I was already awake when the alarm shrilled at 6. I’ve been doing that a lot, lately. I fall off, quick as anything, but then find myself staring at the wall, knowing it’s still too early to get up, hoping it’s later than I think but not daring to check the alarm to see for sure. The room was silent except for Andy’s snores, which ricocheted around the room. I had to force myself not to blame him. It’s not his fault he has something wrong with a flap at the back of his mouth. I can’t expect him to wear the nose strips the doctor suggested he tried. He does look pretty silly with them on, even though it would mean I could fall back to sleep when I wake up in the dark hours of the morning.
I lay there, listening to him gasp and whistle. When I’m dozing off it drives me mad. It’s a disharmonious, disordered piece of music. My head was thudding so I closed my eyes, and wished for sleep. I was so tired. I felt my arms and legs soften and sighed with relief, maybe this time… but a sudden grunting rattle of a snort jerked me awake again. Once, feeling brave in the middle of the night I used an app on my phone to record how loud Andy could get as he lay unconscious, sweating into the sheets. 90db at one point! I’m not sure what db. means, but the app said that was about as loud as a food processor. No wonder I couldn’t get back to sleep.
The app lets you record as well, which I did, but I’ve never found the guts to actually play it to him, he’d go mad. I turned onto my right, away from him, and the acid in my stomach rolled and bubbled, washing bile into my throat and I had to swallow it back down. Light had started to glow through the curtains. I noticed, as I did every morning, the curtain pole was crooked, the light leaked in more on one side than the other. I sighed. My eyes felt stiff and swollen with tiredness. Another phlegmy gasp from Andy. I remembered the time when my head was full of him. When we first met I used to dream about him all the time. Now, my dreams are frustrating, filled with half-understood, mysterious conversations; my brain tries to make sense of the fragmented noises tearing from Andy’s nose and throat, assuming someone is whispering something urgent in my ear.
I was just about to get up and comfort myself with tea and toast, there was no way I was getting back to sleep now, when I realised the snoring had stopped, and Andy was stealthily slipping out of bed. He was trying not to wake me up. This made me sad. For years the minute the alarm rang he would spoon up behind me, hot and sweaty, his need for me sticking into my thigh making me laugh before shoving him off and kissing him. He wouldn’t care if I’d been up all night, or out late at work. The second that alarm went off his hands would creep around me like a cat burglar.
Not now, I thought sadly, watching him through half closed eyes as he picked his clothes off the floor and tiptoed out of the room. I tried to remember when I stopped trying to coax him back into bed for a cuddle. It seemed like a long time. At first he would joke he couldn’t get his arms round me, but as I got bigger and bigger the joke wasn’t so funny anymore.
I lay quietly tracing Andy’s movements as he washed, dressed and made tea. I was dozing off again when the slam of the door as he left jerked me awake. The sun had started to brighten the room and I watched as square of light moved gently across the wall, landing on my Dad’s picture. His kind face beamed out at me and the memory of his strong, freckled arms giving me a good squeeze was as vivid as if it had happened minutes ago, not over twenty years in the past. Tears slid out of the corners of my eyes, warm and wet, and I sniffed to clear them.
‘Alright, Dad?’ I said, and my voice was a cracked whisper. My back was stiff as I heaved out of bed and struggled to put on my dressing gown. I noticed this one had also mysteriously shrunk like the others. I couldn’t even tie it shut. ‘I miss you.’ I straightened the frame and let my hand rest on the glass. My throat felt like I had an unpeeled orange jammed down it. I could picture him, clear as anything, shaking his balding head and scratching his neck with irritation and disapproval at Andy’s behaviour.
‘And you don’t know the half of it,’ I said out loud, as I pulled the duvet straight. Andy had showered and left at lightning speed. He had been doing this more and more recently, as if my company was something to be avoided at all costs. I wondered for a second whether I should be worried I was talking to myself when alone in the flat, but snapped on the radio in the kitchen and turned it up loud so I didn’t have to think about the answer to that question. .
I shivered as I stood in my dressing gown at the window. It was a bleak day. Saying that, my view wasn’t the best. All I could see was the car park and the long, concrete wall which stretched to my left. The woods were beyond but nobody went there. The Berlin Wall, as we called it, separated us from the village as much as possible. Graffiti scrambled and climbed over the stained, splintered bricks. It wasn’t even pretty – just random tags and scrawls of indecipherable black paint. The only colour I could see was the back of a shocking pink puffa jacket, Katy. Making her way to the bus stop with her youngest. I could see clouds of smoke billowing from her mouth as she gabbled on.
