September 5, 2018 at 7:07 pm #471
CAUTION: some self-harm
Second story I need help with. Same again, I need help with grammar, spelling and also for people to let me know if it all makes sense, or if anything comes across as confusing.
The light was too bright, an artificial sun of modern technology. It turned her eyes into slits and woke up the dull headache that had been living at the back of her head for the best part of that day. What did she come to fetch? Staring at the gaping mouth of the fridge, she searched its shelves for a clue. Milk, it was milk. Grabbing the carton, she slammed the door shut, allowing the semi-darkness to reclaim the space in the kitchen. She was intimate with the layout of the flat and its content and could manoeuvre around its curves and angles without banging a hip or stubbing a toe.
Taking her bowl of cereal to the living room area, she settled on the window seat, ready for another Saturday night in. Frosted flakes crunched under her teeth, their sugar hitting her tongue. The sound almost masked a soft buzzing that filled the air. Wiping her mouth with her bathrobe’s sleeve, she reached for her phone. Something in the corner of the window caught her eye, but her phone kept throwing tantrums, asking for her attention. The caller’s name required a sharp inhale before answering.
“Hey Lucy,” she said in a voice too high to be natural.
“Hi Becca, how you’re doing?”
“I’m ok, thanks.” The answer nothing more than a Pavlovian response.
“We’re going for drinks at that new place on Tavistock Road. Wanna join us?”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“Oh no.” Better let her down now than go out and spoil Lucy’s evening by being a bore.
“Sorry, I’ve already changed into my PJs and I can’t be asked to get dressed up again.”
In truth, she had been wearing her PJs since she got home from work yesterday.
“Yes, go have fun. You can tell me all about it when I see you at work.”
“Ok, see you Monday, babe.”
She tossed her phone, aiming for the seat cushion but missed and the phone landed on the floor. She didn’t bother picking it up. What’s when she noticed it again, what had caught her eye earlier — a cluster of black fuzzy spots littering the corner where the wall met the window. She was sure this wasn’t here before. She scratched at it with the jagged edge of a chewed-up nail, but it wouldn’t go away, and she gave up.
Head resting on the cool glass, she spied on the people in the building across from hers. On the fourth floor, a couple was getting ready to go out. The woman slipped into a flowy red dress. Her lips moved, and she could imagine the words that brought a tall blond man walking across the room. With a steadfast hand, he pulled up the zipper of her dress, before leaning to kiss her bare shoulder. Was this a genuine mark of affection or was it a lure to hide his longing for the secretary he was cheating with? Secretaries always seemed to make the best mistresses. Maybe the woman in the red dress worked as a secretary and she was the other woman, having sex with her boss when she pretended to work late. Maybe his lips on her shoulder was just muscle memory, going through the motions once routine replaced passion. Life appeared to Rebecca as an endless list of clichés, all filling her with the same shivering weariness. There was no originality left in the world. It had all been done before.
She abandoned her bowl in the sink, dregs of milk still at the bottom and made her way to the bedroom. At the end of the short hallway, the front door loomed at her, gateway to an outside world where she had to smile, listen, look alive. She retreated from it, escaping to her bedroom. Collapsing onto the mattress, she rolled herself into her duvet, away from the side of the bed that hadn’t been hers for the last three months.
The chimes from her alarm disturbed the stillness of another morning. She snoozed it until it was time to arrive at work. Better to get it over and done with. Her hand abandoned the warm cocoon of microfiber encased in cotton and felt its way across the plain of her dresser until she located her phone. Inside the makeshift cavern of her duvet, the screen casted a pallid glow.
“Hey Gerry, it’s Rebecca,” she said with a small voice.
“Hey Becca. How are you?”
“Listen, I won’t make it today. I’ve been sick all night and I’m still not feeling hundred percent,” she answered. The air trapped under the sheet was heavy with a strong mildew smell and she breathed through her mouth.
“Sorry to hear that,” her boss replied. “Sure, stay home and let me know how you get on.”
