By Mark Burrow
I hold my arm aloft. The GP, a well-spoken man in his fifties, tells me ‘it’s only a bruise’.
‘Why won’t it go, then?’
He shrugs. ‘Just one of those things,’ he says.
There is a calendar on the wall and black Xs mark two weeks in January. Above the dates is an illustration of kids playing in the snow. I guess he’s off for a winter break, lucky him.
‘But this happened such a long while ago,’ I say.
He clicks his pen.
‘I want a second opinion.’
‘For a bruise?’ he says, chuckling to himself. ‘I don’t think so. It’s the merest discolouration, a blemish; not so much as a bump.’
We’re clearly going nowhere. I slip my arms into the sleeves of my shirt, pushing through the buttons at the front.
In a grave voice, he says: ‘When you leave this surgery take note of those who are in the waiting room. There are some very unwell individuals out there with genuine reason to be here. This is your fourth visit in as many months. I don’t want you to waste my time about a bruise again.’
I pull on my jacket. This sums up the state of the NHS in a nutshell. I tell him as much, wondering aloud at what sort of quack he is. ‘Doctor,’ I say. 'Doctor? Don’t make me laugh.’
Balding, bespectacled, he starts reading the medical card of the next patient. The door springs shut behind me. Obligingly, I look at the patients, a sniffling child, a pale, anorexic lady, an old man coughing into a dirty handkerchief, and a man my age who appears in fine health.
The posters Blu-tacked to the walls are bright with big letters, warning about flu jabs and how healthy eating can prevent heart disease.
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. The schoolchildren who earlier were racing and screeching around the bus stop by the train station, watched by community police officers, are in their classrooms.
I walk back to the flat. The so-called doctor never asked how I received the contusion. He was completely inured to the lives of others, probably distracted by thoughts of that holiday, where he will fly first class with his mistress by his side. They’re the sort who go to a mountain chalet in Chamonix, drinking champagne, nuzzled together on a white rug before an open fire. What’s a bruise to people like them?
The high street traffic is lighter than an hour or so ago. I feel a twinge of excitement in my belly as I pass the beauty salon that is nestled between two boarded-up shops. My breath quickens as I come to the window stencilled with special offers, and peer through the glass to see the woman who I suppose is the owner. There she sits on the leather and chrome sofa, heavy-make-up on her face, wearing a white cotton dress, reading a style and celebrity magazine.
As for a pretext to enter the shop, I could ask for fake tan or enquire about a pedicure or colonic irrigation. Her long nails are painted red and she has blonde, shoulder-length hair. I imagine her skin smells of washed strawberries and honeysuckle.
Jackie gave me this bruise. Occasionally I search her name on the internet. It’s amazing the number of women who have Jackie’s exact name. A list appears that dates right back to the 18th Century in the US. There are so many women called Jackie in cyberspace. Some are dead and some are alive but none of them are her.
We had a fight after a night out on the town, like always. Was the drink to blame? Well, we fought when sober too. But this one argument surpassed the rest, reaching a crescendo when I tried to stop her leaving the flat. It was too late and she had nowhere to go and it struck me as dangerous to start walking the streets, so I grabbed her arms, telling her to stay and be sensible.
‘You’re an abuser,’ she hollered. ‘Let go of me. I’m leaving.’ Then she wriggled and lunged forward, clamping her teeth on my arm, around the bicep. She bit hard.
I pushed her off and she dropped to the floor. Then I guess my mind went Awol as I jumped on top of her, pinned her arms to the floor and bit her right cheek. ‘Do you like it?’ I yelled, spitting at her. ‘How do you like it?’ She released this piercing, cutting shriek and cry. Loud and horrible enough for me to regain some sense as I stood up, letting her get to her feet, grab her torn coat and leave the flat.
I remember laying on the bed, my chest about to burst open, thinking that this can’t be happening. That the arguments between us had gradually gotten worse for the year we had lived together, and there was no coming back after this episode.
She called my mobile, tearfully telling me I was an abuser. That a man was following her. That I had let her go. That I didn’t care. That she was lost. That a car had nearly run her over. That she never wanted to see me again. A stream of nonsense that was part drink and part someone who had gone mad with anger. Calmly, I asked her to come home, suggesting we should go to sleep. She hung up.
I heard the key in the door less than five minutes later. She went into the lounge and talked to herself for half an hour, breaking more wine glasses. I pushed the bed against the bedroom door so she couldn’t get in, which made her furious when she did try to come and ‘speak’. In this soft, menacing voice she stood on the other side of the door, saying: ‘I just want to talk to you about something. Let me in. I only want to talk to you about something. There is something that I want to tell you.’
On it went. Then she would punch the door and tried to charge in, screaming insults. Then she’d go into the lounge, come back and start the soft, kind, rational voice. The bed stayed jammed against the door. I didn’t speak, even when she said she was getting a knife to kill herself.
Eventually, enervated by the shouting and chucking and charging and sobbing, she stopped. There is only so much hatred you can use up in any one night. I recall listening to the quietness afterwards, my head full of questions.
I mean, during the last few months we argued about everything. One of her real pet hates was that I’m not such a great mixer. ‘You’re not a social person,’ she used to say. ‘I want people to come round to the flat, to eat our food, drink together and have a good time.’
