Emily awoke suddenly and found herself sat bolt upright in the middle of the bed. Beads of sweat were slowly crawling down her spine, making her shiver as they reached the small of her back. Where was she? Her mind was racing; she was only semi-conscious, but her nerves were on edge. Her fast pulse was pressing on her temple like a clamp tightening around her head. She tried to focus on her senses like she had been taught in the meditation class. At first, nothing. She worked harder, concentrating on her hearing, clinging to any sound she could grasp to escape the dark eeriness of her mind. Was it all just a dream?
Outside, birds were chirping. Spring made them happy and carefree. She listened intently to their song, absorbing the different tones, replacing her thoughts with the strident tweets of hungry chicks to empty her mind. It was beginning to work when another, higher-pitched sound, demanded her attention. A phone was ringing. It stopped, soon replaced by the muffled voice of a woman. Emily couldn't quite discern what she was saying. To her ears, the words were nothing but garbled noise.
Blinking a few times, she grappled with this new element of reality before glancing around the bedroom. It looked oddly familiar. She caught a glimpse of a pile of clothes that had been thrown unceremoniously on the chair: a pair of blue jeans and a stripy jumper. Strange. Not at all what she had been expecting to see. She could recall wearing a black and red checked skirt and a black shirt but ..., when was it?
Still in a haze, she tried to conjure up more flashbacks. Although blurred, she could almost distinguish the drinks, the dances, the women. She could hear their jaunty laughter. Yet it all seemed so distant. She knew she had met with her friends from university to celebrate their graduation, their first jobs, their newly gained independence. But that wasn't last night at all; that was several months, even years ago. That was ...
Why did she feel so nauseous remembering such a happy time? More pictures from her dream began to emerge, the shots of tequila, the journey home, the taxi, the driver.
The whole nightmare flashed before her in its unrelenting horror. She saw herself lying in the back of the car, her skirt lifted, her legs apart. She smelt the rancid breath coming through the tobacco-stained grin of the man. She felt his cold hand slithering along her exposed thigh.
And what came next.
The pain was all too real, as if he was there now. Her body recoiled, recalling every single stroke, one after the other. She fell backwards and hit her head hard against the wall. The shock jolted her back to the present. This time, she welcomed it.
Through the door, the conversation grew louder before dwindling, as if the person talking was moving around. Unable to follow, Emily looked once more around her. Little by little, she recognised the furniture before the familiar smells of fried bacon and toasted bread reached her nose and finally brought her back fully to reality.
Of course. She was at her parents in north London. She was home. It was her mum talking on the phone downstairs. Yes, she remembered it all now. She had returned to live with them after the assault in the taxi. The following day, unable to decide anything, uncertain what to do, she had called home. Her dad had been angry, her mum devastated. They both understood she could not stay on her own and so had encouraged her to move back home with them for a while. Her old bedroom was there, untouched, and she could stay for as long as she needed. It had been almost eight years; she had never moved out.
Over the past few months though, Emily had been feeling increasingly unsettled. At first, the nightmare appeared, probably triggered by a stupid movie she should never have watched. Then the arguments with her mother. She didn’t like hurting her, but sometimes, mainly when she was being spoken to as if she was still a teenager, she would feel trapped in the house. Night curfews, set times for meals and endless questions about her love life would result in a growing anger. More than once she had exploded, hurling insults and abuse uncontrollably, then instantly regretting her words and apologising. Her best friend Sarah called it “her monster” like it was a wild beast that lived inside her head, feeding on her doubt and pain. Whenever she got too close to the edge, it would simply push her over and take control.
Recently, the nightly flashbacks had become more frequent. A part of herself knew why. At thirty, she felt like nothing had changed since that awful night. Her mind was stuck at twenty-one years of age when time had stopped. Nothing she tried had worked. The meditation classes, the counselling, the self-help books, the conversations with those who knew, those who cared, nothing had helped her to move on. Her helplessness and frustration were serving each other. Unable to break the cycle, she had surrendered to this empty life, just waiting for it to pass.
