Behind her eyes, p.3
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       Behind Her Eyes, p.3

           Sarah Pinborough
 

  He hasn’t moved much further into the room. He’s clearly having a hard time getting this to sink in.

  ‘I really am your secretary,’ I say more slowly. Calmly. ‘I’m not a stalker. Trust me, this is not great for me either. I did see you yesterday when you popped in. Briefly. Then I sort of hid.’

  ‘You hid.’ He pauses. The moment seems endless as he processes all this.

  ‘Yes,’ I say, before adding to my shame with, ‘in the toilet.’

  There’s a long pause after that.

  ‘To be fair,’ he says eventually, ‘I’d have probably done the same.’

  ‘I’m not sure both of us hiding in the loo would have served the right purpose.’

  He laughs then, a short unexpected sound. ‘No, I guess not. You’re very funny. I remember that.’ He comes behind his desk, looking down at everything I’ve laid out there, and I automatically move out of his way.

  ‘Anyway, that top print-out is a list of the files you need to go through for Monday. There’s coffee on—’

  ‘I’m really sorry,’ he says, looking up with those gorgeous blue eyes. ‘You must think I’m a bastard. I think I’m a bastard. I don’t normally – well, I wasn’t there looking for anything, and I shouldn’t have done what I did. I feel terrible. I can’t explain it. I really don’t do that sort of thing, and there are no excuses for my behaviour.’

  ‘We were drunk, that’s all. You didn’t really do anything. Not really.’

  I can’t do this. I remember the shame in his voice as he pushed away from me and walked off in the street, muttering apologies. Maybe that’s why I can’t think too badly of him. It was just a kiss after all. It was only in my stupid brain that it was anything more than that. ‘You stopped, and that counts for something. It’s not a thing. Honestly. Let’s forget it. Start from today. I really don’t want to feel awkward any more than you do.’

  ‘You hid in the toilet.’ His blue eyes are sharp and warm.

  ‘Yes, and one way to stop making me feel awkward would be never to mention that again.’ I grin. I still like him. He made a stupid, in the moment, mistake. It could have been worse. He could have come home with me. I think about that for a second. Okay, that would have been great in the short term, but definitely worse in the long.

  ‘Okay, so friends it is,’ he says.

  ‘Friends it is.’ We don’t shake on it. It’s way too soon for physical contact. ‘I’m Louise.’

  ‘David. Nice to meet you. Properly.’ We have another moment of awkward embarrassment, and then he rubs his hands together and glances back down at the desk. ‘Looks like you mean to keep me busy. Are you local by any chance?’

  ‘Yes. Well, I’ve lived here for over ten years if that counts as local.’

  ‘You think you could talk me through the area? Problems and hot spots? Social divides, that sort of thing? I wanted to take a drive around, but that’s going to have to wait. I’ve got another meeting this afternoon with someone from the hospital, then early dinner with the other partners tonight.’

  ‘I can certainly give you a rough outline,’ I say. ‘Layman’s view as it were.’

  ‘Good. That’s what I want. I’m thinking of doing voluntary outreach work on some weekends, so it would be good to have a resident’s perspective on possible causes of addiction issues that are specific to here. It’s my specialism.’

  I’m a bit taken aback. I don’t know any of the other doctors who do outreach. This is an expensive private clinic. Whatever problems our clients have, they don’t tend to suffer from underprivilege, and the partners are all experts in their fields. They take referrals of course, but they don’t go out into the wider community and work for nothing.

  ‘Well, it’s North London, so in the main it’s a very middle-class area,’ I say. ‘But south of where I live there’s a big estate. There are definite issues there. High youth unemployment. Drugs. That kind of thing.’

  He reaches under his desk and pulls up his briefcase, opening it and taking out a local map. ‘You pour the coffee while I make space for this. We can mark out places I need to see.’

  We talk for nearly an hour, as I point out the schools and surgeries, and the roughest pubs, and the underpass where there have been three stabbings in a year and where everyone knows not to let their kids walk because it’s where junkies deal drugs and shoot up. I’m surprised at how much I actually know about where I live, and I’m surprised about how much of my life comes out while I talk him through it. By the time he looks at the clock and stops me, not only does he know that I’m divorced, he knows I have Adam and where he goes to school and that my friend Sophie lives in one of the mansion blocks around the corner from the nicest secondary school. I’m still talking when he looks at the clock and then stiffens slightly.

