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The Write Stuff: A Small Punishment by Nasim Marie Jafry

Nasim Marie Jafry. Picture: Contributed

Nasim Marie Jafry. Picture: Contributed

Why is there haddock on the keyboard? Steve had asked. Or rather, Steve had shouted. Steve had shouted a lot. There is haddock on the keyboard because I was gobbling fish and chips out of the paper while I was typing, Mona had replied.

She lay in bed, fully dressed, squeezing her eyes tightly, opening and shutting, opening and shutting, but she couldn’t stop the image coming, a yellow flower closing in a speeded-up film. When Steve had told her he was leaving, she’d felt herself shrinking like the flower. Now, harmless things like her red hairbrush or the pattern on the shower curtain – even the kettle – could unleash a terrifying uneasiness. Sometimes these things didn’t bother her, but sometimes she had to focus on them and they became unbearable, and she would feel herself shrinking like the flower again.

A routine would be good, it would distract her, she knew that, but she had given up on being an academic for now. She had an Amnesty International calendar in the kitchen and ticked off the days: blank squares, empty and howling. Sometimes she wished she had a cat, just to have someone come into the room and look at her.

She’d read an article about a Japanese artist, known as ‘Bread Man’, who travelled the world with baguettes tied to his head. Mona understood the attraction of wearing bread round your head, it would act like a giant bumper, protecting you from shocks. Her doctor had offered to refer her for counselling when he’d given her the sick note (or fit note as they were now called, you were encouraged to be fit even when you were sick), but there was a nine months’ waiting list. You could get pregnant and have a baby in that time, Mona had thought. While she’d been in the waiting room, she remembered the woman in her building who’d been sectioned last year. The woman had sat in the stairwell, in the middle of the night, naked and throwing kitchen utensils. Mona had tried to put a quilt round her. It had taken two hours for the police and a doctor to get the woman downstairs. She kept shouting, Policemen, remove your hats! They’d taken her away in an ambulance. Mona felt that this could be her now if you rubbed out the margins. She visualised her coping mechanisms as faded pink margins on a school jotter and, in this state, she could hardly bear to be looked at or spoken to by people she knew, and she certainly couldn’t be relied upon to function. Her GP had given her a prescription for anti-depressants along with the sick note. She told him she didn’t want to be artificially happy, she wanted truth. His face was white and baggy, but he meant well.

Last week, she’d dialled Steve’s new number – the landline he now shared with her twin sister – and left a message of the sound of her miaowing. The next day her twin had texted: Please stop. You’re just hurting yourself.

They were non-identical twins.

Mona and Steve had gone to Italy for their honeymoon. The food just kept coming, you could eat as much as you wanted without seeming greedy: endless trays of salami and crostini – little jewels to feast on – and steak smothered in rocket for your secondo even when you were full. She liked the name of the wine – Gavi di Gavi – it sounded like an opera. Steve had taken a black and white photo of her at Viareggio, she had her back to the camera. She’d been squealing and laughing, the waves slapping against her ankles like a small punishment. Shelley drowned here, she’d told Steve, Byron was at the cremation. But Steve wasn’t really listening. She could still recall that exact moment on the green and orange deckchair when he wasn’t really listening. He’d blown the photo up and hung it in the hall.

The night Steve had left, Mona had hidden in the wardrobe for hours, crying like an animal. When she emerged, she cut off her twin’s head in every photo she could find, scattering her smile like toxic jigsaw pieces. The next day she’d called in sick and gone to a supermarket out of town, hoping no one would see her. She’d gone round the aisles, with little idea of what she was buying. She’d stalled at some lilies leaning in buckets, they looked so menacing, still closed, pointing like beaks. On her way back to the car, she’d passed a store display of child mannequins wearing duffle coats. She thought it might actually be quite creepy – rather than joyful – to have these small people coming home to you to be looked after at four o’clock every day. Back home, she’d sat in the living room with her coat still on and eaten a vegetable samosa, a cold, heavy triangle of peas dropping onto her lap. She hadn’t bothered picking them off.