I needed to get ready. I had promised to give Katy a lift into work. My tea was scalding hot, just the way I liked it, but I felt very lonely, munching on toast, watching the world go by. I didn’t bother having a shower. What was the point? I’d only have to wash again when I got home. None of my jeans fitted anymore so I hauled some old leggings out of the drawer. They smelled of stagnant water. The flat was a bit damp, so nothing dried properly once the summer had passed.
I ran my fingers through my hair to try and brush out the clumps at the back of my head where I had slept on it funny. I ignored the mirror as I brushed my teeth and spat the white foam of the toothpaste into the sink where it mingled with the trail Andy had left, he never bothered to wipe the sink. I rinsed it away.
Getting into my work tabard was a bit of a struggle so I shoved it into my bag to put on later. My bucket of things was by the door. None of the other girls bought their own cleaning products, they were happy with the cheap stuff the school provided. I wasn’t. I hated using their crappy cloths that crumbled under your hand. I liked proper gloves – the thick marigolds which protected my hands, the one part of my body I liked; though they were starting to look old. Just like the rest of me.
Checking I had my favourite miracle clothes and a good strong bleach spray, I gathered up my things. We weren’t allowed to use bleach in the school but I never felt I had cleaned anything properly unless I used a good squirt of it. It was my little rebellion, Katy laughed at me for it – thought I was daft.
It was drizzling as I walked to the car but I couldn’t be bothered to go back and get my mac. The car door creaked as I opened it and a shower of rust flakes fell on the pavement, adding to the pile that had gathered over the past few months. I thought with longing of Andy’s lovely, bright red Aldi. Smooth as silk, it was his pride and joy. I hadn’t been in it for ages, he was a bit precious about it to be honest, and if we went out with mates we tended to go in my old Ford Fiesta so he could drink – and he would rather die than be seen behind the wheel of a car worth less than five grand.
The route was so familiar I immediately fell into my usual zombie like state. I would have forgotten to pick up Katy if she hadn’t stood on the edge of the pavement at the entrance to the estate wind milling her arms in her bright jacket. I braked to a halt and reversed a bit to meet her as she jogged up to meet me, dropping her fag in a nearby puddle.
Katy fell into the car bringing with her a cold blast of air heavily scented with musky perfume, cigarettes, and rain.
‘Bloody hell, I’m soaked,’ she panted, flipping down the mirror to check on her hair which clung to her forehead in damp clumps. Her thick, black eyeliner had already leaked into the crows’ feet which crinkled around her eyes. ‘Fuck’s sake look at it, I’m a drowned rat. Why are you so late, anyway? Thought you were going to drive right past me this morning… dolly daydream.’
‘Sorry,’ I muttered, keeping my eyes on the road and winding down the window a little as Katy sparked up another fag.
It was a good job I knew the route without thinking as Katy did not stop talking the entire way. Streams of gossip flowed into my left ear and out of my right. I liked a bit of silence in the morning, but Katy’s usual bus had stopped running and we lived on the same estate so it made sense to give her a lift. I had come to regret that decision, but, give her her due, she certainly livened up my journey into work.
‘And I told her, you go putting that crap up on Facebook again and you’ll have me to answer to, silly bitch.’ Katy was outlining her mouth in a deep purple shade. It always amazed me how she could layer on so much make up and keep talking at the same time.
‘Who’s this you’re talking about again?’ I asked, turning to look at her. An action I immediately regretted as she coughed a lungful of smoke in my face.
‘Sorry, darling, I’ll have to pack them up one of these days. Trouble is Dan and I can never give up at the same time, we give it a try and then before you know it we’re sneaking fags off of each other and we’re back on ‘em.’ She roared with laughter, only stopping when the coughing nearly choked her.
I smiled thinly and she banged me on the arm. ‘Oh cheer up you miserable cow,’ she said. ‘Here, try this.’ She held up a black, Bakelite tube with imprints of stars around the bottom. The deep purple tongue of the lipstick leered obscenely from the top.
I shook my head and changed the subject. Within seconds Katy’s attention had shifted away from me and my distaste for make-up back to the latest gossip. I let her voice wash over me as we went through the village and out the other side over to the school where we both worked. As always, I wondered why I had this fondness for Katy. To be frank, I found her a bit terrifying. She was almost six foot, in her mid 50’s and built like a tank. She dressed in the colours you’d usually find in a pack of Haribo: Bright lemons and pinks, blues and purples. She was the sort of woman who would read an article called ‘Ten Items You Should Never Wear Over 45’, and promptly go out and buy everything on the list.
