CAST ADRIFT

I sat on the basic metal bed in small boxy room, swinging my legs. From time to time a kind-looking young nurse would pop his head in to check I hadn’t fashioned a noose out of the hospital sheets. The very bottom, I couldn’t fall any lower.
I had lain in those sheets this morning, listening to the breakfast bell and the shuffle of slippers on tiles. Unfamiliar voices echoed down the corridor. A new patient, like me, made several telephone calls on the phone in the passage. He sounded normal, some of his words washed over me. He didn’t think he should be here, amongst these people. His disdain of them, as if he were different, a superior being who had been led to the wrong place. It had all been a mistake. I knew exactly how he felt.
I spotted an empty light fitting. I wondered if it was actually a camera, watching me, checking I didn’t find something in this spartan room with which to do myself in. The room was painted a light grey and housed only a single hospital bed, a card table next to it and a narrow wooden wardrobe, with a small chipped mirror set into it.
The lunch bell came and went. I couldn’t bring myself to leave this room. Terrified by what I might say to these strangers? A dried up husk, the real Lucinda had left some time ago, leaving a scary woman in charge of the children.
Late afternoon, still lying, hiding in my cell. Wearing the hospital gown they had put me in when I had arrived the day before; comatose from the tablets I had swallowed. To be so near to the all the activity of the ward and yet cowering in this space, hoping to become as invisible as I felt. Eventually the kind-faced nurse returned, the doctor had asked to see me. My husband and children had come to see me, they were waiting in the visiting room. David had brought my clothes, but no make-up, and none of the clothes matched. A bag packed in a hurry.
I left the sanctuary of my room, a cocoon, a womb-like place where I had been curled up for nearly 24 hours. Hair wild and matted, it had been wet when David had lifted me, unconscious, from the bath at home. I knew I looked like the crazy woman I had become. A young man in the corridor, inmate or staff I couldn’t tell, gave me a sympathetic smile.
“It’s the boredom that gets you.” He winked and went off in search of a light for his cigarette. Lighters and matches were convascated at the door, along with aerosol sprays, sharp objects and dressing gown cords.
The doctors, three of them, looked serious. A kind one, a judgmental one and a third one distracted. The kind one explained patiently to my muddled mind that although I had volunteered to be in this place I was to be kept here for one week. Sectioned. A horrible word conjuring images of old black and white films with creepy asylums and people who bite.
The visit with my family took place the other side of the locked security doors.
“No place for children.” The officious nurse guarding the front desk told me, deepening my guilt, already a hollow and cavernous place, filled with dark thoughts and desperate acts. How could I explain how I had got this far to anyone who hadn’t been this side of hell?
At last I manage to join the slow procession to dinner, following the waft of overcooked cabbage down the passage to the dining room. Cautiously I looked around me. The strip lighting showing faces in an unforgiving light. No soft focus here, sharp lines and sallow profiles steeped in sorrow. I saw the young man who had spoken to me earlier, chatty and jumping with nerves, all elbows and jerks. A woman, once beautiful, her long blonde hair now brittle and faded. Her face no longer adored but fixed with an expression of defeat. She was cutting the meat of a young man seated next to her, a boy, shaking too much to complete the task himself.
After dinner and medications I retreat to my womb-room and lay back on the bed. I imagine I am lying on my back in a boat, floating to the middle of a lake. Floating away from sounds and distractions. Only thought remains. Are we all floating on our separate boats, colliding occasionally, our crafts connecting? Reaching out with hands outstretched, fingers touching, momentarily and floating past, separate once more.
During the night a torch intrudes on my slumber every hour or so. Night nurses on suicide watch. It’s never dark here. I wedge my coat against the nightlight with a chair. I feel I’m in an incubator, a human experiment.
The meals are bland but our life revolves around them. Nothing else to do. The piano is played briefly by one woman, who assaults you with a barrage of words if you make eye-contact. She plays the same two bars of the same tune over and over at different times throughout the day.
By the second evening we are starting to gather outside in the cold, night air. Smokers for their fix and non-smokers for company. Not wanting to be left alone with the piano-woman. Fragments of our lives fall from our lips.
Greg, the nervy one, selling himself on the streets of Sydney from the age of 14. The long history of drug abuse which he recovered from with the help of an abusive partner. One addiction swapped for another. He never stops trying to make us laugh. He needs a captivated audience to give himself validity.
“Lucinda, what brings a nice girl like you to a place like this?” Elaine, the faded beauty, speaks between draws on her cigarette.
I’d dreaded the question, no point evading it. We were not here because of our smooth, comforting lives.
“Overdose”. I cough wretchedly.
“Me too.” She smiles, sadly conspiring. “First time?”
“Second”. I admit.
“Fifth time for me. I can’t even get that right.” A hollow laugh emits smoke and steam from her open mouth. A former showgirl, once a beautiful peacock. Now she has three ex-husbands and a daughter she hadn’t seen for ten years.
A quiet man sitting on the edge of the group speaks softly. “I’d had enough. Battling with the ex over the kids and all. I drove out to the cliff top at the bay, you know that popular suicide spot? Well, I stood there windswept and expecting to jump for half an hour.”
“What happened?” It was Greg who spoke, for all of us.
“I remembered a lad I went to school with. His mum jumped off the Skillion, same place. Stuffed his life up. I thought of my kids and I couldn’t do it.”
Quiet again, each alone with thoughts of the journey that had brought us here.
We had our laughs as well, over the days in confinement. Outwardly groaning and eyes being thrown heavenward in mock dread when Iris hit those piano keys, shared disgust at the meals served, Saturday night spent over cups of tea and monopoly.
A strange young wild girl called Anna arrived in the night, hyped-up and non-stop chatter. Two days into her stay she disappeared over the wall. Caught up by the police and put into maximum security next door. A lovely middle-aged man, a barber, tried to hang himself in the shower with his own sweatshirt. He ended up in the same place.
When my time was up I hugged my new found friends tightly and wished them luck. Unspoken promises of not meeting again. Who would want to remember this week of our lives? Elaine had support now to leave a man she didn’t love, Greg a stint in re-hab lined up. Me, well I didn’t want to ever be in a place like that again. Life was frightening but its unpredictability, sacred.

