Tapping my pen on the side of my desk I stare at the clock for what feels like the millionth time that day. I couldn’t focus on typing the letter I’m supposed to be working on. Not after so many interruptions from Sophie. She’s called 3 times already and I’ve only been at work a little over 2 hours. A pang of guilt hits my stomach like a thousand butterflies, reminding me that I probably shouldn’t have left her at home on her own but what choice did I have? I’m one unauthorised day off from getting the sack. And then what? Lose our home on top of everything else? That’s the last thing Sophie needs right now. She would never cope. Not in her current mental state.
Things were so different in the beginning. She was different. The old Sophie was full of laughter, she loved music and painting and riding her adorable baby blue push bike with the basket on the front. I can see her now in my mind, coming towards me down the cobbled street on our second date, her yellow floral dress billowing around her. She could’ve stepped right out of one of the quaint portraits she loved to paint so much.
She doesn’t paint now. Or listen to music. And she doesn’t wear dresses or curl her long dark hair. In fact I couldn’t say exactly what she does with her days when I’m not there, all I know is she’s laying on the sofa in her pyjamas when I leave for work and I find her the same when I get home. Like she’s anchored to the spot by the weight of her own sadness.
When the doctor first diagnosed her anxiety and depression I was naïve, I believed she’d pop a pill from her prescription, maybe sit and talk things through with a stranger in her counselling appointments and voile! My Sophie would return! If only I’d realised then that the human mind doesn’t work to schedules or expectations. In fact it’s probably better I didn’t know right from the start. At least I had hope then.
‘Simon?’ An impatient voice calls me back from my daydream. ‘I kinda needed that letter 20 minutes ago. Is there a problem?’
‘No, no problem Steve. Sorry, I’ll get it to you in just a tick’
He shakes his head slightly and walks back into his office. Steve isn’t a bad man but his patience has run thin. In the beginning he was very lenient, I explained what Sophie was going through and he allowed me to take some time off. As time went on though he expected – like me – that there would be some improvement and I’d be able to resume my usual working hours without interruption. This has yet to happen.
I finish up the letter half heartedly and pop it into Steve’s office. He’s on the phone luckily so I don’t have to face talking to him. Dropping the paper onto his desk he holds up a finger indicating that I should wait.
‘He’s just walked in actually, let me pass you over’ he covers the mouthpiece and tells me quietly that it’s Sophie’s sister on the other end.
I take the phone slowly. ‘Hello?’
‘Simon, I’m at the house, I can’t get any answer. I take it Sophie’s home?’
‘yeah course she is. You did call first right? You know she won’t answer the door if she’s not expecting you’
Steve is watching me. His expression is unreadable but I’m pretty sure he’s tired of this and wishing I’d get off his private line.
I turn my back to him and listen to Maria tell me that of course she phoned and that she’s worried. I curse myself for not just giving her a key when she asked but Sophie didn’t want anyone to be able to walk in to her safe space.
‘Listen, I’ll come home on my lunch and check everything’s ok’
‘On your lunch?!’ Maria’s voice rises and I can totally understand her panic ‘that’s over an hour away! You need to come now! Please Simon’
‘I can’t’ I’m trying to talk quieter ‘I can’t just leave work’
Steve coughs and as I turn around he mouths to me that I should go.
‘OK I’ll be with you in 10’ I say and pass the phone back to Steve to hang up.
‘Steve…’ I begin but he holds up a hand to stop me.
‘Take the rest of the day. Unpaid. Simon you’re really going to have to get something in place. You can’t go on like this and neither can I, I can’t have an assistant who’s never here to assist me!’
‘I’m so sorry Steve. I’ll come straight back after I’ve checked on Sophie’
‘Your mind won’t be on the job. I want you in bright and early tomorrow though’
‘Of course. Thanks Steve. And sorry again’
I hurry out of his office, my face flushed from stress and feeling a little embarrassed. I grab my jacket from the back of my chair and make my way out onto the street. The bright light temporarily blurs my vision after sitting in the shaded office. I make my way down to the car park, grabbing my keys from my pocket as I walk.
The journey is short, there’s little traffic at this time and I’m home in a little over 10 minutes. Maria is pacing up and down outside the little iron fence surrounding our front garden.
‘Oh thank god’ she strides over as she sees me getting out of the car.
I give her a small smile and hurry to the door. Walking in I immediately call Sophie’s name. Maria hurries past me, almost running down the short hall and into the living room.
I’m right behind her and we both stop, watching Sophie snoring quietly on the sofa.
I cant help feeling slightly annoyed. I’m on the brink of losing my job and I’ve been called back home yet again and only because my girlfriend is taking a nap. As soon as I can get into town I’m getting Maria that key.
