I always wake early. The harsh green light from my radio-alarm tells me the time is 4:13, though it could easily have been 3:21 or 2:57. All my waking moments are long before the scheduled alarm time of 8:30, at which time I would normally drag myself out of bed and into the shower, fling on some clothes and out of my rented flat above a shop in the High Street, barely in time to appear for work at on the dot of 9am in the beauty salon four doors down.
But not today. Today I’m going to pull another sickie.
Richard is fast asleep and snoring lightly next to me, in spite of the saggy old mattress, stained duvet and bobbly bed sheet. He could sleep on the proverbial clothes line.
It isn’t surprising that he is lying here next to me. He sleeps here maybe once every two weeks, and does just that – he sleeps. He is a history teacher by day, but since that does not pay enough to meet his needs Richard works as a bartender by night, and almost every night too. Every occasion he has a night off he tells his wife he is working, then comes here and sleeps while I lie awake.
He sleeps here because, he says, his wife denies him sleep, which I don’t believe is even possible.
The first night I met him in the pub I brought him home, undressed slowly and asked him if would give me what I wanted. He gave me the one thing I didn’t want: he was asleep before he could have sex with me.
I should have stopped seeing him before it even started.
Not that I really wanted sex with him anyway, but I didn’t want him to go or to fall asleep, just to keep me company.
I couldn’t live like that, having to work constantly for fear that the bailiffs will turn up on the doorstep and repossess everything. Not that I have much to repossess anyway.
The reason why I wake early is always the same: the voices wake me.
The first is always the same, the anguished voice calling my name. Ameeeeeliaaaaa, she screeches mournfully, like a woman falling from a top of a tall building and calling out for somebody to save her before she hits the ground.
Her voice resounds around my head. Sleep is impossible after that.
The second follows soon afterwards. Her voice is harsh, guttural, negative, but a woman. I only hear women’s voices.
This one harps on at me, tells me how terrible I am, how I fuck everything up. On and on she goes, never listening to a word I say, even when I scream at her to shut up. If I do that she just mocks me, laughs at me. All I can do is wait for her to grow bored and go away of her own accord.
There are other voices at other times, but those are the two I wake up to every day. Some make me laugh, some make me cry, but those are the only two I really dread.
You know what else makes my life hell?
I am a martyr to PMT. I dread my raging hormones and the fact that I have to spend two days in bed before my period and speak to nobody. Those are the days when the loud voices tease me most. They never stop. Those are the days when I take all my medications, sometimes more. I haven’t yet OD’d but I am sure someday I will wake up in hospital getting my stomach pumped and the voices laughing at me, gloating.
I have self-harmed, used to cut myself a lot. I’ve attempted suicide too, but not recently. Swallowed a whole bottle of paracetamols once, but in the hospital they told me I had swallowed too many and just threw most of them back up. My neighbour rang 999 and I got to hospital quick enough that they prevented any serious liver damage.
After a few hours they sent me home feeling washed out and wretched. The neighbour looked after me until my mum could get there. I couldn’t stomach anything after that. My social worker thought it was just a cry for help, not that she helped much.
My mum wasn’t sympathetic either, just worried about what she would have done if I hadn’t been there to look after her.
The voices thought it was hilarious. Stupid girl, can’t even kill herself right. I told them next time I will throw myself under a train and that would shut them up. They went quiet after that.
I’ve not told Richard any of this, but even if I did I doubt he would know what to do. The right thing to do would be to hold me and say nothing.
It’s not like I see him often anyway, so listening to me and at least trying to understand would make a difference. I’d appreciate him a lot more if he did that. It would shut the voices up, for one thing.
But my PMT days are real sickies. I feel fucking awful on those days. I feel like one of my voices. I AM one of my voices.
I’m 39. Too old for the beauty salon, though I’m really good at doing nails, far better than the young girls. Even so, I see the manageress whispering to the owner and the owner nodding. I think I will be sacked any day now, and not just because I take too many days off sick.
They will sack me because I don’t look glamorous. That’s what customers want – girls with perfect hair and eyes and make-up and nails, girls in fashions, girls in heels. Not old girls with baggy eyes, saggy boobs, greying hair, wrinkles and cheap lipstick. I buy the best I can afford, wear underwired bras, use lots of foundation to hide my face, but it’s not good enough. I look like an old tart, one of them told me.
