Today you have identified the shower as being your greatest problem. The concavity of the walls is more apparent here than in other spaces. The tiles swell. The grout bloats into a ceramic paunch and then recedes, as though there were a balloon attempting to wedge itself between the wall and its bandage of plaster.
There is a wheel spinning inside your left temple, its rotations sluggish and unwieldy, as though it is not properly bolted to its axle. It reminds you of a washing machine nearing the end of its cycle, the keel of its load too much for the barrel to toss. Holding your head in an upright position provokes the velocity of each revolution, and so it is easier to opt for a lopsided stance that allows your head to sag gravely forward and to the left, like the snapped neck of a tulip drooping from its stem.
The muscles in your left arm ache as you massage a bar of soap into your scalp and watch the steam from the water hose cloud the glass. Beyond the screen, the bathroom window is a blotch of blue on white plaster. Thin black lines are pencilling its surface: the branches of the plum tree scratching wind. When they tap the pane you feel their contact reverberate inside you, each small clink like a jab to the ribcage.
The walls, too, are part of you. You touch the tiles at your shoulder and feel the grit of each square collect between your teeth. You reach for the sponge on the shelf and the walls move with you, a ripple of white and misted glass chasing your gaze as you struggle to locate the pumice stone.
Your sight, too, has suffered, or is it that it has become better, more sensitive to the visual phenomena that formerly escaped you? Objects no longer appear to be three-dimensional, but rather they are dulled and flattened somehow, their centres blurred and their outlines too sharply defined. The light is brighter than before and has altered the hues of each picture so that the world seems more vivid, more dreamlike, as though its maker has adjusted the colour dial by a fraction. Small filaments of debris swim in the gel of your eye and dot the skyline with pinpricks of black and white. Bands of diagonal lines lacerate every image so that it is as if a television screen has taken root before your eyes. Each tilt of the head causes the room to buoy and shimmer like a photograph shot through a molten lens.
Peter will be home soon but you have left the bathroom door open, just in case. Lately, morbidity has entered you. You spend hours listening to your heart, the pulse in your ear like a kettle drum, each thud a reminder that the next may or may not come. You have had to stop sleeping on your stomach. The pounding wakes you in the night, the fist of your heart lunging through the shoulder blade to pummel the sheet beneath your chest.
After the accident your ribs were so badly bruised, the cartilage between each strut of bone so inflamed, and the skin so red raw from skidding across the tarmac, that the only rest to be gleaned was by lying flat on the small of your back. You could not sleep beside Peter for fear of him chafing against your side and so you opted for a mattress on the floor where the dust mites waltzed through the darkness and stung your nostrils as you dozed. When his snoring began each night you would move your fingers gingerly across the large scab ridging your hip and plead with your birthmark to grow back.
It never did.
Neither did the small constellation of freckles spotting your lowest rib. Once, perhaps in an attempt to purge yourself of injury, to excavate the old body from beneath the fractures and smut, you etched the outline of Eritrea on your hip with a fountain pen.
Peter caught a glimpse of it later and frogmarched you to the bathroom to wipe it clean with a damp cloth. But it had made you feel familiar for a time and that night you went to bed with thoughts of your mother: the scent of freesias tumbling out of her purse during the autumn; the jar of sugared violets she kept on the shelf above the larder; how tiny her hands had looked as they plucked the atlas from the shelf and spread its water-blue pages across the edge of your bed.
‘Look, Maggie!’ she had exclaimed, tracing the brown splodge on your hip bone with her fingertip. ‘You have a little piece of Africa sewn into your skin.’
Cocking your head to one side, you reach for the shower knob and twist the power to the off position. Your neck aches, the muscles smarting from months of such irregular postures. peter says that you remind him of a flamingo or a loose eider squiggle digging for grub, particularly in the evenings when your cheeks are flushed from the day’s inertia and the dry heat of the rooms, when you test the margins of your balance by attempting to remain steady on one leg. It is always said with humour, emanating from some far-flung corner of the kitchen where he sits comfortably on his Aalto stool, leafing through the arts supplement and drizzling chervil oil over his beetroot. You say nothing and marvel at the ease with which he sows the acres of distance.
Yesterday, you waited for an hour after he came home before he enquired as to how you were feeling. As usual, the question was predicated on conciliatory grounds rather than a genuine curiosity.
‘What did you do today, Maggie, love?’ he asked brightly, head buried deep inside the door of the refrigerator in an attempt to extricate a half-empty bottle of pinot Grigio from underneath the shrivelled cortices of a cauliflower.
You remained silent for a moment before responding—the penalty for his belated sensitivity. You don’t see why you should be forced to endure this alone. He chose you and so he must suffer the dereliction of your body as though it were his own, just as you tolerate his plaintive yelps for affection when the deprivation becomes too much for him to bear.
