Behind Her Eyes, p.8Sarah Pinborough
God, I’m such an idiot. I should never have let things get this far with Adele. But what am I supposed to do about it now? I can’t just walk out. I need to stay for lunch as agreed. And I like her. She’s sweet. Not aloof or stuck-up at all.
‘Here it is!’
I follow her into the kitchen, which is about as big as my entire flat, and probably cost as much. The granite surfaces have a polished gleam, and I can’t see a single ring or stain from a coffee drip. Adele holds up the little black Nokia. It looks so wrong in this luxurious house. Why does she have such a crappy old phone? And why the panic to get home?
‘Are you okay?’ I ask. ‘What’s the big deal about missing a call? Is it something important?’
‘Oh, it’ll sound stupid.’ Her shoulders hunch in a little, and she focuses on filling the kettle from the filter jug to avoid looking at me. ‘It’s David. He worries if I don’t answer when he rings.’
I’m confused. ‘How do you know he’s going to ring?’
‘Because he calls at the same times every day. He worries, that’s all.’
My discomfort at being in their home, my pang of feelings for David, both evaporate as I stare at her. This beautiful, elegant young woman, rushing home in a panic to take a call from her husband? ‘You have to be at home when he calls you? How often is that?’
‘It’s not how it sounds,’ she says, her eyes pleading with me. ‘Just a couple of times a day. And I have the mobile, so now I don’t have to be at home.’ Is it panic she’s feeling or fear? It’s like a slap in the face. What do I really know about David anyway? One drunken evening, and from that I built a whole character for him. A fantasy. I remember his bad mood yesterday. That wasn’t part of how I imagined him either. But then neither was being married.
‘Good,’ I say, folding my arms. ‘Because it sounds more than a little bit crazy and controlling.’
She flushes and puts some peppermint teabags in a china pot. ‘He likes to know I’m okay, that’s all.’
‘Why?’ I ask. ‘You’re a grown woman.’ The phone peals out and we both start slightly. ‘Maybe you should ignore it. Call him back later.’
She looks at me then, a glare full of jittery nerves, and I feel bad. It’s not my business. I smile. ‘I’m only kidding. I’ll stay quiet.’
She rushes out into the corridor, the handset already pressed to her ear, and when the kettle finishes boiling I pour it into the pot. I can’t hear every word, but if I listen hard I can get some of it. Now I really do feel like an intruder, but I can’t help it. I’m too curious. It’s so weird. David may be a few years older than her, but not enough to turn him into some kind of father figure. Her voice drifts in to me.
‘I didn’t forget. I’ll take it now. I only just got back from the gym, that’s all. No, everything’s fine. I’m making tea. I love you.’
What’s in that voice? Is she fearful? Fine? Awkward? It’s so hard to tell. Maybe it’s the way they normally speak to each other. I’m contemplating opening the back door and going for a quick smoke when she comes back in. I haven’t heard one laugh while she’s been on the phone, but she looks more relaxed.
‘I filled the pot,’ I say.
‘Great.’ She’s not going to talk any more about the call, and I don’t ask. ‘Grab some plates from that cupboard there and there’s a bunch of hummus and cold meats and some wonderful stuffed peppers in the fridge.’
While I’m distracted by the wealth of deliciousness stacked in their huge stainless steel Smeg, she gets some pitta breads from the bread bin and then furtively opens the cupboard above. I glance over my shoulder and then stop.
‘Wow, that’s some pill cupboard.’
‘Oh, I have some anxiety issues.’ She shuts it quickly. ‘Naturally nervous, I guess. That’s why I like the gym so much. It helps me burn it all out.’
‘How many do you take a day?’ There were a lot of pill packets stacked up, and I can’t help but think that much medication doesn’t do anyone any good.
‘Only one or two. Whatever David prescribes. I’ll take them later. After some food.’
I’m making her feel uncomfortable, but my face has always been an open book. She seems pretty normal to me. What doesn’t seem normal are the phone calls and the pills. And prescribed by her husband? I’m not even sure what the ethics of that are. Suddenly I don’t want to be here at all. None of this has been a good idea. I’d imagined they lived in some wonderful perfect marriage, but now, even after seeing this beautiful home, I’m not envious. I’m not even envious of Adele with all her beauty and elegance. Not really. The house feels like a gilded cage. What can she possibly find to do all day? My life might be an exhausting round of routines, but at least I’m busy.
‘Let’s take this all outside and enjoy the sunshine,’ she says, and I figure the subject is closed for now.
The food is delicious, and I’m starving after the gym, and what’s even better is that Adele doesn’t eat as I’d imagined. I thought she’d be one of those ‘Oh I’m full’ after three mouthfuls of salad women, but instead she tucks in as heartily as I do. It doesn’t take long until we’ve demolished most of what we brought out, and Adele has to go in for more bread.
‘Why don’t you have children?’ I blurt the question out. I can’t see why they wouldn’t. They’ve got money, she doesn’t work, and they’ve been together a long time.
Adele sips her tea before answering. ‘We haven’t wanted them at the same time, I guess. David did, early on, and I wasn’t ready. Now it’s the other way around.’