She spent the day in bed, only getting up to use the bathroom, or get coffee and cereal from the kitchen. Despite keeping the window open, the smell of damp wouldn’t go away, only growing stronger.
Work was a pointless exercise of jamming numbers onto spreadsheets, writing memos and reports, endless words she typed, filling her days between nine and five. It had given her a sense of purpose for a while but now it was all utterly meaningless, a hamster wheel taking her nowhere. Maybe, she should put those words to good use, give them a new shape, a purpose. A lifetime ago, she had studied English literature at university, and dreamed herself a writer.
A burst of energy, like the flash of sulphur from a lit match ignited her body, driving her out of bed and into the living room. Grabbing her laptop from the table, she stopped for a moment taking in the orange light pouring in through the window. Alongside it, the black mould had crept further up the wall.
Backtracking away from the decay, she returned to the safe island of her bed, her feet scraping along in the hallway, turning the sole of her feet black. They left smudges of dirt on the sheet.
Back in her bedroom, she flipped the laptop open as she sat cross-legged on her duvet. Three hours later, she lied on her stomach not having written a word. Her attention sucked in a non-stop whirl of videos. She cried at service men surprising their loved ones with unexpected return from the front, she cried at adorable puppies doing adorable things. She sobbed her way through the best and worst of talent shows. Her dream of being a writer discarded already. She had nothing interesting to say, all the words turning their backs on her and she cried about that too. The entire time her laptop was on, she carefully avoided straying outside of the video channel to the part of the web populated with social media. She was still learning to let go of him and that part of her life.
With nobody to talk to, her voice burrowed deep inside until she couldn’t find it anymore, but she liked the convenience of not talking. She would never say the wrong thing ever again.
She remembered her last words, ‘thank you’ to the driver who had delivered her Chinese food. He would never know their particular significance and what he bore witness to. He collected those same words wherever he went. She had just been her usual unremarkable self — another sad silhouette in a tatty bathrobe and messy hair who took the plastic bag he handed over.
Her phone rang, and she let the callers go to voicemail. Gerry asked when she was coming back to work. She texted him she wasn’t sure. Lucy called the most at first with but in time she stopped too, tired of texted excuses and last-minute cancellations. Who wants to an unreliable friend around? Rebecca didn’t blame Lucy, but she cried at being such a crappy friend. Her phone still came alive at irregular intervals each day. Each vibration of the handset or flashing of the screen sent her on edge, so she stopped charging it.
Had her mother been one of those flashes of light? She called Rebecca once a week. ‘Hello sweetheart, how’s life?’ she would say in a breezy tone. The subtext easy to decipher ‘have you go your life together yet?’ Expectations were high, and Rebecca suffered from vertigo from a young age. She once almost fainted at the top of 30 Rocks, dizzy from the drop and all the possibilities the sprawling city so far below had to offer.
Her mother’s idyllic life haunted her — married at twenty-one, pregnant for the first time at twenty-three, two children she gave up work for, organising perfect dinner parties for her handsome and successful husband to entertain his colleagues and clients. As a child, Rebecca watched her mother’s life from the top of the stairs. Her mother’s hand resting on her father’s arm, him saying he couldn’t have done it without her as he kissed the cheek she offered him. Perfection had already been attained in her family so what was left for her to strive for? She stared at the ceiling of her bedroom, looking for answers but only found cracks in the plaster and patches of yellow damp blooming along to her every thoughts.
Days sagged, lost their shapes, until melting into one another. She forgot how she sounded. There were videos on her laptop that could remind her, but she didn’t want to hear how she had sounded around him. The idea spread a coldness under her skin. Amid the chills, the darkness of her bedroom attacked her, wrapped itself around her body and mind like an acrid smoke, suffocating her. Fleeing to the living room, she huddled on the window seat with a bowl of cereal. Frosted flake tasted like carboard in her mouth. The mould reached the ceiling now.
