Bad Timing and Me

Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Two people, forced apart, connected forever.
First 10 Pages

Belle

Chapter One.

God... that noise. What is it? Please, make it stop!

But it doesn’t, and almost a minute must pass before I realise... It’s me.

Me, making the noise. A hollow, harrowing lament. The cry of a thousand lost souls bound as one.

This comprehension is a shot of antidote, and one-by-one my other senses crawl into awareness. The darkness behind my eyes, bruised and thumping. The smog clinging to my nostrils and the back of my throat, sour, with hints of a rolled twenty-pound note. The iron tang from where my teeth clamp the inside of my cheeks. And the clumsy weight of my fragile bones on a fridge-cold surface.

I inhale sharply, my jagged, rattling breath catching at the top, allowing a couple of seconds of dislocated silence as I try desperately to decipher where I am.

How I got here.

Conjuring every ounce of the strength I do not possess, I force a wiggle into my toes. They graze something soft. Familiar. The chunky weave of my bathmat prompting a vapour of calm and a long, sobbing exhale.

I must be at home.

God… Let me be at home.

Inching myself up, nausea ambushes every cell, my body convulsing and sweating as I struggle into an awkward side-seat. Prising open my sticky lids, my vision appears like muddy water which has yet to settle. Requiring me to blink and blink, and blink again, until sketchy shapes begin to take form and finally, I can see. My shaking hands – knuckles ripped, and palms torn. My naked thighs. Bloodied kneecaps. Swollen ankles, and raw, dirty, soles.

With each layer of clarity comes an electric, animated pain. Coursing through my body’s war-torn landscape to form a powerful new crescendo of confusion, which surges up and out over my bloated tongue and stinging lips. Crashing and shattering against the walls and floor and door and ceiling of my tiny bathroom.

As if being operated by another, I reach towards my makeshift pillow. My Hindmarch clutch. My favourite unnecessary possession. Treated like a prize pet from the day it was purchased, its silken hide still immaculate eight years on. Snaring it between blood-crusted fingers, I drag it through a murky puddle of mascara and drool and delve inside.

I need an explanation.

I need my phone.

Pulling it into sight, the splintered screen bursts to life, its accusatory glare causing me to recoil violently against the scalding towel rack.

Thursday, 22 February

11.01

I should have been at work four hours ago. Writing business. Making money. Doing what I do best.

On a normal day, I’d launch myself into the shower then run around drip-drying as I scrape my hair into a messy topknot, snatch a mismatch of designer clothing from my wardrobe and book an overpriced Uber. But today, I remain where I am.

I don’t care if I’m late.

I don’t care about the business. Or the money. Or my precious reputation.

I don’t care.

About anything.

Peering into my phone’s face, I wait for recognition of mine. But it doesn’t know who I am. Rejecting me, demanding my pin, once, twice, three more times until a thin, transitory message tells me to, Try again in 1 minute. Leaving me with nothing more than my wraithy apparition in the fractured black glass.

Panic sears and pinning the device to the spot between my eyebrows, I press hard, and harder still. Praying for some sort of download. Answers to my unformed questions.

But nothing comes.

So I wedge it into the valley between my breasts instead. Urge it to break through my brittle bones and charge the dying organ within. Rocking back-two-three, forth-two-three, conducted by the cadence of lunacy whilst I imagine the bygone benevolence of my mother’s arms. Hallucinate her lullaby-breath in my hair. Her whispers of conviction which used to sooth me to sanctuary. Feverish echoes from once-upon-a-time, when I was able to call her a mother, and not just Mum.

‘Belle, darling. How wonderful--- Are you well? Lovely, really, lovely to hear from you, darling.’

But reality soon returns. The effusive, twitchy tones of my mother today, fizzling into my nostalgic delusion.

‘So pleased--- Thrilled--- Really thrilled you called. You never normally have the time...’

Her voice sounds real enough to touch.

‘How are you, darling? … … …Belle? …Darling? Everything okay? Hello? Belle? Are you there?’

Real, it is… Emanating from the resurrected phone I now cradle in my lacerated palms like some religious offering. Hanging me from an even higher rung of bewilderment.

