Friday, 28 March 2014

Somewhere, Not Here by Alex Aspden


Puddle

When she stood there was a wet patch on her dress where she had knelt and she lifted the hem and smelt it and it didn't smell of piss. With her hands she brushed her dress down and looked at herself in the mirror. It was a sad face, she thought. Always a sad face. It's getting sadder. She brushed her hair back over her ears and picked up the small empty plastic bag and the credit card and rolled up twenty pound note from the toilet seat and slipped them back into her handbag. She brushed the smears of the white powder from the toilet seat and washed her hands. She felt it flow through her and clenched her hands.
Her patient was sitting in the waiting room. He was a sad looking Iranian wearing a supermarket anorak and grubby trainers. He sat staring down at his hands resting in his lap.
'Manzar?' she said.
His apologetically sad eyes met hers for a second and then drifted away behind her, and he stood and picked up a plastic cup of water from the floor. She opened the door for him and he walked through to the therapy room.
He was silent at first and his hands resumed the same position on his lap. He was staring at them. It was always like this, she thought, before you coaxed it out of them. Then it would come. She looked down at his file on her clipboard. He had been in the country for ten years. She noticed the mud on his trainers.
She spoke, using the same words that she used ten times a day to each patient, explaining to him about confidentiality, and the purpose of their sessions. He nodded. She was glad he understood English. It was always a chore otherwise. When she finished he began to speak and he spoke English well and she knew now that it would all come out. She relaxed, and with his words she floated away, out of herself, and just watched the movements of his mouth.
Soon she could no longer hear him. As she looked at him she thought about medical school, and how the feeling in her then to help people like him had been strong. She had wanted to help people like this man who had seen wars and troubles and hell.
But that was all gone now and she could admit it without guilt. A friend of hers had just set up a private practice in Harley Street and she was thinking of getting out of the hospital and joining him. It would be easier, but the same, she thought, justifying people's lives to themselves, saying the same things that they had already said to themselves, but not believing it until it came from somebody with an identification badge around their neck. She would feel the same about them as she felt about this man. It would be the same. Would it even be easier? She felt indifferent. She had spent the last fifteen years listening to them and she was indifferent to them all.
The sunlight coming in through the blinds was fading and the slots of light reducing on the floor until they disappeared into the carpet. She was transfixed by them, fading away, and then realised that they were almost in darkness. He was still talking and she was sure that he had not noticed the darkness. She pressed the light switch just above her head. He looked up for a moment as the light flashed on, then his eyes went back to his hands and he carried on.
'And my brother, you know. After the war with Iraq, I would like to find his grave. I think he is buried near Shush. That is what they told me. But I can't even get to Tehran, you know . . .'
Time was soon up and she showed him out. Afterwards she walked back to her office at the end of the corridor. She pushed open the door that said 'Clinical Psychologist' and sat down in the swivel chair and turned on the computer. On the pin board above the computer was an anti-smoking picture drawn by a local schoolchild and she stared at it. She had put it up there five years ago when she had first arrived and was trying to quit smoking. The bright colours and the length of time passed annoyed her, and she tore it down and put it in the bin.
There was a knock at the door. It swung open and Rob was standing there. She smiled at him and he looked at his watch and made a comically puzzled expression.
'Williams, you going home tonight, you workaholic?'
'I'll be off in a bit. Going to finished a bit of paperwork first.'
'Aw, and no company to the station for me? I'll be all alone.'
'Sorry!'
'Come out with me tomorrow night?'
She turned shyly in her chair. He had only been there six months and had been trying to get into her pants, urgently it seemed, in the last few weeks. She wouldn't be going home that weekend, and had a fear of spending another alone in the hotel.
'Maybe I will.'
'Mine at eight?'
'Oh, bugger off. Outside Holborn at nine?'
'You're on, see you tomorrow.'
When he left she turned back to the computer. She gave it fifteen minutes and then went into the corridor and poked her head around his office door. The lights were out and he was gone. She collected her things and left. After walking to the station with him a handful of times before, she had quickly realised that they had nothing to talk about.
As the tube train pulled into the tunnel her phone buzzed with a message. It was Johan, asking if she was coming home at the weekend. She put the phone back in her pocket.
She got out at Camden and going up the escalator stared hazily at the line of faces descending on the other side.
She walked slowly down Chalk Farm Road, taking in the lights and the sounds and the darkness. She stopped at an express supermarket and bought a bottle of wine and a packet of sushi. Then she carried on towards the canal and turned off at the bridge and walked between the people standing outside the bars that lined the waterfront, towards the purple-lit, office block-like hotel beside the canal where she stayed during the week.
The receptionist smiled to her and she nodded back.
In her room she filled the mug beside the tiny electric kettle with wine. It tasted sharp and warm and she drank it down and then had another. She looked around at the familiar room. They always gave her the same room now.
She had not been home during the week in a long time. They had moved out of London three years before to a large house in Oxfordshire. There was a village with a green and a church and a market and bright clean sandstone buildings. It had been six months since he had told her about the nurse that he had fucked after the Christmas party. It hadn't taken long to admit to herself that she didn't care.
She thought back to it. It had been a sad scene. He sitting on the sofa in the front room, his hands in his lap like the Iranian, fiddling with his watch while he told her about it, speaking quietly, not looking at her until pathetically at the end.
Since then she had gone home only at the weekends, telling him that the journey was too long for the hours she worked and the season ticket too expensive. He acceded like a martyr and made it clear that he knew that work and the journey was not the real reason, but that he did not mind. It made her dislike him even more. When she did see him they sailed along politely, and nothing more.
She stood and unzipped her navy blue dress at the back and let it fall to the floor. It was the only dress she had with her that week. She had forgotten to pack another.
Soon the bottle of wine was half-empty and she refilled the mug and kept going.


