Yeah? She listens intently, choosing to delay repeating her reply, knowing how long it now takes him to deliver his words.
‘Christ! Don’t…’ She stops talking while walking, entering the room with a petulant gait, before resuming;
‘Don’t talk to me from the other room. You know I fucking hate it.’
‘Yi…yes. So. So…Ha, ha, I…see. Aahhhhh.’
‘Have I seen?’
He nods sheepishly.
‘Eh…mo, my mo…my mo…’
He quickly gives up, reverting to a slovenly cultural pastiche, holding a cocked thumb and pinkie across his cheek with sloth like condemnation. Ang rolls her eyes, in a manner that conveys both pity and ambivalence, and simultaneously turns to walk away. She arrives back second later from the kitchen with his mobile. With a supercilious act of pageantry she holds it out towards him with it lying flat in the palm of her hand, somehow she manages to look even less impressed than before she retrieved it.
‘You’d be no use with it anyway.’
‘Your hearing going and all?’
‘Right! Enough! We’re gonna be late.’
She flicks her head up to face him instantly as an apex predator does when it first sights its prey, mouth hanging slightly ajar, her eyes fixated on him, frozen in shocked anger. The pose is held for a second or so, but it seems to last longer, before she powers straight for the door and slams it shut behind her.
Always trying to empathise with her irritation and frustration is tiring, and it was nice to reply without stalling or stuttering, even if it was insensitive and said without any remorse whatsoever. I can’t remember the last time I said a word cleanly at the first attempt; it has to be months now.
Finally his smugness dissipates after a further ten minutes sitting on the couch. His attempts to integrate his consciousness into another agonisingly drab show on the telly, to drown out his growing guilt at the sound of her muffled weeping, fails, and only works to reaffirm the futility of his position. He finally relents and tentatively heads for the bathroom door.
His chest decompresses with her response.
‘P…pl…please – ‘I’m sor…sor…fu…’
The snib to the bathroom door snaps with its usual volatility, but this time it surprises him into silence.
‘Enough, enough, enough. Just shut it, we’re gonna be late again.’
When it first started I thought of leaving, as I saw it as his cowardly attempt to leave me. Now I only think of leaving. Communication gets taken for granted, and when it goes, the harmony and synergy of a relationship always goes with it. He’s losing the ability to talk, and it has brought with it a horrible irony, he’s trying harder than ever to talk to me. It’s agony. All I’m left with is dread when I envision all the likely outcomes. If I leave he’ll capitulate, disintegrate, and I’ll have landed the final blow. But I can’t be content with this, he’s crushing me, and I resent seeing him in this pathetic state, demoralised and cowed into selfishness. We used to talk about the future, everything, we used to.
The meeting’s just about to start in Terry’s office. I’m the cause of it after what I did in yesterday’s meeting with the client – the dreadful Mr Evans. I look over my plans: they’re good, bloody good, but now they’re worthless. Two months of work wasted due to my own idiotic reaction and most of all because I can’t string a sentence together. The office is silent, but there’s a charge in the silence: laughter could burst out at any moment. The first domino is primed and ready to be pushed.
He jumps up out of his seat, as Terry waves him into his office he notices that Terry deliberately avoids eye contact. Joe and Ellie are already sitting comfortably on either side of the empty chair facing Terry’s desk. Terry closes the door behind him and sits down. He interprets the enclosed seating formation as another bad sign.
‘Brian, please, sit – have a seat.’
He nods appreciatively, but unenthusiastically, trying too hard to not look like a sycophant.
‘Regarding yesterday. I’ve, we’ve, taken your current predicament…Terry pauses to look up and at Brian over his glasses…into consideration.’
Terry pauses, again, in a vain attempt to restrain his laughter.
‘Right. Ehhhhhh. According to Eddie and Karen, you struggled to say “perpendicular”. Right…okay…sorry, sorry. Right…then Mr. Evans became irritated by your inability to speak…he asked what was wrong with you…you reacted by giving him the finger…then, allegedly…mouthing…sorry… “Nothing, you ginger tosser” at him.’
‘Absolutely brilliant! I wish I could’ve seen it.’ Explodes Joe breathlessly.
Now unburdened by their responsibility to professional protocol, Joe, Ellie and Terry relax into a cacophony of uninhibited laughter. Brian tries to join them, but can only manage to wear a disingenuous smile that only conveys anguish and humiliation. Terry, noticing this, ends the barrage by raising his hand authoritatively, its meaning Joe and Ellie immediately recognise.