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AFTER YOU. NO, AFTER YOU

I had to ring my son’s school this morning to clarify something. It was a perfectly reasonable request to find out more information and work out which form went where and how much do I pay. Sporting event, you know the drill. I found myself saying things like ‘I’m sorry to bother you.’ And ‘I’m not very good with forms’ and even a ‘silly me’.

Sorry to bother you – the woman works in the school office. She’s used to being bothered, she’s even paid for it. I’m not very good with forms. What do I eat them instead of filling them in. Have a panic attack every time my sons bring one home. And as for silly me – am I a little girl being told off by matron? No. I’m a woman who’s approaching fifty with a whole wealth of experience. Of using the telephone, having adult conversations and yes. Filling in forms.

I was wondering if this is an English thing, a woman thing or just a me-thing. I swear I came out of the womb apologising. “Oh excuse me Mrs. I hope I didn’t cause you too much pain. I’ll try and make it up to you by not waking you in the night for the next five years.”

Possibly it came from my parents who were huge on being polite and deferential. There were so many rules. Give up your seat to someone younger, older, fatter, thinner than you. Walk on the outside of the path, nearest the scary road with the big lorries, so other people can walk on the inside and be safe from certain death or a least a puddle being splattered all over them. This was when I was five. It just got worse after that. Let everyone choose from the tray of cakes first, even if you are left with rock cake while all the others are now tucking into chocolate éclairs and meringues. You have done the right thing and you should be proud.

Please and thank-yous – I was trapped in their merciless prison. The first six or seven things I said to anyone especially grown-ups, was ‘please, thank you, please, thank you, please.’ Quite frankly it made me a right pain in the arse. Would the stuttering child with an attack of over-politeness please stand up! But of course I couldn’t. I was too shy, too nervous of getting it wrong. So I hid at the back.

I was prone to tears and would always stand at the back so as not to draw attention to myself. I’m surprised I didn’t wet myself but the fear of bottle green tights was the dominant fear. Then everyone would know and perhaps I would have an unfortunate nickname, like pissy pants, which would stretch into adulthood.

Nervous-Nerys turned into Wilma-Worry. In the old days it was straightforward things like will I fart in front of my gorgeous new boyfriend, will my hair get any curlier? Does everyone’s intimate body parts look like this? To bigger things such as being so terrified of falling under the train that I might just jump as a way of getting the ordeal out of the way. I should have started therapy earlier.

All those worries paled into insignificance when I had my first child. This tiny scrap of human life was completely dependent on me for his very survival. Holy crap. There was so much that could go wrong. There was no instruction booklet. Scrap that. There were zillions of books that all had conflicting advice. I liked the pictures in Miriam Stoppard’s books but she was even scarier than my parents. “To get your child to eat his or her dinner, make the different items of food into an interesting scene. A smiley face, a flower or a scaled down model of the Houses of Parliament.”