Rob wasn't at work the next day. He worked from home on Fridays.
She laughed a little when she saw him standing outside Holborn station. He was leaning against a lamppost in a pose, smoking a cigarette and had one leg crossed over the other and resting on its toes against the pavement. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
'What's funny?' he said.
'It's the first time I've seen you outside work.'
'And is it what you expected?'
He took her to a bar nearby. It was a quiet place with professionals sitting around sipping cocktails. They had a Martini each and afterwards he ordered a large jug of something blue with two straws sticking out of it. As they both sipped their eyes met and a boyish smile crossed his lips. He had the hair of a boy too. It was swept forward all around his face and over his ears. He dressed like a boy. She guessed that he was about her age but his eyes seemed much older than the rest of him. She thought that she disliked his face quite thoroughly.
'You've got to come and see me DJ sometimes.'
'You DJ?'
'Yeah, a bit. There's this club in Borough where I play the odd month.'
The conversation stalled until the next jug arrived. When they were half way through drinking it her head was swimming and she noticed that when she made jokes he would laugh in an annoying overblown way and lean forward and touch her hands.
They finished the jug and drank another Martini each. The place had filled out and they could no longer hear each other but they kept talking over the roar of voices. She made a joke and he laughed and leaned forward and touched her hands and kept them there and she felt his thumb rub her forefinger.
'Would you like to come with me?' she said.
He stared for a moment and in a sarcastically cartoonish way turned his eyes up and made a puzzled expression for a moment and said, 'Yes!'.
He is a cunt, she thought, the sort of cunt you were at university with.
On the tube he stroked her knee through her tights with his thumb and in the street they walked hand in hand towards the hotel. They walked slowly and she felt warm, as if she were part of everything around her, the traffic, the lights coming from the street and the shops and bars, the rain beginning to fall. He made jokes as they walked towards the hotel and they dodged through the people drinking on the canal front.
They kissed in the lift. She let him through the door and they kissed inside and fell back on the bed and he whispered to her, 'I've wanted to fuck you since I saw you. I've wanted to fuck your juicy pussy.' She stood and took off her dress and let it fall.
'It's the first time I've seen you out of that thing, I don't even see you wear anything else at work,' he said, laughing and pulling off his trousers.
She stared at him for a moment, smiling, she thought, then stood and went through to the bathroom. She caught herself in the mirror and brushed her hair behind her ears. She took the bag of powder from her makeup bag and put some on the end of her finger and snorted it. She was holding the make-up bag in her hand when she caught herself in the mirror a second time and noticed her black bra strap hanging off her shoulder. She heard him in the next room.
'Come on,' he shouted, in a joke accent.
She flung the makeup bag across the room and into the bath. Then she swept her hand across the bottles and things on the counter and sent them crashing to the floor. A perfume bottle broke and scattered. She pulled the curtain rail down and struck the mirror with it and it shattered. She looked down and her feet were bleeding from the glass on the floor.
'Are you all right?' she heard him say, 'What the fuck are you doing in there?'
He opened the door and stood there in his underwear.
'Fucking hell,' he said, doing nothing.
The floor was smeared with blood from her feet.
'Get out,' she said.
'What?'
'Get out or I'll tell them you did it.'
'Don't be like . . . '
'Fuck off, don't say a word. Just fuck off,' she said, moving over to the phone and picking up the handset.
He put his clothes back on and left the room. When the door was closed she put the handset down.
'Fuck off,' she said again, to nobody, and sat down on the bed.
She stared at the red smears over her feet and the marks on the carpet leading from the bathroom to the bed. There was no feeling. She picked up her dress from the floor and put it back on and when she put her shoes on she could still feel nothing. She went into the bathroom and the glass cracked beneath her shoes and she picked the makeup bag up out of the shower and emptied some cocaine on the edge of the bath and bent down and took a line of it and sat on the edge of the bath while it surged through her body.
As she walked out the receptionist smiled to her again. He hadn't said anything.
The rain was heavier now as she walked beneath the railway bridge up towards Chalk Farm. The lights were dim and the traffic thinning out. There were fewer people around.
