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In the dream you hover on the lip of the volcano. Vertigo compels you to take a further step; the scorching siren call of its molten heart offering release.
Eric is still behind you, all restraint, wisdoms, warnings. But you’d blotted out his gentle guidelines a long way back. You always did. ‘You go too far’: a frequent accusation from childhood. And now you will pay for your extremes in nature’s Salem. You step out beyond the ledge.
But dreams swerve their climax by thrusting you back to consciousness. The potential of searing skin twists into a wakeful agitation that offers no relief. The cracking pain behind your eyes, and the bleak constricted heaviness of your skull, forces you to lie still; to ride through the swollen aftermath of excess.
You are lying on your stomach. Your face, creased into the pillow, is damp and salty. The under sheet is clammy with seepage and wrinkled into a thousand discomforts. You peer through your left eye at the blinking digits – 06:10. Eric’s alarm is always set for 7am. Little chance of further rest, without assistance.
Outside, there is little footfall yet. You live within walking distance of the college. It was Eric’s plan to simplify your morning routines: eradicating traffic chaos and keeping you fit. Your enthusiasm for any plan had existed in inverse proportion to his. But you had once benefited from this proximity to work. Any appreciation you felt, was carefully hidden.
You don’t work anymore. You make him sandwiches every morning. Something you refused to countenance in your first years of marriage. How disdainful would your younger self be if she scrutinised your routines now. The stand-out drama graduate with great promise. The leading lady: predictably nonconformist, anti-marriage. You just weren’t anti-Eric.
Your arm stretches towards the bedside table, pulling open the small drawer on the third attempt. Within the drawer, your hand settles on the box of preferred painkiller; soluble discs of paracetamol, codeine and caffeine. Max strength. Retrieving two white packets you rip across the red lettering with your teeth, and drop them into cup you hope contains some liquid. You listen as the reassuring fizz promises comfort to come, counting the seconds until you can lift the cup to your lips using minimal head movements. You taste the pharmaceutical mix within the remnants of cold tea, and feel momentarily calm.
You sleep on. This is a day when the relaxant effects of the codeine outweigh the stimulus of caffeine. By 10:20 you are in the kitchen blinking at the coffee machine; an expensive impulse buy years ago, when you were both unaware of how costly refills are.
The house is quiet, external noise largely removed by your situation in a cul-de-sac. Next door, the new baby is wailing. A thin, reedy cry twisting nerves on your skin surface.
His sandwiches lie unclaimed on the counter, together with the pastries you bought yesterday. Sometimes you take them in to him, but they don’t like it. His chemistry classroom overlooks the main road. It’s possible to attract his attention if he’s actually looking out. It saves you having to explain yourself at reception. That’s the trouble with the admin staff, they never forget.
After your first absence, you returned to your job expecting things to resume as before. You floundered, displaced. Something had shifted and you felt exposed, ill-fitted in the wrong costume; an actor clutching last season’s script. And the students you had fired with your beliefs, seemed solipsistic, rehashing old ideas as if freshly discovered.
The baby’s cries intensify. Your nerves grate. You’ve forgotten your beta-blocker. You’ll have to take it with your acid inhibitors or you will not manage to accomplish all your daily tasks.
You hadn’t wanted a baby; your body had betrayed you. Eric effervesced with excitement, cooking for you, fussing you. Right up until that 18 week scan you threatened not to go through with it. Although, you don’t think you actually said those words aloud. You made your appointment in secret. It was increasingly hard to extricate yourself from your solicitous husband, but you did. A rush of relief in the 24hours afterwards. Then the drop. The sickening sense of hollow.
The sympathy in the staff room was cloying. The care at home asphyxiated you. But nothing went back to normal. Without your fiery sparkle, as Eric kindly termed it, you must have just appeared shrill. You certainly closed yourself off to Eric.
With your coffee you dissolve two more painkillers. It must be over the four-hour restriction. The caffeine will give you a lift.
Automatically, you switch on the computer in your small lounge overlooking the road. You had tried working from home, but it never seemed to work out.
‘I am sorry your home delivery order was missing some items.’
Actually, I couldn’t give a shit.
‘On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, how would you rate my service today?
‘What am I wearing? What do you want me to be wearing?’
Before you go out you take two of his shirts, and a pair of his pyjamas, from the wash basket, leaving your assorted underwear for another day. You put them on a fast wash which you will dry when you’re back.
