He was definitely ill. He didn't know what exactly was wrong with him, but he was absolutely certain that something was up. He felt more than just a little bit under the weather. His whole body ached. The light hurt his eyes, and he shifted under the bed clothes, his hand automatically going to his penis, and then falling away. He felt too ill to wank. He didn't have the energy.
He tried to go back to sleep, to escape the constant ache in every limb and the dull throbbing pain in his back. It was impossible to get comfortable. The sheets were dry, so he could rule out fever. What was wrong with him? There was no way he was going to be able to get to sleep.
What time was it? He suddenly had to know. Leaning halfway out of the bed, straining to reach eyeshot of the mantelpiece where the clock was, he lurched unexpectedly, and, almost losing his balance, knocked over a half drunk cup of tea he had left by the bed the night before. He watched the tea soak slowly into the carpet, and lay back, breathing heavily. He had no idea what time it was. The winter daylight was limping dully through the window, and gave no clue. It could be anything between nine in the morning and three in the afternoon. Sod the tea. He felt like shit.
Perhaps it was just a hangover. Perhaps it had just been a heavy night the night before. Perhaps it had been. What had he done the night before, anyway? He couldn't remember. A wave of shock ran through him as he realised that he had absolutely no idea what he had been doing the night before. None. He could have been anywhere. He could have done anything, said anything, taken anything. Was this how it was going to start? Was this it?
He stumbled to an upright position, and struggled with his clothes. He really ought to have a shower, but he couldn't imagine possibly having the energy to shower. It would be cold, very cold, until the water ran warm, and the brief respite from shivering that the water would give him would give way to being even colder from the moment that he turned the water off, until he was dressed. Better just to get dressed straight away. If he smelled it would only be of smoke. Surely that was what deodorant was for.
The kettle was on, and he had found a cigarette in the pocket of his coat, but the flat was very cold, and the view from the kitchen window was as depressing as it had ever been. The backs of twenties tenement buildings might provide interesting shapes and blocks of colour to someone like Janine's mother, but remained basically depressing when you had to live with them, all peeling paint and broken windows. Janine's mother, an artist, had rhapsodised about them, the one and only time she had come to visit the flat, and initially, after that, he had managed to look at them with new eyes. For a while. A while. Shit.
He really didn't want to think about Janine. He was ill. He was sick. He felt like shit.
When the kettle boiled, he went through the motions of waving a teabag around in a mug of scummy hot water, and put some sugar in it. He was scared to open the fridge in case he had run out of milk again, but his resolution to drink the tea black lasted about ten seconds, and when he did finally open the fridge, he was too blasted by the smell of rotting vegetables to notice that the milk was off until it was too late.
Perhaps some fresh air would be a good idea. He needed to get some cigarettes and some milk anyway. He was probably running out of teabags and sugar too. No, there was plenty. Fine. What time was it? Didn't he have something to do today? He was sure that he had made some arrangement for today. Tuesday, wasn't it? Or perhaps Monday. He made a mental note to get a paper too. God he felt like shit.
He stumbled on the stairs leading out of the block of flats and nearly knocked the postman over. He mumbled apology, receiving a barrage of "Why don't you fucking look where you're fucking going," and "What's your fucking problem," as he hurried away, away down the icy pavement to the newsagent and grocer's on the corner. A sign on the door said "Closed due to illness." The nearest other place was quite some distance away, but he was out now. He might as well walk it. He had found another cigarette in his coat pocket, and a middle aged woman with a terrible cough and a heavily wrinkled smile had given him a light. The fresh air wasn't making him feel any better. The cigarette tasted like shit. He didn't really want it, but if he smoked it while he was walking it would take his mind off the things that he didn't want to think about, which, right now, constituted just about everything. Particularly Janine. He definitely did not want to think about Janine.
She was tall, dark, sexy and exciting. She was far brighter than he was, better read, and better educated. She had been a lifeline for him, a foot in the door of the world of interesting and talented people who did things. She had travelled, seen the world, spoke several languages. She was funny, sensitive, and kind. She had known how to make him laugh. When he had been down, she had known immediately. She had almost always been capable of making him feel better. She might have been a little arrogant, perhaps, but he felt that any arrogance on her part was justified. Since he had met her, he had stopped finding other women attractive. For a while, she had loved him. She had been everything he had ever wanted in a woman. Why hadn't he been able to love her well enough in return?
She was far wealthier than he was, too. She was still paying the rent on the flat.Paying the rent on the flat? It was her flat. When she had moved out, she had agreed that he could stay there until he found something else. If he wanted to stay there indefinitely, that was okay too. As soon as he was able to pay the rent, he should contact her so that they could make all the necessary arrangements. He could stay, though, meanwhile.
He knew that she was being wholly over the top with how good she was being towards him about it all. She didn't need to be being that good to him. Not any more. But, she was being. How could he possibly resent her, when she was being so good about it all? It had all been his fault anyway. He felt ill. He felt like shit.
According to the paper, it was Tuesday. This meant that he definitely did have an appointment, at eleven o'clock in the morning. According to the clock on the mantelpiece in his bedroom, it was midday. It didn't matter. Lately he was always forgetting things. The postman had brought him a letter with Janine's handwriting on the envelope. He hadn't the energy to read it. Cup of tea, cigarette, cartoons page, and struggle with the crossword. Block it all out.
Five down. Six letters. "She's a dutchman in the Orient." Something A, something something N something. He puzzled over it for a while. After a while, he began to laugh, and then to cry. The answer was 'JANINE'. Even the crossword was at it. There was no escape.
He sat there for a while, at the kitchen table, blubbering. The phone rang, and he didn't answer it. He let it ring. Then it occurred to him that it might be her, and he lunged for the phone in the hall, stubbing his toe on the door, and sniffing.