She found a pub on the High Road that looked quiet and she went inside and ordered a gin and tonic. It was the kind of place where the night is only started and most people except for the regulars had left. She sat in the corner in a booth lined with bottle green and red frosted glass on a leather bench that had holes where the stuffing was coming out. She sat and drank and thought of nothing. Soon after she ordered another two drinks and took them back to the booth with her.
A boy appeared at the end of the booth. He was dressed fashionably but raggedly in a sheepskin jacket and an unwashed t-shirt and tight jeans. He let her take him in and then slid into the booth with a pint of beer. His hair was long on top and slicked back and was shaved around the back and sides and it looked like it hadn't been washed in a while.  His cheeks were dotted with closed acne scars. He looked about twenty.
'You look like you need a friend,' he said, in a soft Scottish accent.
'Do I?'
'You do,' he said, taking a big drink from his pint.
'And you look like you could need another drink.'
'I do, don't I?' He smiled.
She slid a tenner across the table to him, and he got up and went to the bar, and returned with another pint and a handful of change.
'Thanks. You've bought my silence for ten minutes,' he said, 'Tell me what's happened to you tonight.'
'Well,' she said. He leaned in close to her. 'There's not a lot to tell.'
'You look like you've been through it.'
'Is it that bad?'
'Nah. You're still sexy.'
She laughed a little.
'You're still young.'
'Nah,' he said, taking a drink. 'What do you do?'
'I'm a doctor.'
He nodded towards the ashtray and looked up again slyly. She gulped her drink and began on the other.
'Doctors are always lonely.'
'That's silly,' she said.
'Is it?'
'Yes.'
'I'm nineteen.'
'And I'm nearly forty.'
'You don't look it.'
'No?'
'Thirty, I'd say.'
'Not twenty-one?'
'That's silly.'
She leaned in towards him.
'Very true,' she said.
Their lips touched, his were cool and moist.
'Doctors are lonely,' he repeated.
'Yes. What do you do?' she said quietly.
'Nothing,' he said.
'Is my ten minutes over?'
'Not quite,' he said. He smelt like the city. 'There's more where that came from.' She felt his skin against hers.
She moved back and smiled. Sliding herself out of the booth, she looked down at him and brushed her hands over her dress. He didn't move and she opened her purse and slid a tenner across the table to him.
'Buy yourself another drink.'
His face was lit in the half-light and he didn't look disappointed as she turned to go down the step towards the door. He gazed after her and smiled.
She walked along the canal back towards the hotel. It was quiet and stank of piss and the night was beginning to turn biting and cold. The rain was coming down hard and she was soaked. As she walked under the bridge she looked up at a flickering yellow streetlight, covered in dust and grime. She was drunk, more drunk than she could remember being, as she stumbled along the grimy old bricks in the rain and the lamplight.
Nearly over, she thought, nearly over. She stumbled towards the canal edge and the black rippling darkness of the water. She stopped and put one foot beside the edge of the water, within a line of bricks that ran along the edge, and then placed her other foot in front of it and balanced drunkenly like a tightrope walker. Above her on the bridge she heard the sounds of shouting and traffic. She put her back foot in front of the other and carried on her tightrope walk, balancing herself from the freezing water on the other side. She stopped when she emerged from under the bridge and saw the purple light of the hotel in the distance. She took her phone from her bag and looked at it. There was a missed call from Johan and another from Rob. With a vague gesture she threw the phone into the water. Then she took out her purse and threw that in too, and the lipstick she kept in her bag. And a packet of tissues. She upended the bag over the water and shook it until its contents fell out and then dropped the bag in and watched it fill with filthy water and float away. Still balancing on the edge, she raised one foot and took off her shoe and then placed it back on the edge, feeling the rainwater through her tights, and did the same with the other shoe. She threw them both into the water and watched the ripples spread and fade in the darkness. She carried on walking, laughing quietly to herself, with the rainwater soaking through her tights and soothing the raw cuts that covered her feet.

About the author: Alex Aspden is a writer who lives and works in North London. He has previously been published in Notes From The Underground and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2013. He is currently working on a novel. 
Image: (c) abbyladybug