– Orla McAlinden

Blood splashed onto the clean, white bedcover; an obscene bouquet tossed onto snow. Cathy touched her face- incredulous- before rushing to the bathroom. She turned the key in the only door which locked; a fiction of security. Already the blood was slowing down. She could count each separate drop. So her nose was not broken then; a few burst capillaries, nothing worse. She might not even have a bruise tomorrow, a stroke of good luck.

Gripping both sides of the basin she forced her head up and looked appraisingly at the woman in the mirror. The face was recognisable; clearly the face that smiled out from her passport, unless she stared hard into her own eyes, which she tried to avoid these days.

‘What the Hell am I doing?’ The high-pitched whine ripped unbidden from her throat. ‘Where am I, will I ever come back?’

He was roaring from the bedroom, demanding her return, but she was under no illusions. She would not open this door yet. She was safe. He was safe. He could not crash his shoulder through the flimsy plywood of the door, like a soap opera villain. Nor could he sit outside, flattering and cajoling, until she relented and turned the key. He could not come after her. He could not intrude upon her wounded solitude. She was safe. He was safe.

The noise levels were abating outside her sanctuary, he had roared and raged himself quiet. He always did, given enough time and space. The thought of opening the door filled her with horror. Could she stay here forever? She had water, she could hide for days. Who would notice? Well, he would, obviously, but did she care? Could she bring herself to care? Perhaps a day or two without her would do him some good.

She could go to the Police. She could push him, in his chair, through the doors of the Police station and show them her bloodied face and clothing. He would sit, head lolling in his wheeled chair, so weak, so vulnerable; they would think she was crazy.

The crusted blood washed away easily enough from her lips and chin. Her top was ruined but it was only a cheap rag really- almost disposable. She thought, momentarily, of her wardrobe full of filmy, flattering clothes. Donna Karan, and Coast mainly, and a few treasured pieces with real designer labels for big days- for closing deals, presenting to the partners or lunching with clients. She had not wasted her good clothes on small-fry, only the biggest chequebooks had inspired to her dress powerfully. On normal days she had aspired simply to look calm, competent; reliability personified. She allowed herself a wry, bitter smile, as she scrubbed ineffectually at the blood on her chain-store tee-shirt and tracksuit. It was the first she had ever bought, six months ago; now she had a small collection.

The memory of those first, heady days with Mark was like a movie, a big-budget, 3-D movie of someone else’s life. His touch, his smile, her joy. He taught her (at last) to stagger with desire, and to tremble, fully dressed. She had been so grateful. She was delirious with her discovery.

Perhaps, if she had been younger… Perhaps, if she had not already endured civilised and urbane relationships, with civilised and urbane men, Mark might have just passed on. She might have relegated him to a racy water-cooler anecdote. To meet a man like him, at her age, at her stage, had been a wholesale, headlong, Damascene conversion. They had spent their weekends in bed- sore, drenched and stinking.

“This beats comparing focaccias in some terrible farmers’ market with Paul or David” she thought, wrapping his dark whorls of hair round her fingers, sighing, gasping with exhaustion.
She had stopped trying to educate him, this man who thought Anna Netrebko and Cecilia Bartoli might be runners in the maiden hurdle at Chepstow, but who had grudgingly confessed to a vague familiarity with Luciano Pavarotti, “that fat fucker”, and to being able to hum a few bars of Nessun Dorma.

She had stopped cooking him risotto, had stopped carefully infusing fish stock with perfectly drinkable wine. She had just gone along madly. Mark was the only man she had ever known who would rip a 50 euro pair of La Perla cami-knickers down a seam, with impatience for her. For her! She couldn’t bring herself to regret it all, not just yet.

Mark had damaged her, though. It was undeniable- she was not stupid, nor a hypocrite. She could not stand in a locked bathroom, wiping blood off poly-cotton, and pretend to be a confident, successful, forty-one year old career-girl. Everything had changed since her mistake, the stupid, avoidable accident that had wrecked everything between them. Overnight, their lives had changed, the relationship destroyed utterly. Now she felt worthless, used-up, worn-out. As if that monster in the other room was going to congratulate her on a deal closed, on another grinding step towards the glass ceiling.

Scarcely breathing, she slipped out of the tiny, en-suite bathroom, past the bed where he lay sleeping. Her face puckered at the sour, bitter smell of the room. She paused for just a moment. Gazing down at the bloodied bedding, she felt a stab of disbelief. She touched her swollen, painful face. It had really happened. She cringed to recall the way he had looked at her, his candid blue eyes, so calm, so unhurried, before smashing his head into her face. There could be no apology, no acknowledgement at all, and she was a fool to think of it. If some other abject madwoman would take on her role, service his endless needs, he would never think of her again, nor register her absence.