‘Look, Brian, bottom line, you’re the best architect we have on staff. We all know it, but we can’t have you scaring business away. We’re a small company – we’ll bloody go under.’
‘Yes, we feel it would be better…if you didn’t meet the clients anymore.’ Ellie confirms.
‘Indeed, as Ellie suggested, that with your problem, it might be better if you did most of your work out of the office.
‘As I’m sure you’re aware you have the right to contest this–’
Terry keenly interrupts Ellie, and there’s an awkward moment of eye contact between them that Brian notices.
‘But we’d prefer that you didn’t. Look, it’s just an idea. At least…consider it, until you’re better. Okay?
‘Good. Your pay would be unaffected.’
‘Ha, so you can speak well where money’s concerned.’
Terry, Ellie and Joe all burst into a more restrained laughter, likely at immediacy of Joe’s quip rather than at the quip itself.
‘Hey don’t worry about it, we know things are hard for you right now.’ Says Terry in his reassuring but smarmy managerial tone.
‘I’m gonna try and reschedule the meeting with Mr Evans – without you there of course.’
‘Yes, hopefully he goes for it, it would be a shame for such good work to be wasted.’
‘Eddie said he was happy with them, before…well.’
Terry Joe and Ellie all snigger momentarily before Terry composes himself.
‘Listen Brian, take a couple of weeks off, you look exhausted mate…okay, okay?’
‘Th..th…’ He eventually gives up and offers a series of nods that reeked of enthusiastic relief.
Terry gets up and walks Brian to the door. He pats him on the back and shakes his hand. It feels like a relieved handshake to Brian, a goodbye somehow, in his now permanent state of self-aware paranoia. Brian refuses to look up as he can feel the whole office staring at him upon his exit from Terry’s office. He offers a rueful half turn of the head towards the closed door behind him, as muffled laugher can be heard through the door by everyone.
Here we are again. I’ve now completely given up on his condition improving and I can sense he’s noticed how remote and semi-detached I’ve been for the past few weeks. He’s stopped trying to communicate by other means, and I haven’t encouraged him to do otherwise. Colette didn’t smile when we came in this time.
‘God sake, c’mon Brian.’
‘Angie, please, don’t pressure him. Now Brian, concentrate, compose yourself, now breath naturally…yes…and…’
Brian tries but all that can be heard is the low hum of the air conditioning.
‘This is a waste of time.’ Offers Angie with an irascible weariness.
‘Try again, Brian.’
Brian opens his mouth in demonstrable effort, and nothing. Collette, with her brow pensively unimpressed, starts writing something. Brian gives a speculative glance as to what she is writing. He assumes it’s something along the lines of ‘Why me?’
‘Okay. Well done, Brian. That’s all for today. I want you to try the exercises we discussed last week – okay?’
Brian unenthusiastically nods with his lips tucked in and forced together. Angie sighs audibly as she gets up. They both shake hands with Colette. Angie’s exit is quick with disdain after noticing Brian wearing a silly expression on his face, the kind of smile a mental defective uses in moments of uncertainty, which for Brian now tends to be ubiquitous in all scenarios.
The car stops at a traffic light on their way home. Their enforced silences are enriched with toxicity when married with stillness. To avoid dwelling on the silence Brian is drawn again to the chewing gum still lodged in Angie’s boot, which he noticed to distraction during the therapy session. Its vivid pink, despite its constant contact with pavements and carpets, confuses him. Angie glances at him and then looks at what he’s looking at. She smashes her fists against the steering wheel and screams every swearword she has ever heard or can imagine in quick succession. The light turns green, it throws her into a meditative moment of composure, before she releases the handbrake and they take off.
Boxing Day and Angie has decided that we are going for a walk on the coast. As my ability to protest is severely diminished, I cede to her demand, but I do manage to make clear my lack of enthusiasm at heading into the freezing fucking cold. She’s been more positive about it, about me lately, though slightly relieved I’m at a loss as to why. As we get closer to our destination her face suggests she’s beginning to waver on the idea, as the inhospitable reality becomes directly contrasted with her idyllic notion. The last thing I want to do is antagonise her, but I can feel that the lines of my face are beginning to lose their diplomacy.