Maria gently shakes Sophie’s shoulders ‘Soph? Sophie? Come on Soph wake up’
Sophie stirs and looks confused before sitting up and blearily rubbing her eyes. She looks from Maria to me and asks us what we’re doing there.
‘Maria was worried about you Sophie. She wanted to pop in but you wouldn’t answer the door. She called me at work so I came to let her in’
Sophie wrinkles her nose. ‘Maria, if I don’t answer I’m obviously sleeping. Why are you calling Simon at work for something so silly’
If Maria is annoyed she doesn’t let it show ‘I was just worried Sophie. Sorry if I overreacted’
‘If?’ Sophie’s voice is sarcastic and her eyebrows raised.
‘I’ll put the kettle on now I’m here yeah?’ Maria won’t take the bait, she’s used to Sophie’s sniping.
I get why Maria was so worried. When she was newly diagnosed Sophie threatened suicide on more than occasion, not wanting to be this new person stuck in this dark new mind. But that was months ago and although we need to of course be vigilant Maria would have her watched 24/7 if she could.
‘Sit with me Simon?’ Sophie calls through the door. I make my way to the sofa and she lays her head in my lap. ‘I’m sorry maria called you. But I’m glad you’re home. I worry when you leave’
‘I know you do lamb’ I stroke her hair softly. Lamb has been my pet name for her for as long as I can remember and yet neither of us remember where it came from. It calms her sometimes.
Maria returns with steaming mugs of tea and we sit and make small talk. Sophie doesn’t join in unless we specifically ask her a question and even then it’s one word answers. She has no interest in social interaction. She hasn’t for a long time but she makes no pretence about it now.
It must be hard for Maria. I don’t have siblings but I could see the close bond Sophie once shared with her sister. They’d go shopping together, meet for lunch, have girlie evenings with wine and Netflix when I was out with friends. Maria has lost a sister and a best friend.
After a while she stands and tells us she’d better get going. She kisses Sophie on the cheek awkwardly due to the angle she’s laying and Sophie refuses to move to help her. I can see the hurt in Maria’s eyes.
‘Let me walk your sister out’ I tell Sophie while lifting her head from my lap.
‘I’ll get that key for you’ I tell Maria quietly ‘I’ll go into town this afternoon and get one cut’
Maria nods ‘Call me if she needs me’
She always says goodbye with the same sentence. I’ve no doubt if Sophie wanted her here she would come in a heartbeat but she never does.
Back in the house I suggest to Sophie we get her dressed. She shakes her head. ‘How about some food then?”
‘Come on Soph you’ve got to eat’
‘I said no! Don’t start bloody nagging at me like a child Simon’
‘ok. I’m going into town, if you decide you want something text me and I’ll grab it. Whatever you fancy’
I wish just once she’d eat without argument. She’s a beautiful woman but there’s less and less of her since she lost all interest in food. She used to be curvy, we’d share picnics, restaurant meals, candlelit dinners and greasy fry ups when we were hungover. In fact a lot of our dates revolved around food! Now it’s a struggle to get her to eat a crumb and it shows on her ever thinner frame.
She’s suddenly standing ‘You’ve only just got home. I don’t want you to go’ We have this every time I leave the house. Her anxiety kicks in big time and thinks something’s going to happen to me or, her latest fear, that someone will break into the house.
‘I won’t be long’ I reach out to pull her into a hug but she backs away
‘I just don’t want you to go. Can’t you just stay here please. At least for a few hours? God Simon you’ve been at work all day and now you can’t even spend a bit of time with me?’
She’s trying to guilt me into staying. It usually works but this time I need to get into town and have this key cut for Maria. I can’t tell her that though. ‘Sophie I was at work 2 hours! And I will be less than an hour in town I promise. I’ll be back real soon’
She starts to cry then, it quickly turns to full sobs and incoherent muttering about me getting hurt and her being left on her own, I can’t make out anything else that she’s saying.
‘Lamb, come on’ I try to wrap my arms around her but she pushes me away.
‘Don’t call me that unless you’re going to stay. Will you stay? Will you?!’
the last part of her sentence is screeched in a panicky voice and I don’t see what I can say other than yes. I tell myself I’ll stay for a couple of hours, let her calm down, maybe even fall asleep and then I’ll go get the key cut.
