When Belle and Tobi are thrown together, their feelings have to play second to his fame - and his family. As denial dominates their lives, both are led on journeys which will ultimately force them apart, and connect them forever.
It takes me a while to realise, but it’s me… Me who’s making that noise. A low, ghostly lament, birthed from the depths of my stomach.
The comprehension is a shot of antidote, and one by one my senses crawl into awareness. First, the darkness behind my eyes, bruised and thumping. Next, the vile aroma clinging to my nostrils and the back of my throat. Sour, with hints of a rolled twenty-pound note and a lingering, toxic aftertaste. Then the tiles beneath my cheek. Slick, sticky and fridge-cold. And finally, the weight of my clumsy bones pinning me to the ground, something which strikes me as odd as every day I seem to shrink a little more.
My skin shudders around my skeleton as I breathe in the clues, trying desperately to remember. To decipher where I am. How I got here.
Something I’ve queried a lot of late.
As I lie motionless, I become aware of a slow drip, dancing to the same rhythm and singing to the same pitch as the tap I still haven’t fixed. Water torture which continues to torment me day-after-day, night-after-night.
One drip every minute.
Coming to my attention on the day this all began, three months ago, when my own tears were too numb to fall. The starting gun to this cruel countdown, marking my first step into the shadows, towards the precipice upon which I now teeter.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
One every minute.
Reminding me you’ve gone.
I try to move by wiggling my toes, and from somewhere within my stupor there's a nanosecond of calm as I recognise the soft, familiar weave of my shower mat.
I must be at home.
Please, let me be at home.
Inching myself up, I peel open my crusted lids, my whole, hollow, body convulsing as I desperately try to contain the sickness which ambushes every cell. Staring down at my dirty palms and bloodied kneecaps, my mysterious sobs take on a new level of power, surging up from my guts into my esophagus, over my bloated tongue and out of my stinging lips. Crashing and shattering against the walls and floor and door and ceiling of my tiny en-suite, congealing into a noise I am shocked to own.
As if being operated by someone else, I reach towards my Hindmarch clutch. My favourite unnecessary possession. Treated like a prize pet from the day I bought it, the silken suede, still immaculate eight years on. I drag it to my lap, fumble for my phone, then toss it from my burning hands, leaving it to lie like a dying dove, in a murky pond of mascara and sorrow.
My splintered screen flashes to life, shouting specifics at me as I recoil from its glare.
Thursday. Ten o’clock.
I should have been at work three hours ago.
I should be in the office. Writing business. Making money.
Doing what I do best.
At this point, I should panic. Launch myself into the shower, then run around drip-drying as I scrape my hair into a messy topknot, throw on a mismatch of designer clothing and order an Uber.
But today, I remain where I am.
I don't care.
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.
The omnipresent dichotomy in which I now seem to exist. Not caring, whilst knowing I should.
I have no desire to get up in the morning. Or go to bed at night. I don't notice if the sun is shining, clouds are gathering, or the peculiar spring snow is falling. A smile directed my way matters as much as an ice cube in hot water. An angry word barely touches me. My family, my friends - I look at them and feel nothing. Food is pointless. Drink is tasteless. Although sometimes a necessity.
The drink that is…
Wedging my phone to the spot between my eyebrows, I press hard, hoping for some kind of download. But there's nothing. No answers to my myriad of unspoken questions. So I thrust it against my ribcage instead, pressing harder this time, urging it to break through my brittle bones and charge the ailing organ inside this empty space.
I rock back and forth, in synchronicity with the confusion which spins me left and right, up and down. And as I become one with the cadence of lunacy, I hear a voice emerging from between the folds of my coat, the muffled monologue of my mother hanging me from an even higher rung of bewilderment.
‘It’s so wonderful to hear from you darling. Everything okay? Belle? Hello? Darling… are you there?’
I’ve called my mother.
I’ve called my mother?
Staring at the screen, I see MUM running like a ticker-tape across a photo of the two of us sharing our infamous Julia Roberts smile. Almost perfect reflections of one another, only the lines of time on our faces, defining us as individuals.
The moment it had been taken, she’d snatched my phone and delved into my contacts, swiping her spindly, paint-stained fingers through my endless list of clients. Finally finding her entry, she attached the picture, then edited her name. Mum changed to MUM.
‘Now, you’ll definitely know it’s me calling!’ she giggled, handing back the device as if presenting me with a trophy. ‘Might mean you’ll pick-up a bit more often darling.’
She giggled again, that light, breathy resonance which had appeared not long after my father left. An 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, eternally hopeful it may blossom into something more tangible.