She wiped the dust from the glass with the flat of her hand. The façade of the next-door building was an advent calendar whose windows displayed lives she would never have. Framed by maroon bricks, a little girl played on flowery rug with a honey-colour puppy. Further up, a lady was cooking, steam and smoke coming from the pan where she fried a myriad of bright colours. On the fourth floor, the couple finished dinner. Their smiles travelled the distance separating them from Rebecca. They whispered in her ear that she was not worthy, that kind of happiness would be wasted on her.
The decay spread and there was no stopping it. In her room, the bed existed in a constant state of dishevelment, made of sheet loaded with a sluggish scent of regret. Half-drunk coffee mugs colonised by island of green fuzz cluttered the sink along with a variety of bowls, which soured the air in the living area with the smell of spoiled milk. Silence grew like weeds, blooming in cracks and the space between floorboards, and spreading until it filled all the rooms, brambles of stillness that pricked her, until her skin itched.
She was no better than her grubby environment. Why waste water showering if she was not going anywhere? Why brush her teeth if she had no one to speak to? She liked the pungent scent of her uncleaned skin. Lifting her arms, she took a whiff of her musky armpits, or cupped her hand over her open mouth, tasting her foul breath — the rot of her flat having reached her insides.
The seals in the bathroom had grown spongy with a yellowish brown, like a zit pregnant with pus. They reminded her of the spots she had popped on his back, lying on their towels on the flat roof of their building in the July heat. She had been that intimate with someone once.
She visited the bathroom only to pee or defecate. She liked that word, defecate, it sounded like an act of defiance, a rebellion. The Rebecca in the mirror had out of control, matted hair that she constantly scratched. Trekking to the kitchen at a listless pace, she brought back a pair of scissors. She cut and snipped until all her hair was in the sink instead of on her head.
One morning, she stretched in bed, arms raised above her head. She breathed in deep and smelled nothing. She couldn’t pick up her unwashed scent. The loss devastated her, and she cried for the best part of the day. Why did she keep losing everything? Or maybe it was life letting go of her, maybe she had outstayed her welcome.
She searched through videos, all she needed was to pick a new life. Scrolling and clicking, the answer at the end of the black arrow. She watched endless ribbons of images, online shopping for a new life. Just pick one. But nothing seemed to fit. She panicked. Inhaled deeply but she couldn’t breathe. The panic spread. Scrambling to the bathroom, she retched over the fetid water of the toilet. She didn’t throw up, but she breathed again. Collapsing on the floor, she gulped the air in, getting dizzy on oxygen, the comforting cool of the porcelain bowl against her cheek.
She was so exhausted, she couldn’t sleep anymore. She stared at darkness and light until they blurred. Days rushed past within hours and minutes stretched for days.
The hallway leading to the front door had grown a mile, and the door itself had disappeared under a foamy layer of mushrooms and moss. Escape was too far away now to be an option. She retreated to the living room where the light had disappeared behind the thick grime cluttering the window. She listened to songs, so loud she could not think, the sound invading all the space in her mind — tales of Black Parades, Robert Smith told her that boys don’t cry, and she knew it was true. She sang along to Tom Yorke about being a creep, a weirdo. She danced for hours, days under a shower of confetti she had made from the wedding dress she would never wear. The snowstorm of raw silk made her laugh until she cried. Sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, she stuffed herself with bits of fabric, shovelling them into the hole.
Her thoughts kept weighing her down, stones in the pockets of her mind dragging her under. She had no pills, but she had a bathtub, a bottle of vodka in the freezer and the old razor she used for her legs. She had the ability to soar above it all.
Drinking most of the bottle, the liquor burned her inside and numbed her last shred of will. In the bathroom, she turned on the hot tap and the cascading water played a lullaby that sent her body swaying. Stepping in, her skin blushed from the heat, hugging her, telling her it was ok. Under the water, she opened ribbons of skin, from which red tendrils unfurled. Red is the colour of kimonos wore by Japanese brides, he once told her, his arms wrapped around her when they had been planning their wedding.