I worry about what I will do when they sack me. I can’t go back and live with mum, her flat is barely big enough for her. I have to work so I’ll probably end up on a checkout at Tesco. Not paid as well and longer hours, but better than caring.
No, I don’t mean that. Caring is a worthy profession but the pay is shit and the shifts are all over the place. I wouldn’t see Richard at all, though that wouldn’t be a bad thing I guess.
I wouldn’t have to wear lots of make-up or bras that hurt my boobs, either way.
My mum reckons I should marry again.
I was married once at 18. It lasted two years. I had a baby but she died at three months from cot death. SID they called it – Sudden Infant Death syndrome – but everyone else called it cot death. That was it, he was off, couldn’t deal with it.
Neither could I but I was left on my own.
Actually, that’s not the whole story by a long way. It wasn’t just the baby at all – it was a disaster of a marriage from the start but I was under pressure to get married from my parents and so was he. He lived with his parents up to then and was used to his mum doing everything. I was expected to do everything and go out to work, even when he was unemployed, even when I was pregnant, even when I had a screaming child.
No fucking way was I going to stand for that, and I told him. He didn’t give a toss and carried on watching Jeremy Kyle. It was only when I refused to cook his dinner he went back to mummy. I got drunk on cider that night, but it was to celebrate being single again.
Did I mention that I take meds for my brain?
Sorry, I forget. They make me go all fuzzy, especially when I lose track of how many I’ve taken.
Anyway, they take away the worst that the voices do. Keep the volume down a bit with the screechy one, help me cope a bit better with the nasty one.
The loud one I call Francesca after my best friend at primary school. She was loud too, though her parents split and she was sent to live with her nana in Devon. I never saw her after that, though I did write sometimes. It felt like she turned her back on me so I named the voice Francesca. She started calling me when I was about 8 or 9 – the voice I mean, not the real Francesca.
The other one, the hateful voice, I call Margi. It was because I hated Margaret Thatcher, but she, the voice, felt more like a Margi to me, because I think of people called Margi being spiteful.
The trouble is that Richard keeps referring to his wife as Margi, so I can’t keep on using the name in that way. The way Richard describes her makes her sound nice but always getting him down, griping about one thing or another. They sound alike, don’t they?
Except… I don’t think she’s really like that at all. I think she’s probably a kind and loving lady he just drifted apart from because they weren’t talking the same language.
I can’t tell him that but I bet I would love to have a natter with her. She’s probably at her wits’ end with worry about him, fearing she is going to lose her hubby, worrying he’s with some old cow who’s going to steal him away from her and leave her alone.
Sometimes I think I should really be with Margi, not with Richard. Not sexually, just for company. Except that she calls Richard Rick. Rick is wrong! I will not accept Rick. He is a Richard, always has been, always will be. She is wrong and I would not be afraid to tell her, if we met.
But I am going to rename Margi the voice. I just need a new name for her that is filled with rancour and bitterness, some name I can hate and scream and shout at; I just haven’t thought of the right name yet.
I don’t scream and shout at anyone else, I just moan. They call me “Moaning Myrtle” at work, after the ghost in Harry Potter.
That’s hurtful. I just went quiet and said nothing to anyone that day.
God, what a sad old bitch I am. My life is crap and there’s nothing much I can do about it except dream and do the lottery.
That’s what my husband used to tell me when we were married, though in those days I was really a sad young bitch. I didn’t give him any cause for complaint but he’d still call me an old bitch. He had mental health problems.
I know what you’re thinking but it’s not true. I don’t have mental health problems, only voices. They are part of me. I’m not mad, not mad at all, do you hear me?
Some people say all I do is moan but I don’t want to. I’d sooner be happy and not have to worry about raging hormones or wicked voices. Wouldn’t you? Of course you would.
I ask myself what I need to trade to gain happiness. What do I do differently to live like the people life shines upon?
Because, make no mistake, I would do it, whatever it was. It’s my turn to be happy. I’ve earned it. Actually, I just want to smile at people, spread a little happiness, make people feel glad to be alive, like I’ve made their day. That would be great, wouldn’t it?
Another voice asks me about happiness. She is one of the nicest of the girls but she’s sad and doesn’t know what to do with herself. I call her Ophelia because in the play Ophelia went mad and drowned herself. This Ophelia hasn’t told me to drown myself but she wants to know what happiness looks like.