The enticing aromas of breakfast helped her shake off the negative thoughts. It was time to go downstairs and be social, so she wrapped herself in her usual dressing gown, catching sight of her reflection in the mirror. The sweat had caked her hair, complete with puffy eyes and sore lips. She looked in disgust at her appearance and then shrugged it off. Opening the door with measured, robotic movements as if she was not wholly anchored in the present yet, she stepped down the narrow staircase of her parents’ Victorian townhouse and turned towards the kitchen. Her mother was standing by the oven, the handle of a frying pan in her hand.
‘Good morning, my darling.’ She turned around and winced at the sight of her daughter. ‘Oh my, you look a bit worse for wear.’
‘I just woke up.’ Emily was not going to share any more details.
‘What time did you come home last night?’
‘Not sure, late I guess.’
Her mother’s lips twitched, ready to comment but as Emily walked right past her, she sighed.
‘Shall I prepare you a full English?’
It was one of Emily’s guilty pleasures. She started most Saturdays with a proper breakfast: eggs, bacon, mushrooms, sausage and a very generous serving of beans on brown toast. Heaven served on sliced bread; it made life so much more bearable. Nothing would ever beat this ritual, reliably signalling the start of the weekend.
‘Please, Mum, with two sausages.’
‘Did you go out with Sarah yesterday?’
‘Yes, she was there.’
‘I should have known. She made you drink, didn't she?’ Her mother’s attempt at a neutral tone failed to mask the real bitterness of her words.
‘I'm old enough to drink when I want.’
For a long time now, her mum had disapproved of Sarah. She could not forget that it was Sarah who had called the taxi and put her daughter inside. She would never forgive her.
‘I know she’s your friend, but all the same, be careful with her.’
‘Don't call me that, I’m not your boss.’
Emily was not ready for an argument and lifted her arms in a gesture of surrender.
‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Do we have any aspirin here?’
‘In the cupboard over there.’ A simple nod of the head pointed out the medicine cabinet while closing the conversation in an instant.
They both appreciated the moment of silence. It was paramount to maintaining the harmonious serenity of the morning.
Emily swallowed the pill with a sip of orange juice and sat down at the table. It was best to let her mum cook in peace – it gave her a sense of control over the family. It ran in her blood, and she ruled them through their stomachs. Emily’s father had never found any reason to moan about it. In fact, he rarely had anything to complain about. He was of a rather docile nature and entirely submissive to the woman who had been his wife for over thirty-five years. He had married young and well. He had only been interested in a wife who would look after him and run his house, and he had indeed found his match.
Emily often thought of her father as a very kind gentleman, always eager to help others. Perhaps this was why she struggled to visualise the adolescent he would have been when he first attempted to win the heart of the fiery dragon that was her mother. Photos existed in some family archive, and relatives often resurrected old anecdotes, but they could never adequately convey the reality of such an unlikely courtship.
The dragon interrupted her thoughts.
‘You’ll never guess who was on the phone earlier.’
‘One of your sisters.’
‘Did you hear us?’
‘No, but you always ask the same question right after one of them has some important news to share.’
‘You could call them your aunts, you know.’
‘No. They’re just your sisters. They hardly know I exist.’
A loud sigh filled the kitchen for a second before a name was finally pronounced in exasperation.
‘It was Rose.’
‘It could have been anyone on a Saturday morning.’
‘Nope! It was either Rose or Hannah.’
Suddenly, the room felt too small to contain all the tension that had built up through their short conversation. Emily had never been close to this side of the family. She found her two aunts rather obnoxious. Both had been lucky enough to trade up through marriage. Living a life of luxury afforded by their husband’s money was all well and good, but it didn’t entitle them to look down on their other sister. Sadly, her mother chose not to see it that way. The dream of a happy and united family was more alluring than reality would ever be.
‘Your cousin Sophie is getting married next summer. Philip proposed with a gorgeous platinum ring encrusted with several diamonds in a claw setting. Rose described how he planned it all. It was so romantic, it made me cry. A couple in love is so beautiful, isn't it?’
