A key in the front door alerted Shell away from her meticulous formation of white lines. There were only two things she’d be fully interested in right now and it wasn’t her mate, Rosie, perched on the kitchen stool opposite; her youngest daughter, Phoebe, in the living room, or her eldest, Tilly, upstairs. Up until this moment the cocaine they’d scored a couple of hours ago had kept her buoyed. Now, though, the tired, disappointed eyes of her so-called husband, Neal, had jolted her back to reality.
Almost every night now, Shell was left longing for Neal to come home, calling and texting him throughout the day, wondering what he was up to, desperately trying for some attention, good or bad. But now that he was here and now that he’d seen what she was up to – what she was always up to, according to him – she’d much rather disappear. Her feelings had shot from desire and wonder to guilt and shame in one look. The night’s dark shadows making it difficult for them to see each other. Historic knowing bringing connection, knowledge, though no understanding.
Neal’s large, imposing build was slumped against the doorframe, his head shaking, chin raised, face pulled back. Shell knew it was her fault. Fuck it. She broke the tie and quickly snorted the piled high line of cocaine. He’d have been here if he gave a shit. Her head rose upright to tilt the remaining specs of dust up her nose, then she chucked the pink straw back down on the worktop and turned back to Neal, baring her teeth in a so-called smile.
Neal sighed, pushed the door closed behind him, then waited for Phoebe. “Dad,” she chimed, as if on cue. Shell watched as her daughter’s mass of sunny blonde curls bounced away from her and into his arms. The huge frame of a happy family history stood proud along the length of the hall beside them.
Shell could feel her skin caving in on itself, weighed down with dejection. She folded her arms over her weighty chest – half defence, half defiance – her weary face wired, held stern yet full of pain.
“She’s always been his bloody favourite,” Shell said to Rosie. “Manipulated him like a good’n, she has. And me. Spoilt brat does as she likes. But who am I to go against what Daddy says. I’m only her bleedin’ Mother. Not that she knows it. Not that she remembers those awful nine months she put me through; constantly cravin’ sweets; drainin’ me beauty from me; pullin’ me away from her precious bloody Daddy.”
Rosie’s scrawny frame was perched feet first with her battered old black ballet pumps on the beige leather stool. Her head was nodding, rotten teeth bared.
A spark of delight lifted Shell’s face. Neal hates the kids climbing on them stools. Rosie winked back through a dry, kohl-bashed eye, racked up another two lines, sniffed hers and motioned for Shell to do the same.
Hearing movement again, she turned to see Neal, Phoebe in arms, heading back through the hall towards her. He served her a sorrowful look before turning their backs and padding away into the living room. Shell’s eyes narrowed, she breathed deep, then grabbed for her glass of wine. Her sight flickered between Rosie and the little white line she offered.
I didn’t want this shit. But Rosie was all she had. Night-after-night, when Neal was supposedly working late or had decided to just stay down the pub. What else was I supposed to do? She’d tried having it out with him, asking him where he’d been, or, more to the point, who he’d been with. It has to be another woman. He’s gone off me. I’m too fat. Too old. Too boring. Of course Rosie had listened and tried to make her feel better, telling her it was him, that ‘he’s the fucker’, that men were all the same and you couldn’t trust them, that you just had to ‘get on with your own shit’. So-called advise layered between lines of cocaine, the content between them growing more direct and disdainful as the powder changed the chemistry of their make-up, forcing them forward, dissolving into….themselves. Yet together they remained, the two of them, tied tight, night-after-night, unbreakable, unshakable, unstoppable. Until, of course, Rosie left too.
As soon as Neal walked through that door Rosie was up and packing away her iPhone, keys and fake brown YSL wallet into her matching hand bag. Her dried up claws shaking as she did so, her mouth pulling at her bottom lip, face twitching. Shell continued staring down at the dust covered worktop. Her body wired in on itself, pulsing and yet paused. She didn’t care what Rosie, or even what Neal, was up to now. That same void feeling had taken hold of her again. The air thick, its force beating loud rhythmical waves against her chest.
