Gargling with Gravel was published in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2012

He gets up earlier then me, shuffles around softly. Thinks I cannot hear but how can I sleep? It’s barely light and our bedroom is still grey, a light tapping on the window suggests rain. He zips up his trousers as I roll on my side, offering my back.

     Oh God, the meal last night, James’s boss and his wife. Did I accuse James of flirting with the waitress or did I ask about the new receptionist at work? James, flushed cheeks, biting his bottom lip. His boss’s face blank, his wife, Beth, a subservient name which suits her, fucking powder blue cardigan and neat pearls around her neck. Her nostrils flaring in disgust. Shame hits my chest and my stomach. I can hear the kettle boiling, my mouth feels as if I have been gargling with gravel. Does she work in his office, is it the girl on the front desk? I wouldn’t blame him, slutty red lips and heels that stab. My heart. Or worse, someone older with a degree and an office of her own. They have sex on her desk.

     James creeps in carrying a cup of coffee, he places it down tenderly on my bedside table. My eyes, bloodshot and pleading forgiveness. He doesn’t speak but he kisses my forehead and closes the door behind him. I hear the front door clunk shut and the powerful surge of a motor come to life, as James drives away, leaving me.

     I fill the kettle and peer onto the street. Cars still parked affluently on the driveways. The husbands haven’t left for work, nor have their wives. The house prices too high for young families on one income. Nothing flashy, discreet and understated, from the highlights in the hair of the women to the glinting cuff links in their men’s sleeves. Groomed.

     The kettle boils and I pat my hair, matted together with roots that a badger would envy. Coffee, strong and bitter, to stand a spoon up in, to stop the clock and wind it backwards. My hands shake and hot liquid spills. “Shit.” I run my hand under the cold tap, my mind scrapes up the past. What happened to the earnest young woman who swore she’d never drink?

     I open the fridge, I need to eat. It’s empty apart from half a carton of milk and an unopened bottle of wine. Bloody pathetic, I can’t even keep the fridge stocked. I pull on a coat and leave the house, catching a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. My face the ghost of Christmas past, of all my past etched in deepening lines. No make-up and my hair a nest for vipers. It’s only around the corner, I’ll walk. I think I may be still over the limit. My dad never drunk and drove.

     My dad, always a big hit at parties, spending money at the pub, buying every sod who claimed to be his friend a drink. “Money we don’t have. That’s your new school shoes gone down someone’s throat.” I didn’t want to hear my mum complain about him, he was my dad, my hero. Years later when mum got sick I took over the role of picking him up at closing time. I’d find him alone, sitting on a bar stool, not a friend in sight. Friend? What friend would take advantage of a roaring alcoholic? Seeing my dad, tie loose around his neck, face flushed with booze singing ‘My Funny Valentine’, broke my young heart.

     When mum died, I looked after him. He no longer drank but you could see the damage. Sometimes he’d wander off, wearing only his striped pajamas, if I forgot to put the latch on. Once I found him swaying on the curb of the arterial road, gusts from the semi-trailers like dragons breath filled with dust. My dad inches from death.

     “Come on, Daddy. Let’s go home.”

     “Is that you Jean?” I’d nod a lie. I miss him every single day, whereas my mother, my good saintly mother, buttoned up to her chin, only slips into my memory occasionally.

     I return with the essentials. The man who runs the shops had raised his eyebrows. “Big night was it?” What makes an alcoholic? How many drinks does it take? How early in the day do you start, because it’s 8.30 in the morning and I’d bloody love a restorative red, the hair of the dog that bit me.

     I have to find something to fill the day, harder since I was sacked. Then I managed to hold it together until five o’clock, wine o’clock, all of us off to the Elephant Bar. The women matching the men, drink for drink, no one more than me.

     “For a beautiful woman, you can be so ugly.” James said one time he’d picked me up. He must have had a call from Steve, my boss. I had no idea what I had said or done that night, and many others if I’m honest, parts of my life stolen or given away. I gladly swapped fragments of time for the path to oblivion.

     After a few drinks I transformed into a sharp, urbane and witty woman, happy to be centre stage. For a sliver of time it worked, before I became a monster with black lips and teeth stained from the sediment at the bottom of my glass, diluted blood running in my veins. Screaming like a hag at James because another woman, a nicer, kinder woman than me, had smiled at him in sympathy.

     I line the shelves of the fridge with bread and milk. There’s the bottle cooling in the door. Will one sip leave a mark or go unnoticed?

     Should I scour the shower to keep my hands busy? Wipe the mould from the tiles, sweep the grit from the kitchen floor. The phone rings and I let it as I look at the bright shiny photo frames holding pictures of me and James. They grace the walls and sit on the mantelpiece, hopeful faces, clear eyes and bright smiles. I pick up our wedding photo. We are toasting the camera with glasses of champagne, our future. I throw it to the floor. It hits the tiles and small fragments fly. A shard sliver of glass in the side of my foot, blood seeps. I bend down unsteadily to pull it out, there is blood on the cream carpet.

     I press a band aid to my wound, sit in the chair with my foot up on the ottoman, remote in hand. I watch Days of our Lives with the sound turned down and the telephone rings again. Five months since the CEO of Richardson Brokers marched me from my window office after a lunchtime session in the pub. I clung to a thirsty pot plant and a small box containing Dido cd’s, shouting obscenities, making threats. I walked to the corner and burst into tears. Poor James. He married a sweet girl from the suburbs who’d turned herself into a festering pile of unresolved issues.

     I turn the television off, hobble to the kitchen, open the fridge. A half decent New Zealand white, buttery to the taste. Its frosted glass shows a slight yellow colour, like my skin. The chill would touch my throat like an icy hand stroking. Hitting my stomach with a buzz of well-being but I know it’s a lie. I slam the fridge door and take the stairs two at a time. In our bedroom I gulp the air and when I am calmer, take a couple of sleeping pills. I drift off to the sound of a telephone ringing.

     I wake hours later, cotton wool head. I roll onto my back and the ceiling stares back, saying nothing. I feel my forehead with clammy hands. I need to feel cold air on my body but not I decide the shock of icy wine flooding me. I am still dressed in jeans and a thin jumper. My foot, sticky with blood, the band aid stuck to the sheet. Dried blood gets caught in the carpet tufts, pulling the wound to gaping.

     On the back step I overlook the patch of grass we optimistically call the garden. My breath clouds on the breeze, reminds me of cigarette smoke. As a child I would pretend to blow smoke from a pencil clutched in my hand. I don’t hear the car pull up but I hear James.

     “Bloody house. It feels like a crypt. Hope? Where are you?”

     Kind of ironic but my mother named me because I was hers. Hope. Bless her, she had it in short supply.

     “I’m here, James. The back step.”

     He strides in, coat still on. “Hope, I’ve been ringing. Why didn’t you answer?”

     The tears I have held onto are finally let go, they run in lines and drip from my chin. My arms clasp my knees and I rock from side to side. I look up into his white face and his eyes full of concern, not disgust. “James. I need help.”

     He doesn’t smile, he sits down beside me, holds me in his arms and cries with me.


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