Too Close


I sit at the line where the beach becomes the sea, enjoying the cooling when the waves wash into me and the tightening of my skin as the sun evaporates it, leaving traceries of salt. I pick through the stones, choosing the pretty ones; the ones that sparkle in the sunlight, the ones that are particularly smooth, the ones that have paint-box colours.

I find myself willing beauty into the pebbles, moving from the conventional, the pure, smooth white, to the quirks and interesting shapes. My hand is becoming full. I feel bad about the ones I didn’t pick up, but disregarded. Who’s to say they aren’t beautiful, in ways of being small, or large, or jagged, or plain?

I pick up more, and more, until I’m weighed down by beauty, in whatever form it takes, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I have the responsibility of being that beholder. I must undertake it to the best of my ability.

So is this what is to become of me? Am I to be the woman stooped with stones under the thick air, heavy with sun cream, because she couldn’t walk away from one of them?

Now, lying on my sun bed, as my bikini has finally dried, I feel the sunshine boring into me. It burns. Not my skin, really, but my soul. But the sun isn’t so bad; it’s the people around me that really burn. Their eyes stare straight through me, into my very core, the essence of me, located just behind my heart. It feels raw, painful, like an exposed nerve.

I feel naked, far beyond the yellow spotted bikini I bought for this trip; it’s more like they know too much about me. But they don’t know a thing. To them I’m just another thirty-year-old with a bit too much flab, but large breasts, which seems to be a redeeming feature nowadays, even to the ugly. I’ve come to embrace my curves, it emphasises the solidarity I have with 51% of the population. Or is it 49%? No, I’m pretty sure there are slightly more women than men.

Why is that I wonder? Strength in numbers against the sex that one day decided that physical strength made it the stronger, and so more privileged? Nature’s booby prize?

And yet we need them so, and always will, no matter what science is starting to tell us. I stare out at the ocean, undulating with its calm breaths, its abdomen swelling and receding, full of life. I swallow hard. So hard it hurts, as I try to repress the bubble. It’s been there ever since it ended; I can constantly feel it, but when I am reminded, it grows, presses against the back of my throat and stings the backs of my eyes.

I wipe away the water that’s leaked onto my cheeks. Not much, I am pleased to note, as I try not to think of my ex-husband. I try not to think of the way he would rest his hand just above my right hip as he introduced me to someone, or the rough texture of that part of his left earlobe (I never did find out what it was), and I especially try not to think about the way his green eyes had flecks of blue and brown in them. I fail, of course.

Though we were never married, we had such a connection, on so many levels, that it is only natural that I refer to him as my ex-husband, The only difference was my name and title, and the fact that we never lived together, as such. Of course, I have only begun to think of it this way since the split, and he doesn’t know. He’s with another girl now, but she’s just a fling. Although, he doesn’t know that, either. I knew him and loved him better than he knew and loved himself.

He’s the reason I took this trip: to get some space, discover myself again; have a rest. They suggested at work that I took some holiday, so I went on one, the first for years, and my first ever alone. It was somewhat refreshing not to be tied to the whims of another individual. Although now, sitting on the plane, waiting to take off homeward-bound, I can’t help wishing for that tie. I swallow hard and try to get the hole that is opening in my stomach to close again, or to fill it with something.

The pressure of the cabin presses into me and I feel trapped in it, trapped against all these other people. People with stubble and BO and cellulite. The man next to me has his legs wide open so that his knee is almost touching me. I squeeze my thighs together tightly to avoid contact. I can see that he must have shaved this morning, but missed a patch on his left cheek, just under a short sideburn. He has large pores on the bulbous nub of his nose.

I divert my attention to the window I’m sitting next to. Despite the early summer heat of the tropics we took off from, ice crystals are now beginning to form on the thick pain. Wisps of clouds, like baby hair, float underneath us, whipped up by the wind. I take a deep breath and the barren air is so dry it burns my nostrils.

I breathe out, slowly, staring down at my abdomen now. Swollen slightly from my rich holiday diet, I place my hand on my belly and smile. Yes. That would make everything right; of course. It seems so obvious now. I let the relief and peace flood through me; I can almost feel it tingling in my toes. The thrill of the secret ending my loneliness. Perfect.