  ‘Sorry, I need to stop there,’ he says. ‘It’s been fascinating, though.’ The map is covered in Biro marks, and he’s jotted down notes on a piece of paper. His writing is terrible. A true doctor’s scribble.

  ‘Well, I hope it’s useful.’ I pick up my mug and move away. I hadn’t realised how close together we’d been standing. The awkwardness settles back in.

  ‘It’s great. Thank you.’ He glances at the clock again. ‘I just need to call my …’ he hesitates. ‘I need to call home.’

  ‘You can say the word wife, you know.’ I smile. ‘I won’t spontaneously combust.’

  ‘Sorry.’ He’s more uncomfortable than I am. And he should be really. ‘And thank you. For not thinking I’m a shit. Or at least not showing that you think I’m a shit.’

  ‘You’re welcome,’ I say.

  ‘Do you think I’m a shit?’

  I grin. ‘I’ll be at my desk if you need me.’

  ‘I deserve that.’

  As things go, I think as I get back to my desk and wait for my face to cool, that could have been a whole lot worse. And I’m not at work again until Tuesday. Everything will be normal by then, our small moment brushed under the carpet of life. I make a pact with my brain not to think about it at all. I’m going to have a decadent weekend of me. I’ll lie in. Eat cheap pizza and ice cream, and maybe watch a whole box set of something on Netflix.

  Next week is the last week of school and then the long summer holidays lie ahead, and my days will be mainly awful playdates, using my salary for my share of the childcare, and trying to find new ways to occupy Adam that aren’t giving him an iPad or phone to play endless games on, and feeling like a bad parent while I try and get everything else done. But at least Adam is a good kid. He makes me laugh every day, and even in his tantrums I love him so much my heart hurts.

  Adam’s the man in my life, I think, glancing up at David’s office door and idly wondering what sweet nothings he’s whispering to his wife, I don’t need another one.

  7

  THEN

  The building, in many ways, reminds Adele of home. Of her home as it was before, at any rate. The way it sits like an island in the ocean of land around them. She wonders if any of them thought of that – the doctors, her dead parents’ lawyers, even David – before packing her off here for the month, to this remote house in the middle of the Highlands. Did any one of them even consider how much it would make her think of the home that was lost to her?

  It’s old this place, she’s not sure how old, but built in solid grey Scottish brick that defies time’s attempts to weary it. Someone must have donated it to the Westland trust, or maybe it belongs to someone on the board or whatever. She hasn’t asked and she doesn’t really care. She can’t imagine a single family ever living in it. They’d probably end up only using a few rooms, like her family did in theirs. Big dreams, little lives. No one needs a huge house. What can you fill it with? A home needs to be filled with love, and some houses – her own, as it had been, included – don’t have enough heat in their love to warm them. A therapy centre at least gave these rooms a purpose. She pushes away the childhood memories of running free through corridors and stairways playing hide-and-seek
, and laughing wildly, a half-forgotten child. It’s better to think that her home was just too big. Better to think of imagined truths than real memories.

  It’s been three weeks and she’s still in a daze. They all tell her she needs to grieve. But that’s not why she’s here. She needs to sleep. She refuses to sleep. She was dragging herself through days and nights filled with coffee and Red Bull and whatever other stimulants she could find to avoid sleeping before they sent her here. They said she wasn’t ‘behaving normally’ for someone who’d recently lost their parents. Not sleeping was the least of it. She still wonders how they were so sure what ‘normal behaviour’ was in these situations. What made them experts? But still, yes, they want her to sleep. But how can she explain?

  Sleep is the release that has turned on her, a biting snake in the night.

  She’s here for her own good, apparently, but it still feels like a betrayal. She only came because David wanted her to. She hates seeing him worried, and she owes him at least this month after what he did. Her hero.