Shell wished the worktop would open up and allow her to fall in and away. She wondered where she’d go. To hell probably. For being a bad mother and a bad wife and a fake friend. Maybe if she slammed her head down on it hard enough it might happen. Maybe she’d actually feel something then. She knew she wouldn’t do it though. Knew she couldn’t. She couldn’t really leave them. Didn’t want to. She loved them. She loved him. He just didn’t love her. Or he hated the coke. She hated it too. She also hated him not being around, going down the pub. Seeing other people.
Rosie hopped of the stool and gave Shell a cracked lip kiss on the cheek before turning for her own escape. “Don’t let him blame you,” she sneered. Her voice croaky from too much smoke and mindless chatter. “Keep your chin up, babe, innit. I’ll shout you tomorrow, yeah.”
Shell didn’t reply. She watched as Rosie’s hawk-like demeanour returned to its sparrowed frame and fluttered out the door. She didn’t move though. Her whole body felt numb, frozen, shaking, though not cold. Adrenalin was scorching through her, tensing her inward, re-wiring her mind. Perspiration and pain seeping out through her pores.
He don’t really care about me. Look at the fuckin’ state of me. Sat here in my battered old jeans, no time to make meself look nice. All day spent lookin’ after ‘is bleedin’ kids, cleaning his bleedin’ house, makin’ his bleedin’ dinner. For what? So he’s free to go off and do what hee likes with whoever he like. I bet she’s blonde. He liked it when I was blonde. Back when I had the time and money to bother with my appearance Before the kids took over my whole fuckin’ life. I don’t even know who I am anymore. Shelley, the Mum. Shelley, the wife. Shelley the fucking do it all for everyone, don’t give a shit about yourself, mug.
From the living room she could hear the muffled sound of the television and the chatter of Phoebe and her Daddy. Fuck it. She chucked the pink straw back down onto the table and grabbed the Pinot from the fridge. She filled her glass to the brim, dumped the empty bottle forcefully away then downed most of the contents in one go.
Placing the glass back down on the worktop, Shell stood then. Her fingers were rubbing into sweaty palms, her teeth grinding down against each other. Fuck this. She marched into the living room.
“Alright?” she said. Eyes narrowed.
Phoebe’s dopey sleep face looked up from Neal’s lap. He didn’t respond.
“Remember me? I’m your wife. You know, the lady you married, the one you had these kids with.” Shell didn’t really know where she was going with this. She just wanted some acknowledgement, some conversation, anything.
Neal shook his head. “Course I remember you, babe. You alright?”
“Is that it?”
Neal sighed. “What do you want me to say, Shell?”
“Well, you might come and say hello for a start.”
Points up, she’d moved to centre stage in front of the TV. Her hands were up on her hips, one leg jutting out towards them.
What the fuck are you doing, Shell? Some fraction of her brain was firing signals to her leg, its twitching begging retreat, while another division held fast. Fuck him, came another direction. He’s playing the cool card. He wants me to attack so he can say it’s all my fault again.
“I’m always making sure you’re all ok,” she said. “Not that any of you give a shit.”
Neal was lifting Phoebe up onto her tired legs. “Time for bed now, princess. I’ll be up to tuck you in in a bit. Go on.”
Phoebe did as she was told and padded off to bed, giving Shell a dirty look on her way past. Shell scowled at her daughter – fucking brat – then squared back on Neal.
Neal switched off the TV and sat back, his arms coming to cross over his chest. “I don’t know why you have to be like this, babe.”
“Ha” scoffed Shell’. “Fucking babe!”
Again, Neal shook his head. “You know I hate that shit you keep shoving up your nose, especially round the kids. And you know I hate that so-called friend of yours too. So, how do you expect me to be when I come home and find it all going on anyway?”
Shell didn’t reply.
“I’ve been at fucking work all day and I stay out late so you can have your space to do your shit. But it still goes on, doesn’t it.”
