Subsidence

Fiction
Hayley N Jones


Photo Credit: NCM3/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

When it began, I would see her reflected in windows. Sometimes she was reading mail; other times she was striding across the room. I saw her dusting the sideboard on several occasions. Always mundane tasks. Chores. I asked the doctor whether hallucinating was a symptom of my condition, but he said it was doubtful. He thought it might be psychological rather than neurological, since she was often doing the housework I can no longer do. He referred me to a counsellor and suggested I keep a record of the sightings.

They thought my condition was stress related, but nobody knew for sure. The symptoms started around the time a large crack appeared in the exterior side wall of our house. Subsidence, said the structural engineer. He said it could be repaired without spending an astronomical amount, but couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again in future, especially in another part of the house. The ground was literally shifting beneath me.

Julie thought my condition was a reaction to William’s coldness, a subconscious bid for attention. I pointed out that it wasn’t very effective. If anything, my illness made him angrier and more distant. He resented having to prepare his own meals and iron his shirts. He made snide comments whenever he saw me lying on the couch, too exhausted to move.

I used to pride myself on not being weak. I demanded perfection from everyone, in my job as a television producer and in general—including from myself. William used to joke about his go-getter wife whose programmes got top ratings and awards. I scrabbled to cling to work as I got ill, but the bare minimum soon became too much. I went from running the show to oblivion. In the television industry, there is always someone to take your place.

Perhaps the same is true of all things in life: everyone is replaceable. As people fade away, others shine. William may have found my replacement as soon as I became ill. He worked longer hours as I got frail and needy. I had no energy to check on him, to make enquiries at his office or examine his schedule. Anyway, I didn’t want to be that type of woman.

We led separate lives. William could still do the things he enjoyed: playing golf, drinking whisky, vintage car shows. I could only watch television, the medium I used to control. I watched others claiming successes which should have been mine. The names on programme credits belonged to people who possessed a scant percentage of my talent and dedication.

But paying attention to the screen took too much energy. I had no appetite for critiquing programmes and I didn’t care who was staring down the lens of my camera. The names were becoming unfamiliar—producers too young to remember me, even by reputation.

Julie came around for coffee a few times a week, often bringing treats from the bakery. She also brought stories of the outside world—a mutual friend having an affair with a man twenty years her junior, a bad car accident on the main road into town, an argument with her sister which ended with her phone calls being ignored for a month. Our gossiping was banal and wonderful. I almost felt normal. It reminded me of meeting Julie for lunch when I had half an hour to spare and could be released from the pressures of the studio.

‘The builders will be here next week,’ I said. ‘Mayhem and upheaval, no doubt.’

‘Hope it’s sorted quickly. You know, once the actual work starts.’

‘William wanted to get second opinions, to check everything would be fixed properly. I doubt he’s been stalling on purpose.’

‘Wish I had your faith. It’s the kind of thing he does, manipulating you by prolonging the stress.’

‘It’s stressful for him, too.’

Julie pursed her lips. She had thought the worst of William since they met at a charity function and he mistook her for a waitress. While I had no illusions about my husband, I didn’t believe he would put off repairs to the house. It was more of an inconvenience to him than me.

I was afraid to tell Julie about the woman I kept seeing. I’m not sure why: nothing she could say would be worse than my own thoughts. Perhaps I was going mad. I never asked my doctor whether you can get hallucinations which appear only as reflections: neither answer would reassure me. Instead, I watched her. I saw her plucking her eyebrows and deadheading the roses. I could feel her presence even when I wasn’t watching her; cool wisps of vapour pervading my home.

I began to resent her silence. I shouted, willing her to communicate—or to glance in my direction. I wanted her to acknowledge me. I yelled until I fell back onto the couch, exhausted.

 

None of us could believe how my health nosedived. The doctor was mystified, Julie was concerned and William was incandescent. Living with an invalid tests everyone’s patience and William had never been the most compassionate man. He kept insisting there must be something I could do—a different type of medication I should take, physiotherapy, breathing exercises. His suggestions became more outlandish, less William-like: Bikram yoga, colour therapy, stroking horses.

