Lydia Before

by Aliya Whiteley Read author interview March 26, 2012

Everything I’m about to tell you is a lie.

I met her at the aquarium, and she was me. She was wearing a different coat; it was red, with puffed sleeves. It looked like one I had when I was little—I can picture the old photograph now. Me at seven. Standing to attention against an anonymous brick wall, my hands held flat against my thighs, like a little soldier on duty. How I used to perform for that camera, and for the father who held it, but not any more. My own coat is a brown three-quarter length number, without shiny buttons or look-at-me-lapels. In order to effectively live a lie one must blend in, never provoke interest. I’m not standing up for anything over here; my beliefs change according to company, and so my clothes are always a blank canvas.

So, she was in red and I was brown. And I think her hair had been dyed. Lightened, they call it. It was one or two shades lighter than mine, and she wore it up, in a ponytail, with a pink clip holding it in place. Yes, pink. Apart from that, she was me, and we knew it.

We stood in front of the big tank, with the thick, curved glass that magnifies the gliding silvery bodies to giant proportions. She said, “I’m the before version.”

I didn’t reply. I thought she was talking to the fish.

“You can call me LB,” she said. “Lydia Before.”That’s when I realized that she was me, and I was having a psychotic episode. Or possibly a hallucination. Whatever it was, I decided it was easier to go with the flow, particularly since nobody else was in the room at the time and I didn’t have to worry about appearances. “Are you saying I’m LA? Lydia After? After what?”

“You know what.” She had a menacing tone. Obviously I hadn’t been all sweetness and light before whatever had happened.

“No, I don’t know,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure I never would have worn a pink hairclip. Not in any alternate reality.”

She shook her head. “This is the truth. I can’t tell a lie. Unlike you.”

“I don’t tell lies,” I said. Which was a terrible lie. I lie a lot. About everything. For instance, whenever there’s a long queue at the post office I always push my way to the front and if anybody complains I pretend to be deaf, and wiggle my fingers in annoyed sign language.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m here?” she said. She sat down on the long metal bench shaped like a wave. I’ve always found it a bit bumpy—the aquarium has been one of my favorite haunts for a while—but she sat on the crest, at the head of the bench, crossed her legs, and looked poised. Serene. Once upon a time—before—I must have had peace of mind. Funny how I couldn’t remember it.

“Nope.” I pretended to watch the fish. They swam past the glass, to the other side of the tank, and then turned round and came back again, on a clockwork cycle of monotony. “So why are you here?”

“To tell you something.”

“Something true, no doubt.”

“Of course.”

“I’m all ears.”

“No. You’re not.”

“What do you want?” I said. “Blood? I swear I’m really interested in your message. I want to change. I want to be good and kind and truthful. Tell me where I went wrong.”

“You know,” she said.

“Right,” I said. I did my made-up sign language sign for get lost.

“I give up,” she said. “Here’s your message. If you’d just go back there, you’d see that it’s changed. You’ve changed. And there’s nothing to be afraid of any more.”

“Well, that’s just… peachy. If I had any clue what you’re talking about.”

“Did you know that honesty and bravery are lovers? They make a beautiful couple. Everyone admires them. Even that unhappily married pair of cowardice and deceit, skulking into parties, lurking in the corner, grabbing the arms of passing guests and whispering in their ears.”

“What? That means nothing. You’re just spouting stuff, thinking it makes sense, and it never does, does it? Have you noticed that? The people who like to tell you what to do never have a clue what they’re doing themselves. They just blunder around, ruining everything.”

She dropped her chin and gave me a hard stare, just like our dad used to do whenever he caught me in a lie.

“Enough,” I said. “I’m going.”

But I didn’t. I watched her stand up, and walk to me. I let her kiss me on the cheek when I should have pushed her away. I can still feel the mark of her hot lips on my face, like a tiny patch of sunburn; spreading, spreading, wanting to make me over into sunshine.

“Bye, Lydia After,” she said. “Until you face this thing, you’re only half a person.”

“Bye, Lydia Before. I’m sorry that you wasted your time on me.”

She left, and I stayed, next to the big tank, for another hour. The fish made their orbits and so did the visitors of the aquarium, reading the cards and breathing on the glass before moving to the next exhibit.

And then I went home. I never worked out what she meant. There was nothing to revisit, and nobody to forgive. Not even myself.

Because there is no Lydia Before, and Lydia After. People don’t get split into two by the things that happen to them. They remain whole, and they go forward, on to new places and people. And although I feel sorry for fish in tanks, I’m not one of them. And I’m not going round in circles.

Everything I’ve just told you is a lie, of course. I’m a good liar. Nobody ever catches me out in a lie. Not even me.

About the Author:

Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon in 1974. Her first two novels were published by Macmillan, and her short stories have appeared in places such as The Guardian, Strange Horizons, McSweeney's, and various anthologies. She blogs at veggiebox.blogspot.com.

About the Artist:

Justin Chen started drawing when he was a little boy. His first piece of work was a red car in crayon, now he draws much more than that. After completed a degree in architecture, he is rediscovering his passion for illustration and graphic design. You can view his works at flickr.com/photos/jkhc.