28. July. What were you doing between 11:55 and 12:00 noon? Five lives, five stories, connected by five minutes...
Kate knocks the Russian doll off the bedside table – Minx (the cat) scarpers away swiftly – as she staggers to the bathroom. On her knees, hovering facedown over the toilet, Kate clutches her stomach and succumbs to retching and spewing. Her bloodshot bleary blues watch as last night’s consumption floats in the bowl. The strong waft of stale alcohol-laced vomit causes her body to heave again and she yields to another frenzied exertion. Head halfway down the can, her fingers fumble blindly for some toilet paper. She uses this to wipe off the sweat and the puke. The result of a heavy night of: vodka shots, glasses of wine and pints of beer. The cheap roll with the texture of tracing paper does little to wipe the mess. She feels her matted mane moaning for a wash. She needs a long, hot soak. But her limbs slump and refuse to budge. Now: sitting on the wooden floor, holding on to the toilet seat she tries to recall the events of the night before. It comes back to her. At some point, in the midst of the eddy of booze, bopping and boys, there’d been the text from Marcus. I can’t go thru with it. I’m done with you. She feels her anger rising again. This red rage begins as a stabbing pain in her chest; becomes a prickly sensation in her throat; before it transforms into a fire burning up her clammy cheeks. Clammed-up, the tears refuse to come. At this point, she rises to flush down the rest of the bile.
Lena swallows back the threatening bile while he rolls his weight off her. She checks her watch. A few minutes left. Just enough time to freshen up. She watches his movements. He sits up on the edge of the bed and pulls the white IBIS towel to. He wraps himself awkwardly as if he is embarrassed then turns to look at her with a thinly drawn smile. Everything about him repulses her. His kind face, his paunchy frame, his wedding ring. Without a word between them he enters the adjoining bathroom. Lena uses this opportunity to get dressed. She scrambles into her g-string panty and bra set, stockings, a black pencil-skirt, purple sweater and 3-inch boots – in that order. Next, she pulls out a mirror from her bag and uses a few seconds to arrange her hair and make-up. While she is applying her lipstick, he emerges; now wearing a striped shirt. He is doing up the buttons and talking. He says: That was good, Lena. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. She hates the charade but she plays along. She says: Yes – yes. It’s always good with you. She forces a beatific smile. He comes over, caresses her chin, and notices her necklace. He touches the cross. And asks: You religious? The irony of their relationship creases her up. She begins to giggle. He looks at her as if he is going to ask: What’s so funny? He doesn’t. Instead, he turns to the mirror and fixes his navy tie. In less than a minute – at the stroke of 12 – he will pay her and she will leave. That will be the end of their session until he calls again.
Imagine that you’re in a counselling session with your therapist. That was the director’s brief in his email the night before. Attached; the script: Eudora’s Mania. She decided to draw on a previous experience. Last spring, she’d had a role in an amateur production titled: Schreber’s Nervous Illness. She’d played the part of one of the twenty inmates in the experimental asylum. It hadn’t been too challenging playing a lunatic. After all, she felt mad most of the time. It hadn’t been a major role but it proved very useful when it came to practising her lines last night. At the moment, sitting rigidly on an uncomfortable bench in the audition hall, she strums her fingers on her lap. Nerves? Perhaps. Even though she is as prepared as she can be. Her five lines continue to swim in her head. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I have been locked in this nightmare for years. I don’t want to dig further. All I want to know is can you fix me or not. It is hell for me – do you understand? The earlier argument with her mother surfaces on the waves of Eudora’s dialogue. ‘I can’t sit by and watch you throw your life away.’ ‘Mum, it’s my life. This is what I want to do. I’m a performer.’ ‘Is this my fault? Is it the divorce?’ ‘God, Mum – stop! Why do you always bring that up? This has nothing to do with you or Dad.’ ‘If only your father hadn’t made such a mess of things.’ ‘Mum. Leave him out of this. This has nothing to do with either of you. This is what I want to do.’ Her mother was still talking when she’d slammed the door. Not the best way to prepare for an audition, she mutters to herself. In a bid to regain some composure, she gets up and walks over to the water machine. With the polystyrene cup full she heads back to her seat. On approach, she notices a guy in her place. A mop of orange curls, a splattering of freckles – he grins and says, ‘Sorry – have I taken your place?’ She thinks it’s obvious, but says, ‘Not to worry. I’ll find another spot.’ Before she can make her next move, he asks, ‘Hey what’s your name?’ She observes him dubiously and mumbles, ‘Emily.’ His grin broadens. ‘I’m Nathan or Nate.’
