The dream begins as it always does, with no air. At first she struggles, screaming bubbles into the darkness as she drags her hands through the water, frantic in her search for an escape. But there is nothing to cling to, nothing that can lead her to an exit or can pull her out. There is only her, surrounded by the fizzy blackness of the sea. Water glugs, settling into the dips of her ears, and her hands glow pale and ghostly, frosted by the moon.
The currents grip her arms and legs and down and down she sinks until her knees touch the grit at the bottom. Her head moves in slow motion as she looks around, trying to make out shapes in the darkness. Mottled shadows quiver and peer out through crevices of rock. Their jagged outlines look like huge mouths that curve over her. There is certainly something wicked here, but it does not reach her – she is numb and, like a soft floating statue, she drifts on.
A curtain of silver fish, with pure white eyes, flicker into view. They flash and spark through tangles of weed emerging from the darkness, and there is a faint tug, a flutter at the back of her heart that tells her to follow them. Whispers of tongue-twisters float gently through the currents. From all sides they come. They are important and so she listens.
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?
The voices are hushed and terribly sad and she does not recognise that they are her own. She then remembers she should not be alone, and twists around to look for him swimming this way and that.
“Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” The words come out muffled, get trapped in bubbles and then drift away. He is not here, though he said he would come, that they would do it together. He said they would no longer be soulless, hopeless things, that they would find their souls and be able to live. She can’t do this without him, she is certain of that.
It is when she realises that she is truly alone and that he will never come that the fear takes hold. It starts at the tips of her toes before smashing through her blood as she senses the thing; something black, fat and huge slowly gliding beside her. She stiffens, rotates and kicks. She scratches at rocks to find a way out, but cannot.
She goes on and on this way, unable to speak or breathe, with the dark shape by her side. It is a bad thing, the shape. Something so awful it is almost unbearable. It presses down on her, gets right into her bones, but she can’t swim faster than it, nor can she slow down and drop away. Gently the shape cocoons around her, its wet flesh sucking her in, its stinking, sweating skin trying to suffocate and seal her up.
It is just before she is nearly gone that the light appears. It is a far-away light which glimmers a bright sapphire blue. It always seems to be calling out to her with a desperate, high-pitched song.
She wakes from this dream as usual, tangled in a sticky nest of linen and sweat with such a terrible feeling of misery and hatred towards the world that it feels as though she has been soaked in lemons. Eyes shift to the clock. A curse is muffled and she shoves her face deep into her pillows. With no hope of returning to dreams she clambers out of bed with shallow breath and stiff knees and eyes still clinging to sleep. Sitting by the window on a little wooden chair she begins to make lists – lists of anything – things she needs, or things that must be done, but soon, as always, she grows tired of this and writes lists of words that rhyme, of all the street names she can remember in the town where she used to live, or of all the people she once knew. She sticks them on the wall around the solitary picture that hangs there – a rough shadowy painting of a man holding a flower stretched up above his head in a despairing offering to the stormy skies that swirl around him. It is a focused and diligent task, one which dismisses the noises that filter through the walls of her room – the moans and groans that come in the night – ignoring the footsteps and the shadow that passes by momentarily blocking out the light which glows through the gap where her door meets the floor. When she is satisfied, she turns back towards the window and stares at the glass. On catching glimpses of her face she glares at the faint creases on her forehead which, to her, serve as cruel reminders of age and of death.
There was nothing left to do
My son is dead and he is gone. These were the eight words that repeated themselves over and over in Deborah’s head like an annoying song to which she knew only a single line, being stuck, wedged in her brain until it slowly drove her mad. It was not the first time she’d thought this, of course, but so far she’d always found a way to distract herself, to think of something else. Tonight, however, it didn’t seem these thoughts were going to go away.
Deborah was curled like a cat on her sofa, a shabby, uncomfortable two-seater affair with a thin dusting of crumbs over the burgundy cushions and a half-empty bottle of gin stuck firmly down the middle. Her feet were tucked neatly under her, chin resting on her hands, elbows resting on knees. She stared at the television, which flickered and crackled, barely revealing the picture on the screen, as if the people within it were drowning in the middle of a huge, snowy blizzard. This did not matter to Deborah because ‘Germ busters!’ was on – it was her very favourite show. Glaring at the screen she hoped that, if she concentrated hard enough, she would forget those words that were incessantly being sung in her head. My son is dead and he is gone.
