Michael Gilbert writes short fiction and lives in Brighton. He has a PGCE from Kings College London and spent nine years working as an English teacher. He has lived in South Korea and spent last year traveling and volunteering through South America. Michael is interested in short fiction and life writing. His favourite authors are Michael Ondaatje and Haruki Murakami.
Lawrie pointed to them wilting in the warm November weather and I stared mostly at the cracked paving stones. I don’t think I’d call the weather an aberration. As London bustled toward Christmas – I dropped away. That most fashionable of habits, freeing up space in your diary, became my constant. I cancelled theatre trips, birthday celebrations, five-rhythm classes, trips to see family or friends, and with greater frequency I cancelled work. I stopped exercising. I stopped sleeping. We stopped having sex. I was wrapped around myself, as if time was a fabric to be knotted. At night, my mind separated whirring static. I didn’t know how to switch it off. Sometimes, I looked at a lamp and wanted someone to smash it across my skull.
As a child, I was expected to be in the study after school. Marble busts were lined up on the altar of the piano. Borodin’s sharpness reminded me of Dad. When he left the room, I sat before those faces refusing to play. With the door to the study closed you couldn’t hear Mum. Sometimes, when I sighed in relief and the house settled, I imagined the muffled thud of sobs and, however many times I refused, always climbed down to the sitting room to heave her into an upright position. I would wake in the night, under the green luminescence of ceiling stars, stressed that she’d choked to death. If I hid the bottle, my bedroom door burst open with the harshness of light and demands. I wonder if a sanctuary is just a prison of choice.
These last months, my days have been dry and clingy. Work, a strenuous exercise in functioning. With enough caffeine in my system I can normally make it until at least four pm with only two or three crashes. When you cling one-handed to a job that is probably killing you – death is saved for the evenings. Our nights collapsed into recriminations and guilt because, let’s face it, even the best of us aren’t rational when we can’t sleep, and – to be honest – I can be a complete bitch. He should have, or I should have, left long ago.
The first time it happened was the night we moved in together. Lying in bed, my throat felt dry as if we’d fucked right through being drunk and into the hangover. The sheets were damp about us and I could feel them bunched under my hip. The room, as white as it was possible to be with the light off. I lifted Lawrie’s arm, trying to tug the cover out as I did so. I wanted to say something but wasn’t sure what it could be and swung my legs off the bed with the unsaid thing rising in my breath. Our windows were draped in condensation. I padded across the room and onto the thinner carpet of the hallway. Boxes still lined the wall, and the dark shapes they formed felt separate to the things I owned. Standing there, I heard the linoleum in the kitchen crack. The flat was shrinking, and I hurried back to the bedroom where Lawrie had started to snore.
He woke a couple of times and asked what was wrong. The second time I lay perfectly still and squeezed my eyes tight until I saw white lines. He rolled over in his sleep and flung his arm across me. Toward morning, I wandered around the house as if to check there wasn’t another bedroom. I stood in the kitchen, at six am, wondering where I’d packed my dressing gown. In the bathroom, the sun was coming up and I splashed water on my face convinced that a black cat was perched on the gable of the house opposite. It was only a chimney. Back in bed, my patch of sheet felt sticky.
January arrived, and I worried that my hair and fingernails were becoming brittle. He went without me to the Sunday Papers Live at Cecil Sharp House. Dad thinks socialism’s a dirty word. Lawrie thinks it’s his duty to pay taxes. If they ever meet, I’ll have to take shelter somewhere. It was raining, and I wanted somewhere to walk so found myself at the Tate Britain. In the gift-shop, there was a book the yellow of petals. It was called 1 Page at a Time: A Daily Creative Companion. I opened it at random. The page was blank with a large black dotted square in the centre. In capitalised Comic Sans, it said: Fill this space with bad habits, then cut it out! I gave a slow spin and ripped the page from the book instead. Leaving the museum, the walk over Vauxhall bridge was grey with rain.
London is a city that runs on the steady panic of being busy. When the tube strikes came again in early February, I had reached the point where climbing the stairs at Kilburn station shook my legs. Cycling was something historical now. Standing at the corner of the platform, I stared out at the dark silhouettes of the city as it stretches East toward the day. However much I cried, I could never stop the world from waking. I left three umbrellas on the tube that winter. At work, there was a sign in my cubicle. It had red and white writing and a stencilled picture of a smiling 1950’s house-wife. She said: Drink coffee – do stupid things with more energy! My eyes blur when I drink too much. Jane found me one Monday morning. It was only a matter of time until I was being told it had gone too far.
