"You promised you'd never leave me."
The voice was as real as a slap across the face, and so loud it woke me from deep sleep. I jolted up and sat, staring into the darkness, certain that it had been Nikki's voice. My skin was slick with sweat, cold and clammy. A pounding heartbeat thudded at the back of my skull, signalling the unmistakeable start of a headache.
No other sound disturbed the dark, empty rooms of my apartment, although I fancied that I could hear echoes of the voice fading away. A minute passed as my pulse slowed and softened. It had to have been a dream. Nikki could not have woken me--she'd been dead for eight months.
The green light from my alarm clock was surprisingly bright to my eyes. The digital display said 4:15 a.m. Give or take 20 minutes, that was the time when she'd drawn her last breath, as far as the coroner could tell.
The memories sliced through my heart and head. I let my pain find voice in a raw whisper. "You were the one to break her promise."
"How can you say that?"
An ice cold fist clenched in my stomach. Had I heard the words, or was it just the blood rushing through my ears? Maybe I wasn't as awake as I thought. I rubbed my face hard, trying to scrub away the tendrils of nightmare and calm my thoughts.
Tomorrow was going to be a busy day and I needed to get back to sleep, however my bladder prompted me to make a trip to the bathroom first. I flipped on the light in the hallway as I passed, but left the others off. My eyes were not ready for too much brightness.
The bathroom was cool and dim. Light from the open doorway glinted dully on taps, tiles, and the trim around the mirror over the sink. While I washed my hands, I examined the rectangle of light on the wall behind me, the corkscrew wildness of my hair, and finally the shelf below the mirror. The only things laid out were my toothbrush, toothpaste and the half-empty pill bottle.
Why had I left the tablets out? I dried my hands and picked up the bottle, tilting it to the light to read the label--not that I had need. The name of the drug was something I would never forget; a codeine combo painkiller, stronger than could be bought without a prescription. Nikki had got them from the doctor, for her migraines.
Why had I left them out?
For no particular reason, I popped the childproof lid and shook the pills into my palm. Methodically, I placed them in a row along the front of the shelf, and counted them. Forty; the same number that Nikki had swallowed on that night; a lethal dose.
Why had I left them out, when I had packed everything else away? The threatened headache surged forward in a wave and seeped down between my eyes. I reached up to massage my temples. As I did so, a small movement in the mirror caught my eye. I looked up and was, for an instant, certain that Nikki stood behind me.
I spun around. Of course, the bathroom was empty, but the headache erupted with rekindled frenzy. Without thinking, I slipped two tablets from the shelf, tossed them to the back of my mouth and gulped them down with a hand-scoop of water. I then cleared the rest of the tablets from the shelf and returned the bottle to where it had been.
I didn't bother going back to bed. Sleep would be impossible until the headache loosened its grip. Instead, I wandered down the hallway to the living room. The walls were bare. Huge cardboard boxes were piled around like an obstacle course. Any furniture that could be dismantled, had been, and now formed a heap of boards, planks and rods in one corner. The patio doors to the balcony were large rectangles of blackness, bare of blinds and curtains. Tomorrow, the men from the house moving company would arrive with their large van, and take it all away--mostly into storage, some of it to Claire's house. The only things I wanted to leave behind were the bad memories.
The urge for a cigarette crept over me. My cigarettes and lighter were on top of the TV, but I knew that my only ashtray was packed. I opened the most likely box and started rooting around inside. My guess proved right. I found the big green glass ashtray that Nikki had insisted on using as a birdbath, even though the birds never went near it and I was left without anything to stub cigarettes in. She would not let me buy another.
I was about to close the lid of the box, when I spotted the old wicker picnic hamper. My hand reached out of its own accord to open the catch, moved by the sudden onslaught of memories--the day, six years before, when I had first met Nikki..
Victoria Park shimmered in the sunlight, although a light breeze kept the heat to a pleasant level. Leaves on the trees danced and the lake glittered like liquid silver. Three blankets were spread on the grass, with the remains of the shared picnic strewn across.
