- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
I slept in Jane’s bed three months before I met her. She was nameless Jane the first time, plain Jane the second, a cruel half–smile on Jack’s lips who supplied this and only this and little else, leaving me reading the rest in the spines on the bookshelves and the herbal tea selection by the kettle. Her bedsheets, a crisp linen shroud pulled taught and tucked under the mattress, had led me to believe she would be neurotic. This hypothesis was maintained by the contents of her kitchen bin where I found, balanced on top of the coffee grounds and the carrot peelings, an empty tub of fair–trade hot chocolate, boasting no more than 40 calories per serving. Guilt–free. The word didn’t mean much to me back then, because I didn’t spend much time thinking about guilt.
Jane, I later learnt, was unaware of our arrangement. It was her husband who had owed Jack a favour, agreeing to the use of their flat as long as we were gone by the time they got back, and the keys were replaced in the letter box on the way out. Jane’s husband wasn’t the only one who owed Jack a favour, and over that long, dank winter, there was no shortage of other people’s rooms, lushly carpeted and infinitely available on weekday afternoons. So much so that I began to wonder whether they did truly belong to his friends or whether Jack wasn’t, for all that, an estate agent or, with his dishevelled, ink–black mane, a tortured filmmaker moonlighting as a videographer–for–hire, earning his crust with wide–angle shots of bougie London rentals.
That’s not entirely true. I knew what Jack did, he’d told me once, the first time we’d met, via my friend, who was also his cousin. Something in cyber security, he’d said. Something that involved staying up late at night. Something that he’d rather not talk about.
‘I’d rather not talk about it,’
‘Sure,’ I said.
He didn’t ask what I did. Instead, he leant against the wall, larger in hand, and told me about his ex–girlfriend’s mental health problems. He told me about the anti–depressants she took.
‘On your own?’
‘No, with my fiancé,’ I said, putting my hand on my then–just–showing bump.
‘Not here tonight?’
‘No, he’s on a night shift.’
‘When’s the wedding?’
His eyes trailed down to my stomach.
‘February,’ I said.
‘And how did that go down?’
‘How did what go down?’
‘Well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Out of wedding and all that. Were your parents alright about it?’
‘Yes, your parents.’
‘My parents are dead,’ I said.
‘Well, that’s alright then.’
He threw his head back and laughed, a thick, syrupy laugh – absurd and absolutely genuine. I noticed, for the first time, that he was handsome, in a sculptural, remote sort of way. But that was not what I liked about Jack. What I liked about Jack was that he was the very opposite of child friendly soft furnishings, of equal parenting and tender hands on bumps. He was arrogant and emotionally clumsy, and most of all, he did not want to know me. Shortly after we’d determined my parents were dead, he swallowed the dregs of his drink, ordered another, and returned to the subject of anti–depressants, main side–effect: weight gain.
If Jack had hidden depths, if he was more than a shifting signifier, then I certainly never knew it. I didn’t learn it that night, nor in the months that followed, because in the months that followed we did not do that much talking. After a brief exchange of texts – dates, times and addresses, general housekeeping – things slipped quickly into the realm of service provision. Soon, we were meeting up once a week for that thing that you miss when you’ve been with your shift–working fiancé for ten years, the last three of which have been spent fumbling at four in the morning to optimise the peak in your fertility window, and then worrying each month that maybe one of you is or may be; that thing you miss when you are now, at last, approaching the third trimester, strategic pillows placed around the bump at night; that thing that we all want more of and never have enough of, what with life and its proverbial habit, time and its attendant wheels and arrows, always hurtling onwards, bearing forth and shuttling towards: sleep. Deep, treasonous sleep. A pact made between me and this man who, for reasons never entirely revealed, because, as I said, we did not do that much talking, was also in want of the same thing.
No doubt you won’t believe me, will think this a willful distortion, a play for diversion, some reaching metaphor, but that’s what it was. Sleep. It was the thing I wanted most, more than love, more than passion, more than a wedding, more, maybe, than a child. The kind of hard, intense sleep that leaves you comatose, leaves you thinking about it in the foggy aftermath of the next morning. Deep devouring sleep that eats you whole, hollows you out, chews you up into masticated nothingness, ground zero, emptied blank and black, where it is all, at last, over, where you no longer exist, where language falls quiet and thought is suspended, and everything grinds to a halt.
And so we would sleep, side by side, on borrowed time, in crisp linen sheets that bore the traces of our sleeping after. Sometimes on the sofa, and once, when the tiredness was so overwhelming, in the shower, under the high–pressure pounding of a state–of–the–art plumbing fixture, shoulder against exquisite marble, hand shielding bump from frosted glass, reflecting back the grotesque image of my face, yawning.
It was around about here, a month before the wedding, that I started to take a more proactive interest in guilt. Not the feeling itself – a fairly unremarkable feeling that slips in, uninvited, like a sly, immutable tide – but rather what we do with it. Bury it. Swallow it down. String it up on a flimsy scaffold of justifications. I didn’t do any of those things. I was a talker. I told stories – stories that transformed horror into gossip, remorse into entertainment, an anecdote at the pub, designed to shock but never fully to be believed. Stories whose contortions traced the close but slightly gentler contours of a truth otherwise unsayable, and in so doing, allowed me to name it, or something akin to it.