  She hasn’t made any effort to fit in, even though she promises David and the lawyers that she’s trying. She does use the activities rooms, and she does talk – or mainly listen – to the counsellors, although she’s not sure just how professional they really are. It all seems a bit hippy to her. Touchy-feely as her dad would have said. He didn’t like that stuff in her first round of therapy all those years ago, and to go along with it now feels like she would be letting him down. She’d rather be in a proper hospital, but her solicitors thought that was a bad idea, as did David. Westlands can be considered a ‘retreat’, but for her to be sent to an institution could be harmful for her father’s businesses. So here she is, whether her father would have approved or not.

  After breakfast, most of the residents, or patients or whatever, are going on a hike. It’s a beautiful day for it, not too hot, not too cold, and the sky is clear and the air is fresh, and for a moment she’s tempted to go along and hang out alone at the back, but then she sees the excited faces of the group gathered at the front steps, and she changes her mind. She doesn’t deserve to be happy. Where has all her happiness led? Also, the exercise will make her tired, and she doesn’t want to sleep any more than she has to. Sleep comes too easily to her as it is.

  She waits to see the look of disappointment on the ponytailed group leader Mark, ‘We’re all first names here, Adele’, as she shakes her head, and then she leaves them to it and turns and walks to the back of the house where the lake is.

  She’s done half a circuit of a slow stroll when she sees him, maybe twenty feet away. He’s sitting under a tree, making a daisy chain. She smiles instinctively at how odd the sight is, this gangly teenager in a geeky T-shirt and jeans, dark hair flopping over his face, concentrating so hard on something you only ever see little girls do, and then feels bad for smiling. She shouldn’t ever smile. For a moment she hesitates and thinks of turning to go back the other way, and then he looks up and sees her. After a pause, he waves. She’s got no choice but to go over, and she doesn’t mind. He’s the only one here who interests her. She’s heard him in the night. The screams and raving words that mainly make no sense. Clattering as he walks into things. The rush of the nurses to get him back to bed. These are familiar to her. She remembers it all herself. Night terrors.

  ‘You didn’t fancy group hugging on the moors then?’ she says.

  His face is all angles, as if he hasn’t quite grown into it yet, but he’s about her age, maybe a year older, eighteen or so, though he still has train-track braces on his teeth.

  ‘Nope. Not your thing either I take it?’ His words come out with the hint of a wet lisp.

  She shakes her head, awkward. She hasn’t started a conversation, simply for the sake of talking, with anyone since she got here.

  ‘I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to get too close to Mark. His ponytail must have lice growing in it. He wore the same shirt for three days last week. That is not a clean man.’

  She smiles then and lets it stay on her face. She hasn’t planned to linger, but she finds herself sitting down.

  ‘You’re the girl who paints fires,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen you in the Art room.’ He looks at her, and she thinks his eyes are bluer than David’s, but maybe that’s because his skin is so pale and his hair nearly black. He loops another daisy into the chain. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. Maybe you should paint water instead. It might be more therapeutic. You could tell them that the fire paintings represent your grief and what happened and the water paintings are you putting it all out. Washing it away.’ He talks quickly. His brain must think fast. Hers feels like treacle.

  ‘Why would I want to do that?’ she asks. She can’t imagine washing it all away.

  ‘So they stop hassling you to open up.’ He grins and winks at her. ‘Give them something and they’ll leave you alone.’

  ‘You sound like an expert.’

  ‘I’ve been to places like this before. Here, hold out your arm.’

  She does as she’s told and he slips the daisy chain bracelet over her hand. There’s no weight to it, unlike David’s heavy watch that hangs on her other wrist. It’s a sweet gesture, and for a brief second she forgets all her guilt and fear.

  ‘Thank you.’

  They sit in silence for a moment.

  ‘I read about you in the paper,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry about your parents.’

  ‘Me too,’ she says, and then wants to change the subject. ‘You’re the boy with the night terrors who sleepwalks.’

  He chuckles. ‘Yeah, sorry about that. I know I keep waking people up.’

  ‘Is it a new thing?’ she asks. She wonders if he’s like her. She would like to meet someone like her. Someone who’d understand.