“The closer we get to bedtime, the more anxious she becomes. It’s like she finds it harder to self-soothe. How do you describe it, honey? Like there’s a tightness in your chest that won’t go away? –
Lawrie leans into the doctor’s room as he speaks framed by the seriousness of his Buddy Holly glasses.
“… work have been getting really concerned and they’ve asked her to take a short leave of absence. Personally, I think she should take a longer one, but she says they don’t really have that kind of understanding.’ He looks at me. ‘We were hoping you could write a letter. Perhaps sign her off for longer?”
“I can’t sign off for longer.”
“But Mae – “
“I can’t. I’ll lose my job. People don’t understand. You can’t just say, I’m not sleeping well so I’ll be off work for a month. It’s not a problem people can see.”
In the room, my throat clamps. If you can’t swallow you can’t start your next sentence. No matter how many times I come to the doctors for more drugs, I always feel guilty – humid, under a spotlight.
“I can sign you off for an indefinite leave of absence, but I can’t prescribe you another fourteen zopiclone Mae,” she says. “This is highly addictive medication, and I’m concerned about the side effects and your inability to titrate down. I’m going to prescribe you seven more at 2.5mg which you must only take on alternate days and then no more. I would also like to suggest starting a course of anti-depressants and putting you forward for psychotherapy treatment. Amitriptyline is an effective medication for anxiety disorders, particularly insomnia. It does come with side-effects though and needs to be handled with care. We’ll-”
Lawrie is looking at me. He is nodding but his eyes won’t stay still. The space between us all feels like a chasm.
Outside the surgery, the sky is falling. Blossom has exploded over car bonnets all the way up Buckley Road. The Tricycle Theatre’s garden has a small pile of beer cans under a sign that says, ‘This garden is not a bin.’ Lawrie seems afraid of the silence in the street.
“It’ll be okay. You’ve got the letter to show work now, and I’m sure you can go back once the amitriptyline start to work. We can stop by Tescos on the way home and then it’s just a nice chilled evening. I’ve heard good things about the documentary. James Nachtwey is inspirational. What was the line from the synopsis ‘– although seemingly quiet and reserved, James didn’t miss a war for twenty years.’ Think about that line, he hasn’t missed a war in-”
“How long is the film?”
“About two hours.”
Lawrie’s hand is round my shoulder as we walk. I’m just a little too short for this and so he thuds into me every other step. In Tesco, I buy cauliflower, green lentils, bay leaves, vegetable stock, carrots, a can of crushed tomatoes. And red pepper flakes. I think we still have cumin. Lawrie frowns at me as he picks out a pack of ribs and four Old Speckled Hens. The sky and the rooftops are dirty shades of white. My skin prickles and our shopping bags bang as we walk.
At home, the kitchen is brightly lit and filling with shadows. Lawrie is clanking the grill.
“Yes, well, sometimes I’m just looking out for you.”
“Mae, we went to the doctors together.”
With his back hunched to space out the meat, I can’t get to the hob.
“Exactly, we support each other.”
“I wouldn’t always choose that word.” Lawrie stands up from the grill.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I brush into him to close the door and reclaim the pans. The wooden spoon keeps scraping the bottom as I stir. Sometimes, I can see exactly what I’m about to do.
“I don’t want us to go tonight.”
“Mae, what? It’s down the road. You’re not going to come just because I bought some ribs and a few beers?”
“No. I’m not going to go because I’m exhausted, signed off work and just been prescribed anti-depressants. Can we not stay here and watch something?”
The kitchen can be my favourite room in the house. It’s large sash windows look over a forest of London gardens. When we moved in, we steamed asparagus with potato and leek sauce. The room was warm with laughter.
“You know how much I want to see this documentary. It’s only screening for one night and we’ve already paid for the tickets.”
“So, you’ll leave me again then?”
The pans begin to rattle. My eyes are burning and I’m too tired to even wait for the boil.
“Lawrie, please…. Not tonight.”
“You say that every night. This isn’t easy for me either. All I have is this house and these arguments. People are starting to wonder, Mae. Wonder why I’ve been avoiding them.”
“You’d be going by yourself!”
Lawrie stares at me. He holds the spatula as if ready to strike the air. I wonder how much of this is his fault or mine.
In my room, I have a box. Not much smaller than the one my boots came in. When I open it ticket-stubs spring up as if buoyed by their commemoration – of wine tastings, comedy shows, craft fairs, pop ups and galleries. Most of these occasions hold a transparency, a sense my life moved through them. Yet some memories are buried deeper, like fossils etched beneath the surface. Over a year ago, I opened the white wood at my desk in the light of the early morning sun. We were tourist-like, on the Southbank, within a glorious afternoon. To say I love you opened something else. That box filled with buzzing moths.
