I came awake very early or... no. No. I wasn’t sure really that I had ever slept.
Throughout the night I had remained on the dirty rim of unconsciousness, my thoughts not dreams or nightmares as such but similar enough; disjointed and disturbing enough; that they might have been.
It was still dark and that gave me the sense that sleep was, or had been, still continuing, but as I tipped up vertical on the side of the bed like a wibble-wobble doll that can never truly fall over, I felt that ghastly enclosing corpulence gripping every part of the slim woman trapped deep inside me; smothering her.
That beautiful Dahlia was surely still there beneath these sweaty bulges, pressed into the grimy crevices, struggling to climb free; but she was running out of air. She was dying. Reaching up with a single grasping hand for the light from the folds of this gargantuan body she was trapped in, desperate to get out of it while she still could.
My chubby hand scrabbled on the bedside cabinet for the crumpled pack of cigarettes I’d discarded there the night before. Several fags lay strewn amidst the rubbish and food scraps, the ribbons of spilled whisky, partially dried.
No cleaner ever saw the inside of this room.
My eyes didn’t focus – my vision was so piss-poor nowadays that in the dingy first light there was no hope of real clarity – but I found a dry, uncrumpled cigarette. The second lighter I tried gave me a flame.
My mouth filled with the filth of the smoke instantly and I drew it down into my lungs, stifling the Dahlia trapped down there, reaching for fresh air, clotting up her lungs and dowsing her as the chemicals in the fag dowsed me, dulling my thoughts.
I sat there, half tilted on the bed, blotting out the clean air and sucking this filth into me over and over again. With the first one finished it wasn’t enough. The stench and dismal corruption weren’t enough. I scrabbled for another fag and put that in my lips, cursing the whisky dampness as it wouldn’t light; found another; lit that.
I shambled to the window and creased back the curtain half an inch, my breathing laboured, my grimy eyes squinting out at another day of drudgery and increasing self-hate.
I looked back at the whisky bottle on the side of the bed. There wasn’t much left to it. Dregs. But it was enough.
I lumbered back and slumped down then drained the thing, chasing the vibrating inebriation down with more cloying smoke.
I found my pebble glasses and got dressed. The clothes were soiled – they always were – but not enough to be a problem for the work. Cleaners in an establishment like this weren’t expected to be perfect; not once the first splashes of the day had had chance to settle. I did my hair, getting it as straight as I could; knowing I was letting life destroy me; knowing that I shouldn’t feel this low regardless of which path I took.
I’m just tired. I told myself that. I’m just utterly and completely exhausted.
And it didn’t help, the weight I was carrying; that at some level I still couldn’t be entirely used to.
I felt awful, and that couldn’t continue. I couldn’t let myself go on like this; whichever life I chose.
Melissa’s life hadn’t been this bad. She had lived an ordinary life as a cleaning woman back in England with her husband; content in her simple ways with the down-to-earth constraints of her everyday life. It was that touchstone with Robert that I lacked; that I’d had only a grainy simile of with the cook. There had been no love there between me and Vasilis; not even real affection. With all the guilt and doubt I was feeling, was it any wonder that I had spiralled; that I was still spiralling? Even my friendship with Melissa had been tenebrous at best since coming to Greece; we’d been so busy playing our allotted roles.
It shouldn’t have been like this and I knew that it wouldn’t go on being if only a final decision could be made. Some new status quo would form; a reconciliation with reality and an acceptance of how things were; how they would go on remaining.
Surely once a decision was made then I could start to resolve a clear path ahead. I would form a peace and happiness with what was awaiting me. Surely that was what would have to happen.
But I knew I’d ruined my body; surely forever. I’d set out on a silly game like a schoolgirl, thinking that there would be some magic spell to weave me back from it whenever I wanted, and there was no spell; no magic to transform me back into a beautiful slender woman on the verge of a glorious comeback.