Even if any of those non-options could work, how would I access them? I struggled to leave my bed, let alone the house. Our household budget was being eaten up by building repairs and the takeaways William bought because he couldn’t be bothered to cook. When I questioned the practicalities, William flew into rages.

We had a bad argument when he accused me of spending too much time with Julie. She had dropped off several chilled and frozen home-cooked meals, so that William didn’t have to do anything more challenging than put the dishes into the oven. I told her she was very kind; William thought it was an invasion and an insult.

‘What business does she have coming around all the time? If you didn’t waste hours talking to her, you’d have the energy to do the things that matter.’

‘Friendship and companionship matter to me.’

‘Why is she always here?’

‘She helps me.’

‘If you need a carer, we can employ one. Once we’ve paid for these bloody subsidence repairs.’

‘I need Julie—I’m damned lonely.’

‘One of us has to work and pay the bills.’

‘I don’t expect you to mollycoddle me.’

‘But she does. I forbid it—I’m fed up with coming home and finding her in my house. I want her gone. Stop inviting her and tell her she isn’t welcome.’

‘You can’t cut me off from her. It’s not fair.’

‘Having to put up with her isn’t fair on me. Bloody interfering woman.’

‘None of this is fair! This illness isn’t fair and Julie helps me to cope, which is more than you do most of the time.’

He flushed crimson. ‘Who the fuck helps you wash? Who puts food on a plate for you?’

‘I mean emotional support. You never listen to me.’

‘Why should I when I’m bloody tired from working and picking up your slack?’

‘I can’t help it. I didn’t want this to happen to me.’

‘Neither did I.’

‘At least you can escape. You can go out and get away from my illness—I can’t.’

‘It’s still a burden to me.’

‘You mean I’m a burden to you.’

‘Yes. You are.’ He stomped out of the room.

My phone went missing that night. I kept it near me at all times, but it wasn’t on the bedside cabinet when I awoke. I checked the floor around and under the bed. My body screamed with pain. I peered behind the bedside cabinet, sliding my fingers into the gap. I checked every space I could think of, hoping that my instincts were wrong, but my search was fruitless. My phone was gone.

William denied taking it, but he didn’t offer to buy a new one. I tried calling it from the landline, but it went straight to voicemail. Since I was meticulous about keeping it charged, someone must have switched it off.

As I lay awake next to William that night, I saw the woman in the wardrobe mirror. She was trying on dresses, one after another, examining herself with a critical eye. Elegant, expensive dresses tailored to her slender hips and shoulders. She smoothed her hands over the silks and jerseys, checking how they draped over her breasts and midriff. She poked a non-existent love handle and frowned. Her underwear was simple, bridal: white French knickers and a lace bra. Her movements were smooth, balletic. Mine had become clumsy and lumbering. Our eyes never met, but I felt as if she were putting on a show for me.

 

Julie came around when she could, but it was difficult because she had to be gone before William got home and his work hours were unpredictable. I think he might have varied them on purpose, hoping to catch me dancing around the kitchen. He was convinced I was somehow fooling him.

I missed Julie with an intensity I found disconcerting. She offered to get me a pay-as-you-go phone, so that we could call and text each other again, but I was afraid William would find it and accuse me of cheating. I called from the landline when I was able to get to the phone, but moving around was increasingly difficult. I was also worried that William would see Julie’s number on the bill. Or that he would say the bill was too high.

Julie begged me to leave, but how could I? I was too drained to make plans or pack and I didn’t want to be a burden to her—she had her own problems. I think I had decided to stay in my ever-shifting home and wait for death.

William grew more stressed and aggressive. He never hit me; his cruelty had more subtlety.

‘This house is filthy.’ He dragged his finger through the dust on the sideboard.

‘What can I do about it? I can barely dress myself.’

‘It’s disgusting.’

‘So get a cleaner.’

‘What with? The money for the structural engineers and builders?’

‘They’re causing most of the dust. It’ll be better when they’re finished.’

‘And until then?’

‘Get a cleaner. Or do it yourself.’

He glared at me.

‘I’d do it if I could. I did for seventeen years while working full time, didn’t I?’

