The Red Stain
I’ve been scrubbing this stain for hours. Bent over on all fours blistered and sore, aggressively scouring the bloody thing to little success. A violent red-wine-like blighting the pristine white carpet in our bedroom like ink blots on a blank page. A horrible stain that’s refusing to shift no matter the cocktail of homemade solutions, of hand-me-down remedies I apply. Salt and boiling water. Laundry detergent and hydrogen peroxide. White vinegar and bleach. Combinations sworn by for generations. Never once failed. Tried and trusted to such a degree that they have been the backbone of my household cleaning routine since marriage. Day in. Day out. Year in. Year out.
I don’t even know how this stain occurred now I think about it. I’m almost certain it wasn’t there when I came in earlier to change the sheets and sort through Jonathan’s washing. It definitely wasn’t there when I woke up this morning. And I’m sure Jonathan would have pointed it out had he noticed something so glaring before leaving for work. As he often does.
Jonathan is so good like that. The eyes and ears of a sergeant major. Always pointing out the spots that I’ve missed. Those nooks and crannies that seem to dirty quicker than others and somehow manage to escape even the attention of a person spending every waking hour inside these four walls. Drifting through each day like a prisoner in solitary.
I honestly don’t know what it could be. And the more I rack my brains to think, my head hurts. I’ve been feeling a little tender since I started taking the pills Dr Benway prescribed me. My head a touch sore. My short-term memory somewhat sketchy as though shrouded in a dense fog. But I would know for a fact if I had spilled something up here. Dr Benway—a good, intelligent man—assured me in his usual kind and soothing manner that I would not forget any important things, only a couple of small things of little to no importance as a possible side effect. So I think I would definitely remember how something like this happened.
It can’t be cranberry juice. That stuff makes me break out in hives. I haven’t cut myself, despite my pale skin appearing as cracked and dry as a dirt track bathed in scorching midday sun. And despite being wide awake since 5:00 AM—as I have been every morning since beginning this course of pills—it’s definitely too early for me to have poured myself a glass of wine. Not for another hour or so at the very least.
Of those things I’m fairly certain. I know everything has felt slightly hazy recently, but I’m confident enough in my faculties to state that for a fact.
The marigolds cling to my clammy hands. My knees are bruised purple, throbbing with every twisting motion turning back on myself to soak the sponge in a bucket of pungent chemicals and then returning to the stain itself, which by now appears to have spread even further across the stretch of soft white carpet. A billowing mushroom cloud of vicious red. A clownish smile taunting me as I’m hunched over scrubbing for dear life to the tune of cracking joints and tortured grunts.
I scrub and I scrub and I scrub. Harder and harder each time to no effect.
My hands work furiously at the expense of my throbbing muscles. The different parts of my body feel independent of each other. Every muscle, every sinew, every fibre acting of their own being, aching desperately to purge this bloody stain. Instinct and habitual memory triumphing over a calm and reasoned attempt. The exhausted signals emanating from my overactive mind seemingly ignored.
It’s difficult to escape the feeling that my head has been whirling at a hundred miles per hour like an overheated tumble dryer ever since I started taking Dr Benway’s pills. A searing jolt of electricity powering the engine. Shutting down the pain.
My tired, battered body somehow getting through each day.
I clench my teeth scrubbing harder. Bucket to carpet. Back and forth. Back and forth. The stain a deep red pool. A thick puddle of blood.
I was sixteen when I first met Jonathan. He was two years older at eighteen. Good-looking. Popular. Not very academic, but I suppose he didn’t have to be. His future was mapped, even if he didn’t realise it at the time. He was never going to do anything but inherit his father’s used-car showroom. He was bred for business, made to learn the ropes every Saturday, often when he was hungover or on a crippling comedown. The whole thing was an inconvenience to his social life in those days. It was only what happened to us further down the line which made him take it all more seriously. He stayed at my house in secret whenever my mum worked her night shift at the hospital and I can’t for the life of me recall how many times he would be forced to break the comforting hold he had locked around my cool body to roll out of bed at whatever unseemly hour the digital alarm clock read and slowly get himself ready for work with his face flushed and his eyes bloodshot, still reeking of the previous night’s heavy blend of booze and weed.
