Propped up against goose down pillows, her face is ravaged and pallid, strung together with skeletal bone. In one hand is a lit cigarette. With her other, she picks at dry skin on her lip, gazing into the grey ether at the end of the bed. Her eyes glitter the gloom of the room. The burning cigarette tip fades as the line of ash grows between her two fingers. Eventually, ash drops on to her white duvet. It rolls down a crease.
She shakes the duvet and smudges the ash with her finger.
“Shit.” Her voice is laced with curlicued anger. I feel her rage tremble in her bloodstream. I remembered how it used to erupt. She would rant and scream, her voice stumbling in its darkness. I feel it now, again, as she rubs the ash into the linen; frustrated.
“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” I say.
I hear the plea in my tone, ‘don’t lose your temper’. She does too. She doesn’t like it. She looks at me.
“Who are you?”
Should I name myself? Describe my relationship? Neither get recognition and, eventually, it becomes evident that you are, in fact, nobody. You are no more than the ash at the end of her cigarette. I decide to distract her.
“I printed out the words to Jerusalem,” I say.
Yesterday, on the radio, we had listened to John Humphreys on the BBC discussing the bi-annual discussion that the BBC has about changing the current national anthem, God Save The Queen, to Jerusalem, the poem by William Blake. Now, she leans forward, eager, a glint in her eye, lifts her chin and starts to sing.
“God save our gracious queen. Long live our noble queen. God save the queen.”
It is 8.40am. Her voice is reedy, tinny, high pitched, off key, flat. The glint in her eye is golden. My mother was a Welsh nationalist.
“Very good,” I say, “Do you want breakfast?”
She looks at me suspiciously.
“Do you know how I like it?”
I nod. “Fifty-eight Cheerios, three chopped soft dried apricots from Waitrose and not too much milk.”
“Alright then.” She lapses back against the pillows. I feel like we have a truce. I go out to the kitchen. I pour the Cheerios.
“Only fifty-eight Cheerios,” I hear her call.
“I’m counting now,” I call back. The lie makes me feel uncomfortable. I return with the bowl on a rubber lined tray and a cheery false smile plastered on my face. “Here you are.”
She peers into the bowl, suspicious, looks up at me and smiles. Her one tooth at the bottom, front right of her jaw, seems ginormous.
“I need my teeth.”
I get them from the bathroom. She shoves them in and eats greedily, slurping and slopping the milk down her chin. She finishes and fishes around the bedclothes for her pack of cigarettes, takes one out and offers one to me. Back in the day, we used to sit, smoke and drink while discussing affairs of the world, along with my failed love affairs.
“Go on.” She proffers the packet of cigarettes.
It is 9am. It is my fifth cigarette in an hour. I take one. I light hers and then mine. She falls back against the pillow, her cigarette sending tendrils of smoke into the darkened bedroom. I lean back too and rest my legs on the side of her bed. Now there is an almost comfortable silence. I draw on the cigarette and tap the ash neatly into the ashtray. She watches me.
“Who are you again?”
“And did those feet…” I start to sing.
I find that hymn is particularly difficult to sing with no musical accompaniment after breakfast. I wonder if John Humphreys has taken that into consideration.