  ‘No, I’ve always done it. As long as I can remember. That’s not why I’m here though.’ He pulls up his sleeve. Faded track marks. ‘Bad habits.’

  He leans back on his elbows on the grass, his legs stretched out in front of him, and she does the same. The sun is warm on her skin, and for the first time it doesn’t make her think of flames.

  ‘They think the drugs and my weird sleeping are connected,’ he says. ‘They keep asking me about my dreams. It’s so dull. I’m going to start making stuff up.’

  ‘A filthy sex dream about Mark,’ she says. ‘Maybe with that fat woman in the canteen who never smiles.’ He laughs, and she joins in, and it feels good to be talking normally to someone. Someone who isn’t worried about her. Someone who isn’t trying to unpick her.

  ‘They say you don’t want to sleep,’ he says, squinting over at her. ‘Because you were asleep when it happened and didn’t wake up.’ His tone is light. They could be talking about anything at all. TV shows. Music. Not the fire that killed her parents. The fire that finally put some heat into their house.

  ‘I thought they weren’t supposed to talk about us.’ She looks out at the glittering water. It’s beautiful. Mesmeric. It’s making her feel sleepy. ‘They don’t understand,’ she says.

  He chuckles again, a short snort. ‘That comes as no surprise. They strike me as thick as pigshit; one narrative for all. But what exactly in this instance don’t they understand?’

  A bird skims across the water, its slim beak cutting a slice through the surface. She wonders what it’s so keen to catch.

  ‘Sleep is different for me,’ she says, eventually.

  ‘How do you mean?’

  She sits up then, and looks at him. She thinks she likes him. Maybe there is a different way to deal with all this crap. A way that will help him too. She doesn’t say so, but this isn’t the first time she’s been in a place like this either. Sleep keeps bringing her back to therapy. First it was her sleepwalking and night terrors when she was eight, and now it’s her not wanting to sleep at all.

  Sleep, always sleep. Faux sleep, real sleep. The appearance of sleep.

  And at the centre of it all is the thing she can never tell them about. They would lock her up f
or ever if she did. She’s sure of it.

  ‘You make stuff up for them and keep them happy. And I’ll help you with your night terrors. I can help you way more than they can.’

  ‘Okay,’ he says. He’s intrigued. ‘But in return you have to paint some water pictures you don’t mean. It’ll be entertaining seeing them getting all gushy over themselves for saving you.’

  ‘Deal,’ she says.

  ‘Deal.’

  They shake on it, and in the sunlight the daisy centres glow gold. She leans back on the grass, enjoying the tickle of the bracelet on her arms, and they lie side by side in silence for a while, just enjoying the day with no one judging them.

  She’s made a friend. She can’t wait to tell David.

  8

  ADELE

  I’ve been awake since dawn, but haven’t moved. We’re both lying on our sides, and his arm has flopped over me and, despite my heartache, it feels good. The weight of it is protective. It reminds me of the early days. His skin is shiny smooth and hair-free where his scars run up his forearm. He keeps them hidden, but I like to see them. They remind me of who he really is, underneath everything. The man who braved fire to rescue the girl he loved.

  Through the gaps in the blinds, the sun has been cutting rough lines across the wooden floor since before six, and I know already that it’s going to be another beautiful day. Outside, at least. Under the weight of David’s arm, I mull over yesterday. Last night’s dinner at Dr Sykes’ was a success. In the main I find psychiatrists dull and predictable, but I was charming and witty and I know that they all loved me. Even the wives told David how lucky he was to have me.

  I’m proud of myself. Even though it had been hard to muster – I’d had to run five miles on the gym treadmill in the afternoon, and then hit the weights hard to calm myself down – I was in a visibly good mood when David had got home from work, and the exercise had added to that glow. The evening in company went triumphantly without a hitch, and our pretence at glorious happiness led us both to believe in it again for a short while. Last night we had sex for the first time in months, and even though it wasn’t quite the way I would like it, I made all the right noises and did my best to be warm and pliant. It felt so good to have him so close, to have him inside me, even if he didn’t meet my eyes once and was really quite drunk.

 
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