I surface, battling through darkness. Flashing lights illuminate my passage, throbbing in the grey matter behind my eyes. I'm conscious of pain, but I'm not experiencing it's full unpleasantness yet, for which I'm thankful. My mouth and eyes are dry, my neck is bent at an awkward angle, my left arm is twisted uncomfortably under my torso, my bracelet is digging into my wrist and my earrings are digging into my neck. I've woken up like this a lot over the years (more often recently) but I've never quite gotten used to the sheer awfulness of it.
Consciousness prevails, although I decide to keep my eyes closed for now. Last night is hazy, to say the least. I can recall the first few hours at Soho Loco with the work crowd. Then they all headed home before midnight to their respective partners and children (the joys of being in one's thirties) but I bumped into Nathan and Tara from uni and we headed… to Flamingo? The Empire? Both? Disjointed flashes of memory flicker to mind: stabbing elbows, blaring music, queuing at the bar, stumbling into the toilets... Did I throw up? Did I do coke? I can't remember, but it's fairly likely if Tara was involved. I must have smoked, because my throat stings and my mouth tastes like ash. I'm ninety percent sure I ended up in a taxi eventually, in fact I vaguely remember blearily directing the driver into my estate. So I must be home, at least. That's a win.
I seem to have passed out on the couch, because I'm definitely not in bed, I'm lying on something hard and narrow. I should move, before mum finds me. Last time she cried, asked me what I thought I was doing with my life. I don't know what the big deal was. People go out. People have fun. I'm just doing what everyone else does.
There's something wrong though, something different. The upholstery against my cheek is... Scratchy? Mum's couch is smooth leather. And there's an unfamiliar musty smell in the air. Am I somewhere I shouldn't be? Did I go home with someone? I was definitely alone in the taxi. And I definitely got home. I think.
My eyelids, glued together by congealed mascara and eyeliner, peel apart, exposing my parched corneas to the light. And it turns out I'm definitely not where I thought I was.
Dull pain throbbing in my forehead, I lever myself up onto my elbow. The living room looks like mum's. It's the same size, and the fireplace, window and doors are all in the same places. But there's a worn, turquoise-blue carpet instead of wood laminate floor, and a suite of brown tweed-upholstered furniture instead of cream leather. It's all a bit dated, a bit faded. The carpet needs hoovering. The net curtains, through which the overly-bright morning sun is streaming, are yellowed. A dirty wineglass sits on the hearth, and there's another on the coffee table, along with a few coffee-stained mugs. Dead flowers in a glass vase wilt on the sideboard, the water murky and brown. I get the sense that the occupant has given up trying. We have something in common, at least.
Speaking of which, I need to get up and sneak out as soon as possible, before an untidy, wine-drinking stranger enters, freaks out and calls the police. I attempt to stand, but the throbbing ache in my head, coupled with a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea, forces me back into a horizontal position. Maybe I could just nap here a while longer? I'm not doing any harm… it's highly unlikely a murderer or a rapist lives here…
The door handle twists downward, the door pushes open and in walks someone far more terrifying than any violent criminal. A middle-aged woman, not much older than my own mum, in grey sweatpants and a frayed, baby-pink hoodie. Her hair, streaked with grey, is pulled back into a short, messy ponytail. Lines crease the skin around her eyes and mouth. I'm not in the habit of associating with people much older than me, people who are washed-up and sad-looking and in serious need of some personal care. But I know this woman. I've spent hundreds of hours sitting under her watchful gaze, concentrating, focusing, adrenaline coursing through my veins, in case I unwittingly do something vexatious or irritating or Out Of Line. Miss Adams. My old maths teacher.
She doesn't look surprised, just calmly assesses her old student, (I had been quite the prodigy back in the day), in faux-leather leggings, a plunging purple top, and blocky platform heels, sprawled on her couch, makeup smeared all over her face, hair undoubtedly all over the place. I feel sick, ashamed, but most of all angry that this woman has the temerity to witness me (and probably judge me) in the aftermath of what, all in all, had been a decent night out. Irrational, I know.
'Nice to see you're back in the land of the living, Christine,' she says calmly. 'Good night, I hope?'
She had lived around the corner, when I was at school, I remember. Still does, apparently.
'Miss Adams… I'm so so sorry, this is horrific, I must have… I think I… '
'Got wasted and broke into someone's home? It's Fiona, by the way. We can drop the formalities.'
It's weird to hear her use the word "wasted" so causally. I search for something intelligent to say, something that'll turn this utterly mortifying situation into a totally normal ex-pupil-teacher encounter. 'I'm really, really sorry' is all I come up with.
'I've put the kettle on. Tea? Or maybe some water..?'
I'm parched, my tongue feels like the surface of the Sahara desert. I suppose there's no harm in staying a little longer. Means I can defer the return to my mother, albeit briefly.
