On a rainy Sunday afternoon in October, I pour myself another glass of red wine. Whiskey miaows and shifts on my lap, settling down as I sit back, glass in hand. The quizmaster on the TV prattles on in the background, a backdrop to my thoughts. Cocktail hour arrives earlier by the day.
Dirty laundry overflows the basket. Dishes speckled with congealed food fester in my kitchen sink. The bed lies abandoned and unmade.
At five o’clock, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and wonder how I got to look so old. Wrinkles radiate out from the corners of my eyes, engraving the brown shadows underneath. I dot concealer over the flaws and pat the cream in. I sniff the armpits of my black jumper and, after deciding it can handle another wear, pull it over my head. Black jersey trousers and black trainers complete the outfit. Very funereal.
‘See you later,’ I tickle Whiskey under his chin. ‘Love you.’
He purrs and tries to escape through the gap in the door.
‘Stay Whiskey,’ I snap the door shut and tread softly down the stairs to avoid bumping into Ms Too-Goody-Two-Shoes from the flat below.
After the first flight of stairs, I creep over the landing and down the next, thinking I’m on the home run but soon hear the click of a door unlocking.
‘Oh, hi!’ Her cheery voice echoes down the stairwell.
But her face has an expression of disappointment that it’s only me.
‘Er… hi,’ I freeze.
‘Off to work?’
No shit. ‘Yes.’
‘Did you notice one of the lamps has gone?’
‘Nope,’ I check her outfit. She wears navy jogging pants and a pink sweatshirt and still looks like elegance personified. Bitch.
‘I can ask my Rob to replace it if you like?’
‘Bye,’ her voice sings out after me.
I slam the front door and walk through the park to the restaurant where I work the bar. I shuffle through the autumn debris, kicking the yellow, brown and rust-coloured leaves.
A few lousy shifts in a bar. That’s what my life has come to. My ex-husband hiked up serious gambling debts. At least Tony never hit me, I can’t abide a wifebeater. Still, what an asshole. My daughter went to Australia and sends the occasional postcard of surfers riding the waves on Bondi Beach. Ingrate. My mother died not long after, leaving her fortune to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Inconsiderate woman.
I pause to swig from my hip flask.
‘Penny for the Guy Miss?’ A snotty-nosed kid sits on a bench with his mate, his arm around a stuffed scarecrow-like dummy.
I glare at him, ‘You’re going to throw him on the bonfire.’
‘Aw go on,’ he whines.
I give him five pence. His little snub nose screws up in disgust.
When I arrive at work, I notice that young flit of a girl supervisor glance at her watch. The restaurant fills up with diners. The bar is well stocked, but I fill the remaining gaps on the shelves with extra mixers and check the optics, noting which bottles are half-empty.
The orders came in thick and fast. I work in robot-mode, handling orders with skill and ease. When it’s time for my fifteen-minute break, I nip out the back, sit on the wall by the dustbins and take a snifter to tide me over. Fifteen minutes have gone by when I hear my name being called.
‘Lena! Back to the bar now please!’ My supervisor shouts.
The bitterness of the vodka catches in my throat as I empty the hip flask before going inside.
When it happens, it’s near the end of my shift. I don’t know how I drop the dishwasher tray full of glasses, it just slips out of my hands. The sound of a loud crash and the tinkling of shattering glass hushes the restaurant, like a blanket has been thrown over the diners to muffle their babble.
The supervisor is on it like a fly on a sugar doughnut.
‘Are you hurt?’ She asks.
I stare down at my hands, hanging limply beside my body. ‘No.’
‘But there’s blood on your hands,’ she guides me over to the sink, turns the tap on and lets the cold-water flow over my fingers. ‘It’s superficial. A couple of plasters will fix that.’
I won’t look her in the eye and try not to breathe on her. She dabs my hands with paper towels and sticks blue plasters over the cuts. Hell, she even helps me clean up the mess. I guess I’m not used to people being kind to me. When her back is turned, I top up my hipflask.
On my way home, I try to understand, were my hands wet? Did I have a blackout? The door to the block is double-locked, my hands are shaking, and I struggle to turn the key. The height of the steps on the stairs feel greater than before, it’s a huge effort just to lift my knees to mount them. After the first flight, I rest against the marble windowsill for a breather and stare at the fairy lights in the yard below twinkling like jewels on chains. The second flight is easier now I’ve some breath in me, but it’s dark, with only the lamp on the ground floor working. Suddenly my heart leaps as I miss a step and lurch forward, grasping wildly at the wooden stairs. Clunk. I drop like a sack of potatoes. Ouch.
I hear a door open, and soon the blurred face of Suzanne hovers over me.
‘Are you ok?’ Her voice is trembling.
She tries to help me up as I struggle to my feet, using the wall as a prop. I feel dizzy and sway dangerously on the landing. Suzanne puts herself between me and the stairs, steering me towards her apartment.
‘Let’s take a look at that,’ Suzanne helps me sit on a dining chair.
I watch her take a first aid kit out of the kitchen cupboard, fill a bowl with water and place it on the table. As I said, I’m not used to people being kind to me.
‘Look, I’m ok,’ I try to stand but my legs feel like jelly and my knee hurts.
‘No, you’re not, your hands are bleeding.’
I feel Suzanne gently remove the plasters and start to dab damp cotton wool pads around the cuts. I can smell her deodorant.
‘Nasty cuts you have there. You might need stitches. How about we go to the hospital?’
My vision is clearer now, I look up at her, all sweetness and caring. Pale alabaster skin and light eyes. My eyes flit to her arms. Purple and yellow bruises in the shape of hands break the whiteness of her skin. My heart skips a beat.
‘No. I’ll be fine,’ I say. ‘How did you get those?’ I point to her arms.
‘Oh, you know, bumping into things,’ Suzanne averts her eyes. ‘This is going to sting a little.’
I whistle in a sharp intake of breath and wince. ‘What things?’
‘I’ll put a little anti-bacterial cream on the wound, but I think you should see a doctor,’ she picks up the tube. ‘You might have a concussion.’
I move to touch her arm; she flinches like she’s been stung and withdraws. ‘You don’t have to put up with it.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Suzanne makes a big show of cleaning up and tidying the bits and pieces in the kit and rushes them into the kitchen.
‘Shall I help you up the stairs to your apartment?’ Suzanne’s face flushes. She looks everywhere but at me.
I’m tired but this girl is the same age as my daughter. I’ve lived for a long time. Her life is not so perfect after all. I won’t let go.
‘Can I just sit here a while?’ I smile.
‘Rob will be home soon,’ Suzanne plumps up the cushions on the sofa.
‘We’ve never met,’ I try to catch her eyes.
‘It’s getting late,’ Suzanne draws the curtains.
I see that she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t know it. Her fear is palpable. I feel this overwhelming maternal urge to protect her. I’ve nothing left to lose. But she has to decide for herself.
Suzanne begins to sort a pile of newspapers and magazines. All I can hear is the rustling of paper on paper.
The waiting game.
The only sound is the monotonous clicking of the kitchen clock interrupting our thoughts.
The slamming of the front door breaks the silence like a stone cracking ice.
‘Please?’ Suzanne begs.
I stand, hold the edge of the table and take a deep breath. ‘Thank you.’
She guides me towards the door and almost pushes me up the stairs.
‘You know where I live,’ I smile, although it doesn’t make me any happier to know that other people’s lives are less than perfect.
Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017. She had work published in The Blue Nib and The Galway Review aside other literary journals.