Shell’s body was retreating back towards the TV, her centre of balance faltering, her sense of strength lessening. Coolness was rising up around her neck and shoulders, she breathed deep to counteract it. A half laugh, half cry came falling out before she brought it all back again; her body straight, arms folded. “How dare you point the fucking finger at me, saying you’re stayin’ out for me. Pah!
“I do everything for this fucking family.” Her voice was quivering, her face pulling itself back in horror. The voices in her head fighting again. Is it me? Am I really to blame? Shell looked away, breathed again.
“I try and do things for us,” she said, looking back to him earnestly. Her big blue bloodshot eyes welling. She sniffed hard; didn’t want to be weak; to let him hurt her again.
Neal’s body slumped into the sofa, his eyes searching the room. “Maybe the problem is that you’re trying too hard, Shell. Maybe you just need to chill out a bit.”
“Too hard? Too fucking hard? Well somebody’s gotta do something, haven’t they. It’s not as if you do anything, is it? We hardly fuckin’ see you and when we do you spend all your time with fuckin’ Phoebe. Have you forgotten you’ve got another daughter. Her name’s Tilly, remember? And me, Shelley. Fuckin’ mug face, Shelley. You know, your wife?”
Big globules of pain were dripping from Shell’s face now. Her hard exterior dam had cracked. He’d cracked it; had upset her again. Her body leant back against the sideboard, the TV rocked in time to her emotional outpour.
She stamped her foot down hard, child-like. “I just want some more attention,” she managed to whimper, before her body began its retreat again, embarrassed, ashamed. The anguish inside her still raging, though she longed for him to hold her.
“I miss us,” she tried. Her body drooped, face damp with tears and perspiration. The cocaine still fuelling her. The alcohol too.
“I don’t think now’s the time to talk babe. I’m shattered. And you…well….” Neal tried smiling. “Let’s just go to bed now, yeah. We can talk tomorrow. Promise, babe. I’ll try and get out of work early.”
“So that’s it, is it? That’s all you’ve got ta say? Tell me to go to fuckin’ bed. Why don’t you go to bed? If you remember where our so-called bed is. You hardly sleep in it anymore. Or you’re in and out while I’m asleep, one of the two.”
Even as she spoke, Shell could well understand why he did what he did; she was fucked up. Pride and pain and adrenalin kept the bullshit pumping though. She didn’t know how to break it down, was scared, in fact, of what might happen if she did let go.
Neal pulled himself slowly up out of the sofa. His huge frame hovered before her shrivelled mess of a body. “I’m knackered, babe.” He raised his hands out together then, open, to her. “Let’s go to bed.”
Shell just stood there, the tears subdued, her body still shaking, roused, frantic. Her mind flitting. Rosie’s incessant comments from before now audible in her mind. ‘Don’t let him blame you,’ she’d said. It was exactly what he was doing. She was being irrational too though.
“Well.” Neal dropped his hands letting them slap against his thighs in defeat. “I’m going to bed.”
Shell slumped further down into the same spot, listening, like she always did, to his steps. Again he was walking away though. Her face scanned the room; searching for help. Then she marched back out to the kitchen, grabbed her cigarettes from the side, sparked one and inhaled deep.
Fucker seems to think I’m some kind of push over, doesn’t he. Turnin’ it all on me. Trying to turn my kids against me. Making out like I’m some kind of nutter, that it’s all in me head. How am I supposed to react when he doesn’t answer my calls or texts. Thinks he can just stay out all night. Try and say it’s for my benefit. Cheeky fuckin’ arsehole. I’ll find out who he’s with. I’m gonna prove this ain’t me. Try and twist my own fuckin’ head against me. We’ll see. We’ll fucking see.
Her eyes and mouth were wide, gulping for life as the alarm clock clanged by her side. Shell hit it hard but the banging still buzzed in her brain. Groaning, she turned to see Neal’s side of the bed crumpled but empty. She vaguely remembered rousing to his leaving. It would still have been dark; she wouldn’t have seen him; but she’d felt him. She always felt him. Felt his disappointment. His disgust when he looked at her.
