When I was first signed off work I washed and polished everything so Mark could tell what I’d been doing with my day. At half six in the morning while he pulled on his overalls and stamped the grass cuttings off his boots on the door step I’d be in the kitchen making his pack-up. It was my way of saying, I’m no layabout. When Mark got home with an empty bread bag and told me that his sandwiches were delicious it was his way of saying, You’re fine by me.
But I couldn’t keep it up. Ham, pickle and salad sandwiches changed to scrapings of spready cheese or marmite, taps got scummy, and when one Friday night he didn’t thank me I knew we were in trouble. That’s enough now, Joy, his silence said as he put his empty sandwich bag in the bin.
He soaked in a long bath instead of showering, shaved longwindedly instead of coming to watch telly with me. When he did come downstairs he was smart as a date. I was lying, as usual, on my stomach on the carpet. The smell of his aftershave made me pull my pony tail tighter. I leaned my chin on my palms instead of my left hand so my cheek wasn’t podged up. He looked at me before he opened the fridge and I held my breath.
“No bloody milk again?” he shouted at the ceiling. Slamming his feet back into his sodden work boots he said, “Not even a pint of sodding milk.”
What he didn’t say was, Please go out the house, Joy, or, Change those tracky bottoms, Joy, or, If I get back from work and you’re in front of that telly again and there’s no milk in the house I will leave you.
Outside our living room window is a block of flats exactly like this one, grey and squat with not enough glass. Early in the mornings, the men limp out with rucksacks; the women appear later stooping in their dressing gowns to pick fag ends out the gutter. They let themselves into each others’ buildings with their slippers on like life is one big sleepover.
“You can’t doss about in your slippers all day,” Mark said when I pointed out what we were missing out on next door. “You have to be prepared for the day ahead.”
“Au contraire,” I told him, wiggling the bears on my feet, “One can be too prepared for the days ahead.”
That was when he could still bear the sight of me wiggling my feet in teddybear slippers at five o’clock on a Monday afternoon.
Right now he will be mowing the verges in the park, or maybe along Harvey Road where the council is still in charge because no one else gives a shit. If he’s thinking of me at all he will be thinking of me in those grey jogging bottoms, my hair drooping out of its pony tail on the left side where I’ve been lying on it all day.
I could handle the attacks until I started having them at work. When I abandoned the perfume counter on Christmas Eve to lock myself in the toilet it could no longer go overlooked. I got back out on the department floor in less than twenty minutes and Jessy from Make-up put bronzer on my cheeks but everyone looked at me differently from then on. A doctor’s appointment was encouraged and I got a prescription for six weeks off work.
Mark didn’t get it. Whenever he got in from mowing there would be books by the door for Iggy, who he did the verges with, or Kate, Iggy’s girlfriend; clothes for the charity shop down the road. I was constantly clearing out, getting rid of things we didn’t need, crossing off lists. He thought I was just skiving.
He talked about the ways I should deal with The Attacks, things I could do to prevent them but what he really meant was, When will things be back to normal? When are you going back to work? He repeated what the doctor said, told me things his mum told him and occasionally added advice of his own:
“You shouldn’t just disappear indoors all the time, that’s the problem,” he said one night when we were watching telly and I thought of myself inside myself, my brain soft inside the rock of my skull, the centre of the earth soft against the shell of its crust, like an egg yolk.
I thought about the leap of faith it takes for a person like me to believe that the centre of the earth is soft like an egg yolk. I imagined myself hurtling through space on top of the earth’s shell and it made my heart speed up until I felt dizzy and I realised I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t feel my fingers and there he was, staring down at me as I crouched by the settee with my head between my legs trying to breathe: Mark, wondering what the hell had happened to his wife.
He held my hand after and I tried to smile at him even though my hands were shaking and I wasn’t sure the floor was real.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” he asked and I nodded and sat down, terrified.
It’s a bit like being locked inside a room of mirrors where the air supply is low when it happens. There’s me turning from side to side looking as my heads stare back at me all the way to and from infinity. I can’t breathe or feel much except my soaring pulse. I’m not certain that anything outside of me exists, whether I’m real.
I tried to explain it to Mark that night but I sounded like a madwoman.