‘Ooooww, it’s far worse here than in town. They didn’t forecast this.’
Brian looks at her with a raised brow and his chin almost resting on his chest, holding this pose until she notices his discontent.
‘Oh, shut up. It’s probably not as bad as it looks.’
They arrive near the beach, where there’s a parking bay. Both look at each other with surprise as Angie navigates around more cars than they expected to be there, that is to say, there are three spaces filled out of thirty odd.
‘Look, We’ve come this far. Might as well do it now. C’mon.’
The steps down from the car park lead onto a mass of rock. He’s surprised by this but she seemingly isn’t. The wind is howling, the rain arrives and drives in tides to match the waves at sea. All the elements seem to be working together in synchronicity to form a cold apocalyptic morass of various dark greys. The sea thunders against the rock periodically, as a loud gong punctuating the perpetual drumming of the rain. After making their way down the steps, the arena immediately welcomes them with a warning – a sudden gust of wind which unbalances Angie – that and the sudden reckless exuberance of her movements causes her to slip on the slick surface.
‘Help me up, dumbo.’
After helps Angie up to her feet he dwells on with the sharp crevices in the rock, filled by a ravenous sea. But even in this chaos she is smiling and so he does too by cupping, then flapping his hands as his ears. She sniggers. He then points at the crevices, wagging his finger.
‘Spoilsport, chicken, chicken, chickenshit!’
Brian, wearing a narrow eyed scowl coupled with a smile of pursed lips, repeats the signal to stay away from the crevices, before giving the thumbs up in the opposite direction.
Angie defies these instructions by running down the slight incline with her arms outstretched, fully embracing being buffeted by the wind. Brian gingerly traipses after her, finally catching up to her and grabbing her hand. He flinches upon contact as her hand is somehow colder than the biting wind. He yanks her up the incline. She resists. He pulls her arm again and she relents.
A flock of seagulls soar effortlessly in the sky. Angie starts talking pictures with her mobile.
‘Well at least they’re loving it.’
So is a dog on the beach in the distance, his owner throwing something into the waves and the dog fetching it. Brian and Angie walk hand in hand towards the beach, but Angie stops them as they reach the biggest crevice. She walks close to the edge, too close for his liking. He anchors his feet gripping her hand tightly, which prevents her from getting any closer. Her turn to face him is sanguine as he shakes his head disapprovingly. The sea hits the crevice walls, creating a spraying cascade which drenches them both, despite standing a good five metres from the edge. Angie smiles evilly at Brian’s despondent scowl and straight jacket-esque flinches as the icy salt water dribbles down his neck and into the small of his back. Angie primes her phone and follows the water as it recedes over the rock and drains back over the edge.
I plant my feet again. Christ! She’s slipped on her arse. She bounces down the slight incline over the edge. I’m still holding onto her hand, but her weight has thrown me off balance onto my stomach.
I feel warm fluid run down my cheeks, some of it runs down my nose and into Angie’s panicked face below me.
‘Brian … Brian … Brian.’
I reach my left hand over to grab her other arm. She grasps my forearm weakly. I can feel her feet thrashing frantically against the greasy rock face. The ferocious spray is drenching us unrepentantly. My attempts to lift her while prone are fruitless, she has fallen too far so I only have hold of her wrists. I look up to see if the Dogwalker is nearby. He isn’t there. He isn’t fucking there.
‘Help, help, help.’
I close my eyes and hope.
‘Angie, bloody stop it!’
She’s so stunned she stops thrashing, and I can tighten my grip.
‘Help, help, help us. Please.’
The dog arrives first, pointlessly, its tail swaying effervescently.
‘Help me for fuck sake!’
He takes Angie’s weight. I get on my knees and together we pull her up. I collapse over on my back exhausted with relief and Angie, face frozen, shell-shocked, crawls well away from the edge. The Dog, completely oblivious to danger, stands enjoying the drenching spray. A few seconds pass before the silence is broken…
‘Fuck, fucking hell…I’m sorry!’
‘Hammond! That’s okay. Hammond, here!
Angie gives him a confused glance to confirm she was apologising to me.
‘You wanna get that seen to mate.’
I wipe my hand across my forehead. There is some blood, but no pain. The Dogwalker helps me up off my knees and gives me some scrunched up tissue for my facial cut.
‘Cheers, yeah…I will, I’m fine.’