Del and I sat on one, catching up on the gossip. She had phoned the night before, telling me of plans to meet at midday in the park. It would be a group of friends, and friends of friends, most of whom I already knew from the local lesbian circuit. Nikki was the only new face.
The first things I noticed about Nikki were her long wispy blonde hair and her insane giggle. She giggled a lot. Del told me that Nikki had just been ditched by her last girlfriend, and that she'd been invited along to cheer her up. She didn't look to be in much need of cheering.
Nikki played the madcap clown, flicking peas at the pigeons and balancing a spoon on her nose. With a couple of the others, she went paddling in the lake. This soon turned into a splashing flight. Shrieks of laughter rang out as they kicked water at each other.
More sedate, Del and I sat watching them, while picking at the last of the food.
"How do you know Nikki?" I asked.
"Angie's the one who knows her. I've only met her a few times, although I've heard a bit about her."
"And she's currently unattached?"
Del glanced sharply in my direction. "Why do you ask?"
"Yes. But it's the way you asked."
I shrugged. "She seems fun."
"She's bad news."
"In what way?"
Del hesitated, chewing her lip. "I've heard that--"
I never got to find out what Del had heard. Nikki ran up, with a plastic bag filled with water. The water bomb caught me square in the chest. Squealing, Nikki ran off. The opportunity was too good to waste. I chased after, laughing, and ended up in the lake, fully clothed.
At the end of the day, as we were parting, Nikki surprised me by giving me a quick kiss and her telephone number.
I shut the picnic hamper and flipped down the lid of the packing box. Why hadn't Del been clearer? Why hadn't she let me know? But would I have believed her?
My mouth felt dry. I needed a cup of tea. I left the cigarettes, lighter and ashtray on the box and headed to the kitchen. While the kettle boiled, I dropped a teabag in the mug and took the sugar bowl from its cupboard. The ceramic pot was the only thing still in there. All the other cans, jars and cartons had been packed, leaving only the tea and the croissant I had bought for tomorrow's breakfast.
When it was fully brewed, I scooped the teabag from the mug, and poured in a splash of milk and a heaped teaspoon of sugar. Out of habit, I opened the cupboard to put the sugar back, but stopped myself. It was stupid. There was no reason not to leave the sugar on the counter--the same as I had always done, before Nikki moved in.
Mug in hand, I was about to return to the living room, when I heard Nikki's voice. "Don't leave the sugar out."
My heart leapt up my throat. Tea slopped from the mug as I jerked around. The sound had been so close and so real. Yet, Nikki wasn't there. Nikki couldn't be there; just memories playing games with me.
"Don't leave the sugar out."
Nikki brushed past me. She grabbed the sugar jar from the ledge, opened a cupboard and put it in.
I looked on smiling, and repeated, "Why not?"
"Sugar's bad for you."
"And it isn't if I hide it away?"
"Don't be awkward."
"It doesn't hurt to put the sugar in a cupboard."
"No. I was just wondering if you thought my teeth could be tricked into not developing cavities if they can't see the sugar." My laughter died as I saw the tears forming in Nikki's eyes.
"You're spoiling things."
I realised that she was serious, and put down the mug I'd been holding. Wrapping my arms around her, I kissed her forehead.
"You're being nasty." Nikki's voice trembled, as if on the point of breaking into sobs.
"No I'm not. I was just joking."
"You're being horrible. We're supposed to be planning for me moving in. It's supposed to be happy, and you're arguing about the sugar. You mustn't spoil it."
I hugged her again and we stood in silence, arms locked around each other. Over her shoulder, my eyes fixed on the cupboard that had just become the sugar bowl's new home. Wormlike doubts crawled in the back of my mind, but I squashed them ruthlessly, and soon Nikki was back to her normal giggling. The sugar did not matter.
Why hadn't I listened to my doubts? I'd had enough of them by then. Why hadn't I realised that someone who can get into tears over a sugar bowl on a counter isn't someone you want to share a home with? Why hadn't I realised that it wasn't me arguing over the sugar? Nikki was the one who had made it into an issue, yet she had managed to make me feel as if it were my fault.