I tell her it’s lying on a beach somewhere warm having gorgeous men bring me drinks all day and rub sun cream into my skin. I think she knows I’m joking.
I only hear Ophelia when I’m on my own.
So what is happiness?
Happiness is what I feel when I go inside to switch of, somewhere beyond the voices – beyond all pain and fear and hatred to perfect comfort, not that I can tell Ophelia that.
This must be why they say I am introverted, or rude. They say I ignore people sometimes. Or that I’m miles away. Or that I’m not all there.
Richard never thought that, because I was giving him my full attention. It’s usually the barmaid being chatted up by the customer, isn’t it? Not in this case. I picked him up, told him to meet me in the alley beside the pub after he finished his shift, even gave him a peck on the cheek, which he wiped off, embarrassed.
When we were in the alley I snogged him properly. He came over all coy, like he was the barmaid and I was the wicked man coming to have my evil way with him. The whole idea made me relaxed and confident, so I don’t know what he was thinking but maybe I seemed different to his wife.
He came back to my place, and as I say, he fell asleep.
Then later I got him excited and before I knew it he was inside me, gasping and groaning, thrusting into me, coming hard.
Then he fell asleep again. I didn’t come, but I was still satisfied.
Sex has never been about my satisfaction. Maybe I’ve not met the right man yet but I do it because I want to see him happy, since that’s doing my duty as a sexual partner. It makes me feel like people will want to see me again, though often they don’t want sex with me again.
That is sad, but do I really care any more? It’s not like I’ll end up married to any of them, having their children, living a whole life together.
I would have liked another child but the best hope I have is to get together with someone who has them already. Richard and Margi don’t have children, or if they do he never talks about them. A father should be proud of his children and be talking about them all the time.
Margi blames me for not having children. Margi the voice, that is. She says no man wants me and I should have been a baby machine. She thinks that’s all I’m good for, and I couldn’t even do that.
But I say back to her, why would I want to be tied down for a lifetime by screaming brats, when I’m free as a bird? I can go anywhere I want, do anything?
Go on then, she says, where are you going next?
America, I reply, drinking bourbon at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sunning myself on the Copacabana beach in Rio, sunset over Everest, the glorious whiteness of the Antarctic, I want to go everywhere, do everything.
And where have you been? She asks.
OK, she’s got me there. I have been to the Isle of Wight, and did go on a one-day coach trip to Boulogne once, though I don’t remember much about it. We were all pissed as farts, me and thirty other women.
One boyfriend wanted to take me to meet his parents in Killarney, but I wimped out. It’s not that he was bad in any way, but I think he was a bit of a mummy’s boy. She sounded stern when he talked to her on the phone; I think he was afraid of her. I declined his invitation politely and instead went to see my mum for an evening of sherry and TV game shows.
My mum never had an ambition to travel, though she could have done. Before she was married she had an invite from her Great Aunt to go to Alberta in Canada, somewhere outside Edmonton. The Aunt even paid her ticket.
When I ask her why she didn’t go, she waves her hand vaguely and says, well you know how things are.
No, I don’t know how things are.
To be honest I get travel sick so I wouldn’t be a great traveller. I was seasick just travelling to the Isle of Wight.
I always had ambitions when I was at school. I wanted to do A-levels and go to university, had a teacher who told me I was good enough too, if I applied myself and worked hard.
So what’s my excuse? Too easy to hang around with girls who just wanted jobs and money and children, meeting boys and having fun? That would be one excuse but it’s not really true. I hung around on the fringes of the groups and didn’t get involved, the voices warned me off.
It was my mum who suggested training in beauty therapy because she couldn’t see a good career at the end of a university degree. Mum, I said, you need a degree to become a road sweeper these days.
She didn’t know her arse from her elbow, mum didn’t, still doesn’t. Even so, I left school at 17 after the first year of A-levels and went to train as a beauty technician before specialising in nails.
She was a barmaid in the pub when she was younger, was mum. My dad worked in a bookie’s shop when he wasn’t down the boozer, the same boozer my mum worked in. Lots of women worked in the bookies, but he didn’t consider that job a woman’s work like being a barmaid.