She was on her third warning at work because she had a terrible temper and was always falling out with the other girls. She was also a real laugh, and stuck up for me. We had bonded by swapping diet and exercise tips; neither of us had lost a pound of weight and I had put on about four stone since we first met ten years ago. She was blacking up her eyes as I neared the car park and almost blinded herself with the mascara wand as I bumped over the pavement.
‘Sorry!’ I said, my heart beating a little faster as I saw the girls gathered around the entrance chatting and smoking. I usually tried to get in early, so I was assigned and started before they all arrived, but giving Katy a lift had held me up.
I hid behind Katy as we approached. The clucked around her, a crowd of bosomy hens, admiring her new puffa jacket and moaning about the buses. I slipped past them and checked the rota. Kelly was already standing in front of the board.
‘Alright, Kelly?’ I said. But my voice was too soft and she didn’t hear me. When I got closer she jumped and spun round, her long, thick blonde hair swishing back over her shoulder. I studied it, enviously. I wasn’t that much older than her, but my hair seemed to have stopped growing. The deep red I had been so proud of in my twenties was now a greyish, darkish, mess. I chucked a dye on it every now and then and hacked it short. I was miserable aware of how unflattering it was.
‘Angie! God you made me jump!’
‘Sorry,’ I replied.
She tutted and looked back towards the board. I felt like a whale beside her. Kelly kept herself in good shape, lived on diet coke and cottage cheese as far as I could tell. I used to look down on her for being such a killjoy with her food, but it worked. She looked twenty years younger than me, not ten.
‘Morning, all.’ Gary, our supervisor appeared, shutting and locking his office door behind him. The domestic supervisors had a little staff room just off the reception lobby and they treated it like God’s inner sanctum, never letting anyone in. Rumours were they had a fully furnished luxury bathroom ensuite, but I doubted it. I looked at the key ring dangling from his pocket and a wave of mischief washed over me, I’d love to pinch those keys and have a good look around in there.
I had a bit of a soft spot for Gary. He was always cheerful, kept himself in good shape and I liked his gingery hair and open, sunburned face. He had yellow-brown eyes with girlishly long, black lashes. My Dad used to call that colour ‘piss holes in the snow’, but I thought they were striking.
‘Angie, sorry, love, but you’re on boys’ bogs today. Kelly, the kitchens.’ Actually maybe I don’t like him, I thought, but smiled and dipped my head anyway.
‘Thought I was on stairs and second floor labs?’ Kelly moaned. Gary rolled his eyes. Despite the provocative tilt of a jeaned hip Kelly was offering, he didn’t look her up and down like every other bloke who worked here did. I liked him for that. ‘Nope, sorry. I’ve swapped you all around.’
Kelly grinned at me, ‘well at least it’s not as bad as the bogs – it’s disgusting in there.’
‘They wouldn’t be if any of you lazy cows cleaned them properly,’ Gary scoffed. ‘That’s why I’m sending the lovely Ange down there, at least I know she’ll do a proper job. That right, gorgeous?’
I felt Kelly smirk behind me but I ignored it, enjoying a tiny ripple of pleasure at Gary’s words, even though I knew he was joking. My smiled dropped though when I looked down at my tabard, my stomach and boobs were stretching the fabric and this was the biggest one they did. The chub of my arms and back meant I couldn’t zip up my enormous fleece. The weight of my thighs pressed against each other and I pictured them, blue with veins and mottled with fat. Kelly’s scorn puddled around my feet. I felt a blush mottle my neck. I gripped my bucket to me and marched down the corridor. I could hear the other girls strolling in, nattering away, and I didn’t want to hang around.
‘Reckon you’re in with a chance there, Angie,’ Kelly nudged me as she followed me along the corridor.
‘Don’t be stupid.’ I quickened my step, but I wasn’t very fast and Kelly kept up with me easily with her long, gym toned legs. Her fake boobs bounced up and down as she walked.
‘Nah, I mean it. I reckon he likes you. And he’s not been out with anyone since his wife ran off with that brickie – whatshisname.’
‘Kelly, I’m married.’ I said primly.
She beamed and gave me a wink. Close up she looked a lot older, and her make-up was trowelled on. ‘Life’s too short not to have a bit of fun, Angie.’ She wiggled up the stairs laughing. God, imagine being able to just slip into a little pair of jeans like that, I thought with a sigh.
Gary was right. The boys’ toilets were disgusting.
