She wakes with dawns first cold light penetrating delicate eyelids and punishing the bloodshot eyes that try to rest behind them. Her skin is covered in goose bumps, there is a crick in her neck and a searing pain shooting through her head. She squints at the TV screen where a pleasant and perky breakfast show host chats away, a smug, self satisfied smile oozing from her bright red lips. She groans and clicks the TV off, hauling her self up a little too quickly and wincing as her brain rocks back and forth in her skull before slowly, mercifully settling back into position. Outside a pigeon pecks at seeds, it’s claws scratching against the plastic painted, fake iron green of her bird table. The bird nods and bobs looking this way and that in a stuttered staccato that makes her head throb. She looks away, beyond the bird to the sky. The bright light hurts her eyes. She squints against the flat white glare before gagging and dashing to the bathroom. The cold porcelain is cool and soothing against her forehead. With eyes closed and head down she feels like she might just survive the morning if only thoughts would stop crashing and grinding in her aching brain. She is ill at ease, there is a nagging at the corner of her mind and a sinking feeling in her churning gut. She needs a distraction but the remote is too far away. The paracetamol seems impossibly high above her head in the bathroom cabinet. Still something troubles her from a dark corner. The world rocks back and forth, she keeps her eyes closed and prays for relief.
* * * * *
He did not sleep well and the sleep that he did get was sweaty and twisted with a gnashing and grinding of teeth. He dreamed of hidden bodies in his wardrobe, severed heads in plastic bags and limbs in gaps in the wall. Swallowing two paracetamol he pours boiling water over instant coffee granules. With shaking hands he lifts the Play off the radiator where it had been drying and starts to read. Many of the pages are stuck together and tear as he prizes them apart. Whole paragraphs appear blurred, the letters bleeding into the page, a consequence of cheap printing costs and budget paper. He tries to fill in gaps, guessing at what happens in an attempt to bridge from one legible place to the next.
He goes online to order a replacement but there are none in stock forcing him to return to his damaged copy and his forensic examination of it. He reaches for his mobile and calls her. She does not answer. He leaves a message. ‘Please, you are the only person I can talk to about this. Please talk to me I am going crazy here.’. He puts down the phone and picks up a bottle of scotch gulping greedily from the neck finishing with a spluttering coughing fit that make his eyes water and his throat sore. He wipes his mouth before taking another swig.
With hands pushed deep into jacket pockets he stares broodily at his navel and rummages around picking at bits of tissue and crumbs. His comes across a scrap of paper that he fingers inquisitively before pulling it out and staring at the phone number written on it. At first he thinks that it is the woman’s number from last night and is filed with disgust and dread but then he remembers a strange encounter with an old man, a writer. The Old man had rambled on and on, frequently repeating himself wandering off on tangents and recalling memories like they were nuggets of gold. In amongst it all, through his chattering teeth, coughing and spittle he had told a strange story about a play he had written about his life. It had been lost or stolen. He later saw it on stage. A play about him, about his life! The coincidence between the Old mans experience and his own was eerie. He needed to talk and perhaps the Old man would understand. He takes another long swig of whiskey, clamps a lit cigarette between his teeth and dials the number. The phone rings. He breaths between each pair of trill tones inhaling the silence and exhaling blue grey smoke. He clamps the phone to his ear willing the Old man to pick up, hoping to hear his voice, but no one answers. It never goes to answer machine just rings and rings. He slumps forward resting his head on the Play the phone still ringing, calling for an answer, on and on but without response. His mind drifts and the noise of the ringing phone slips into the background as he passes out with the pages of the Play for a pillow.
* * * * *
He wakes up with eyes sticky and crusted with sleepy dust. Aches creep at first then shriek through his body. He lifts his head slowly, so as not to antagonise the pain then sits with slumped shoulders and a down turned mouth. The mere movement of looking up causes him to wince. The curtains are pulled together but he does not have the energy to draw them. The door is close but he does not know where he would go if he were to walk through it. He looks at the Play and gingerly turns to a Scene that appears after the Party. There are not many unread pages left and many of them are damaged, stuck together with dried, dirty water. He is running out of time before the plays conclusion.
Before seeing the Play it was the fact that he was unsure as to the outcome of any one action that allowed him to make decisions and choose one thing over another. He used educated guesses, had feelings, researched and took advice from friends all in the reassuring comfort of uncertainty. Now, with his destiny seemingly defined, predicted by the Play he felt paralysed in the grip of a terrible inevitability.