His dad would inevitably go nuts at the sight and Jonathan would in turn receive lectures on the importance of punctuality, of good first impressions on a weekly basis. The sort of stuff you don’t care about as a kid. All turning up in that condition meant was that Jonathan would be consigned to the back office to sort through invoices and receipts, out of sight of any customers. It would usually work out okay for Jonathan because meeting up again with him after his shift, he would tell me how banishment like that at least gave him the opportunity to catch up on some sleep and pocket some extra cash from the safe whilst his dad brazenly schmoozed with clients out front.
Jonathan would always treat me after he finished his shift. Holding hands along the beach. Hot dogs and ice cream. Booze and drugs like the previous night. And then back to whichever one of our homes was empty overnight.
It’s funny looking back. The whole thing seemed infinite. As though that was how we would always spend our Saturdays. I don’t suppose you know any different when you’re young with zero obligations. It’s hard to envisage anything outside of the immediate. You think nothing will ever change.
I remember feeling something similar the night he picked me up in his second-hand Focus for what must have been one of our first dates. The smell of that car still comes to me sometimes when I close my eyes. The cheap market-stall aftershave it seemed like Jonathan bathed in back then undercut with the synthetic crispness of a pine-tree air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror. There was a cassette playing. A Kate Bush mixtape I think, because even now whenever I hear ‘Running Up That Hill’ I find that I’m taken back to that night.
We drove pretty far and pretty fast. Down the winding country lanes that surrounded our small, quiet town like the overgrown thorns suffocating the kingdom in Sleeping Beauty. Past the farmers’ fields blanketed in darkness. Far beyond any place I recognised at that time.
We eventually veered off-road and pulled to a stop close to the woods I’ve only become acquainted with having gone there for walks with our own children in the years since. There was a knot in my stomach. Excitement laced with unease. What I can only assume was a nervous tension. Silhouettes of spindly branches hung low. Bent arthritic fingers I know recognise reflected in the headlights. There was the noise of an owl. A fox’s howl. The heating system inside the car was cranked up high; a low constant buzz in my ears. Jonathan dialled down the music, leaned in forward and folded his arm around the back of the headrest.
A plume of stifling warmth was trapped inside the car. My skin pricked. I could hardly get my breath.
Jonathan whispered how much he loved me. Planted a firm kiss on my lips and then worked down my neck. He ran his hands through my hair looked longingly into my eyes, half of his face shadowed, and then told me that he wanted it to be tonight. His fingers softly brushed my hair, stroked my cheeks. His hand smoothed across my breast and I shut my eyes and nodded in agreement. Lay back and let it happen.
Harder. Harder. Scrubbing harder. Still nothing.
There’s the dry rasp of a key turning in the porch lock. I hear the front door push open. The echo of footsteps in the hallway downstairs.
“Where are you, love?” Jonathan calls out aimlessly, his voice ricocheting around the house.
I arch backwards, plant my hands flat at the base of my spine and straighten up to a high-pitched click. “Up here, love,” I respond in a weary tone, the words cracking as they leave my lips.
I remain on my knees, which by now are pulsing like an exposed wound. I wipe the sweat from my brow with my wrists and clasp my hands around my hips. The red stain remains unmoved before me. A huge ugly thing spoiling mine and my husband’s pristine white bedroom carpet. As full and vivid as before I started cleaning it. Like my time has been so cruelly wasted for nothing.
I gawp wide-eyed at the bloody thing. Meet the stain with a tired stare encompassing both disbelief and defeat. Think what it could be. Even what it resembles.
An embryonic sac. Exploded afterbirth. A mushed foetus.
My Jonathan climbs the stairs. His footsteps sounding louder.
The door behind me slowly creaks open.
“What are you doing, love? It smells like a bloody chemical factory in here,” Jonathan’s voice booms behind me. “Is dinner ready at all?”
I struggle to my feet, gripping the window ledge for support. I remove the marigolds and bunch them inside the front pocket of my smudged cleaning pinafore. I’m struggling for breath at this point. A realisation which has just crept up on me. The sudden feeling of being constricted inside a straightjacket. My face glows incandescent, coated in sweat.