She was good at that. Nikki was the queen of manipulation, and she had me on a short leash. I had been so much in love that I'd been incapable of seeing anything wrong in her. And there had been good times. When she wanted, Nikki could be fun. I had laughed so much in the first few years, but slowly the tears had become more common. My tears--Nikki's had always been free flowing. She had used them as a weapon, a subtle weapon, that made me feel strong and protective for letting her have her own way. Nikki had known every one of my buttons, and she pressed them with clinical efficiently.
Defiantly, I left the sugar on show. As if in response, my headache turned up a notch and cold air hit my arm, like a slap. Again my heart lurched and my scalp prickled, but I ignored the sensation and walked back to the living room.
The flare of the cigarette lighter reflected in the black glass of the window. I walked close enough that my shadow blocked out the light from the hallway and allowed me to look through the glass at the narrow balcony. Beyond the bird-crap encrusted railings, lines of streetlights stretched out, with only the occasional lit window showing where someone else was up, like me, in the dead of night.
Nikki hated my smoking. Months before she moved in, she'd forbidden me to smoke in my own home, even when she wasn't there. She said the faintest whiff of smoke gave her asthma. Presumably it was just tobacco smoke; fireworks, bonfires, incense and burnt toast caused her no problems.
How many cigarettes had I smoked out on the balcony? Sometimes I had stood there, pretending to smoke, knowing that Nikki would not follow me to continue whatever emotional conflict had driven me to seek its refuge.
When I came in, she never failed to make her disapproval clear, although the form this took would depend on her mood. If she was calm, there would be no more than a martyred expression. If she was angry, there would be hysterical ranting about how selfish I was. Whatever her mood, Nikki would always give pathetic little coughs at the back of her throat.
At first the cough had seemed like a joke, it had sounded so false. Then I had wondered if she truly was suffering, and for a while I'd desperately tried to give up. Finally I noticed that the cough was identical, regardless of whether I had actually smoked outside or only pretended to.
I'm sure the smoking didn't bother her in itself. The problem was more that she couldn't bear anything about me that wasn't under her control. She'd demand that I did ridiculous things, not because she wanted them done, but because she needed to reassure herself that I'd jump at her command. In five years, telling me not to smoke was the only battle she lost. My nicotine addiction was an even bigger bitch than she was. Every other time she got what she wanted.
An inane grin split my face as I came in on the Monday evening. Nikki had moved in on the Saturday, so this was my first homecoming to our shared life together. She had taken the day off work to sort out her things, so I knew she would be waiting.
"Where are you?"
"In here." Nikki's voice came from the living room.
I dropped my briefcase and walked to the doorway. I felt my grin shift to a pained frown. Four large African wall hangings had been tacked up.
"What do you think?" Nikki was curled on the sofa, watching me.
"Er...." My problem was not so much with the hangings, but the colour. The woven tapestries were orange and red. The walls they hung on were painted a soft pastel green.
"It's a surprise."
"Yes." I had to say it. "The colours clash."
"I wanted to make the room ours, not just yours."
Surely making the room "ours" should have involved a joint decision, but I knew not to voice the thought. I smiled, trying to suppress any implied criticism. "OK, but we need to get a colour scheme we can both live with."
"I like them."
I sat down beside Nikki and put my arm around her shoulders. "Why don't we wait until we repaint the room? The hangings will look great on beige walls."
"You can't paint. It will give me asthma."
"We can't go forever without decorating."
Nikki pushed away from me. Her lips trembled in a pout. "You just want to be the one in control of everything. I thought you'd like them."
"No, I..." I stopped. Tears were filling Nikki's eyes. "We can talk about it later."
Over the next few months I tried to raise the subject again, with no more success. For five years I lived with the horrific, clashing colours.
An ineffectual drag on the cigarette yanked me back to the present. For some reason, it had gone out, one quarter through. And now the lighter decided to play up. I flicked on it several times, trying to get a flame, before tossing it aside. Irritated, I glared at the dead cigarette, wishing I could remember where some matches were.
In the silence, softly, yet distinctly, I heard Nikki's pretend cough. She was there; suddenly I was certain of it. My eyes flew to the windows, studying the reflection of the room for an image of her.