When he leaves, I sit on the sofa and stare at the smooth white duvet before me. I close my eyes and sip chamomile and honey tea. Somewhere inside of me, a little girl is screaming. I know that he is selfish, and I am unreasonable. The room is warm and dimly lit. The colourful silk streamers, all hanging as they should. Above my head, the shadow of the lampshade casts a snowflake. Only I am out of sorts. Three times I thought I heard him through the wax of my ear-plugs. I wear an eye-mask now. It’s not sensory deprivation. More like being buried alive. Trapped and conscious. I hear him pass the door and move down the corridor to the kitchen. I seethe, realising what he is looking for. If the door had a lock, I would leap up and wrench it shut. Lock myself into a dark four-walled cocoon. Bury myself, safe in the knowledge that I will not be wakened. When the door does open, I feel him creak across the floor. The room is stretched and bloated.
“I thought it was only a two-hour film.”
Lawrie is hobbled in the blackness, tugging at a sock. He sways and holds the table in his right hand.
“You’re still awake, babe?”
“Of course I’m still awake. It’s one am. Where have you been?”
“Ah, sorry. I hoped you’d just take one of those zopiclones and be sound asleep. I didn’t want to come back too early in case I woke you.”
“Well that worked a treat, didn’t it?”
I am sitting up now, the eye-mask covering my forehead like a bandage. In the pale darkness of the room, Lawrie’s legs are clear and white. One sock still pulled up above the ankle. He moves toward the bed, leaning over as if he is coming in to hug. I yank the wax from my left ear.
“Are you really trying to tell me that you just sat in the pub having a few beers? Are you trying to make things worse?”
Lawrie pauses. He is crouched at the foot of the bed. He glances around as if I’m in a space he cannot look at. He sighs.
“Would you like a massage? Calm you down. And then we can both get some sleep.”
At some-point in those first weeks, Lawrie placed the sleeping mask over my eyes and filled the room with lavender. His fingers lingered, easing something warm into my skin, over my breasts. Behind my eyes, lights danced and my skin tingled. This time, I am suffocating in the side of pillow. Lawrie’s hands find the familiar bunching under my shoulder-blade and he leans his body-weight onto his elbow. His hands move over my back like rollers and pins. And underneath the skin, my body continues to hum. The air seems to convex around us. I wonder if it is after two am yet? When his movements slow into a pattern, I swerve my shoulders away and around so that I’m staring up at the creases of his hair. He – already disentangling and rolling over to place his back between us. I wait, and within one or two minutes he starts to snore. The sound isn’t loud, but it ruffles deeper and I can’t hold my shallower breaths in time. My breathing becomes ragged as I try to keep up. I bristle at the closeness of his sleep and lash out to get comfortable, my knee striking against his behind. I roll over onto my side so that we lie in differing directions, the small space of bed like a border between anxiety and peace.
Later, our voices are sharp in the darkness. I keep my face pressed thick against the mattress. Sometimes, my leg kicks out to punctuate a word. But all I have are repetitions. Lawrie’s face is bent close. He suggests some tea. More zopiclone. Perhaps then I can sleep. First, I muffle words about snoring, understanding, apologies – the sofa in the lounge is wide and comfortable. Eventually, my voice splutters the vowels breaking like water. I’m unsure what I really mean by the insistence that he should – please leave. I stay buried when the light snaps on. I can hear him rummaging about, the same way that Mum would bang around the kitchen in her silence. There is the sound of something being stuffed, material being pulled and stretched. I know that I should look up, but I am caught in the place between relief and guilt. As the door creaks, I whip my head around – and he is gone.
Hours later, I am still awake hugging his pillow like a sack. I’m thinking about how we met. On our second date, we went to a comedy show and his laugh filled the room. On our third, we danced to the triumphant blasts of ska. I remember, when the crowd cheered we clapped like penguins. For months, I had scanned the Metro crush pages, reading about mysterious romances – of blondes and brunettes that spent their rides to work tangling with bags and coffees and being knocked down by strangers. My morning journey to Holborn mostly involves being jammed into the backs of other people and the anxious perspiration of the commute. Once, I was so wedged into the space that the doors swung closed upon my head.
Light starts to filter through our curtains. I never thought they were thick enough. I am convinced he’s down at the studio. That he’ll be back in the morning. At some point, I’ll definitely sleep. The first time we had sex, Lawrie lifted his head smiling, his finger stroking my mole as if it might come off. No-one had ever noticed it before. I get up and move toward the window. Outside, the world is waking. The morning is white and clear and under the lightly greening branches of the sycamore tree daffodils are shaking in the breeze.