"Sorry to keep you waiting - but dinner is now served."
Mark and Claire were entertaining Simon and Theresa for the first time and it was clear that Claire was feeling somewhat pressured. Home-made lasagne had seemed a simple enough dish when the event was first mooted, but somehow the oven had not exactly played its role to perfection and various noises of exasperation had been heard from the kitchen as Mark had sat the guests at the table and engaged them in suitably distracting conversation.
Smells of mince and cheese wafted from the kitchen, through the hall, and into the dining room. "So", Claire declared, "here it is - at last" as she strode through the dining room door and advanced to the table with the piping hot lasagne held out in oven-gloved hands and edged into her place on the near side of the table next to her husband. The guest Simon was seated opposite Claire with his wife Theresa opposite Mark in classic male-female pairings.
As Claire manoeuvred to deposit the steaming dish on the table between herself and Simon, she twisted to face her husband who was convinced that he had played his inestimable part in making the meal a success simply by laying the table. "Mark", she moaned, "you've forgotten the salad dressing."
Since Claire was physically and mentally focused elsewhere, she did not notice two overlapping occurrences: Simon carefully observing the placing of the lasagne, both because he did not want to accidentally touch such a hot dish and because he was now very hungry indeed, and the long sleeves of her cerise-coloured blouse riding up as she reached over the table to place the dish on a serving mat.
What Simon saw shocked him. Both arms were scored with sets of parallel weals, some pink, others red, and the most prominent scarlet. At the end of one of the brightest, just above the wrist there was a coagulation of dried blood.
Mark had jumped up to attend to his salad dressing misdemeanour but, in doing so, caught sight of his wife's unintended revelation and locked his eyes on those of his friend. The look was one of simple pleading. Simon knew precisely what Claire had done and knew exactly what he must not do.
"Thanks, Simon, for saying nothing."
It was Monday lunchtime in the company canteen and less than 48 hours since the dinner party that had gone remarkably well once Mark had retrieved the salad dressing and Simon had recovered his composure.
Simon was in his early forties, a few years older than his colleague, and had been at the company four years now. Mark had joined seven months ago and the two had quickly become friends, finding that each was more interested in politics and movies than football and cars. It had seemed the natural thing to have dinner with their spouses, although it had taken a little time to organise as Simon and Theresa had a baby boy of two and needed to find a babysitter.
"Sorry if I looked stunned, Mark – but I've never come across self-harming before. I suppose that, if I'd thought about it at all, it's the kind of thing I might have associated with a teenage girl. But Claire seems so - " He paused as he searched for a suitable adjective. "I don't know - she appears so together."
"Yes, she covers it well, doesn't she? None of our friends know. They would be as shocked as you obviously were."
"But, why?" asked Simon, looking genuinely concerned.
Mark was visibly pained by the need to explain, unsure whether he could communicate how this had happened and what was involved. For so long, he and Claire had kept it a dark secret between them, finding it hard enough even to converse about it together. He started by saying: "I don't think I ever told you that Claire is a twin, did I?"
"No. I know that you have a brother and a sister. I didn't think that Claire had any siblings."
"She doesn't. Not now, anyway. Three years ago, her twin brother Charlie was involved in a terrible car smash. He was in a coma for eleven days. We visited him in intensive care every day. But he died."
"That's terrible. It must have been awful for her. But - the cutting?"
"I know. It churns me up just talking about it. Seeing someone I love so much hurting herself, disfiguring herself, punishing herself, like that is the worst thing I've ever experienced. And I can't stop it."
But the conversation did stop for a while.
Then: "How did it start, Mark?"
"The first time was when I was away for a few days on a business trip. I used to wet shave in those days and she used one of my spare razor blades. I was horrified when I came home and saw what she'd done. It would have been Charlie's birthday and I think that triggered it. I switched to an electric shaver so that there were no razor blades in the house, but Claire would sneak them into the home or use a kitchen knife. It was sickening. It is sickening."
Simon struggled to know how to respond: "I can't imagine what it must have been like for you. And she must be so troubled to be hurting herself so much."
"Yes, but it's not all the time. There are particular times – like the anniversary of his death or what would been his birthday or even Christmas. I can kind of guess these times but, however hard I try, I can't stop her from the cutting. Then there are times I would never have anticipated, times which should be happy times – like something going well for her at work or when we're away on holiday. I keep thinking she's stopped and then she does it again. I've tried to be understanding, I really have. I've shouted at her; God, how I've screamed at her. I've pleaded and begged with her. But I just can't stop her."
Both friends seemed exhausted by the emotion of it all. Then Simon spoke again: "But why does she do it, Mark?"
"It's hard for me to say. She won't go to counselling and, whenever I try to discuss it with her, we have a row and I'm afraid she'll cut herself again, so I usually avoid the subject as long as I can. I think some of it is anger. Usually she's calm and loving but then, like a volcano, she'll just blow with fury. She's angry that this happened to her brother, that this happened to her. She often screams: 'It's just not fair!' But I know that some of it is pain. She inflicts this physical pain on herself as a way of trying to numb the psychological pain that she's feeling. She can't control the pain inside her but she can control the pain outside."