Nevertheless, he got insanely jealous if she wore a low-cut top or if anyone leered at her. He’d go to the bar and threaten to punch their lights out, but he was all talk. He wouldn’t know how to handle a real fight. He would complain his arthritis was painful if someone did. You think I moan?
Margi says I only went for Richard because he was working in a pub. She’s always so snide but it’s probably true. I have a soft spot for people who work in pubs because I know what they have to deal with – people coming on to them, trying to take drinks for free, youngsters trying to get served, aggressive behaviour, fights, people throwing up in the loos or anywhere.
Mum used to shrug her shoulders and said she liked the old days when the whole community was down the local, singing songs and enjoying the atmosphere before anybody had TVs or mobile smartphones.
I couldn’t do it. The voices would make me do things I didn’t want to do. I’d probably have walked out after one evening.
I look at Richard sleeping and wonder if I should get up and do something else rather than lying here reminiscing. But what would I do? Flick around the TV channels to find something worth watching, maybe; hear the voices nag at me; make a cup of tea and a plate of toast.
When he wakes up I will make him beans on toast which he will cover with brown sauce. Then he will get a shower and get dressed, then go to school and teach history to people who aren’t interested in history.
I guess he will go home and see his wife before he changes for the evening session in the pub. They are like ships that pass in the early evening.
I don’t understand though. Where does she think he is when he stays here with me? Surely she must notice that he isn’t there with her, but he never told me she is distraught or angry with him.
Maybe she doesn’t want him there either, doesn’t care what he does. They could be drifting apart but staying together for old time’s sake, for fear of the consequences of being alone. That’s a really sad thought but so many people seem to be lonely, even if they are married and have families.
You can be lonely in a crowd, someone said. Who said that? I think it must have been Esther Rantzen.
I’m usually alone and often lonely, but I always have the voices for company. I realise I said happiness was the thought of being without them, but I’m also kind of addicted to them. It would be too quiet if they weren’t there.
What would happen if I phoned Margi? Not the voice, Richard’s wife? It would be easy too. He keeps his phone on the bedside table and doesn’t protect it with a password so I could easily get his number.
She might be asleep but I bet she would wake quickly if she realised I was with her husband. But then she probably looks at his mobile herself, sees all the text exchanges with me. Sees him calling me “darling” and “lover girl” and “sexy pants” and covering the messages with hearts. It’s pathetic really. My messages to him are always discreet and don’t refer directly to names or dates or places.
I think he wants her to find out he’s having an affair, of sorts. I think he gets a kick out of being exposed for the fucking cheating louse he is. That’s reason enough to hate the wanker. He’s probably had dozens of affairs. I wonder if she has too?
He doesn’t talk about her in that way, only about what they do together, not sex but places they go. He told me about a holiday they had together in Marbella, but from what I can tell they never actually did anything or went anywhere while they were there. They just ate, drank, lay in the sun and went in the pool.
I bet he was asleep the whole two weeks, when they weren’t eating paella and drinking sangria. I bet they haven’t fucked for donkey’s years. She is probably desperate, poor woman. Her life sounds pretty hellish, from what I’ve been told about it.
If I went to Marbella I’d want to go inland and learn something of the history of Spain, see the old buildings, meet the people and learn about their culture. For a history teacher he doesn’t show much interest in history.
I worry about Margi because she deserves better than this, just as all women deserve better than they get. But what I don’t understand is why she doesn’t do something though, express emotion, throw him out of the house, express her undying love, something.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he sleeps with a different girl each night and tells them all the same story about his wife.Some wouldn’t sleep with a married man, the sensible ones, but he can find lots of middle aged women online who just want a hug and a kiss and are happy to let him sleep.
A worrying thought: does she even exist? Has he made her up? Maybe she is his excuse for not spending more time with me.
Am I being made a fool of? It wouldn’t be the first time.
I slide out of bed and tiptoe round to his side. I pick up the phone and flick through his numbers. Lots of women’s names, I notice, but no mobile number for Margi comes up.
There is a landline number marked ‘home’ though. I creep out into the kitchen and call the number. My fingers are trembling. I’ve never confronted anyone about a man before, let alone a man who I really don’t care about. It’s stupid that I am doing it now, but it’s out of concern for her, not me.
One single continuous noise says the number is unobtainable.
“I told you so,” says Margi disdainfully.