It was his mother. No, no, he was fine. Yes, that's right, a bit of a cold. No, not at all. Of course. He had promised that he would do that, and of course he was going to. He just hadn't got around to it. Yes. Yes. Actually, he was just going out, so he had to be brief. Yes. No. Yes, really, he felt fine. He would speak to her soon.
He felt like shit. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, noone he wanted to see or talk to. He desperately wanted to get out of the flat, but he really couldn't think of anywhere else that he wanted to be. His head ached. Painkillers didn't seem to work. The light began to become really painful. Sod the fucking letter.
He went back to the bedroom, and closed the curtains. He collapsed on the bed, and lay there, with his head underneath the pillow, trying not to think about Janine, about their last row, how he had hit her, and how she had walked out on him, about how good she had found it in herself to be about it all afterwards, letting him stay in the flat. About Alex, and how he had found out that she had gone back to him. About the three phases of his life: before he had met her, while he was with her, and since. It had not been very long since she had left. A week, maybe? Two?
She had been very good to him. She had been back a couple of times to collect various items. That was it. That was what had happened yesterday. She had come round, and seeing how down and depressed he was, had offered to do some shopping for him, since he had been out of everything. She had bought tea and sugar, and had even brought him a cup.
It had been bearable until she had told him that she was with Alex. Since then, he had known that this time it was irreparable. He had lost her. He felt bad enough without this actual physical pain adding to it. Why wouldn't the headache go away?
She could do anything, Janine. She had always finished the crossword for him, always explained to him the backgrounds to news items that he hadn't understood, always had a slightly different point of view to the common misconceptions that his mind was apparently full of, and was eternally patient with him when he hadn't followed her train of thought. When he read about a book in the reviews section that looked interesting, she usually had read it already, or at least knew the work of that particular author. She could draw, she could paint, she could write, she could sing, she could do anything.
One day, he had brought a guitar back to the flat. He had bought it cheaply from a friend who was emigrating, with the idea of translating his long stifled ambition to learn how to play the thing into action. She had picked it up, played three of his favourite songs to him, and put it down again, apologising for how rusty she was, but it had been years since she had touched a guitar. He had had no idea that she could play or sing like that. He had given the guitar to a small cousin of his. It was pointless. He would never be able to sound as good as she did.
Mostly, he had done the cooking, since he didn't have a job, and she did, but when she had cooked, she produced food that was really good. It was the kind of food you got in restaurants. She had taught him about rice, and herbs, and white sauce. She had shown him the importance of garlic. With her, he had learned what he felt were the basics of good cooking, although she had always remained one step ahead. At the moment, of course, he lived on beans on toast and cigarettes. He couldn't bear to cook anything more than that. It reminded him of her.
He had had wild fantasies about her ability to manipulate people and situations. When things went right, he was inexplicably sure that she had engineered it. Once, they had been going on holiday abroad, and he had forgotten that he had a small lump of hash in his pocket. Nothing had happened. He had got away with it. It was because of her. Bad things only happened in her life when she wanted them to. He remembered her story about the man who had invited her to dinner, and had tried to attack her. His house had burned down. She had described it in a perfectly matter of fact way. She had not said that she had done it, but it had happened. It was logical. The wrong that he had tried to do her had come back on him. That was it. It was very simple.
Much earlier, before they had properly got it together, he had arranged a date with another woman. He had decided that there was no way that a woman like Janine would be interested in him, and, remaining in pull mode, had picked someone up in a cafe one lunchtime, arranging to meet her the following evening for a drink. The woman had stood him up. Janine's brother, with whom he got on well, had turned up in the pub unexpectedly, and the two of them had ended up getting very drunk together. It had been a good evening, in the end, although afterwards, he had wondered whether or not Janine had somehow managed to stop the other woman from coming and had sent her brother along to make sure that he didn't have a bad evening. After he had been living with her for a while he had mentioned this, jokingly, and they had laughed about it. How ridiculous it had been of him to suspect her of engineering a thing like that. Her brother often drank in that pub. It had just been a coincidence. That was all.
The row. He had yelled at her, screamed at her, taken out the rage of economic and intellectual disenfranchisement that burned within him upon her. He had, at one point, actually hit her. There had been rows before, but not like this. This was it. This was the last one. "You make me sick!" he had yelled at her, just before she had left. "You make me sick!"
Lying on the bed, he realised with a sudden lurching sensation that he could not move his arms or legs. His breathing was becoming difficult and heavy, and his headache was almost blinding him. A ringing sound in his ears was making him feel dizzy, and his mouth was so dry that his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He couldn't unstick it. He couldn't move. He couldn't see or hear anything. He was going to die. It didn't seem real. He was going to die.
It was her doing. He could see her, sitting on Alex's bed, pushing knitting needles into a wax figurine, with hairs from his head melted into it. It was her revenge. "You make me sick!" he had yelled at her, and here she was, making him sick. This was why she was keeping him in the flat - if she knew exactly where he was, the black magic would work better. Black magic. The world was becoming black now, and he felt his consciousness slipping away. It was a welcome relief. The last image he saw was of Janine's face, contorted into an evilly grinning mask of revenge.
On the table, unread, lay Janine's letter. It was not a letter, it was a postcard. "Make you sick?" it said. "Don't I just." In the dregs in his teacup, and in the box of teabags in the cupboard, the poison was slowly decomposing into harmless, undetectable organic substances. By that evening, no trace would be left. It was highly unlikely that the body would be discovered before then.
When he awoke next day, he decided that he was definitely ill. He didn't know what was wrong with him, but he was absolutely certain that something was up. His whole body ached. He couldn't even wank - he didn't have the energy.