Simon looked pensive: "I suppose I can kind of understand that. But what I don't get is that you said that she sometimes self-harms at times when she should be happy. Why's that?"
Mark breathed deeply and then offered his explanation: "I think it's guilt."
"Guilt? What do you mean? Why should Claire feel guilty? She had nothing to do with her brother's death, did she?"
"No, of course not. It was a complete accident. I think that, for Claire, there's a feeling that she has no right to be happy with her life because her brother can't be happy since he has no life. Whenever something good happens to her and her spirits start to rise, it's as if she pulls herself down. She seems to feel that, if he can't enjoy good experiences, then she has no right to do so."
"But, in that way, she's blighting her whole life. If she can't shed the guilt, she can never be free to be happy again."
"I know ... I know ..."
"Look, Mark. Theresa really liked Claire. Let's give it a few weeks and you must come round to our place for dinner. On the way home on Saturday night, I told Theresa what I'd seen. Claire's arms. Theresa was really understanding. Maybe it would help a bit if they could become friends."
And so, several weeks later, Mark and Claire drove over to have dinner with Simon and Theresa. Flowers and chocolates were presented and then Claire asked: "So where's baby Justin? Can I see him?"
"Well", murmured Theresa, "he's just gone to sleep. But - if we're very quiet ..."
Theresa led Claire up the stairs and along the hall towards the back bedroom and pushed the door further ajar, stepping inside slowly and indicating to her new friend to follow.
Claire peered over the cot and observed the little bundle, noting the gentle, rhythmic breathing and the smell of fresh clothing. "Oh, he's perfect" she whispered. She expected Theresa to say something in response but there was only the sound of the baby breathing. She saw Theresa turn her face away; she did not see the mother biting her lower lip.
Back downstairs, Simon had already taken cans of cold beer out of the fridge for himself and Mark and now offered his wife and Claire a choice of drinks. Once settled on adjacent couches, Claire announced: "I couldn't see much of little Justin in the dark. Can Mark and I see some photos?"
"Of course" responded Simon enthusiastically. "We've got hundreds on the computer - but we've made up an album of the highlights." He marched over to the bookcase and took down an album with a bright cover, presenting it proudly to Claire. Sitting side by side, Mark and Claire flipped over the pages and saw the steady progression of pictures from the first shots in the hospital, to family and friends holding a pink package in a white shawl, to various efforts at lying, turning, twisting, crawling, to more recent episodes of walking and running and playing.
It was all very traditional and yet, to Claire, something did not look quite right. Especially in the later photographs, how Justin looked – or didn't look – at the camera seemed just a little odd. When the album was closed, Theresa turned the tables: "So, Claire, are you and Mark thinking of starting a family?"
Claire looked off balance and, after a hesitation, offered: "Maybe. One day. Not yet." "So, what are you waiting for?" inquired Theresa. "That clock keeps ticking, you know?" "Yes, I know ... It's just that ... Things are not right yet."
Simon was acutely aware of the sensitivity of the subject and deftly shifted the conversation on to the cost of child care and cuts in public expenditure programmes. In fact, much of the first two courses of the dinner was dominated by discussion of the impact of the recession. Simon and Mark's company had lost government contracts and was retrenching, Claire had seen a downturn in takings at the department store where she was a section manager, and Theresa was finding it harder to obtain the part-time solicitor work that was essential to ensuring that the mortgage did not take too big a slice of their joint income.
Conversation lightened over dessert when someone invited nominations for the toughest female character in cinema. The guys both went for roles in science fiction movies. Mark selected Ripley in the "Alien" films, while Simon chose Trinity in "The Matrix". The girls went in another direction altogether, each going back to much earlier performances. Theresa plumped for Scarlett in "Gone With The Wind" and Claire surprised everyone by going for Lara in "Doctor Zhivago".
As Mark and Claire prepared to leave at the end of another very congenial evening, Theresa made a suggestion to the younger woman: "Claire, we should get together one day without the guys. There's a new wine bar in town that I like. Perhaps one Saturday I can leave Justin with Simon and we could have a drink and a chat together. I'll call you and we'll fix a date."
Claire was genuinely pleased by the proposal: "I'd like that. Please - do call me."
At the time that Theresa suggested the drink with Claire, her intention had been to see if she could gently raise the self-harming issue and encourage her new friend to desist from this destructive behaviour. But, by the time that the appointment came round a fortnight later, she was in no psychological position to help her companion, although for courtesy's sake she honoured the arrangement. Her plan was to keep conversation light and leave the cutting issue well alone. Her plan failed hopelessly and immediately.
Claire was already at the wine bar, seated at a table near the window, and immediately rose to greet her friend. "Theresa! How lovely to see you. How are you?" The inquiry was intended to be a routine welcome, almost a perfunctory act prior to the business of examining the menu card and exploring snack options together.