But somehow, all she managed was to achieve the opposite, and her desperation now greets me every time she calls. Mocking the memory of that one sweet moment. Repelling me from answering.
Yet today, as I stare down into her troubled aquamarine eyes, I suddenly realise… It's me who’s desperate.
Suddenly, I want my mum.
Suddenly, and undeniably. The thirteen-year-old who died the month my father left, rising from the grave to take possession of thirty-year-old me.
We need our mum.
Not a conscious desire, rather 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.
With this frightening understanding, my sobs build into a helpless crescendo, my voice strangled between hands of despair.
How does a daughter tell her mother she’s had enough of this world?
How does she explain she sees no future?
Mummy, I eventually whisper.
But it’s all I can manage, a tsunami of nausea sweeping me back and down into an empty void.
It’s where I want to be.
A place which doesn't hurt.
A place where you still exist.
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 watches me from her herringbone armchair, her warmth coating me like a fleece blanket, slowly soothing me back into a nest of velveteen cushions behind where I perch. When she begins to speak, her words float across my skin, even though their significance pierce me like bullets.
‘Belle, let’s start with why you’re here, shall we? …Is that okay? …Belle?’
The way she 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 spring sunshine. I imagine my mother enunciating it in the same way. How it might have made things different. But that combination wasn’t one she’d ever achieved. Soft yes. Authoritative never.
I attempt to offer this gentle stranger a smile, my lips aching with the exertion.
‘Belle,’ Ruby repeats, inching forwards, a golden line chasing her from between the blinds which shield us from the outside world. It lands an inch or two above her forehead, quivering amongst curls as black as my mood, and alive in a way in which I find impossible to connect.
Her mouth curves as mine had been unable, coming to rest in a compassionate half-moon. Empathy. Not sympathy. Thank god.
I’ve always hated sympathy. Why going home to mum’s last week was so difficult. She was never going to understand. Of course she wasn’t - I don't understand myself. Not my predicament, nor the tears which substitute explanation. So, after all these years of a mother who’d only ever held pity for herself, she attempted to turn it my way, seeking to comfort but not quite 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.
Once, I tried to unravel this concept with Harry. He laughed and called me a hippy in that lovingly dismissive manner of his, before moving evenly on to a less rebellious topic.
Me? A hippy? Earning a six-figure-salary from dredging our seas of oil?
Hippy, definitely not. Curious, however... A deep-dive into the mysteries of this world, something for which I longed. Constantly trying to entice the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with, down the rabbit hole. But Harry liked to stay above ground. Burying his head in the sand was as deep as he’d ever venture.
Ruby leans towards me again, her elbows resting on the note book which covers her linen clad knees.
‘Belle, can you tell me what brought you here today?’
I’m quiet for a few seconds, searching to find an answer which will satisfy both of us. But before I have a chance to speak, I start to sob. Tears splitting my cheeks as my torso slumps and my head falls into my hands, the weight of this unbearable, inexplicable grief once again too much to contain.
‘This,’ I eventually whisper, pointing limply at my wet face. ‘The crying.’
Forcing myself to sit straight, I pull a cushion to my lap and wait for Ruby to respond, but she says nothing. Looking at me, and into me, right through my pupils into the puffy space behind.
‘I don't know what’s wrong with me...’ I say.
‘And you want to discover the reason for that,’ Ruby says.
I don't know if it’s a question or a statement.
‘We don't need to get into the specifics today, but it’s helpful for me to understand what brought you here. Before we go over a few formalities - something we always do in our first session. To get a feel of things.’
Shifting in my seat, I try to find my ‘in control’ posture. Lengthening my spine and pushing my shoulders back, the way I would in a meeting.
‘They think it’s exhaustion.’ I say. ‘Work… That’s what I told them.’
I shiver, recalling the conversation with my boss when I told him that the doctor had instructed me to take some time-off. For a while, he said nothing. I could hear him across the other side of London chewing on his thumb, teeth clacking and lips sucking on dry, spikes of skin. Something he does whenever he’s figuring out the benefit-to-cost ratio.
I hate that sound.
Then, once satisfied with his calculations, ‘Absolutely! Of course. No problem. Just tell me how long you need, Mags. A couple’a days?’
When I said weeks, he coughed like he’d inhaled a splinter of nail into the back of his throat.
And then there was nothing.
His silence screamed of disappointment, and allowed me to hear the office in action in the background - my client’s name being shouted across the broking floor by a colleague taking full advantage of my absence, inadvertently taunting me for my time-out.
Finally my boss had found the courage to ask if I was okay, the sentence stilted by his continued attempts to dislodge the disbelief stuck between his tonsils.