‘The body clock kicking in?’ I ask.
‘Maybe. A little.’ She shrugs. ‘But we’re very focused on his career.’
‘He might be, but you must get bored.’ I don’t know why I’m asking all this. I don’t know why I want to help her, but I do. There’s something vulnerable about her.
‘I cook. I clean the house myself. I hate the idea of someone coming in and doing that. I like to be a traditional wife, I suppose. I just like to make him happy.’
I really don’t know what to say about that, and I feel sweat prickle under my thighs. While she’s at home cooking, cleaning, and going to the gym to keep herself perfect, he’s out getting drunk and snogging chubby single mums with baggage.
‘Oh God, I forgot!’ She’s up on her feet and darting inside, gazelle-swift, and I wonder What now? Some other David-instilled regime she’s missed? What the hell goes on in this house? But then she’s back outside, beaming, and clutching an old exercise book. ‘I meant to give it to you at the gym and then with the phone thing it slipped my mind. It’s to help with your night terrors.’
How the hell did she remember those? I mentioned them over coffee, sure, but only in passing.
‘I used to get them as well. Terrible ones. David tried to help in his own way, he gave me a book from a charity shop on the power of dreaming, but I ended up having to have therapy and everything.’
‘When your parents died?’ An awful prickle of understanding comes to me.
‘No, before that. When I was very young. After my parents died I had other sleep issues, but that’s a whole different story. How long have you had them? Have you seen anyone about it?’
I feel a bit gut-punched. God, look at me and Adele. Same night terrors. Same poor taste in men.
‘Since I was little,’ I say, forcing myself to be airy. ‘Like you I guess. My mum took me to the doctor, but apparently I was supposed to grow out of them. Instead, I just got used to them. Was a killer with boyfriends. I’d be wandering around with my eyes open like a crazy person from a horror film, and then when they tried to wake me up, I’d hit them and then burst into terrible bouts of tears.’ I smile, although the memories aren’t that funny. Ian found it so tiresome. I still think maybe that’s part of why we broke up. ‘I did go back to a doctor, but he said they couldn’t be proper night terrors because I remembered them, so I was left to kind of get on with it. Sleeping pills help a bit, but they make me feel like shit
I don’t add and I have some wine every night. She doesn’t need to know that. It’s not as if I get drunk every night. There’s no real harm in one or two glasses, whatever they say. It works for the French. I don’t want to think about France. Pregnant.
‘That doctor was wrong,’ Adele says. ‘Some people do remember their night terrors. People like you and me. Do you know how rare we are?’
I’ve never seen her this animated. She’s focused on me. Intent. Her back straight. I shake my head. I’ve never really given it much thought. It’s just part of who I am.
‘Less than one per cent of adults have night terrors, and only a tiny per cent of those remember them. People like you and me.’ She smiles, pure happiness. ‘How remarkable that two people in that tiny amount have found each other!’
She looks so joyful that I have another wave of guilt. I should get home. Back to my own life and out of hers. I don’t want her help. But I am curious. She said she had problems with anxiety, not sleep. If she’s like me, then I’d have thought sleep would be top of her list. I look at the thin notebook on the table between us.
‘So how will this help?’
‘You need to learn to control your dreams.’
I laugh then, I can’t help myself. It sounds like new age meditation shit, and I’m a born cynic. ‘Control them?’
‘It’s what I did. I know it sounds silly, but it changed my life. Take the notebook. Read it. Trust me, if you put the effort in then no more night terrors and just amazingly vivid dreams of your choosing. Lucid dreaming.’
I pick up the book and glance at the first page. The words are neatly printed and underlined.
Pinch myself and say I AM AWAKE once an hour.
Look at my hands. Count my fingers.
Look at clock (or watch), look away, look back.
Stay calm and focused.
Think of a door.
‘Is this yours?’ I flick through. There are some pages of scrawled writing, the neatness obviously lost after that first page, and then towards the back lots of sheets of paper have been torn out. It’s not exactly well-loved.
‘No,’ she says. ‘It belonged to someone I used to know. But it’s part me. I was there when he learned how to do it.’
‘Pinch myself and say I’m awake? Every hour? You want me to go around this place doing that? Like we don’t have enough people thinking we’re crazy.’
‘Then it won’t matter.’
‘If you say so.’
‘And what’s with the fingers?’
The spot by the river under the tree has become theirs, and while the spell of weather holds they spend their free time there, happily lazing under the branches in the warmth.
‘Your hands look different when you’re dreaming. I learned all about it in a book David gave me when I was little. My parents took it away from me – they said it was rubbish, I think David did too a little bit – but it wasn’t. It taught me everything I’m going to teach you.’ She’s almost content, and although the moments like this are fleeting and she’s still filled with grief and guilt that she hasn’t dealt with yet, they are definitely more frequent. Becoming friends with Rob has saved her from herself. He’s bringing her back to life.
‘They’re right about you,’ Rob says. ‘You are crazy.’
She swats at him and laughs. ‘It’s true. You’ll see. Same with the time. Time is never consistent in a dream. Clocks change faster.’
