Sugar and Snails
Halfway down the stairs, I sink to my haunches and hug my dressing gown across my breasts.
Below me in the hallway, Simon reaches up towards the row of coat hooks. His hand hovers above the collar of his black fleece and then falls, combing the sleeve as his arm flops to his side. “This is ridiculous, Di. We should at least talk about it.”
Can’t he see this has gone beyond talking? “It’s late. You’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
“Come to Cairo, then. Whatever’s bothering you, I promise, I can help.”
“We’ve been through all that.”
“Yeah, and you’ve served up one feeble excuse after another. Don’t you trust me, Di?”
Staunch as sculpted granite, Simon exudes reliability from every pore. Over the past five months, I’ve imagined him sharing my duvet, my toaster, my council tax bill. On good days, I persuaded myself I could summon up enough maternal sentiment to play mother to his kids. After tonight, I can’t envisage a casual catch-up over coffee.
Yet Simon rattles on, as if hope were a virtue: “Come to Cairo, Di. Come for a long weekend if that’s all you can spare.”
If I could explain, if I could open my mouth to speak, even, he would come to me. He would spring up the stairs and cradle me in his arms. If I could cry, perhaps, as other women can, and let my weakness make him strong. But tears don’t come naturally to me: I haven’t cried for thirty years.
I’m sandwiched between my parents in the back seat of a taxi, crawling along the Corniche with the Nile to our left. I’m fifteen years old and this is my first and only foray out of Europe.
We’ve wound down the windows but there’s not even the promise of a breeze. The driver hits the horn with the heel of his hand. Every time he does it my mother flinches and he hits the horn almost as much as he curses other drivers, which is practically all the time.
My father fans his face with a tourist map of Cairo. “It’s not too late to change your mind,” he tells me. “We won’t think any less of you if you do.”
My mother breaks off from rummaging through her patent leather handbag. “Honestly, Leonard, you certainly choose your moments.”
I try not to squirm on the tacky plastic seat. I’ve heard the quiver in my mother’s voice often enough, but I’ve never heard her call my father by his Christian name.
Our driver waves his fist and growls in throaty Arabic as he pulls past a camel cart weighed down with builder’s rubble. My eyes prickle, but I save my tears for later; crying is my mother’s prerogative after all.
The front door slams. I rise stiffly and stumble down the remaining stairs. Dragging my fingertips along the dado rail, I reach the kitchen and flick the light switch on the wall. I note the lustre of the sunshine-yellow cupboards and the chill of the tiles on my bare feet, but from a distance, as if I’m researching a stranger’s home.
I pull out drawers and rummage through the contents. I select my best knives and rank them by length along the worktop, the way a toddler might arrange her toys: breadknife; chef’s knife; carving knife; the whole gamut of blades, right down to the fruit and veg knife with the yellow handle, still smeared with dried threads of pumpkin from our supposed romantic meal. Pushing back my sleeve, I test each one against my forearm. None of them up to the job.
I fumble in the cupboard under the stairs for my torch and beam it around until it highlights an old shoebox stuffed with tools. The Stanley knife is a work of art in its simplicity, with its green plastic casing and satisfying heft in my hand. The blade seems sharp enough but it’s freckled with dirt-coloured paint. Taking a crossed-tip screwdriver, I unleash the blade and turn it over. The triangle of pristine steel peeping out from the sheath gives me an artisan’s sense of accomplishment.
My ears are abuzz with white noise as I push back the sleeve of my dressing gown to the crook of my arm. Flexing my wrist, the blood vessels reveal themselves below the surface like waterways on a map. The pads of my fingers trace a raised blue-green vein, from the middle of my forearm, through crossings of taut white scar tissue to the base of my thumb where it branches out with arteries and purple capillaries in a sanguineous river delta.
I locate a patch of clear skin amongst the tangle of old scars and apply the blade. At first there’s nothing more than a puckering at either side. As with sex, I’m sorely out of practice. I press harder, digging the tip of the knife so deep that by rights it should reach bone. Still nothing. Pressing harder still, a tiny red bauble bubbles at the tip of the blade.
Maintaining an even pressure, I scrape the knife along my arm. The bauble clones itself over and over, beads on a rosary that multiply and merge into a glistening red band. Dropping the knife, I bring my arm to my mouth: the vibrant colour, the taste of hot coins, the pain as sharp as vinegar spearing the fug of nothingness with the promise of peace. When Simon left, I was drowning. Now I’m floating on a sea of calm.
In the kitchen, I bind a folded tea towel round my forearm, gripping one end in my teeth to brace the knot. Secure as a swaddled baby, I mount the stairs to bed.
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