‘Nat... coffee or tea?’ Natalie looks up to see Sue holding up six fingers. ‘Coffee. Black.’ Sue raises a seventh finger and moves on. Second coffee of the day and it’s not even noon, Natalie grumbles to herself. So much for her resolution to: ‘eat and drink healthy, plus get fitter’. Drink less coffee – one mug a day or two small cups – that was the plan. Ah well, better to focus on the positives. That’s what the self-help books say. At least I’ve weaned myself off the ciggie addiction, she muses. It’d been Guantanamo hell trying to break the tobacco spell. And it’d taken eighteen months. Nowadays the nicotine patches were working a treat. At the beginning she’d placed two, even three, patches on her arm just to ease the cravings. She’d often wondered if she could die from an overdose of those Nicorette patches. The coffee arrives. This signals her break. She takes a sip. Fuck: it’s tepid, bland and wet. Like this job; a year of incessant monotony. The suffocating boredom had set in from the first day. Shift work; eight-to-eight – staring at the computer screen hour after hour, day after day, for eleven months and ten days. Data inputting! Fuck: what sane person did this mind numbing work? At times, the maze of numbers took on a life of their own, resembling the scurrying of green ants with a mission to build a spaceship – that is, if ants did think about such things like exploring space. She groans and takes another sip. THUD! She swivels round to see Louise jump out of her seat, fall to her knees, and begin to gather the papers which have escaped from her portfolio and now lie scattered in a wheel-shape on the floor. The office windows are tinted and the air conditioning is permanently on (apparently to keep the machines cool). Fuck: no thought for the skivvies who work here. The artificial light is stark. Natalie longs to be outdoors breathing in some natural air. SPUTTER! SPUTTER! Without looking she knows the cough belongs to Simon. Overweight and bald he’s had this cough for several months now. Natalie wonders if it is signifies something sinister. Smokers cough? Bronchitis? Some other sort of lung disease? Who knows? He hasn’t looked right for months; chapped lips, crusty skin, and this toxic sounding cough. Thank God I've given up, she thinks, about to take another sip of her drink. A sneeze gets in the way – a succession of three. Fuck: she hopes she hasn’t caught anything. There’s a bizarre bug going around. She pinches her nose in an effort to stop another sneeze. ‘Bless you.’ ‘Bless you.’ ‘Thank you,’ she responds. She stares at the clock and watches it tick off the last ten seconds. Her time is up. The green soldiers on the screen summon her attention.
With the determination of a soldier, after several hours of trudging up the rocky incline, he arrives at the summit of Helvellyn Cliff. He sits on a boulder and for a moment, in the stillness, he watches the damp green expanse extend around him. He retrieves a flask from his rucksack and takes a swig of the brandy. Its heat warms him up against the blustery wind. His eyes are bright and translucent. As he looks on, a collage of emotions and flashbacks – images, conversations, events – flood his mind. Dad, will you make it to dinner on Saturday? The boxing trophy he won at fifteen. Charlotte asks for a divorce: I love you, Warren, but for goodness sake we can’t go on like this. Exhaustion. Warren, the company’s sunk (his business partner shouts down the phone). Camping holidays with the boys. The mini stroke he had three years ago. Martin is hiding his tooth under the pillow. Pug (the family dog). The garden, he and Charlotte, had fallen in love with. He is staring at the bankruptcy certificate in his hand. Bitterness. The pretty therapist who says: time heals. The family holidays in Turkey. He is hurtling full speed to the hospital to make the birth of Ally. That dance with Charlotte on their wedding day. The accident Zac had on his sixteenth birthday. Fear. The unshed tears bottled up during Pop’s funeral. The grey churchyard in Co. Cork. Putting his mother in the care home; and that first day, thinking how old she looked. Kissing Ally on the cheek with tears brimming. Laughter. Dad, you will make it to dinner on Saturday? How could he when he was carrying around all this pain: dead weight.
It is as if the weight of the doctor’s words hammers her to the floor. Inch-by-inch, she sinks lower and lower. Once she hits the ground, she hugs her knees, and fixes her gaze on nothing; seeing, yet blind. She hears a loud rhythmic b-dum, b-doom. It sounds like a rapping on the door but she knows that the culprit is her racing heart. She wants to stand, to get away – to run. Instead her body shakes, and she begins to rock. It is an unconscious movement – forward, then backward; slow, then fast. A scream erupts in her mind though the room remains silent. A wave of madness washes over her. She wills herself to pass out, but nothing happens. Rather, things become clearer – sharper – in focus. The white walls of the consultation room look whiter – pristine – even sterile. It must be a mistake, she thinks. She doesn’t belong here. She needs to lie down, she tells herself. The response is automatic. Her mind guides her frail frame sideways on the tiled floor, where she curls up in a foetal position. Her head: pounds. Her body: trembles. Struggling for breath, her eyes half-close, flutter open, then shut again – shutting the diagnosis out. Numb: she descends into a dream state. Delirious: she falls – is falling deep inside a well. After what seems an age, the dark waters give way to gray shadows. Her mind’s eye adjusts to the haze, and out of nowhere she notices a reddish glint. Without thinking, she follows the red speck. The object seems to be running away from her, in the same way she is running away from her reality. She chases after it – as if chasing an answer. At the basin of the well, she comes face-to-face with what emerges to be a red figurine. It is then she realises that it is only a Russian doll.
By Catherine Mark-Beasant