Something to consider when reading/listening: To what extent are we all actors playing characters?
stony seriousness. ’It was a run, a charity run and there was no element of competition at all. It was simply about finishing, not about who finished first. Because it was a run, not a race. It was for charity. We weren’t competing. We were simply trying to finish. So in a sense we both won, although, of course, winning wasn’t the objective.’
‘Is that your way of saying you lost?’ says Joel.
‘I finished about a minute, maybe two or three, ahead of Lydia,’ she says, ‘but it wasn’t a race.’
‘It wasn’t a race,’ says Rachel Conan, nailing my sister’s voice to an absolute tee, ‘but Tania did finish a minute, maybe two or three, ahead of Lydia.’
Tania nods and grinds her teeth into a smile. And Rachel Conan does exactly the same thing. Oh this is going to be a lot of fun.
Uncle Joel tells us how he used to run marathons, and Tania says she wouldn’t have it in her, even though when I suggested it to her a few months ago she said she was keen. Granny says Grandad used to be a good runner, and Grandad says, ‘Used to be? What do you mean “used to be”?’ Dad, noticing Tania is distracted, helps himself to the second bottle of Prosecco. Marcos, his English still probably not good enough to follow the conversation, is reading something on his phone.
The conversation moves from running, to the fact it rained for about five minutes during the run, to Tania’s insistence that it’s going to rain again even though the forecast is clear, to rain in general, to showers, and then we’re back at Tania’s new shower again.
Isn’t it amazing, the things we’ll spend our time talking about while all the interesting stuff is off limits?
Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. I do. It’s why I put so much effort into bringing us all together. I just wish we could express how we’re feeling a bit more. Dad will always say or do whatever will keep him out of trouble. Tania always says she’s fine, even when it’s obvious she isn’t. She got divorced a few years ago, it must have been awful, and we’ve never even spoken about it. Mum might say ‘Yorkshire, Yorkshire, no bloody nonsense’ but she’s just as bad. I work in theatre, I’m surrounded by feelings but when I’m with my family we put on an act.
When I tell them I’m pregnant, I’m not scared of what they’ll say but what they won’t. All the little comments they’ll keep to themselves or whisper behind my back.
A normal family would berate me for being so stupid, I’d then break down in tears and tell them I’m thirty-six years old, and that Marcos seems like a good man but even if he isn’t I’m more than capable of looking after a child on my own, and I’ve never, never been so happy about anything in my entire life. And we’d cry and we’d argue but we’d come together and tell each other how much we love each other and it would all be ok.
But in my family, I can guarantee, ten minutes after I’ve broken the news, we’ll be back talking about Tania’s bloody shower.
I try to make eye contact with Marcos but he’s eating his sandwich while staring at his phone, making absolutely no effort with anyone, which is just wonderful. The nerf ball whistles about a foot above his head and he doesn’t even notice. I’m about to ask the bloke who threw it if he can try and hit him in the face next time, when I see an enormous man with a huge black beard crouching beside my sister.
‘Got any change?’ he says in a voice so rough you could light a match on it. Tania says no without giving the rest of us a chance to answer.
‘Hold on,’ I say. ‘Maybe we do. I don’t personally. But…’
Mum looks straight ahead. Uncle Joel pretends to check his pockets. Dad tops up his cup of Prosecco. Granny pouts her lips and shakes her head.
’Sorry,’ says Tania, ‘we’re not going to give you any money.’
‘Collecting for the Salvation Army?,’ says Grandad, handing him a ten pence piece, ‘have a shilling.’
The homeless man stalks off unimpressed, and Tania proceeds to give us a big speech about why you shouldn’t give money to homeless people. ‘You can’t help people if they’re unwilling to help themselves.’
‘But he is,’ I say and the words are out of my mouth before I’ve had the chance to process them, ‘he’s not lying around doing nothing. He’s coming up to people and asking for help.’
‘Inside voices,’ says Tania, even though we’re quite clearly outside.
‘Back when I lived in Brighton,’ says Uncle Joel, leaning forward to let us know we’re about to hear something hilarious. ‘I let this homeless chap into my flat.’ His fake laugh turns into a genuine cough. ‘It was chucking it down and he was shivering. So I went in the kitchen to make him a cup of tea and… and he only went and pissed on my sofa.’