Today a woman in a pink suit and perfectly neat hair was swabbing the backs of people’s necks, their shoes, the insides of their sleeves and their coats. This woman would then inform the viewer, with unnecessary pleasure, that millions of germs were breeding all over them. The swabbed ones appeared mostly unfazed by this. Some would half-heartedly try to please her, coiling their faces into expressions of shock and dismay. Most would just shrug and then mutter “Oh well” before flashing the woman a feeble grin and then cracking a joke about eating dinner from the toilet seat.
Today Deborah’s face was like a fruit basket; plum and peach around the eyes, banana yellow and cherry red on her forehead where week-old scratches had formed scabs. She pulled up her T-shirt and winced at the red mark on her stomach and the dark, blood-speckled bruise that formed around it. She held some ice wrapped in cloth and was cradling it to her chest like a baby, then winced as she raised it to her swollen cheek.
Today had not been a good day – not from the beginning, when the screech of the alarm had forced her, naked and wrinkle-faced out of sleep. There was always that split second, before morning stuck its claws in, when she forgot. My son is dead and he is gone.
It had been six years since Deborah’s son had been born. They’d named him Jamie after her late grandfather. In a haze of screams and blood he’d squeezed his way out. He was a pink-skinned, bug-eyed scab of a thing. She remembered holding him. He’d had such a serious face! He frowned up at her as if to say “you are not what I bargained for” before letting his displeasure be heard with a huge red scream. Deborah had never been more frightened in all her life. In that moment, just for a split second, she’d toyed with the idea of calmly handing him back and then making a run for it down the hospital corridor, arse exposed, gown flapping in the breeze.
Before she’d got pregnant, it had just been the two of them. They’d rented this huge run-down cottage right by the loch and scraped a life together, surviving off cereal and watery cans of potato soup. Jack, her husband, though unqualified, had charmed his way into getting some building work in the town, while she had pulled pints for the local drunks in the shabby, sour-smelling pub down the road. On a Saturday, as a tradition, they’d walk up to the top of the hill behind their house, armed with a bottle of vodka, singing love ballads at the tops of their voices. Slogged up to the eyeballs, drunk as skunks and high as kites, they’d paraded around like a couple of thugs in love without a care in the world. They’d wedge close together, wrap themselves up in an itchy woollen blanket and stay all night long, looking up at the stars and slurring dreamily about all the greatness and the riches that were right around the corner.
A piss on a stick and everything changed. They got sensible. They had to leave, to get proper jobs, to be adults. So they’d upped sticks and moved, to their own little slice of the city to be a family. And that they were. Deborah had never felt it again, after that day in the hospital; she’d never regretted her son for an instant.
She sighed and raised the ice up to her face again, still staring at the television. She took a huge slug of gin from her glass, swilling it around her cheeks like a mouthwash to get a good sting before gulping it down. The woman on TV was now talking to a man in a white coat in a lab. There was a large window at one end of this lab and behind it a room with beige walls that appeared to have nothing in it. The woman in the pink suit and the man in the white coat were peering into the microscope in front of them and, each in turn, came up with faces of equal and appropriate horror. The man then said something and the woman in pink laughed, a lusty crinkled laugh, before touching his arm.
Deborah sighed again. No, it had not been a good day at all. She’d arrived at work just moments before Jo-Jo, the new PA, had bustled in making her usual spectacular entrance. Jo-Jo was so polished you could almost see your reflection if you looked into her shiny, perfect face. She would walk into the office, heels clip-clopping like a show pony across the floor, hair glossy, and swishing back and forth in time with her hips. She was so bloody perfect and so nice to everyone too – one of those ‘couldn’t say a bad word about her’ types. It was nonsense of course. Deborah had it on good authority that Jo-Jo was a nympho bulimic who had only got the job because she’d seduced Gary from accounts. Besides, Deborah was of the opinion that there was always something one could find to say that was bad about a person if one really truly tried.
Today, mere moments after Jo-Jo’s arrival, Deborah had been called in to Mr Dogman’s office. It was then that the day really took a turn for the worse. He had sat her down with a look of practised concern and explained to her that he thought it was best for the company’s ‘image’ if she took some time off.