My fear was replaced by anger at myself; for my stupid nerves, the pointless introspection, and the five awful years I had put myself through because I lacked the courage to confront her. I crushed the unsmoked remains of the cigarette in the ashtray.
The mug of tea was standing on the packing box. I took a mouthful and grimaced. I must have forgotten to put sugar in. Back in the kitchen, I looked around for the bowl, sure I had left it out, but when I checked, it was in its usual place in the cupboard.
My heart was starting to race and the headache was fading, but an unpleasant dizziness was taking its place. My hands were shaking. What was going on? A shadow flitted by in the corner of my eye, but I ignored it. I had to get a grip on myself. I stirred two heaped spoonfuls of sugar into the tea and then, very carefully and deliberately, positioned the jar in the middle of the counter.
I returned to the living room and stood, sipping my tea and looking around. The van was due at 9 a.m. These were the last few hours I would spend here. Memories of all the evenings drifted by. Once it had been my home, then it had become my prison. The blank face of the TV taunted me. Nikki had turned it into an instrument of torture with her infernal cycle of soap operas.
The old black and white film was building towards its climax. Bette Davis swept through the rooms in a huge lacy dress. Violins in the background matched her progress with a rising crescendo.
"Turn it off."
I looked at Nikki and protested, "I'm watching it."
"It's giving me a migraine."
"That's come on quickly."
"I tell you, my head is about to explode." Nikki's voice drowned out the music.
"I'll turn the brilliance down."
"No. Turn it off."
"Nikki, please. If you're feeling that bad, why don't you go and lie down. There's only ten minutes to go."
"You're so selfish. You don't own this room."
Actually, I did, but pointing it out was not advisable. "I just thought you'd feel better, lying down."
"No you didn't. You wanted... oh; I'm going to be sick." Nikki started to make retching noises.
I didn't believe her, but lacked the will to argue. As I turned off the TV, I had one last longing look at Bette Davis. Nikki could have upstaged her any day.
Half an hour later, when EastEnders, her favourite soap, started its two hour omnibus edition, Nikki's migraine had gone.
How had I stood it for five years? But you can get used to anything, when it creeps up on you slowly, until you are engulfed. Only after Claire had started working in my office, and I'd begun talking to her, had I got to realise how bad my home life had become.
Claire had been friendly, open and fun. My gaydar had picked her out within five minutes of meeting. As trust grew between us, I had talked more about Nikki. Claire had not said much or offered advice, but she'd been a sounding board.
Nikki had taken an overwhelming dislike to Claire when she met her at the company Christmas dinner. Undoubtedly, what upset her most was the sight of Claire and me laughing and chatting together. The argument started as soon as we got into the car for the journey home.
"That Claire. I bet she's a dyke." Nikki's voice held an absurd tone of moral outrage.
"Yes, she is."
"You knew? Why didn't you tell me?"
"You don't like me talking about the people I work with."
"This is different."
I shrugged and said nothing. Maybe, this once, Nikki was right.
"She's probably after you."
"She's not. We're just friends."
"You've got to change jobs."
"I don't want you working with her."
"And supposing there's another lesbian in my new job. I can hardly raise it in a job interview--do you have any existing lesbian employees, because my girlfriend insists that I'm the only one in the office."
Nikki slipped down in the seat and started to cry. "Promise you won't leave me."
"I won't. I promise. You're being silly. Claire and I are just friends."
Thereafter, the embargo on talking about work was replaced by Nikki grilling me over what Claire and I had said to each other that day. Nikki demanded to know everything--how Claire had looked at me and how close she'd stood. We both knew Nikki was searching for verbal slips that she could twist. If I gave her the slightest pretext, she would launch into a jealous screaming fit. And if I didn't, she would angrily accuse me of covering up or changing the details. The strain became too much to bear. Coming home each night, the sight of the front door made me feel sick.
As if in sympathy with the memory, queasy ripples ran through my stomach. I gulped down the last of the tea, hoping the sugar would settle it, but there was no trace of sweetness in the tepid liquid. I knew I'd put sugar in the tea. My frown triggered a fresh burst from the dizziness. The sensation was so strong that my head might have been changing shape. It felt like my skull was about to shatter--as Charlotte's had done.