You cleared your throat and hoisted yourself onto a stool at the island, the grooves in the wooden surface undulating momentarily before settling. The clock over the larder door read a quarter past seven. You still wore your pyjamas; blue flannel with a smattering of pink strawberries.
Quietly, you told him how you had woken up at midday to the sound of what you thought was a kettle steaming, but had subsequently realised that it was not a kettle but the high-pitched whine that has taken residence inside your left ear in recent months. You described how the bed had felt when you woke, as though it were see- sawing up and down aboard the deck of a ship.
He turned from the refrigerator as you spoke, neck craning, forehead creased, eyes searching for anything that wasn’t you. You enjoyed his discomfort. You explained how the angle of the window had looked wrong. You had thought it might topple over and sandwich you between the sheets, but you mustered the energy to sit upright on the edge of the mattress and hold your head until the spinning eased a little. You described how, afterwards, you had shuffled over to the window and watched the clouds graze puddles on the avenue.
He said nothing and filled a small carafe with wine. You paused to stare at the bowl of oranges quivering under the glare of the electric light and noticed how your eye sockets felt bruised from weeks of squinting. You wondered if he would care, if he would massage the bones with his thumb if you asked him nicely.
You decided to tell him about how you had seen Bea in her garden picking rhubarb, how you had thought, how lovely to be able to decide that, how lovely to wake in the morning and think about gathering rhubarb from the garden, to know that you are capable of doing it, to know that your body will afford you the privilege. And, after that, to know that once the stalks are chopped and the tart baked, you might choose to walk to the market to buy some saffron for the fish or visit a gallery in town with a friend.
You told him that you remembered what it felt like to know those things, to own them before they had even been enacted.
‘You can still do those things, Maggie,’ he said impatiently, the knife in his fist hacking at a slab of goat’s cheese on the bread board. He avoided your eyes and you watched the cream crackers split in half between his fingers as he smeared each one with a lick of hard butter. ‘You still have it in you.’
You knew he was right. You knew that participation was still possible, to choose an attitude each morning before the mirror, to decide between preparing a salad or planting courgettes in the potting shed. Walnuts might have to be bought from the delicatessen. You could go or you could not. It was a choice.
You watched the grey skin across his jaw sprout nodules as he munched his cheese. You begged him to know the shape of your life, to recall with you how you had forced yourself time and time again to walk the avenue, forced yourself to venture as far as the woods some mornings, forced yourself to stay upright during the day. You wanted him to see how the moments had been disembowelled, how brutally they had been stolen from you, how the nature of your condition prevented you, always, from seeing beyond the distortions.
As the tears began to cloud your sight you saw his elbow knock the butter knife to the floor. The clatter of it speared you and for a moment there was nothing.
When you spoke again you heard the same tired verse tumbling from your lips: how he could not possibly understand, how every time you opened your eyes it was there, unchanged, the world still shimmering, its figures flat against a peculiar green light, the rooftops buoying up and down in time to your footsteps. How everything was always moving, moving, moving, with you the one winding it—the key cranking a child’s spinning top into life.
You dry off and dust yourself with talc before pulling on a fresh pair of cotton pyjamas. peter has urged you time and time again to dress properly in the mornings. He tells you that it will make you feel more capable, more connected with your older, healthier self. You suspect he may be right, but the thought of having to choose the garments anew each day; teaming denim with cotton, silk with nylon, paisley with stripes, of having to navigate the shelves of half-folded blouses and odd socks, is too much to stomach at present.
There are other, more pressing, tasks that demand your attention. Doctors have suggested that you devote two minutes each day to shifting your weight from one leg to the other. Failing that, it is recommended that you wedge a small foam pillow beneath your feet and practise retaining a centred stance with your eyes closed.
Today you find this particularly taxing, the towel turban atop your head threatening to unfurl itself and land with a damp splat across the floor. You are capable of remaining upright for the duration of the exercise but to anyone watching you must resemble a scarecrow flailing in the wind. You lurch violently from side to side, your toes scraping the hillocks of pink foam into craters in an attempt to make contact with the flat expanse of linoleum beneath it.
At times you are forced to steady yourself for a moment by shifting your left foot to the floor and then replacing it again, like an arcane form of step aerobics, aerobics for subaqua dwellers perhaps, the arcs of their limbs dogged by the effort of wading.
As you near the end of the second minute, the imaginary cog in your head, or in your ear, or lodged in the blue pith of your brain stem (you don’t know where it resides, still nobody can tell you) begins to increase the speed of its rotations, as though suddenly finding itself to be well-oiled, supple, loose inside its metal splint.
