Roar: Uplifting. Intriguing. Thirty short stories from the Sunday Times bestselling author Cecelia Ahern Have you ever imagined a different life?Have you ever stood at a crossroads, undecided…Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to roar?From much-loved, international bestseller Cecelia Ahern come stories for all of us: the women who befriend us, the women who encourage us, the women who make us brave. From The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared to The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged her Husband, discover thirty touching, often hilarious, stories and meet thirty very different women. Each discovers her strength; each realizes she holds the power to make a change.Witty, tender, surprising, these keenly observed tales speak to us all, and capture the moment when we all want to roar.A Radio 2 Bookclub Choice.‘These stories sing and cry and shout and whisper from the page. They're sharp, clever, witty…a joy to read.’Donal Ryan, international bestselling author of The Spinning Heart Copyright (#u48595133-cb8c-5ff3-9277-52583185a24d) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 Copyright © Cecelia Ahern 2018 Jacket design by Ellie Game © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cecelia Ahern asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008283490 Ebook Edition © November 2018 ISBN: 9780008283513 Version: 2018-09-04 Dedication (#u48595133-cb8c-5ff3-9277-52583185a24d) For all the women who … Epigraph (#u48595133-cb8c-5ff3-9277-52583185a24d) I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore. Helen Reddy and Ray Burton Contents Cover (#ub238ab58-fe36-51fa-8207-30c1fb7ba6b8) Title Page (#u27b9c02f-6daa-52c7-a409-a568807fa9e1) Copyright Dedication Epigraph 1. The Woman Who Slowly Disappeared 2. The Woman Who Was Kept on the Shelf 3. The Woman Who Grew Wings 4. The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck 5. The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin 6. The Woman Who Thought Her Mirror Was Broken 7. The Woman Who Was Swallowed Up by the Floor and Who Met Lots of Other Women Down There Too 8. The Woman Who Ordered the Seabass Special 9. The Woman Who Ate Photographs 10. The Woman Who Forgot Her Name 11. The Woman Who Had a Ticking Clock 12. The Woman Who Sowed Seeds of Doubt 13. The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband 14. The Woman Who Lost Her Common Sense 15. The Woman Who Walked in Her Husband’s Shoes 16. The Woman Who Was a Featherbrain 17. The Woman Who Wore Her Heart on Her Sleeve 18. The Woman Who Wore Pink 19. The Woman Who Blew Away 20. The Woman Who Had a Strong Suit 21. The Woman Who Spoke Woman 22. The Woman Who Found the World in Her Oyster 23. The Woman Who Guarded Gonads 24. The Woman Who Was Pigeonholed 25. The Woman Who Jumped on the Bandwagon 26. The Woman Who Smiled 27. The Woman Who Thought the Grass Was Greener on the Other Side 28. The Woman Who Unravelled 29. The Woman Who Cherry-Picked 30. The Woman Who Roared Keep Reading … (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author Also by Cecelia Ahern About the Publisher (#u48595133-cb8c-5ff3-9277-52583185a24d) 1 There’s a gentle knock on the door before it opens. Nurse Rada steps inside and closes the door behind her. ‘I’m here,’ the woman says, quietly. Rada scans the room, following the sound of her voice. ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ the woman repeats softly, until Rada stops searching. Her eye level is too high and it’s focused too much to the left, more in line with the bird poo on the window that has eroded over the past three days with the rain. The woman sighs gently from her seat on the window ledge that overlooks the college campus. She entered this university hospital feeling so hopeful that she could be healed, but instead, after six months, she feels like a lab rat, poked and prodded at by scientists and doctors in increasingly desperate efforts to understand her condition. She has been diagnosed with a rare complex genetic disorder that causes the chromosomes in her body to fade away. They are not self-destructing or breaking down, they are not even mutating – her organ functions all appear perfectly normal; all tests indicate that everything is fine and healthy. To put it simply, she’s disappearing, but she’s still here. Her disappearing was gradual at first. Barely noticeable. There was a lot of, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you there,’ a lot of misjudging her edges, bumping against her shoulders, stepping on her toes, but it didn’t ring any alarm bells. Not at first. She faded in equal measure. It wasn’t a missing hand or a missing toe or suddenly a missing ear, it was a gradual equal fade; she diminished. She became a shimmer, like a heat haze on a highway. She was a faint outline with a wobbly centre. If you strained your eye, you could just about make out she was there, depending on the background and the surroundings. She quickly figured out that the more cluttered and busily decorated the room was, the easier it was for her to be seen. She was practically invisible in front of a plain wall. She sought out patterned wallpaper as her canvas, decorative chair fabrics to sit on; that way, her figure blurred the patterns, gave people cause to squint and take a second look. Even when practically invisible, she was still fighting to be seen. Scientists and doctors have examined her for months, journalists have interviewed her, photographers have done their best to light and capture her, but none of them were necessarily trying to help her recover. In fact, as caring and sweet as some of them have been, the worse her predicament has grown, the more excited they’ve become. She’s fading away and nobody, not even the world’s best experts, knows why. ‘A letter arrived for you,’ Rada says, stealing her from her thoughts. ‘I think you’ll want to read this one straight away.’ Curiosity piqued, the woman abandons her thoughts. ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ she says quietly, as she has been instructed to do. Rada follows the sound of her voice, crisp envelope in her extended hand. She holds it out to the air. ‘Thank you,’ the woman says, taking the envelope from her and studying it. Though it’s a sophisticated shade of dusty pink, it reminds her of a child’s birthday party invitation and she feels the same lift of excitement. Rada is eager, which makes the woman curious. Receiving mail is not unusual – she receives dozens of letters every week from all around the world; experts selling themselves, sycophants wanting to befriend her, religious fundamentalists wishing to banish her, sleazy men pleading to indulge every kind of corrupt desire on a woman they can feel but can’t see. Though she’ll admit this envelope does feel different to the rest, with her name written grandly in calligraphy. ‘I recognize the envelope,’ Rada replies, excited, sitting beside her. She is careful in opening the expensive envelope. It has a luxurious feel, and there’s something deeply promising and comforting about it. She slides the handwritten notecard from the envelope. ‘Professor Elizabeth Montgomery,’ they read in unison. ‘I knew it. This is it!’ Rada says, reaching for the woman’s hand that holds the note, and squeezing. 2 ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ the woman repeats, as the medical team assist her with her move to the new facility that will be her home for who knows how long. Rada and the few nurses she has grown close to accompany her from her bedroom to the awaiting limousine that Professor Elizabeth Montgomery has sent for her. Not all the consultants have gathered to say goodbye; the absences are a protest against her leaving after all of their work and dedication to her cause. ‘I’m in,’ she says quietly, and the door closes. 3 There is no physical pain in disappearing. Emotionally, it’s another matter. The emotional feeling of vanishing began in her early fifties, but she only became aware of the physical dissipation three years ago. The process was slow but steady. She would hear, ‘I didn’t see you there,’ or ‘I didn’t hear you sneak in,’ or a colleague would stop a conversation to fill her in on the beginning of a story that she’d already heard because she’d been there the entire time. She became tired of reminding them she was there from the start, and the frequency of those comments worried her. She started wearing brighter clothes, she highlighted her hair, she spoke more loudly, airing her opinions, she stomped as she walked; anything to stand out from the crowd. She wanted to physically take hold of people’s cheeks and turn them in her direction, to force eye contact. She wanted to yell, Look at me! On the worst days she would go home feeling completely overwhelmed and desperate. She would look in the mirror just to make sure she was still there, to keep reminding herself of that fact; she even took to carrying a pocket mirror for those moments on the subway when she was sure she had vanished. She grew up in Boston then moved to New York City. She’d thought that a city of eight million people would be an ideal place to find friendship, love, relationships, start a life. And for a long time she was right, but in recent years she’d learned that the more people there were, the lonelier she felt. Because her loneliness was amplified. She’s on leave now, but before that she worked for a global financial services company with 150,000 employees spread over 156 countries. Her office building on Park Avenue had almost three thousand employees and yet as the years went by she increasingly felt overlooked and unseen. At thirty-eight she entered premature menopause. It was intense, sweat saturating the bed, often to the point she’d have to change the sheets twice a night. Inside, she felt an explosive anger and frustration. She wanted to be alone during those years. Certain fabrics irritated her skin and flared her hot flushes, which in turn flared her temper. In two years she gained twenty pounds. She purchased new clothes but nothing felt right or fit right. She was uncomfortable in her own skin, felt insecure at male-dominated meetings that she’d previously felt at home in. It seemed to her that every man in the room knew, that everyone could see the sudden whoosh as her neck reddened and her face perspired, as her clothes stuck to her skin in the middle of a presentation or on a business lunch. She didn’t want anybody to look at her during that period. She didn’t want anyone to see her. When out at night she would see the beautiful young bodies in tiny dresses and ridiculously high-heeled shoes, writhing to songs that she knew and could sing along to because she still lived on this planet even though it was no longer tailored to her, while men her own age paid more attention to the young women on the dance floor than to her. Even now, she is still a valid person with something to offer the world, yet she doesn’t feel it. ‘Diminishing Woman’ and ‘Disappearing Woman’ the newspaper reports have labelled her; at fifty-eight years old she has made headlines worldwide. Specialists have flown in from around the world to probe her body and mind, only to go away again, unable to come to any conclusions. Despite this, many papers have been written, awards bestowed, plaudits given to the masters of their specialized fields. It has been six months since her last fade. She is merely a shimmer now, and she is exhausted. She knows that they can’t fix her; she watches each specialist arrive with enthusiasm, examine her with excitement, and then leave weary. Each time she witnesses the loss of their hope, it erodes her own. 4 As she approaches Provincetown, Cape Cod, her new destination, uncertainty and fear make way for hope at the sight before her. Professor Elizabeth Montgomery waits at the door of her practice; once an abandoned lighthouse, it now stands as a grand beacon of hope. The driver opens the door. The woman steps out. ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ the woman says, making her way up the path to meet her. ‘What on earth are you saying?’ Professor Montgomery asks, frowning. ‘I was told to say that, at the hospital,’ she says, quietly. ‘So people know where I am.’ ‘No, no, no, you don’t speak like that here,’ the professor says, her tone brusque. The woman feels scolded at first, and upset she has put a foot wrong in her first minute upon arriving, but then she realizes that Professor Montgomery has looked her directly in the eye, has wrapped a welcoming cashmere blanket around her shoulders and is walking her up the steps to the lighthouse while the driver takes the bags. It is the first eye contact she has had with somebody, other than the campus cat, for quite some time. ‘Welcome to the Montgomery Lighthouse Advance for Women,’ Professor Montgomery begins, leading her into the building. ‘It’s a little wordy, and narcissistic, but it has stuck. At the beginning we called it the “Montgomery Retreat for Women” but I soon changed that. To retreat seems negative; the act of moving away from something difficult, dangerous or disagreeable. Flinch, recoil, shrink, disengage. No. Not here. Here we do the opposite. We advance. We move forward, we make progress, we lift up, we grow.’ Yes, yes, yes, this is what she needs. No going back, no looking back. Dr Montgomery leads her to the check-in area. The lighthouse, while beautiful, feels eerily empty. ‘Tiana, this is our new guest.’ Tiana looks her straight in the eye, and hands her a room key. ‘You’re very welcome.’ ‘Thank you,’ the woman whispers. ‘How did she see me?’ she asks. Dr Montgomery squeezes her shoulder comfortingly. ‘Much to do. Let’s begin, shall we?’ Their first session takes place in a room overlooking Race Point beach. Hearing the crash of the waves, smelling the salty air, the scented candles, the call of the gulls, away from the typical sterile hospital environment that had served as her fortress, the woman allows herself to relax. Professor Elizabeth Montgomery, sixty-six years old, oozing with brains and qualifications, six children, one divorce, two marriages, and the most glamorous woman she has ever seen in the flesh, sits in a straw chair softened by overflowing cushions, and pours peppermint tea into clashing teacups. ‘My theory,’ Professor Montgomery says, folding her legs close to her body, ‘is that you made yourself disappear.’ ‘I did this?’ the woman asks, hearing her voice rise, feeling the flash of her anger as her brief moment is broken. Professor Montgomery smiles that beautiful smile. ‘I don’t place the blame solely on you. You can share it with society. I blame the adulation and sexualization of young women. I blame the focus on beauty and appearance, the pressure to conform to others’ expectations in a way that men are not required to.’ Her voice is hypnotizing. It is gentle. It is firm. It is without anger. Or judgement. Or bitterness. Or sadness. It just is. Because everything just is. The woman has goosebumps on her skin. She sits up, her heart pounding. This is something she hasn’t heard before. The first new theory in many months and it stirs her physically and emotionally. ‘As you can imagine, many of my male counterparts don’t agree with me,’ she says wryly, sipping on her tea. ‘It’s a difficult pill to swallow. For them. So I started doing my own thing. You are not the first disappearing woman that I’ve met.’ The woman gapes. ‘I tested and analysed women, just as those experts did with you, but it took me some time to realize how to correctly treat your condition. It took growing older myself to truly understand. ‘I have studied and written about this extensively; as women age, they are written out of the world, no longer visible on television or film, in fashion magazines, and only ever on daytime TV to advertise the breakdown of bodily functions and ailments, or promote potions and lotions to help battle ageing as though it were something that must be fought. Sound familiar?’ The woman nods. She continues: ‘Older women are represented on television as envious witches who spoil the prospects of the man or younger woman, or as humans who are reactive to others, powerless to direct their own lives; moreover, once they reach fifty-five, their television demographic ceases to exist. It is as if they are not here. Confronted with this, I have discovered women can internalize these “realities”. My teachings have been disparaged as feminist rants but I am not ranting, I am merely observing.’ She sips her peppermint tea and watches the woman who slowly disappeared, slowly come to terms with what she is hearing. ‘You’ve seen women like me before?’ the woman asks, still stunned. ‘Tiana, at the desk, was exactly as you were when she arrived two years ago.’ She allows that to sink in. ‘Who did you see when you entered?’ the Professor asks. ‘Tiana,’ the woman replies. ‘Who else?’ ‘You.’ ‘Who else?’ ‘Nobody.’ ‘Look again.’ 5 The woman stands and walks to the window. The sea, the sand, a garden. She pauses. She sees a shimmer on a swing on the porch, and nearby a wobbly figure with long black hair looks out to sea. There’s an almost iridescent figure on her knees in the garden, planting flowers. The more she looks, the more women she sees at various stages of diminishment. Like stars appearing in the night sky, the more she trains her eye, the more they appear. Women are everywhere. She had walked right past them all on her arrival. ‘Women need to see women too,’ Professor Montgomery says. ‘If we don’t see each other, if we don’t see ourselves, how can we expect anybody else to?’ The woman is overcome. ‘Society told you that you weren’t important, that you didn’t exist, and you listened. You let the message seep into your pores, eat you from the inside out. You told yourself you weren’t important, and you believed yourself.’ The woman nods in surprise. ‘So what must you do?’ Professor Montgomery wraps her hands around the cup, warming herself, her eyes boring into the woman’s, as though communicating with another, deeper part of her, sending signals, relaying information. ‘I have to trust that I’ll reappear again,’ the woman says, but her voice comes out husky, as if she hasn’t spoken for years. She clears her throat. ‘More than that,’ Professor Montgomery urges. ‘I have to believe in myself.’ ‘Society always tells us to believe in ourselves,’ she says, dismissively. ‘Words are easy, phrases are cheap. What specifically must you believe in?’ She thinks, then realizes that this is about more than getting the answers right. What does she want to believe? ‘That I’m important, that I’m needed, relevant, useful, valid …’ She looks down at her cup. ‘Sexy.’ She breathes in and out through her nose, slowly, her confidence building. ‘That I’m worthy. That there is potential, possibility, that I can still take on new challenges. That I can contribute. That I’m interesting. That I’m not finished yet. That people know I’m here.’ Her voice cracks on her final words. Professor Montgomery places her cup down on the glass table and reaches for the woman’s hands. ‘I know you’re here. I see you.’ In that moment the woman knows for certain that she’ll come back. That there is a way. To begin with, she is focusing on her heart. After that, everything else will follow. (#u48595133-cb8c-5ff3-9277-52583185a24d) It began shortly after their first date, when she was twenty-six years old, when everything was gleaming, sparkling new. She’d left work early to drive to her new lover, excited to see him, counting down the hours until their next moment together, and she’d found Ronald at home in his living room, hammering away at the wall. ‘What are you doing?’ She’d laughed at the intensity of his expression, the grease, the grime and determination of her newly DIY boyfriend. He was even more attractive to her now. ‘I’m building you a shelf.’ He’d barely paused to look at her before returning to hammering a nail in. ‘A shelf?!’ He continued hammering, then checked the shelf for balance. ‘Is this your way of telling me you want me to move in?’ she laughed, heart thudding. ‘I think you’re supposed to give me a drawer, not a shelf.’ ‘Yes, of course I want you to move in. Immediately. And I want you to leave your job and sit on this shelf so that everyone can see you, so that they can admire you, see what I see: the most beautiful woman in the world. You won’t have to lift a finger. You won’t have to do anything. Just sit on this shelf and be loved.’ Her heart had swelled, her eyes filled. By the next day she was sitting on that shelf. Five feet above the floor, in the right-hand alcove of the living room, beside the fireplace. That was where she met Ronald’s family and friends for the first time. They stood around her, drinks in hand, marvelling at the wonder of the new love of Ronald’s life. They sat at the dinner table in the adjoining dining room, and though she couldn’t see everybody she could hear them, she could join in. She felt suspended above them – adored, cherished, respected by his friends, worshipped by his mother, envied by his ex-girlfriends. Ronald would look up at her proudly, that beautiful beam on his face that said it all. Mine. She sparkled with youth and desire, beside his trophy cabinet, which commemorated the football victories from his youth and his more recent golf successes. Above them was a brown trout mounted on the wall on a wooden plate with a brass plaque, the largest trout he’d ever caught, while out with his brother and father. He’d moved the trout to build the shelf, and so it was with even more respect that the men in his life viewed her. When her family and friends came to visit her they could leave feeling assured that she was safe, cocooned, idolized and, more importantly, loved. She was the most important thing in the world to him. Everything revolved around her and her position in the home, in his life. He pandered to her, he fussed around her. He wanted her on that shelf all of the time. The only moment that came close to the feeling of being so important in his world was Dusting Day. On Dusting Day, he went through all his trophies, polishing and shining them, and of course, he’d lift her from the shelf and lay her down and they would make love. Shiny and polished, renewed with sparkle and vigour, she would climb back up to the shelf again. They married, she quit her job, nursed her children, cuddled them, spent sleepless nights caring for them on the shelf, then watched them sleep, gurgle and grow on the rug and playpen beneath her. Ronald liked for her to be alone on the shelf, he employed childcare so that she could have her space, so that she could stay in the place he built for her, so that he wouldn’t lose a part of her to the children, or that their special relationship wouldn’t be altered. She had heard of couples who were torn apart after having families, husbands who felt left out when babies arrived. She didn’t want that to happen, she wanted to be there for him, to still feel adored. The shelf was her place. She cared deeply for everyone from there, and because of her position in the home, everyone always looked up to her. It was only later, when the children had grown up and left the house, twenty years after the day she first climbed onto the shelf, that the loneliness took hold of her. With the suddenness of an alarm bell, in fact. It was the angle of the TV that started it. She couldn’t see what Ronald was watching. It had never bothered her before because she was always content to see the faces of her children watching television rather than the TV itself. But the couch was now empty, the room quiet, and she needed distraction, escapism. Company. Ronald bought a new television, a flat screen that went on the wall, which meant it couldn’t be tilted, and it was suddenly out of her view, just as her children were. And then there were the gatherings Ronald organized without inviting her or telling her, that would go on around her, involving people she had never met, and some women she wasn’t sure of, right there in her own home – under her very nose, as it were. She watched from above as his life carried on beneath her, as though she wasn’t in the room, as though she wasn’t a part of his life. Wearing a smile to hide her confusion, she would try to cling on, she would try to join in, but they couldn’t hear her up there on the shelf and they’d grown tired of looking up, of raising their voices. They’d moved on. Ronald would forget to top up her drink, to check on her, to introduce her. It was as though he’d forgotten that she was there. And then he built the extension; it took him months, but once he was finished and the kitchen extended out to the back garden, suddenly all the gatherings and dinners moved out there. The TV room that had been the formal room, the centre of their home, was now a small, comfortable den. It had lost its grandeur. She’d reached the point where she felt she wasn’t a part of his life any more. And now it’s Saturday night, and she’s been alone all day while he’s been out golfing, while the children are busy getting on with their own lives. ‘Ronald,’ she says. He’s on the couch, watching something that she can’t see. He makes a sound in response but doesn’t look up at her. ‘Something doesn’t feel right up here.’ She hears the tremble in her voice, feels the tightness in her chest. When you put me up here, it was for everybody to see me, to be the centre of everything, but now … now everything is carrying on without me, out of sight. I feel so disconnected. She can’t say it, the words won’t come. Even thinking this way scares her. She likes her shelf, she is comfortable on her shelf, the shelf is her place, it’s where she has always been, it is where she should always stay. He put her there to remove all the concerns and responsibilities of life from her, for her. ‘Do you want another pillow?’ he asks. He chooses a pillow beside him and throws it to her. She catches it and looks at it and then at Ronald in surprise, heart pounding, things inside her hurting. He stands up then. ‘I can buy you a new one, a bigger one,’ he says, silencing the television with the remote control. ‘I don’t want a new pillow,’ she says quietly, taken aback by her response. Usually she loves such things. It’s as though he doesn’t hear her, or perhaps he does and he ignores her. She can’t figure it out. ‘I’m going out for a few hours, I’ll see you later.’ She stares at the closed door, listens to the car engine start up, in utter shock. It’s been building up slowly over the years, but this is her moment of realization. All the little signs come together and hit her now, almost knocking her from her perch. He’d placed her on this shelf, a cherished woman whom he adored and wanted to protect and showcase, and now that everyone has seen her, has admired her, has congratulated him on his achievements, there’s nothing left. Now she’s just part of the furniture, a shelf adornment like the rest of his trophies, tucked away in an old comfortable den. She can’t even remember the last Dusting Day; how long has it been since he took her down to polish her? She is stiff. She realizes this for the first time. Her body needs to move. She needs to stretch. She needs room to grow. She’s spent so many years sitting up here representing an extension of Ronald, of his achievements, that she no longer has any idea what she represents to herself. She can’t blame Ronald for this; she willingly climbed up onto this shelf. She was selfish in lapping up the attention, the praise, the envy and the admiration. She liked being new, being celebrated, being his. But she was foolish. Not foolish to think it was a beautiful thing, but foolish to think it should be the only thing. As her mind whirs, the pillow that she has been hugging for comfort falls from her hands and lands softly on the floor. It makes a soft pfft on the plush carpet. She gazes at it on the floor and as she does, another realization dawns. She can get off the shelf. She can step down. She’d always had the ability to do that, of course, but somehow it seemed her place, the natural place to be, and why would anybody leave their place to become displaced? Her breath quickens at the dangerous new thought, dust catches in her throat and she coughs, hearing a wheeze in her chest for the first time. She has no place gathering dust. She lowers herself down. One foot on the armchair beneath, where Ronald used to sit holding her feet in his hands while he watched TV – until the new flat screen was installed. She reaches out to the wall to steady herself. The brown trout is the only thing she can grasp. Her stockinged foot slips on the armrest of the chair. Her hand flies out in panic, searching for something to cling to, and grips the open mouth of the trout. Under her weight, the trout swings on the wall. It has only been hanging on by one nail all these years. So precarious. Something of such importance, you’d have thought her husband would’ve secured it better. She smiles at the thought. The trout swings off the nail and as she places faith in the armchair, falling into it, she watches the trout fall from the wall and land on the cabinet beneath. It smashes the glass cabinet, home to the football and golf trophies. Crash, smash, it all comes tumbling down. Then there’s silence. She giggles nervously, breaking the silence. Then she slowly lowers one foot to the floor. And then the other. She stands up, feels her stiff joints crack. The floor she has watched for so long, that is so familiar to her eye, feels unfamiliar beneath her feet. She wriggles her toes in the plush carpet, plants her feet in its fibres, truly roots herself in this new surface beneath her. She looks around the room and it seems so alien to her now that her view is different. And suddenly she feels compelled to do something with her new life. When Ronald returns from the pub he finds her with a golf club in hand, his best driver. His football and golf trophies lie on the floor, covered in broken glass. The brown trout looks up at him from the mess with its dead eyes. ‘It was too dusty up there,’ she says, breathless, as she swings again at the wooden shelf. It feels so good, she takes another swing. The wooden shelf splinters, bits fly everywhere. She ducks. He cowers. As Ronald slowly peels his arms away from his face, she can’t help but laugh at his shocked expression. ‘My mother used to keep all her fancy handbags in dustcovers. She stored them in her wardrobe, saving them for special occasions, but they stayed there until the day she died. All those beautiful cherished things, never seeing the light of day, because even the rare special occasions in her life weren’t deemed exceptional enough. She was always waiting for something more extravagant to come along, instead of wearing them on her arm to brighten her every day. She would tell me I didn’t appreciate things enough, that I should cherish my possessions more, but if she was here now I would tell her that she’d got it all wrong. She should have appreciated the everyday things that she had, realized their value, made the most of them. But she didn’t; she locked the potential away.’ Ronald’s mouth opens and closes without any words coming out. He looks like his framed trout that has smashed to the floor. ‘So,’ she swings at the wall again and declares firmly, ‘I’m staying down here.’ And that was that. (#ulink_49ca3fd8-4926-5337-b2cc-8be45434c027) The doctor said it was hormonal. Like the random hairs that had sprouted from her chin after the birth of her babies, over time the bones of her back had begun to protrude from her skin, stretching out from her spine like branches of a tree. She has chosen not to go for the X-ray her doctor suggested, nor has she heeded his bone density and osteoporosis warnings. It isn’t a weakening she feels in her body, it is a growing strength, spreading from her spine and arching across her shoulders. In the privacy of their own home, her husband traces the line of her bones on her back, and when she is alone she strips naked and stands before the mirror to study her changing body. Sideways on, she can see the shape that is emerging beneath the flesh at her shoulders. When she ventures outside, she is thankful for the hijab that falls loosely over her shoulders, hiding this mysterious growth. She would feel fearful of these changes in her body were it not for the immense strength swelling within her. She has not been in this country long, and the other mothers at the school watch her even though they pretend otherwise. The daily gathering at the school gate that intimidates her. She finds herself holding her breath and increasing her pace as the gates come into sight; lowering her chin and averting her eyes, she squeezes her children’s hands tighter as she delivers them to their classrooms. The people in this nice town think of themselves as polite and educated, so there are rarely any comments made, but they make their feelings known through the atmosphere they create. Silence can be as threatening as words. Conscious of sidelong stares and uneasy silences, she pushes through the tension while the town quietly makes plans and draws up regulations that will make it more difficult for a woman like her to be in a place like this, for a woman who looks like her to dress as she does in a place like this. Their precious school gates. The gates protect their children and these mother-clusters are the guardians of those children. If only they knew how much they have in common with her. Even if it’s not those mothers who are pushing through paperwork to make life difficult for her and her family, it is people like them. And the men they share their beds with at night. Perhaps, after their rounds of tennis and pots of tea, they shower and go to their offices to implement rules, stop refugees and immigrants from entering their country; these good people, these cappuccino-drinking, tennis-playing, coffee-morning fundraisers who care more about book weeks and bake sales than human decency. So well-read they start to see red when the alien invasions in their fiction start to manifest themselves in real life. She feels her son watching her as they walk; their son of war, as her family called him, born into war, in a life consumed by pain on all levels: economically, socially, emotionally. Her anxious boy, always so uptight, always trying to look ahead and sense what terrible thing can happen next, what terrifying, degrading thing his fellow humans can surprise him with, the jack-in-the-box cruelty of life. He is always readying himself, rarely able to relax and revel in the joys of being a child. She smiles at him, trying to forget her woes, trying not to send those negative messages through her hand to his. It’s the same story every weekday morning, and again at collection time; her anxiety gets the better of her and her son of war senses it. Then again at the supermarket when she is on the receiving end of an insulting comment, or when her highly qualified engineer husband is trying to politely convince someone he is capable of so much more than sweeping streets and every other menial job he scrapes by with. She heard a rumour once that the mosques in Canada do not face Mecca, that they are a few degrees off. Distressing, to say the least; but she can go further than that, she has a theory that the world’s axis is off too. If she could, she would fly up into space and fix the axis of the world, so that it would spin fairly. Her husband is grateful for everything they get, which only fuels her fury. Why should they be so grateful for the things they work so hard for, as if they were pigeons pecking at crumbs tossed on the ground by passers-by? She rounds the corner with her little girl and