He left me on a Tuesday. Told me it was over. It wasn’t me. It was him. That he needed space and time. That I was to look after myself. That I was to eat. That I was to cut out the drink. That I was to seek out professional help. The capital letter type of PROFESSIONAL HELP in green marker pen on a flipchart, where I would rank my paranoia on a scale of 1-10, with ten being the most severe and one being a wee bit loopy.
I was to forget all about him. That he still loved me, but. He couldn’t deal with me. As if I was a bomb, ready to explode. Warning: Handle with extreme caution.
I took him at his word. Rounded up all his left-behind stuff- a jumper, socks balled up behind the radiator, his spare shaver. I hacked up plant leaves off the fig bush we’d chosen from the garden centre, bundled his t-shirts, his diving watch, his aftershave into a bin bag. Took a match, watched it melt the plastic. Cycled to the Spar and loaded up my paniers with Tennent’s lager, Macallan single malt and Lee’s snowballs.
Today is the start of New Me. New Me wakens at dawn, whispers three gratitudes for the day, into a laundered duvet which smells of outdoors on the wash line. New Me announces I am beautiful. I am worthy. I am present. She slips her feet into cashmere mules and pulls on an organic cotton kimono robe in Parisian Rose. She pauses on the landing and stretches her arms in an arc above her head, takes in yoga breaths. New me sips boiling water with drops of lemon squeezed in. Mark says I drink way too much coffee. Tells me there have been studies on spiders ingesting caffeine, unable to spin a web afterwards. New Me prepares a breakfast of smoked salmon and organic rye bread cut into toast fingers. She slides the French doors open onto a patio and carries her breakfast tray to the garden bench.
I am in a queue for the bus. I swelter in a red wig, green fur coat, black thigh length boots and a woollen dress in electric blue. The wool itches my skin and red welts bloom in my neck. I am a blue poison dart frog. Its bright colouration serves as a warning to potential predators.
I am sixth in line and have not made it to the bus shelter. I do these games, on the way here. Do not step on any cracks on the pavement. If you hear an ambulance hold onto a button and chant. Touch your collar, touch your knee, pray to God it won’t be me. Hold onto your button until you see a four- legged animal. How many three-legged animals do you meet? Mark said I was quirky. I liked that. Quirky, it sounds French and at an angle. Someone who you want to be with. Hey this is Amy, my quirky girlfriend.
There is a mizzling of fine rain soaking my new top. It is leaking through the fake fur. Rain-proof doesn’t mean waterproof Amy, Mark told me. He devised this test. We were stood in the back green, with our jackets on, hoods up. The hosepipe was on jet setting. I went first, whilst Mark timed his watch for two minutes. My t-shirt clung to my skin when I peeled my coat off. Mark was bone-dry smug.
Today, hunched into this wetness, I crave the hundred per cent guarantee of waterproofing. New Me would be clothed in breathable Gore-Tex with mesh bits inside. A lorry drives close to the kerb, splashes water on my legs. I spin round, lift my clenched fist, scream ‘Idiot!’
A woman taps me on the shoulder, hands me a packet of paper hankies. ‘Here lovie.’ She points. I know I am leaking mascara. Trails of black on my face.
Mark said my eyes were a startled blue. The type of blue you had to comment on.
‘What else do you like?’ I’d curled into him on the settee.
‘One compliment a day.’ He patted me on the head. I bit down hard on my lip, tasted blood.
I take the hankies, pull one out, wet the corner with spit, dab away, until the woman nods.
‘It’s a wet rain day today, isn’t it? The kind of rain you don’t think is much. But it soaks right through you, gets into your bones. Catches you unawares.’
I hand her back the packet.
‘Keep them lovie. You never know.’ She pulls up her coat cuff, stares at her watch. ‘Forty-five minutes late. Jeez. Typical. It’s always when you need to be somewhere on time.’ She is one of those chatty types who require no answer.
I glance at my watch, to confirm the lateness. New Me would drive. She would have passed her test when she was eighteen, saved hard for her first car and worked her way through the Volkswagen range. She would be able to join in the Driving Chats at work. She would ask where to park, directions to conferences, instead of waving her bus timetable and reddening at ‘You can’t drive?’ As if it was a legal requirement to becoming an adult. Mark said it was another of my quirks. That maybe it was just as well, as no doubt I would end up in a ditch or a field, in one of my dreamy states.
I rummage around my bag, pull out a dairy, flick through the pages. I like to see the whole week set in left to right, where I can jot down To Do Lists. Tick things off. There should be a list for breaking up couples.
Torch all personal belongings- clothes, shoes, coats, books, CDs, hobby paraphernalia.
Remove all daily reminders- the box of cereal he eats, the radio tuned to the station he likes, the recorded TV programmes he has selected.
Destroy any present he has ever given you. Cut up silk lingerie. Burn a Degas print. Melt down rings.
I see the date circled, starred and love hearted. May 10th Amy & Mark 5 Years Anniversary. As if I need a written reminder. I had read about this woman in America, where she could recall every single event from the age of fourteen. Say a date and an event and she could recite what she had eaten for breakfast that day, where she was, what she wore. It had some medical name hyper something. Imagine what you could do with that? The woman called it a curse, that she was overloaded with images at any given moment. Her brain was spilt into left for present and right for past. Maybe I could do that, have the two loops running. The before Mark and the after Mark.
A bus pulls up, hisses on its brakes. I peer up, squint at the front.