It didn’t quite work out as planned. I spent the afternoon trying to tempt Sophie to eat something and finally she agreed to eat with me. So I couldn’t leave her alone after that. We ate dinner together and as she caught me looking at the clock she said ‘It’s too late to get the key cut now isn’t it’
I stopped, my fork still in mid air. I must have looked guilty because she followed with ‘That’s right I heard you talking to Maria. I don’t want her to have a key Simon. I thought we’d discussed this’
‘Listen Soph, she’s your sister and she was worried. What if I can’t leave work one day? What if you need her? You know you don’t like opening the door, this way you can call her and she can let herself in’
‘I won’t need her’
‘You don’t know that. If I ever can’t get back for whatever reason then you’ll be glad she’s got a key’
‘I won’t need her because I only need you’
I can feel the heat rising in my chest. I know she can’t help this clingy phases she’s going through but it’s exhausting sometimes. Not just physically but mentally. It’s like having a child. She relies on me for her every need and throws tantrums when I cannot bow to her whims. I no longer have friends. Leaving the house purely for fun is out of the question and there’s only so many times people keep trying when always met with a ‘thanks but no thanks’
‘No!’ she sweeps her arm across the table and sends her plate crashing to the floor, her half uneaten dinner spreading across the glossy tiles ‘Why can’t you just respect my wishes? You only want her to have a key so you don’t have to come home anymore! You want Maria to keep me company and nag me to eat and wash so you don’t have to! Well guess what Simon you’re my partner! You know what partners means don’t you? You can’t just palm me off onto my sister when you’re bored of me!’
Her voice is shrill and my temples are pounding as though my head might explode and join the smeared dinner on the floor. I don’t answer. Don’t trust myself. I know she’s hitting out, she’s trying to push me so that I will give in and agree Maria doesn’t need a key.
Instead I calmly walk to the sink, pick up a cloth and begin clearing the food from the floor.
Sophie is watching me, wondering what she can say next to manipulate me no doubt. I’m about to scold myself for the unkind thought when she launches into a new tirade
‘What the **** are you doing? Can you just talk to me!’
My hand rubbing my mouth and chin to calm me for a few seconds, I shake my head slowly.
‘Don’t shake your head at me. You always make me feel small. You always make me feel bad for being this way Simon. I don’t choose it, I don’t like it any more than you do. All I want is for you to listen to my wishes and respect them. Not sneak around behind my god **** back ignoring everything I’ve said’
‘All I do is listen to your wishes’
She looks shocked but now I’ve spoken I can’t stop ‘Are you ******* kidding me right now Sophie? I drop everything to see to your every whim. I’m this close, THIS CLOSE! To losing my bloody job!’
She looks startled. I never go back at her but it’s been a long time coming. It almost feels good, like the old days when we could have a fight and get everything off our chests instead of me bottling everything up while she explodes over every tiny thing. I take advantage of her silence ‘absolutely everything I do is for you. I can’t leave the house without checking you’re okay, I can’t see my friends, I can’t even go to work. I have to try to force feed you before I allow myself to eat, watch you sleep before I let myself drift off, be here at your beck and call every minute of every day and I do it because I love you. I would never want to hand that job to somebody else. I love you lamb. But I can’t be everything to you. We need to fight this darkness that’s swallowing you. You can’t live the rest of your days in this sadness I want my old Sophie’ A tear escapes my eye, surprising me. I brush it away hoping Sophie missed it but of course she saw.
For a minute a look passes across her face and I’m certain I see a flicker of her old self. She understands my upset, she’ll forgive my outburst. But it’s momentary and in a second it has gone.
She speaks quietly ‘I’m sorry to be such a burden’
We didn’t speak for the rest of the evening. In some relationships I might’ve been relegated to the sofa but I made sure to still join Sophie in bed. She can’t sleep without me but she would’ve been too proud to actually ask after my outpouring.
After a restless night I actually welcome my morning alarm. Sophie stirs but she doesn’t make any attempt to get out of bed.
10 minutes before I need to leave for work I take a cup of tea up to our bedroom. I can tell by her soft breathing that she isn’t sleeping but she pretends to be anyway. I set the mug down on her bedside, kiss her forehead and tell her ‘I love you lamb’ before making my way downstairs and to the car.
By lunch time Sophie still hasn’t called. She must be really ****** this time to not even call. She usually calls several times a day, to make sure something terrible hasn’t happened to me or if she needs her own fears calming. I feel terrible for last night. Yes, my load feels lighter for having at least spoken my own frustrations but Sophie didn’t deserve my anger. Like she said, she can’t help it. She hates being this way. I decide to make it up to her tonight. I’ll take some flowers and we’ll watch a movie. I’ll turn off my phone and definitely won’t check my work emails. She’ll have my full attention.
At 2:45pm Marie calls me. She’s been calling Sophie again and wanted to pop in while she was passing but again, has received no answer to the phone or the door.