I did too. But once, during a week day when I was under the cosh at work, she said she wanted to invite a few friends over to watch some sports game that was on. ‘You don’t mind, sweetie, do you? It’ll be fun.’
I was at the office when she asked. ‘If I’m honest, Jackie, I do mind. I’ll be here late and I’ll be tired when I get in. I need to be fresh for tomorrow.’
‘But we never have people over. This won’t be a party. A couple of drinks. They’ll be gone by ten.’
‘I’d rather we gave it a miss tonight.’
From then on, she liked to say I wasn’t a ‘social person’. I returned home at eight’ish and we argued until about two, with me sleeping on the couch on that occasion, so I might as well have said yes to our friends coming round.
The bruise on Jackie’s cheek faded after a week. As always, during the really bad ones, she apologised the next day for the argument. ‘I don’t know what happened to me. Why do I get so angry?’ she wondered. I would say much the same about myself and we cuddled for hours on that Sunday, the flat in pieces, the two of us taking turns crying, reassuring each other that our lives would be alright in the end.
She left about six weeks later. We weren’t able to live under the same roof. We said we would remain friends and for a while we did, but once we rebuilt our circle of contacts, we drifted apart. I have no idea where she is now. Probably married with a house and a garden. She was ambivalent about having children, although I personally thought she would make a good mother.
We used to argue about renting a flat too: ‘Look at you, you’re 35 and you have nothing to show for yourself. What do you do with your money apart from guzzle it down your throat? Where’s your ambition?’
This speech came after a night out. She realised the majority of her friends were settling down. ‘You can’t even drive,’ she yelled, breaking a glass, which she liked to do.
Thinking about it, maybe I’m twisting her words a little. There are two sides to every story and I’m sure her account would sound different to mine.
I pass the Italian restaurant where the owner stares at his cash till every afternoon and every evening. He is only ever busy on two days of the year: Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. The rest of the time, you can see him through the slats of the Venetian blinds, head bowed down, gazing at the keys of the cash register, like he can’t bear to look at the empty tables and chairs.
The wind is icy, blowing in from Siberia. I pull the zip up to the top and shove my hands into my pockets. Jackie and I used to really laugh. I mean laughter from the pit of your stomach, guttural, bringing warm and happy tears to your eyes. We’d kiss for ages and talk about the things we were going to do together, making plans like we were in our teens as opposed to approaching middle age.
‘Let’s move out of London,’ she said. ‘We can open a savings account and then find somewhere by the sea.’
‘Sounds brilliant,’ I said. ‘Maybe we could immigrate to Australia. I’ve always wanted to live abroad.’
‘I’d love to live in Australia.’
We stayed in London.
Renting a flat.
Not saving a penny.
I buy milk, bread, houmous and a Quiche Lorraine from the garage. For two years I’ve been a regular here and this guy must surely recognise me. Yet still he asks if I have petrol and whether I have a customer loyalty card. ‘No,’ comes the response, followed by: ‘No.’ I doubt I’ll say anything else for the remainder of the day, except to myself.
When I get indoors, I switch the radio on for background noise. I place milk into the near empty fridge and the loaf into the breadbin.
I open the curtains and look at the street. An estate agent parks his car, which is a giant advert for the company, and goes to greet a young couple standing by a garden gate. Tomorrow, I’ll be back in the office, sat at my desk, answering emails, voicemails, pressing buttons. ‘Did you have a nice day off?’ colleagues will ask. ‘Yes, very nice, thank you,’ I’ll reply.
Three years have elapsed since Jackie left. Standing in the bathroom, my shirt off, the bruise is like a tea stain on my arm. When you look closely, in a certain light, it resembles a map of the world.
I was relieved when she left. I thought to myself: no more broken glasses, torn clothes, scratching, accusations, crying. She wept so often there were enough tears to fill the Atlantic Ocean. At one stage, I wondered why knives had gone missing from the kitchen.
‘Where are the sharp knives?‘ I asked.
‘What sharp knives?’
‘The knives we bought for the kitchen.’
‘Aren’t they there?’
I was tidying up and found a knife in the bathroom, on top of the medicine cabinet, another beneath a chair in the lounge, and a third with a six inch, serrated blade, on top of her wardrobe. She said she didn’t recall leaving them there, but must’ve done it ‘when angry’.
Although I know the names that appear when I search for Jackie on the web, I keep doing it, hoping that one day I’ll see her on the list and discover what she is doing. You never know, she might be happy.
It’s fair to say I brought the worst out in her.
Answers on a postcard if anyone knows what it was we argued about. How the rows started tended to be a mystery to both of us. A recurring theme was that I belittled her, that I looked down on her and other people. ‘You think I’m stupid,’ she would say.
‘I don’t think you’re stupid, Jackie,’ I’d answer, even though, in the heat of a bust up, that’s precisely what I would call her.
I turn the taps and run a bath. I can feel these balls of tension in my temples, my back, my feet. Every so often the bruise starts aching. It can happen when the weather is hot or cold. Suddenly, there’ll be a gentle, repetitive ache in my arm and, naturally, it’ll remind me of her.
I switch off the radio, undress, and ease myself into the hot water. In the flat next door, I hear the steady clink of someone dropping cutlery into a drawer.