Tania does her horrible squawky laugh, even though Joel has told us this almost-certainly-made-up story about a hundred times.
‘We’re all God’s children,’ says Granny.
And then Rachel Conan does the exact same squawky laugh my sister just did and no one quite knows how to respond.
‘I think I know that chap from the cricket club,’ says Grandad, which cuts the tension.
I want to make the point that, even if one homeless person did, at one point in the distant reaches of the past, wee on Uncle Joel’s sofa, this does not, in any way, mean we shouldn’t give other homeless people a spare bit of change. But as I open my mouth, Tania cuts me off. ‘Ooh Lydia, we’ve got lentil crisps. Can you eat lentils?’
‘In all seriousness,’ says Uncle Joel, ‘are there specific types of food you can’t eat? Or is it just the nice stuff?’
‘Well…’ says Tania, whose eyes come alive as she starts reeling off all the various food types that give me trouble, growing more and more animated with each one. Just imagine how happy she’s going to be when she finds out I’m pregnant and there’s all the extra stuff I can’t eat. Oh for god’s sake, I should probably look that up. ‘And beans,’ she says, ‘can’t eat any beans, although edamame beans tend to be ok.’ I’m about to interrupt her when I suddenly feel really sick.
This is what my family do. They patronise me. They ignore everything I say. They treat me like a child. Even though: one, I’m thirty six; two, I’ve got a good job and I’m bloody good at it; three… Oh god, I’m actually going to be sick.
With great difficulty, I stand up and the whole of Eel Brook Common is spinning beneath my feet. I tell Tania I need to pop to her flat to use the loo.
‘Spicy salsa?’ she says.
‘Quick,’ says Uncle Joel, ‘hide your hamster.’ And everybody laughs, even Rachel Conan who has no idea why that’s funny. Marcos doesn’t laugh but that’s because Marcos is still on his bloody phone.
Apparently when Tania and I were being potty trained, I pooed in a box of straw unaware our hamster was in there and Tania cried for a week. And this is still how they see us today. She: sensible, sensitive, always does the right thing. Me: wild, zany, you never know what she’ll do next. Just wait til I tell them I’m… Oh god, breathe Lydia, breathe.
I ignore Joel and my mum as they exchange jokes at my expense. I ignore dad too who’s trying to give me a sympathetic smile. I just need to get to the bathroom.
I put my hand out to get the key from Tania and she’s struck by a sudden, devastating realisation. Her eyes widen. Her mouth narrows. Her shoulders shoot back. ‘Please, Lydia, please, please, please, please, please don’t use the shower.’
I wasn’t intending to, but this really is a new low. ‘Why not?’ I say, ‘You don’t trust me not to ruin it?’
‘No,’ says Tania, ‘but it was only finished last night, I haven’t used it myself yet and…uhmmm…’
And as she’s stumbling, Rachel Conan chimes in to help. ‘They finally finished it last night,’ she says, my friend’s voice and facial expressions now completely indistinguishable from Tania’s, ‘it looks exactly as Tania wanted, an absolute game changer, and she wants to be the first one to try it out, Lydia. Nothing against you. Nothing personal.’
‘Yes,’ says Tania, looking confused but kind of delighted, ‘Exactly. That’s exactly right.’
Given how disgusting I am after the run, showering might not be the worst idea. My flat’s several miles away so I’ll have to be sticky and sweaty until I get home. But it simply isn’t worth the argument.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I won’t use it.’
‘Inside voices,’ says Tania.
I lean against mum’s bench to stop myself from falling over. All the sweat from earlier is turning cold. I need to get out of here. But she still hasn’t given me the key to her flat. ‘Why,’ I ask, as the group blurs into one, ‘do you have to make everything such a big deal?’
‘Inside voices,’ she says, and I launch into a rage ‘WE ARE OUTSIDE’ only to realise it was Rachel bloody Conan who said it.
Marcos briefly looks up from his phone but immediately looks back.
I take a long, deep breath.
‘Durnt worry, love,’ says mum, holding her nose. ‘We can barely smell ya.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ says Tania, ‘I think we’ll all come back with you.’