‘Yes, I’m back now. Yes, perfectly safe.’ I smile down the phone to my mother. ‘Lunch soon would be great. I have some wonderful news.’ From her reaction I can tell she thinks I’ve found a new man, and is thrilled by the prospect. But it’s far better than that. I sigh and smile again, admiring the glow of my cheeks in the hallway mirror.

The restaurant is buzzing with people, but I hold my head high and walk through the tide, strengthened from inside. I smile at my parents as I approach their table and I wonder if they can tell. The secret hums inside of me, pushing against my skin; the glory of it seeps out of every pore and I think I must glow in the dark.

Finally the moment comes and I know that my life has been leading up to this announcement. ‘I’m pregnant.’

As I say it I feel the thrill of life thrumming through my veins, like the Tube under the skin of London around us, heavy and full. I start eating for two, and feeling nauseous in the mornings, and telling everyone I come across. The cards trickle in at first, but the flow gets heavier as word spreads.

Phone calls and invitations to lunch and tea hit me like they never have before. Now that there’s someone else inside of me I’m a complete person; people notice me, take an interest in me. Perhaps that was the gap I was missing before, which somehow trigged my invisibility switch.

Magazines tell me what to eat, what to buy, what to listen to, and I follow them strictly. I switch to baggy, mumsy clothes and start buying things. Small things at first: booties, a rattle, but soon enough baby outfits and a cot. Lemon Meringue for the nursery, with a Tiramisu carpet. Lovely. Names? Oh, I’m not sure yet, it doesn’t really matter.

I elude questions. Who’s the father? I smile at them, pitying, they just don’t understand. Due date? I offer them more tea. I now feel whole, fully myself, and I regard my body with pride. It is sacred; it houses the one thing that’s always with me, that I can rely on, that doesn’t question me.

I place my hand on my belly and smile, feeling warmth radiating within me. Yes, this just feels right. The phone calls become more frequent; Mother checking I’m alright, Father asking if I need anything, friends asking to see scans. They become so insistent. Mother keeps badgering me about the father. Why must there be a father?

Oh my dear, they say, how lucky for you—my ankles swelled up like melons. But my dear, you aren’t getting much bigger. Well, why should I? If I don’t want to I can stay as I am. My baby won’t mind. Darling, let me come to the hospital with you for your next appointment, my mother insists. I try to shake her off but she’s perpetual, clinging, sticky.

Father wants to discuss going private, booking a secluded room. Only a few months to go now, right? Right? Right? People want a date to throw a show. Surprise me. But what if it’s too late? It won’t be. Babies in prams cry directly at me and pregnant mothers scowl and me and fathers with toddlers shun me and tippee cups yawn at me and bottles point at me and packets of nappies fall on top of em at the supermarket so that I’m covered and drowning and being swallowed up by an avalanche and nobody notices.

So now I find myself at the bottom of my stairs, numb with the pain and blood pouring from somewhere. A tin of black paint pressed hard against my still flat stomach. The Xs across the nursery walls are calling to me through the closed doors. It was their fault. They caused this pain. It was them that made me lose what I never really had.

Messy Cook

After fighting my way through the mug-debris of breakfast, I get to the sink. I hear the warped cheer of an ice cream van on this autumn morning and sigh at the last signs of summer. But the noise soon melts into the sickly mess of wasted time and not-quite-there memories. The air has a chill in it and the leaves keep falling. As do I.

I’m a messy cook; I have been ever since I first stuck my podgy fingers into the butter and flour and sugar for Mum’s blackberry crumble. I don’t like having packets and tubs lined up in a death row. I much prefer to have them circle me and I can spin round and pick the one I want.

I love following recipes: I love their precision, and how you just have to do what it says and it rewards you with a glorious fudge cake at the end. No decisions of my own. I leave trails of goo as I go, crop circles of icing sugar, marking my territory.

As I slide it into the hot oven, I seal its fate, and lick the sticky mess from my fingers, the bowl, spoons, whisks, but not the tabletop. At least I have that much restraint. And I revel in the chaos I’ve created: the piles of bowls and cups and cutlery and scales and the splatter of my labours.

Running a bowl of hot, bubbly water, I plunge my hands in, purging, restoring my utensils to their original purity. Out from the fire will come the cake, born again from the raw, messy ingredients, in all its newness of life.

The doorbell rings, bringing with it a sigh, and the need to step out of myself. I have the sudden urge to turn on the Hoover and pretend that I didn’t hear it, but then, it could be something exciting, It could be my separated-at-birth twin sister, or a man who has watched me form a distance for so long now and has finally summoned the courage to tell me that, to him, I’m perfection.

It’s the postman, bringing a parcel for next door. I take it up to the spare room and put it in the corner next to the bin holding a few crumpled, half ticked off to-do lists and a decomposing apple core. It once showed so much promise, that apple. Shiny and green, polished and smooth like the floor of a ballroom, then crispy and tangy against the tongue, surprisingly bitter, though.

Yet it takes too much to chew through the whole thing, and no one can ever reach the other side, but one has to go incessantly round the core. Always missing the seeds. The point. Now it lies discarded and rotting and sullying the crisp envelopes I’d half-written my near-plans on. I am that apple.

I’m in that kind of mood where I pick up a book, absolutely determined that I won’t be happy until I’ve read it, am gripped by the cover, the blurb, the way the spine smells, and the print stands out at me… until I read the first sentence. I put it down and start another, doing exactly the same. And another.

I’m in the kind of mood where I eat chocolate, because I’ve broken into my emergency bar despite the lack of emergency, but feel sick at the sweetness of it. I put it down and as soon as I swallow I know I need more. And again I cringe at its sweetness.

That’s when he walks in. Perfect—for me. He’s tall, dark, handsome (obviously). No, actually, he isn’t. He’s tall, yes, and dark, but in a fair sort of way. Bright eyes: piercing and intense, but soft and melting. Handsome… how could he not be? But I make sure that he is so only to me. Everybody else would admire him, of course. He’s more perfect than anyone else. But they wouldn’t want him. No. That would be threatening to me. I know he’s perfect for me, because he isn’t real; I’ve made him up just then, bored with my books and my chocolate.

He rushes into the room and sweeps me out of the broken swivel chair that I sit on out of habit. He holds me to his warm chest and gushes at me that I’m the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, that he couldn’t possibly imagine his life without me and that he won’t let me out of his sight for as long as he lives. But not in a desperate way.

He kisses the top of my head and breathes in the smell of my hair and tells me again and again how much he loves me. But not in a repetitive way. Then I ask him his name, and he fades… flickering at first, and blurring at the edges, but soon enough disappears entirely, as I try to pin him down to something as concrete as a name.

What’s in a name anyway? I’m sure it can’t be much. Why is a bottle called a bottle, and would I still drink overpriced water from it if it was called a globdue? I feel the need to do something useful and so I check my e-mails, a lame attempt to distract myself from nothing.

Work is checking up on me, making sure I’m getting there with the article they want. It’s coming in short spurts; it will happen in its own time I suppose. Mum’s sent me some holiday photos; I click ‘mark as unread’ intending to look at them another time.

What would it be like if our brains could function in that way? If you could go to a memory and mark it as unread, then next time you looked at it, it would be completely new to you. Would that be a good thing? Could you mark something as unread and then never made it read again, ignore it as though it never happened?

Ideas well up inside of me, but I can’t get them to materialise, or not into any tangible form, that is. They’re like jelly that’s running through my fingers, constantly eluding me and refusing to take shape and set. But then, even when jelly does set it’s wobbly. Maybe jelly isn’t a very good analogy. But then, doesn’t that just prove that my ideas are wobbly? Even me trying to grasp what my ideas are. Maybe my whole life is jelly… no, probably not.

In any case, I can feel that ideas are there; I can see their hues, their outlines, blueprints, but they always swim away before I can grasp my hands around their slippery gills. Still, it’s comforting to know they’re there. I’m not quite sure what they’re ideas for though, whether they are poetry or the beginnings of a novel, or indeed not creative in that way at all, but a speech that I should make, somewhere or other, or my political manifesto.

I would try to write them down, but what good would there be in that? Sometimes I do give in to them, I let them have their way with my pen, but I always feel that they are using me for, well, for my body—my ability to hold a pen, at least. I’ll give life to them, conceiving them with one part pen and two parts paper and they leap to life, judder out of me, and leave me spent.

Then I become a shell, bereft of the ideas that once lived in me. No, I’d much rather keep them locked away, safe inside of me, where they keep me company. And anyway, they change. They always shift. They turn from a sonnet to a play, or they’ll leap from the past to the present, or suddenly want to discuss marmalade. I don’t even like marmalade.

My ideas don’t even belong to me; it’s like a séance. They morph. Shape-shifters. Words flash up in my mind’s eye like neon bar signs; although some are more like flashes of lightning, brief glimpses of life. Sometimes they are words I don’t understand. But I enjoy them anyway, savouring their rhythm and the feel of them rolling off my tongue, should I choose to say them out loud. Micawber. Dubiety. Quidam. I am at liberty to do that, at least.

I hear the flap of my letterbox and am startled out of my reverie. I shake my head, hoping the words will shuffle themselves around and fall into the right places, like an etch-a-sketch. Reaching the stiff, painted window I peer through to see what had disturbed me. It was just the paperboy putting something unnecessary into my house.

As I watch him slump back down my path again, I feel drawn to the bulky headphones that frame his teenage head, hugging his ears: a halo, or something to keep his emotions from escaping. I long to climb into them, to feel the heavy throb of the fashionable beat, and to immerse myself in his thoughts that bubble away just below the surface, much like the stubble that is soon to pierce through his skin.

Opening the window, I find myself leaning out of it like a cork ready to pop from a shaken bottle of champagne. I call out to him, ‘Boy! Talk to me. Are you angry, or sad, or trying to contain the glee of a new relationship?’ But nothing comes out of my mouth. In fact, I don’t even open it, but continue to stare at his retreating head from behind the closed window.

I make my mind up to attempt to do something useful and so turn around, crouch down and lie face down on the hard floor. The scratchy carpet presses into my nose. The smell of dust and furniture polish creeps up my nostrils so that I can almost taste it. I have my best ideas on the floor. Closer to the earth, I guess; yet I’m on the first floor of my house. I don’t like the phrase ‘first floor’ because it seems as though the ground floor doesn’t count.

I wonder if I would have better ideas if I went and lay on the ground near my front path, so that I was really close to the earth. But that might be a strange thing to do. And boys with big headphones and florescent sacks of news might come and kick me or poke me with sticks. I’m not dead.

The earth comes in through my ears and packs itself in tightly, tighter, tighter, until it suffocates my cells. They swell for oxygen and then burst, exploding inside my brain and each fragment of cell turns into a tiny seed. These seeds bury themselves into the earth and sprout, grow and bloom into flowers; flowers that grow and grow until they just have to escape, and they do. Escape, that is.

My cake. How could I have forgotten? I raise myself into a kneeling position, and then stand up; creaking out my knees after the floor has bitten into them. I place one foot in front of the other and purposefully make my way out of the room, then along the hallway, and finally down the stairs, each foot landing on a stair before I proceed to the next one.

The kitchen is clean, aside from tea-stained mugs, a bowl from breakfast, some crumbs on the floor and a hint of mould starting to creep up the wall by the fridge. The air is chilly and I resent it, as if it is a personal attack on me. Perhaps it is. Maybe every other kitchen in the world is one degree warmer than this one, but mine has decided to forsake me that extra bit of heat so that my bones must ache,

My cake. Is it mine? I made it. But I didn’t make it. I just assembled the ingredients and put them in the oven. I didn’t lay the eggs or grow the sugar or grind the flour. I didn’t create heat to cause the reactions that spark off growth and change. I was just the movement involved. It used me for my limbs, just how my words use me for my pen and the boy with the headphones uses me for my letterbox.

I bend over to the oven to pull open the heavy door. It’s cold. I struggle with it and finally release the tomb. It’s empty. I didn’t bake a cake after all.