A short story by Abigail Mozley
The insomniac girl sits at her dressing table with three mirrors. It is a stale summer night, very late, the air is dry, electricity accumulates. The bedroom is small, full of furniture, it is in her parents’ house. There is a fawn carpet that smells of dust in the sun, it is a new room, the walls are blank plaster, the air is empty.
The overhead light is on, a neurotic hungover light, glaring. Her face in the mirrors is unreal, something remembered from a dream. The eyes are obscure, reddened, the skin dry and flaking, the mouth askew. Her bleached hair is black at the roots. A small tin ashtray overflows ash onto the dressing table. There is a strong smell of nicotine, of electricity, of paranoia.
Her parents are asleep. She cannot think about them. She cannot stay in the bedroom, she cannot go back to the library in the north, she cannot go back to the long pale ward. There is an ultimatum. Her lovers have gone away, sickened by her addictions, her dead obsessions. She does not know how to touch people, her flesh is hopeless.
Gifts from her lovers litter the room, pigs’ hearts, death’s head hawk moths, pornographic drawings, bald dolls, evil books. Everything is as she planned. Everything is finished. It is quite simple. It is impossible.
She opens a can of beer and pours it into a glass. She takes two small bottles out of the top drawer of the dressing table. In one bottle there are small shiny red pills, in the other bottle there are small shiny black pills, the names on the bottles are gentle like flowing water, tofranil and melleril. It is the cure. She swallows them all, washing them down with the beer. It is very easy, she climbs into bed and pulls the cord that switches off the light. The pills feel like money inside her.
The first dream is her father. She is a child wearing Roy Rogers’ shorts and a T-shirt with jet planes on it. The wind is light on her short-haired neck, her legs are bare and sexless. The king is over there in his cockpit. He bristles, moustache and military uniform. The aerodrome is enormous, not a place for insects or daisies. The Greenwich time signal comes out of the sky, Gillette blue. The king starts up his engine, terrible music like pain. On the horizon the control tower is the superstructure of a glass battleship, it blares fear. The windsock flickers orange silk, the skirt of disaster. A deep maroon shadow spreads around the king bent over his instrument panel, the noise accelerates. She is aware of injury, a taste of rubber and anaesthetic.
The second dream is her mother. She is a child at school, there is a smell of damp wool and sour milk. The queen is up there on her dais. She is highly rouged, melodramatic and punctual. She raps on the desk with a ruler. The air is stiff as a hinge, rust stained. The queen is bleeding. It is the child’s fault. Guilty she runs out of the foetid nissen hut. It is a dark winter afternoon, there are old air raid shelters and static water tanks. Danger signs everywhere. She cannot go home.
The light is bright, tiled walls, she is lying on the shiny floor. Curves of porcelain, it is the bathroom. Her parents bend over her, their faces are old and wrinkled, incommunicable. They are wearing dressing gowns, they are shouting at her, she cannot hear them. They try to pull her up from the shiny floor, they cannot move her. She lies curled around the lavatory glistening with vomit, a rigid foetus stuck to the marley tiles. She is hard and immovable as the gleaming sanitary porcelain. Her breathing is harsh and noisy, she has inhaled her vomit. She thinks of speaking but everything is closing down, the communications system is dead. her parents rush away in agitation.
There is only a small area of activity left in her head, near the eyes. It is claustrophobic, suffocating. There is an image of a piece of paper burning out, watched in darkness, small red worms of light eating themselves up going out quickly and silently one by one. She is terrified at the prospect of departure. Very clearly a voice says, A long voyage by sea is planned.
The third dream is more difficult. She is standing at the edge of a large indoor swimming pool. She is naked, there is a high glass roof, like a railway station. There is a gallery above the pool and her parents are up there smiling at her. A synthetic voice over the loudspeaker system repeats the message. ‘A long voyage by sea is planned’. She does not know what is expected of her. She walks along the tiled edge of the pool holding her small drooping breasts in both hands. The loudspeaker plays loud martial music which stops suddenly. The synthetic voice says, ‘Will passenger number 181 please report to departure area 9 immediately. She looks up at her parents, they are smiling and pointing and indicating that she should look at her wrist. On her left wrist is a plastic bracelet like a baby’s identity bracelet, on it is written her name and the number 181. At the far end of the pool where her parents are pointing she sees an office desk with a man seated behind it. She is apprehensive and embarrassed by her nakedness, she walks awkwardly up to the desk. The official is checking forms, he is wearing the uniform of a railway guard or bus conductor. He has a leather bag for money and a ticket machine slung over his shoulder. There is a small stand up plastic number 9 on his desk.