I’ve called my mother.

Why on earth would I call my mother?

I stare at the screen, MUM captioning a photo of the two of us sharing our infamous red-carpet smile. Almost perfect reflections of one another, only the lines of time, defining us as individuals.

The moment my sister had captured that picture – the moment she’d said how identical we looked – Mum had snatched the phone and dived into my Contacts, chewing on her bottom lip as she’d swiped her spindly, paint-stained fingers through my endless list of clients. Finding her own entry, she oh-so quickly, attached the photo and then edited her name – Mum amended to MUM – a small, high-pitched ‘hmm’ accompanying her artistry.

‘Now, you’ll definitely know it’s me calling!’ she’d announced, handing back the device as if presenting me a trophy. ‘Might mean you’ll pick-up a bit more often, darling.’ She giggled. That light, breathy resonance which had appeared not long after she lost my father. A gauche attempt to substantiate her joke. To deter from what we both knew was the real reason for the hijack – a hungry endeavour to seed the rarity of that photo into my life, ever hopeful it may blossom into something more tangible. Somehow though, she only managed to achieve the opposite, and her desperation now greets me every time she calls. Repelling me from answering. Mocking the memory of what could have been, one, sweet, scattered moment.

Today, however, as I stare down into her warm-water eyes, I have a terrifying realisation.

It's me who’s desperate.

And suddenly, undeniably, I want my mum. Need her. The thirteen-year-old who died the month my father went, rising from the grave to take possession of thirty-one-year-old me.

We need our mother.

Not a conscious desire, one which stems from somewhere deep inside. An inherent, inexplicable tie to this woman who granted me my first breath. The woman who’s always been there, despite the fact she wasn't for so many years.

‘Mummy…’ I whisper.

But it’s all I manage, the rest of my sentence strangled between the calloused hands of despair.

Because how does a daughter explain to a mother something she doesn’t understand herself. How does she explain she’s lost? And isn’t sure she wants to be found.

‘…Mummy…’ I try again.

But this attempt resounds only in my head, and the effort swallows me whole. Down, up, and back into another measureless void.

A place I welcome.

A place I can pretend you still exist.

Chapter Two.

If there was a pantone called Kind, it would colour-match Ruby’s eyes. Rich, pure, and intensely comforting. Like a mug of Guatemala's finest.

She sits quietly, watching me from a tall armchair, allowing several seconds to drag by before she speaks. Her voice too, is kind. A fleece blanket, straight from the airing cupboard. And when her words appear, each one floats towards me, although their final impact strike like bullets.

‘Let’s start with why you’re here shall we, Belle?’

The way Ruby says my name is soft yet authoritative, her glossy lips meeting in the middle to pronounce the B like a rosebud popping open in the late-spring sunshine. I imagine my mother enunciating it in the same way. How it might have made things different. But that wasn’t a combination Mum ever achieved. Soft, yes. Authoritative, never.

‘Belle?’ Ruby repeats, inching forwards.

A slim, golden line chases her from between the blinds shielding us from the outside world. It comes to rest a centimetre or two above her regal forehead, quivering amongst curls as black as my outlook, and alive in a way in which I find impossible to connect. Lowering my gaze, I take in the rest of Ruby’s face. Attempt to intuit who this friendly stranger is beneath her warm brown skin and perfectly symmetrical features. Wide-set eyes like two Californian almonds, and a broad-bridged, soft-tipped nose, precisely centred above generous, pillowy lips, which curve into a compassionate half-moon.

Empathy.

Not sympathy.

Thank God.

I can’t deal with sympathy. It’s why staying with Mum these past few days has been so excruciating. Mum, The Queen of Sympathy. Or rather, self-sympathy. Why when she attempted to turn it my way, two decades too late, it was like an awkward sketch. Mother seeking to comfort daughter, but not sure how. Reaching-retracting, reaching-retracting, as though scared to touch me lest my insanity be contagious.

They say we choose our parents. That our souls know who is right for this lifetime's purpose. Which makes me wonder about mine. My purpose, as well as my parents.