The after-life was a blinding whiteout, seasoned with the smell of ammonia and old people. Eyelids fluttered like butterflies, revealing blurry snapshots of an angel in a blue uniform who was tucking a sheet tight across her body. Shimmers of light danced around her like fairies greeting her, and her heartbeat followed the lead of a mechanical beep, reminding it how it went.
“Welcome back sweetheart,” the angel said. “You forgot to turn off the tap. Lucky your friend came by when she did and noticed the water coming through under the door.”
She always hated when the bathwater lost its warmth halfway through. The thought exhausted her, and she allowed herself to be swallowed by darkness again.
That first night of her after-life she dreamt that she found herself back at her flat. She stood in the middle of her living room in her wedding dress, holding her laptop close against her chest. The hard plastic slowly melted under her warm hands and she dropped it. Too late. It was already spreading. Black spots of mould bloomed on her wedding dress like Rorschach blots. Scared, her fingers found the zipper at the back. She shrugged her dress, the fabric pooling on the floor around her and she stepped out of it. But it wasn’t the dress, it wasn’t the air that was infected. It was her. The green rot inflated her veins, pulsating under the pale skin of her legs, until it oozed from under her toenails, mould spewing onto the floorboards. It ate through the wood, which grew weaker with each creak until it gave up under her weight. She fell inside the darkness below, inside herself, an infinite downwards. A hand grabbed hers, warm against her clammy skin, as she rediscovered the weight of the mattress under her body. She squeezed it and it didn’t let go. Even before she opened her eyes, she knew — she wasn’t alone anymore.September 6, 2018 at 9:18 am #504RaineParticipant
Hiya Elle, Well done for diving in on the critique posting! This is a sad and believable portrayal of depression, quite uncomfortable to read – which it needs to be. I spotted a few wordings that I felt jarred a little, so I’ll give you them…
‘The caller’s name required a sharp inhale before answering.’ I’m not sure about the required, it seems too formal rather than instinctive. Perhaps ‘drew’
‘With a steadfast hand, he pulled up the zipper of her dress, before leaning to kiss her bare shoulder’ I wonder whether steadfast does what you want it to here. It’s a longer term loyalty/stability, rather than the steadiness of that particular action. BUt perhaps that was intentional.
‘At the end of the short hallway, the front door loomed at her,’ I think things tend to loom over, rather than loom at.
‘Three hours later, she lied on her stomach not having written a word’ Lay, rather than lied.
‘Trekking to the kitchen at a listless pace’ Although not wrong as such, the ‘at a listless pace’ felt awkward. Perhaps just sticking with ‘listlessly’ would flow a little better?
‘The façade of the next-door building was an advent calendar whose windows displayed lives she would never have’ Do you need ‘the facade of’? It works just as well without, and perhaps reads easier?
As an overall thought – I would say that it would help if there was a little more conflict for her. If she tried harder to go to work, or tried harder to speak to her mum (otherwise her mum might appear on the doorstep, which would be worse than a phonecall). That would help create more tension in the story, and perhaps make her easier to connect with. Another minor point is on the panic attack, whilst realistic, I felt that it needed a little more foreshadowing – other moments of anxiety, or more build up.
I do think this is a powerful story, on a difficult subject. So really well done for that. I do think it needs a more complex/conflicted route towards suicide to make it more powerful still. BUt remember that’s just my opinion. And btw your english is native-speaker level, so I’d not fear that ever being an issue!September 6, 2018 at 4:15 pm #595
Thanks for reading and for your feedback, it is really useful.
I like your suggestion about adding tension and about trying. My idea was to show what happens when you stop trying and how quickly things can spiral if you don’t reach out to people, but I think I can work out hints at failed attempts and create some more tension.
Thank you for pointing out the jarring sentences and words, I’ll work through them.