‘Because you don’t trust me to use the bathroom without your assistance?’ I can’t keep arguing or I will throw up.
‘I think it might rain,’ she says.
‘But it’s not going to rain.’
‘It feels like it is.’
‘Mmm, it feels like it is.’ says the Rachel Conan Frankenstine’s monster I’ve created.
‘I’ve checked the app,’ I say. ‘Look. Zero percent chance of precipitation.’
‘Yeah but it feels like it is.’
‘Zero percent chance.’
‘Durnt worry Lydia, we’ll wait here,’ says Mum, ‘but leave the shower and the hamster well alone, ay love?’
I let go off the bench and take a deep breath. I hear a whistling sound and by the time I’ve worked out what it is, the Nerf ball has smacked me in the head and knocked me to the ground.
Dad’s helping me to my feet, Uncle Joel’s got hold off the Nerf ball and is shouting at those topless pricks who were throwing it around. My mum and sister and Rachel Conan are fussing about me, and bloody Marcos is on his bloody phone, no more aware of what’s going on than grandad.
‘Are you ok, are you ok, are you ok,’ they all say.
‘Yes, I’m fine, I’m fine.’
‘Are ye sure?’ says mum, ‘Ye durnt sound it.’
‘No, actually mum, I’m not fine. I’m not fine at all. One, you all think I’m a laughing stock. Two, I’m having a baby with a man I barely even know. Three, I’m sweaty and disgusting and I feel sick. Four, it’s the first time as an adult that I’ve been around you lot without a drink and I don’t particularly care for it to be perfectly honest. And five, I’ve just been hit in the head with a fucking nerf ball and the father of my child hasn’t even looked up from his phone.’ But of course I don’t say any of that. I just say, once again, using inside voices only, ‘I’m fine.’
‘You know,’ says Tania, ‘if you really do want to use the shower…’
I don’t even respond.
I stagger across the common, through the alley, and down on to Tania’s street. My legs feel like oil drums and the top of my thighs are sticky with vaseline. I do feel slightly less sick than I did but I am now absolutely desperate for a wee.
The door to her building has one of those annoying safety locks, where you have to turn it left and then right or right and then left. And when I finally open the door, a gruff voice behind me says, ‘Oi. Can I use your bog?’
It’s the homeless man with the huge black beard. He must have followed me from the park. I’m about to tell him to piss off but, hearing my sister’s voice in my head, I think, yeah sure, why not. We walk up the stairs to Tania’s flat and, once I’ve let him in, he dives into the bathroom ahead of me.
I hop around the flat, past the tele, into the kitchen, back out again. The sicky feeling has gone— maybe it wasn’t morning sickness, maybe I just needed to be away from my family— but my bladder is about to burst. At one point, kneeling on the sofa and bouncing gently up and down, I briefly consider relieving myself there and then. At least that way, whenever Uncle Joel brings up his stupid story, I’ll be able to say, ‘Yeah, well I once let a homeless person into a flat and I pissed on the sofa.’
Everything is in perfect order. Throws and cushions in military formation on the sofa. A bowl of bananas, apples and grapes so ripe they look plastic. A bookshelf arranged alphabetically. Everything scrubbed, sprayed and vacuumed. The absence of dust is suffocating.
The door to the flat slams shut.
‘You’re welcome,’ I shout after him.
The bathroom smells eerily warm, like returning from holiday to find you’ve left the oven on. But, with the instant relief of realising nothing has exploded, I find the toilet bowl perfectly clean. As I unleash my mini-Niagara, I mentally scold Tania and Uncle Joel for their suggestion that homeless people don’t know how to use a toilet as well as the rest of us. As someone with a lifetime of toilet visits under her belt, I can attest that this afternoon’s guest has been perfectly respectful. Warming, yes. But respectful.
Once I’m done, I help myself to some grapes and realise they are plastic.
When she lived with Lawrence, their house was nothing like this. His papers and books were everywhere, but her stuff was all over the place too. It’s been four years and we haven’t properly spoken about it. I don’t know how we became so at each other’s throats all the time. We used to get on so well.
