sam and Eric, if only to speak to someone else who could understand. They’d been the only ones left on his side, in the end, even if they’d betrayed him to save their own skins. He didn’t blame them, not really, and he was sure if he turned up they’d at least be glad to see someone else who understood.
Only they didn’t need someone else, because they’d always had each other. He used to watch them sleep sometimes, back on the island, watched the way they curved around one another as though they were two parts of the same whole. He wondered if they still slept that way now that they were grown, if they still clung to one another for comfort the way they’d done back when they were just kids.
The thought made something open up in Ralph’s belly, a burning, aching kind of hollow that he tried not to notice. Most times he could ignore it, but it was always there, poking at the edges of his mind like a kid with a stick.
He wondered if they ever talked about it in whispers late at night, if they even needed to, or if they already knew what they were both thinking. They’d always seemed to know what the other was thinking, finished each other’s sentences and blended together until no one could tell which was which. They’d been one person, in a way, like Piggy said. Samneric -- two people, but counted as one, and it wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair that they had each other and Ralph...Ralph had nothing, not Piggy or Samanderic or even the parts of himself he’d left on the island when the Navy finally came to take them away.
Maybe they wouldn’t mind if he turned up. Maybe they hadn’t ever talked about it, because there was no need between the two of them, and talking about it out loud would be a relief. Perhaps they’d be glad to see him, glad to know it wasn’t just something they’d made up in their heads, some dream they’d shared about a secret place somewhere that was as horrible as it was beautiful.
Perhaps they’d let him in and let him talk. Perhaps they’d even know a way to help him forget, and that would be better than all the talking in the world. Ralph closed his eyes to picture the way they’d held one another, back on the island, then he imagined them opening their embrace to him, reaching out to pull him into their arms until he couldn’t tell which parts belonged to which twin.
His breathing turned a bit more shallow as he imagined them helping him to forget, hands running over the scars left behind by Jack’s spear and the cruel fingers of the island itself. He wondered if he could get close enough to them to keep from having to talk at all, if there was a way he could become a part of their secret, to pour himself inside them until there was no need for words at all.
It wasn’t possible, Ralph knew. He’d tried before, with other boys, even a ginger one time who made him tremble and ache at the same time, until Ralph couldn’t get close enough. Still he woke with fresh bruises and the memories that sent him stealing away in the middle of the night, back to his own flat where he could lock himself away from the openness of the world outside.
Yet it was hard not to hope that it would be different with the twins. They’d been on the island and they knew all the same terrible secrets as Ralph, knew what had gone on and what would have happened if they’d been rescued just one day later. They knew, and all Ralph really wanted was for someone to remind him that he wasn’t mad.
The trouble was that he had no way of finding Sam and Eric, didn’t even know where to start. He hadn’t known anything about them, not really, and as far as he knew they weren’t any more real than the rest of his memories.
He chewed a little harder at his thumb, then he glanced down and watched the bright spot of blood bloom against pale skin. For a long moment Ralph watched it spread, spidering its way along the wreck of his fingernail. This is real, he told himself, pressing his finger into the raw openness of his thumb and sucking in a breath at the burst of pain.
The pain, at least, was real, and after all, it was all he had.