Behind her eyes, p.13
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       Behind Her Eyes, p.13

           Sarah Pinborough
 
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  I stand in the silence and stare at the glass and think of flames and my mind ticks over with ideas, and then the throbbing in my face brings me back to the present. I’ve taken all his pills, but what I really need is some ibuprofen.

  I take two with water and then go into the downstairs cloakroom and turn on the light, leaning over the sink to examine my face in the mirror. The bruise is quite something, blooming high on my cheekbone. My skin has swelled tight, and I flinch when I gently touch it. Last night, it was just a red glare. Today it’s staking its claim on my face. My eye isn’t closing up though, which is a relief. The bruise will have gone within a week, I’m sure.

  I hate it. His concern at the growing bruise first thing this morning vanished when my shopping started to arrive, and that was that. More anger and the same demanding questions of last night that I still wouldn’t answer. He wanted to know where I’d been. Why I was out when he got home. What I’d been doing.

  I obviously can’t tell him where I really was – I’d planned to be home before him, but my poor timing was another error in last night’s fiasco – but perhaps I should give him something. Or not. I’m quite enjoying this moment of quiet power over him. I may be the one locked in, but what he wants to know is locked in my head. I’ll take that. Still, I feel exhausted now that I’m alone.

  It’s not only my face that hurts. My arms and legs ache too. My muscles scream from being strained. Even my ribs hurt a little.

  I need a bath. I need to soak it all away and think. I take the stairs slowly, weighed down by my self-loathing and self-pity, and as I start the water running, I move his shirts from our wardrobe to the smaller one in the spare bedroom. I hang them in colour order, how he likes them. I touch them with all the gentleness with which I can no longer touch him. Self-doubt grips me and I feel very, very alone.

  I take my mobile phone out of the shoe box at the back of the cupboard, hidden under a satin pair of Jimmy Choos, and then peel off my clothes and lower myself into the hot bubbly water. I keep the phone within reach, on the toilet lid. Maybe he’ll try ringing me. Maybe he’s sorry. Maybe he’ll tell me he wants to make everything better. They’re idle thoughts. We’re too far down this long track for that.

  I close my eyes and let the water soothe my muscles. My heartbeat throbs in my face; a steady rhythm pacified by whatever drug he’s made me take. It feels quite pleasant in a strange way. I’m about to drift off when the sharp buzz of vibration jolts me upright. It’s a text. From Louise. I stare at the screen. She never texts at weekends.

  I did it!!!!

  I stare at the words, and then I smile, despite the pain in my face. She did it. She actually did it. My heart races, pounding its beat in my chest and cheekbone. I love Louise. I really do. I could burst with pride.

  Suddenly, I’m no longer sleepy.

  25

  THEN

  The smoke is strong and sweet, and when it hits her lungs it’s such a shock that she coughs it back out until her eyes water and then they’re both laughing, even though her chest feels like it did in the days after the fire.

  Rob takes the joint back and smoothly inhales a deep lungful. He blows out smoke rings. ‘That, my dear,’ he says in a faux posh accent, ‘is how to do it.’

  ‘Where did you get this shit?’ She tries again, and this time manages to fight the urge to choke. The buzz is pretty instant. A warm, tingling light-headed feeling. She likes it.

  He wiggles an eyebrow at her. ‘I have my own irresistible ways.’

  ‘No really. Where?’ Rob is pure energy to her. She loves him a little bit, she knows that. He’s so different. She has never met anyone who gives less of a shit about all the things you’re supposed to find important. All the things her parents found important. The things David finds important. Having a plan. A career. Rob is like the wind. Here, there, and everywhere. Destination unknown. It must be wonderful to be like that.

  ‘One of the nurses. I persuaded him to get it for me.’

  ‘Which one?’ She stares at him. She can’t even imagine how she’d start going about that.

  ‘Does it matter? They’re all equally dull,’ he says, looking out into the night. ‘Just one of them.’ They’re locked in one of the bathrooms. The sash window is pushed up high, and they’re squashed together as they lean out, smoking. She had gone to the boys’ wing even though Rob had volunteered to come to her. She wanted to do it. She wanted to take a risk. To feel something. And creeping through the corridors to the central staircase, sneaking past the solitary light of the night nurse’s station below, and then up to the other, illicit wing of Westlands had been exhilarating. She’d been breathless and giggling when she got there, and now with the weed burning her lungs she feels brilliant.