If he had never gone to see the Play but every other event had taken place since then he would be better able to cope, freed from the shackles of perceiving his life as being predetermined he would act, he would fight to survive and however futile that may have been, at least he would have had hope. He punches the desk but immediately feels too weak to hit it a second time. If he does not call her today, if he never spoke to her again then they would not meet at a cafe and therefore never be involved in an accident as the Play predicted. If he stayed in this room forever could he cheat his destiny? He could not die out there under a smashed up car if he never stepped foot again outside the confines of his home. Could he break the cycle of the play in a more subtle way? Perhaps if he emailed her and arranged to meet in a museum or a park or a field in Belgium, any place but where it was written.
His phone begins to ring. It is her. His heart leaps as his thoughts derail. Panicking he stuffs the phone back into his pocket, hoping that she would leave a message. She does not.
* * * * *
Another morning, another restless night filled with strange dreams and fears. He had given up on the idea of sleep around five in the morning and now nurses a cup of tea whilst watching the sky lighten. The birds begin to sing. He blows his nose then splashes cold water on his face. The reflection in the mirror is not a handsome sight. A thought drops from the back of his mind to the front. He must try and talk to the Old man again. He checks his reaction to the thought for a second or two before spinning away and checking in turn each of the possible locations where he may have shoved the scrap of paper with the Old man’s number scribbled on it. He rummages around in his magazine rack, flicking past unopened bills, pizza fliers and other junk that should not be in there. He scans the bottom of his book shelf, the dust covered books, CD cases and loose change. He checks the telephone table in the hall as the image of his computer screen comes to mind. There it is stuck with Blue-tack onto the screen stand. He dials the number carefully, deliberately, making sure to get it right.
* * * * *
The sound of a phone ringing startles the Old man from his stupor. He looks in the direction of the infernal noise and groans. He looks towards the coffee table where the phone is normally but it appears as a blur of colour and shapes. Another chirpy trill rings out. It would stop bothering him soon. It rings again. He pulls a cushion over his head to mute the sound. The phone stops ringing. He groans in relief and returns to his peaceful slumber. Moments later it rings again. He rolls over reaching for the receiver, fumbling across magazines curled corners, used tissues and a tea cup. There is a chink on china cup against saucer. He can not reach the relentless pest. The phone rings on. He rolls over, eyes still shut tight, his fingers touch the receiver. He pushes it off it’s cradle knocking over the half empty bottle of vodka that sat behind it. The ringing stops. Peace at last.
‘Hello, hello’ a shaky voice emits from the earpiece. There is no response from the Old man. The voice pushes on, persistent almost pleading: ‘I wanted to talk to you about the play that you wrote.’
‘This is going to sound a little crazy but it seems to be about me’.
Did he hear a grunt from the other end of the line? A breath perhaps? Probably nothing.
‘God I need your help. I need to understand’
It was possible that someone was there listening, he could feel a presence but could not be sure that he was being heard.
‘Hello, is there anybody there?’
Unanswered he hangs up the phone. His head aches, exhaustion overwhelms him so he staggers into his bedroom, falls into bed and pulls the duvet over his head.
‘God I need your help’
‘The play you wrote it was about me, my life.’
‘Well that’s quite egocentric of you my dear boy, what makes you think that it is all about you?’
‘Well… it is, it describes my past and my, my future’
‘Have you been drinking? Look I don’t wish to sound unsympathetic but you are obviously quite disturbed by something, have you tried talking to anyone about it? In a professional manner I mean.’
A phone begins to ring somewhere else but he only has one phone and he is talking on that. The sound drags him away from the conversation, he wakes and looks around to see not the hyper real living room of his dream but the sleep blurred reality of his bedroom. He reaches over and answers his phone expecting to continue his dreamed conversation with the Old man but it is a more familiar, female voice that speaks to him, his mother.
‘Hi it’s Mum’
‘Eh? Oh Hi Mum’.
‘Were you sleeping?’
‘err yeah, what time is it?’
‘It’s gone four’
‘What? In the afternoon? Jesus’
‘What are you still doing in bed at this time? Shall I call back when you’ve woken up a bit?’
‘No, no. I’m fine just had a bit of a heavy night that’s all’
‘Aren’t you getting a bit old for all that son?’
‘How are you Mum? What have you been up to?’ He lies back, closes his eyes and prepares to receive the monologue. Half listening, his head spins with questions. He wrings his hands and prays for help.