“Good day at work, love?” I struggle.
“Is dinner ready?” he repeats.
“We might have to get a takeaway tonight. Chinese or something,” I respond breathlessly. “I must have lost track of time working on this bloody thing. You know how my head has been lately. Feeling a little bit dazed and all that.”
“Working on what?”
“This,” I say, pointing down at the bright red blemish. The menstrual clot. The uterine prolapse. The torn hymen. “This… bloody stain. I’ve been trying to shift it for hours and it’s barely lifted at all.”
Jonathan shuffles further into the bedroom, his shadow from the landing light cast over me. The slight outline of a beer belly, a stooped posture. The disapproving face of his father sights me up and down: beady green eyes framed by crow’s feet and thin folds of skin, a widow’s peak hairline shaved to a liver-spotted scalp, flabby bulldog jowls either side of thin chapped lips parting in reply.
He made me do it the first time. Said we had no choice. That we were both so young. Just kids ourselves. We both had so much to live for, as well as each other. Our whole lives ahead of us.
We had the conversation in his car. Drove out to our usual spot. It was the middle of the afternoon when we pulled up on the outskirts of the woods. Anaemic yellow sunlight filtered through the twisted branches to dapple the windscreen. The only sound when Jonathan shut off the Kate Bush mixtape that permanently inhabited the cassette player was the faint breeze whistling through the trees. There was a terse silence for around five minutes—probably a lot longer—before either of us uttered even so much as a word to amplify the sporadic rustle of leaves.
I can’t remember who spoke first. I suspect it was Jonathan. He’s always been good like that. Knowing exactly what to say and when to say it.
There’s an image of him in my head half-turned in the driver’s seat to face me. The wind blowing through the wound-down window on the long drive to our haunt had swept through his hair, making him look like Bryan Ferry. He ran his hands over his thin tanned face, down towards his dimpled chin and levelled me with a beguiling emerald stare.
That was when he said we simply had to do it. That it did not make sense to throw our lives away because of one silly mistake. That he could get the money from his father’s work but that we would have to keep it a secret and not tell another living soul for as long as we can draw breath.
He told me that I was a clever girl. I could be whatever I wanted. It didn’t make sense to waste my gift.
I was crying heavily at this point. I remember cupping my face to hide the tears and feeling streaked make-up stain my fingers.
Jonathan said we had to try to put this thing out of our mind. It was not worth a great deal of thought. About as significant as a half-second’s fleeting whim. That was about the measure of the thing. And that’s how we had to look at it.
It would just make things worse if we couldn’t.
“There’s nothing there, love,” Jonathan says to me after craning his neck over the stain for a split-second before fixing me with a harsh gaze. “There’s nothing there,” he repeats, taking another cursory look.
I glare again at the carpet, down at the bloody thing to be sure of myself.
A smudged kiss like when I found lipstick on his shirt collar. The blood he drew when he smashed a glass tumbler in white-hot temper. The dark viscous mass that lay in judgement at the bottom of the toilet bowl.
The thing floated there lifelessly. Jonathan had to hold me to stop me from shaking. My tears soaked the shoulder of his polo shirt. He ran his hands back over my hair like I was a distressed animal; his shushes sounding in time with my sobs.
The whole day was a blur up until that point. A surreal fugue penetrated only by a series of arbitrary elements that somehow clung to my consciousness. I have no idea why they stood out over others. The long drive and the Kate Bush mixtape. The strong smell of disinfectant in the sterile reception area. Noticing how grimy the ceiling tiles were in the doctor’s surgery as I was asked a series of questions. Even stopping for a bag of chips on the way home because I felt as though I ought to eat something having skipped breakfast.
It was only when the pain took hold hours later that everything became real and the full weight of what we had done hit home. A pain so unimaginably horrific I could not envisage going through it a second time.
An ammonia-like stench hits me and I suddenly feel light-hearted. I reach back with my left hand and grasp the radiator to steady myself before focusing on Jonathan.
“Jonathan, are you kidding me?” I say firmly. “There’s a great big red stain right there on the carpet floor.”
“If there is, I certainly can’t see it. It mustn’t be as bad as you’re making out. I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Especially when it’s nearly six and we don’t know what we’re doing for dinner.”