‘I am awake.’ He smiles at her. ‘See? I’m doing it.’ He wiggles his fingers and stares at them.
‘You don’t have to do it all at the same time.’
‘If I’m going to look like a mental,’ Rob says, ‘then I intend to look like a proper mental.’
Adele looks at her own hands, dry blue paint under her nails, David’s watch face glinting in the sunlight. Rob was right, and the nurses are pleased with her new water art – if it can be called that – but it’s not helping her lay her family to rest. Instead, she’s found she imagines the old disused well in the woods at the back of her parents’ house. She sees herself standing beside it and pouring her past into it. Maybe one day she’ll find it metaphorically full, and then she can cover it over and move on. Maybe then she’ll sleep. Like she used to. She’s missing that time behind her own eyes. It’s a part of her, and guilt isn’t enough to shut it off completely.
‘Just do it, Rob,’ she says. ‘You’ll thank me.’
‘Okay, okay. Only for you though.’ He winks at her and they smile at each other, and the warmth isn’t only from the sunshine, but from within her for a moment too.
My guilt over taking a fake sickie is totally washed away by the tidal wave of sadness when Adam leaves for the month, racing out of the flat with the casual hurt that only children can inflict in their excitement. As soon as the door is closed behind him, our tiny flat feels too big and too empty. Like everyone’s moved out and left me behind. I don’t know what to do with myself. I prowl around the flat until I can no longer ignore the lure of the wine bottle. As I reach for the corkscrew I see where I threw the notebook Adele gave me into the drawer. I stare at it for a long moment before taking it out.
On the inside cover of the book, high up in the corner, a name is carefully printed. ROBERT DOMINIC HOYLE, and those words interest me more than the list of instructions on the opposite page. ‘Pinch myself and say I AM AWAKE once an hour.’ I ignore these for now – but at least these are things I can do at home – and stare at the stranger’s name. I’ve always loved books with names hand-written in them, like those you pick up in charity shops that were once gifts and have greetings scribbled on the inside, whole stories hidden behind a few words, and this one is no different. Who is this boy? Are Adele and David still friends with him? Did he think that this whole thing was as stupid as I do when Adele first tried to help him?
I turn the page and expect it to be more instructions, but the scribbles, tight spiky writing in Biro that doesn’t entirely stay within the lines, are more than that. A record of attempts I think. I open the wine, pour a large glass, and settle back, curious at this time capsule of writing, this snippet of Adele’s past, and start to read.
If I keep pinching myself like a twat then my arms are going to be so bruised the nurses are going to think I’m using again (I fucking wish) but at least it’s marking off the hours in this shit place. Two days of counting my fingers and looking at clocks and pinching the shit out of myself and nothing. Adele says I have to be patient. At least she says it with a smile. I’m not good at patience. I am good at making her laugh though. She makes me laugh too. Thank fuck for Adele. Without her this do-goody up its own arse place would be enough to make me throw myself in the lake with boredom. I did fucking rehab. Don’t know why they had to send me here and punish me twice. So typical of fucking Ailsa. It’s free so do it. I’m sure she talked the doctor into referring me so I wouldn’t clutter up the flat and she could shag whoever whenever.
Adele is different. I’m only trying this shit for her. The dreams don’t really bother me, I like them sometimes in a twisted way. They make me feel more alive than I do in my real life. Sometimes that feels like walking through water. Everyone’s dull. Everyone’s predictable. Everyone’s out for themselves. Me included, but then what do people expect? Have they seen where I fucking live? People are inevitably shit and deserve to be treated as such. Not Adele though. Adele is properly beautiful inside and out. Of course now I’ve written that she can never see this book. I don’t want her laughing at me. I may be funny and clever but I know I’m also skinny and spotty and have these stupid braces on my teeth. She wouldn’t get it. She’d think I wanted to fuck her (which I really don’t). I guess I just don’t like most people. Most people don’t even exist to me, not in any real way, but I like Adele. I like being around her. I’m happy around her and my skin does
When the doorbell goes, I get up so fast I nearly knock over whatever’s left in the bottle of wine by my feet. The notebook is instantly forgotten as I race out of the sitting room. It’s Adam, it’s got to be. He’s changed his mind. He doesn’t want to go away for a month after all, and, crying and kicking, he’s demanded Ian bring him home. To me. His mother. Mummy. The centre of his universe. Despite the over-excited squeals he was making when he left at five thirty, Paddington clutched under his arm, I’ve so convinced my tipsy brain that it’s going to be him coming home that when I open the door, all I can do is stare, confused.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘It’s you.’
It’s not Adam. It’s David. David is at my front door, leaning against the frame as if it’s holding him up. My eyes are seeing him, but my brain is struggling to believe it. David is here.
‘You called in sick. I thought I’d check on you.’ He looks awkward, but that somehow makes him better looking, and I’m suddenly very very aware of the glass of wine in my hand. What the hell is he doing here? Why would he come here? Why haven’t I got make-up on? Why is my hair a mess? And why, like an idiot, do I care?
Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes