Chapter Forty Five: Towards An Edge

Nat was discharged from hospital on the 3rd of January. Fliss collected her in a taxi because I couldn’t face going: hospitals scare me and, besides, I wouldn’t have known what to say… I knew what I wanted to say, what I wanted to ask, but… I couldn’t. When I arrived home from work, they were on the sofa, and a sombre but composed Nat was resting her head against Fliss’ chest whilst Fliss held her in her arms. She looked up as I entered the room, but didn’t say anything. I made myself scarce.

The next day was Saturday, and would normally have been a day off but for the fact that the weekend receptionist was away on holiday, and I had agreed to cover her hours. It was quite a relief really as it got me out of the house and earned me some money at the same time.

The day passed uneventfully, and I arrived home at about nine o’clock. When I wearily opened the door, I was nearly deafened by Transvision Vamp’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care.’ It grew louder as I trudged up the stairs, and I could hear Nat and Fliss singing along. Fliss danced past me on the landing wearing her Adrienne dress, she was swigging enthusiastically from a bottle of Lambrini. I followed her down the corridor to her room, where Nat was waiting for her. “We’re going out,” she announced as Nat began to crimp her long gold hair.

“I gathered that,” I said, joining them on the bed and relieving Fliss of the Lambrini. I took a swig, and then passed the bottle on to Nat.
“Why don’t you come?” asked Nat as she wiped the bottle.
“Where are you going?”
“Poptastic,” giggled Fliss tipsily; her face was flushed as she tapped her fingers against the bed frame.

Nat finished Fliss’ hair and stood up. She was wearing tight blue jeans with a black velour halter neck and pale pink stilettos. She and Fliss shared out an enormous stack of luminous pink plastic bangles, “Why don’t you come?” she repeated.

“No thanks.”

Nat shrugged and started to arrange Fliss’ hair further, and I left them to it. It could have been a good night out, but not after a twelve-hour shift, and I felt so tired.

I couldn’t sleep again that night, no matter how many times I closed my eyes, thoughts kept popping into my mind, leading to worries, to other thoughts, to ideas, to fears, they multiplied by the minute until they grew from a single thought to a buzz of words and pictures, a clamour of voices that span faster and faster around my brain and wouldn’t shut up. I could feel my head begin to throb, and my heartbeat increase so that it began to thump in my throat. “I’m dying,” I thought, “I can’t stop this, and it’s suffocating me, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” just thinking it made it happen, I began to feel dizzy as my head throbbed more and more urgently, I could feel the sweat dripping into the sheets as my breathing became more and more ragged, “Stay calm,” I told myself, “stay calm, stay calm, this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening, think of something else, something else,” I closed my eyes once more, and I concentrated on my breathing… in… out… in… out… inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale. My breathing slowed, my heart ceased to pound, and the dizziness gradually drifted away, it was over. My right arm was stinging as I reached over and touched it, and something wet met my fingers. I shivered as I switched on the light, sweat was seeping into a cut on my arm that, in my panic, I had scratched and re-opened.

The dizziness returned as I staggered, blindly, into the bathroom. I clutched at the door handle to try and steady myself, and hit my knee, hard, on the door. I wound a length of toilet roll around my arm and used sellotape to secure it to my skin. I was shaking as I found my clothes, so much so that I regularly had to cling to my bedside cabinet, or the walls, as I dressed. I lit a cigarette and took a long, hard drag, too hard, I became light headed once more and had to sit down. The cigarette was burning my hand before I had control of my senses again.

The cold, breezy night air began to clear my head, and I felt calmer as I walked along the largely quiet streets. I walked until I reached the Saturday night hustle and bustle of the A6 kebab trade, then I retraced my steps. I felt more awake as I closed the door behind me, but I was tired, so, so tired.

I drank coffee in the kitchen until I heard Nat and Fliss arrive home, then I read in my room until my alarm went off, reminding me to get up for work. I don’t really need that alarm anymore.

Don’t need breakfast anymore either, just black coffee and cigarettes, they make my head buzz and my eyes sore, but I don’t care. “Heavy night?” somebody asked me when I got into work. I just nodded.

When I arrived home in the evening, Fliss and Nat were seated at opposite ends of the sofa, facing each other like a pair of book ends, their bare legs overlapped, and Nat was absently stroking Fliss’ left leg with her right foot as she read ‘The Pursuit Of Love’. Fliss was reading ‘The Princess Diaries’. An indescribable pressure was building up inside me as I walked through the room and down the corridor to my own room; my hands were shaking as I reached for the knife on my dressing table and slide the blade, lengthwise, down my arm.

When I returned some time later, the pair of them were sprawled out on the sofa, watching ‘Flashdance’ on video. I stood in the doorway and watched, I used to love ‘Flashdance’ when I was about fourteen; it’s like a fairytale for aspiring dancers. I must have been away a while, for they were already at the audition scene, right at the end. As Jennifer Beales began to dance, and Irene Cara began to sing, I saw Fliss’ eyes light up. After about a minute, she turned to me and asked with wide, awe struck eyes, “Did you use to dance like that?”
I smiled, but didn’t answer.

“She still can, when she wants to,” said Nat. “Well,” she amended as the break dancing sequence commenced, “mostly she can.” She turned to me as the credits rolled, and said, “We’re watching ‘Coyote Ugly’ next, if you want to watch as well.”

I shook my head, “No thanks.”
“Or,” she suggested, “We could watch something else.”
“It’s your turn to cook,” I growled, pointedly.
“Oh, yes,” with a guilty expression, she got to her feet.

There was an icy silence as I took Nat’s place on the sofa. “Why did you do that?” asked Fliss, she sounded hurt.

I looked straight ahead as I coolly replied, “I don’t like how she’s using you.”

I sensed her tense, “Did it never occur to you that I know what I’m doing?” she said coldly. I didn’t trust myself to reply. “This,” she tried to explain, “What we have, isn’t what you think it is.”

“Isn’t it?” I turned to face her, but she couldn’t meet my eyes, “I’ve seen how she looks at you, how you look at her, I’m not stupid Fliss!”
“And neither am I!” her fury surprised us both, and she made sure that she was calm before she spoke again. “I still love Adrienne,” she quietly admitted, “I always will, Nat knows…”

“Nat’s still in love with Amber!”

“I know,” she met my eyes at last, and I saw the pain in her face as she said, “You’ve got cruel, Maggie, you wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise, Nat cares about me.”

“And do you care about her?” I asked tensely.
“Yes,” her expression was one of bewilderment, “of course I do!” She got to her feet, “and anyway,” she continued, “why do you care when tea gets cooked or not? It isn’t like you’ll bother eating any of it!” She joined Nat in the kitchen.

Later, Nat walked into my room as I sat brooding on my bed, her movements suggested caution and her eyes were wary as she asked, “Can I come in?”
“You are in,” I growled. She made to leave again, but I stopped her.
“I came to tell you I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said from the doorway.
Guilt stabbed my heart as I asked, “Where will you go?”
“Back to my mum, until I can find a flat, won’t be for long.”
Nat’s mum is a journalist. She mainly writes for The Guardian, and despite the fact that they each, in their own way, work in the same industry, they really don’t get along. It may have something to do with Nat’s mum having read Nat’s diary when she was sixteen, a betrayal which would have been bad enough on its own, but which was confounded by the fact that it also led her to discover Nat’s secret hiding place in which she kept her stack of unsent love letters to girls at school she had crushes on. But then again, it might not have done. Anyway, Nat hasn’t lived with her mum for more than three months at a time since leaving high school.

It was with this in mind that I said “You can stay here longer if you like; I know Fliss would like that.”

She shook her head, her eyes were still wary, as she said, “No, I’ve stayed too long.”

I nodded as I stared at the floor.

I heard the floorboards creak as she moved, slowly and cautiously, across the floor towards me. Gracefully, she knelt down in front of me and took my left hand in hers. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?” her voice was quiet, calm, resolved.

I extracted my hand from her hold easily and gazed directly into her dark eyes, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Her eyes flicked from my face to the knife on my bedside cabinet, and then back to my face, “Yes you do”, and with that same calmness, she slowly unbuttoned the cuff of my shirt, and slid back the sleeve. The burn from my cigarette was blistered and pink, the cuts and scabs red and livid. Her expression didn’t change as she surveyed the damage, “These need treating,” she said at last, “stay there.” She was back a few minutes later, carrying a bowl of water, a bar of soap, a flannel, and a tube of germalene. I didn’t resist as she bathed and washed the burn and cuts, nor when she put the ointment on. I sat there, and I let her do it. Neither of us spoke, and her face remained calmly resolved to her task. When she had cleaned and treated both of my arms, she got to her feet, “I’ll pack tonight,” she said, as though our last conversation had never happened.

“Nat…” I began as she walked back towards the doorway. She paused, “Thanks.”

She turned to face me, and I could tell that she was worried as she said, “If you won’t tell me what’s happening, what you’re feeling… promise me that you’ll talk to someone.”

I shuffled uneasily against the mattress, “It isn’t time for that…” I muttered, “Not yet, I don’t feel like that anymore.”
“Then what are you feeling?” she demanded.
I thought about it, “Nothing” I said at last.
“Sometimes nothing is the worst thing you can feel.”
“I know that.”

Our conversation caused me a great deal of uneasiness, and I had to get out. Not many places are open on a Sunday night in Manchester’s club land, but I found the dark kitsch of Fab Café strangely reassuring. Not many people were in, and I watched the film footage on the T.V monitors until I felt restless again. As I walked down Portland Street and took the right hand turn onto Princess Street, I observed the people shoving past me, heading off into the night towards home, towards friends, towards a pub, a club… sanctuary, and I realised that life is essentially meaningless and pointless. These people, this street, the streetlights in the darkness, music, clothes, money… none of it meant anything to me. Nothing felt real; it might as well have been a dream, except that I don’t dream anymore, nothing mattered but the fear, the fear that was seeping into my bones via my skin, the fear, the fear.

I found myself inside a goth club that was a darker darkness than outside, white faces with dark black eyes and bruised or blood red lips loomed in front of my face. I saw sparks of silver in the darkness, through the smoke. I heard my feet walk onto the dance floor, and over to the bar. I bought a snakebite and black, but don’t remember drinking it, what did it matter? Nothing was clear, nothing mattered. Then, cutting through all the smoke, all the pain, all the fear, came a series of hard, jagged, unrelenting, crashing chords, and a voice, soaring high, crying out in pain, and singing, singing… the glass fell from my hands as I stared, mesmerised, at the DJ, wanting to see as well as hear the lyrics:

I can no longer feel
My heart beating
And I can no longer see
I am sick, so sick
And I can’t be
Strong for you

It held me like a spell, like the only truth in a world full of lies. It wasn’t painful, the only thing that wasn’t, and it mattered, even as I knew that I was being pushed further and further towards an edge that should never be crossed.

I don’t remember going home.