The night has long drawn in and dripped its inky canvas between the embers that glow only from the street lamps now. It’s been hours since I watched the last shadows curl away and be replaced by that blanket twilight that blurs solid lines and makes the indistinct hum and present itself as truth. The walls and ceilings no longer exist for me, instead replaced by waving jellied pockets of black. I’m afraid to open my mouth in case they tumble into my throat and weep with me. Only the wooden back of the chair and solid table beneath my palms keeps me somewhat anchored. That, and the glass shard I know is only a grasp away, its ice finding my skin even despite the distance. Its curves slice the horizon that settles over my immediate gaze, holding me fast as if my lids are stretched wide, pinned open by steel lashes buried deep in my own flesh.
The faces of Clarice Lispector, Sandra Cisneros and Margeurite Young, the child-mothers who have given us the lives of their unborn, swell up in my brain like tumours, whispering my fears and revealing untold futures in which their ears are pierced with shackles and the bright eyes of their babies collected as jewels by Westminster. I cannot make them stop; their voices are my own. I have sent them to war with only love letters for shelter - the letters of my promise that every night battles my own army of doubt, tearing at the lining of my womb that I am desperately thankful still bleeds even as theirs feeds. This journey we have sent them on is dark and dangerous, but we stand at the sidelines cheering like manic fans as they wait, pushed forward by the moving ground of time into the unknown. Tonight, I cannot forgive myself.
The sweat on my forehead cries out for the cool glass and finally I give in. I reach forward to grab it and press the bottle to my burning chest as I unscrew the top. Wet drips onto my hand as that familiar sound of the seal breaking penetrates me like a knife and seems to echo round the living room. It marks a break in the past; that which cannot be undone. I have delivered myself to this. Stupid, selfish bitch. You fucking drama queen. They can’t even do this - you’ve taken everything from these girls. Go on, drink it. Don’t you dare flinch at that smell; you wanted this. The easy way out. You should have stayed in your fucking cosy life if you were just going to bail out in a bottle of red half way through, you stupid fucking-
The lights snap on. Will stands in the doorway wearing joggers, half-way through a yawn before he notices the wine clamped to my chest. He frowns at it and then looks at me, concern etched around his eyes. I can’t imagine what I look like after hours of silent sobbing and hair-pulling, not wanting to wake him.
‘Can I sit with you?’
I nod, spit bubbling at the corners of my mouth as I try and hold back the tidal wave of grief and shame. He moves across the room calmly, slowly taking the seat opposite. He doesn’t drop my gaze once.
‘How are you?’
I laugh at this, knuckles whitening around the bottle and then tilting my head down to knock my forehead off the top. I knock it again, more violently as the laugh turns to sobs. When I crash my head down a third time his palm is between my skull and the glass. I look up at him and catch the snot dribbling down to my top lip.
‘I’m so scared.’ The words tumble in a wail. ‘I’m so scared I’ve killed these girls and their babies and it’s not going to work and I shouldn’t have come and-and-and-’
Suddenly, Will is kneeling next to me. ‘Breathe, Red, you’re hyperventilating.’ I try and tug in the breaths, closing my eyes to halt the swimming room, but the faces behind my lids seem to be whirling round even faster as if trapped in a cyclone.
‘There you go. Big breaths.’ His hand massages my back in circles as I cough and splutter the faces out. ‘Now cry,’ he instructs. And so I do. I clutch the bottle harder to my chest and throw myself into his shoulder, howling. He catches me as I fall off the chair and settles us against the wall, pulling me to his chest and stroking my hair with a light touch.
I cry for hours until every muscle aches and every bone is parched. As the drought shakes like thunder in my head I tremble against Will’s warm, wet chest, unhooking my nails from the flesh of his chest.
‘I’m sorry,’ I murmur, unfolding the wine from my chest and handing it to him.
‘What do you want me to do with it?’ He asks softly, taking it from me.
‘I don’t want it. I don’t care. I’m sorry.’
‘You don’t have to apologise. Do you want to pour it down the sink?’ I nod into his chest and he untangles us slowly, pulling me up with him as he stands, the bottle held firmly in his grasp. With his other hand, he leads me into the kitchen that is taking form in the early morning’s weak light. He squeezes my hand and gives me the bottle before letting go and stepping back against the counter. Without taking a second, I pour the wine down the plug, steeling myself at the ruby waterfall and glugging sound that always made me think of foamy baths and rising bubbles. To think, it stole memories from before I had even tasted it.
I dump the bottle in the sink and lean over it, shaking. My head hangs as low as my heart. Will’s palm lands between my shoulder blades and rubs.
I turn into him and wrap my arms around his waist. ‘Thank you.’ Extricating myself quickly, I flick on the kettle and fetch one normal mug and the flagon to make us tea.
‘What set you off?’
I look up at him fearfully. ‘Really, we don’t need to talk about it.’
‘Yes we do. You’re worried about the girls.’ He pulls the milk out of the fridge as I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose, shaking my head.
‘I’m worried about everything. After seeing them all tonight again and getting to know them I...I don’t know. I cracked. It’s all been so fast - everything - and then I stopped tonight to think-think properly- and I...the thoughts got the better of me.’ I splash boiling water into the mugs with my shaking grip. Wielding a teaspoon, Will takes over, pushing me gently to the side when he notices the tears bubbling again. I breathe for a minute as he dunks the teabags and pours in the milk, continuing only when I have the flagon clutched in my cold palms, staring into the brown tea. It looks like the Thames.