  She wonders which of the nurses he got it from and why he won’t tell her. Is it because she hasn’t told him why the solicitor was here? He hasn’t asked, but she knows him well enough to know that isn’t because he’s not curious. Of course he’s curious. He’s the cleverest person she knows, except maybe David. She takes the joint from him and inhales. There’s a cool breeze that lifts her hair and she feels like she’s flying. She laughs a little bit, from nowhere. Flying. Maybe she will tell Rob about the solicitor. They have their own secret now anyway. As if in tune with her thinking, Rob speaks.

  ‘Where do you go when you dream? You know – what’s on the other side of the door for you?’

  ‘Different places,’ she says. It’s a deflection. It’s harder for her to explain. The first door was a long time ago for her. It’s different now, and has been for a few years. He’s new to all this. ‘Depends on my mood.’

  ‘It’s so weird,’ he says. ‘Weird, but brilliant.’

  It’s been five nights since Rob first managed it, and since then he’s been like a natural. She knows he’s not lying – not that she thinks he would – because all the therapists are calling it progress. They’re all feeling smug. He’s the golden boy at Westlands now that he sleeps without screaming – they think they’ve cured him. They think they’ve helped her too. If only they knew they had nothing to do with it. There are doors in the mind to be opened, but not how they think. Not at all. How would they cope with the truth? They’d probably need therapy. She giggles aloud at that. She’s starting to think like Rob.

  ‘It’s like having the world at your fingertips,’ he says.

  ‘Yep,’ she nods. ‘And no more nightmares.’

  ‘Amen to that,’ he says, and passes her the spliff. They’ve nearly finished it, but she doesn’t mind. Her head is swimming and she thinks that much more might make her sick, but she’s loving the way her skin feels odd, and all she wants to do is laugh. Everything is funny. She grins at Rob and he grins back and they don’t need to say anything. After a moment, she rests her head on his arm. It’s thin and wiry, so different to David’s broad shoulder and farm-strengthened bicep. David’s watch would hang as loosely on Rob’s wrist as it does on hers. It feels good to lean on Rob though. She feels safe.

  She could never have this moment with David, and that makes her a little bit sad. David barely dreams, let alone has night terrors. David didn’t listen when she tried to tell him. David would never be able to do what Rob has done, and that’s a simple fact. But it doesn’t stop her feeling wonderful that there is someone who can. A friend who can. Someone she can share it with. Some of it at least.

  26

  ADELE

  He’s true to his word and is only out for two hours, and I’m meek when he gets home. Although the text from Louise has lifted my spirits, I’m still haunted by last night’s events and my abysmal failure. I was too sure of myself and now my confidence is entirely knocked and I feel terribly alone.

  ‘I’ve moved your clothes into the spare room,’ I say, softly, when he finds me in the kitchen, suitably cowed.

  He replaces the kitchen door key in the lock and at least has the decency to look uncomfortable for trapping me in here. He stays facing away for a moment and t
hen turns. The fight has gone out of both of us. His shoulders are as slumped as mine.

  ‘Why did you paint our bedroom and hall those colours?’ He’s asked the question so many times already, but I love that he says our, as if we are still somehow a we.

  ‘They’re just colours, David,’ I say, repeating the same answer I’ve given every time. ‘I like them.’

  He gives me that look again, as if I’m a stranger from some alien planet that he has no chance of ever understanding. I shrug. It’s all I’ve got.

  ‘Don’t paint the spare room.’

  I nod. ‘I hope you sleeping there is temporary.’

  This is us talking. This complete non-communication. Perhaps it’s him who needs all the medication, instead of spending his days drinking his brain to dullness. It’s not good for him. It’s not good for the future. It needs to stop, but I’m hardly in a position to put my foot down now. Maybe he’ll stop when this is all over. Maybe he’ll let me help him then.

