Ian pursed his lips for a kiss, but didn’t move, so Anna laid her napkin aside, pushed back her chair and leaned across the plates and glasses to reach him. She sat down.
‘You have gravy on your skirt,’ he said. ‘You’re like a child, so messy.’
Anna’s cheekbones warmed. She looked at her plate and counted the flecks of scallion in her mashed potato. If she counted every piece he would apologise and move on to something else.
‘I was joking,’ he said. ‘Don’t take it so seriously, for God’s sake.’
Anna counted the scallion bits which had only green, no white.
‘Oh, Jesus.’ Ian scrunched his napkin and flung it onto the table.
Anna kept her eyes down and built a wall of scallion bits across the front of her brain so that his remarks could not penetrate. He was shouting now. People at neighbouring tables glanced over their wineglass rims at them, then looked at each other.
‘You are so unbelievably rude!’ He slammed a hand flat on the table. ‘Answer me when I’m speaking to you!’
Anna clutched at her bag, rose and knocked her chair away from under her with the backs of her knees. When he shouted and started flinging things around she had to get away at the first possible moment, because the noise would get into the weak bits of her brain and make them crumble. She left the restaurant and stumbled down the street, waving for a taxi. When she got in she leaned against the window, turned off her phone and savoured the taxi driver’s simple questions.
‘Yes, yes, thanks, that’s right, just here.’
In bed, Anna pulled the duvet over her face and lay in her clothes until two or three in the morning. She woke from a doze, starving, desperate to eat. She threw two eggs into a pan of water, and as soon as the water started boiling, she grabbed the eggs and spooned out their messy insides. The whites had only just started to turn opaque and solidify against the shells, and she slurped them with the yolks. She drank two cans of beer straight off, then half a litre of milk.
When she woke the next day with a metal taste in her mouth and stains on her pyjamas she remembered that she’d thrown up the eggs and milk and beer. She showered with the water turned up to its hottest, and shampooed her hair three times, scrubbing and scraping with her nails on her scalp. She made up her face, thickly. Eyes or lips, the magazines always said, pick one or the other to emphasise. She went dramatic on the eyes, sweeping dark shadow over her upper lid, flicking up at the corners and coating her lashes three times with mascara. She wasn’t convinced of the effect but she didn’t look as if she’d spent the night crying and puking raw eggs, and so would face no questioning when she went to work at the shop. She rubbed foundation the colour of skin into her lips until the skin started to flake away.
The shop was not busy that day, but she decided to stay at the counter over lunch instead of putting up a closed sign. She thought Ian might phone. It would be better to be talking to him in the quiet shop than in a café with people listening and the noise of their chatter drowning his voice so she would have to say What? What? and it would stoke his rage and he would hang up.
She bought a smoothie for her lunch and sucked it up slowly through a straw. He didn’t phone, so she did, on the shop phone, which she wasn’t supposed to do, and said she was sorry.
‘What are you sorry for?’ He didn’t mean, you have no reason to be sorry. He meant, spell out the reasons you have to be sorry.
She sighed. The corners of her mouth prickled.
‘I’m sorry for last night.’
The little bell over the door jingled, and a woman came into the shop.
‘What about last night?’ he persisted.
She chewed her lip, tasting foundation. The customer made eyebrow signals at her, waving the fountain pen she’d chosen.
‘Could you hold on a minute?’ she muttered into the phone, and turned to box and wrap the pen and swipe the credit card. When she picked up the phone again he had gone.
She took the bus home, leaning uncomfortably against a pole. As the bus swung and jolted round corners her bag slipped off her shoulder and lodged in the angle made where her hand stuck into her pocket. Her insides were tight and full. A girl of about seven on the seat opposite stared at her, then slid from her seat to get a closer look.
‘Are you having a baby?’ she asked.
Anna swallowed with difficulty and looked to the girl’s mother, who was sending text messages and did not reproach her daughter.
‘Because your tummy is really fat,’ said the girl, ‘and when your tummy gets fat a baby comes out.’
Anna looked at her and thought of the things she could say— the hurt things, the rude things, the educating things, the squashing things—and then she let her eyes glaze over, slowly, so that the little girl wouldn’t be sure they hadn’t always looked like that. She acted as if she hadn’t heard, and as if the little girl were invisible. If I do have a baby, she thought, please let it never grow up to be seven and and stare at people’s stomachs, which are no fatter than they should be, and make people need to cry on buses. Your body should act in your interest. It should be protected from other people, and it should protect you. People should not be able to do things to it, to make it act differently, to put its actions beyond your control. It should retain its shape, not ask for more food than it needed, not ask for food only to reject it. It should lead you to sleep only with men who wouldn’t betray you. It should conceive a child when a child was wanted and needed, and it should conceive a child only if it were in a position to support it for nine months. It should not disclose its internal events by external signs. Bloodstains on the seat of your jeans, swollen premenstrual breasts, the monthly layer of oil on skin and hair—all of these meant you had no privacy. Your body simply was not something you could either rely on or control, but you had to try.
At home she washed the drama off her eyes and gave them a good scrubbing with a corner of towel. She found she couldn’t open her mouth properly to brush her teeth, so she slotted the brush in carefully, avoiding the corners of her mouth, which stung and needed to be kept closed.
Ian didn’t call, so she rang him.
‘Sorry about lunchtime,’ she said.
Speaking was getting uncomfortable. The corners of her mouth were scabbing over.
‘Why ring me if you’re going to leave me hanging on for ten minutes?’ he demanded.
Anna said nothing.
‘Well?’ He would be getting going again any minute.
To apologise, Anna thought, I rang you to apologise, and to give you the opportunity of apologising without having to be the one to ring, and I was worried because yesterday we were in love and then suddenly the last thing possible was to share anything with you. I rang you to get back to being in love with you but you hung up on me.
She rubbed her cuff over the telephone keypad, brushing away dust. She said nothing.
‘Are you there?’ Ian sounded tired now.
‘Mmm,’ said Anna.
‘Well, what do you want me to do?’
‘Come over?’ asked Anna.
It would be easier face to face, with expressions and hand gestures to help, and she might find herself able to explain to him what was happening inside her.
He came over and said it was all right and he was sorry he’d lost his temper, but really she was so infuriating, and Anna nodded and muttered that she knew she was, and she came to sit beside him on the sofa and he sort of slapped her thigh in a friendly way to indicate that the argument was over. Then he peered a little more closely at her face.
‘Do you have a cold sore?’
She touched along her lips. ‘No.’
He looked closer. ‘You do. Two of them, actually. Two massive ones, one each side. You’d want to put something on those. Don’t mind if I don’t kiss you, do you?’
She did not mind if he never kissed her again. She didn’t want his lips wetting her face, the smell of his saliva as it dried on her lips, his chin knocking against hers, his nose jamming into her eye. Kissing was the last thing she wanted.
‘I’m tired,’ she said. ‘I didn’t sleep well last night.’ She suppressed a yawn in a way that she knew annoyed him, with her mouth pulled long but kept closed, and her nostrils inflating to pull in the extra oxygen. He looked away, and she stood up, and the evening was over.
In the shop the next day, Anna spoke as little as possible, because her mouth was getting sorer and the scabs at the corners were growing towards one another. She served customers with smiles and gestures, and no one seemed to notice anything, which was perfect, because she knew that soon she wouldn’t be able to speak even if she wanted to, and she needed to practise silent communication while she could still speak in emergencies.
Ian thought they were cold sores, and it suited him to think that, but she knew he was wrong and that her mouth was shrinking and shrinking down to a tiny hole between her nose and chin, and that one day it would close completely.