Angie remains silent. The Dogwalker looks at me unconvinced.
‘How about you?’
‘I’m fine, fine, okay.’ Her jaw now jittering.
‘I reckon. Yeah…examining my forehead closely…You should both go to hospital, just to be -’
‘Nah, nah, we’ll be fine, we’re not hurt, she’s just cold…a bit shaken.’
‘Right okay, you’re probably right…Well, I’ll be off, be careful, right?’
‘You too. Thanks.’
He offers a patronising nod to each of us before walking off bullishly. I watch him defy his own instructions as he navigates the slippery rock with ease.
The dog’s fixation with the sea is broken and he follows his owner. I approach Angie, who is cowering in the foetal position on a seat she had manufactured in the rock.
‘I know…I’m glad it’s over.’
I open my eyes, I’m still hanging.
I see him look up and survey the horizon for something, but for what? I try to peddle up the rock again but the soles of my weelies are slick and gain no traction against the even slicker rock.
But his grip is now faltering with my every struggle. The spray blinds me. I’m out of breath, my joints ache under the weight of my body, my arms hanging languidly like overcooked spaghetti. His arms rigid as the rock face they’re pinned to. For months I bared witness to his descent, thoroughly assured that soon his pity and shame would free me from his affliction’s callous disregard for fairness. But now I’m here, helpless, partly due to my exuberance at the end surely getting ever nearer, so I must accept my predicament is a consequence of my mistakes, my choices.
I hold her steady. It is all I can do. We are both beaten. What the fuck is that?
‘Help! Help, h…’ She screams, the spray of the waves drowning out her final meek call.
The dog! His owner must be close by. I nod my head wide-eyed to encourage Angie. But she isn’t looking! Her head is slumped forwards looking straight down.
‘Help.’ Her head rising momentarily before her neck resets to its forlorn angle.
She’s slipping. Where is he!?
‘Help. Help me…please…’
I close my eyes just as she is falling, and she does so silently. I’ve dropped her. I watch as she is tossed about effortlessly by the waves, before she sinks from view. She’s gone. I’ve dropped her. Her jacket lies on the edge under my chin, lukewarm, torn and damp. The Dog sniffs me and her jacket. The Dogwalker arrives. He sees me lying prone over the edge. He’s staring at me. I turn over on my side to look him in the face. He’s still staring. His expression conveys a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion.
‘Here mate. What are you playin’ at?’
He walks over briskly, grabs me away from the edge and stands me up quickly, somehow, but my exhausted state makes me collapse painfully on my knees. I point at Angie’s jacket, then down the crevice. His unscrupulous stare remaining unaltered throughout.
‘What’s wrong…what? You’re frozen, pal…what are trying to say…what’s wrong?’
Now his expression changes. He’s realised! I’m trying to tell him to call the coastguard, by making the phone and helicopter signals with one hand while clutching Angie’s forlorn jacket with the other.
‘Okay, okay, it’s gonna be alright mate. C’mon, we’ll get you back home safe.’
No, no, no, I shake my head repeatedly with a violent dismay. His must think I’m mentally defective or something! Undeterred he attempts to usher me towards the steps of the car park. Connecting with his throat and chest I push him away with contemptuous aggression. He slips and falls backwards with whirling ungainly arms, the dog reacts by barking, but it’s subdued by the sheer verbosity of the element’s continuing dialogue.
Thankfully he’s unhurt, he looks at me with a vicious glance as he gets to his feet.
‘You’re fucking mental you.’
I wave my hands at him apologetically.
‘You stay there, lad, don’t move. Hammond, c’mon.’
He walks away briskly with his head down, turning back to look at me nervously every few yards or so.
I stare at the sky. The light, what little traction it had, is starting to fade, gently. The gulls are still floating effortlessly. And I see her watching them. The only thing I had left, the only constant, the only support, the only source of empathy, and I dropped her. The spray rains on me, as I stand with my back to edge of the crevice. Clasping her jacket to my chest her odour stands out. I look down again, the mesmeric chaos of the distressed white surf below entrances me, its dark depths of complexity offering a simple solution. My eyes closed, I jump in, the waves immediately engulfing me. Just as I surface and the water clears from my eyes a reflex scream, anguished and coarse, dies as quickly as it arrives as I’m driven into the rock.
© Niall Cullen (2014)