He removes his jacket and tie, transfers them to a hanger and stores them neatly inside the fitted glass-panelled wardrobes to my right.
I catch sight of my reflection for the first time today. Bags under my eyes. Puffy crimson cheeks. My hair loosely-tied in a messy grey-tinged bun, sweat-drenched strands matted to my crinkled forehead. Old and faded sportswear underneath my cleaning pinafore stretched tight around my dumpy middle.
The complete opposite of the young girl I can still picture so vividly in my head with her pert, athletic build and shimmering brown hair and delicately-freckled cheeks and a pair of blue eyes that glistened like sapphires. A face that she didn’t think was pretty at the time.
A belated realisation that only occurred whilst looking back over an album of grainy photographs with the family one tedious rainy afternoon.
“Jonathan, dear,” I start through a sigh. “This stain has been driving me crazy all day. I need to get it up as soon as I can, otherwise the carpet is ruined. I’m sorry I haven’t prepared dinner yet and I know how you expect to come home to a nice hot meal, but this bloody thing has kept me occupied for hours. I thought this was more of an issue than what to cook you for dinner, especially given what we paid for this carpet.”
There’s clear frustration in his tone now. “Maria, I’m telling you, there is nothing there. Whatever it was, you got it. It’s gone. Your mind must be playing tricks on you.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t you dare say that, Jonathan. I’m warning you now, don’t you dare say that again.”
He throws his hands up in apology, puffs out his cheeks. “Look, I’m sorry, but we both know you haven’t been yourself lately.”
“You make it sound like I’m troubled or something.”
“No, it’s not that,” he begins before his voice trails. He purses his lips, sucks his cheeks as though waiting for the right words to form. The quiet stretches uncomfortably for several seconds before he gives up. Jonathan steps closer towards me and attempts to make things better through one of the only way he knows how. He presses his coarse, cracked lips to mine. His hands grip tight around my waist as I catch myself flinch involuntary, my skin bristling at the slight contact.
It’s something I don’t think he notices because snapping from my dead-eyed stare directed at the stain to glance at his face, I notice the lower-half creased in a well-worn sympathetic smile.
“I love you, you know.”
“I know,” I mutter.
“And I worry about you, Maria.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
“You haven’t been yourself lately.”
“I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
I shake my head, return my attention to the stain.
A slaughterhouse floor. Seepage from tightly-bound wounds. A burst balloon.
“I don’t feel like talking right now, Jonathan,” I begin, exhausted. There’s a lengthy pause. “I just want to carry on doing what I’m doing,” I eventually say in a quiet voice.
He screws his face. “You don’t feel like talking to me? Your husband? The father of your children? I’ve known you since you were sixteen, Maria. I know you better than anyone in this world. If you can’t talk to me, then who can you talk to?”
“It’s not like that,” I answer, shaking my head.
“But you’re more than happy talking to that quack Benway?”
“He’s a professional, Jonathan. He knows exactly what to do, what to say to help me.”
“And what to prescribe you as well, by all accounts.”
My mouth suddenly turns dry. My throat closes. An insurmountable weight pressing down on my chest. I struggle for air as I feel my breastbone shake as though breaking for freedom. The corners of my eyes become moist and it isn’t long before a small, fat tear rolls down my cheek that Jonathan effortlessly wipes away using the flat of his hand. His hardened features emit grave concern.
“They help me,” I somehow manage, forcing back a dry retch. “The pills help me.”
“Where are they?”
“I just want to take a look at them.”
“They help me, Jonathan. You know how I suffer with my nerves. Dr Benway has really helped me.”
“I’m not saying he hasn’t,” Jonathan says in a carefully-pitched calm tone that can barely conceal an underlying exasperation. “I just want to take a look at them. That’s all.”
Jonathan sighs. “Maria, I’m not in the mood for this. I think one of the interns is putting his hand in the till at the showroom. I’ve got enough on my plate without playing games at home.”
A pregnant silence.
“They’re in the medicine cabinet,” I quietly reply, absently pointing towards the en-suite bathroom.
I took the test in the bathroom of his family home. A repeat of the first time. The exact same result.