'Tea would be nice. Or water. Maybe both. If you don't mind.'
'You vomited in the garden,' she informs me before exiting. I lean back into the ugly, scratchy couch, wondering if I can master the art of teleportation before she returns. I imagine vanishing, materialising on a quiet beach somewhere. Nowhere too hot. Iceland, maybe. On a nice spring day. I chose my eyes, shutting out the searing sunlight. Miss Adams, of all people. And she seems so… nice, considering the circumstances. She had terrified us all at school with her steely face, her abrupt manner, her sarcasm. Even those of us who were good at maths, kept quiet, did our homework. There was no messing around in her class, no chitchat about what we did on our summer holidays, boyfriends, who had won Big Brother or X-Factor. Just silence, order, and numbers. She had been married, as far as I recall, and had a son. She had never told us this in class, because she'd never discuss anything that wasn't maths-related, but you just hear these things. Especially in a small, all-girls school, where gossip reigns supreme. There had never been much to gossip about when it came to Miss Adams, though. Other than who she put in detention or who she made cry.
I open my eyes, surveying the room again. Is her husband skulking around? Her son? What had happened to her? Why was her home so shabby and unkempt? Why are there no family photos anywhere? Several hooks adorn the walls, empty of pictures. The back of my neck prickles. Whatever has happened to this family can't be good. I don't need to know the details though. I just need to get out, toddle home, shower and sleep.
She returns with a chipped grey mug of tea in one hand, and a dusty glass of water in the other. There's a packet of paracetamol tucked between her fingers.
'Here you go.' She sets everything on the coffee table and sits in the armchair opposite, surveying me with an unreadable expression. I obediently sip the too-milky tea, even though I don't consume dairy anymore. Requesting almond or oat milk might be pushing it.
'Thank you. Like, really thank you.'
She just looks at me, silent, her hands resting in her lap. Her fingernails are bitten, the cuticles ragged and raw.
I clear my throat. 'Where am I?'
'Thirty-seven, Belmont Drive. I believe you were looking for seventy-two, Belmont Park?'
'Well, that was the plan!' I say wryly, attempting a self-deprecating joke to lighten the mood. She doesn't smile.
'Did I… how did I get in?' Oh god. Had I smashed a window?
She clears her throat. 'I left the door unlocked… it's silly, you have to remember to lock it from the inside…' her eyes flick to the wineglass. 'So you didn't quite break in. Your mother has a car like mine. I suppose you assumed you were at home.'
'Ah. Ok.' No breaking and entering, thank Christ. 'Do you know my mum?'
'Just from parent-teacher meetings. And seeing her around here.'
She must have a good memory.
'So… did you find me last night?'
'Yes. I don't sleep very well… I heard you come in, saw who it was and thought you might be best sleeping it off. I considered calling the police, or knocking on your mother's door but…' she shrugs. 'It didn't seem necessary to cause a drama.'
Had she really wanted to avoid a drama, or had she been too tired and tipsy to bother? Wine knocks me out, too.
'Well. Thank you. I'll go now. I'm really sorry about all this.' I pop two paracetamol and gulp a mouthful of water. My head is splitting and my abdomen is wracked by nausea. Carrying on a conversation is not within my hangover skillset. But it seems she wants to keep chatting.
'So what are you doing with yourself these days?'
This really isn't the time or a place for a catch-up.
'Emm. I'm working at InsureCompare. Customer service.' It's a crap job and I'm not going to try big it up. She can probably tell I haven't exactly got the hang of adulting.
'Didn't you study law?'
'What happened there?'
'It wasn't for me. I just did it because… I don't know. Seemed like a good idea.' Because dad made me, but I don't want to get into that.
'Didn't you do a masters in film studies?'
'Emm. Yes. How do you know that?'
'I'm still in touch with Matilda. Miss Elliot.' My old PE teacher. I had hated her classes, endless bleep tests and hockey drills. 'Her niece is friends with you?'
Laura. A good friend, once upon a time. Engaged, living with her fiancee, according to facebook, working as a speech therapist with deaf kids. One of my old schoolmates who breezed happily through her twenties and mastered the art of being a grown-up without a second thought.
'Ah. Yeah, I did the masters… Thought it would be good to study something I actually liked… not that it lead to much.' I was a little surprised Miss Adams had asked after me. She didn't seem like the type to care what her students did in life, so long as they left her class with a comprehensive grasp of quadratic equations.
'I just find it strange that the girl… woman… who got the best results in the school in 2007, who could have done whatever she wanted in life, is pursuing such a… chaotic lifestyle. At your age. You're thirty now?'
'Thirty-one. Look, I'm sorry, I know it looks like I'm a mess, but this isn't exactly a common occurrence. I appreciate the concern but I don't have, like… A problem.'