I know how editors don’t like submission with spelling and grammar mistakes so I always want to check not English.September 7, 2018 at 9:00 am #648JonathanParticipant
You have some neat phrases – “an artificial sun of modern technology”, ” in a voice too high to be natural”, “The answer nothing more than a Pavlovian response.” “Had her mother been one of those flashes of light?”. I could probably go on some more.
I think one big stumbling block for me is the sentence structure. You have alot of “X’ing to the Y, Z did abc.” Can’t recall if these are fronted adverbials, but you have alot of them, quite close to one another, and it tends to set up an unwanted rhythm and very much “looks like writing”.
“Staring at the gaping mouth of the fridge, she searched its shelves for a clue.”
“Grabbing the carton, she slammed the door shut”
“Taking her bowl of cereal to the living room area, she settled on the window seat,”
“Wiping her mouth with her bathrobe’s sleeve, she reached for her phone.”
There’s quite alot of sensory stuff – the sugar frosting her tongue. It is fine, but it is almost a little too much minutiae (for me). Maybe think about focusing on those senses that perhaps have some bearing on events.
Sentencs like “In truth, she had been wearing her PJs since she got home from work yesterday.” can probably lose the “in truth” because they tend to distance us from the character. Let us be Becca. She wouldn’t think “in truth”; she would just have the thought as-is. Try it anyway.
Final thought: I wonder if you could give her – this sounds odd – a bigger reason to self-harm. What is the tragedy that has pushed her to this. You needn’t expound on it too much but certainly think about having it lurk in the background there like a shadow. Good luck anyway – hope this helps. 🙂
“September 7, 2018 at 11:19 am #671DaedalusParticipant
Another superb bit of writing. It is a very convincing portrait of the slide into depression, which is very hard to do in a way that engages the reader. You’ve easily passed that test. I agree with Raine that a bit more tension would give the story more ‘shape’. I also agree with Jonathan that perhaps a few too many sentences are structured in the way he identifies, and it starts to feel like ‘putting the cart before the horse’.
The part about her parents’ perfect life feels a bit too ‘tell’ to me. Would be more powerful if hinted at, with a specific example perhaps.
I was a little confused by the ending on first reading, though it made more sense when I looked at it again. I’m in the middle of a migraine, so it might be that my brain is at fault. Overall, it felt as though the mould was symbolic in a ‘magical realist’ kind of way rather than entirely real, and the ending brings that all together quite nicely. I think I was thrown by the part where she seemed to be in hospital. I don’t know what to suggest other than to lead more clearly into the dream – I thought at first that when she dreamt she was back in the flat that she was actually there, so I think that led me a little way down the garden path.
Other than that, there’s some beautiful sensory detail but almost a bit too much for me, like a rich dessert, so it might be worth looking at how you can streamline the story a little generally.
Good work on a really difficult subject.
A few grammatical things:
First para – content should be contents, and followed by a comma
Second para, inhale should probably be inhalation. That sentence feels a bit clunky to me – not sure about ‘required’, it feels a bit detached.
Para after the phone call – seems to be missing a word, or there’s possibly an extraneous one. If you deleted ‘what’s’ the first part would read ok but the rest still feels like a fragment.
First para after first section break – ‘casted’ should be ‘cast’
Para beginning ‘a burst of energy’ – feels a bit awkward. Perhaps substitute ‘to take’ for ‘taking’
Para starting ‘Back in the bedroom’ – lied on the bed should be lay. Sentence ‘Her dream of being a writer discarded already’ is a fragment. Possibly ‘was’ or ‘had been’ discarded (and ‘already discarded’ rather than ‘discarded already’ is more conventional phrasing)
Para starting ‘Had her mother’ – ‘have you go your life together’ go should be gotSeptember 7, 2018 at 8:55 pm #737
Thank you Jonathan and Deadalus for your feedback and suggestions, they have been massively useful.