Four weeks after she’d been signed off sick, she’d returned to her doctor. She hadn’t told him that she hadn’t picked up the anti-depressants. She lied and said she’d started them and was feeling a bit better. She wanted to tell him about the yellow flower but she didn’t. She envied him his routine, his chats with others, his writing out prescriptions, his blue carpet. A doctor’s was a job you could understand, it was simple, like a cleaner’s. So many jobs were incomprehensible now, titles that didn’t mean anything: no one really knew what anyone did any more.

When Steve had come to pick up the last of his things, she’d worn her wedding dress. It was tight now and she felt like the fat girl playing the princess in the school play. He couldn’t look at her, his eyes were tight and sad. The next day, she’d put the wedding dress in a bin bag and taken it to the hospice shop. It’s perfect, not a stain, the woman had said. She was old but had a pink slit of lipstick. Mona’d had the urge to lean over and wipe it off.

It was my twin sister’s, said Mona. She died in a car crash. She’d have wanted the dress to be donated.

What a tragedy for you, dear. Twins too, that makes it worse.

We weren’t identical, said Mona. I’m big-boned. She was sly with porcelain bones.

On the way out, Mona noticed a fondue set. She left the shop, clasping the useless purchase in a brown paper bag.

Christmas cards were beginning to appear, some written out to her and Steve. She was, of course, sending no cards this year, except to her grandfather, who had dementia. He lived in a home and sat in a circle of other people with dementia. Mona visited him often, the porcelain twin had only been once.

She’d make the effort though, she didn’t want her memory of New Year to be entirely black. She’d get some Cava and might even try and make fondue. She could pretend she was Swiss. She’d already bought a new calendar. It was important to keep track of the days, no matter how bad you felt.

Yesterday, she’d been in agony with a filling. There was a young girl with Down’s syndrome in the waiting room, playing with a doll. She’d thrown it on the floor and Mona had picked it up. When she handed it back, their fingers brushed and Mona smiled. She wanted to say, You are the only person I have touched this week. Thank you.

The dentist was horsey and chatty, but stern. Why was there haddock on the keyboard? Mona half-expected her to ask. She lied and said she was spending Christmas with her in-laws.

By the time she got home, the flower was shrinking again, uneasy and yellow. She unlocked the door, the door of the flat they’d bought together only a year ago. The FOR SALE sign had just gone up. The estate agent had warned her things were very slow and it was the worst time of year. He looked like a squirrel. She said she was being forced to sell – circumstances beyond her control – but omitted to tell him she had no intention of going anywhere. She couldn’t wait until Steve drove past, the shock he would get. (Or maybe he’d come in and view, they’d invent small talk, she’d tell him she was moving abroad, a new job, and he would say he was looking for a bigger place as his girlfriend’s flat was just too bijou, they needed more space. He would smile secretively. She’d smile back, she understood: a bijou flat was just not the place for a new baby. She would show him out, wishing him luck, chit chat, chit chat.)

Mona was desperate for cake now. There were two unopened Swiss Rolls on the kitchen table, a jam one and a chocolate one, swaddled and plump. They looked like twin babies, white and black, lying together. She unwrapped the chocolate one, gently, and pushed small pieces into her lopsided face. She felt like she was feeding herself after a stroke. She closed her eyes and opened them again, opening and shutting, opening and shutting.

She sat at the table, her coat still on, waiting for the numbness to wear off.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nasim Marie Jafry was born in the west of Scotland to a Scottish mother and Pakistani father. She has an MA and MSc from Glasgow University but her studies were severely disrupted when she became ill with ME in the 1980s. Her autobiographical novel, The State of Me, was published by The Friday Project, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2008. She has had short stories in various Scottish literary magazines and was more recently shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2011 and the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize 2012. She lives in Edinburgh and tweets as @velogubbed

 

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