"It starts with an idea I’m not capable of grasping," I told him, "that I’m not capable of trying not to grasp."
And he looked at me, empty-eyed.
Mark got us hooked up to the Internet so I’d have something to do while I was off work, recovering. That’s what he said but I think it was more about me having answers to hand. He thought it might be helpful but when he came home that night I was lying under the covers. Because there are websites that claim the universe is an organism, that cells have brains of their own.
Mark said it was best not to think about these things, that these forums were populated by people in chat rooms with too much free time.
“Free time is the enemy of sanity,” Mark said. “Anybody with enough time on their hands will go mad.”
I nodded my head like that sounded reasonable but I was thinking about brain cells and cell’s brains. If it was true that brain cells had brains, then inside me there was a chain of brains inside cells inside brains inside cells like Russian dolls, like my reflections in that mirrored room, going on forever and ever, and I needed air, my heart was beating in my ears.
“You’re not listening to me, are you?” Mark said. “See. This is what you do, Joy. You choose to interact with your own inner workings instead of what’s outside of you. You listen to your thoughts instead of listening to me. I’m right here.”
“You need to speak up,” I told him but he thought I was taking the piss. My heartbeat stopped bashing quite so hard at my temple.
“You just don’t help yourself,” he said.
Later on, he showed me some of his favourite websites. There was one that would play any song you could think of.
“What do you want?” he said but I couldn’t remember anything except theme tunes.
“What about that one from Eastenders?” I said eventually, because he was looking at me, and he laughed like I was joking. He looked at me happily because I was making a joke. Then I put it on and he laughed harder until he was tired out and I just sat there the whole time, listening to the Eastenders theme tune with a straight face like one of those comedians who never laughs at their own jokes.
In bed, I couldn’t stop crying. Mark had to work the next day and I was too embarrassed to talk to him. At about three am he gave up and went to get some sleep downstairs on the settee. In the morning he rang a man to come and take away the Internet. Four weeks later and he still hasn’t been back in my bed.
He tried to climb in with me the night before he left. He asked to stay while I undressed then sat down on the edge of the bed while I got under the covers. Taking his socks off discretely he scooted up to the headboard so his jeaned bum was by my head. I pretended to read like my heart had stayed steady for all this, like breathing normally was not a problem.
It was only when he pushed his toes under the covers that I broke and said, Mark, in that voice we have both come to hate. It was more of an exhale than a voice, slightly strangled, like he was trying to do something awful. He took his pillow down to the settee.
In the morning he told me he was going to stay with his mum and dad.
“I’m your husband Joy. All I want is that you include me in your life. Every night you give me excuses, that I snore, that you snore, that you need to be alone and I’ve let it go on and on but now, you’re holding so much back that I don’t know who you are. It's not just sex - I’ve got no idea who I’m living with.”
I stood dumb while he said that, watched him pick up the sports bag I got him for Christmas.
Since then Mark has been round to see me three times.
The first time I asked him if I was on Suicide Watch and he looked like he wanted to strangle me. Our jokes had long been out of synch but this was just an example of me not being funny. It was like calling your overweight friend Fatty as an affectionate joke, the way you would a thin friend, then realising your mistake when you saw her face drop: inappropriate.
He ignored me, put on a familiar record instead:
“You need to fill your day more, Joy. Go for a walk or do one of those exercise videos I got for you. Get your endorphines going...”
I nodded along to the beat but I must have looked unconvincing because he upped his game, brightening his smile and raising his voice so the living room rang like visiting hour at the asylum.
“How about dancing?” He said. “You like dancing.”
We used to dance together, expansive, performance art style dances, sweeping from one side of the space to the other, arms flapping. I smiled at him, remembering, but he didn’t see. His face was sad suddenly, and I had to agree with it.
Yes, you’re right to look sad, Mark’s face, I thought, because that Joy does seem to have left us by ourselves.
But he wasn’t giving up.
“Remember?” he said, expression genuine again as he stood with one palm held out to me, one behind his back. I couldn’t stand up, just pressed my lips together and shook my head.
His hand, untaken, moved off with the rest of him as he swept over to the radio, turned it up loud and started spanning the room with large side steps, moving his arms up and down like some kind of awkward crab while a female shrieked along with electric guitars.