Regarding the comment about the cereal and the sugar. The reason it’s in there is to show her degradation when later she has cereal again and that time they taste like cardboard
I tried to make the hospital and the fact that the last paragraph is her dreaming for the first time after she wakes up in hospital. It was more confusion before. I’m just worried if I make it too clear it would be too on the nose, if that makes sense.
You certainly all gave me some great suggestions and I now have some ideas on how to improve on this piece.September 7, 2018 at 8:58 pm #738DaedalusParticipant
I think you’re right on the ending btw, I was just a bit slow on the uptakeSeptember 9, 2018 at 7:53 pm #877
You’re not slow at all. I’m still amazed you read it and gave me all that feedback impaired with a migraine. I would have never been able to do that.September 10, 2018 at 2:33 pm #912Philippa EastParticipant
Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to this.
I really enjoyed this. I think it’s an incredibly realistic portrayal of depression, especially the sense of complete hopelessness and almost indifference that invades. She almost simply accepts and embraces her “fate”, to the point where (for me) suicide in the bath seemed like simply the next logical step in the process. I like how you end on a flicker of hope – the sense of someone with her, and she’s no longer alone. I think that hope at the end is key, so well done for rounding that off. The dream bit worked for me – I was clear that it was a dream from her hospital bed.
I really like the symbolism of the encroaching mould, which takes on hallucinatory proportions. It echos the mould in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (a great short story, which you can read here if you haven’t already).
A few typos, etc.:
“living room area” – I think we’d probably just say the living room (you use the same phrase later too, I think?)
““Oh no.” Better let her down …” Make a new paragraph for “Better… etc.”, otherwise they look like Lucy’s thoughts.
“I can’t be asked to get dressed up ” – did you mean arsed?
“his lips on her shoulder was just muscle ” – were not was
“I’m still not feeling hundred percent,” – a hundred percent
“Maybe, she should put those words to good use” – no comma
“turning the sole of her feet black. They left smudges of dirt on the sheet.” – plural for soles and sheets (we usually talk about sheets rather than singular sheet on a bed – dunno why)
“Three hours later, she lied on her stomach” – lay not lied
“patches of yellow damp blooming along to her every thoughts.” – should be ‘thought’ singular
“Frosted flake tasted like carboard in her mouth” – flakes plural; spelling of cardboard
“made of sheet loaded with a sluggish scent of regret” – sheets plural
“coffee mugs colonised by island of green fuzz” – islands plural
“The Rebecca in the mirror had out of control” – out-of-control
“all she needed was to pick a new life… online shopping for a new life” – repetition
I really like the way you describe her crying at everything, even the fact that she stops smelling. The references to her emotional ‘vertigo’ are very cleverly done, and there are so many lovely touches, such as her reflections on the taxi driver’s indifference to her plight.
Well done.September 10, 2018 at 6:58 pm #945
Thanks Philippa for your feedback. I’m really happy that you found it credible especially bearing in mind your background.
I have corrected all of those typos and mistakes so thank you for that too.
Based on Raine’s and someone else’s feedback I have added the following paragraph:
She woke up filled with the resolve to go out, bathe in fresh air until her cheeks tuned a deep shade of apple-candy red. Bundled in her coat and layers of wool, she pulled on her front door, warped wood scraping the floor. Outside, she walked amid a sea of people moving with intent towards something or someone. She wandered aimlessly until it was time for a hot drink. The bay window separated her from the bustle inside the café. People in twos, threes and fours, drinking and talking. How could she fit in such a place alone with her sad little drink and table for one? The awkward moment when someone would ask if the empty chair was taken and the shameful admission that ‘no, nobody was coming for her.’ She didn’t try to call any friends to join her; their tangible absence was more bearable than their hypothetical rejection. There would be side-glances and muttered words about the pitiful little tableau she was. Her inadequacies robbed her of her breath and followed her all the way home, whispering in her ear. Better to have a drink at home where nobody would be judging her.September 12, 2018 at 9:22 am #1092Philippa EastParticipant
Yes, I can see how that addition can work to show her trying and failing.
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.