Everywhere was gleaming by the time I had finished. I sat back on my heels and looked around in satisfaction. It didn’t bother me within hours everything would be as bad as it was before. For now, all was right with the world.
With reluctance I packed up my things and went to join the ladies for tea. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I still found being in the little room with them all a bit overwhelming.
Katy was regaling them all with her plans for the future. As long as I’d known her she had dreamed of moving to France. We had teased her about it for years but it never seemed to bring her down.
‘Dan’s said there’s loads of places, dead cheap if you know where to look, we could even get some of them French cows, you know, sort of a pale brown. Lovely.’
‘I can just picture you, Kat, marching across the fields with a mooin’ cow under each arm. Your hair all done Kate, a fag in your gob.’ Debbie said, causing the room to burst into cackles of laughter.
‘You just wait,’ said Katy. She saw me standing by the door and pushed Debbie further up the grubby settee. ‘Come on move along, you dozy mare, we’ll never fit Angie in otherwise.’
They shuffled along and I felt my cheeks burn again as I walked across the little space, conscious of their eyes measuring me up. They never directly mentioned my weight, but I had grown used to interrupting conversations which stopped as soon as they saw me. I would see the wide-eyed relish with which they whispered about how I seemed to be getting even bigger, and how did I even get in a car?
I wedged myself into the far corner, putting as much weight as possible on my right leg so I didn’t press against Katy too much. Kelly handed me a mug of tea and I smiled in gratitude and took a quick sip, pleased to hear the conversation roll on without me.
‘Maybe Kelly’ll give you some money for your French farm,’ said Debbie, ‘I hear Robinson’s have come through at last?’
All the girls turned their head towards Kelly who was perched on a stool by the door.
‘Yeah. About bloody time. I had months off work thanks to that idiot of a manager. My leg still isn’t right. My solicitor said we could have got more if we’d gone to court. Like he said, companies have to take care of their workers or they will have to face the consequences.’ Kelly’s mouth puckered into a self-righteous smirk as she parroted her solicitor.
‘Funny that!’ Debbie said, looking round to catch everyone’s eyes, hers were bright with mischief, ‘I thought you were doing some work over at the college. Cash in hand wasn’t it?’
‘Who told you that?’ Kelly shrieked, her voice almost drowned out by the hoots and jeers of the others.
‘Never mind, I was only joking,’ Debbie laughed.
My head started to thump as Katy, Debbie and Sarah interrogated Kelly about how much compensation she had received. Kelly was keeping her mouth shut, and looked mutinous. She’d been boasting about this pay out, following an accident at the last place she worked where, apparently, she had fallen down some stairs. She claimed she had tripped over some files somebody had left lying around but I was never convinced by her story. And she often seemed to forget which leg she had injured. Still, it got her a few months off work, fully paid, and when fit again she had come to join us at the school. I didn’t really trust her, but she could be a laugh sometimes. We’d had a few good chats when working on the same area and once or twice she’d met up with me and Andy at the pub.
The talk moved on to sex, as it always did. I shifted uncomfortably and kept fiddling with my empty mug. Sarah was describing, in graphic detail, her latest Tinder conquest when Gary knocked on the door. ‘Time’s up, Ladies!’ He called.
‘Get in here and let me tell you about my date,’ Sarah shouted.
‘No bloody thank you,’ he replied. ‘Two minutes!’
As we cleared the tea things I managed to grab a few broken biscuits and stuffed them into my mouth when I had turned away to put the mugs in the sink. I was gulping down the dry crumbs when Sarah called me from the door.
‘Your Andy going to the big game tonight?’ she asked.
‘What game?’ I replied, coughing on the sweet powder.
‘Card game, haven’t you heard? Quite of few of them meeting up at the Dog.’
‘Nah,’ I said, running water through a tea towel and squeezing it dry before wiping down the tiny square of work surface next to the sink. ‘He’s given all that up. He hasn’t played for years now.’
Sarah looked surprised. Something flickered across her face. ‘You sure? I thought…’ her voice trailed away as I looked at her. ‘Sorry, must have got the wrong Andy.’
As she walked away I took my time folding the tea towel and hung it neatly on the rail. I wanted a minute to think. An ice cube of unease had formed in my stomach.
I got a MacDonald’s on the way home and ate it as I walked from the car to the flat. A long day at work had left me absolutely starving and lunch had only been a cheese roll, bag of crisps and a sausage roll from Gregg’s as we hadn’t had much in at home.