I read all sorts of stuff. When despite breast feeding my baby, the clinic advised me to feed my child water. He didn’t like it so the nurse suggested putting sugar in the water. I didn’t like the sound of that so I read a health magazine, I read a lot of those in those days, which suggested using honey instead. That sounded good but I was out of honey. Next time I visited the clinic the nurse said that children shouldn’t be fed honey until they are one years old because of botulism. I had nearly inadvertently poisoned my baby.

The list went on. SIDS, sharing the bed with your cherub, let alone dropping them. We had a three story house with open plan stairs. Well, he survived. So did his brother. But I lost touch with my sanity somewhere along the line.

Anyway, I’m off for a coffee. If that’s okay with you. Thank you, thank you. (Moving deferentially from the room so as not to turn my back to you).

CODE OF FRIENDSHIP

A dark night on the festival of lanterns, the black cold of June twinkling like tiny fingers. Lanterns glow, painted and oiled, held in the small hands of children. Colours stream under the moonlight, whilst others lurk in shadows. The stalls sell exotic sweets or hot pastries and the aroma dances on the breeze. Glow in the dark necklaces, perfect circles around perfect necks. What a wonderful scene for murder. Blood seeping under the door, leaking into this winter tableau.
I can’t stop, not now and I feel no guilt, she always steals from me. The code, anything goes, except each others boyfriends. I reach the plush entrance hall, smelling of new carpet and paint. The walls in duck egg blue, a colour to calm, I am not calm. The lift doors open and I enter, press the number seven. Seven, lucky number, lucky Fleur. It’s quiet, there’s no one around.

He shopped at the same greengrocers where I went after work, looking to buy something for dinner, something last minute for a single girl. I’d seen him a few times. Tall with black hair, blue eyes. He looked shy but not awkward. He looked at me but he did not speak.
“Hi. You live around here?”
He looked startled. Was that too strong? “Yes. Just moved here, for work.” He held out a hand. “Drew.”
“Bridget. What do you do?”
“I’m a journalist.”
The beginning, a beautiful man and me, chatting over onions. Layers that bring out tears, should have seen it coming.

I got up and made myself a coffee, hungry but unable to keep anything down. As I sat at my kitchen table, lights off, only the grey light of pre-dawn for company. I could make it look like suicide. Crush pills and put them in her drink. Then push more down her throat when she became drowsy. Weed killer. I would tell her it was a new herbal brew. For strength, the one thing that Fleur always lacked. Like most beautiful things she was delicate, she wouldn’t be hard to snuff out.
Night falls around me, red and white, scarlet and pearly, blood-stained tiles. Images of half-baked plans of murder.