I immediately broke down. A whole black cloud’s worth of tears. I collapsed in a heap on the cold bathroom floor, convulsing as though I was expelling every little bit of anguish, every little bit of anxiety I had buried deep at my core. Jonathan put his arms around me, tried to calm me with a series of rhythmic shushes. I felt like I needed to throw up.
The shock grabbed me at the shoulders like a child throttling a rag doll. It’s only looking back now that I realise how stupid I was to feel such a way. You can’t expect any other outcome when you don’t change your ways or at least consider the worst that could happen. Especially having been burnt in exactly the same way as before.
Jonathan tried to talk me round in the weeks after. Tried to make the case for sensible and rationale thought. The same kind that had been in scant supply when we had been busy conforming to the stereotype of careless teenagers. He asked me again whether I really wanted to throw away my future. University and the like. A career in law.
He said he had dreams, too. He had no intention of selling cars for the rest of his life, contrary to what I and others may have thought.
But I knew I couldn’t go through with that whole thing again.
I knew I would have to put my life on hold. Pick up where I left off at some point in the future. What I felt inside me made me think this was a penance for my stupidity. The warning had not been properly heeded before. We were stuck to suffer with the choices we had made.
My mother articulated the shame and sense of loathing I felt internally. She said she thought I was a clever girl, but this obviously proved the opposite. That despite my book smarts and good grades, I had ignored the most obvious lesson in front of me in watching my mother struggle to raise a child on her own. Silly girl, she repeated over and over. Like a song’s chorus. Silly girl. You silly little girl.
I promised her that I would achieve what I knew I could. But the words didn’t seem to register as she stared straight ahead at the kitchen wall with a blank expression etched on her face.
She noticeably softened as the day drew closer and the change in me became apparent. She pledged her support. Promised that she would do all she could to help Jonathan and me. There was something she said, though, that I didn’t know how to take at the time and it was only when breastfeeding and burping, bathing and clothing my own children day after day, night after night that I came to understand exactly what she meant. She said she would always be my mother but I was no longer her baby.
Jonathan received a similar lecture from his parents. I think it affected Jonathan a lot more than he intimated. He seemed more subdued. The casual observer or acquaintance probably would not have detected a change in his usual cool, nonchalant demeanour, but it was obvious to me. He constantly wore an expression like he was watching a slow-motion car crash. The youthful spark extinguished. His father demanded more commitment from him at the showroom and that was that.
Jonathan put on a brave face for the wedding. We both looked happy in our pictures, in fact. The only sign that something was amiss was the shapely bulge stretching my white dress. It was a small affair. A church ceremony, as expected. Family and close friends. Jonathan’s family hosted the reception. A few unremarkable words were said by the usual parties and the whole thing was over by eleven.
My water broke during our honeymoon on the Isle of Wight. Three months shy of the due date. I went into labour with only Jonathan for support. So far from home. Miles from our loved ones. I had never felt so scared in all my life. I still don’t have much to compare it to, now I think about it. The drug-induced haze gave everything a gaseous quality, I remember, and made it seem as though none of it was real. Like it was happening to somebody else. A hideous nightmare I was unable to wake from. Still, I can recall the terror that gripped me as I was wheeled through those glistening white hospital corridors, the fear that kept me pinned to the bed as Philip was cut from inside me with the umbilical cord wrapped around his little neck. The wails. The screams. The scurry of nurses and doctors in and out of the room, firing instructions at one another I was in no fit state to comprehend. The same acute panic that had me paralysed since my water broke prevented any of this from registering. I was frightened but had no outlet, no release, helplessly moored.
I just wanted my son to be alright.
The honeymoon went on for a few more months whilst Philip got his strength up. I can’t recall much from that period, in all honesty. It felt as though I was lost in some trance-like state in which outside influences can’t permeate the enveloping fuzz no matter how much they try. Trapped by own thoughts and concerns.
But the good news came in due course. The doctor called Jonathan and me into his office and told us that Philip was strong enough to leave. That we were finally able to leave the island and return home as a family.
That word hung heavy. Family.