‘I never thought I’d be the type to relapse,’ I mutter at the steaming liquid.
‘You didn’t relapse.’
‘Only because you were here.’
‘And how long were you sitting there before I came through not relapsing?’ I bite my lip and nod, grateful. He takes a loud slurp and I follow the noise, anchoring my eyes on his strong, calm face.
‘I didn’t even realise I had a problem, to be honest. Not as bad as that.’
‘You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.’ I nod, taking a sip of my own tea and then blowing on it.
‘That still amazes me,’ he growls, shaking his head.
‘You’re easily amused,’ I mock softly.
‘What’s the harm in that?’ The kindness in his face acts as some kind of invitation, and I lean towards him, pulled forward by the heaviness in my chest.
‘Have you ever...relapsed?’ He takes another slurp from his tea and finishes it, which, in turn, amazes me, and sets it next to him on the counter, folding his arms. He looks down at his feet for a moment, massaging his left bicep. His head bobs briefly before he pulls it up on tight, straining tendons.
‘We say in the rooms that sometimes people relapse for you. I never did but a close friend of mine picked up one time and never came back.’
‘Sorry, fellowship jargon. It’s what we call the support meetings at AA and NA.’
‘Oh.’ I take a sip and then blow on my tea, still scalding to my tongue. ‘What happened to him?’
‘Allen?’ Will shakes his head. ‘He died. Many make it back to the rooms in time and never relapse again, some people never do to begin with, others spend their lives in and out. Allen...Well, he was a cokehead - fast and furious. Howled his way through life til the very end, four years ago. He just never came back from that final bender.’ Will looks up and offers a sad smile. Unlike everyone else, his eyes don’t glaze over when he offers up a memory. Instead, they are still firmly fixed on mine.
’That’s what kept me from picking up if life ever seemed too much. I would remember what happened to Allen and that was enough. I’ll never be able to thank him for that; there were more than a few nights I was in the same position as you.
‘You’re not weak, Red. And you’ve done fucking well doing it without any support so far with all the bloody turbulence you’ve forced on yourself.’ He pushes off the counter and stands before me, unfolding his arms and placing a palm on the side of my neck. ’You should be very proud of yourself. For everything you’re doing. And of course fear will bite at your heels every once in a while - but come and speak to me next time. Keep yourself safe. Keep this safe.’ He taps a finger gently against my head. ‘We need it.’
I grip his wrist and nod. ‘Ok.’ He lowers his hand and looks at me, eyes flicking between my own. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the minutes tick by.
‘I want to show you something,’ he murmurs eventually, stepping back and motioning for me to follow him. He leads me into the bedroom and grabs his wallet from the bedside table, emptying its contents onto the bed covers.
‘Here,’ he says, holding out a piece of folded paper. I walk towards the bed and take it from him, carefully unfolding the worn, yellowing edges. ‘He gave it to me at the last meeting I saw him in.’
Leave me be.
Please. Just leave.
I’m tired of your snout rooting in my sleep
Turning petals into dust,
And your howl whistling through crevices you teased open
Like Jessica Rabbit splaying her thighs and
Cascading her long red hair over my eyes.
I’m blinded by the smoke you blow from your chimney –
A home in my mind built in secret by secrets
With curtains of shame fluttering in your scent,
That stench of rot like rats burrowing,
And every time I beat one down another pops up
Like a child’s game.
I’m exhausted of this game and grimacing at your laughter,
Fighting your strings that twitch the corners of my lips
And lead my hand to the solace of the cool, bare bottle
You want to splash in.
I’m beaten down by your whispers heavier than Everest,
Capped with a snow far more dangerous that desires my limbs
To make angels from.
Please leave me alone.
You dance on my tongue, prising open my jaw
Until that which others enjoy suffocates me,
Building in the back of my throat until it
Lays sprouting in my brain.
You are a jaguar purring
Deep in the shadows a tune
I loved to sing along with
To block out the noise.
Your tail twitches, pupils engorged by prey,
Raking your claws across my reality until
I crave them to rake their own across my skin
Just to feel other.
I am so tired of you.
You are a diseased army of pain masquerading as
The bosom of Aphrodite,
Forever marching for my attention to a rhythm
Chaotic to other ears.
To slip would be to melt into
The arms of a lover who spent years raping my body
And sucking light through my nipple,
Flicking it with a forked tongue and grazing either side
But never giving warmth to the teat.
How easy – to fall – that known softer than cloud,
Only to plummet to rocks.
Please leave me be.
The future you lust for
Is painted in my own blood.
‘That last bit,’ I whisper, pressing the heel of my hand into both eyes. ‘Isn’t that what I do? Paint with my own blood?’
‘I knew you’d say that. You give your blood to a future. Allen’s was taken because he couldn’t see one. There’s a difference.’ I stroke the paper, reading the poem again, and the black ink seems to burn under my touch like the lick of a melancholy fire.
‘I know that feeling - that haunting. He’s put it so beautifully. So sadly.’ I fold it up and hand it back to Will. ‘I don’t want to be haunted in the future, Will. I don’t want to be haunted today.’
He slides the poem back into his wallet, nodding. ‘Allen didn’t want anyone to feel the way he did. That’s why I hold onto it; to be the man he saw in me but couldn’t see in himself, even though he was more than that. He was incredible. But his head lied to him.’
Will casts his blue eyes up to mine like a welcome net. ‘Don’t let your head lie to you, Red. Not when your heart led you this far.’