I start to feel sick again but it’s not morning sickness. It’s the other kind of sick. It’s the how am I meant to do this sick? It’s the what if they disown me sick? Or laugh at me sick? Or what if Marcos does run off sick? Or turns out to be a complete and utter prick sick? It’s the how can I remove any additional foods from my diet sick without starving to death sick? It’s the I want to fucking scream sick.
The flat door crashes open and a soaking wet Tania emerges, ushering the others after her like she’s giving directions to the escape vessel in a leaking submarine. Rachel Conan’s at the back of the party, giving the exact same commands.
They start handing out towels and mugs of tea, while emitting an endless barrage of noise about how Tania knew it was going to rain because she just had this feeling and whenever she gets this feeling it’s normally always right. Then she grabs a towel, and says to me, very quietly, ‘You didn’t use the…?”
‘No I didn’t use your fucking shower.’
‘Inside voices, Lydia.’
‘We’re outside.’ I immediately realise we’re not, but still.
‘I tell you what,’ she says, ‘you can use it straight after me. Sorry for being precious, I just wanted to be the first one to use it. But as soon as I’m done, go for it.‘
‘Yeah, thanks,’ I say, ‘but I think I’ll be ok. It looks lovely though.’ That’s a lie. I didn’t even look at it because I don’t care.
She nods and scuttles off to the bathroom.
I sit down next to grandad. Everyone’s looking at me and no one’s talking. My stomach feels like it’s about to start stabbing itself from the inside. This would of course be the perfect time for my IBS to start playing up.
‘It’s a shower,’ I say, ‘it’s a shower. How can anyone get so worked up about a bloody shower?’
Mum looks at me and rolls her eyes, as though we’re both sharing an in-joke about someone else, even though the person she’s rolling her eyes about is me.
Uncle Joel tries to think of a joke but he can’t quite manage it.
Granny’s fake smile reminds me where Tania got hers.
Dad pours himself another cup of Prosecco.
Grandad’s fallen fast asleep.
Marcos is on his phone, just as he will be in the delivery room if he even bothers to show up.
Rachel Conan stretches out her neck and says, ‘It’s an absolute game changer.’
And I sink into the sofa and try to disappear.
And you know what… I don’t care. I don’t care what any of them think of me. I don’t care how much they judge me for Marcos. I don’t care if he runs off back to Spain. I don’t care. I’m not the crazy, zany, temperamental person they all think I am. I’m a bloody good casting director and I’m going to be a bloody good mum. When Tania’s done in the shower I’m going to tell them I’m pregnant, and I don’t care, I don’t care, I do not care what they think of me.
I place my hands on my stomach, take a deep breath, and feel myself beginning to calm down.
And then Tania lets out the most abominable scream.
Mum, Marcos, Rachel Conan and I rush down the corridor to find her standing by the bathroom, clutching her collarbone with one hand and supporting her towel with the other. She looks as though she’s just been evacuated from a detonating nuclear reactor.
‘Lydia has… she has… she has, well, she…she obviously wasn’t happy at not being allowed to use the shower, even though I was only trying to protect it because it was brand new, and I wanted to be the first one to use it, but maybe I was just being silly and I should’ve let her use it, but at least we would have been able to discuss it because I was just trying to protect it and look after it, and we could have just had a conversation but instead she’s, she’s…’ We squeeze past her into the bathroom and it’s only then, once we’ve seen the physical proof of the scene she’s trying to depict, that she feels sufficiently prepared to let the words out. ‘Lydia has taken a shit in the shower.’
She rushes past us and into her bedroom. Mum looks at me blankly and rushes after her. Uncle Joel and Granny, who have just now reached the bathroom and inspected the scene, look at me with genuine concern. Rachel Conan’s dropped all pretence of being my sister; her look of disgust is entirely her own. Marcos, finally awoken from his iPhone-induced haze, is starting to regret his recent life choices. Dad, still holding the Prosecco, drinks directly from the bottle.
The warm smell is, if anything, more apparent than when I first entered the bathroom mere moments after the homeless man had delivered it into this world. And, as I peer through the shower pane and assess the thing, with its shape, solidity and purpose, noting that it is undoubtedly the product of a well-functioning digestive system, I must admit I feel not a small amount of envy.
You know, I think I’ll wait until next week to tell them about the baby.
[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]
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