“Miss Green,” he’d sighed, sitting unnecessarily close to her on the edge of his desk as he loosened his tie, as if to say ‘we’re all friends here, you can tell me things.’ “I want you to know how much we value you here. I don’t want you to think what I’m saying is a reflection on your ability as a member of the team. However, we do think it would be best for everyone if you took a little break.”
He then smacked his lips together and sighed. He had big crusts of sleep in clumps around his eyelashes and there was a blotch of something yellow and greasy on his tie. “Don’t worry – we’re happy to pay you up until the end of the month and of course keep your position open until you” – he paused and looked at the floor – “feel better.”
There had been a dreadful moment, a split second when Deborah had thought she might cry. It wasn’t that she wanted to cry. What she wanted to do was say something extraordinarily witty and suitably scathing – a perfect sentence that would encapsulate how little she enjoyed working for his poorly paid, no prospects, sad little company. That he could stick his job and that she couldn’t care less if she never set foot in his pathetic office again. The words just wouldn’t come though, and she became distinctly aware that there was a large lump in her throat. In the end she said little in protest and instead did what was normal and sensible by quietly packing her things in a box, shaking his hand and smiling and nodding when he said he would be in touch.
It hadn’t been a shock, of course. In many ways she was surprised that the self-important idiot had let her stay that long. When her son had died, naturally everyone had been suitably sympathetic. They’d given her time off and when she’d returned everyone had expressed how very sorry they were. It was the months after that the problems started, the days where she couldn’t get out of bed, the days where she couldn’t even be bothered to pick up the phone to tell them that she couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. Then the rumours started that when she did show up she was drinking at work. It was when the bruises appeared that Deborah realised how uncomfortable they were around her. Everyone would hush when she walked to the vending machine and no one could quite look her in the eye.
She stifled a sob, took another gulp from her drink and glanced to the window. It had begun to rain. It wasn’t ordinary rain – the kind that starts in tiptoes while it makes up its mind whether to continue. It stamped from the sky in gusts, right up to the glass, insisting on her attention. She shut her eyes and wished it could wash away the words that spun in her head, around and around like a revolving door – one which was moving too fast to let her out. She wished that the rain would become so strong that it would dissolve the walls of her apartment and that everything would just be washed away until it was only her, on her sofa, surrounded by a vast sea. In fact Deborah wished that it would rain so hard that her skin would give in, and slip from her, and she would be nothing but a mess of veins and insides which would swell like balloons, great giant organs floating in solitude, until, too fat to stay afloat, they would sink to the bottom, and only then the rain would stop.
It was after their son had died that it had begun to brew in Jack. Deborah had seen it curdling in his eyes, all the sadness, all the regret, all the things he didn’t know how to put into words. It had started with a shove after an argument as he’d pushed past her to storm out of the house. It had been a reasonable reaction – that’s what she’d told herself while she rubbed the bruises on her arms and waited for him to come home. A shove and an apology – that’s how it started. Then the shove became a punch and the apology became extinct.
Deborah reached for the remote to turn the TV off. Just as she did, she swore in the flash before it went dead that she could see herself in the empty room leading off from the lab, her hands and face pressed up tightly against the glass.
The living room was large and square, with two sofas forming an L shape in the centre. Both were ratty and dirty and they didn’t match. In the corner, the TV sat unsteadily on a pile of books with torn edges and next to this a mantelpiece overhung a fireplace from which a hissing electric fire gave off a dusty, sour-smelling heat. On the shelves above stood an unloved, browning plant in a stone pot, empty photo frames, more books, and a row of tiny studded trinket boxes lined up neatly in silver and blue. A bare bulb hung precariously from a thin stretch of wire in the middle of the ceiling, casting a shadowy glaze over everything as it almost imperceptibly moved back and forth.