I was cautious though. I never told people I knew. Instead, I’d accost unwitting bystanders with the tales of our secret sleeping sessions: the postman, the guy at the BP garage, the nurse at my six–month check–up.
‘So let me just get this straight,’ she said, holding a tub of my urine up to the light. ‘Just sleeping?’
‘Just sleeping. But it would be hard to explain. You know. If my fiancé found out.’
‘I suppose it wouldn’t be that different,’ I continued. ‘If it were. You know. I mean. It’s still.’
‘Betrayal?’ She said, holding my gaze.
I opened my mouth to speak but, with full professional know–how, she shrugged, ushered me towards the door and told me my glucose levels were fine.
In bed that night, I watched my fiancé’s shoulders rise and fall beside me and thought about the word. Was it betrayal? Maybe it was. But there were worse things, weren’t there? It wasn’t the worst thing anyone had ever done. It was just me time, before me time became we time – the wedding and the baby – him and her and us. I thought about this and some other half–formed reflections, then turned off the light and decided I’d work it through with the postman in the morning.
It was only a matter of time I suppose before I told the wrong person. That person was Jack’s cousin who had, after all, introduced us, and the day was the day of my wedding. After the speeches but before the dancing, caught with the sudden urge sharpened by champagne to say, I cornered her beside the water feature of a stately home on loan and said. I later learnt that she had reported this back to Jack, along with the offbeat tone of my wedding speech, the visible bump of my stomach under the ill–chosen satin, her own gestating discomfort. What I wasn’t counting on was that she also reported it to Jane, who turned in the same circle of friends and liked to drink her low–calorie hot chocolate with a nice thick dollop of cream.
I found this out first–hand when I met her a month later, at Jack’s cousin’s birthday. They were all there: Jack, Jack’s cousin, Jane, Jane’s husband, my by–then husband too, crammed into a low–lit bar, heavy with the sound of laughter. I felt the panic stretch across my jaw, tighten in my throat. Eight months pregnant, I backed myself into a window seat and leant my face against the single glazing. Across the room, I watched Jane’s eyes move from her husband’s to mine, not breaking her gaze as she raised the red–tipped rim of a drink flute to her lips and smiled. My husband was hovering near the coat stand by the door. Jack was with his cousin, lighting a single candle on a crème brûlée, taking rather a lot of photographs for a man who was not, as we’ve established, a professional videographer.
I watched Jane wind her way through the crowd, an apologetic hand brushing from shoulder to shoulder, until she reached the coat stand. I should have known, I thought. With those bedsheets – so cream, so pristine, she would never have abided her unwitting participation in a story so lacking in hygiene. Her lips spelt out something indecipherable. My husband leant in and frowned.
It was then that I learnt that saying is doing, that a word is a weight, is an act. That you can never be too careful where words are concerned, that with and beside are not the same when prefixed by sleeping, that you should watch what you say, just as I watched Jane that day, leaning in towards my then–husband and saying. I watched my husband’s eyes move from Jane’s to mine, not breaking my gaze as he raised a champagne flute to his lips, not smiling. And no doubt you will not believe this either, will think it another fictive ploy, but in the background, somewhere behind the bar, I heard the distant smash of glass on stone flooring.
On the drive home, silence. My voice groping in the dark. The birthday girl seemed happy, didn’t she? The crème brûlée candle was a nice touch. Hmm… Then my husband’s hands falling still on the steering wheel, words disembodied in the muffled black of the driver’s seat, saying that Jane had said that there was something I needed to tell him. Was there something I needed to tell him? I said nothing. Now would be the time, he said. Now would be the fucking time. But was there ever really a fucking time? A right time or enough time? I said nothing. And instead, the bump stuttered, answered on my behalf. I looked down and saw, spreading between my legs in the darkness, a monochrome stain like ink spilled and creeping across the page. Did I have anything to say? He said. No. And now, beside myself with fear, watching the words crawling into a knotted paragraph on my lap, I said instead, I think my waters are breaking.
They weren’t, you’ll know, if you’re paying attention, we’re still a month away from the birth. It was blood not water, I carried her to term, and the term that I later learnt was not breaking but placental abruption. Causes unknown, risk factors including but not limited to, infection, chronic high blood pressure, maternal alcohol consumption, raised cortisol levels, traumatic injury.
It was a month of in–and–out–of–hospital, monitoring progress in the fitful stops and starts of a second heartbeat scribbled on the screen. She seemed to have a will to live – a will that I had spent my once–a–week meetings trying to postpone, perhaps – but in the end, a will is not always a way, and when the scales tipped, they came in at 6.4lbs of nothing.
After the birth, there was not much sleeping, there was not much anything at all. No her and no husband, and soon, not much Jack either.
So little left of anything that I began to wonder whether any of it had existed at all.
Guilt, I believe, is like a death. It is indelible. There is no completion, no resolution.
You carry it with you.
And that is what I carry with me – the guilt that I sleep with or beside for a few snatched hours at the end of a night, a guilt half–confessed, half–absolved, in this twilight zone of watching what I say, of watching and weighing my words.