With each turn, a spool of cloud unpacks itself in bales, so that when you open your eyes the world through your right pupil looks as though it has been smeared with the white of an egg. The vertigo then is violent. It acquires something of the sea about it. And for a moment you are a child again, sprawled across the water’s edge at Cale, your fingers lodged deep in sand, your eyes closed and spangled with froth, waiting for the smack of a stray wave to wrench the ripples apart. But the difference then was that you knew to expect the pelt of it, the swell in the tide became audible as the water arched its back and shifted gears in the sand.
There was the breaking of the surf at your ear before it swallowed you.
Now it is a blinding smack to the side of the skull, the throttle of a mallet at your lobe. There have been times when you have hurtled forward as though your shoulders have been flogged by an intruder or a spectre’s whip. The girth of it astounds you, its ability to enfold your body whole and reduce it to a series of separates. No longer does your body feel unified, co-ordinated, an entity that derives its movement from one source. Instead, your legs become dislocated from your torso. You watch them pad across the tiles in the kitchen as you leave the foam cushion behind and marvel at their ability to move, for you are not the one moving them. They certainly do not appear to be yours.
Yet, you can feel the awkwardness of their gait, the disparity between each limb as the right leg navigates the undulating floor, the left chasing it like the runt of a litter, its knee aching. The bones spark and click like two pieces of flint. You are the tribeswoman, your fingers badgering the stone to ignite. Streamers of pain travel upwards through your rib cage. They sprinkle the fibrous grunt of the shoulder blade with their own syncopation, titillating its nerves and pricking muscles like thin balloons. They bound across the vertebrae railroading the back of the neck, yank at the pivot joint, jostle the hair follicles, traverse the scalp, and pirouette, finally, into place, with a stinging coda in the cavity of your largest molar.
You stop at the sink and fill a glass of water as the ground lurches beneath your feet. Tacked to the cupboard above the sink you have a photograph that peter took years ago when you visited Poule Orchard.
Using the long exposure on his camera he had you jump from the lowest branch of a damson tree into the drowsy heads of heather below. You wore a coral jumper that day, nipped in at the waist with a thick band of violet. Afterwards, when he presented you with the developed image, it was a riot of flesh; a trail of figures in midair, one leaping from the branch, one hunkered on the earth at the base of the tree, and the rest hovering in between at different degrees of distance from the ground.
The colours of shrub and sky had merged so that each version of you had been captured in a watery variant of carnation pink. In one pose your hair was plum and the belt around your waist a deep cornflower blue, in another your outline was clotted with pale melon and your arms speckled with the blush of afternoon sun.
Now it is the same but without the colour.
You are not yourself. You are merely a distorted apparition of yourself, rooted always in the moment that precedes the present.
The light has become brighter. It has a greenness to it, just as you used to find it after entering a shaded interior from the glare of the garden in summer. But now there is no sun. Outside, it is February and the rooks are unmoving, their bodies matte atop the slick weave of a wet branch.
The light intensifies as a surge of needles envelops your tongue. You see your chest, you feel it breathe, yet you are not the one making it breathe. It is yours. You are its proprietor. But you are removed from its mechanics.
Peter is here now.
You did not hear the door opening upstairs, the creak of the floorboards as he descended the stairs. But he is here and you maul him as he grips you, your mouth cold, your head collapsed.
You pull at the lapels of his jacket and despite the fog that has settled across your eyes you notice that a button from his shirt has fallen off and landed on the kitchen floor. He is clasping your hands, just as he always does when the terror sets in. The yellow heads of four daffodils smile at you from beneath the crook of his arm.
Rasping, you manage to tell him that you feel as though you are not here.
‘You are here, Maggie,’ he says firmly, his voice muted by the wailing of blood in your ear, the tight pockets of air that seem to be forming in every crevice behind your eyes. The pressure in your head is so great that you think it might begin to fragment, chunk after marrow-rich chunk littering the floor. ‘You are here. You are real. Look, I’m squeezing your hands. Can you feel that?’
You give him a small jerk of the head and let your neck slump forward against his shoulder. Outside, a rook flees the branch of the plum tree, wine-coloured ruffles bouncing in its wake. The broad linen rectangle of peter’s back is reflected in the glass of the patio door, your head resting in the snug below his ear like a painted egg, milk-bottle white and waxen with sweat. In the glass, there is the skin of a marriage, ignorant of the silent chaos that teems beneath its dusk-lit shape.
You watch a woman embracing her husband before the evening meal. She sees midges swarm the belly of a sycamore in the garden, a blue shears propped against a stone. She will peel the squash. He will uncork the wine.
You see a woman mapping a history in minutiae, the coarse blot of her husband’s shirt stealing the sweat from her fingers. The minutes yawn at her feet with their slow ebb of nothings, urging the slice of her gait to break the stillness.
She is ready to peel the squash. She is able.