Strange at is to say, I can’t describe how I felt in that moment. There was obvious relief, of course, but there was also a sinking feeling manifesting in the pit of my stomach at the fact that my life had changed irrevocably. And that I was convincing myself that this is exactly how a mother should feel at such a time and by consequence it would mean that I was a good mother. It was like my head was about to explode, the sheer number of contrasting thoughts and emotions crisscrossing like motorway traffic.
Jonathan speculated whether Philip would qualify for a French passport having been born on the island. I’m still not sure if he was serious.
The rattling of plastic medicine pots fills my ears. Jonathan grumbles something to himself. Audibly annoyed.
“Jesus, how many pills do you have in here, Maria?” he spits. “I can hardly see my own.”
“They’re there, Jonathan. They’re definitely there.”
“Are you sure they’re in here?” he asks.
“Beside the mesh basket,” I call back.
The stain on the carpet.
Rose petals atop crisp white bed sheets. Rouge dashed across pale cheeks. Food colouring dripped into icing sugar.
“Have you heard from Philip at all recently, love?” I quickly follow up.
“Why would he ring me? I’m only his father,” Jonathan shoots back. “I swear he thinks doing a PhD at Cambridge gives him the right to treat people however he likes. As though we’re all beneath him. I honestly don’t know where he gets it from. I really don’t”
“I’m only asking because I texted him today to see how he was doing but he’s not responded.”
“The viva, Maria, the bloody viva. That’s all the boy’s been thinking about for months now. No time for anyone else,” Jonathan barks. He comes striding out of the en-suite clutching a medicine pot, the pills rattling inside. “Are these the little buggers?”
My blank stare remains fixed to the carpet. “Yes.”
I catch Jonathan shake his head out of the corner of his eye. “Could cause drowsiness and hallucinations in some patients,” he mutters, presumably reading the label. He pauses for a moment whilst stood motionless in the far corner of the room several feet away. His voice firms as he resumes his speech: “How many of these have you taken today, Maria?”
I shrug my shoulders. “A couple. I think.”
Jonathan paces out of the room. “I’m going to give Benway a call,” he announces.
I call back to him over my shoulder, “Oh, whilst you’re on the phone, give the Summer Palace a ring and order a banquet. Lucy can pick it up on her way home from netball.”
My focus returns to the stain.
Temper. Anger. Danger.
“I’ll ring the Indian instead,” Jonathan’s disembodied voice responds from somewhere down the stairs. “I’ve gone off Chinese.”
I say nothing, drop to my knees again, drench the sponge in the bucket and resume scrubbing the stain. I leave the balled marigolds in the front pocket of my pinafore and really try to apply some extra pressure to the stain. I scrub and I scrub and I scrub. Drench the sponge, rinse, scrub and scrub even harder than before.
Bleach this thing clean.
A whirlpool. A swirling storm. Savage wildfire.
It isn’t long before I notice that my hands are cut to ribbons. Scratches across each finger as though clawed by a cat. Specks of blood and calloused skin. I hold them up close to my eyes, turn them from side to side and inspect the damage closer. Faint scars across the wrists. A burning sensation announces itself, no doubt from the chemicals. A harsh sting. Like falling in nettles. I bite my tongue hard. Clench my lips. Bucket to carpet. Rinse and repeat. The unthinking routine. Push past the pain as best I can. As I’ve learned over the years. Try hard to think of anything other than what you’re actually doing.
I backed Jonathan when he said another child would make things better. The years after Philip came along were a struggle. Jonathan was working longer hours at the showroom to support us. He often came home tired and irritable. Would take his frustration out on me. Sporadic bursts of anger like snaps of lightning to break the wall of silence that had formed between us. A brooding intensity hung over him most of the time, as though stewing in his thoughts. Emotions churning constantly manifesting only as indistinct flickers across his face. He would wake up and go to work, come home and complain about the showroom, eat his dinner and pay Philip the bare minimum of attention before collapsing into bed and repeating the process over. He would often stir in his sleep during those early years of marriage; kick off the covers and flay his hands in the air as though resisting some invisible enemy, all the while groaning nonsensical protestations. The fits subsided in time, but barely a night would go by when his sleep wasn’t broken.
