My madnesses have always been so closely swirled into my thought-patterns that I couldn’t see them. I look back now and realise that I’ve been crippled with anxiety my whole life, but the landscape was so familiar to me I didn’t notice that it was unusual. It was normal to me to take a day off work because I couldn’t cope with the idea of people seeing me. It was standard to work hard to copy other, more socially successful people and exhaust myself by trying to mimic them. It was business as usual to fear being caught out and choke on my own terror with a smile on my face; to try and please people so they’d accept me as normal then go home and hide.
Last summer I was thirty and still living at home with my mother, still searching for a career that I could grab and hold onto. I’d gone off to art school but ambled my way back to a nineteen-eighties estate semi with mathematically spaced pansies, a beige stair carpet with hoover stripes and matching salt and pepper pots. As my fellow students floated effortlessly off into the sunnier waters, I sunk quickly back to the muddy bottom.
And I was still there. I sat in my childhood bedroom all day with a pen and paper in front of me, waiting for the germ of an idea, the edge of a brilliant drawing, the start of a book.
They didn’t come, so I wrote lists. Not bucket lists, not lists of ideas to put into action, not even lists that were eccentric in the smallness of their focus – lists of egg recipes; dog breeds; famous men born on the 14th April. My lists were the flotsam and jetsam of a life unlived. Feed birds. Rearrange bookshelf in alphabetical order. Walk for twenty minutes. Read fifty pages of Middlemarch. They were the lists of a prisoner untroubled by thoughts of redemption or escape.
Pushing the day’s list to one side, I polished the wooden desk in my room with a near-empty bottle of Mr Sheen and the wrong kind of cloth. I circled the soft cloth clockwise, anti-clockwise, clockwise. The alarm clock tapped out the seconds. A car revved. Clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise.
I pushed my chair back against my desk, pulled the thin, floral duvet cover back over the single bed and drew back the curtains, replacing the sickly yellow glow of the big ceiling light with the dishwasher-murk cast of a cloudy summer’s day. The bevelled edges of the small mirror above the chest of drawers chucked fragments of the room back at me. I rearranged my features, opened my eyes a little wider, stood straighter; I threw back my shoulders and looked for a spark. You’re only as small as your imagination, I told the pale face in the mirror. I glimpsed my own brown eyes, bright for a second with ambition, and I flushed and looked away in shame.
We lived alone, me and Mum, always had. A twosome, a pair. There were pairs of everything. Toothbrushes in the glass. Armchairs facing the tele. Pots of low-fat yoghurt for pudding. Our nest of three tables had always had a spare. I tiptoed through our dimly lit life, but every now and then in the dark tiny wings flitted against the bright heat of success, recognition and glamour.
I padded downstairs in my socks. We didn’t have bannisters, just smooth, boxy walls the colour of gone-off cream. In the kitchen our old Soda Stream still stood next to the kettle. I put two pieces of brown sliced bread into the toaster and filled the kettle. As the toaster buzzed softly I looked out of the window, across the grass of the common areas, as Mum called them, to the identikit, biscuit coloured eighties houses across the way. I wondered if someone dressed just like me was looking back at me out of her small window, waiting for her toast to brown. To our left, shopping trolleys drifted in the canal’s dirty water and white dog poo littered the tow path. Past that, the estate pub, sandwiched between the newsagent and the launderette, where we’d go for a treat every Saturday dinnertime – jacket potatoes with tuna or cheese and beans, a diet coke for me, a small glass of white for Mum.
The toaster popped. I spread on Flora and marmite and took my toast to the table with a cup of tea. The shame spread through me like warm wee; if I didn’t get a job soon I’d be here forever, fading into the fleur de lys carpet. Eventually Mum would die and I’d sit in my seat alone, watching tele next to her empty chair, living off a state pension and giving the canal ducks names.
‘Hello, love.’ The front door slammed. ‘Are you still here, Rosie?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Have you been out?’ The kitchen door opened.
‘Are you going out?’
Mum tucked her pale hair behind her ear and put her handbag down on the table.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Just into town.’
She sat down opposite me and tipped the contents of her handbag onto the table, sorting receipts into two piles, pushing lipsticks together into a stack, flicking through a small notebook and squaring it on the table.
‘When are you going?’ she said, lining her mobile phone up with her notebook.
‘Now,’ I said. ‘Now-ish.’
‘Let’s talk when you’re back, then, love. Are you taking your camera with you?’
‘No. I’m just going to Boots.’
‘You never know what you’ll see,’ she said, brushing the end of her nose with her knuckle. ‘Something might strike you.’
I paused long enough to dismiss the idea without saying it out loud.
‘I’ll see you later.’
‘Bring us back some teabags, will you?’ she said. ‘And half a dozen oranges.’ Her palms were spread on the table, pressed into the wood as if she was preparing to do a handstand.
‘Okay,’ I said. I waited. ‘Do you have some money?’
She didn’t sigh or roll her eyes, she just took five pound coins from one of her neatly stacked towers and handed them to me. ‘Thanks, love.’
I scanned the sun-warmed pavements. A puddle of green paint? A pigeon staring at its reflection in a window? The glow of the sun blazing a blond man’s hair into thin flames? What would someone who took proper photographs, photograph?
I made my way to Kendall and Browns Department Store, two carrier bags jostling my knee and pressing sweat into my palms. The local paper was tucked under my armpit.
For nine years now I’d been living at home and claiming benefits or doing bits of cash in hand work. I needed a job to pay the rent. I could move out of Mum’s, even if it was just to a cheap flat or bedsit just down the road.
I wove between tables in the department store’s low lit café, carrying my filter coffee on the flimsy plywood tray. The windows were heavily draped, swags of thick burgundy pretending we were still in the sixties. I found a banquette seat in the corner and opened the paper to the jobs section at the back.
Salesroom assistant, Carpet It Right. Office administrator, Perry’s Printing. Staff canteen assistant, Woodman’s department store. I ticked all of them. It didn’t matter what it was, what mattered was taking that step away from home before I settled forever. Mum would be okay. She’d managed without me before, hadn’t she? I thought of our five o’clock cup of tea. With these jobs, I could drop in on her after work.
On the way home the pavement warmed my feet through my thin soles and the plastic bag of oranges shoved red welts into my fingers. The thought of Mum on her own in that house, no-one to watch Eastenders with, strummed at me.
It seems like years ago now, but it’s just a few months.