‘Exhaustion,’ I invented, desperate to put us both out of our pain. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
‘Exhaustion?’ He repeated it like I'd just made up a new term.
‘Exhaustion,’ I echoed, trying to make it real. In both our heads.
The recollection sends shame running down my spine, my cashmere pricking under the pressure.
‘And then I cried.’ I offer Ruby a wry smile and half-hearted puff of laughter. ‘He had absolutely 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 no one dares mess with me. But he seems to have forgotten that he came up with the nickname when I was promoted. The first female director in my department - ever. It felt like an amazing achievement at the time, but recently… Well, sometimes I wonder if that’s the reason I got the position. You know, to tick a box. I don't think so, but… My boss knows I work hard. Respects me. He’s always looked out for me actually, in and out of the office. He was there that night---’
The night I met you.
‘That night?’ One of Ruby's eyebrows shoots an arrow into the sky.
I look at her quizzically, confused by the wayward direction of my speech and suddenly intimidated by her interest in it.
‘You said, your boss was there ‘that night’.’ She’s as calm as an ocean under a full moon, yet I can feel the tide turning within her, reaching towards my toes. ‘Your doctor's referral says you collapsed at the end of a night out. Is that the occasion you’re referring to?’
I turn ridgid. Look to the floor and shake my head.
‘It notes that you were unable to explain what had happened prior to the collapse?’ Ruby says, scanning the letter I presented her with upon arrival. ‘That when you regained consciousness you suffered memory loss. Is this still the case?’
I nod. ‘I’ve tried so hard to remember but… I don't know what's wrong with me. Nothing makes sense. Even before the collapse, I wasn’t normal. I’m not sure… I don’t think I can do this anymore.’
From behind a fresh wad of tissues, I follow Ruby's pen moving across her notebook. Whatever she writes, it’s not a lot, but enough to make me feel like I'm being studied. Which I guess is the case. What happens when you lose your mind.
‘Have you had any form of counselling or therapy before, Belle?’
If I had the strength to laugh, I would. Therapy is for the weak. Possibly, the self-indulgent. I’ve always held a quiet sense of pity for anyone who has to go that route.
And yet… Here I am.
‘Belle, I want to reiterate that everything we discuss is strictly confidential. The only exception may be if I am concerned for your safety, in which case I may contact your doctor. Does that make sense? Yes? Okay, good,’ she says.
From under her notes she pulls a clipboard with some sheets, reaches across the coffee table and hands it to me. The paper seems inappropriately white in this room’s subdued lighting, and I have to squint against the brightness to decipher the text. My vision, still tacky from the tears, and my brain, sapped from the exertion of talking. It’s a struggle to make the connection between the words on the left, the numbers on the right and Ruby’s explanation.
She reads my confusion.
‘I’ll go through that again, just so you’re sure…’ From anyone else, it would have been patronising, especially as I’m fairly sure the two of us danced to the same songs in our adolescence, but Ruby once again manages to make it sound caring.
She explains that the questions will help ‘us’ determine my state of mind. Give ‘us’ an indication of how far gone I am. She doesn't say this of course, her verison stays strictly professional, but we both know what she means. All I have to do is mark the number I feel is most applicable to each question. One, being strongly disagree. Five, being strongly agree.
I start to make my way through the list.
1. I find it hard to get up in the morning 1 2 3 4 5
2. I am anxious about going to bed at night 1 2 3 4 5
3. I feel a sense of disillusionment 1 2 3 4 5
Thankfully it’s not as challenging as I feared and my answers fall quickly and easily into a rhythmic pattern of detached fives.
And then comes question sixteen.
My pen begins to twist above the paper, a disconcerted figure of eight tracing the air. I focus my gaze determinedly on the numbers 1 and 2, willing the nib to stop, to circle one or the other. But I have no control, and as it starts to curve to the east, I sense the sun being swallowed by the night.
Not five. Please don’t circle the number five.
Finally, my pen slows and hesitantly I ring the ambivalent curves of number three, moving on quickly to the remaining, thankfully, less taxing questions.
And then it’s done.
Test completed. Just one point which caused me to stumble.
‘One too many’, I hear my father say.
Ruby’s features remain passive as she appraises my answers.
‘So, Belle. Your answers are consistent. Just one anomaly. Suicidal thoughts...’
Hearing my honesty out loud makes the whole of me sink.
‘I’m curious to know the reason for this answer?’ she continues.
‘I… Well, I can’t agree, but… I can’t disagree either. I’d never--- Well, I just wouldn’t. Couldn’t…’ My voice is reedy, yet at the same time holds unequivocal conviction.
‘You’ve thought about it though? Suicide?’