Eric’s wellies are in the small porch. You lift them towards you, unsettling a pile of leaflets and envelopes. You push your bare feet into the pressed down shape of his insoles and open the door to late September sunshine.
In the pastry shop on your road, Neville always knows his customers by name and he always winks as if there is some conspiracy hidden in the transaction.
‘Good afternoon Mrs Davies. Some lovely iced fingers left over from the morning rush.’
The best selections are picked over, with most of the cakes bought by students on the way to college. The pastries he indicates look inferior, misshapen.
‘Iced fingers will be fine.’ Your voice is thin, mumbled. No remnants of your graduate-year Ophelia, nor your flirtatious yet resolute Gwendoline.
‘Two or Four, Mrs Davies?’ His eyebrows a question mark. You frown and you’re not sure why. You only wanted one for Eric, but you feel bad about the leaving the others. Inanimate items induce a dislocated guilt. ‘Four… yes, fine thanks.’
You changed the way you were addressed just over a year ago. Not officially, but just as emphatically as you had rejected it. Mrs Davies. It’s how you introduce yourself now, even if no-one is asking. You once hated titles, articulating the reasons loudly, insisting on keeping your own name. In college, you were informal with your students, let them call you Clara. You believed you were fighting for something. But in this small Northern suburb, no-one fought back.
Now it’s a comfort and you won’t have it taken away. You are Mrs Eric Davies.
Clutching the bag, and with a slight nod to Neville’s cheery wave, you turn to the door. Two bodies empirically block the entrance; two faces you recognise but can’t place. Half smiles hover, but your gaze drops too slowly and you catch them transforming into smirks.
Dilemma. You can’t go to the supermarket now for Eric’s dinner, despite it being within your sightline. You need to go home to stabilise yourself. And to put his washing in the dryer. You walk the two blocks through a heavy dark sludge.
Back in your kitchen, you struggle for breath. Palpitations. Where are the beta blockers? Did you miss this morning’s? Things have slipped out of order. Take two immediately.
He had noticed you on his first day, the flamboyant drama teacher with a devoted following of would-be actors. And you began to notice him because he was always flustered when you caught his eye, and he had almost-blonde hair with a frizzy bit at the fringe where a classroom experiment backfired. And he was tall, and gentle, and although you never wanted to get married, although you believed it would suffocate you, you somehow did.
You boil the kettle for instant coffee. Moving the pastries nearer to the fridge you select a cup that looks unwashed. Eric seemed to enjoy washing up. Why had you found that irritating?
You had lost something of your allure after your absence, Time had moved on surprisingly swiftly. The supply teacher had been a younger male. You lost patience with the frequency he cropped up on the lips of your fickle disciples. The gilt had tarnished on last year’s brightest star.
As Eric devoted himself to your care, you armoured yourself to tell him what you’d done. Blood-letting to alleviate your own pain. Making his hurt exceed yours.
Whistling to himself, he had been clearing the remnants of a stir-fry prepared to tempt you. The night you severed all that held him to you.
After the school negotiated some kind of agreement with you, you had summoned a final flounce declaring that you would leave teaching to write. And you made a couple of weak attempts. But your tone was savage, sarcastic. There was no market for it. You had notions of writing a play for students, but you were no longer sure you spoke their language.
Focus on being organised. Go to Morrisons and select something nice for dinner. Maybe fish. Eric likes fish.
You don’t think you’re due another beta blocker but an anti-inflammatory may help through your second excursion. You place two in a glass that looks quite murky. You take his clothes from the dryer and place them on the radiators to air. The radiators are cold as economies have had to be made.
Morrisons can be an ordeal, depending on whether anyone knows you or not. Each aisle quivers with the possibility of recognition. That look that contains truth, before lies leave their lips.
‘Clara! …you look well…’
You get two lots of fish: sea bass and salmon. Fish seems to be getting more expensive. You won’t need to come tomorrow.
Tuesday is usually Eric’s later finish. It’s homework club for pupils retaking sciences. He’s devoted is Eric; still believing he makes a difference. You used to ridicule him for that.
You steady yourself outside the next-door pharmacy. Check that it’s not that woman who interrogated you last week. It’s a young man.
‘Short term use only – three days and then see a doctor.’
You assemble an expression to prove you’re listening to new words.
‘Are you on any other medication?’
Two seconds to act ‘thinking’.
