There’s someone knocking at the door.
I haven’t left the porch. Not yet. That’s my task for this afternoon. I’m slumped against a nest of shoes and scarfs and boots and coats. Splattered with puke; drenched in sweat. Crumpled, sodden, creased.
The knocking is getting louder. More insistent. I sink into the pile of coats. Pull the doormat round me. A makeshift barricade. There’s a whiff of ancient dog shit. I curl up in a ball. Trying not to gag. Not to hear. Not to make a noise.
The doorbell’s going too. Drilling through the dead weight of my brain.
Dear God, please make it stop.
There’s a moment of silence. Blessed silence.
Bruno says ‘Dee, I can see you.’
I peep out from behind the doormat. He is peering through the letterbox.
I am outraged at the intrusion. Vulnerable. Exposed.
He says ‘Come on Dee. It’s only me.’
I mumble ‘Go away.’
He says ‘I’m not going to leave until you speak to me. Just open the door.’
I say ‘OK but I’m busy. I only have a minute.’
He’s holding flowers. White lilies. Funereal. Like the lilies on Irene Grover’s coffin. But more of them. In brown paper. More carefully arranged.
I say ‘I’ve lost my job. I haven’t died.’
‘I’ve been worried about you.’
He is speaking. Normal words. As though we know each other. As though we both speak the same language; inhabit the same world.
‘You could have texted me at least.’
He’s dressed up. Colegate fresh. Crisply pressed. There’s a distinct smell of Cologne.
I look different too. Filthy, frightened, frantic. Lost.
I cower behind the door. Best to close it quickly.
I don’t want him to see me. Not like this. Not at all.
He moves too quickly. His left foot is half way in the house.
He says ‘Listen, about Linda.’
I say ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Christ’s sake, Dee. I can’t believe you’re giving me a hard time.’
‘I’m not giving you a hard time. I just don’t want to talk about it.’
Enunciating every word. Speaking with exaggerated precision. Like a lawyer who’s learnt fluent English as a second language. Or a woman who has drunk too much red wine. Who has to make a super-human effort not to slur her words.
‘Dee, this is insane. You’re the only woman in my life I haven’t slept with, and now you’re acting all affronted that I’ve slept with someone else.’
I say ‘You know what’s going to happen. She’ll eat you up and spit you out. If she doesn’t kill you first.’
Bruno says ‘I know.’ The shadow of a smile; a smirk.
‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Is that part of the appeal?’
He grins. ‘It does give things a certain frisson.’
I can see the look he’s aiming for. Sheepish. Boyish. Cute. It isn’t working. That cheeky smile looks sinister. Menacing. Like a mask. He is an imposter from another time, another place, another world. He shouldn’t be here. On my doorstep. With one foot in my house. This is not where he belongs.
I have made it up the stairs to bed. I am hot then cold then nauseous. Restless; listless; fevered; still. The knocking has started up again. I can hear the front door open. I am reliving childhood nightmares. Eyes open wide but dreaming. Someone is coming to get me. Footsteps on the stairs.
Familiar footsteps. Daniel’s footsteps. He must still have his key.
‘I’m in bed.’ I shout. Like a teenager.
‘I’m not getting out.’ Like a child.
Daniel comes upstairs, hesitation in every step. He sits down by my bedside. On the bedside chair. An heirloom. Jacobean. Upholstered in heavy gold brocade. A lady’s chair. Delicate proportions. He looks awkward, out of place. Back in the doll’s house world he thought he had escaped.
I’m worried the chair might break. Or rather, I have registered the possibility. I have ceased to care – to worry – about anything at all.
Mind you, he’s lost a lot of weight.
I say ‘You’re thinner than you used to be.’
It’s true. He looks fantastic. Fit and tanned and happy. Above all, he looks alive.
I could pay him a compliment.
I say ‘I always think of you as fat.’
I could still turn this around.
I could say ‘But now you look incredible.’
Or I could be obstreperous and petulant.
It could go either way.
I say ‘And difficult and volatile.’
He says ‘I was unhappy.’
He’s considering his next move. I can tell there’s more to come.
‘You made me unhappy.’
It’s validation of a sort. It is about me after all.
I say ‘I know life doesn’t work like this, but can we just pretend this conversation didn’t happen? Can we start again?’
He is looking at me nervously. Trying to assess the situation. The extent of my derangement.
I say ‘Just press Rewind. Blank it out. Pretend you’ve just sat down.’
Perhaps we could delete the last six months. Pretend it never happened. Perhaps that’s asking for too much.
He nods. Uncertain. Humouring me.
Here we go. Take Two.
I say ‘You’re looking well.’
Daniel looks suspicious.
I say ‘No really, you look great.’
He says ‘If only I could say the same for you.’
Dammit. I was trying to be friendly. He could at least meet me half way.
Then again, he has a point. I am jaded, pale and miserable. And going to fat. Cooking isn’t happening. We live off pizza, pitta, takeaways. Heinz Tomato Soup. I am trapped in the wrong story, the wrong body, the wrong clothes.
I don’t look like a woman who’s holding it together. It’s the middle of the afternoon and here I am in bed. Fully dressed. Not exactly dressed so much as wrapped in dirty laundry. My best dress. Green silk. Expensive. Daniel’s favourite. At least it used to be. When he cared what I looked like. When I cared what I looked like. Before I spent a night wrapped in a doormat and a pile of grubby coats. A fetid mass of misery; of snot and sweat and tears.
He is concerned. He should be. I am the mother of his children, yet I am scarcely human. Animal matter. Rotting compost. Person soup.
I say ‘I’m tired.’
I am tired. I’m exhausted. Quite literally tired of living. Not suicidal. Nothing so dramatic. Just too profoundly battered for the effort life demands.
‘You told me you were ill.’ He says accusingly. ‘You’re not ill. You’re drunk.’
‘Oh well. Not to worry. I’m not your problem any more.’
He speaks slowly and deliberately. An adult speaking to a troubled child.
‘Of course I’m worried. I’m worried because you are the mother of my children. And because I care about you. You may feel that I no longer have the right to care about you. But I do. The last thing that I want is for you to fall apart.’
‘Of course.’ I say. ‘Imagine. You might have to grow up. Take some responsibility for your kids.’
I’ve found my voice and I don’t like it.
I am spiteful, bitter, mean.
I think he’s going to hit me. I wish he would. I can’t recall the last time I was touched with any urgency.
He makes some kind of movement. Scarcely discernable. Not an act of aggression. A gesture of boredom and contempt.
And then he goes.
He’s right to leave.
There is nothing left for either one of us to say.