But Theresa paused a second too long and answered in a tone that was just a little too low for Claire to be wholly convinced: "Oh, me? I'm fine. I'm OK."
"Are you sure, Theresa? You don't really look OK. Is something wrong?"
For a few seconds, Theresa was silent but stiff. Then her shoulders began to shake. The tears welled in her eyes and tumbled down her pale cheeks. She took a tissue from her handbag and dabbed at her face.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be like this. I didn't realise that I felt so bad. I guess this wasn't such a good idea. I think I need to go."
Claire was having none of this: "There's no need to apologise. You've no idea how often I'm in tears. Something's obviously upset you. Please stay, Theresa. We can talk about it. Let me pour you some wine, we can order a little food, and then – when you're ready – we can talk."
Theresa did not feel strong enough to resist - and eventually she was ready to talk.
"It's Justin. Yesterday we took him for more tests."
"More tests? Has he not been well?"
"He's not ill or anything. It's just that more and more he hasn't seemed right. He won't look at people and he doesn't want to play with other children. He doesn't like things to change and he's hardly speaking."
"Is this a recent thing?"
"I suppose to be honest there's always been something not quite right, but I guess Simon and I were in denial – we just didn't want to think that anything was wrong. Friends asked us questions and hinted that there was a problem, but we didn't want to see it. We simply thought that Justin was a bit slow developing, a bit quiet, a bit withdrawn."
"And yesterday's tests? What did the doctor say?"
"They say that he has some form of autism. They want to do even more tests later on to be sure of a precise diagnosis. But they've warned us that this will affect him seriously all his life. He will have developmental problems at school ... and then longer term ..."
"But they can't be sure, can they? He may be able to cope, won't he?"
"Oh, Claire ... everything has changed now. Justin's chances of a career, his ability to have a proper relationship .. we just don't know. We may have to support him as long as we live." The tears reappeared and Theresa looked shrunken as her world seemed to shrivel and then collapse.
"Theresa, believe me, I do understand when something turns your whole life upside down. I know how difficult it is to cope."
The reaction was like a slap in the face. "Really, Claire?!?" snapped her friend. "You mean your self-harming?"
Claire almost physically reeled from what seemed to her like an accusation. "Oh .. you know about that?"
"Simon saw your arms when we came over to dinner that night. He told me about it afterwards. He spoke to Mark and Mark explained about your brother."
"So you know that my whole life changed three years ago." Claire let the implication sink in. "So I do have some idea how you're feeling. I know the news about Justin is a shock. But I lost Charlie. You still have Justin."
"Not really, Claire. Not the Justin we thought we had, the Justin we wanted. Someone smart and confident who would make his own way in the world. In a sense, we're suffering a death too."
Theresa topped up her wine glass and took a gulp to strengthen her resolve to be straight-talking. "Look, Claire. It must have been absolutely terrible losing your twin brother. But, when he died, it was over for him. Nothing could hurt him any more. It isn't over for Justin. Every day of his life will be a struggle. And, in a way, when your brother had his accident it was over for you too. There was nothing you could do to change things. We will spend the rest of our lives supporting Justin, trying to give him as normal a life as possible."
Claire wanted to be sympathetic but she felt deeply hurt and intensely angry. "You're being very hard on me, Theresa."
"No, Claire. You're being very hard on yourself. You had nothing to do with Charlie's accident. But we will always wonder whether Justin's autism has anything to do with us. You could do nothing to change what followed from Charlie's death and I'm sure you have a wonderful picture of him as the marvellous brother I suppose he was. We will have to adjust to Justin's disability every day and face each problem as it comes. And, in the back of our minds, there'll always be the picture of Justin as he might have been."
The silence was leaden.
"I'm sorry, Claire. You've caught me at the worst possible time. I still haven't come to terms with the news about Justin. I'm sure that I'll be more positive later. Things might not be as bad as I fear. I'm sorry if I was so direct – but ... you have to stop punishing yourself."
Theresa stood. "I have to go. I'll get the bill as I leave. Are you staying?"
"Mark told me to call him when we'd finished. I thought we'd be longer - but I'll call him now."
It took Mark twenty minutes to reach the wine bar and Claire was still seething at the injustice of Theresa's comments. She immediately unloaded herself on her husband, recalling everything that was said and adding other things that she wished she had said. Mark responded as briefly and as non-committedly as possible.
Late on a Saturday afternoon was not a good time to be travelling across town and they hit traffic from a local football match that had just finished. As they edged home, Claire was uncharacteristically quiet. Once the car was parked and Mark had undone his seat belt, he turned to Claire who was still silent, still belted, looking ahead through the windscreen.
"Are you alright, love?" he inquired.
She twisted slowly to face him: "I've been thinking. About Justin. About Charlie. Perhaps it's time for me to move on."
Published on 16 July 2010
To access all my short stories click here
If you would like to have my short stories in book form, you can purchase "The Rooms In My Mind" for a very modest price on Amazon click here