Had I ever wanted that comeback? Had it all been Tommy, my agent? Or had it been the guilt; that I was throwing away my last chance to have another slice of that life before I really was too old or before my looks slipped away of their own accord?
Maybe that was all this had ever been: not some crooked immersion into corruption and ugliness for sordid perversity, but a fuck you to the aging process: me taking the choice to let go of my looks on purpose before nature could take it out of my hands.
Beauty didn’t last forever. Time was going to have its way sometime soon regardless. By leaping off the catwalk like this, at least it had been at a time of my choosing.
I left the room and started my work. I avoided the other cleaners, as usual. I slaved, feeling the grimy build-up of sweat in the fatty crevices on my body, seeing only the sweep of the broom; the swish of the mop; the growing mottled piles of filthy bedding, gathered up in my round arms too close to my face.
I stopped for two more cigarettes half way through the morning, hating the taste of the smoke and glaring at first one lit end and then the other. I tried not to think about Melissa and her expectations, because surely she expected an answer now quite crucially. This was coming to a head regardless of my own interia. I couldn’t put her off together.
I had ruined my body. That’s what I kept coming back to. Maybe it was permanent already. Maybe the slender me had already suffocated beneath the folds of flab. Maybe she could never be resuscitated now. Maybe the only way to stave off final and irrevocable madness was to embrace the inevitable coming; to accept that it wasn’t a case of choosing to finally become Melissa forever but to realise I already had done.
There was no Dahlia left now to be seen. She was gone, surely for good.
I went back to working. I slaved. I toiled. I let the harsh reality of this life I had chosen be everything.
The decision was everything – it had to be everything – but it was clear to me that it had already been made. Surely it had. I could pretend to myself as much as I liked that there was a rational process continuing that might allow me to take a certain fork in the road.
There was only one sane choice. There could only be one sane choice with the facts as they were; with my life as it was; with this body and the strain I had put it under; with the favour that Melissa had done me by effecting this trade in the first place; coming out here; living these strange, sham lives.
Yes I knew the answer. I had known the answer even before she asked the question. I knew what I wanted. I knew which way to go. It was the only option that made sense.
I finished my shift and went back to my room, stopping only long enough at the local convenience store for dry, uncrumpled fags and more whisky; a huge bag of salted, ridged crisps and two chocolate bars.
In the room I slumped back on the edge of the bed, one hand resting again, my round body tilted almost uncomfortably, a rasping wheeze coming out of the side of my mouth, the lit, drifting cigarette hanging from the crack at the other.
Was that wheeze the last embers of the slender me, the fat now squeezing the very last life out of her, deep inside my bulging chest? Was she blind now, buried under all that fat as it filled her mouth and her eyes and blocked her off from the world where once upon a time she had lived as a princess?
I withdrew the cigarette and looked at the glowering end.
There was an ashtray squatting right there beside me on the bedside cabinet. Maybe all I had to do was stub it out now. Maybe that simple act would be enough to save the girl inside.
I moved to do so but hesitated and brought the fag back closer to my lips. Lowered it again.
I just felt so tired. I didn’t know what to do anymore.
But I felt I’d come to a decision. I had to have done. It was so obvious what my only choice was.
There was a tap at the door.
I groaned, wondering if I should ignore it.
It came again, more insistently.
I looked back at the end of my cigarette and shifted on the bed, letting out one last wheeze.
The door knocked a third time.
I got up with difficulty, leaving the fag smouldering on the edge of the ashtray.
My body ached as I walked across, from the effort of managing my bulk and the weariness of my cleaning work. Even at the verge of opening I considered breaking off; of keeping silent and hoping the visitor would go away.
But I didn’t. I opened the door.
And there was Melissa, looking radiant and bright-eyed.
Wanting nothing now clearly except the answer that was due to her.
And suddenly I realised this was the moment; that I couldn’t put it off anymore.
She wanted to know and I had a responsibility to tell her.
Everything was coming to a head and the fork in the path was finally here.