He stops writing and looks up at her, he has the cold face of a judge. ‘Number?’, she holds out her left arm and he snips off the bracelet with a pair of surgical scissors. He attaches it to one of the printed forms with a paper clip. She sees that the form has already been filled in but she cannot read the writing, it is a foreign alphabet.
‘Money?’, she is frightened, she has no money. Then she remembers the shiny pills chinking like coins inside her; nervously she gestures towards her mouth and stomach. The conductor grimaces, an expression of resigned disgust. He mutters ‘Swallowed it have you? A filthy habit. They’re always doing it. Dirty pigs. Dirty hounds.’ he shouts like a sergeant major, the words scarcely discernible, ‘Orderlies, Orderlies, Assistance please, Assistance please.’ Immediately a door behind him opens and two male nurses in white coats stride out carrying a length of orange rubber hose, a big white enamel jug and a white enamel bucket.
They spread her out on her back on the desk, on top of the printed forms. It is uncomfortable. They force the rubber hose into her mouth and down her throat. She gags, the hose is thrust down and down, oral rape, she chokes and gags continuously. It is like a python, like a huge penis, she is helpless, it is what she expected. They pour gallons of water down the hose from the jug, she feels her belly expand with the cold weight of it. They siphon the water out through the hose into the bucket on the floor, she hears it running into the bucket, she feels her belly deflate. Very rapidly they pull out the hose. They are like petrol pump attendants, brusque and efficient. She sits up mechanically and gets off the desk. The orderlies present the bucket to the conductor.
She sees that it contains a clear lucent fluid, brighter than water, and at the bottom lie a number of gold and silver coins. The sight of these fills her with joy and pride and sensual delight. She smiles. Her parents in the gallery applaud.
The martial music returns. The orderlies salute the conductor, click their heels and goose-step out. She is sure that she has passed, she awaits the award. The conductor sits on his swivel chair, his feet on the desk, he picks his nose. The martial music is switched off abruptly, the conductor swings his feet off the desk and stands up. He crashes the ticket machine down on the desk. She sees that there is a gap like a mouth where she must put her hand. She holds out her left hand, palm downwards. He takes her hand and inserts it in the machine, she looks away. There is a long hypodermic pain, an alarm bell rings loudly.
There is a piece of sticking plaster on the back of her hand, blood trickles from under it, her hand is bruised. She realizes that this is like giving birth, it is only the beginning. There are no doors. Her parents have gone from the gallery. The conductor has gone. It is silent.
She walks to the edge of the pool. It is very big, the water chills the air. There are dark lines of tiles running in parallel along the white tiled bottom, they ripple. She is waiting, she looks around for cues.
The pool is deep and rectangular. She studies the angles, she sees that the bottom of the pool slopes down to a drain, a dark square twenty feet down, off centre, obscured by the chlorine viridian. She looks around, there are no doors.
A blank voice comes over the loudspeakers, flashing on and off like a neon sign, ‘Exit. Exit. Exit. Exit. Exit.’ She realizes which is the way out. She plunges into the water, it is dead, cold, chlorinated. She takes a deep breath and goes under, swimming down towards the drain with her eyes open and stung by the water.
It is too difficult, she is too buoyant, she kicks back up towards the silver foil surface. She gasps and wipes the mucus from her nose and mouth, her eyes stream. Now she can see the exit sign glimmering down below in green light, geometric letters in a black box. she hangs onto the bar shuddering, she looks up at the high glass roof, it is no good. there is only one way out. She inhales until her lungs hurt. Bracing her feet against the bar she thrusts down into the dark water again.
This time she exhales as she swims down, a stream of white bubbles pouring from her nose and mouth. She can see the exit sign at the bottom, there is no air left. she kicks with her legs once more, she shuts her eyes, her chest is being pushed inwards, she must inhale. Her arms are suddenly hurt by something square and metallic; it is the exit sign. She opens her eyes, there is the black drain, no grating, she will inhale once and get through.
There is a moment of hesitation, she does not know whether to inhale to get through or hold her breath. Birth and drowning, she does not want to die.