I sigh heavily ‘Maria you know she won’t answer when she’s home alone’
‘Yes. That’s why I was rather hoping for the key…’
‘Look I’m sorry okay? I had every intention of going into town but Sophie didn’t want me to leave. She was having a bad evening’ I don’t mention our fight.
‘What kind of a bad evening? What happened?’
‘Nothing happened, she just didn’t want me to leave and got quite upset every time I tried’
‘Okay, okay, can you just come over and let me in?’
‘I can’t. There’s no way my boss is gonna let me leave work again, I’m on thin ice here Maria’
‘Just explain the situation’
‘What situation? That I need to check on my girlfriend while she’s napping? You know that’s all it’ll be again, just like yesterday’
‘No I don’t know that and neither do you. Besides, I’m pretty sure I can hear movement inside the house so she can’t be sleeping’
‘I’m not coming home Maria. I can’t lose my job over this. I’ll call you when I get home and let you know how she is and I promise to get the key sorted tomorrow alright?’
‘I guess it’ll have to be as I can’t persuade you otherwise’
‘Talk to you later Maria’
I hang up the phone just before Steve comes out of his office. Handing me a stack of papers he asks me how Sophie’s doing and we both know it’s a lie when I say she’s not doing too bad. That’s what people want to hear though. They don’t want the sordid details and the painful truth of exactly how strained your relationship is, how much of a mess your life has become. If you have a broken leg people want to sign your cast and bring you gifts. If you have a broken mind nobody wants to come near you. People who were once friends become almost afraid of you. So rather than say the wrong thing they steer clear completely.
At exactly 5:05 I’m already in my car and heading towards our local supermarket to grab a colourful bouquet for Sophie. Finally, happy with my choice I’m back on the road toward home.
Walking in the door I call out to Sophie, she panics if I don’t let her know it’s me coming in the door. When she doesn’t answer I feel slightly put out, but not surprised that she’s dragging this fight out for as long as she can. I head to the kitchen with the intention of making myself a cuppa before I attempt making up with Sophie.
Sipping my tea I reach up to a top cupboard to grab a vase, I’ll arrange the flowers nicely and take them up to her. Despite everything I want more than anything to make things right between us. Yes I was angry but she’s my world, she’ll understand deep down that it was just me venting.
I’m suddenly yanked back from my thinking by a loud crash, ‘****’ I mutter as I bend down to sweep the pieces of the shattered vase to one side. As I do I spot an envelope under the table. Reaching across I pull it toward me. The envelope is blank.
I rip it open and pull a sheet of A4 from inside, Sophie’s writing is scrawled all over the page. An uneasy feeling begins in my stomach and I scan the contents of the page;
Do you remember when we met? Those early days and weeks and months? The weekends filled with picnics, lazy days on the beach and pub gardens? I would try to capture you on canvas and you would try (and fail!) to teach me to ice skate. Introducing each other to our favourite albums and talking about our childhood. Those were the best days of my life Simon. You were handsome and patient and kind. Funny and compassionate and thoughtful. I was artistic, happy, carefree. You are still all those things Simon. But I am not. I am no longer any of the things I used to be. I am a nothingness. I feel like I don’t even exist anymore. I know I love you but I cannot feel it. I know you love me but I can’t feel that either. I don’t even feel pain anymore, not like I did when this all began. But yesterday, after our fight, I felt something for the first time in a long time. I felt ashamed. Ashamed of myself for what I have become, ashamed of everything I have put you through. Please don’t misunderstand me Simon, I am not blaming you at all, not for anything. This is all on me and how tired I am with fighting my own mind day in day out. It will never change. We could carry on this way for the next 50 years and my mind will still be my prison. I need to let you go Simon. You deserve to life your life, not just exist in mine. Please always remember that you have done everything and more to try and help me through this. You’re a good man. The best. I love you
I’ve barely scanned the last sentence before I’m on the stairs with no idea how I even got there. Time slows down the way I’ve seen in movies, I feel aware of every passing second and the sense of dread in my stomach builds, pushing it’s way up my throat in the form of bile. Hand to my mouth I carry on running, into the bedroom only to find it empty ‘SOPHIE!’ I’m startled by the sound of my own voice, the urgency frightens me. ‘SOPHIE!’ I call again as I crash into the bathroom.
The sight in front of me finally pushes the bile from my clenched lips. I can’t see straight, like when you hit your head too hard and see glitter before your eyes. Stumbling forward my legs give way and I slump towards the bath. Gathering all my strength to pull myself to my knees I reach into the crimson bath and pull Sophie’s head from the freezing water. Her skin is pale, a stark contrast to the redness of the water.
‘Oh lamb’ I whisper as I cradle her head to my chest, half pulling her naked body from the bath ‘Oh lamb. What have you done?’