I wasn’t myself either. I couldn’t focus on anything. My head felt like a short-circuiting computer. It was like I was lost in some limitless sadness. A dark forest I could not navigate. Lost in my own thoughts for months at a time. Recalling this now, I have no idea how I made it through each day, looked after Philip. I must have projected this veneer of normality, of idyllic family life because people would comment how about happy I seemed. A hard-working husband. An adorable baby son. A picture of comforting conventionality that barely concealed how I actually felt. I can only liken it to an ice skater gliding across a frozen lake. There’s evident grace and a delicate poise without question, but there’s also an acute awareness that the surface could crack at any moment.
How I went for so long without breaking is a mystery. Well, at least not in public. Whilst Jonathan would wrestle shadows beside me in bed most nights, I would cry myself to sleep. Expel all of the day’s pent-up energy. I would sometimes howl, but even that chilling cry could not break him from his fits. I would try to read to send me to sleep. I had always enjoyed reading as a teenager but I found the energy to do so as a married woman desert me. It was a strange co-existence of conflicting feelings because I would find myself much too tired to read, but too wired to sleep. My body shattered but my brain hotwiring. All I could do was stare at the ceiling and sob, making pictures out of whatever formed in the black from my mind’s eye.
It was at what felt like our lowest ebb that Jonathan suggested we try. He said it would help. Give us a new focus. Something to unite us. He was confident a baby would solve all out problems. Get us back to where we were. And a sibling would help bring Philip out of his shell, I remember he was quick to add.
I thought of anything I could whilst it was happening. The noise of mattress springs. The headboard against the wall. Grunting Moaning. I kept myself occupied by thinking about what television programmes I was looking forward to watching, what I could cook for dinner for the rest of the week. About how I could shave time off my cleaning routine. Books I could motivate myself to read. Even whether I should enrol at night school and try learn a second language. French or Spanish. Something like that could have helped me out of my funk. A break from the norm.
I even found myself reflecting on the night we spent in the backseat of his Focus parked near the woods. The discomfort I felt. Cramped. Penned in. As though I could hardly breathe. Like the interior was starved of oxygen. Jonathan pressed down on me and I remember wincing sharply. He told me to suck it up. That it was just a shock to the system. That it would get better the quicker we did it, the more we did it. That’s what he promised and I nodded in agreement. Told myself that it would. He slid his hands all over my body, tried to relieve the tension, but I found I was a coiled spring. All of that anxiety balled up inside me on the cusp of exploding. It was a real struggle to suppress that feeling. Get in the zone and take my mind somewhere else. So I remember I picked a dark spot on the ceiling and kept my attention zeroed. Maintained a steely, uncomfortable gaze whilst on the periphery of my consciousness, I heard Jonathan complain about the blood. The damage it could do to the white leather upholstery. What his parents would say if it could not be cleaned.
And so I did the same when Jonathan said we should try again. Something I’ve done far too many times to even count. I picked a spot on the pitch black ceiling, kept my stare fixed and let my imagination take my elsewhere. Though over time I’ve discovered even that has dulled like a barely-flickering streetlamp. I used to fantasise at first. Picture other people. Exotic lands. Luxurious scenarios. Images of that kind have faded over time, photographs drained of colour, to the point where they seem as illusory and remote as any ambition I had as a young girl and it’s become a case of rethinking my days, my endless routine. It’s not a conscious thing at all, just something that seemed to happen over time.
Similar to the situation I now found myself in. All of it happening without me realising. Before it was too late to affect.
One image stands out more than others. A recollection of being alone in the kitchen. The radio playing ‘Careless Love’. A glass of wine in hand. Quiet contemplation. Enjoying the moment. An all too rare occurrence. Imagining I’m the person I wanted to be, considering a lifetime of grand plans. A quiet only disturbed by the turn of a key in the front door lock and Lucy’s cheery voice filling the house calling out for her mother.
The word stuck in my head.
A permanent reminder of the person I’ve found myself to be.
The word keeps coming back.
Again. A hammer striking an anvil.
My shoulders are shaken hard.
“Mum,” I hear a sing-song voice chime. It’s Lucy. “Mum. Mum, are you okay?”
