The Red Thread
His earliest memory is of Christmas morning. He has just turned three and sees a blood red thread tied around his right ankle. He stumbles to his feet. He follows it away from the Christmas tree, away from the lights, away from his mother with her golden heart necklace and his father with his calloused hands, through the door and down the hallway and out their garden gate.
His mother scoops him up on the pavement outside their neighbours’ house. The boy cries out because the thread stretches down the block and down the hill and as far as his blue eyes can see. He struggles in her arms, and when he reaches down to grab the string his hand passes straight through it.
The boy is six. He sees the same red strings attached to everyone’s ankles, and has convinced most of his first-grade classmates that the strings exist. They run around the playground chasing their strings, and the boy points out that Sally’s goes north, and Jeremy’s goes east, and Katie’s heads off towards the senior school. They imagine there’s treasure at the ends. They say there are mountains of gold and fairies and racing cars. He stands with his nose pressed against the wire fence, watching his very own thread stretch off into the distance.
Three years later his classmates have long forgotten about the strings. The boy has learnt to keep all thoughts of them to himself. His parents are sick of chasing him around corners and picking him up from the places he has followed his thread to. His father’s hands are tired of pulling him back into place and his mother has stress-worn through her necklace chain.
In the summer holidays they drive to his grandmother’s house. He follows his thread down her driveway, down the street and so far that his feet start to ache. When he passes a middle-aged couple holding hands, they catch his attention because their strings don’t stretch out from their legs like the long red lines on a map. The taut thread starting at the woman’s leg finishes inches later around the man’s ankle. He stares. The thread is glowing.
Now he knows where the threads go.
Despite his sore feet he starts to run. At the end of the street he passes an ice-cream store, and he follows his thread around the corner, down three more blocks and around another corner to the pier. He skids to a stop. His heartbeat and heavy breathing echo above the quiet breaking of the waves.
His own red thread extends far across the ocean to the horizon.
The boy is thirteen and he is top of his sailing class. The bob of the boats make him ill, and he hates the way the salt water dries on his skin, making it tingle and itch. Still, he is a quick learner, and stubborn. One day, he convinces his parents to hire a boat near their grandmother’s place and sails them out to sea. He disguises it as a treat, but in truth he has begun to resent his parents, with their red threads that stretch away from instead of towards each other.
When, hours later, his parents insist they turn back, the boy feels no closer to the end of his thread and the hand of his girl. He fantasises about what she looks like. He hopes she is athletic and blonde with the most gorgeous smile he has ever laid eyes on.
Now that he knows what to look for, he sees the glowing threads everywhere. Attached to the girl in the supermarket who smiles for no reason, attached to his friend’s father who wears band t-shirts, between the couple twelve houses down with the panting border collie. For every glowing thread he sees, he sees fifty which don’t, but he will not be like those people. He has the advantage. He will find her.
In April his friend Marcus turns fifteen. Marcus throws a modest house party with 30 of his closest friends, an esky’s worth of alcohol and a silent porn movie on the TV. The boy turns up an hour late, nurses a beer and wonders when he can leave. It feels strange looking at girls, like he is cheating on someone he knows but has not properly met yet.
On his way out, he passes through a doorway and does a double take. On one side is Vincent, hair dyed black and a smudge of eyeliner. On the other side is Fi, purple nail-polish and electric green cocktail glass. A red thread runs clearly between them, but it hasn’t yet started to glow.
The boy taps Vincent on the shoulder and introduces the two of them. When Vincent and Fi shake hands, their thread lights up the dusky party, and when they smile at each other the boy can’t help but smile, too.
The boy finishes high school with reasonable grades but only moderate effort. He does not apply to university. He knows he needs a lot of money, but also he knows exactly how to get it. His parents are bitterly disappointed, but he knows exactly how to make it up to them.
He gets his probationary motorbike license on the day of his eighteenth birthday, and follows his mother’s string for an hour until he reaches a small, art deco theatre on the other side of the city. In the basement he finds a bald, muscular forty-something leaning over a half-finished wardrobe. He says his mother’s a really big fan. Can she say hello one opening night?
His mother is surprised when he asks for tickets for his birthday. He’s never had an interest in the arts before, but she takes him, and after the show they shake hands with the set builder and his mother’s thread starts to glow.
The boy – who is really a man now – moves out at nineteen. He rents a tiny, one-bedroom apartment and takes little with him. He is glad to be out of his parent’s house. His parents are still together, but his mother seems distracted. He has followed his father’s string to the edge of the state and no further – if he can’t afford to chase his own string that far then he certainly can’t afford to chase others.
