Trying to keep the peace in a turbulent household is a full-time job, especially when surrounded by eggshells. One forgets how many landmines can be hidden beneath the floors, knives concealed underneath the smooth veneer of carpets and rugs; how much, in treading onto and then later exploding (albeit, by accident), they hurt. Having navigated a relatively uneventful path for a hand-span of days – commendable, given the circumstances – it was inevitable she would eventually slip up. That it had taken so long and gone so smoothly up until this point was what surprised her. At the end of the day, it all came down to leopards and dogs. You couldn’t repaint the sitting room, just because you didn’t like the colour. Nor could you rearrange the make-up of the stew, just because you were now a vegetarian. People were who they were. They looked and acted a certain way. After a lifetime of operating as such, they weren’t about to change for you or anyone else. And besides… life was a series of challenges, most irksome when you were already struggling. It stood to reason that there were additional bumps.
It had been a difficult summer: hard on the body, worse on the mind. There had been decisions, sacrifices, tests… They had had to prove they wanted it, and how much. Cross bridges. Climb mountains. There was loss, and cost. And it carried on costing. Even now – here, on the other side; standing, walking, running; somewhere in the middle of where they used to be and where they wanted to be eventually, where they were trying to get to when they figured it all out – they were hitting walls and coming up against barriers. If there was a God – a matter that, lately, had come up for dispute – he had a wicked sense of humour. Each morning as she walked across the bridge, the one just shy of Charring Cross, the one on the Embankment; passing the bible bashers with their books on Christianity and their poster asking: “does Satan exist?”, she had to wonder. Either she was being tested for something bigger, better, beautiful… that would eventually become clear – like daylight, sunshine; something she suddenly didn’t have much of. Or she was being sabotaged and thwarted by a tyrant. For now, she had no alternative but to go with the punches. But that didn’t mean she had to like it or pretend that it didn’t hurt. Her back ached, her feet throbbed, her shoulders screamed continuously. And as for her head and stomach… it was best not to go there. She was managing in much the same way as she always did: reverting to the tried and tested, resorting to medicating in imaginative and stereotypical ways. But it was a short-term fix. Sooner or later the facade would crack, causing her to crumble. There was only so long things like thoughts and feelings could be suppressed. Her backpack was heavy. Her suitcase dragged. It was high-time she unpacked.
A wet November morning, the edge of winter. A small cafe in a suburban town. Having been soaked by the rain as she attempted to save her dignity from foul things in the kitchen, she was hunched over and shivering, cursing her mediterranean excuse of a coat. While it might serve adequately in climates used to providing: it offered little by way of protection from the elements right now. Once it dropped below 18 degrees, it was basically useless: more frivolous accessory than practical attire. Why she had brought it in the first place, escaped her. Something to do with a cute shop, a bad day and someone owing her a gift. In that sense, it had served its purpose, removing a thorn that might otherwise have festered, dragging out the matter, causing yet more pain.
But what about the coat of now? How was she supposed to navigate the mean-time: the time in the middle, the time with its own agenda?
As she bit back the tears, cursing her skin for being so thin, her heart so pathetically fragile, she was involuntarily rewound, returning kicking and screaming to where it had all begun, the reasons for the adventure rising from the grave to press against her eyelids. She had fled, running away from it all, taking her almost entirely broken and still breaking as far away as she could. It had been an act of self-preservation. That it hadn’t entirely worked out, that it had tested her in new and unanticipated ways, was something she had then had to accommodate. But she had borne it all without complaint or hesitation, resuming vertical, relocating upright, glueing back together and replacing her cracked and chipped. Was there no end to the assault? Everywhere she went, every path she took, there seemed to be a new monster. What was that all about? And did it happen to everyone or just to her? That was the question she was chewing on these days.
by Rebecca L. Atherton
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