Pulling his pillow in towards her face, Shell breathed in the leftover scent of stale beer and dusty plaster. She’d grown to like the smell. It was him; his work; his life. It was the closest she got to any of it these days. She inhaled deeper, then pushed it away again. Aftershave. He’d been wearing aftershave. The Hugo Boss she’d bought him for Christmas. Why was he wearing fucking aftershave to work? The cheatin’ bastard. He’s always so quick to point the fucking finger at me, play Mr. Nice Guy, while he’s out fucking some tart.
For God’s sake. The other side of her brain was gearing back into action. You’ve only just woken up. Thoughts of deception were snaking their way round her neck, constricting her breathing, engulfing her in the smell of deceit. She repeated her Mum’s words to herself. Just get up and get on.
“Fuck,” she said, her eyes catching sight of the clock again. 08:30. She shook her head, hurried to use the toilet, scraped back her hair back, splashed water on her face and pulled on yesterday’s jeans and T-Shirt.
“Quick, come on Till’s, we’re late.” Tilly was up and dressed in her uniform, playing with her Sylvanian family set. Good girl. Shell smiled. Now to find your brat of a sister.
The whizzing of car engines and beeps and American accented directions should have been enough of a clue. She didn’t need bother looking in her room – Phoebe was downstairs on the computer already. Shell’s face narrowed arrow-like as she bounded down the second set of stairs into the living room and straight at the TV, punching it off.
Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, her lips curled into a snarl. Her golden streaked hair was half tied in a messy knot to the side of her head, strands pulled and hanging haphazardly around it. Her greying pink pyjama top was splattered with chocolate milk. The half-empty glass sat, surrounded by chocolate circles, on the glass table beside her.
“Move,” Shell said, her finger pointing at the door.
“But Daddy said I could play computer today.”
“Well, Daddy’s gone to work now, ain’t he. And you’ve got to go ta school. So get!”
Marching on into the kitchen, Shell went straight for the sink; she needed water. The rain-splattered window wasn’t helping with her vision; everything looked blurred amidst a grey gloomy background. She longed to go back to bed. One day off from school wouldn’t hurt…
Screechy girls voices calling at her from the living room brought Shell back to reality and she stormed back to find Tilly trying to drag Phoebe off the sofa.
“She won’t get ready, Mum, and I’ve already missed registration.”
“Right, Till’s, go make the sandwiches. Seems this little madam needs treatin’ like a baby.”
Shell grabbed Phoebe kicking and screaming and pulled her up the stairs and into her pink princess room. “I don’t know why you have to be such a pain all the time, Phoebe.” Shell dumped her down on the bed and dragged her pyjamas off like a rag doll.
“Why do you hate me so much, Mummy?” Phoebe’s skinny naked body had pulled back into the far corner of the bed. Her tanned arms and legs wound round a soft white middle, her blonde mop drooping from the hair band Shell had tied in yesterday morning. Shell rolled her eyes.
“I don’t hate you, Phoebe.” She kneeled down by her side then. “Sometime’s in life we’ve gotta do things we don’t wanna to do. Like getting ready for school. We gotta think about other people, init. Like Till’s who’s waitin’ for us. So, come on, be a good girl and put your uniform on.”
“I don’t want to.”
‘She’s just like you, you know,’ Neal always said.
“Right. Have it the hard way.” She yanked Phoebe’s arms away from her body and forced each hand into the blue and white chequered summer dress. She should have been in her winter gear by now, but of course Neal wouldn’t give her the money to buy it. ‘I’ll take her shoppin’ when I’ve time,’ he’d said. That was weeks ago.
“Mu-um.” Tilly was calling from downstairs.
“Come on,” Shell said, pulling Phoebe up off her bed. She jerked open her top drawer and chucked a pair of white knickers at her. “Put these on.”