I once tried to unravel this concept – both concepts actually – with Harry. Nine years into our relationship, and a couple of weeks into our engagement, when I decided the two of us should get to know each other on a deeper level. He laughed. Called me a hippy in that lovingly dismissive manner of his, and then moved evenly on to a less rebellious topic.

A hippy? Me? Earning a six-figure-salary from dredging our seas of oil?

Hippy, no. Curious, however… Mystified by the workings of this world.

For years, I’d longed for an opportunity to deep-dive down the rabbit hole alongside the man with whom it seemed I’d spend the rest of my life. But Harry… Harry liked to remain firmly above ground. Burying his head in the sand was as deep as he’d ever willingly venture.

‘Belle?’ Ruby’s voice returns me to the room. ‘Belle, I believe something specific brought you here today.’

I don’t know if it’s a question or a statement. A prompt, maybe. Whatever its purpose, Ruby’s ready for a response, elbows propped on the empty pages of a notepad on her knees, palms pressed into a prayer.

Searching my vacant brain, I clutch for words, hoping to find some I can fit together, into an answer which might satisfy us both. In the background the seconds of an invisible clock murmur by, calculating, condemning my ineptitude. Like I’ve regressed in age. My father looming over me, tapping the Casio on his wrist. His face growing greyer with every disappointing tick-ticking of time.

We must be into double figures when I finally give in. The unbearable, inexplicable grief which seems to have taken root inside, splitting my cheeks as I double in two.

‘Belle, it’s okay,’ Ruby says. ‘In your own time. Tell me what led you to therapy.’

‘This,’ I eventually whisper, rising from my thighs, pointing limply at my wet face. ‘The crying. I don't know what’s wrong with me.’

Ruby’s face stays straight as she studies me. Like she’s looking right inside, straight through my pupils into the puffy, desolate space behind.

I reach for a cushion, hug it to my chest.

‘And you want to understand,’ she finally says.

Again, I have no idea if it’s a question or a statement.

‘We don't need to get into the specifics today, Belle, but it is helpful for me to understand exactly what encouraged this meeting.’

If I had the ability to laugh, I would. Encouraged, not the expression I’d have chosen. Forced, maybe. Coerced. What is the word, for when one has no other choice?

‘So, let’s start there,’ Ruby says, elongating her back, reaching for a pen, ‘and then we’ll go over a few formalities – something we always do in a first session.’

‘They think it’s exhaustion,’ I say. ‘Work – that’s what I told them.’

My skin constricts, like I’m falling through the surface of an icy lake. The conversation with my boss, Benedict – when I had to tell him, the doctor had instructed time-off – still fresh with disrepute. The static pulsing down the phone. The sound of Benedict chewing on his thumb, teeth clacking and lips sucking. Something he always does when figuring out the benefit-to-cost ratio.

When he’d finally replied, I’d been seconds from passing out. My lungs swollen with stagnant air and my head swimming with the shame of letting him down.

‘Absolutely. Of course. No problem...’ he said. ‘Just tell me how long you need, Mags. Two, three days?’

‘Err… Weeks,’ I said.

He started to cough. Like he’d inhaled a splinter of nail, or spike of dead cuticle into the back of his throat.

And then, once again, there was nothing but fuzz.

Benedict’s silence had allowed me to eavesdrop on the office in the background. The familiar banter between colleagues – and friends. The sound of my team continuing without me – shouting rates, crunching numbers, concluding deals. The shapeless vowels of Jake, my nemesis – taunting me for my time-out, as from the other side of London I’d listened to him sweet-talking my biggest client.

It felt like minutes before Benedict had rediscovered his voice.

‘Err, are you, err, okay?’ He asked, his usual eloquence stilted by his continued attempts to dislodge the disbelief wedged between his tonsils.

‘Exhaustion,’ I invented, desperate to put us both out of our pain.

‘Exhaustion?’ Benedict repeated, like I’d invented a new term.

‘Exhaustion,’ I echoed. Trying to make it real. In both our heads.