‘Er…nothing.’ Not quite Shakespeare but still credible, you crush the printed prescription into your fleece pocket. ‘I’ll take some dissolving painkillers whilst I’m here please. Large box’.
Tomorrow you will travel to the precinct to get your prescription and more painkillers. Next week you’ll travel further afield.
At home, you leave the wellies in the porch and shuffle in bare feet across sticky lino to the fridge. You are very shaken. Try to make room for the fish. It’s very full in there and smells unpleasant. You manage to find a little space, by squeezing it on top of fish already in there.
You get the shirts from the radiator to take upstairs to iron. You really want to lie down but you can’t deviate from your domestic routine. You are reinvented. You pour yourself the last of the brandy from his ingredients cupboard. You meant to go to the wine aisle, but there is very little on offer at the moment. A box would be cheaper, but heavier to carry home. There is one bottle of raw-tasting sauvignon left from a late-night trip to Bargain Booze; its aftertaste, tainted with shame. Drop a painkiller into your brandy. Take some antacid as your tummy seems sore.
After ironing, you place the two shirts on hangers and put them in his wardrobe and you fold his pyjamas with care. The shirts look too small for him. He seems to have put weight on lately. You have noticed that.
You used to wait for him at the bus stop outside the college. Sometimes he walked, sometimes he got the bus, but either way you could always spot him. At first, he used to sit with you on the wall. He seemed concerned, caring. Gradually he became cooler until he stopped speaking. Then he stopped walking alone.
It was after you’d been to her house that Sunday – hands shaking – clutching an oval plate of roast chicken. Walking through streets holding it out at arm’s length. Gravy congealing on clenched knuckles. Standing in that garden with your offering; the first Sunday dinner you’d ever made. Shouting to get his attention, in case she prevented him from answering the door. He didn’t have to eat it, you just wanted him to come and look at it. Please just look at who I am now!
She came out, haughty, holding her baby, a strange repulsed expression on her face. He hovered behind her, chubbier in a sweatshirt you didn’t recognise; his hair shorter, his frizzy fringe tamed.
It’s 5 o’clock and the two youngish men from the cul-de-sac arrive back in separate cars. They’re in marketing, you’re not sure of the details as you hadn’t really listened. They invited you both for dinner when they first moved in but you avoided them afterwards, reluctant to descend into suburban cliche. You sit on your paved patio with a glass of the bitter sauvignon and listen to the build-up of distant commuter traffic. People returning to people. Next door’s baby is still crying. The woman you have never spoken to brings it outside. She looks tired, and older than you’d expect a new mother to be. She knows not to look at you.
You stay until the sky darkens and everyone is settled somewhere. All new-intake students are back from college and the building, freshly cleaned, will be locked. An early September dusk. You stay until you’ve finished the Sauvignon. Your tummy is unsettled, borborygmus, reminding you that you’ve neglected to eat today. Back inside, you take the last of the beta blockers. The pile of pastries doesn’t tempt you and there is no point in cooking for one.
You clear all unused food into a bin liner. You begin to prepare sandwiches for tomorrow.
Back in the bedroom, you take the two shirts from his otherwise empty wardrobe, and you lift the abandoned pyjamas from under the pillow that is still his, and place them in the wash basket. You’d make a list for tomorrow, but your headache is brutal. You lower your body, with its non-specific aching, under the stale sheets. Take two sleeping tablets from the one-a-night pack and lie silently.
Somewhere inside your veins, Juliet rages at the dying of love, an eloquent Lady Macbeth is consumed by destructive guilt and Blanche Dubois crumbles behind her painted facade. You know all their words, but you have no remaining lines of your own.
Josephine recently returned to university to complete a one-year MA with Manchester Writing School. Since then she has been published online in Storgy, The Manchester Review, Lunate fiction and Cabinet of Heed, and has a short fiction published in The Invisible Collection (Nightjar Press) and Aesthetica annual. She lives in Manchester with her three student children and is currently completing a collection of short stories. https://storgy.com/2021/05/19/last-lesson-by-josephine-galvin/ http://www.themanchesterreview.co.uk/?p=11440 https://lunate.co.uk/flash/identity-by-josephine-galvin?rq=josephine%20galvin https://cabinetofheed.com/2020/06/25/menu-choices-josephine-galvin/ The Invisible Collection is available from firstname.lastname@example.org Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 is available from @aestheticamag