“Right, now get your scrawny arse down those stairs.” Shell pulled at Phoebe’s arms again and shoved her out the door and down the stairs. Phoebe wafted back into the living room.
“PHOEBEEE,” yelled Shell. She squeezed her feet down into her scruffy Reeboks and whisked Phoebe’s shoes up off the floor. “I’ve had enough of you kid.”
Stomping into the living room and tugging Phoebe up by the arm, Shell finally went flailing out towards the car. Tilly was waiting patiently by the front passenger door.
“Fuck, the keys.”
“Mum.” Tilly said, dangling Shell’s keys at her.
“Open the door then Till’s.”
Tilly did as she was told and Shell chucked Phoebe into the back, jumped into the front seat and sped off to the school, swerving to miss their neighbour returning from her own school run. “Fucking prissy pants,” she muttered.
“Didn’t think you was gonna make it today,” croaked Rosie. She’d been waiting for her outside the school gates. “Fancy a coffee?”
Shell sunk down onto the steering wheel. Her eyes caught Tilly’s before she shut the car door behind her. She didn’t like Rosie either. Nobody did. Shell wasn’t sure if she even did. She wasn’t sure about much these days. Coffee sounded good though.
Rosie re-opened the front passenger door and edged in beside her. “You alright, mate?”
Shell turned to face her. She could smell stale tobacco smoke and cheap body spray – the same rich scent Rosie always wore. It wasn’t pleasant. Shell would have far preferred to have gone home on her own to bed, back to the stale stench of Neal.
“Sorry, mate,” Shell said. “I’m alright. Just tired. Don’t think I can face going out for coffee though.”
“Well, it’s a good job I’ve got some at mine then, init.”
Walking in to Rosie’s was like entering some weird doll museum. Shell hated it. The thought of going to Costa’s, or ‘cost-a-lot-for-coffee’ as Neal called it, was bad enough, but she’d forgotten about the masses of cold, unblinking eyes that would stare at her at Rosie’s.
“Right then.” Rosie rubbed her hands, removed her black oversized puffa and shoved it on the dirty white Formica worktop. “Coffee.” She then went about filling and starting the kettle, pulling two cups from the sink and grabbing the milk out of the fridge. All while Shell stood, motionless against the doorframe, watching, seemingly mesmerised.
Returning to look at her, Rosie shook her head then turned back around and into a cupboard behind her. She returned grinning and holding a clear freezer bag with a big white, chalky rock inside. “This’ll sort you out.”
Flutters of excitement stirred in Shell’s tummy. Her body craved the rush again, the adrenalin pumping already, urging her forward, her mind buzzing at the thought alone.
“I….” She stepped forward, her arms dropping from around her chest and grabbing the kitchen side. Then she pushed back, one hand still clinging, the other back around her middle. “I’m supposed to be havin’ dinner with Neal tonight.”
“Fuck him,” said Rosie. Her face peeling back in disgust. “Do you really think he’s gonna come back tonight? Don’t he say that shit to you every night? I told you, babe. He keeps blamin’ you, init. I know this shit, yeah, you gotta trust me.”
The kettle clicked and she turned away again, hurrying to spoon coffee, sugar, milk and water into the cups. Jolted movements, rushed, her mind already drilling out something else. She dumped the cups down in front of Shell, the hot beige liquid spilling along one side. Then snatched up the cocaine, tapped the rock delicately against the kitchen side and shuffled out the dusty contents.
“We can’t do this now,” Shell said. Her mouth was grinning, her body tingling at the simple thought of playing in day light. Of course she knew she would. She always did. Rosie was in charge, just like Neal was, even Phoebe. She turned away. I’m fucking weak.
“Here,” said Rosie, handing her a straw and pointing down at the long line of fun in front.
“To freedom,” Shell said, leaning forward to accept her gift.