He rippled his hands in front of him like he was signalling a dream sequence, pointing his toes out to the sides while opening and closing his mouth like a fish. These were all moves. Each one had a name that we had made up but I was not prepared to acknowledge this at that moment.
He circled the room, sending the piles of Pyschologies and Best skidding across the carpet, knocking biscuits off the coffee table. It was no longer just for me, this routine. His eyes were closed, cheeks red as he waved his arms straight above his head, wiggling his bum until it quivered.
I remembered the two of us parading round the beach like this on our wedding day, his mum and dad laughing by the sea wall, our only guests, and it was like being winded.
I remember him now, dancing on his own and my blank expression watching him and it is just the same feeling.
“I’ve bought you a notebook,” he said to me, when he arrived the next time, two days later.
“Mum says writing can help you to see whether the things you’re worrying about are logical,” he said. “She says it really helped her when she was depressed.”
“I’m not depressed.” I told him.
We watched Eastenders together and when it had finished he asked if I’d rather he didn’t come round.
“That might be better actually,” I said, wiping my eyes with the tissue he handed me.
He made us another cup of tea and another and when I was ready to go to bed he said, “I’ll see you on Thursday then.”
The next morning ideas descended on me like wasps until I was running in circles, arms flailing, nails scratching at my scalp. I tried lying under the covers. I tried lighting candles and running a bath. I tried submerging myself in hot water but it was still like that chapter in Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy makes it clear that Anna cannot go on like this.
“I will escape from everyone and from myself.” She thinks, and it was this thought that surrounded me as I slid down into the much-too-hot bath, panting like I was about to give birth.
Heart racing, I made myself get out of the hot water and went to find the notebook. For an hour I wrote frantically by the window, basking in the early sunlight - in my frenzy - thinking, Well of course! I’m a creative. It all makes sense!
I honestly believed I was onto something until I came back to read it. With the adrenalin of writing gone its irrelevance made me shiver:
All I want is a break, not a train to the back of my neck. There are mites that live in hair follicles. Dermodex mites. Long and thin with four pairs of legs. Passed from human to human. Most people house a few by the time they're seventy. Dermodex reproduce in hair follicles, live off the fatty secretions we produce to moisturise our skin. Long and thin, they look like the razor clams on Maenporth beach at low tide, like splinters, like those painful bits of skin you can’t help ripping off the side of your fingernails. Skin is a living thing. Porous. And I am a living thing trapped inside it. A living thing inside a living thing inside the world, which is also a living thing, inside the universe, which could also be a living thing. Sometimes when I look at my pores, close up, I think they are the biggest holes I’ve ever seen, that each one is the Milton Keynes bowl and I am just flesh coloured clay, one of the plasticine models from Art Attack. I am Morph.
I am Morph.
There are mites that live in cheese called Mimo like a tabby cat. Living in the veins of stilton is Mimo. They move across the blue like dodgems, like bad graphics, like space invaders. But who lives on them? Do the mites have parasites?
I stared at my scribblings. Mark’s mum was right. I thought writing something down gave it power but it shrinks it, makes you see it for what it is. It is no longer big enough to fill your head, it’s just sentences.
The next day, I found an unstamped letter from Mark on the door mat. I sat down to read it.
When I met you, Joy, you were wearing a red hat and red socks pulled up above red wellies. Carpet and curtains matching, you said and I thought of naked ginger women, wondered what colour your hair was under all that wool.
It was a cold day, like this one when me and Iggy bumped into you on Maenporth beach. You were still Iggy's old friend from work back then. You told us this was your favourite kind of day. The thing with being cold, you said, is that you can always put something else on, can’t you? And I smiled, thinking how I’d like to put you on like a big red sock. I wondered how you would react if I said something like that.
For weeks afterwards I dragged Iggy down the beach after work, checked every head underneath a red hat. Iggy took the piss but he was pleased that I was interested in somebody now he’d moved in with Kate. He was sick of looking after me when I got drunk.
I didn’t see you again until that day in February when it snowed and everyone skipped work. We walked along the beach with all the other people watching the snow melt into the sea and there you were. With one red welly planted in the white sand you were like a compass, making a tiny circle looking at the sky, your head right back, cheeks bright.