A tiny string of saliva stretched from his slack mouth to the white sheet beneath him. It pulsed with his breathing. It elongated with each tiny twitch of his lips and yet did not sever. It might last forever, bound to this casual, cruel monster, as surely as she was. She imagined herself, struggling here forgotten, in slimy, sticky bondage, while all around her, the world turned regardless.

Her thoughts deepened and darkened, as so many times before. The clarity, the vividness always frightened her. It seemed less an imagining than a memory, or a premonition. There was no-one she could talk to, no friendly soul would extricate her from this mess of her own making. To whom could she utter the words? Her shaking hands picked up the pillow, so light, so insubstantial. Could it really be done? She imagined placing the square of fabric and feathers over the rounded, pretty face she had come to loathe, breathing fast, pushing down with all her weight, until he stiffened, then sagged, beneath her.

In the living-room, she sat in her favourite chair, clinging to its arms as though to a life-raft. Her chest seethed up and down, a small boat on a terrible storm, the single occupant clinging to her sanity in the maelstrom. She must stop this image in her head. She must get help. ‘There must be other women who feel this way, I cannot be alone’- but she knew she was lying. He was a monster and she was growing to hate him more with each passing day.

Looking round, she was crushed by the filth of her home. It was beautifully proportioned and she had furnished it lovingly, with taste and flair. Her apartment was unusually large, in a ruinously expensive suburb. “My flat”, as she always described it, with a self-deprecating smile, knowing her guests would gasp in shocked delight, as she threw open the door for them.

It was a small pleasure, but important to her. She had never been wealthy, nor poor. Her parents would have described their lives as ‘comfortable’, had they ever known anyone crass enough to ask. She had worked so tirelessly to shed that label of comfort. Her parents had been children of the early post-war period: ration cards and no toothpaste. How abruptly, how exultantly she had shed off their accumulated ornaments, their sea-side knick-knacks. Every item on display in her apartment had been carefully, and painstakingly, arranged to an expensive and artful air of casual chic. Without hesitation, she had sent her late mother’s collection of heavily cut crystal to the salesroom and her Aynsley porcelain to Oxfam.

So she was truly shaken as she looked properly at her surroundings, for the first time in days. The treasures she had carefully and wisely accumulated were still here, but soiled, spoiled. The unmistakable odour of vomit hung in the air. The whole place stank of vomit, piss and shit, she noted- shocked at the vulgarity of her inner monologue- a few months ago she would have said (and even thought) ‘poo’ and ‘wee’. Everything was coarsening; she fastest of all. She noticed a discarded bottle, flung aside in a rage, or simply dropped out of his hands regardless. From the bottle coursed a filthy trail, snaking down over the upholstery of the sofa and onto a pale, stinking pool on a white floor-rug. The rug was worth a month’s mortgage repayment. Not any more, of course.
‘There is no-one I could tell’, she thought again. Who would believe it? More importantly, who could view this wreckage and resist the temptation? “We told you”, they would say with quiet satisfaction, “We warned you. It was not too late”.

‘Well, it’s too late now’, she acknowledged. ‘I made my own bed. I took Mark to my bed. I hung off it, and gasped in it and screamed in it. Now that it has become a bed of nails, I will lie in it’. So much for modernity, and emancipation, some essential things do not change. “That creature sharing my room is a monster, a parasite. I’ve changed my world for him and the world couldn’t care less”.

Her head shot up, triangulating the unmistakable sound of him stirring. She leaped to her feet and ran to the galley kitchen. She toyed momentarily with the idea of scalding him. Just a moment’s passing fancy. She was not so far gone. She still knew right from wrong and while she still could, she would behave appropriately, whatever the provocation. Begging the kettle to boil, the task to flow smoothly, she knew that if she was fast, and lucky, she might forestall the next fury.

She could buy some time, placate him, maybe even make him smile. Then she would clean up, and tidy. She would bleach the bloodstains. She would make it better between them. It would work. She would make it work. It was the most natural thing in the world. Other women coped; she would too. Grabbing the warm drink and some paracetemol, in case he needed it, she approached the bedroom door cautiously.

Peering round the door, she thought, ‘I might not be too late. He looks ok. He’s not angry yet, he’s not fully awake’.

‘I can do this,’ she swore to herself, ‘I can keep doing this forever. I love him. Yes, I do. I love him. I think so, anyway. If he would just give me the slightest hint that he loves me too. I could love him. I will love him, if it kills me’.

‘If only Mark were here with me. If he had only stayed with me. If he had helped. If he had not left me here, trapped with this monster’.

She entered the room, flung open a window and drank in the icy air before walking to the bloodied cot. “Hush, darling. Mummy is here.”