‘What the hell d’you think you’re playing at?’
The voice brings me up sharp, partly because of the forthright question and partly because I’m not expecting to hear anyone. The house’s three occupants are all in the room behind me, the one I have just left. There shouldn’t be anyone else in the hallway, just little old me.
That is why I’m here. I had to get away. Had to get out of that room before I burst into tears.
I might as well have not bothered. What was the point? Of me dashing across Birmingham after work to catch the earliest possible train, paying almost £60 for a return ticket, making that two-and-a-half-hour journey. And for what? He’s barely acknowledged me. A cursory greeting, and then nothing. I might as well not be here.
Through the closed door I can hear them all still laughing at some baffling joke. Something about owls. It wasn’t really funny, but for some reason they’re all howling about it. This isn’t him. I know it isn’t. He isn’t one for whacky humour or childish pranks. Or at least he never used to be. Is it just a phase? Or has he already changed so much in the space of two months that I barely recognise him?
The voice-there’s something familiar about it. I look up, and there, standing in the doorway to the kitchen, is me.
She is still there.
I shake my head.
Nope, still there.
She is standing with her arms folded, barring the way to the very room I want to escape to, and she does not look impressed.
‘Well?’ she says when I do not answer. Her eyebrows are raised, her mouth set, as if I am testing her patience.
I open my mouth to respond, but quickly close it again when I can’t think of anything to say. Instead I stare at her. No, not her. Me. It’s definitely me, but not as I am now. She looks to be four, maybe five years older. Her hair is longer, and she has gained a little weight, but the differences are not just physical. She seems more confident, more self-assured. Clearly, she is more willing to be confrontational. She is exactly what I need to be right now, but don’t know how to be.
‘I…I need a moment to myself,’ I manage to mutter, hoping they can’t hear me in the living room.
‘No, you need to turn around, go back in there and tell him he’s out of order.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘Course you can.’
‘Not in front of the others.’
‘So tell him you want a word. Now.’
‘What do I say?’
‘Exactly what you’re thinking. That he’s behaving in a way that isn’t acceptable. That you know he’s tired and stressed, but so are you. You’ve been at work all week, you were up at ten past six this morning, and you’re still here. If you can make the effort, then so can he.’
‘I can’t say that to him. What if he gets annoyed?’
She laughs at that.
‘So what if he does? There are worse things than annoying your boyfriend. He’s annoying you right now. Besides, he’s a grown man, he can deal with it.’
‘It might backfire on me.’
‘It might, but I promise you one thing. If you do not go and tell him what you think now, you will forever wish you had.’
She smiles, and it gives me all the courage I need. Wiping my glistening eyes with my sleeve, I turn to face the living room door. A glance back over my shoulder shows me she is still there, still beaming at me, egging me on.
I take a deep breath, roll my shoulders back, lift my chin. I’m going to do it, and whatever happens after that…well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
‘What the hell d’you think you’re playing at?’
I know exactly what she’s playing at. She’s scuttling off to the kitchen for a solitary cry. I know because it’s what I did all those years ago. But I’m not going to let her. There’s no point. He won’t come. Someone will, but not him. Ultimately it will make her feel worse. So instead, I’m going to encourage her to do what I should have done: go back in there and tell him what she thinks. What she really thinks.
It won’t make any difference, of course. She knows it won’t be long now, that the end is approaching. I can tell from the dejection on her face, the way she drags her feet and hunches her shoulders. It shocks me to see it. Breaks my heart a little. I have often wished I could go back to past situations with my current outlook, so now the opportunity has presented itself, I am not going to waste it.
She doesn’t say anything. Just stares at me. Eventually she murmurs something about needing a moment. No, she needs to grow a backbone. She needs to reignite that fire-the one he has been slowly dousing over the last few months.
I tell her so. She protests feebly, tries to wriggle her way out of it, but I can see the idea beginning to spark in her mind. I push on, drawing on the things I’ve learned these last five years, reassuring her. It will all be fine. Not now, not for a while, but eventually. She knows that, deep down.
The aim of this talk is not to sway the outcome. If anything, it might even hasten the ending. But she will feel better afterwards. Better for having stuck up for herself, for not being a doormat.
She never does make it as far as the kitchen. Not this time. Instead she takes my advice, drying her eyes and straightening up. By the time she is ready to go back in, no one would ever know she had been on the verge of tears.
I do not stay for the conversation itself, just long enough to hear her say, quite firmly, ‘Can I have a word, please?’ She can take it from here.
Who knows how many more times she’ll need me? I can think of at least a dozen instances right now. Maybe I’ll pay those a visit too. But this moment right here-this seemed like a good place to start.