No 26 - 2005
She could feel the smoke going not only through her throat but down into her lungs; deeper even, into her abdomen as she tracked its progress. Then Nadia exhaled. Slowly, she counted to ten while her angst poured through her, and, she hoped, out of her with the smoke.
“Where is he?” she muttered, glancing quickly at her watch and then at the clock on the far wall above the kitchen sink, fingernails tapping an erratic beat on the kitchen table. She stared at the washing-up sponge, willing the powder green hues to fill her with calm. It didn’t work. Of course it didn’t work: her mind kept flicking back to Steve. “Where the hell is he? Does he even remember we’re having guests for dinner? Should I call him?” She was picking up her mobile phone when she remembered that the last time she tried it had just gone to voicemail.
Nadia lit another cigarette with the blue clipper lighter, pushing back her chair. She’d managed to sit still for a couple of minutes. She ran her hand over the dark, polished surface of the bare table as she stood looking around the kitchen. Ash dangled precariously from the end of her cigarette. She made her way over to the fridge, pushing a strand of hair back behind her left ear as she bent down slightly to open it. The bottles of Colombard were chilling nicely, the beer stood dripping dew drops. Glass bowls held diced courgette, carrots, long green beans with the ends sliced off and onions ready for a stir-fry. In another, slices of chicken breast lay in an olive oil, crushed garlic and fresh lemon juice marinade.
Another glance at her watch told her that there was still an hour before Greg and Susan were due to turn up. This soothed her frazzled nerves somewhat although it was small comfort.
Where was Steve? He’d said that he would be back by seven, hadn’t he? It was now half past. Pulling the cord of her terracotta robe tight around her waist, she wandered towards the bedroom.
Nadia sipped the refreshingly cold glass of wine she had no recollection of pouring. Sat down on the bed made only that morning, and twirled the stem of the glass with the fingers of both hands, her toes tapping the off-white cotton rug softly. She stared at the pale golden waves she was making in the confines of the glass before sighing and lifting it to her lips, draining it. The plaster swirls on the ceiling were making her dizzy so eventually after resting her eyes, she pushed herself off the bed. With a groan she trudged back to the fridge, the clock now telling her the obvious lie that it was just after nine pm. Her watch agreed.
The house was still empty. She wondered whether she had fallen asleep and slept right through the knocking. Poured a fresh glass of wine with fingers that trembled slightly. In the bathroom, as she had a long pee, she noticed gaps in the shower organiser; spaces which hadn’t been there before. Her glass bubble imploded; memory punched her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her.
“No..." she gulped out loud, wide-eyed; no tears eased her burning eyes. “No, Steve, no!”
“Not enough.” With two words he had shattered the thin ice beneath her feet, confirming what she had fought not to believe.
Standing in the rain, she gazed down the road for a glimpse of Steve’s navy blue Mazda. He hadn’t been back since chopping down the foundations from which her world had grown. The door had shut on him and his sports bag leaving her behind it in her four walled prison, not even having had time to change out of her work clothes. That was as long as he had waited, on the sofa, his bag between his legs, waiting to leave. Maybe someday when all this was just a memory she’d be able to look back and think kindly of him for doing at least that instead of leaving a note. Maybe.
Lank hair fought its way through her insistent fingers while she ruminated idly that she hadn’t washed in .... she couldn’t remember whether it was hours or days. When had that dinner party been? The dinner that never was. A flash of lightning illuminated her haggard skin, red eyes, slack, chewed lips. She tasted the coppery taste of blood and realised she had just bitten her lip again. Glancing down, her eyes were caught by the lamplight flickering in rivulets of water flowing down the road, over her feet and their scuffed, once scarlet nails. Nadia shivered in her robe, clutching it to her stomach. At least I can hold something together, she thought with a giggle verging on now familiar hysteria.
She awoke on a pungent pillow of bile. Consciousness and sobriety brought their demons with them. There was a drilling in her head which she eventually identified as construction work on the street outside. Blinding shards of sunlight sliced through gaps in the curtains as she dragged her face out of the carpet. She felt the skin of her face encrusted with stiffness. For the first time in perhaps days - maybe a week? - her head, although throbbing, felt clear. She needed coffee to calm the nausea even now rising with dry retches from her diaphragm.
On shaky legs, she dragged herself to the bathroom and oh thank whatever it is that exists, there was a plastic tub of ibuprofen. Swallowing two down with water cupped in palms from the sink, she forced her mind back into action.
The sitting room was strange and unfamiliar; devoid of life, reeking of neglect. She switched on the answering machine on her way to sprawl on the sofa. She seemed unable to stay standing without her head going into a nasty spin. Voices jumped out at her from what seemed like a lifetime ago. Cheerful voices, concerned voices, indignant voices. A mixture of relief and despair swirled within her that she had taken that transfer just over a year ago. No-one nearby to come and check on her - mixed blessing.
Empty cigarette packets littered surfaces in the room. Glasses with thriving mould perched on the mantelpiece, on the carpet, behind the sofa. The curtains were pulled closed but gaps allowed some daylight to frame the scene. She felt like a specimen in a morgue. Nadia looked down at herself, still in the filthy robe, cigarette burns visible in the flannel. Her fingernails were chewed to the quick. She looked shrivelled.