boy and the school is in sight. She readies herself, but her back is throbbing. It has been aching all night, despite her husband’s gentle massages; she’d waited until he’d fallen asleep then moved to the floor so as not to disturb him. Though it throbs and aches constantly, there are times when the pain levels escalate. She’s noticed it grows more intense whenever the fury rises within her, when things get her so angry she has to fight the urge to reach out and rattle the world, give it a good shake. At her husband’s insistence, she’d gone to the doctor about the changes in her back. It had been such a waste of money for so little insight that she refused to go for a follow-up appointment. They need to save what little money they have for emergencies. Besides, the throbbing and aching reminds her of how she’d felt during her two pregnancies; it’s not the pain of deterioration but of life blooming inside her. Only this time the new life her body is sustaining is her own. She straightens up, but her back feels heavy and she’s forced to hunch over again. The school gate is in sight now, surrounded by clusters of mothers, standing around talking. There are some kind eyes, of course there are; she gets one hello, one good morning. Some eyes don’t register her at all, they rush past, preoccupied with keeping to their stressful schedule, lost in thought, making plans, trying to catch up with themselves. Those people don’t offend her. It is the others. The cluster. The tennis bags on their backs, the white skirts stretched over their plump bottoms and gym leggings, flesh squished at the seams, squeezed so tight it is trying to find a way out. That group. One notices her. Lips barely move as she speaks. The discrimination ventriloquist. Another set of eyeballs. And then another. Some more ventriloquism, less talented this time. The whispers to each other, the stares. This is the daily reality of her picked-over life; she’s observed in everything she does. She’s not from here, she could never change that, she doesn’t want to be like them, she doesn’t want to be part of their cluster, and they distrust her for that. She is late this morning and she is angry with herself. Not because her children will be a few minutes late, but because she is arriving during the most dangerous minutes. The mothers, having delivered their children to their classes, now mill around the gates, heads together, making plans, organizing collections, playdates, parties that her children will not be included in. She can see no way of getting to the school without walking by them, but they are a large group and the path is narrow and so she would either have to squeeze by the wall, walking single file with her children, or by the cars, brushing up against the dirty SUVs. Or through them. She could go through them. All of those things would mean drawing their attention, possibly having to talk. She is angry with herself for hesitating, for the growing fear inside her at a small cluster of silly women. She didn’t flee from a war-torn country, leave everything and everyone she loves behind, for this. She didn’t sit on that overcrowded inflatable boat with nothing from their old lives except the clothes on their backs, while seawater sloshed at their feet threateningly, and her children trembled under her grasp. In the darkness. In silence. Hoping for the coastline to appear. To endure that and then to sit in a container, in the dark, with no air, and not enough food, the stench of their waste in a bucket in the corner, and the fear in her heart – not for the first time – that she had sealed her children’s fate, that she had dug their graves with this decision. She didn’t go through all that so that she could be stopped in her tracks by these women. The throbbing in her back intensifies. It spreads from her lower spine all the way to her shoulders. Shooting pain, that aches but also brings a strange relief. Like contractions during labour, coming and going but building in intensity all the time, powerful waves of super strength. As she nears the women, they stop talking and turn to her. They are blocking the path, she will have to ask them to move aside. It is childish, but it is real. The pain in her back is so intense it prevents her from speaking. She feels the blood rushing to her head, her heartbeat loud in her ears. She feels her skin straining on her back, tightening. She feels as though she will be torn open, just as when her babies were born. And it is because of this she knows that life is coming. She lifts her chin, she straightens up, she looks the women directly in the eye, not afraid, not intimidated. She feels immense power, immense freedom, something these women don’t understand – and how could they? Their freedom has never been threatened, they have no experience of how effective war is in turning men, women and children to ghosts, in turning the mind into a prison cell, and liberty to a taunting fantasy. The skin on her back is taut now and she can feel the fabric of her black abaya stretching and stretching. Then there’s a ripping sound and she feels air on her back. ‘Mama!’ her son says, looking up at her wide-eyed. ‘What’s happening?’ Always anxious about what’s next. She delivered him to freedom but he is still in custody, she sees it in him every day. Not so much her daughter, who is younger and adapted more easily, though both will forever see all life through the gauze of truth. The abaya rips completely and she feels a violent surge from behind, as she’s pulled upward. Her feet leave the ground with the force of it, then land again. She takes the children with her. Her son looks fearful, her daughter giggles. The women with the tennis bags look at her in shock. Beyond them she sees a lone woman, hurrying away from the school, who stops and smiles, hands to her mouth in surprise and delight. ‘Oh, Mama!’ her little girl whispers, letting go of her hand and circling her. ‘You grew wings! Big beautiful wings!’ The woman looks over her shoulder and there they are: majestic porcelain-white feathers, over a thousand of them in each wing, she has a seven-foot wingspan. By tensing and untensing her back muscles she discovers that she can control her wings, that all this time her body was working in preparation for flight. Her primary wings are at the tips of her fingertips. Her daughter squeals with delight, her son clings to her tightly, wary of the women staring at them. She relaxes her muscles, folds her wings closer to her body and wraps them around her children, cocooning them. She lowers her head and huddles with them – it is just the three of them, wrapped in white warm feathery delight. Her daughter giggles. She looks at her son and he smiles shyly, surrendering to this miracle. Safety. The elusive treasure. She slowly opens her wings again, to their full grand span, and she lifts her chin in the air, feeling like an eagle on top of the highest mountain. Proud, reclaimed. The women still block the path, too shocked to move. The woman smiles. Her mother once told her, the only way to the end is to go through. Her mother was wrong; she can always rise above. ‘Hold on tight, my babies.’ She feels their trusting grips tighten around her hands; they cannot be torn apart. Her wingspan is enormous. Those little hands gripping hers are all the motivation she needs. Everything was always for them. Always has been, always will be. A better life. A happy life. A safe life. Everything they are entitled to. She closes her eyes, breathes in, feels her power. Taking her children with her, she lifts upwards to the sky, and she soars. (#ulink_7c728bb2-4b7f-5330-9bcf-a76de8ef7eea) She sits on the bench in the park every weekday at lunchtime, the same bench, the same park, beside the lake. The wooden bench is cold beneath her. She curses, stands, pulls her coat down lower over her rear end and sits again, the padding protecting her a little more. She unwraps her ham-and-cheese baguette and spreads the tinfoil open over her lap. A squished tomato oozes beneath the bread, causing it to become soggy. This tips her over the edge. ‘Fucking shitty motherfucking tomato.’ She could tolerate her intolerable colleagues at work. She could tolerate the disgusting man on the bus beside her this morning who picked his nose for the entire trip and rolled his snot on the balls of his fingers as if she couldn’t see him. But the tomato. The fucking tomato is the icing on the cake. She’d only wanted cheese and ham and this unwanted addition has turned her bread to mush, leaving the cheese squished and stuck to the bread as though it’s all one gooey substance. ‘Bastard tomato,’ she grumbles, throwing the entire baguette on the ground. The ducks can have it. Every lunch hour she visits the city park. Her office is nearby. Stocks, trading, asshole colleagues. This bench is the quietest, it is set away from everybody else. She comes here to feed the ducks and as she does she mumbles about the people who piss her off. She vents her frustrations over her fuckwit boss, her delusional colleagues, the turbulent stock markets. Feeding the ducks is her punchbag. Most of her colleagues go to the gym on their lunch breaks, run off their issues for forty-five minutes and return to their desks cocksure and smelling of active shower gel and deodorant, and throbbing with testosterone. She prefers the fresh air, the peace, no matter what the weather. She needs to grumble and rant, and with every piece of bread she throws, a problem is eliminated and a little of the frustration ebbs away. Only, she’s not too sure it works – sometimes she finds herself getting worked up into a seething frenzy as her head fills with all the things she should have said – valid points and arguments she should have made back in the office. She stares at the lump of soggy bread roll she has thrown on the ground. A few ducks fight over it, peck at it, but ultimately it falls well short of the all-out battle she’d thought it would spawn, which only goes to prove how unappetizing the baguette is. ‘You should have broken it up into pieces,’ a male voice interrupts her thoughts. She looks up and around with surprise. There’s nobody there. ‘Who said that?’ ‘Me.’ Her eyes fall upon a mallard, standing away from the other ducks that are pecking at the bread roll, and each other. ‘Hi,’ it says. ‘I’m guessing by the look on your face that you can hear me.’ Her mouth falls open. She’s speechless. He laughs. ‘Okay, nice talking,’ he says, then waddles off towards the lake. ‘Wait! Come back!’ She snaps out of her shock. ‘I’ll give you some bread!’ ‘Nah, thanks,’ he says, but he waddles towards her. ‘You shouldn’t feed ducks bread, you know. Aside from the fact that uneaten bread causes changes to the chemical and bacteriological content of the water, which in turn increases the risks of avian disease, it’s bad nutrition. The recommended food for ducks is defrosted frozen peas, corn or oats. That kind of thing.’ She stares at him, completely lost for words. ‘Don’t be offended, it’s sweet of you, all right, but white bread is the worst, it has no nutritional value whatsoever. Ever heard of angel wing?’ She shakes her head. ‘Didn’t think so. It’s caused by an imbalance of nutrients in a duck’s diet. It causes a deformity in ducks’ wings, can hamper our flight or stop us altogether, which is, you know, crappy.’ ‘Gosh, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.’ ‘That’s okay.’ He studies her. He can’t help himself. ‘Mind if I sit with you?’ ‘Sure.’ He flies up to the bench. ‘Work getting you down again?’ ‘How did you know?’ ‘You’re here every day. Fucking Colin. Fucking Peter. Fucking world markets. Fucking Slimming World. Bastard tomatoes.’ ‘You hear all that?’ ‘Hear it? We feel it. Every time we hear you coming, we armour up. You fire those pieces of bread at us like grenades.’ ‘Sorry,’ she replies, biting her lip. ‘That’s okay. We figure it does you some good, even if it takes a duck eye out here and there.’ ‘Thanks for understanding.’ ‘We’re all human, after all,’ he says. She looks at him, baffled. ‘That was a little bit of bird humour for you,’ he chuckles. ‘But seriously, everybody needs to have a place where they can let loose. Where they feel safe.’ He has a faraway look. She studies him. ‘Do you?’ ‘Yeah sure, there’s this great river region in Senegal where I go for the winter. There’s a sweet little pintail that I meet up with. We watch the sunrise and sunset, we hang out by the river. That’s my place.’ ‘It sounds beautiful.’ ‘It is.’ They sit together in silence. ‘How about we reverse it?’ he asks suddenly. ‘You want me to fly to Senegal? I’m not sure I’m your pintail’s type.’ The duck laughs. ‘Let’s reverse the feeding.’ She giggles. ‘Are you going to throw bread at me?’ ‘In a way. A little food for thought.’ ‘Okay.’ ‘It’s not my place to say it, which is why I never said it before, but you seem more open to it today, being able to hear me speak and all. You seem angry. Very stressed, frustrated. I get the impression you don’t like your job very much.’ ‘I like my job. And if there was nobody in the office, I’d love my job.’ ‘Hey, look, who are you talking to? If I was the only duck in this pond, life would be much easier, let me tell you, but I pass the time watching people and I’ve noticed you. You’re not very good with people.’ ‘Or ducks, by the sounds of it,’ she says, trying not to take offence. She’d always thought she was a good people person. She stayed out of everybody’s way, never asked questions, never got into conflict with anyone … ‘You’ll be better with ducks after this. As for the people: you should tell Colin he needs to trust your instincts. Tell him you were right about the Damon Holmes account. The account taking that turn for the worse had nothing to do with you and everything to do with the earthquake in Japan.’ She nods. ‘Tell Paul to stop interrupting you in meetings. Tell Jonathan you don’t enjoy the dirty emails, that donkeys don’t do it for you. Tell Christine in Slimming World that you’d appreciate it if she stopped telling people your husband was her first boyfriend. She may have taken his virginity but you took his heart. And tell your husband you don’t like tomatoes; he’s adding them to the baguette because he senses you’re stressed. It’s his way of making things more special for you. He doesn’t know that your bread is soggy by lunchtime, or how much the sogginess bothers you.’ The woman nods, taking it all in. ‘Stop hiding here and making things worse. Deal with it head-on. Calmly. Stand up for yourself. Talk to people. Be an adult. Then come here and just enjoy feeding the ducks.’ She smiles. ‘Oats, corn and peas.’ ‘That’ll do just fine.’ ‘Thank you, duck. Thank you for the advice.’ ‘Sure,’ he says, flying down from the bench to the ground and waddling into the lake. ‘Good luck,’ he adds, swimming to the centre and narrowly avoiding the piece of bread that flies from another direction, towards his head. The woman stands, feels dizzy, and quickly sits down again. Something the duck said hit a nerve. Stop hiding. Talk to people. She’s heard those words before, but not in a long time. As a child the words seemed to pass everybody’s lips; from her mother at children’s parties, from her father when he took her anywhere, from teachers, from every adult whose path she crossed until she made it her intention at a very young age not to cross people’s paths. After that, the only time she’d heard the words as an adult was from her then-boyfriend, soon to be her ex-boyfriend, though his exact words had been, Stop hiding. Talk to me. She had always been a hider and she never wanted to talk. As a child she was afraid to speak up because she knew she wasn’t allowed to tell them the things that she wanted to say. They wanted her to be normal and act normal, but nothing really was normal, and she couldn’t tell them that. If she couldn’t say what was real then there was nothing else to say, and avoidance became the name of the game. There was only one person who had ever truly understood her, never uttering those words, even in her childhood. Her eyes filled up at the thought of him: Granddad. Her parents’ marriage had been a volatile one. She was an only child and whenever things fired up at home, her granddad would come to collect her and they’d go for a drive. They’d have chats, little ones, innocent ones. She felt safe in his company because she was safe in his company. She loved the smell of his woollen cardigans, and the way he removed his full set of teeth and chattered them in her face to make her laugh. She loved the feel of his fat wrinkled hands when her small hand got lost in his grip, and the smell of pipe smoke from his wax jacket. She loved being away from her house, even more being taken away. She always felt that he was rescuing her, showing up at the right time as if by magic. Only now did it occur to her that most likely he came because her mother had summoned him; a surprising revelation to have after so many years of viewing the same events with the same pair of eyes. When she was with Granddad, he’d helped her to forget the things she was afraid of. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t shine a light on the darkened corners of her mind, more a case of making her forget such a thing as darkness existed. He didn’t push her to explain anything. He already knew. He didn’t tell her to stop hiding because he helped her escape, and that escape in childhood had become her hiding place as an adult. He used to take her to feed the ducks. When the yelling started, and the banging, the insults and the tears, he would arrive, she’d hear the honk of his car horn, and she would run down the stairs and out the door, holding her breath like a soldier racing from a battlefield, ducking grenades, never looking back. She would hop into the car and there would be peace. Silence in her surroundings and in her mind. They’d feed the ducks together and he’d make her feel safe. He sounded very much like the duck she’d spoken with. So now she sits on the bench in the park by the lake, stunned, remembering him, smelling him, hearing him, feeling him all over again. She cries through her smile, and smiles through her tears, and then, feeling lighter, she stands and walks back to her office. (#ulink_5d244a6c-3d2b-5549-971b-e8b366d8c609) She noticed the mark on her skin on her first day back at work after nine months’ maternity leave. It had been a stressful morning. She had packed and repacked her work tote the previous night like an anxious child before her first day of school, and still, despite the endless planning, the thinking and rethinking, the freshly puréed food in pots packed away in the freezer and one in the fridge for the next day, the lunches prepared, schoolbags ready, diaper bag packed, changes of clothes in case of after-school sports grass stains, potty-training failures and explosive diarrhoea due to new formula, the school uniform washed and ironed, afterschool tracksuit ready for activities – still, after all that organization, the constant run-throughs of what-if scenarios, they ended up late. She couldn’t sleep with all the thinking, planning, organizing, preparing, fallback-plan-making; everything was going through her mind and on top of that she had to cope with anxiety about her first day back at work. Would she be able to pick up where she’d left off? Would she muddle things up as she had been doing at home – adding bubble solution to the chicken dinner and only realizing when she went outside to blow a tin of chopped tomatoes into the air for her confused children? Would she be able to function? Was she still relevant? Had her portfolios been given away? Would her clients be happy to see her return? What if her replacement had been more efficient, quicker, faster, better? What if they were looking for flaws, examining her under the microscope, looking for a reason to get rid of the woman with three kids? There were people who wanted her job, people who could stay longer in the evening, arrive earlier in the morning, change their schedule at a moment’s notice. Young men, older men with children, young women, women with no children because they didn’t want them, couldn’t have them, or who were afraid to risk it all. She had dropped the six-year-old at school, then the three-year-old at Montessori, then the nine-month-old at daycare. Every single drop-off had broken her heart, each one more than the last. Each child howled as she left him, looked at her with sad searching eyes as if to say, ‘Why are you leaving me like this?’ Stamping images in her mind of their crumpled-up faces, tormented and accusing. Why was she doing this to them? Nine months at home had been lovely – stressful at times but lovely, with at least one daily psychotic screaming episode that scared her more than the kids, but still, they’d been together and she’d loved them and they had felt loved. So why was she putting them through this? Most of her salary went on childcare. She could get by without working if she really had to, if they economized even further. It wasn’t about the money. Well, it was a little, but not completely. She was going back to work because she needed to. She loved her job. She wanted her job. Her husband wanted her to have this job, not just so she could help pay the mortgage but because he loved that other woman that she became when she worked, the one that felt a little more contented, a little more useful, satisfied, relevant, a little less cranky. Though she certainly wasn’t feeling that way on her first day back. She watched her baby in the arms of the stranger whose nametag said ‘Emma’ and her heart twisted. She hated Emma. She loved Emma. She needed Emma. The baby screamed and she felt her nipples twist and leak. Her silk shirt was already soiled, not by the kids for once but by her own body. She blasted the heating, directed the fan towards her wet boobs, placed a cabbage leaf in each bra cup against her breasts, and searched the radio for anything to take her mind off abandoning her children. That night as she was inspecting her body after the shower, she noticed the red mark. It was on her right breast, the fleshiest part of her body. ‘It’s a heat rash,’ her husband said. ‘It’s not.’ ‘You always get these spots when you take a hot shower.’ ‘The shower wasn’t very hot. I’ve been out for twenty minutes.’ ‘It’s dry skin, then.’ ‘It’s not. I’ve just moisturized.’ ‘Well then, what is it?’ ‘That’s what I’m asking you.’ He pushed his head closer to her breast and squinted. ‘Did Dougie bite you? It looks like a bite mark.’ She shook her head. Not that she remembered. But maybe he had. Though he’d barely looked at her when she’d collected him from daycare that evening and had fallen asleep in the car on the way home so she’d had to put him straight to bed. She recalled the struggle while handing him over to Emma at daycare. She didn’t remember him biting her, but maybe. She’d slept well that night after the emotional day, despite a bed-wetting incident, an unscheduled night bottle and a sleepwalker. The two eldest ended up in bed with her husband while she ended up in the spare bedroom with the baby. Still, the best night’s sleep one could ask for under the circumstances. The following day the mark on her chest had turned a purple colour and she found another. She’d noticed it after lunch, when she managed to sit alone in the local restaurant and order food for herself, by herself, actually finishing her cup of tea while it was still hot, then went to the toilet alone for the first time in a very long time. She thought she’d sat down on a pin or a thumbtack but found nothing on her desk chair. In the toilet cubicle, she pulled out her compact mirror and found an even larger red oval-shaped mark on the white flesh of her buttock. She didn’t show her husband that one but she was careful with the children, making sure none of them were nipping at her when she wasn’t looking. It was during an overnight business trip to London that she began to grow really concerned. One too many stares at her on the plane – on which she had been able to sit alone, without having to share a seat belt or a seat, or distract her children from kicking the seat in front of them or running up and down the aisles, or screaming at the top of their lungs – caused her to rush to the bathroom as soon as they landed. She discovered that her neck was covered in red marks, which were much larger than the previous ones and definitely bite marks, with tiny tooth incisions clearly visible. She hid her neck beneath her scarf, despite the stifling heat in the car she shared with her male colleagues, and later in the hotel realized the marks had spread all the way down her left arm. While on Skype, talking to the kids, who were too hyper to pay her any attention, she showed her husband the bite marks. His annoyance and distrust were evident. ‘Who is away with you?’ They argued and she couldn’t sleep, feeling rage and hurt, on the one night she had a bed to herself. To top it all off, at 1 a.m. the hotel fire alarm went off and she found herself outside on the street in her gown, in the cold, for thirty minutes until she could return to her room. When she got home, her baby wouldn’t come to her, would only stay in his father’s arms and anytime she neared him he screamed as though his legs were being sawed off. Which was what hers felt like. Her husband found her sobbing in the bathroom; when he saw her body, covered in marks in various shades of bruising and swelling, he knew something was seriously wrong. The pain was agonizing. She went to the doctor the following day. It was a Saturday and she didn’t want to – all she wanted was to be with the kids – but gave in when her husband insisted and his mother offered to have the kids for the afternoon. The pain was getting worse by the hour. The doctor was equally confused but more suspicious. She confirmed that these were bite marks, prescribed painkillers and a lotion, then pushed some pamphlets about domestic abuse into her handbag as she left the surgery, telling her to be in touch if it continued. Three weeks later, she was unrecognizable. The marks had spread to her face; there was bruising on her cheeks and chin, and the tips of her ears looked as though they’d been nibbled. She hadn’t missed any work – she couldn’t, not after nine months’ maternity leave; she had too much to prove, too much to catch up on. But she was exhausted. She looked ravaged and drained of all colour. The doctor arranged for blood tests. All appeared normal, nothing that could cause or be related to the marks on her skin. She and her husband fumigated the house, they got rid of the carpets and laid timber flooring in case dust mites were the cause of her agitated skin. And every weekday morning she’d say goodbye to her babies, who no longer cried when she left them, which made her feel even worse and caused her to cry all the way into the city, where she’d apply a layer of extra-thick foundation so she could pass for a competent professional in the office. When socializing at the weekend, she would lather on body make-up to cover her bitten legs, and play the super-attentive wife and friend. Of an evening she would try to keep the baby awake in the car on the way home, sometimes lowering the windows to let the fresh air in, singing loudly, blaring the radio, anything so she could have time with him awake. But no matter what she did his eyelids would flutter, unable to stay open beyond 6:30 p.m. She drove home faster, avoided conversations or phone calls leading up to 5 p.m. She charged from the building to get to her baby as fast as she could, but each time the motion of the car would cause his long lashes to flutter closed. It wasn’t long before she found herself in the hospital, rigged up to wires and machines. Not able to be at home with the kids, or at work, the guilt was overwhelming. They would visit her but it was heartbreaking. Not being able to play with them and hold them as she wanted to hurt her soul. Work tried to accommodate her new ‘out of office’ temporary arrangement, but she couldn’t give herself to them completely. She felt like she was letting everybody down. Her flesh had been devoured by hundreds of angry bite marks that began as nips but ended in blood-inducing tears of flesh. The physical pain was crippling, but the inability to be everything to everyone at all times was even worse. Since entering hospital her condition had deteriorated; the number of marks on her skin had been growing by the day, and that evening an angry sore had developed on her wrist, right over her pulse, as she looked on in horror. Blood tests and scans might not have yielded any results thus far, but being alone in the hospital had given her time to think, precious hours alone that she hadn’t had time for since becoming a mother. Tied to her bed with wires and tubes, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t get out without alerting the nurses and making an event of it. She wasn’t working and as she had no other human beings to aid and comfort, it was just her, alone in a room, with her thoughts. All the pacing was done in her head and after a time even her mind got tired, stopped, sat down. Drummed its fingers. Waited. The suffocation passed and her breathing began. With the in-out flow of her breaths, thoughts began to shift. Everything was separated, organized, put into the relevant boxes: the time this happened, the time that happened, the things she said and should have said, and experiences she’d resolved to put behind her or relive in another way. A spring cleaning of her mind, until everything was filed away neatly in her mind and the surface was clear. A clear mind in a clear room. She looked around. What had put her here? She felt her wrist to check her pulse and discovered it had calmed. The machine beside her, attached by wire to her forefinger, confirmed this. The caged tiger in her had stopped pacing. As she felt her pulse, with the finger that wasn’t hooked up to the pulse oximeter, her fingers brushed her most recent bite mark. She ran the tip of her finger along the jagged teeth marks on her skin, back and forth, gently, slowly, methodically, and she recalled the moment it had appeared. She’d received a visit that afternoon from her husband and children. They had been excited to visit her, were hyper, jumping around the room, sending toy characters on adventures in, on, around the hospital equipment; Barbie wrapped in her new IV wire dress, Lego Batman in deep distress under a wheel of the bed, a teddy bear leaping on the remote control, trying to come up with a new algorithm for poo land. Her children had snuggled up beside her on the bed, stolen the jelly and custard from the tray, talked and babbled a mile a minute about their exciting and busy lives. She had listened, her heart full, loving the sound of their little voices, their developing words, their confused but practical grammar that she never wanted to fix. Her husband sat in the armchair by her bed, leaving the spotlight on her, her moment with her babies, watching her, trying to hide his concern. And then their time was up, visiting hour had come to an end and the nurses, who had kindly turned a blind eye to the number of visitors in her room, gave a light knock on the door to warn them. She watched as they bundled up in their coats, woollen hats that squeezed their soft cheeks together, and chubby hands disappeared into mitts. Wet kisses on her cheeks and lips, little arms barely able to wrap around her body; she breathed them in and never wanted them to let go. But she had to. She ran her fingers over her bite mark. The familiar feeling had been building up, the feeling that let her know when a new mysterious mark had arrived on her skin. This was the first time she’d identified it, she’d thought before that it was spontaneous, sporadic, without any pattern at all, but now she realized there was a pattern. She had kissed her husband, his turn to have her attention, and apologized again. ‘Stop apologizing,’ he’d said gently. ‘Just get better.’ She’d apologized to the children too. ‘It’s not your fault you’re sick, Mummy,’ a little voice said. She’d watched them leave, heard their noisy chatter and the beginnings of bickering down the hall and she felt so sorry. Sorry because she was sorry. Sorry because she felt guilty. Her fingers stopped moving over her wrist. Guilt. When she dropped her baby off at crèche, she felt guilty. When she couldn’t collect them from school, she felt guilty. When she couldn’t take a day off when they were ill, she felt guilty. She felt guilty about her cluttered house. She felt guilty when she discovered a friend had gone through the most traumatic moment of their lives without telling her and she’d been oblivious to it, she’d missed the tired eyes, the revealing lack of sparkle or words that held back the truth. She felt guilty for forgetting to call her parents, for making a mental note to do it and then allowing herself to be distracted. She felt guilty at work for not being at home, she felt guilty at home for not being at work. She felt guilty for spending too much money on a pair of shoes. She felt guilty for stealing the children’s pizza. She felt guilty for falling back on her workouts. She had stored up so much guilt she felt as though she was guilt incarnate. She hated that every time she was somewhere she was thinking of where she should be. She hated that she felt she had to explain herself, justify everything, she hated being judged, she hated feeling judged when she knew she wasn’t being judged. She hated living in her head. It was wrong. It was all wrong. She knew these thoughts were irrational, because she liked her career and she was a competent mother with so much love in her heart. Her fingertips brushed her wrist again. She turned her wrist over and examined her skin. The most recent bite seemed paler. It wasn’t gone but it wasn’t as angry, as raw and red as it had been. She sat up in the bed, her heart pounding, trying to slow her breathing and her mind again. The numbers on the machine warned her about her heart rate. Nothing good came from her busy mind. Guilt. It was the guilt. The guilt was, quite literally, eating her alive. Her skin had become a patchwork quilt of guilt. This terrified her, but realizing the root of the mysterious skin disease was enough to bring a flicker of hope. She only ever needed to know what was wrong, and then she could fix it. It was what she told her children when there was some concern eating at them. It was the great unknown that fed the fear. Excited, she pushed the sleeves of her nightgown up her arms and studied her skin. These marks too were fading; the more violent ones were now less red and raging. And as she studied each one she remembered the moment, the defining moment each one had arrived. The business trip to London. The second night in a row to get a babysitter. The school trip to the museum she hadn’t been able to take. Their ten-year wedding anniversary night she’d gotten so drunk she’d vomited on the daffodils in the front garden and ended up sleeping on the bathroom floor. The third no in a row to a friend’s dinner invitation. All of these bite marks were moments, moments she had felt she wasn’t enough for the people who needed her. But she knew that wasn’t true. The people who loved her told her so. They told her every day and it was their voices she needed to listen to. She climbed out of bed, she disconnected the IV from her vein, removed the pulse oximeter from her forefinger. The manic beeping from the machine began. Ignoring it, she calmly took out her bag and started packing. ‘What are you doing?’ asked Annie, the wonderful nurse who had cared for her during her stay. ‘Thank you for all that you’ve done, Annie. I’m sorry to have wasted your time—’ She stopped herself. The guilt again. ‘Actually, I’m not sorry. Thank you. I appreciate your kindness and care, but I have to go now. I’m better.’ ‘You can’t leave,’ Annie said gently, at her side. ‘Look.’ The woman held out her arms. Annie looked at them in surprise. Ran her fingers over the fading bites. She lowered herself to her knees, lifted the hem of the woman’s gown and inspected her legs. ‘How on earth?’ ‘I let the guilt get to me,’ the woman said. ‘I let it eat me up. But I won’t any more.’ Or at least, she’d try not to let it. She could do this. She could do it all, because she wanted to and because she had to. Because it was her life, the only one she had, and she was going to live it as best she could, embracing every moment, going to work, being with her family and refusing to apologize to anyone for it, least of all herself. Annie took in her determination and smiled. ‘So why are you rushing home now?’ The woman stopped and thought about it. She was doing it again. ‘The marks are fading but they’re not gone. If you push it, they may return. I suggest you get back into bed, let yourself get better and then you can go home. Rested.’ Yes, the woman decided. One more night, guilt-free, sleep-filled. And then she would return. Return home. Return to herself. Celebrating everything, guilt-free. (#ulink_3d789d86-df84-5899-b26a-1b5a89fff821) ‘X, R, S, C, B, Y, L, R, T …’ she says, calling out the letters on the sign before her. ‘Okay, you can remove your hand now,’ the optician says and so she lowers her hand from her right eye, and looks at him expectantly. ‘Your visual acuity is very good,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what that means.’ ‘It refers to clarity of vision dependent on optical and neural factors; the sharpness of the retinal focus within the eye, the health and functioning of the retina and the sensitivity of the interpretive faculty of the brain.’ ‘Harry, I used to babysit you. I caught you dancing in the mirror to Rick Astley, singing into your deodorant bottle, with your shirt off.’ He blinks, a flush appearing on his cheeks. He rephrases: ‘What it means is that you have 20/20 vision. Perfect eyesight.’ She sighs. ‘No, I don’t. I told you that. They’re my eyes. I should know.’ ‘Yes,’ he shifts in his chair, the professional side of him disappearing and the nervous young boy in his place. ‘This is what I don’t quite understand. You seem so sure of your ailing eyesight but you’re not experiencing any headaches, sore eyes, no blurred vision, you can read perfectly well. There’s no issue with your distance sight, in fact you read the bottom line of the eye chart, which many people can’t read. I don’t understand where your difficulty lies.’ She throws him the same look she had thrown him when she’d found him with his head hanging outside the bathroom window, sneaking a cigarette. He’d shouted to her that his stomach was upset, but she’d used a coin to unlock the door from the outside. If he didn’t have an upset stomach before, he had one after. She had been a terrifying babysitter. Despite the fact they were both twenty years older now, her intimidating stare held the same power over him. He tries to remember he is a grown man now, married, two children. Holiday home in Portugal. Mortgage half-paid. She can’t hurt him any more. He straightens his spine. She breathes in and out. Counts to three silently. He’s qualified, an academic, but clearly he’s still the stupid teenager whom she caught jerking off into a sock. ‘It started happening a few weeks ago,’ she explains. ‘What did?’ ‘The problem with my feet.’ He stares at her blankly. ‘You’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?’ ‘Of course I am. What am I here for?’ ‘Your eyes.’ ‘My eyes,’ she snaps. The grown-up Harry, the husband and father is gone. He’s back to the humiliated teen. The sock memory. ‘I can’t quite pinpoint it, but I would say it happened about three weeks ago. I woke up the morning after my birthday party and I felt wretched. I could barely recognize myself but I put that down to the tequila slammers, you see, so I let another few days go by before I realized it wasn’t just a hangover, there really was something wrong.’ ‘And what exactly is wrong?’ ‘They are seeing me wrong.’ He swallows. ‘Your eyes are seeing you wrong?’ ‘They aren’t seeing me as they should. They’re showing me a different version of me. It’s the wrong version. It’s not me. There’s something wrong with them. Perhaps it’s not the vision, perhaps I need an X-ray or an MRI. Perhaps it’s not the lens – what if it’s the pupil or the iris or … another part.’ ‘Let me get this straight …’ He leans forward, elbows on his knees, long thighs, long arms and fingers, quite attractive really for someone who was such a little pain in the ass. There’s the trace of a smile on his lips and this maddens her. She can see he’s trying not to laugh. She shouldn’t have come here. ‘You’re here because you look at yourself in the mirror and see yourself differently?’ ‘Yes,’ she says calmly. ‘My eyes are not showing me how I feel. Therefore the message that the eye is sending to me is wrong. Do you understand? I look different, not how I feel at all. I got a bit of a fright at the sight, actually.’ She hears the tremble in her voice, so does he, and his smile quickly fades. He softens, looks a bit concerned. She thinks of him cosying up to her with buttered popcorn and monkey fleece pyjamas when he woke up from a bad dream. He wasn’t always a shit. ‘Don’t you think that there might be another explanation?’ His voice is gentle. She thinks hard, he’s trying to tell her something. He’s being gentle about it and then suddenly – bam – it’s all so clear. What an idiot she’s been! She throws her head back and laughs. ‘Of course! Why didn’t I think of it before? It’s so obvious! It’s not my eyes that are the problem at all.’ He seems relieved that she’s not going to fall to pieces on his chair, in his office. He sits up and smiles. She claps her hands gleefully and stands. ‘Thank you so much for your time, Harry, you’ve been a fantastic help.’ He stands too, awkwardly. ‘Have I? I’m glad. You know, I won’t charge for this session.’ ‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ she reaches for her purse. ‘I’ve taken plenty of money from you – or your family at least – over the years, and both of us know I wasn’t worth it.’ She laughs, so happy to have this resolved. So pleased it’s not an eye problem. He takes the money awkwardly. She waves away the receipt. ‘So … what are you going to do, may I ask?’ ‘Well, if it’s not my eyes, Harry, what else could it be?’ she says. ‘I’m going to get the mirror fixed of course!’ The mirror man, Laurence, stands before the full-length mirror in her bedroom, scratching his head. ‘You want me to do what?’ ‘Fix it, please.’ Silence. ‘That is what you do, isn’t it? According to the website, you’re an artisan glass and mirror company.’ ‘Well yes, I mainly design custom pieces. But we also do mirror and glass installations and replacements, repair work to the frames, chips in the glass, that kind of thing.’ ‘Perfect.’ He still looks confused. He’d taken a quick sweeping look at her bedroom as he entered, she’s not sure if he noticed that only one person sleeps here, just her, no husband, not any more. Apparently they’re almost through the worst of it; her separated friends tell her the light is at the end of the tunnel. She certainly hopes so, she’s nearing the end of her tether and thinking her eyes are a problem isn’t helping things. ‘What’s the problem?’ she asks. ‘The problem is, I don’t see a problem with this mirror.’ She laughs. ‘Do I pay for that diagnosis?’ He smiles. He has dimples. She suddenly wants to fix her hair. She wishes she’d paid more attention to her appearance before he arrived. ‘Well there is a problem, trust me. Can you replace the glass? I’d like to keep the frame. It was my mother’s.’ She smiles, a bigger than she’d intended; his smile is contagious. She chews the inside of her cheek to stop herself, but it doesn’t work. His just grows. His eyes start to wander over her, goosebumps rise on her skin. ‘Is it cracked?’ He drags his gaze away from her and studies the mirror, running his hands over the finish. She can’t stop watching him. ‘No. It’s not. But it’s broken.’ ‘How is it broken?’ He frowns, scratching his head again. And so she tells him how she went to the optician but there seems to be no problem with her eyes; so the logical conclusion both she and the optician came to was that the mirror must be broken. He stares at her, curious; but gently so, not in a judgemental way. ‘Maybe you’ve heard of this problem before?’ she asks. He goes to say something, then stops himself. ‘Sure,’ he says. ‘It’s a common problem.’ ‘Oh good,’ she says, relieved. ‘If it wasn’t the mirror, I wasn’t sure who to go to next.’ ‘Is this the only mirror you use?’ he asks. ‘Um …’ It seems a strange sort of question. She’s never given it any thought before. ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’ She has been avoiding mirrors for a while. Since everything in her life went to shit, she couldn’t be bothered to look at herself. It was only when she started looking again that she noticed the problem. He nods. Quick look around her bedroom again. Perhaps he sees now that only one person sleeps in it. Is it that obvious? She wants it to be obvious. ‘I’ll have to take it with me, back to the studio. I’ll have to take out this pane, cut one that will fit just right. And I could freshen up the frame for you too, bring life back to it.’ She’s hesitant to let it go. ‘I’ll keep it safe, don’t worry. I know it’s important to you.’ The woman sees her mother posing in front of it. Pictures herself as a little girl, sitting on the floor beside her, watching her get ready to go out, wishing she could go with her too, thinking her mother is some exotic creature that she will never resemble. She smells her mother’s perfume, the one she saves for her special nights out. Twirl, Mummy. And she would. She always did. Swirling pleats. Billowing skirts. Revealing side splits. She glances in the mirror again. She doesn’t see the little girl. She wasn’t expecting to see her, was she? She sees a version of herself that she doesn’t like. Older. She looks away. She’s not herself. Nope. This mirror has to go. ‘I could use another mirror, I suppose …’ ‘No, don’t do that,’ he says. ‘This is the one you want.’ He rubs the frame lovingly, delicately. ‘I’ll make this perfect for you.’ She stifles a school-girlish giggle. ‘Thank you.’ And before she closes the front door behind him he says, ‘Promise me you won’t look in any other mirrors until this one is ready?’ ‘I promise,’ she nods. When she closes the door her heart is pounding. He rings the next day to tell her that he’d like her to come to his studio to pick out a piece of glass. She wonders if it is necessary. She wonders if he is just trying to see her again, hoping that’s the case. ‘Aren’t they all the same?’ she asks. ‘The same?’ he cries in mock outrage. ‘We have plane mirrors, spherical mirrors, two-way and one-way mirrors. I don’t want to decide until I see what it is you like.’ She pulls up to his business address in her car the following day. She has spent more time on her appearance. She used the bathroom mirror, it seemed a little off too but certainly closer to the version of herself that she was used to, as she applied make-up, feeling giddy, and also like an idiot for getting ahead of herself. She expected a dirty warehouse or a retail outlet, somewhere cold with hard surfaces, soulless, but it’s not what she finds. Down a pretty country lane, she travels to a converted barn set off from a thatched cottage. The inside looks like something from a design magazine; a studio filled with the most stunning mirrors she has ever seen. ‘I use reclaimed wood for the frames,’ he tells her, bringing her on a tour around the studio, lined with mirrors of all shapes and sizes. ‘This is the most recent. I’m almost finished, the wood is from a tree root I found while out gathering,’ he explains, pointing to the woodland stretching out for acres beyond the barn. ‘It doesn’t have to be grandiose wood.’ He points at a bathroom mirror: ‘That was made from reclaimed pallet wood.’ She runs her hands along all of the frames, impressed by his artistry, feeling a little embarrassed that she contacted a man with such a gift to fix a pane. He developed the barn himself, he says, explaining about windows and light rebounding. She has no idea what exactly he means but it sounds beautiful. And if ever there was a man made for spending his days working with mirrors, it’s him. She feels something when she looks at him, something she hasn’t felt for a very long time, a lifetime ago, when she was another person. The person she doesn’t look like any more. He comes close to her, places his hands on her two arms and turns her around. The personal touch surprises her. ‘Your mirror is over there,’ he says, pointing. She sees her mirror in the corner of the room. He has done exactly what he said he’d do, he brought it back to life. It has been sanded and varnished and she can see it as it was, in her parents’ bedroom, by the wardrobe, Daddy’s shoes lined up beside it, Mummy’s hair curlers plugged into the wall on the ground. She walks over to it and stands before it, seeing his reflection as he stands behind her. She looks at her reflection. She takes herself in, examines herself. ‘You fixed it already,’ she says with a smile. She’s back. It’s her again. She looks rejuvenated, as though she’s had a facial or invested in a new expensive moisturizer, which she hasn’t. It was the mirror all along, she knew it. ‘I thought I was here to choose a pane, you tricked me!’ she laughs. ‘You’re happy?’ he asks, his eyes sparkling as the light of dozens of mirrors bounce light around the room and make him look like he’s glowing. ‘Yes, it’s perfect,’ she says, examining it again. She sees a red dot on the glass and reaches out to touch it. Her hand hits the pane, no dot to be felt. Confused, she spins around to look at him in the flesh. ‘What kind of mirror did you use?’ ‘Look at it again,’ he says, a strange look on his face. It feels like a trick. She slowly turns and faces the mirror again. Examines the frame, the glass, everything but her face really, because he’s behind her and she’s self-conscious and fluttering inside. The red dot is still on the glass and she wonders if it’s a test, though she has already reached out to touch it and it’s not physically there. ‘Have you ever heard of a thing called simultaneous contrast?’ She shakes her head. ‘It’s a painting term.’ ‘You paint, too?’ ‘Just as a hobby. It’s a term for when certain colours look different to our eye when placed next to each other. The colours aren’t altered, it’s just our perception.’ He allows this to sink in. ‘Turn around and look at yourself again,’ he says gently. She slowly turns around and really takes herself in this time. Her eyes scan over her older face, her fuller cheeks, the wrinkles around her eyes, her fuller stomach. She pulls her blouse away from her waist self-consciously and as she’s doing so she sees the red dot again. Instead of reaching out to the glass, she looks down at her body and finds the sticker on her arm. ‘How did that get there?’ she asks, peeling it off. He’s grinning. ‘You stuck it there,’ she says, remembering her surprise at his touch when he spun her around. He’d used that opportunity to place the red sticker on her arm. ‘The mirror test. All of us mirror artists do it,’ he says, joking. ‘The first time I saw the sticker, I thought it was on the mirror,’ she says, figuring his test out. ‘The second time I realized it was on me.’ He nods. ‘It’s not the mirror, it’s me,’ she repeats, and the message hits home. ‘It wasn’t the mirror that was broken, it was me all this time.’ He nods again. ‘Though I wouldn’t say you were broken. It’s all about perception. I didn’t want to touch the mirror. It’s perfect as it is.’ She turns around and faces the mirror. Studies her face, her body. She’s older. She’s aged more this year than she feels she has in five years, but this is her now. She’s changing, she’s ageing, more beautiful in some ways, other ways it’s harder to take. ‘Well?’ he asks. ‘You still want to replace it?’ ‘No. It’s perfect, thank you,’ she says. (#ulink_eadd1d2a-b18a-5ef5-b8ac-701fe7c718db) It was all because of the work presentation. She hated presentations, always had since she was at school and the two idiots at the back of her classroom would hiss ‘sssss’ at her flaming red face. They hurled abuse at everybody but she was an easy target – her face would burn up, blazing red, as soon as she heard the sound of her own voice and felt the layers-peeling power of eyes on her. With age, the flaming redness had lessened, but her nerves channelled themselves through her body and manifested as a severe knee tremble. She wasn’t sure which was worse. The red face that didn’t affect her speech or the knee quiver that caused her entire body to vibrate, shuddering as if she was out in the cold, despite her sweaty armpits. Her skirts would shake so that she resembled a cartoon character; she could almost hear the bone-clattering sound, like a bag of bones being shaken. She’d have to hide her hands too, or close her fingers to make fists. It was worse if she had to hold paper because the paper never lied. Always best to place the sheet on the table, hands closed to fists, or wrapped around a pen. Sit if possible, trousers preferable to skirts, and best to wear pants with narrowly tailored legs because the less loose fabric there was to tremble, the better; how-ever the waist needed to be loose to aid deep breathing. Better to be as casual as possible, coffee or tea to be drunk in a take-out cup to avoid cup and saucer rattling in trembling hands. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know her stuff. She damn well did. She strode around her apartment as if giving a TED Talk. In her apartment she was the most competent, inspiring deliverer of quarterly sales figures that the world had ever seen. She was Sheryl Sandberg giving her TED Talk, she was Michelle Obama saying anything, she was a woman warrior spilling facts and figures, so self-assured in her own home, at night, alone. The presentation was going fine, perhaps not as inspiring and earth-shattering as the rehearsal the previous night, with fewer insightful glimpses into her personal life and absolutely no humour, unlike the comedic ad-libbing she’d busted out to her ghost audience. It was definitely safer and more to the point, as perfect as she could hope for, apart from her annoying repetition of the phrase ‘per se’, which she had never used in her life regarding anything, but there it was now, a part of almost every sentence. She was already looking ahead to drinks later with her friends where they would giggle over her critical yet hilarious self-roasting. They’d toast to ‘Per Se!’ and spend the night using it in every sentence, creating a challenge perhaps, even a drinking game. ‘Excuse me, Mr Bartender,’ she imagined a friend leaning across the bar, with an arched eyebrow. ‘Could I get another Cosmo, per se?’ And they would all dissolve in laughter. But she had gotten too far ahead of herself in her thoughts, she had gotten too cocky. All had been going well in her presentation until she’d disappeared into a daydream and taken her eye off the ball. She’d left the moment. She was surrounded by her dozen-strong team, those relieved to have finished their part of the presentation, others eager to have their moment in the light, when the door opened and in walked Jasper Godfries. The CEO. The new CEO who’d never sat in a sales meeting before in his life. Her heartbeat hastened. Cue knee tremble, cue shaking fingers. Hot skin, short breath. Her entire body, suddenly in flight mode. ‘Sorry to interrupt,’ Jasper announces to the surprised room. ‘I was stuck on a call with India.’ There are no free chairs because nobody is expecting him. People shift around, making room, and she finds herself standing, facing them all and her new CEO. Knees knocking, heart pounding. Her colleagues look at the papers in her hand, some with amusement, some in pity, pretending they don’t notice how they violently shake. Jasper Godfries’ eyes remain on hers. She tries to relax her body, control her breathing, calm her mind, but she can’t think clearly. All she can think is the CEO, the CEO, the CEO. She hadn’t planned for this in any one of her one hundred possible scenario run-throughs all week. Think, think, she tells herself as all eyes are trained on her. ‘Why don’t you take it from the top,’ her boss, Claire, says. Fucking Claire. The voice inside her head shrieks with panic but instead she smiles, ‘Thank you, Claire.’ She looks down at her notes, flicks back to page one and everything blurs. She can’t see, she can’t think, she can only feel. Her anxiety is physical. It’s all going on in her body. She feels trembling in her knees, her legs, her fingers. A heart that beats too fast, they must be able to see it vibrating through her blouse. A cramp in her stomach that tightens. Nothing, nothing in her mind. Claire says something to urge her along. They all turn the pages. They go back to the start. Back to the start. She can’t do it. Not all over again. She hadn’t prepared to do this twice. Her throat tightens, stomach loosens. Panic. She feels a bubble of air, slowly, quietly release from her bottom. She’s thankful it’s quiet but it doesn’t take long for the hot, thick smell of her panic to circulate the room. She sees it hit Colin first. She sees how he jerks and moves his hand closer to his nose. He knows it was her. It will soon reach Claire. It does. Her eyes widen and her hand goes to her nose and mouth, subtly. She looks down at the paper, shaking violently, worse than ever before, and for the first time in twenty-five years she feels the hot red blaze return to her cheeks where it burns, burns, burns her skin. And she hears the words, ‘per se’, leave her lips, followed by a nervous giggle. They all look up from their notes to stare at her. Every single surprised, amused, irritated pair of eyes studies her. Judges her. It’s an awful, quiet, long, loaded silence, and all she wants to do is run out of the room or wish for the ground to open up and swallow her. And that’s when it happens. A beautiful inviting black hole opens up between her and the boardroom table. Dark and promising, deep, welcoming. She barely thinks about it. She would rather be anywhere but here. She jumps in. She falls through darkness and lands in darkness. ‘Ow,’ she rubs her buttocks. Then she remembers what happened and she covers her face with her hands. ‘Oh fuck.’ ‘You too, huh?’ She looks up and sees a woman beside her, wearing a wedding dress, with a name badge that reads Anna. She doesn’t want to know what Anna did, she doesn’t want to think of anything but analyse her own stupid mistake over and over again. ‘Where are we?’ the woman asks. ‘Cringeville,’ Anna moans. ‘Oh God, I am such an idiot.’ She looks up, face contorted in pain. ‘I called him Benjamin. I called him Benjamin,’ Anna says, freaking out, looking at the woman as though she can understand the gravitas of her mistake. ‘His name isn’t Benjamin?’ the woman asks. ‘No!’ Anna barks, causing her to jump. ‘It’s Peter. Peter.’ ‘Oh, well, that’s not even close to Benjamin,’ the woman agrees. ‘No it’s not. Benjamin was my first husband,’ she wipes her eyes. ‘Right in the middle of my wedding speech, I call my new husband the wrong name Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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