‘It’s not ours lovie, but we’ll get a heatie up. Most folk are heading into town. Going somewhere nice? That’s quite a get up you have on!’
I glance down at my rig-up, blush. ‘The zoo, I’m going to the zoo.’ Mark said I should make an effort, that I mustn’t let myself go.
‘Nice. I like it there. All the animals and that. You can have a real good look at all those creatures you see on telly, can’t you? Its incredible. Like Africa is in your back garden.’
I edge beside her, on the metal seat in the Perspex shelter. Shelter, a place of refuge. Why the open sides? Do we not deserve a few doors, some Ikea shelves with arty posters and positive phrases printed on? Follow your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined. Seize the day. (Once the bus arrives). Perhaps a basket of magazines or a wicker basket of books for swaps. How about some plants? Artificial would do. Maybe a wee bit music piped in. A vending machine with hot sugary doughnuts. Things to take your mind off the waiting. The craning your neck to see if it was here. As if by looking, you could magic up a double decker bus.
Chatty Woman passes me a bag of lime chocolates. I slide my hand in, take one out, unwrap the cellophane, pop it on my tongue, sook on the ribbed hardness.
‘Try not to chew it.’ Chatty Woman laughs. ‘See how long it lasts.’
I nod, stare ahead, shut my eyes. A memory pops up, unbidden like Memory Woman. It is a dialogue for a radio play.
Mark: I know you’re there Ames, I can smell your perfume.
Amy lurks behind a tree: Hey, tara. Surprise.
Mark frowns: Why are you here?
Amy: Charming. That’s not a very nice welcome, is it?
Mark: I’m working, I’m busy. You know how full-on Wednesdays are.
Amy: I wanted to see you. Can a girlfriend not pop into see her boyfriend at work? Say a friendly hi? Bring him a cake? She brandishes a paper bag. It’s your favourite. Bakewell tart.
Mark: Ames, you can’t keep doing this. He walks away, pushes a wheelbarrow filled with fish.
Amy: Oh, goody, is it penguin feeding time? She runs after him.
Mark wheels the barrow up the hill, passes a girl, says hi.
Amy clutches her side: Is it her? Is that Sara? Is that the one you fancy? Is it?
Mark parks the wheelbarrow at the penguin enclosure, takes out a clipboard, scans the list.
Amy: She’s not what I expected. She’s a bit dumpier if I’m honest. Mind you these uniforms aren’t exactly flattering, are they?
Mark lifts up the latch of the gate, hoiks the barrow.
Amy: Is she smarter than me? That it? Does she read lots of political stuff? Go on marches? She looks like the demonstration type. Sort of wholesome.
He flings the clipboard down: Stop it Amy. Just stop it.
Amy: Am I not interesting enough? Is that it?
Mark: I think you need to go.
Mark: I’m working. I’ve got schedules, targets. Meetings.
Amy: I know, I know. Do I kiss better?
Mark: Don’t do this. You need to stop doing this. There isn’t anyone else. Just you. I keep telling you. I keep saying. You’re being weird. Paranoid.
When does quirky become weird?
From Greek paranoos- distraught, noos- mind
I picture a noose around my brain,
S q u
e e z
i n g
New Me would practise mindfulness on a daily basis. She would chant and meditate and ooze confidence and self-love.
I crunch down hard, feel the sweetness fill my mouth.
‘Hey, I won, that was easy.’
I open my eyes, turn to Chatty Woman, try to focus. Some types of frogs, the golden poison frog has enough toxin to kill 10-20 men or about 10 000 mice. A tiny wee creature like that, the length of your thumbnail and it can fell grown men and rid plagues of mice.
‘I get my results today.’
I turn. ‘Results?’
‘At the hospital. See if it’s worked. See if it was worth all the sickness. Losing my hair. I think that was the worst. Seeing all my hair fall out. Big chunks of it swirling down the plughole.’
‘What’s it like?’
I blush. New Me would not ask strange questions.
‘Nothing, it doesn’t matter.’
‘Ask me. Anything you want. Tell the truth, I’m a bit fed up with all the tiptoeing around me. There’s this look folk do, I call it Sympathetic Cancer Face. I don’t want all this niceness, this forced jollity, changing the subject. I want them to be normal. To be in bad moods, to moan about all the stuff we complain about. I miss that.’
I laugh. ‘Okay you’ve convinced me. How does it feel thinking you may not live much longer? That your time is running out?’
‘That’s more like it. It’s odd. Scary, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that but freeing too. Like you realise what matters. That you matter. You decide what your energy is to go on. What makes you happy. Who you need to ditch, if that makes sense? Places which make you feel alive. I’m being selfish, for the first time ever and that’s good.’
I feel a loosening in my neck as I stare at her. A prickling in my skull. I yank at my wig, pull off the fur coat, stuff them into the bin.
‘Oh.’ she says, ‘I didn’t mean to.’
I smile ‘S’okay. I’ve decided to walk.’
‘What about the zoo, lovie?’
I lift my head up to the sky, open my mouth, to catch the rain, feel the wetness on my skin. Twirl round, fling my arms wide, whooping into the traffic. A daft wee lassie, but all my own daft.
Mairi Sutherland is a creative writing tutor who gets a buzz from encouraging writers. Her short stories have been published in Northwords Now, Random Acts of Writing and the Skye Reading Room Anthology. Mairi won the 2017 Glasgow Women’s Library Bold Types competition. She has completed her first novel after many, many years. She likes inky pens, blank notebooks and daydreaming on buses.