‘Good for her. I assume she would have said no if the ring had been made of plastic.’
‘What are you talking about? They don’t make wedding rings with plastic.’
‘Of course not. And I’m sure the smile on the bride’s face was in perfect proportion to the size of the diamonds on her finger. I presume she has already started her official tour of the city and called a special press conference to show everyone that she’s soon going to marry the local millionaire big shot.’
‘You can be such a cynic sometimes.’
Emily locked eyes with her mother, and she would not let go.
‘Prove me wrong. Prove to me that all the family wealth Philip inherited last year has nothing to do with Sophie’s feelings for him.’
‘The wedding will take place in Leeds, in the same church where she was baptised.’
‘Great. You know that when you change the subject to avoid the conversation, you only prove me right?’
Ignoring the argument, her mother continued to furnish her with unwanted details. Emily had begrudgingly scored a point. It stirred something in her belly. She didn’t want to fight, but discussions about weddings always brought so much discomfort; she struggled to contain her anxiety. She hated feeling this way. Her mother should know better than to broach the topic so openly.
‘We saw them three weeks ago for Rose’s birthday. They looked so much in love.’
‘Yes. Looks can be so deceiving.’
Her mother turned around and frowned as she spoke. ‘You are impossible!’
‘It’s part of my charm. You might want to check the bacon, I think it’s done.’
A faint aroma of burnt meat drifted from the pan and filling the room.
Emily smiled, although she was unsure of the reason why. Was her reaction because nothing panicked her mum more than wasting food, or because this insipid conversation had been interrupted?
‘Oh my god, it’s all burnt. I’ll put more on.’
‘You know, God had very little to do with that...’
But her mother had left the conversation, far too preoccupied with what was happening in the pan. The words fluttered in the air for a moment, looking for open ears to land on. Finding none, they simply vanished into oblivion.
The whole discussion made Emily feel peevish. She wondered why it was so crucial for everybody to form pairs. What was so different about her that she never felt that compulsion? A dark cloud took hold of her mind. The constant societal pressure that rejected singlehood almost as a sin was eating her alive. Surely, she was not alone? Surely others felt this way too? Sarah, for one. She would never consider marriage. Her lifestyle was incompatible with the concept of settling down with just the one partner. Yet, it seemed nobody was harassing her and always asking whether she had ‘found someone’. So why did people often ask Emily that question? She had turned thirty recently. How long would she have to wait before they all left her alone?
‘Here, your fry-up is ready.’
Emily was brought back to the present by the hot, overflowing plate her mother had carefully placed in front of her.
‘Thank you, but you know, I would have eaten the first batch of bacon.’
‘No, no. It was burnt.’
Emily began her breakfast feast as she always did, by spreading a large scoop of baked beans on the toast before taking a bite and letting the red sauce run down her chin. Such childish little pleasures, puerile and ridiculous as they would appear to the casual observer, were very precious to her. They acted like an anchor, a symbol of stability and routine that proved the working week had finally ended and life in general was still worth living.
‘I need to RSVP for Sophie. Of course, you are coming with us?’
For around two minutes she had managed to isolate herself in a pocket of serenity, but a few words from her mother and it was shattered.
‘For Sophie’s wedding. I’ll tell Rose we are all going together.’
‘Do I have to go?’
‘Yes you do, they’re family.’
Emily chose to give in. Where family was concerned, her mother would win every time. All she wanted was to enjoy her breakfast in peace. It seemed that her mother had a different objective.
‘Rose will be organising everything. The earlier she knows the number of guests, the better it will be for her.’
‘Yeah, fine.’ Emily hoped that would be the end of the discussion.
‘It will keep her busy to plan the whole wedding, but she’ll love every minute of it. Organising things is right up her street.’
‘Hmmm,’ Emily said soberly.
‘Sophie is turning twenty-four this year. It’s a good age.’
‘That depends —’
Her mother, wholly absorbed in the dishwashing, continued her diatribe as if she were on her own. All Emily could see now was her back. Although, that back had a lot to say!
