She has bought a box of supermarket sushi for lunch, but all the green spaces and benches in the centre of town are so packed with people. Loud people. She wants to go somewhere and relax. She would like to be able to enjoy her lunch in peace and quiet. She hates seeing so many faces crowding round her. It is upsetting. She can feel herself becoming panicked. The panic feels like a snake. It pulls itself up out of her stomach and up through her throat; like a slow, venomous vomit rising into her mouth. Worrying that it is going to happen makes it worse. She is scared of it consuming her. She is scared of forgetting who she is, that blank numbness. Unable to move, unable to speak, unable to cope. She imagines it to be tangible. This way she can will it back down, wrestle with it.
Deep breath in. She can do this. She shouldn’t expect too much of her first trip out. The best thing is remain calm, to find a way to relax. Over there, in front of the department store, the crowd is standing still. And breathe out. She walks over, stands near the open edge, tries to join in the viewing, tries to distract herself. It is a street mime. Clothes like a penguin, make-up like the faces of a set of dice. He has allegedly been stuck inside a glass box. He curves thin black lips into exaggerated dismay as the box apparently shrinks him down to the floor and into a tight, tight little ball. Behind him, behind the glass store-front, window dressers are setting up a display. They ignore the performance. The crowd seems just about as interested in the changing of the mannequins as they are in the mime. Everyone knows mimes are pointless. There are so many jokes about them, so many derisive cultural snobbery remarks. This one is not even very good, unless the walls of his box are supposed to fluctuate from one size to another in a random sort of way. It would seem that the crowd is simply waiting for him to balls it up properly so that they can get a good, cruel laugh in.
But it has helped to stand there, on the fringe of things, and join in with everyone else in passing judgement. Now that her stomach is not full of snake anymore her hunger returns. The revolving door leading into the department store separates the crowd into manageable chunks, no more than two at a time. She lets it pull her in and absorb her, passing through from the outside noise and squalor. In her own little segment, all by herself. Then into the cool order of the cosmetics department. She is still without a plan, so she walks forward, mounts the first step with caution, then lets the escalator carry her up floor after floor until she reaches the top. And she finds herself by the ladies toilets. Busy as it is, there are a lot of cubicles so it is not as though anyone will mind if she takes her time. The space around her had feels really good. Intimate because it is a toilet. Clean too, luckily. She enters a cubicle at the end of a row, and locks herself in.
It seems really weird sitting on the loo fully clothed. Distracting kind of weird. She stand up, balances the box of sushi on the closed lid, hangs her coat and bag on the hook provided, then picks up the sushi with one hand, and uses the other to tug down her skirt and pants and raise the toilet lid. When she sits back down it feels cool at the top of the back of her thighs. It feels like the right decision, more how things should be in a toilet. Being normal is not all that difficult after all, all things considered. The seat is more comfortable too, and she doesn’t have to worry about getting food stains down the front of her coat. She opens the plastic sushi box and it starts making the air smell of fish a bit, but only a little bit, and it is not as though anyone else will be able to smell it. She is safe, enclosed, private in here, in her own locked cubicle. The sushi tastes clean and good, but the ginger stuff is a funny colour. After an experimental nibble she leaves it well alone. Just in case.
When her lunch is eaten, she cleans her fingers with the refreshing wipe provided in the box and also a generous handful of loo roll. Then comes the problem of what to do with the empty box. It won’t fit in the sanitary bin. It is not feasible to flush it down the toilet. For lack of a better option she balances it on top of the loo roll dispenser. She hopes that it will provide a bit of amusement for the next person. It slips, she steadies it. Then she puts her coat over her arm, and flushes the loo to warn the world that she is coming back out. Out of the toilets, into the top floor of the store. Then she runs out of things to do again. She can feel the tensing in her back. She doesn’t want to go back home, not yet. She doesn’t want to go back out of the store either, back into the crowds, but shopping has always been boring. She can feel the tensing in her stomach. She starts to worry that she will be sick. She needs something to distract her again. The top floor of the store is also the dining area, the posh restaurant, not the coffee shop she used to meet people in, back before she stopped leaving the house. In one corner is a big, dark, shiny piano. Sometimes they hire people to play it for the people having lunch. It is the kind of job she would like to think about applying for. Today it stands unused.
She walks over to the piano, and runs her hands across the surface. Nobody stops her. One quick glance around, and nobody is even looking at her. There is a stool in front of the piano. None of these people here know anything about her. For all they know, she could be an employee, hired to entertain them. The piano is not designed to entertain through silence, not like the mime. She would be doing them a favour, it seems like a good idea. The main thing is to dive straight in, make it look like she belongs there. That’s what she feels like she has been trying to do all her life, persuade people that she belongs there. Maybe this is where she does belong. She spends far too much time thinking about it, perhaps it is time just to start doing. Start being. If she is playing the piano she won’t have to talk to anyone. She will be filling up her afternoon. She could turn this trip out into a really manageable success. This really is a great idea. It is clear in her mind, no shades of grey. Black and white.
Her hands float in front of their own reflection. They duck and weave and dance from left to right and over each other and fast and slow and all jumbled around. Most of the time she has her eyes closed, but when she opens them all she looks at is her hands on the white keys and her hands on the black keys and the ghosts of her hands in the shiny black piano surface. With her eyes shut, all the swirling thoughts blend in with the music and then there is only the music left. It fills her up and spills over and fills up the world around her and makes it in a different image so everything is all just fine and normal. And her hands are so busy making it happen that there is nothing else for the rest of her to do but relax. Finally.
The piano is all the colours of a magician’s wand. Black with white tips. She is the opposite with her pale features and her black hair. That makes her the colour of magic, perhaps, pouring herself into the music and pulling herself out again. Someone taps her arm and with her eyes shut she not only feels the fingers rebounding off her muscles as they wrestle with the notes, but she feels it as the magician’s wand tapping her and she plays faster and harder and pounds into the keys all the hurt and the rage and the fear. Especially the fear. That feels so good. The violence takes her away with surprise and the chorus comes around again and just keeps going. And it keeps going on some more and more and it feels that she can last like this forever.
The wand taps and taps and tugs and under the chords crashing down about her ears she hears a thin, reedy voice. It tells her the store is shutting soon and please Madam can you. So she makes the chords turn from burning houses into terrifying waves and drowns him out and washes him away and the wand stops trying to get her attention and just lets her get on with it. With the splendour of the abandoned music. And the waves turn into an empty beach and a pale, clouded sunrise after rain and the idea of hope. And with her eyes wilfully shut she can not see the store security approaching. And the soft music is still loud enough to push away the clack of their feet on the lino.
*first published in Metazen in 2010