Back at home in the living room alone, Shell felt the silence stabbing at her from all angles. It prodded at her body, pulled at her mind. She was sat on the sofa in the same spot Neal fell into, when he was there. The house had been tidied, top to bottom and she was trying now, desperately, to chill out. The TV was blaring monotonously out towards her but nothing was getting through. The deep red, heavy curtains and the grey day of the road outside were a more interesting frame to Shell right now. A few cars had zoomed past but otherwise nothing much happened. Nothing much ever happened in Shell’s life anymore. The view she was looking at now was like a still from the same motionless picture of her own dull life.
Except there was something exciting calling to her from back in the kitchen. Her bag full of fun from Rosie. It was about the best she was gonna get. Neal hadn’t returned her calls or texts about dinner tonight. She felt like a mug for even thinking he’d act any different.
Her fingers drummed against the coffee cup. She glugged the remaining few mouthfuls and placed it down next to Phoebe’s chocolate glass from earlier. ‘She’s just like you,’ Neal had said. He wasn’t wrong.
Wonder where we’re gonna go for dinner? It’ll probably be take-away. Neal hated sitting in restaurants. ‘Why would you wana go out when you can sit in the comfort of your own home,’ he’d said. ‘We’ve got a dishwasher.’ He never did get the idea of dressing up. It was too much like hard work for him. Forget what Shell wanted. Not that she’d be able to fit into any of her dresses now anyway. She couldn’t even squeeze into a bra let alone a little black dress.
“Fuck’s sake,” she said, flicking off the TV forcefully and chucking the remote back down on the floor. “You ain’t going nowhere you silly fool.”
Then she was up, rearranging the cushions on the sofa, neatly arranging any loose DVDs back against the shelf, hanging the curtains perfectly in line.
Still the big bag of fun called to her from the kitchen.
Suddenly Shell was running. Her whole body clawing at the air that divided her from her family. Every muscle moving, grasping, forward. Every ounce of energy poured into sprinting.
Her babies were pulling at the bars that caged them, their little faces pouting, crying. Neal behind them, his big strong arms yanking at the metal, his teeth bared, clenched, tugging. All of them trying to escape. To get to her. To help her. Shell pushing out, them pulling in. The great expanse of nothing between them widening.
Gone were the thoughts of anyone else in between them. Gone were any issues with Phoebe or Tilly and their own whims and fancies. This was win or lose territory and Shell had only one goal in sight.
How pathetic she’d been to even think anything else. How childish. A so-called mother of two, whinging on about not getting enough attention. She had more than enough attention. More than enough life and enjoyment. Only now did she realise. Only now that it was being sucked away from her, back into the blank abyss.
Her whole body grabbed against gravity. Her will surging on, towards her babies, for her husband. There was no way she was going to let them go. No way she was going to give up. She’d never even wanted to.
All that bull shit about them not caring or her seemingly giving up caring. It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was that she got back to them. That she could start again with them. That she could free them. Free herself. That she could show them really and truly and honestly how much she loved them.
And then there was Neal. Shell’s eyes squinted, her face scrunched up against the bright lights beaming down around them. The beep of a machine in the distance calling. And his smile. Tears.
“Oh, baby,” he said, pulling her into him and then holding her out to him; looking to see that she was real, that she was really looking back into his eyes. He held her as if it was the last time he might ever get the chance.
“We thought we’d lost ya.” He grabbed her again. “Oh, God, Shell.” His strong broad, gentle arms held her like they used to. His vision set directly on her. That same dusty aroma encircling them.
“I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry you’ve felt….oh, it doesn’t matter.” He held her head in one hand, his other taking her hand. “We’re gonna get through this, babe. We’re gonna sort this shit. No more messin’, yeah. It’s me and you, babe, yeah. Always has been, init. We just got lost a bit, init. But I’m here now, baby. I’m right here, by your side. I’m here for you, ok?” He shook her hand then. He wanted a response.
Shell’s breath caught in her throat. It was everything she’d been longing for him to say and yet everything was different again now. None of the bullshit from before mattered any more.
“I’m sorry too, baby,” she said. Her eyes holding his, their connection strong, knowing, understanding.