I asked Drew to go for a drink with me. He shrugged which I took as a yes. We arranged to meet at Harry’s Bar in town. I dressed carefully in black with a red beret to keep my head warm. My body trembled at the thought of him, I wondered about the smell of him, the touch. I walked there despite stilettos and waited at the bar sipping my drink, which was red too. I stared at my watch as the hand slipped towards the appointed hour. He wasn’t coming.
But he did and he looked serious, dressed in black, like a mourner, like me. Had anybody died?
“I wasn’t sure you were coming.”
“I said I would. Sorry I’m a bit late.” No explanation. “What are you drinking?” He nodded to my empty glass.
“A Bloody Mary. Please.”
In the quiet of Harry’s Tuesday night trade we hit it off, I thought. At least we drank too much and ended up in bed. His place. It was closer.
The soft yellowy light of dawn fell across the room. The curtains hadn’t been drawn. Awake before him I shielded my eyes from the light and turned to look at my prize. I watched him until his eyelids flickered. His dark hair disheveled as always, the blackest lashes on blue eyes. He stretched and groaned.
“Oh, shit. God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
My heart sank to my naked toes. “Thanks a lot.” I said, not meaning it. “Do you have any food?”
“I’ll make coffee.”
We sat across from each another at his kitchen table, each nursing a cup of coffee. His flat, sparsely furnished with piles of paper on the table and the breakfast bar; bills, photography magazines, A4 notepads filled with spider-like script.
Weeks passed and I didn’t tell Fleur, I didn’t want to dilute our experience but really I didn’t want questions. He hadn’t called. One day she rang me, full of news. She’d met a beautiful man. She told me he was a writer who buys her unusual presents, bright coloured journals, postcards of Paris, an exceptional man she says.
We arranged to meet at Harry’s Bar, her choice. I walked in wearing my black suit and white blouse and found them sitting in a booth, hands reaching across to each other. And I just knew he hadn’t arrived late for her.
Fleur saw me first, dressed in pale blue, she waved. “Bridge. Drew, meet my best friend. Bridge, this is Drew.” She smiled, she shined.
He stood to meet his lover’s best friend. Tall and dark, he cast a shadow over me, at least that’s how I remember it. Drew. My Drew, who’d never called. He looked at me and recognition hit behind the eyes.
“I’m sorry. I have to go to the bathroom.” I dragged myself to the ladies. Wrapped my arms around cold porcelain, my head leant on the toilet seat. Tears stung my eyes. Fleur could have anyone. Why him? Bridge, this is Drew, she said. Am I her bridge to Drew? What about the code? No crossing lines to get to each other’s boyfriends. Of course it only works one way; no boyfriend of Fleur’s has even been interested in me.
I washed my face and made my way back to the happy couple. They don’t see me at first, hands clasped, eyes searching one another’s. Drew frowned and Fleur turned her pretty head. She smiled, she had reason to.
“I’m feeling a bit off-colour. I think I’ll go. Nice to meet you, Drew.”
“Oh, Bridge. You poor thing. Will you be alright getting home?”
I nodded feebly and walked out of the noise and warmth of Harry’s into the coldness. Spring never felt so icy, leached of colour, dull though the sun is out.
My nightmare began, my own private hell. I imagined them together. His hand gentle in the small of her back, guiding her through expensive restaurants. Having breakfast together, Fleur wearing his dressing gown. So unlike our breakfast of bitter coffee and silent recriminations amid prayers for a hangover cure. Fleur would have orange juice and pancakes, real coffee.
I thought of her, how it easy it was, how men wanted to give everything to her. Did it come down to her looks? I knew the answer. She was a lovely girl, a lovely girl I’d like dead.
They asked me for lunch. Just me, at his apartment. I arrived early. I’d been awake since five, the lonely hour before dawn, the time when lovers turn to one another to keep the fears away.
“Oh Bridge! I’m so glad you came. No trouble finding it?”
No, I had no problem finding it. I noticed Fleur had tidied up. Papers cleared away, photographic magazines on the shelf, those notebooks put away somewhere safe. Drew appeared less disheveled than usual. Had she tidied him up too? He said hello and we sat down at the table.
Fleur had prepared a seafood banquet. Lobster, prawns and crab meat. The lobster flesh exquisite but when I closed my eyes Fleur’s flesh swims before me. Only her white flesh has a bluish quality to it. Dead meat.
“Are you okay Bridge?”
“Yes. I think so. I haven’t been so well since that night at Harry’s.”
“The night you met Drew?”
“Well. It was that night. But it wasn’t the first time we’d met.”
Drew shifted in his seat, his face flinching in preparation. Would I be that cruel?
“Isn’t that right, Drew?”
Fleur looked between the two of us, a shadow of fear in her eyes. Oh, how lovely. I had them both holding their breath.
“We shop at the same greengrocers. Don’t you remember, Drew? You must recognise me.”
“Yes, of course. I thought you looked familiar.”
I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief between them. Drew stared at me, eyes loaded with meaning. “Oh, course, I don’t shop there anymore.”
“Really? I wonder why.” I used an acid tone that might pop up in Fleur’s subconscious, late at night when night nurtures doubt.

Standing in the kitchen at the centre of a storm, devoid of movement whilst all around us spins and spins. Fleur’s fitted kitchen, white cabinets, the orange walls which stimulate appetite. Outside the dark night marked only by children holding lanterns for the town festival. Candlelight blurred into rings, thin red rings.
I lunge, the small fish knife in my right hand. There is a flicker of recognition before the knife slips easily into her white neck. It turns red, the colour of blood red roses. There is an arch of it, the devils rainbow. Her arms reach out for me. For me, imagine it! She falls to her knees, her eyes bulging in her face, green eyes that men love. Fear in them, panic. She slumps forward onto her white shiny tiles which are usually so clean.

Fleur rang, those nighttime doubts, and we met for coffee. Her pretty face looked pinched, white areas where she frowns and her hair isn’t as shiny as usual.
“Bridge. Before I met Drew, was there anything between you?”
I counted to thirty in my head. Flirty thirty. Hurty thirty. I smiled. “What do you mean? Did Drew say something?”
“No.” Fleur stared down into her cup, brimming with blackest coffee. Was she staring into hell too? She stirred it with a spoon.
“He looks uncomfortable when I mention your name. Do you know why?”
“Sorry. I don’t. Why would he look uncomfortable?”
“I get the feeling he’s hiding something.”
Fleur looked up as if in pain. Well, we can’t have that can we? “You’re different too,” she accused.
I shrugged, mumbled something about having to go. I left Fleur in the café next to the theatre. Plastic flowers in tiny glass vases at every table. Where you picked your food from photographs on a laminated menu. Good coffee, I don’t know how long Fleur sat there stirring hers. Maybe a tear or two fell to the formica table top. I’m glad I held back with the fish knife. I imagined the contract I had on her life dissolving until gone. No longer consumed in hate I still can’t bear to see her face, the face I would have had underground.
We don’t see each other for a while. One day Fleur phoned me and wanted to meet in the park and I figure I owed her that. Winter again, the skeleton branches silhouetted against a white sky, we wandered through the park, the ground frost twinkling in the opaque light. Our fingers pressed deep inside our pockets, our words suspended in the breath of an icy cloud.
“We’ve split up.”
“What?”
“Drew and I. We broke up last week.”
“Why?”
“There was something he was hiding.”
“Do you know what it was?” My heart beats in my cold ears.
“A girl he couldn’t forget.”
“Who?”
“I don’t know. He only spent a night with her. I don’t know her name.”
Drew did nothing and neither did I. But I thought about it, late at night, when being alone laboured my breath and I sobbed until my bones ached.

