I'd like some opinions, if you would. This is the short version, in first person, of a story I wrote a while ago, on a rather serious subject. I'm going to post this, and then the longer version, in third person a little later. I'm wondering which works best (I also have a stage monologue version, but that's another thing entirely).
‘It’s you. You’re the one ... you’re the one.’
I’m in my usual spot at the Mucky Duck, squeezed into a corner between the disabled toilet and the exit to the beer garden. On the table in front of me there’s a single, half-consumed candle flickering in the neck of an old Jack Daniels bottle, its flaming heart sending fresh drips sliding down to join the great gouts of the once-molten material that are now frozen to the bottle’s sides. Neither stalactites nor stalagmites, they are wallflowers of wax, destined to haunt the shadowlands of the party peripheral. But there is no party. There’s only me. Me and a pint of IPA. Its creamy head is barely an inch below the glass’s rim, meniscus caressing the edges of the waxy pink crescent moon that adheres to its smeared translucence. It is neither my colour nor my lipstick. Across the room my reflection stares out from the pub’s blackened window, expressionless. Silent. My phone, a slab of inconsiderate animation in this Still Life with Girl (2021), flashes out text after text:
- Are you ok?
- I love you.
- Call me.
But I see none of this. Pint, glass, lipstick: all are forgotten. Instead, I stare at the bubble pack that lies beside the distressed bottle of Jack. Just a single dome remains intact, the final scene in the third and final act.
I’ve been coming here for years, so it’s appropriate, at least. First when I was barely fifteen and it was the Rose and Crown. Snakebite and black for lasses and happy hour all night every night because my boyfriend worked behind the bar. I practically grew up here – it was certainly where I cast off the shackles of childhood. I lost my virginity there, just there where the fruit machine now loiters like an ambitious extra in a B-movie trying just a little too hard to catch the director’s eye. And it was here that my father explained it to me. My mother’s death, that is, and how I, how ... how I might be more like her than I knew. It was here that I opened the letter that told me exactly how like her I was.
The Rose and Crown had been my fiefdom for as long as I could remember. My place, my turf. It had always allowed me to be. It wasn’t a place to hide, it wasn’t somewhere the real world couldn’t reach me. It was the real world. When I walked through the front door the shackles fell away. But that world changed. That letter changed everything.
I ran. To university. To London. To my career. I left the world of the Rose and Crown behind. I meant never to return.
But my father’s days down the pit finally caught up with his lungs and once I’d nursed him through those last few months the job in the big smoke, the obligatory Docklands flat, and the Chelsea Harbour boyfriend were all gone.
By then the Rose and Crown had turned into this, the Mucky Duck, a pub with ideas below its station. My den of iniquity had grown up. I had grown up. I used to sneak out of my parents' house to rebel quietly in the corner with roll-ups and sticky pints, but now the house was mine, and it was the pub quiz that drew me out. First Tuesday of every month. I was here just twenty-three days ago, arguing with Midge over the answers. I had abandoned any pretence that I wasn’t turning into my mother. I had long since turned.
The argument was pointless. Two boys who knew bugger all about football and even less about philosophy. It was hardly fair. Sartre, you idiots. Busby indeed.
I sent my date to the bar to get a round plus shots, because it was time. But Midge, bless him, Midge refused to let me take the sixth pill. Midge my closest friend. Midge who should have known better. Midge who I met at Uni. We went from being the ‘couple most likely to’ to to ‘just great friends’ in a few short weeks, totally skipping the boyfriend/girlfriend bit. I mean, we did try ‘friends with benefits’ but it just wasn’t us. It was as if we were too in tune to get out of hand. It just seemed ... silly. But Midge refused.
I had barely taken the strip out of my bag when he just said ‘no.’ Just like that. No. As if.
Well, I said, I don’t need your permission. Look at me, I said. Look at the state I’m in. You know the prognosis. Like your mother, he said. Like my mother, I said. He came back at me with the old standby, ‘cross that bridge when you come to it’, and I suggested that when I came to it, he’d either have to carry me across or watch me choke to death on my own saliva while sitting in a pool of my own piss. Perhaps he’d prefer that.
And yes, maybe he would hold my hand as I slipped away and maybe everyone would say ‘how compassionate, what a true friend’ but where’s my dignity? Where’s my choice?
Well, my choice is here, I told him. My choice is now. I choose this.
He told me he loved me and he couldn’t let me do it and I said if he loved me he’d not only let me do it he’d make sure. If he loved me he’d see that my body doesn’t just disobey me, it denies me. It denies my even being me. I say I am not this disease, but my body, my body says different. I am not what I am.
But I am a seething ball of auto-alienation.
I did not ask for this.
I did not ask for his love.
He just necked his pint and walked out. Bastard. Left me behind with this pretty but dim boy. I explained how I wanted to go: unexpectedly, in my sleep. I mean, who wouldn’t? I explained how I had taken the plunge, signed up. They gave me a strip of thirty pills. I was to take one at 10 every evening. The pills had a coating that dissolved in six hours. One of the thirty was fatal. This exotic version of russian roulette meant that I could go to sleep each night not knowing if I’d wake. I could spend every night as if it were my last. Surround myself with friends, whatever. Do whatever I wanted, whatever meant I could lay my head on my pillow thinking yes, I am content. Now would be just fine.
He didn’t really get it, so I asked him to take me home and fuck me instead, but I guess the 4% chance of it being my last ever fuck was too much pressure. What does a girl have to do?
Then Midge returned as unexpectedly as he’d left. He stood behind my wheelchair and wrapped his arms around me. He told my date that he’d made the right decision, that he wasn’t missing anything. Told him I was a lousy shag. Told him he’d only come back to make sure I took the pill. Then we played pool. Just like old times. Just Midge and me. Old times.
That was 23 nights ago. Now I’m alone at my table, someone else’s lipstick on my glass, staring at this, my last pill: the one. So much for the unexpected. I hadn’t considered this possibility. This was not what I agreed. I agreed that I wouldn’t know. But it turns out I do.
Bloody typical of my luck.
Cowboy time, we used to call it. Ten minutes to ten. Ten minutes before ... you.
I signed the consent forms. I honestly think they’d sue me if I didn’t finish the course. You know, like antibiotics. If you don’t finish the course you put everyone’s health in danger. And if you do ...
But with this lot, it’s different. The last pill you take finishes the course. You don’t expect the course to finish with the last pill.
And as for the last breakfast of a condemned woman, I ate my 30th this morning.
This place. This place was always my refuge. Where I came when I needed simply to be.
And this place is where I now sit, staring at my nemesis. My sanctuary.