She looks at with a familiar expression, the face she used to make when someone got an answer wrong in class.
I start to feel defensive. 'I actually had a really good job, after the masters. Well, I don't know if it was good, but I liked it. It was in human rights policy development with Globalvision. But I started going out with someone at work and then we broke up and… I couldn't stay there.'
I'm not going to go into detail, not going to mention the times Mark went through my messages, my computer, searching for evidence of infidelity, those times he showed up at my house at night to check on me (I shared with two friends back then), the constant fear, the worry in the pit of my stomach.
'That's a shame,' she said quietly. Then continued. 'I heard about your father.'
Right after the break-up, dad had a stroke and died pretty quickly. Mum was destroyed. I was between jobs. So I moved home and tried to keep her going. Tried to keep myself going. Get over Mark, get over Dad. It took me over a year before I started applying for jobs again. Having a break on your CV is highly suspicious to employers apparently, and InsureCompare was the best I could find. And I just didn't care. Still don't. I can't leave mum. So I go out. Work nights, tinder dates, whatever. Just to feel normal again. All the things I wanted to do once seem impossibly far away. Get a good job. My own place. Meet someone. Have kids. I've done none of it. I'm nothing. No one. Mum knows it. Miss Adams knows it too, now. There are tears in my eyes and I wipe them away hastily with the back of my hand, black make-up streaks staining my skin.
'What's the point of this, Miss Adams? I've had some stuff to deal with that's left me messed up, I'm not coping perfectly but I'm trying. For mum. It's just… I need to get out, just forget, be normal. It helps.' My voice is rising, I'm sounding childish, hysterical.
She leans back in her chair, stares thoughtfully towards the window.
'My son, Richard. He was brilliant. We gave him every opportunity. Pushed him to achieve his potential. He got into medicine. First and second year went fine, I think. Then things started getting out of hand, the partying, going out. I used to find him on this couch a lot. Or on the floor in the hall, sometimes the bathroom. I don't know if it was the pressure, or the company he kept, or if he had just never wanted to study medicine. Photography was his thing. We told him he should do it as a hobby, get a proper job, have financial security. Anyway. Halfway through his fourth year, they found his body in the canal, near the docks. We never knew if he just fell in, blind drunk, or if he jumped.'
I stare at her, aghast.
'My husband left me after it all. He blamed me. Said I was too strict, too pushy. Maybe he was right. You'd probably know, being a previous… victim of my encouragement.' She sighs. 'He had his pushy moments too though. I took early retirement. And now…' she waves her hand towards the dingy room. 'This is my life now.'
I want to say something. But what? How? I feel so small, so silly.
'I keep meaning to do something. Get involved in the community. Join some groups, try get out and meet people. Then I find I can barely get out of bed, never mind clean or cook. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe this is my… penance. Or maybe I'm just traumatised and depressed.
'And I'm telling you this, Christine, because whenever I found him passed out after a night out, he said he was fine. And it may be the case that you are fine, that this is a once-off embarrassing… incident. But on the offchance it isn't, I hope you understand why I feel obliged to say something. Please look after yourself, if you're struggling.'
I take another sip of tea (it's nearly cold). 'Thanks. I mean, you're probably right. To some extent. This is a bit… much. I guess going out, having fun, it just gets me out of my head. I don't think I'm… in danger.' Was I? My liver, maybe, but me? I hadn't really thought about it.
She sighs. 'I understand. Not that I'm going out a lot but, you know. Wine. Gin. Netflix.'
I don't want to leave anymore. I don't want to abandon her, surrounded by dust and dirty dishes and regret.
'You know, if you want, you should call over. My mum would be happy to see you, I'm sure.' I wasn't really, but she could do with a friend, someone to moan about me to. 'And…. I'd be happy to go for a walk, or have a chat. Anytime. You're right, I should… sort stuff out. Find a different job, reconnect with friends. It's hard when you're in a rut.'
She smiles, sadly. 'Oh I know. And thank you. Perhaps I will.'
I don't know if she means it, but I hope she does.
Silence falls, and suddenly the sadness is overwhelming. I need my mum, I need to feel her arms around me, smell her shampoo, her handcream. 'I should probably go.' I stand up, a little wobbly, but I can walk, which is an improvement. 'Thanks for everything.'
She sees me to the door, through the narrow hall, so like ours at home, but darker. I open the door and the light pours in, illuminating her pale face and the grey streaks in her dark hair.
'Look after yourself, Christine.'
I'll come back when I'm sober and cleaned up, I resolve. I'll bring fresh flowers, I'll send her and mum out for a walk by the sea, I'll make them coffee. I'll look for jobs, start sending out CVs. I'll text Laura. 'Be kind to yourself,' my counselor had said, before I stopped showing up because the sessions made me too sad. I'll try. It's never too late to try.
The door shuts softly behind me. Time to go home.