I felt conspicuous about the Tesco carrier bag I was holding. Not so much for the logo or material. Everyone was broke and my eco anxiety had taken a backseat lately. But I was aware of the contents as though I were wearing them. The bookshop’s staff and the customers browsing the January sales…I was sure they all had x-ray vision and were judging me for the chocolate fudge cake (serves: 10), litre bottle of vodka and packet of disposable razor blades, rather than concentrating on restocking or choosing between James Patterson or A. M. Homes.
I weaved between the displays of notepads and clip on reading lights, wondering what the checkout girl had thought. That I was on my way to a party and needed to de-fuzz first? She was probably only thinking about her shift finishing. Or thinking nothing. Lucky woman. I’d give anything to have just one day of feeling nothing. Instead of feeling everything. Acutely. Minutely.
The feeling I was being watched made me look up. A single black eye glared unblinkingly back from its nest in a corner ceiling tile. Even the security camera was judging me. Following me.
“Excuse me,” a gangly assistant with a greasy centre parting and an armful of Zadie Smiths squeezed between me and a pyramid built out of Jon McGregors.
“Sorry,” I swung my bag out of his path, praying that the smart snap of the boy’s shoes and clacking of lanyards and keys would drown out any clinking the bottle might make.
I started making my way over to the stairs, then looked up again. Remembering just how many stairs there were. Remembering how the lift was always out of order. Remembering how they were always rotating the stock in this place, probably under some area manager’s misguidedness about ‘keeping it fresh’ for customers, rather than just annoying the hell out of them. Yet another ploy to resuscitate a dying industry. Nobody had the attention span for books anymore. Even the shop’s sandwich board outside argued with people trying to use the pavement that by walking by they were missing soy spiced chai lattes, rather than presenting the case for books.
Greasy guy shimmied past again. More sorry’s and excuse me’s were exchanged.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “You look a little lost.” I focussed on a constellation of acne on his jaw lest my eyes tell his how true that observation was.
“Yeah, well, I guess…” To be honest, conversation hadn’t been part of my plan tonight. My words sounded like someone else’s. A tape recorded stutter of someone trying and failing to learn an alien language. Pull yourself together, Kate.
“Actually, I’m looking for the self-help section.” Finally. A coherent sentence.
“Third floor. On your left.” Off he went, snapping and clacking like a one man band.
I’d been twisting the bag handles around and around and my fingertips were going purple. I spun them back around the other way. The bag caught my thigh. Knock knock, said the razors. We’re still here, waiting. Drink me, said the vodka.
Mama’s still procrastinating. Be good and wait till we get home.
The mother/children scenario I’d invented caused a bubble of hysteria to catch in my throat. I popped it with an exaggerated cough.
Three flights of stairs then. I wasn’t even going to bother going round the corner to see if the lifts were working. May as well punish this body a bit, give it a taste of what it’s in for, right? Asking for help to find the self-help books, for chrissakes. What a walking disaster.
Out of breath shortly later, I stood in front of all the books trying to sell happiness. Or at least contentedness.
Communicating With Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Eating a Way out of Anorexia.
Confidence – Training Your Brain
Sex Addiction Strategies – Love Yourself before Loving Everyone Else
Too many books spoil the goth, I thought, watching as my black painted fingernails glided over glossy spines. All these voices in the shelves bickering for my attention, listing their qualifications on their covers, the boisterous blurbs. Nothing that told me what I am.
Because I am nothing.
I switched the heavy bag over to my other hand.
“Find what you were looking for?” Greasy guy was apparently my assigned shadow.
I shook my head, incapable of trusting my voice in that moment.
“Are you open to suggestions?”
Wait, was I being hit on now? In my tights full of holes, zero make up and hoodie that had only been washed by rain these past few weeks? Men. Honestly.
No, wait, Kate. It’s his job to sell books. He’s not offering his service as a dom.
Although you could never be too sure in this crazy town. Just as well I’m getting out.
He must’ve taken the cacophony of noise in my head that presents with my eyes flickering while my mouth remains sealed as a yes.
“We’ve just got the new Anton Vine books in. So funny. And you know what they say, laughter is the best medicine and all! Follow me.”
He turned, presuming I would obey. Eat me, cried the cake. Not now, said ma.
I had to jog a little to catch up with his long strides. He thrust a hardback with a gaudy purple dust jacket into my free hand. I pretended to read the back while Ralph (or so his name badge declared) extolled the virtues of this author I’d never heard of. I peered at the author photo. Anton Vine liked The Cure, or at least wearing their t-shirts. The book suddenly became more interesting.
I followed Ralph over to the counter, paid him for the book, which I placed in my carrier bag, hoping the other children therein wouldn’t bully it.
I stopped in St Nicholas’ park for a smoke. My legs were aching and shoulders were complaining of my cargo. I pulled the new book out of the bag and read the prologue in the last of the evening light.
A dog barked in the other end of the park when the streetlamps on the road outside came on, bringing me back to where I was. I looked at the bag at my feet, its voices muffled.
Bath time, kids.
It took a while to pop a couple of blades out of their plastic casings. I lined them up on the side of the tub, seeing how they glinted in the glow of the tealight candles. I hoped they wouldn’t burn the place down when I slipped away. There ya go, still thinking of the neighbours even when I’m planning to do myself in.
I took a sip from the tumbler full of vodka, wincing at the unmixed spirit while listening to the water roar out of the taps. I put the glass down and added bubble bath to the gradually filling tub. That way I wouldn’t have to see too much mess.
I’d chosen Leonard Cohen for my soundtrack. Clichéd, right? Further proving I’ll never leave a mark on this world, I’m just a carbon copy of a whole bunch of a messed up family tree.
I let my robe fall to the floor and lowered myself into the water. Slowly, as I always ran baths too hot for others to handle.
That had been one of his many complaints.
Well, soon I wouldn’t have to think of him anymore. Or the relatives who couldn’t understand why I can’t keep a ‘nice’ man. Or the friends too busy with their husbands and children to talk.
I soaked there for half an hour, thoughts jostling for space, candles flickering in the small draft that always found its way in, blades looking up expectantly. Eventually I picked one up, shaking some of the water off my hand first to get a better grip. I ran the pad of my thumb over its sharpness.
I pressed it to my wrist tentatively, then harder. Beads of blood appeared.
The voices started to falter. Then started up again, one more persistent than the others. It belonged to one of my bag of children, where it lay on my bedside table.
“Mama…don’t you want to find out how I end?”
I put down my instrument and went to my child.