‘It’s all so adorable. Sophie will be married soon. And Elizabeth is even younger. Maybe in two to three years, she will follow in her sister’s footsteps. Rose is so lucky. Imagine that: her daughter married before she is twenty-five.’
Silence at last. An island of calm in the flow of words. Only the regular drip-drop of water from the tap dared to cut across it. The dripping rang in Emily’s ears like a pneumatic drill. Bang. Bang. Bang. Every falling drop was like a punch in the face, progressively knocking Emily out. Her appetite vanished, and the wrong kind of butterflies invaded her stomach. Very slowly, she put her fork down at the side of the plate and laid her hands flat against her thighs. She knew what was coming. It was not the first time her body had reacted this way. Needles were already piercing her eyes. She wanted to control it, to delay the inevitable. She clenched her jaw tightly, making her cheeks redden. With her head bowed, she tried very hard to limit her movements. Perhaps it would pass.
Unaware, her mother was still moving her arms like a broken windmill. Plates and cutlery were grabbed by the right hand, plunged into the soapy water, scrubbed, rinsed under the tap before the left arm would finally place them on the draining board. Then the cycle would repeat itself, automatically, each hand knowing what to do without needing any instruction.
The monologue resumed.
‘I love a nice wedding. It’s something to be proud of. All the family joins in and gets together. There are always such beautiful photographs. And then the other girls start getting inspired and wonder which of them is going to be next. It is all so romantic, even magical don’t you think?’
The atmosphere in the kitchen stiffened. It squeezed Emily’s temples like a powerful vice. With her eyes firmly closed, hearing took over as the primary sense. Amplified, the words became violent, aggressive, physically painful. She promised herself not to grab the knife. Her head became a dangerous echo chamber for her most sinister thoughts.
Will she ever shut up? How much longer do I have to hear this shit?
Resorting to well-practiced techniques, she focused on her breathing to force her mind away from the ominous images she didn’t want to see. Inhaling slowly, she started the silent enumeration of the various organs where oxygen was flowing, each time trying to cut off any new idea. Resistance was more difficult as the visions became stronger, looping and overtaking her mind, each image darker than the previous. She didn’t notice how her right hand was shaking. The hairs on her arms were rising. Her fingers were digging into the flesh of her thighs, attempting to form a fist. Her whole body was charging with highly toxic energy when suddenly her eyes opened wide, as if to let go of some of the pressure. But it was too late; the gunpowder was spread. All that was missing was a spark.
‘Do you not think about getting married someday soon?’
Her mother spun around, eyes and mouth wide open as if she had been caught in some shameful act. The dish she was still holding in her hand was dripping soapy water all over the kitchen floor.
‘Shut up. Shut. Up. SHUT UP!’ Emily’s hands grabbed the table in a final attempt to calm down.
‘But, what do you ...?’ Her mother’s voice faltered, leaving the question unfinished.
‘I know where you’re going with this and I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘I didn’t say anything. It’s just... Sophie is twenty-four and...’
‘I know, and her life is perfect. She has found her soulmate, and I’m just a drag, still living here like an idiot at thirty. I waste my life getting smashed with Sarah, the whore, and I still haven’t given you little brats to look after when they shit on the carpet.’ Out of breath, she was panting like a dog.
Her mother was close to tears. ‘You can’t speak to me like that.’
‘Neither can you,’ Emily snapped back.
‘Your father and I, we worry about you.’
‘Don’t drag him into this. You just want babies to play mummy again. Little dolls to indoctrinate and exhibit to your friends to prove everything is normal in your life and you have built a perfect family.’
‘Do you realise what you are saying to me?’ Now the tears flowed freely, unrestrained.
‘I could ask you the same question. It’s always the same story. Time and time again. When will I find a man? When will I get married? When will I be a mother? Oh, there’s no need to cry, I’m used to your tricks. I’m fed up with it, do you hear me? FED! UP!’
She knocked the chair backwards as she ran out of the kitchen. The door slammed shut, leaving her mother alone, upset and confused at what had just happened.