I come around and find myself lying horizontal on the bed atop the covers. There’s a feeling of grogginess, as though my head has been rattled like a salt shaker. A drowsiness clings to me, almost like I’m tightly wrapped in a daydream. I shuffle uncomfortably in an attempt at rousing myself, the mattress groaning under my weight.
I sight my daughter through the haze; her sun-kissed, flawless skin, wavy blonde hair, rich sea green eyes. Her brow is furrowed slightly with what appears to be concern. “Mum, are you okay?”
My voice is dry and raspy. “What happened?”
“You were out cold.”
She shrugs. “I’ve been home about an hour and a half. You were out of it then.”
I shake my head and hear a faint snap comparable to autumn leaves being crushed underfoot. “Must have been one of my episodes,” I say calmly. “You know what I’m like with my headaches.”
The faraway scent of curry enters my sinuses.
“We saved you some curry,” she adds gently on cue, smoothing her hand across my forehead. “Plated some up and left it for you in the microwave. Korma. Your favourite.”
I offer a light smile. The kind hospital patients wear to visitors.
A one-note pause.
Lucy’s tone stiffens in her next breath. “There’s a man downstairs.”
“In the living room. Talking to Dad.”
“Do you know who it is?”
She shakes her head. “No. I’ve never seen him before.”
“What does he look like?”
“Young-ish. Maybe mid-thirties. Fairly tall. Shaved head. Stubble.”
“Sounds like it could be Dr Benway.”
Lucy frowns, confused. “Who’s that?”
“They’re talking about you, Mum,” she follows up. “I think.”
She shrugs a second time. “I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room. But I think I heard something about medication. I think he wanted Dad to sign something. But I don’t know for certain.”
Lucy’s hand travels down to my cheek; a soft caress. Her eyes lock mine. “Are you ill, Mum?”
I shake my head and flash the same practiced smile as moments earlier. “Nothing more than the usual. Fine otherwise.”
Lucy says nothing in response. There’s another short pause as she scans the room.
“It stinks of bleach in here, Mum,” she says. “I mean really strongly. It reeks. Like when you walk down a hospital corridor or something.”
I nod. “It’s all the cleaning I’ve done.”
“I’ll open a window. Air the place out a little,” Lucy replies. She glides over to the windows and draws the white silk curtains a touch. She wraps her palm around a handle and forces open a bay window. An early-evening breeze billows the curtains, fills the room. Quiet, aside from the hush passing through from outside.
A brief peace disturbed by the vague jabber of two men talking somewhere downstairs.
“Lucy,” I call over to her. “Would you mind checking something for me?”
“There was a stain over there on the carpet. This great big red stain I just couldn’t lift earlier no matter how hard I scrubbed. I have absolutely no idea what it could be and it’s been driving me crazy. Would you mind taking a look at it please? Tell me what it’s like.”
“Where is it?”
“Just over there to your right. Beside the radiator. Underneath the far end of the window sill.”
She moves over a few steps and creases her forehead studying the carpet. She crouches down for a closer inspection, falling below my line of vision from where I’m lying on the bed.
“I’m not sure if there’s anything there, Mum. I don’t think I can see a stain. What does it look like? Can you describe it? Are you sure it’s as big as what you’ve said.”
“It doesn’t matter, dear,” I reply with a shake of the head, waving my hand in benign dismissal. My lips cracked in the same reassuring smile. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Liam Randles Liam Randles is an alumnus of the University of Liverpool, having been conferred his PhD in 2019. His submitted thesis was titled ‘Theme and Technique in the Fiction of Steve Erickson’, which explored the titular writer’s recurring preoccupations and the development of these interests within his oeuvre. His research interests include postmodernism, contemporary American fiction, and sci-fi and speculative fiction. He has previously been published on these subjects in journals such as the University of Malta’s Antae and the University of Southampton’s Emergence. He is also an avid writer and has had short stories featured in a range of magazines and online platforms, including Literally, Bunbury and Goodbye. He was shortlisted for the main short story prize at the University of Liverpool’s annual literary festival in 2018, selected by a judging panel comprised of Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell-Boyce. A member of the British Association for American Studies since 2014, he is actively pursuing his research interests alongside teaching in Further Education. He is currently in the process of adapting his PhD thesis into a book whilst sourcing representation for his debut novel.