Iggy shouted you and you ran over, grinning, threw your arms around his neck and told him you were pissed. Red mittens hung off your wrists attached to strings that ran up your arms, across the back of your neck and I thought about how wrapped up you were and what it would be like to unwrap you. How pleased I would be to get you as a present.
You doffed your wool hat at me like a prettier Dick Van Dyke and I doffed back, said, We’re going into the beach cafe to drink mulled wine, if you fancy it?
Iggy looked at me, surprised, because I’d just asked him to give me a lift to the pub before he went off for dinner with Kate, but he nodded his head.
They do mince pies in there too, he said and you pulled your luminous hat over your luminous ears, said it would be good to warm up.
Iggy left us after one and we stayed getting drunk in a window seat, looking out at the white-covered beach. Whenever you talked about something painful you introduced it sheepishly as a ‘dead rat in a box’. You’d read the phrase in a book and adopted it but could no longer remember where it was from. You tried to close the lid on those dead rats as quickly as you could but their noses kept poking out because I wanted to know everything.
You came back to my house and I found out the colour of your hair.
Putting the letter down on the floor I felt like I'd just heard my own obituary, like iced coffee had been tipped over my head.
I thought of that scene in Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise says: Every new day is a fresh chance to turn it all around, and half an hour later I was out of the house. Walking along, listening to my shoes hitting the pavement, feeling the February air on my face I told myself that I was nothing more unusual than a twenty something female human. The worst that could happen was a panic attack.
The silver birch trees in the park stuck up like hairs poking out of the earth’s scalp but I didn’t let it bother me. Under their shadow I felt like a nit creeping around but it was just a thought.
A woman walked by with a pit bull on a lead and I tried not to pay undue attention to whether or not it had fleas riding on its back. I looked at the sky and breathed deeply until the shouting about parasites and parasites’ parasites died down.
By the time I got to the shop the money in my hand was wet with sweat. I kept dropping it in my pocket but before long I was clutching it again. Under strip lighting I walked to the back of the supermarket and picked up four pints of semi-skimmed milk.
The woman at the till was over seventy. Her drooping pores seemed likely to house dermodex mites and I imagined them scuttling between her and her husband as they slept, cheek to cheek, then I handed the money over and left the shop.
Back at the flat I looked at our wedding picture on the mantle piece. It was two years old. Taken outside the registry office in Falmouth. It was freezing and my then-blonde hair blew into Mark’s face. We are both laughing, eyes narrow, mouths wide.
In front of us Mark’s dad, Paul, took the photo. He hooted and made faces to keep our smiles real because he knew I had this terror of freezing up, of not looking happy at the moment it mattered most, when I really really was. Mark’s mum, Jean, waved her arms up and down behind Paul’s back, making a Hindu goddess out of her gigantic husband.
Behind us the sea is choppy slate, seagulls and tankers on the horizon. The sky is clear blue, one of those glorious February days when wrapping up warm is still a novelty.
And now there's a noise, at last. It’s Mark, knocking like a stranger at his own front door.
“Hello,” I smile, seeing his surprise at the state of me: hair pulled back symmetrical, legs in denim.
His posture changes as my appearance sinks in and then he starts talking and it’s like a presidential speech, or diarrhea, something rare and exciting.
“You don’t need to know everything,” he says, “just what matters. Like the floor is real and parasites exist but so what? So what if parasites have parasites? So what if brain cells have brains. What business is that of yours?”
He’s holding my hands and I’m not pulling away and I can feel the blood under his skin, like hot water running through a radiator but I know it isn’t that: it’s the workings of a man’s heart.
My pulse speeds up but I keep breathing. Mark carries on.
“So what if the world is somebody else’s pore?” he says. “What difference does it make to us?”
I feel a stone lighter, like I’ve shed a cement skin, like a snake crawling out of a statue of itself and when I kiss him the sharpness of his intake of breath surprises even me. His hands move to my sides then drop again, hang in fists at his hips, passive as dumplings.
I pull my mouth away from his and he looks at me the way he has looked at me a thousand times before, the way he looks out at me from our wedding picture. A human head above a human body which may or may not have parasites, made up of cells which may or may not have brains, follicles which may or may not, one day, host dermodex mites.
“Come in,” I say.
“I’m Joy.” I say.
“Hello.” I say.