I balled up all the packaging and shoved it in the wheelie bins outside before I got through the main doors. I was still wiping the stickiness of the apple pie from my fingers as I entered the flat, calling Andy’s name. No reply. The flat was empty. I sighed and checked my watch. I’d better get his tea on.
I hadn’t any cash to buy anything earlier so had to dig deep in the freezer to find something. My stomach was swollen from the Macdonald’s but I still felt hungry. Chips, Chicken nuggets, and a pack of green and yellow frozen veg. It looked Kater than it should have done. Quite cheery, I thought as I laid the table in the lounge.
I placed everything with care. Andy never stopped going on at me about presentation, so I made a real effort. It would be Kate to have a good catch up. I sat down at the table when I heard the door slam.
‘Hi babes!’ I called.
He didn’t look at me as he came in throwing his jacket on the back of the chair and left for the bathroom. I squeezed out from behind the table and followed. He was washing his face and wiping his pits with a wet towel.
‘Ah babes don’t do that, it’s gross,’ I protested, ‘just have a shower.’
‘Haven’t got time,’ he replied. ‘I’m off out.’
‘What? Where? I’ve just made your tea!’
‘Don’t want any,’ Andy was spraying Rogaine mousse into his hands and rubbing it into his bald spot. He pushed past me and ducked into the bedroom, changing into dark jeans and a football shirt, chucking his sweaty work clothes on the floor.
Back in the lounge he stood still, intent on his phone. He chucked it on the side as I trailed in after him.
‘Can’t I come?’ I said.
He cast me a look which made me shrivel. ‘Don’t be silly, Angie. You’d be bored stiff. Load of plumbers? Taking about work? Not really your cup of tea is it?’
‘It’s just I can’t remember the last time we went out together.’
‘Now don’t start that again, Ange! I’m busy aren’t I? Somebody’s got to make an effort to pay the bills.
I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it again.
‘You got any cash?’ he went on, patting his pocket. I shook my head. ‘You didn’t find anything at work?’
‘I’ve told you, it’s too risky, Andy. God if I got caught…’
‘Ah they can afford it the stuck up twats. Always hated teachers,’ Andy’s face was a mask of spite. ‘Bet they wouldn’t even notice if you lifted a couple of notes. You said they were always leaving their wallets and bags about in the staff room. Besides, the pay you get there is a joke, you deserve a little extra.’
I sat on the bed and leaned over to the little box I kept on the side. I’d been saving up over the last few weeks and had fifty quid in there. ‘Here,’ I said, handing over the crumpled notes.
‘Angie you are an angel,’ Andy said in delight, whipping the notes from my hand and squeezing my arm.
‘Andy…’ I said and faltered.
He was admiring his reflection in the mirror and his reflected eyes met mine. ‘What?’
‘Sarah said something about a big game was on tonight?’
Andy’s hands stilled. ‘Yeah? And?’ I saw his face darken.
‘You’re not going are you?’
I could see him making an effort to control himself; when he spoke his voice was hard. ‘How many times, Angie? How many times? I make one mistake years ago and you have to keep throwing it back in my face, don’t you?’
‘No!’ he held up his hand. ‘No, you’re right. Why should you trust me? You clearly don’t believe I can change. Whenever I go out it’s the same old thing.’ He adopted a nasty, whining voice which made me flinch. ‘Where are you going, Andy? Who are you going with, Andy? I want to see our accounts, Andy. For Fuck’s sake! I can’t live with this!’
‘No, Andy I’m sorry!’ fear lurched through me and I felt sick. ‘Of course I trust you. Of course I do. I just worry that’s all.’
Andy stalked over and shoved his face into mine. His aftershave was overpowering. I quivered back against the head board. Violent, jangling energy spiralled out of him. He lifted his fist and I quailed. ‘Damn right you should trust me, Angie’ his voice was thick and harsh in my ear. ‘’Cos I’m all you’ve got. And you’d better remember that. Who else’d have you? Eh?’ He prodded my stomach. ‘Look at you, look at this, Angie. It’s disgusting.’
I gasped, tears welling and he sighed and pushed himself away and left the room.
‘I’ll be back later. Might stay at Pete’s. Don’t wait up.’
‘Andy!’ I called in desperation. ‘Wait!’
The door slammed so hard the walls shook.
I stumbled into the silent lounge and watched from the window as Andy’s car screeched around the corner. I stood there for ages, hoping he’d return. It grew dark, but I didn’t bother turning the light on. He didn’t come back.
I remembered the food, still sitting on the table. It had gone cold, but I managed to eat mine, and then Andy’s before finally feeling full enough to try going to sleep.