‘And then I started to cry,’ I say, offering Ruby a small shrug. ‘Benedict had no idea how to respond. I don’t think he thought I had it in me. He calls me Mags – as in Maggie Thatcher. He tells people it’s because I’m made of iron, but he coined the nickname when I was promoted. The first ever female director in my department.’

‘A great achievement,’ Ruby smiles.

‘I guess. Although… Well, recently, I’ve been wondering if… Maybe, that’s why I got the position? You know, to tick a box.’

‘Is there reason for you to believe that, Belle?’

‘My colleague, Jake. He says it’s the only reason.’

‘What about Benedict? Do you believe he’d have promoted you to tick a box?’

I shake my head. ‘He’s the last person to conform to ‘all that’,’ I say, trying to return Ruby’s swelling smile. ‘He couldn’t care less about gender, race, age… As long as the team’s happy and we’re bringing in money. There’s only one occasion I can even think of when he’s differentiated me by sex.’

‘In what way?’

‘Oh, Jake was drunk and kept berating me for being ‘too female’. I’d allowed a client some extra time to think about a deal, and Jake accused me of ‘lacking balls’. The fact was, this client was suspicious of any idea which wasn’t his. I knew if I pushed him too hard, he’d have run. All he needed was a night to sleep on it – to convince himself he was the mastermind, not us – well, me, actually. Jake asked Benedict what he’d have done in that situation, and without hesitation Benedict said there’s no way he’d have given the client any leeway. I was gutted. You should have seen the sanctimonious glee in Jakes’s eyes. His smarmy, snake-lipped smile. He even managed to grow a whole half-inch, so he was almost five-foot-seven.

‘But then Benedict laughed. ‘That’s the problem with the male ego, mate,’ he said. ‘A lot to be said for being a bird – engaging a bit of emotional intelligence. Reckons Mags got it spot on.’ It was nice – receiving that reassurance. It doesn’t happen often in my world.’

‘Do you mind Benedict reffering to you like that?’

‘Mags, you mean?’

‘Being ‘a bird’?’

‘Oh, god, no. No. That’s nothing.’ I shrug and Ruby writes something on her pad.

‘And the occasion you’re referring to?’ she says. ‘Was that before your promotion or after?’

‘Erm, after. I think… God, my brain. Yes, definitely after. It was the same night as---’

A sticky inhale stifles the rest of the sentence. Blood coursing into my cheeks before draining quickly to my fingertips.

One of Ruby's eyebrows shoots an arrow into the sky.

‘The same night as when, Belle?’

Her voice is as calm as an ocean under a full moon, yet I can sense the tide turning within her, reaching for my toes.

‘The night I--- I---'

The night I met you.

Numbness settles as I focus determinedly on Ruby’s shirt. Concentrate on the metronomic rise and fall of the neatly tied bow at her breastbone, ebbing and flowing with envious ease.

‘Belle, your doctor's referral says you collapsed last week after a night out. Is this the occasion you’re speaking of?’

I shake my head. Slowly, methodically, using the opportunity to scan the room for escape. Because… I can’t tell her! Not about the night I mentioned. Not without altering her to the truth.

Without alerting her to you.

Thankfully, she doesn’t push for a response. Instead, she makes another note and then looks back at the stapled papers I presented upon arrival.

‘The referral letter says you were unable to explain the events leading up to your collapse?’ Ruby says. ‘That when you regained consciousness, you were suffering complete memory loss. Unable to explain what had happened prior to you waking up. Is this still the case?’

I nod and begin to cry. Again.

From behind a fresh wad of tissues, I follow Ruby's pen moving across her paper. This time, whatever she writes, it’s not a lot, but enough to take her onto a new page. Confirm I’m a case study. Which, I guess, I am. What one becomes when one loses their mind.

‘Have you had any form of counselling, or therapy before, Belle?’

My tears stall, and I become hot with embarrassment. Of course, I haven’t! Therapy’s for the weak. The self-indulgent. I know plenty of people who wear it like a badge of honour, but honestly, I’ve always held a quiet sense of pity for anyone who has to go that route.

Yet here I am.