He sighed and went to the kitchen. I heard him bashing the kettle and his mug on the worktop. He didn’t offer me a coffee.

 

I couldn’t stand long enough to shower anymore, so William had to help me in and out of the bath. He looked away as he manoeuvred me, as though my illness made my body repulsive. It still looked the same—perhaps a little skinnier, with less muscle. I wondered how he would react when I deteriorated enough to need assistance using the toilet.

The warm water eased my aching joints and muscles a little. After several minutes, I regained enough flexibility in my fingers to wash my hair. I disliked rinsing it in the bath water, but it was easier than asking William to help me use the shower hose. As I lathered the shampoo, I glimpsed her in the bathroom mirror. She was wet from the shower, with droplets of water glittering on her pale skin. She dried herself with a thick towel, stroking her limbs and dabbing between her legs. Another performance.

She stepped outside the range of the mirror and didn’t come back; I watched as the bath water cooled and my pain intensified. There was something threatening about her that I couldn’t pinpoint. It wasn’t just her sense of proprietorship, the way she moved about my home as if she had always belonged. Perhaps it was her vitality.

I began to see her chatting on the phone, her conversation punctuated with laughter. She must have more friends than me. Julie still tried to come around when William was at work—I gave her a spare key years ago, though I knew William wouldn’t like her having access to our home. I didn’t get to see her often, but it was enough to keep me going.

Julie told me I should have divorced him years ago. ‘Get your compensation and get out.’

‘It’s not that easy.’

‘It’s not difficult—I’ve done it twice.’

‘But I love William, that’s the difference.’

‘I loved my husbands, in my own way.’

‘It’s too late now anyway.’

On my worst days, I had to rely on William to give me my medication. He handed me the pills with such carelessness that I wondered if he had checked the dosage. How could I tell? I was so tired I passed out regardless of what he gave me.

*

Everything came to a head, as it always does, on an otherwise ordinary day. A Friday. I had spent the day in bed—in fact, I had spent most of the week in bed, listening to the builders. I was too weak to read or watch television, so there was nothing to distract me from my aching body. I begged William to help me to the bath, just so that I could have half an hour’s semi-relief.

He lifted me into the bath as usual, his gaze averted. After he left, I savoured the warmth enveloping my stiff and tired body. I relaxed for the first time in days. The woman wasn’t in the mirror, making me feel like I had no right to be in my own home. I stretched out my legs and spine, relishing the relative ease of movement. Then I slipped. My body weight shifted and my shoulders sank down the side of the bath.

I couldn’t grip the edge: my hands kept sliding off. I tried to push myself up, but I had no strength. My feet scrabbled against the porcelain and then my body plunged forward, dragging my head underwater.

I thrashed about, trying to gain purchase or alert William, but my energy drained within moments. I lay in the water, my lungs burning and my head close to exploding, until everything went blank.

 

I see her every day now, cooking in my kitchen and choosing new sheets for my bed. I think she knows I’m here—sometimes I catch her eye and she turns pale. Her name is Susannah, but William calls her Sweetheart. He seems softer, more patient. He brings her roses and cups of tea. They have romantic dinners in front of the living room fire. She smiles and giggles, but I know part of her is always uneasy.

She senses me, no matter how much she changes the décor and feigns nonchalance. She knows I’m here, even as she blots out every vestige of my life. She threw away my photos and my television awards, but she can’t get rid of me. She pretends not to care—she tells her friends she doesn’t mind living in my house because it’s gorgeous and the location can’t be bettered. They might believe her; they don’t hear her pleading with William, saying that the latest subsidence problems shouldn’t have a drastic effect on the price.

She continues her pseudo-exorcisms as she uncovers more of my things, as though binning a birthday card or a trinket could unleash us from each other. She bristles as I walk past her, my body no longer aching and cumbersome. She senses me, just below the surface of her life.

pencil

Hayley N Jones has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter. She has previously been published in Confingo and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017. She lives in East Devon, England (UK), where she volunteers for a local youth mental health organisation, blogs about mental health and is currently studying part time for a Psychology BSc. Email: hayleynjones[at]hotmail.co.uk Twitter: HayleyNJones

Print Friendly, PDF & Email