His plan to bring his parents happiness has gone awry, but that hardly matters now. They are proud of him and his growing matchmaking business. He has a website now, and a new batch of business cards. And higher prices. Four hundred dollars to take a job, and another four hundred when it’s completed. All your money back if he can’t find your soul-mate, which happens when the string heads overseas or interstate.
Or, alternately, when it leads to the cemetery or someone’s urn. His latest client is one of these. A twenty-year-old blonde runner named Angel. Normally he would find her name insipid, but under the circumstances it’s amusingly ironic, and his smile is a little too big when he sees her for the follow-up meeting. She interprets it as a come on and asks him for a drink. To his surprise, he actually says yes.
Over his merlot, the man figures his soul-mate won’t know about the threads, will be dating other people. He should have some experience, too. He fantasizes about her when he sleeps with Angel. He hopes she’s a redhead with milky-white skin, a sprinkling of freckles and the cutest dimples in the world.
Two months later, Angel asks to be his girlfriend. He declines.
At twenty-one, he has enough money to fly to New Zealand, stand on the far edge of the country and watch his red thread continue leading out to sea.
His parents break up.
At twenty-three, he has enough to fly to Canada, stand on the far edge and watch his thread leading out to sea.
He makes his one hundred fiftieth match.
At twenty-five, he has enough to fly to Greenland, stand on the far edge and watch his thread… Leading out to sea.
He thinks he is close now. Very close. The threads have sometimes taken slightly indirect routes, but only slightly.
He is planning his next trip when he sees her. His thread leads right up to her ankles, passes through them and around the corner. The man takes in her Mary Janes, houndstooth stockings and rusty red dress, the same colour as her hair. She is lovely. As he walks towards her, he tells himself people are suspicious of a single matchmaker.
Her name is Melanie. He rolls it around on his tongue like a fine wine. Because she is not his soul-mate, he is not afraid, and he kisses her right there on the street corner, sitting on a red brick fence in the Australian spring.
It is not at all like the stories. Her lips don’t taste of anything at all. But he can’t stop smiling.
It is almost by accident: the falling in love, the moving in, the engagement. He barely remembers buying the ring. To celebrate, he takes her out on their new boat, Blue Sky, and it’s that day that jars him out of the romantic haze of the last few years.
Somewhere between Melanie’s breasts and collar bone hangs a golden heart necklace, not dissimilar from the one his mother used to wear. He stares at it, and at the long red string attached to her ankle, tracing their path back to shore. He stares at it, and at his long red thread going the opposite way.
One day, probably soon, she will meet the person attached to her thread, and she will leave him like his mother left his father. He feels his heart constrict in his chest, like it is literally shrinking. Like it is burnt. Like it is turning to dust.
He leaves her the boat and the ring and their apartment, packs minimally, withdraws his savings and flies to England. He has just been distracted for four years. The man will not let himself be afraid anymore.
His thread runs down the plane aisle and out the emergency exit. He hopes it is connected to a brunette. His brunette. And then his life will finally, properly, start.
The man finds it when he is thirty-two. He has stood at the edge of the United Kingdom and seen his thread retreat from his heels. He has crossed sprawling cities, sleepy towns, craggy mountains and expansive lakes. When his thread disappears directly inside a small, isolated cottage in the English countryside, he can barely believe it.
The man pauses at the tapered wooden door. His entire body is paralysed. This is the Christmas present he has been waiting twenty-nine years to open. She cannot possibly be as perfect as he has built her up to be.
Eventually he turns the red doorknob, not expecting it to open, but it does.
Inside, it takes a moment for his eyes to adjust. She is sitting at the back of the room, and his first thought is that she is beautiful. His second thought is that she is far too young; she cannot possibly be more than twenty-one, and cannot have been at the end of his thread for all this time.
He traces the thread from his ankle across the room. It finishes at the spinning wheel in front of her, tied beautifully to the outside of its wooden frame. Also tied to the frame are dozens of other red strings, drawing out in all directions; out the red curtained windows and through the other doors. His stomach drops right through the floor, right through the centre of the earth and right back home.
The young woman turns away from her work. “You’re too early,” she says. “She won’t be born for another twenty years.”
He is nauseous. He feels the bile rising in his throat. “But… By the time she’s an adult I’ll be an old man.”
She provides no response to him, just pulls another red string out of the spinning wheel. He is cold and lightheaded and, realizing his mistake, misses Melanie desperately.
He leaves the cottage and his little red thread stretches out behind him. It is still tied tightly around his ankle, but for the first time in his life, he is free.