THE MACHINE REVOLUTION

I don’t know if it’s my age. I don’t know if I’ve got to the stage where my mind and body don’t work the same and I’m reflecting that out to the things around me. Or vice versa. Or I could be living in some sort of house equivalent of a small revolution. I’ve been living with it so long I’m not completely sure.

It started with dishwashers and don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually think that dishwashers have a voice or anything. But whenever dishwashers are around me they stop working. From the expensive chrome fronted beauty to the cheap version yellowing in the rental house. When I moved into this home we bought a cheap one, thinking that all dishwashers are equal. Don’t even think about it. It went wrong almost every month. Little niggly problems until the thing started filling up with evil black gunk. A bit like hell’s ectoplasm. Nobody could work it out, especially not the man who came to fix it, who we’d become very close to over a period of five years. Eventually the dishwasher of Beelzebub was taken away by a man waving a white flag and delivering a new one. Alas the man got his truck stuck in the muddy grass while navigating around our driveway. Four hours and many dramatic gestures from this poor chap later, the local tow people pulled him out. He never said goodbye.

Every pump – whether it be the pool, the water system or the pump that sends our dam water to a tank and onto our toilet. They’ve all carked it recently. And when the water pump died in the early days it killed our perfectly working washing machine. Turns out it didn’t like running without water.

If we want hot water we have to run the tap (in the shower for example) for a while. If this fails we have to then hop out of the shower, mess with the sink taps and eventually, hopefully, we get hot water. Magic.

I mentioned the pool which reflects my optimism. It’s not a classic in-built affair. It’s a paddling pool with rigid sides and attitude. It’s very innards have split and been patched over and over. The pool is now dead. Or simply refusing to go on.

My car stereo (sounds so old fashioned doesn’t it?) will only work sometimes. I like to drive with the radio on or with my cutting edge music selection beating away, making me feel like I can still kick arse. But due to a loose connection somewhere unreachable I can’t always do that. I have to drive in silence for miles. And miles. Sometimes it comes on of its own accord. I mean what is that all about. Do the wires jiggle and right themselves while I’m driving. It seems unlikely to me.

My metabolism. Alright. I may be spinning it a bit here. I’ve had a dodgy metabolism since I was 16. The blame should really fall on me discovering decent cheese. My mum didn’t have decent cheese when I was growing up. She was a stranger to France or even Cheddar Gorge. We had something called processed cheese and trust me, its best avoided.

We have spiders, the occasional snake, geckoes and skinks. How lovely. No, I mean in the house. And when we first moved here, before certain areas were boarded up, we had possums and the occasional bush turkey. There was a cane toad once when I foolishly used the toilet, in the early days, without switching the light on. I remember thinking ‘oh how sweet. A doorstop shaped like a frog’. Or a toad. On the wrong side of the door. But at least we’re not haunted.

I thought we were haunted in London. We’d moved into a newly renovated flat in an old house. It even had a space where olden bells had rung the servants in days gone by. Our more conventional doorbell kept ringing with visitors and then when grown-up guests turned up for dinner they banged loudly on the door. ‘Why didn’t you use the bell’ we cried. The door bell hadn’t worked and when the husband (who was the boyfriend in those days) looked at the place where the batteries should have been, there was nothing. Except the plastic that assured us there had never been batteries in this new casing. It had never been used. Ever.

Slightly spooky but not as spooky as the terrible nightmares I had while living there. One memorable one was a bunch of crones turning up at the door with an empty coffin. The head crone, with very few teeth, screamed ‘leave this house, leave this house.’ I haven’t had a spooky nightmare since we left that lovely flat. I’m glad. If I’m honest I am still frightened of the dark. There could be anything out there. It’s nearly mice season isn’t it.