My legs trembled. The thought of Charlotte still had the power to hurt. She had marked the end.
The pile up at the traffic lights had caused chaos and put two hours on my journey home. At last, hot, frustrated and tired, I stepped through the doorway, and immediately sensed that things were about to get worse. As I entered the kitchen, I saw the fragments of china on the floor, and then recognised the shredded remains of Charlotte's dress.
Charlotte was a porcelain doll--the last present I had received from my grandmother. And now the doll was completely destroyed. I knelt and stretched out my hand, but did not touch the debris.
"You've been with her." Nikki was sitting at the table. Her eyes were red from crying.
"I... what? How?"
"You've been with that slut--Clair."
It dawned on me that Charlotte's destruction had not been an accident. "You smashed her?"
"Because you've been with that slut. You promised you wouldn't."
"I've been in a fucking traffic jam for two hours. I haven't been with anyone." It was so rare for me to shout that Nikki flinched.
"I don't believe you."
I was too angry to speak. I marched into the living room, grabbed the remote control and put the TV on. Nikki stood in silence at the doorway as I flipped through to the traffic Events.
"There. Read that." I stabbed my finger at the report.
"I didn't know." Her voice was sullen.
"So what. You could have checked. I think you enjoy acting like a..." The word I wanted eluded me. Instead, I stood close to her and shouted. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"It's your fault for carrying on with her like you do."
"Claire and I are colleagues. Anything else is in your head."
"I didn't know. You can't blame me."
There was no point in talking. Nikki's response to conflict was predictable; a few bland statements denying responsibility, which would soon shift to blaming me, and turning herself into the victim. Never once would she say sorry.
I pushed past her. In the kitchen I found the dustpan and brush, and started to sweep up the fragments. My anger was slipping away as the pain grew. For fifteen years, Charlotte had travelled with me, through university and bedsits--a reminder of the granny I had loved. A tear rolled down the side of my nose. The brush in my hand wobbled out of focus.
"You mustn't try to make me feel guilty."
I looked up at Nikki, and felt the last vestige of my love for her go. Shattered like a china doll.
Tears were running down my face again. The room shimmered in my vision. The dizziness was still there but it had shifted to something more diffuse, bound up with a feeling of lethargy. My legs were weak and the rest of my body felt thick and heavy. The combined effect was not the same as sleepiness, but maybe it was worth going back to bed.
"You promised you'd never leave me." This time, the voice was so clear that I knew I'd heard it. "You left me for that slut."
The room was spinning and a surge of nausea quivered in my stomach. Specks of light were wheeling in front of my eyes. I staggered to the bathroom. In the split second before the light came on, I saw Nikki's body lying on the floor--just as it had, eight months before.
Splashing cold water on my face eased the nausea, but the weakness in my limbs increased. My head was reeling. I rested my arms across the sink and leaned my forehead on them. Even with my eyes closed, I could sense the blackness sweeping over me.
I'd made my mind up, waiting in a queue at the supermarket. I can't claim there was anything significant about the location. It was just where I happened to be when I finally reached the decision that I had to get Nikki out, although I was going to wait until she gave me a reason to say it.
As if she could sense my change of mood, Nikki was on her best behaviour for a week. It couldn't last, and Claire was the trigger.
I'd brought home the minutes of a meeting to read. As I came in from a smoke on the balcony, Nikki was tearing the papers into shreds.
I raced over to rescue what I could. "What are you doing? I need that."
"You just do it to get at me."
"Her name's on it."
"That bitch you work with."
"Claire? She was only on the list of attendees. Why did you read it anyway?"
"I wanted to know what you're up to."
"What did you think you were going to find hidden in next year's investment budget?"
"You never told me about the meeting. Why did she have to be there?"
"Because..." I stopped. This was the excuse I'd been waiting for. I met Nikki's eyes and sucked in a deep breath. "This isn't working, is it?"
"What do you mean?" Nikki looked anxious.
"All we do is argue." I took a second to summon my resolve. "I think we need to separate."
"You promised you wouldn't leave me."
"And you promised you'd love me. But you don't. I'm just your doormat."
Nikki grabbed the nearest thing to hand, the TV remote, and hurled it at me. I deflected it with my arm and suffered only a bruise.
Immediately, Nikki's hands flew to her face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to throw it."
In our five years together, it was the only time she ever said sorry. It was too little, and far too late.
We carried on arguing pointlessly until 3 a.m. Nikki had gone through the entire cycle of her hysterics several times, but it had not worked. I'd heard every line before. At last, she curled herself on a chair, like a neurotic foetus, refusing eye contact. I realised I had won.
"You can stay here until you find somewhere else. OK?"
Nikki did not respond.
After a minute of silence, I stood up. "I'm going to bed. Are you coming?"
Her expression was pure venom. "I wouldn't get into bed with you after you've been shagging that slut."
"Right." I was not going to bother denying it again. I turned and left the room
Of course, I couldn't sleep. I lay awake, hearing Nikki moving around the living room, and twice going to the bathroom. Eventually I drifted into a half doze, and woke just before 6. Dim grey light was seeping through the curtains, and the apartment was silent. I though Nikki was asleep. I went to the bathroom, tiptoeing so as not to wake her, and saw her lying on the bathroom floor.
The only guilt card she had left to play. Nikki had killed herself.
Claire had helped me through the following weeks, covering for me at work, listening to me talk. Hers had been the shoulder I cried on--tears more of shock than grief. Despite Nikki's accusation, we hadn't been lovers, but it seemed inevitable that we became so, three months after Nikki's death.
I had hardly set foot in the apartment since, only what was necessary to arrange its sale, and then packing. Clair had spent one night there, and refused to stay another. She said that it made her nervous, that she could sense Nikki's spirit. I had thought it no more than imagination. But Claire was right; Nikki was still there.
My head was now spinning wildly, and my heartbeat was pounding in an erratic frenzy.
Clearly, I heard the words. "I won't let you leave me."
I looked up. Behind me, in the mirror I could see Nikki's face. The image was semitransparent, but solidifying by the second. On the shelf below the mirror was the bottle of tablets--empty. My hands were shaking so badly it took three attempts to pick it up.
Where had the tablets gone? I could remember counting them out, taking two and putting the rest back, couldn't I? But no. The counting and returning the bottle to the shelf were clear, but I had no memory of what I had done with the tablets. In the mirror, Nikki's face was smiling at me. She always had been the queen of manipulation.
Nausea battled with exhaustion. My body was like lead. My heartbeat stopped and then resumed double time, but it felt as if it were pumping treacle rather than blood.
I stumbled down the hallway to the kitchen. I had to phone for an ambulance.
The kitchen seemed distorted, as if the floor were flowing and expanding. I clung to the doorframe. Absurdly, I noticed that the sugar jar was not on the counter. I released my grip on the jamb and took a step forward. My feet were having trouble finding the floor. My knees were trying to bend sideways. I took another step, and then it was all too difficult. My face crashed into the tiles.
Some time later, I stood up. The headache had cleared and my body felt at ease. What sort of nightmare had that been?
A noise made me turn. Nikki was standing in doorway, watching. Across the hallway, behind her, I could see into the living room. The packing boxes were absent, and hanging on the walls were the red and orange hangings. The end of the sofa was visible, standing where it always had.
In confusion, my eyes leapt from one impossibility to another, until something on the floor caught my notice. Somebody was lying there, white and motionless. I knelt, reaching for the figure's shoulder, hoping to wake her. Nothing made sense. My mind was struggling to keep up. What was happening? Who was the woman?
With a sensation like pushing into jelly, my hand slipped through the body. At that same instant I recognised her.
It was me.
The shock rocked me back on my heels. Again, I grabbed at the shoulder, but the form was fading. The colours bleached away while the transparency grew. Already I could see the tiles below. Another noise caught my attention.
Nikki was walking towards me, slowly. She held out her arms. Her smile was one of triumph.
"Now you'll never leave me."