Shrapnel-sized bit of story.
Immediately when I get home every day I would like to take a bath, but of course there are other things that need doing. Firstly; the cat, Oscar, his soft body feeling strange against my legs in their nylon shrouds. For three minutes before I manage to fumble open a tin of Whiskas and scrape it into a bowl, I am bestowed with unfettered adoration. Then I am forgotten, bested by fetid chunks of meat in jelly.
Secondly, the usual desperate trawl for personalised mail and messages on the answering machine. Two letters from the bank, one of which is for the person who last lived here, and a garish letter from a locally owned pizza parlour. It's probably one of those ghastly ones where the greasy owners shout to each other in a language I don't understand because I never knew I'd need it, and where I and the other customers, mostly harangued fathers with children waiting in the car, lean against the steamy windows and try not to look too hard at each other. I fold it up and put it in my handbag in case it would be useful, some strange and distant day. No answering machine messages. It's probably for the best. I'd like to phone a friend, but I wouldn't know what to say.
Thirdly, I must dust the mantelpiece, which is a shrine to the family and friends who forget me in between special occasions. The prize of the collection is a black and white picture of my sister and my brother and I, squinting in the greyscale sun on some long-lost holiday. I tell visitors that it is my favourite picture of us, that's why I keep it there. I never mention that when I look at us in recent photographs, the colours are too bright. My sister too obviously thinks herself better than me, new boyfriend dangling off one arm. In my favourite photograph, she is unencumbered and unaffected. My brother is too obviously drunk, eyes bright, plastic cup of punch in one hand, his string of divorcees weighing hard on his mind.
Then there's me. It's hard to believe that fat, lonely woman caught in between them was once a little girl with blossomy curls and not a care in the world. Sometimes I wonder if I could make that smile fade by telling her that she’d be like me one day, that she’d be me, ugly, deserted, dementedly cleaning a clean house for visitors who never come. That over the years of her life she would make mistakes, pick herself up, dust off her knees, only to fall over again. One day she wouldn’t get up. I wonder if I could make that little girl see how pointless the next forty years were going to be. She probably wouldn’t believe me.
Today, however, is different. Straight upstairs. Half-deafened by the thunder of running water, I shed my stiff white shirt, my skirt, the opaque tights that cost a pound a pair, and I stuff them in a ball at the corner of the room. Diffidently, I turn the mirror to the wall before I remove my bra and knickers. Both have left a thin red line in the skin that makes me groan with self-loathing. Cellulite clings to me with the unfortunate look of cottage cheese. Disgusting.
Then I lie in the water and watch it creep along my toes, scale my knees like the Berlin Wall. I sigh as it enters me. This is the most intimately I have been touched in weeks, and the truth of my desolation keens like a new-born child fresh from the womb, displaced and plaintive. Stealthily, it mounts the dome of my stomach and travels to the summit; the two peaks of my breasts suddenly submerged. In the meantime my head falls back and the water laps at my eyes. Small bubbles ripple the skin at the roots of my hair, and I think of loving fingers that once knew my body like the bathwater does, every pore, every atom. I was younger then.
I read somewhere that a bath could make anything feel better. A number of Greek philosophers swore by them. How many people died in the bath every year? And how many of those people had until previously lived in the bath? Something must be wrong with me, then. Or maybe I'm just not a philosopher. It wouldn't take long to drown, really, but I have too much to do this week.
In my tight office chair, I dream every day of lying in hot water like a piece of pasta until I slowly get pulpy, gentle and easy to love. Sometimes I read books in the bath; you could tell which ones they were by the spattered water stains on each page. Nothing in the way of profound literature. No, I like Mills and Boon romances with grinning lovers on the covers. Every single woman's daydream.
I drain the water and get dressed into large, lenient clothes. Nearly half seven already! Coronation Street will be on; the faint smell of steaming carrots and flabby over-cooked chicken pieces fills my nostrils. Oh - and Oscar, poor Oscar! He will be hungry by now.
I make my way downstairs in my bare feet, thinking that I would like to take a bath more often, but of course, there are other things that need doing.