Shivering, she got up, wincing at the stabs of pain through her temples, and made her way into the kitchen. Finally, she found a cup in the mess on the counter and washed it. The effort was all too much so she sat heavily onto a chair for a breather. The weight of the work which lay before her held her there for long minutes, surveying the clutter in the sink, the piles of crisps and cereal in coagulated sculptures on the table, the smell of stale alcohol and cigarettes pervading everything. Tears rolled down her cheeks and she allowed the self-pity briefly before brushing them off angrily.
The freshly washed cup sat dripping, mocking her in its incongruous solidarity, giving her the much needed impetus to get up and forage for coffee.
While the kettle simmered, she wandered into their bedroom - her bedroom - to shed the dressing gown. Turned on the taps to start her bath running and poured generous globs of bath salts and gel in. Ignored everything else. It could wait until she was clean and strong again.
In the bath, a mug of aromatic coffee perched on the rug beneath her, her head sunken onto the base of the tub; pleasant aromas filled her nose and soothed her disused parts. She could envision her anguish evaporating in the citrus and sandalwood steam. Slowly she felt the scattered particles of her being reassembling. She shaved the neglect off her legs and from her armpits, bemused at her primal state. Scrubbed the soles of her feet, ran a gentle palm over her pubic mound and was shocked as well as relieved to feel a response. Scrubbed her scalp before submerging her entirety in the sudsy water. Time to get back to being me. She sat up with her arms wrapped around her bent knees. The intense relief in seeing some light at the end of this tunnel made her cry again, but with hope.
The buzzing of the doorbell startled her out of a languorous sleep. She rolled over, reluctant to move, the fact that someone was actually at her door did not register at first. When it did, she sat up in alarm, willing it to stop. It shrilled again. Terrified, Nadia pulled on her new kimono robe - the red towelling robe along with a host of other items had been trashed when she’d turned the house upside down, exorcising from it her pathos.
She opened the door of her freshly lavender-scented living room to find Steve - whole and three dimensional - on the other side. Hope welled upon a wave which crashed ignominiously onto shore as she saw behind and beyond him to the silver Astra out front, engine still running, a mixed race girl with myriad plaits huddled over the steering wheel.
“I’ve come for the rest of my things,” Steve’s voice broke in on her stunned reverie.
“What things?” she asked with genuine astonishment, pulling her kimono tighter about her, shielding her fragile new skin from his gaze. She gestured to the minimalist cream serenity behind her.
“What about my - ?"
“I cleared everything out, Steve. Nothing here belongs to you any more.”
She saw the shadow that crossed over his brow at her words. Then he smiled. “You’re looking well.”
And she wondered if he’d been into the house while she’d been passed out somewhere on the sofa or floor or bed. And how many times.
“We will need to talk about the house though, Nadia. But it doesn’t have to be today.” He smiled again, a hint of regret lingering in his eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” She caught his subconscious glance back to the car and the girl’s probing, worried eyes. Noticed the lines disappear from his face as he smiled at her.
She flinched from the hand he was now reaching toward her and from the proximity of his body. “Looks like you need to go.” She closed the door in his bemused face, then tottered over to the glass coffee table where her cigarettes lay next to the ceramic ashtray. Lit one and breathed in deeply, the ice in her veins slowly defrosting. She had been back at work for a week and even out with work mates on a couple of evenings. Had been pushing forward. All the cotton was now pulled out of her ragdoll frame and what about the house? What did he mean by that? She had to prepare, see a lawyer or something.
Her eyes dart from corner to corner, seeking out a resting place; a focus. Blurring through a fog of hysteria they find none. At last she closes them, her fingers relaxing from their fists. Steve lies in the growing patch of viscous blackening red on the cream carpet.
She feels the essence of him trickling out between her legs and squeezes them tighter together, fury resurging in her temples. The chair rocks beneath her clasping fingers, a smile easing the creases from her brow as she remembers his smile. Cold sweat evaporates from her skin as she hums, eyes still squeezed shut, the image of the special look Steve always gave her in her mind, the feel of his arms around her still strong. It dissolves despite her will and she sees instead the look in his eyes as he hugs her to him, replete, telling her softly that he is selling the house to set up a new life with Kristen. He says sorry, he hadn’t meant to sleep with her, Nadia; he hadn’t been able to help himself. But it was a mistake. He knows she understands. Doesn’t she? He doesn’t feel her akin turn to ice, her brain a maelstrom of conflict. She doesn’t know she’s picked up the scissors from the bedside table until they penetrate his flesh. His fingers twitch on the skin of her breast, fear and confusion in the eyes now pinned to her own. Things blur and now she is in her rocking chair, Steve still on the carpet where they had consummated his fate.
The frown creeps back onto her face, the corners of her mouth turning down in solidarity. Nadia rocks, bobbing on the waves of her memory. She rocks, eyes clenched shut, head back against the chocolate brown cushion. Flecks of dark red decorate the kimono she doesn’t recall putting on. She feels the chemicals finally coursing through her bloodstream and smiles with peace. Her fingers relax their hold. The fury evaporates. She is free.
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