  He goes and hides in his study, mumbling something about work, the conversation over for now. I presume that looking at me has made him want a brandy and I don’t want to analyse the reasons for that.

  I let him go and don’t call him on the fact that I know he has several bottles of spirits in his study and that maybe I’m not the only one with secrets in this marriage, however well he thinks he hides them from me. Instead, I do what I do best, and start preparing the roast lamb for dinner. There is something heart-warming about a roast dinner, and we both need that.

  I season the meat with rosemary and anchovies driven into the fatty skin, and then, as I chop and sauté and simmer my potato and vegetable side dishes, the steam makes my bruise throb. I’ve covered it with make-up, and David no doubt thinks that’s to hide it from him, but he’d be wrong. It’s to hide it from myself. I’m filled with shame at my own weakness.

  I lay the dining-room table using our best dinner service, and have candles lit and all the dishes laid out between us before calling him in. I’ve poured him a glass of wine even though my glass is only filled with San Pellegrino. I’m not sure if I’ve done all this to please him, or to comfort myself after the ugliness of last night. I look for some sign of approval, but he barely registers my efforts.

  Our plates are full, but neither of us really eats anything. I try and make small talk about his outreach work – as if I care – but he cuts me off.

  ‘What’s going on, Adele?’

  I look up at him, my stomach in knots. He’s not worried, he’s cold. It’s all part of my plan, but it’s not what I want. And I certainly don’t want it yet. I try to think of something to say, but my words have dried up. I only hope I look beautiful in the candlelight, even with the mottled bruise he’s trying not to see. He puts his knife and fork down.

  ‘What happened before we moved, that was—’

  ‘That was your fault.’ I find my voice now, even though it’s almost whiny, nails on a chalkboard. ‘You know it was. You said it was.’

  ‘I said it to pacify you. I didn’t mean it. You wanted a fresh start and I’ve tried to give you one.’

  I can’t believe he has the audacity to say that. He’s fucking his receptionist. Some fresh start. I lower my own knife and fork, carefully placing them on the edge of my plate. My efforts over dinner are going to be wasted.

  ‘I admit I’ve made some mistakes,’ I say. ‘And I’m so sorry. You know I have problems. I think moving unsettled me.’

  He shakes his head. ‘I can’t contr— I can’t look after you any more. I’ll ask you one more time. Where did you go last night?’

  Control. That’s what he meant to say. He can’t control me any more.

  ‘I went for a walk,’ I say. ‘I lost track of time.’

  We stare at each other and I try to look innocent, but he’s not buying it.

  ‘Honestly,’ I add and immediately regret it. It’s the word everyone uses when they’re lying. Honestly, she’s just a friend. That’s what David had said when we lived in Blackheath. And okay, he might not have fucked her, but she was more than just a friend.

  ‘This can’t go on,’ he says.

  Is he talking about us or me? Does he want me locked up somewhere? Another residential home where people can help me, but this time on a long-term basis? While he swans off with my money and his freedom? It makes me want to cry.

  ‘I think I missed a few pills,’ I say. It’s a risk. I don’t want him popping back from work to make sure I take them. I need a clear head and my mind is working just fine anyway. ‘I’ll level out. You know that.’

  This is like the early days all over again, but now he doesn’t have the wealth of love for me that sustained him before I got myself together. That well has run dry.

  ‘You know you can never leave me, David,’ I say. It’s good to say his name aloud. ‘You know that.’ It’s a threat. It’s always been a threat.

  And there it is, the past sitting between us alongside my untouched roast and creamed leeks and glazed carrots and three types of potato, and I know that, despite everything, I’m doing the right thing to save my marriage.

  ‘I know,’ he says, pushing his chair back. ‘I know.’ He doesn’t look at me as he walks towards the door. ‘I’m going to have a shower and an early night.’

  ‘I’ll repaint the bedroom,’ I say, to soften my last words. ‘If you’ll come back to it.’

  He glances back then and nods almost imperceptibly, but the lie is in his eyes. There’s only one bed he wants to share, and it isn’t mine. I wonder what Louise is doing. I wonder if she’s thinking of me or him. I wonder if all my planning is going to go to shit.

  Dinner, it would appear, is over. I watch him leave, and then, once I hear the heavy tread on the stairs, I get up and drain his wine. I look at the china. The leftover food. This life I fought so hard for. My bruise throbs hard as I fight tears. I take a deep shaky breath. I never used to cry at all. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’ve changed. I almost let out a weepy laugh at that. At least I still have my sense of humour.

  I’ve got the roasting pan soaking when the doorbell goes. A short, sharp, burst. I go into the hall and glance up the stairs, but the shower is running and David hasn’t heard. I feel breathless. Who can it be? We don’t have passing visitors. We don’t have friends. Only Louise. She wouldn’t come here. Would she? This is not the time for her to confess. That would complicate everything.

  I open the door an inch or two and peer out through the gap. The young man stands nervously on the second step to the front door, as if almost afraid to come right up.

  ‘Can I help you?’ I ask quietly, opening the door wider.

  ‘Is Dr Martin in?’ he says. ‘It’s Anthony. Tell him it’s Anthony. I’m a patient of his.’ He’s been keeping his eyes down, but then he glances up at me, and I see myself as he must see me. A fragile beauty with a black eye. Suddenly, I find some use for last night. I look over my shoulder, as if nervous, before answering.

  ‘He’s gone to bed with a headache. I’m sorry.’ I keep my voice low. I’m glad I didn’t dress up too much this evening. Even with the bruise I would have looked too aloof, out of reach. I’m wearing a long summer dress with spaghetti straps, and my hair is loose. His eyes have stayed on me, and I know that look. I’ve seen it on many men before. Surprise and longing and lust. I have that effect on them. I think he’s forgotten about David already.

  ‘I’m his wife,’ I say, and then, for good measure, I add, ‘I can’t talk to you.’

  The skinny dark-haired boy’s hands twitch, and one foot taps on the step, but he’s not aware of it. He’s wearing a black T-shirt, and I can see the traces of track marks on his arms. I recognise what he is.

  ‘You have to go away,’ I lean out and whisper, knowing full well that by tilting forward slightly I’m giving him a teasing glance of my breasts. ‘Please.’ I lift one hand almost to my face, to where the growing bruise mars my skin. ‘This isn’t a good time.’

 
Are you all right?’ he asks. His accent is so middle-class, at odds with his look.

  ‘Please go,’ I repeat, ‘I think he’s coming.’ I make sure there’s a wonderful hint of urgency in my voice, and then I close the door. Through the glass I can see that he lingers for a few moments longer and then the dark shape of him disappears.

  I lean against the wood. Anthony. His name is like sweet ambrosia to me. My shoulders relax as my shame at last night’s failure fades. Maybe it’s all going to work out after all.

  27

  LOUISE

  ‘What the hell happened?’ I say, aghast. It’s Wednesday and the first time I’ve seen Adele this week. And now I know why.

  I thought I’d definitely hear from her on Monday morning – not only because the gym has kind of become part of a new routine – but also because I’d been so excited about controlling my dreams. More than that, I really thought she would be too. I thought she’d want to hear everything. But she was silent. I thought about sending another text, but didn’t want to be needy, and I’m on a guest membership she’s paid for at the gym and didn’t want to look like I was taking it for granted.

  At first I was only a little upset, but by Monday evening, when I was sitting alone at home and David hadn’t appeared either, my hurt had turned to worry. Maybe I’d got Adele into trouble with my weekend text? Maybe David had seen it? But if he’d seen it then surely he’d have come around and wanted to know what was going on. It was possible that she had my number logged under a false name. Maybe he did too for that matter. But if so, then why hadn’t I heard from her? Had he taken the phone?

  Yesterday David was quiet at work, none of the shared smiles and flushes we’ve had recently, and by the time I went to bed last night after a second evening alone, I felt like I’d been dumped by both of them, and it took all my strength not to text him to find out if everything was okay. It was strange how empty my life felt without either of them in it, and that made me worry more. I needed them. It hurt to see David avoiding me. Not hearing from Adele too set my imagination alight. Had they told each other about me? Them and me. Always them and me, no matter how much I feel inserted between the two of them. Inserted or trapped. One or the other.

 
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