Deborah stood up and walked towards the window at the back of the room where she looked out at the skyline of endless cement. It wasn’t a bad area of the city they’d moved to, just up from Old Street tube. The flat was ex-council, but it had suited them well enough and they’d been happy here for a time. Even so, she’d always missed the country. It was where she had felt most at home – where she’d first met Jack, with his ice-blue eyes and that slight curl upwards of his top lip whenever he was laughing that made him look so mean, but so attractive at the same time. It wasn’t just the sense of freedom they’d had back then, the ‘us against the world’ attitude that they’d adopted fuelled by booze and youth. She also missed the weaves of the trees, the smells of bonfires and wild flowers and sounds of crickets and birds competing to be heard as the sun, as round and fresh as an orange, dipped low over the weather beaten hills. She missed the rain, the freezing winters, even the mice in the cupboards. Here a constant groan of traffic, a view of grey bricks and a smoke-sliced sky was all that greeted her.
Deborah turned and walked to the bathroom, just off the small hallway through a door on the left. This was her favourite room in the flat, mostly due to the huge free-standing bath that stood in the middle. The porcelain was a bit cracked and the water took ages to heat up but, even so, every time she lay in that bath she felt she was living in the lap of luxury. She leaned down and turned on the taps, rinsing away the rim of scum that had formed around the edges, before pushing the plug in. She listened to the familiar hiss before the water spluttered and coughed its way out. After a while the room filled with a thick steam and she stood back upright, faced towards the mirror, and watched herself fade away.
He’s gone. He is really gone. He is never coming back.
Deborah glanced at the clock above the sink. In exactly five minutes it would be precisely seven days since he’d left. She frowned as she tried to remember how it had happened – her on the floor, him leaning over her, leg cocked like a pissing dog. But he hadn’t been pissing, he’d been kicking. Every muscle, every tendon, was all coiled up like a spring, until he’d smashed it down over and over again, and she had felt her head knock back against the wall. She had tried to cover her face with her hands, but not before her tongue had split and the warm metallic taste of blood filled up her mouth until she was coughing and choking and spitting it everywhere.
He had been leaning over her, leg still raised for one last kick, and then, just like that, something in him had snapped like an elastic band. Suddenly he was no longer taut and ready to strike but instead a loose, rubbery thing that slumped to the floor. He’d pawed at the wall, crimson-faced and wailing like a child. Then he got up. He didn’t say sorry. He didn’t beg for her to forgive him. He just left – his final way of fucking her up.
Deborah took a deep breath and sighed into the empty room, her head throbbing. The memory of that night always exhausted her. For some reason, every time she thought of it she would find it harder and harder to remember the details. Must be blocking it out, she supposed.
As she waited for the bathtub to fill she crossed the hall to her bedroom. The window was wide open, propped up with a huge red-backed book with gold letters down the spine. The mirror which hung above her bed was a smudged circle of glass in a blue plastic frame. Walking to it, she gently pulled down the bits of paper that had been stuffed around its edge – the little scribbled reminders of things she had yet to do. When she had taken them all down she carefully gathered up the bits, walked over to the window and threw them out. The rain had stopped now. The buildings opposite glistened, illuminated by streetlights and framed by the night sky. A bus pulled up at the stop on the street below. A frail old man helped a frailer old lady step down and they shuffled off together arm in arm.
Deborah slammed the window down, pushing the memories out into the night, as if they were solid things, as if this would keep them out. She then stared at her feet, hoping an explanation would somehow creep out of them – a worm of hope that would make her change her mind. Nothing happened. There was nothing left to do.
It was as though she should be thinking something, doing something more significant – perhaps weeping as she clutched photos depicting scenes from her childhood, or writing heartfelt letters to her nearest and dearest with some sort of explanation or an appeal to them not to blame themselves. But it all seemed rather pointless. What she was about to do was so insignificant, so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, that she didn’t want to flatter herself by thinking that anyone would truly care about it, least of all people that knew her.
With her bath almost full, Deborah carefully smoothed the bedspread down and left her bedroom. Outside she paused and looked at the room opposite for a moment, its door firmly shut. If she turned her head in a certain light she could still make out the greasy outlines of little handprints on the paint.
“Happy birthday,” she whispered, and her face pinched, sour with grief as she forced herself away, and moved to the kitchen to check it one last time before switching off the light.
As the room absorbed itself into the night, Deborah turned and stretched for the black-bladed knife that was lying ready on the counter, grinning up at her through the darkness. My son is dead and he is gone. She walked back towards the bathroom door. As she opened it steam poured out and enclosed her, making her appear momentarily indistinct, as if neither dead nor alive. Then she disappeared into it and slowly, purposefully, shut the door behind her.