ONE 3 • Happy Hour: New Fiction from Edinburgh’s Makar

She called her pack of pills her very own Advent calendar—her chemical countdown to a good day or to a very good day. The choice was hers…

DD could hear doors opening and closing elsewhere in the house, someone was hoovering, a telephone rang. She had to get up or Graham would start worrying. God, how the man worried. If it wasn’t for him forever worrying and worrying, she’d manage to get through her days a lot easier.

It was 8:30.

Some mornings she awoke already adrift at sea, a black, black sea where the waves crashed around her, sending her sliding helplessly down into the depths… At other times, not a breath of wind, not a surface ripple—with sea and sky stretching featureless in every direction, merging into a transparency of deadened light. Neither shadow, nor colour nor depth. Utter stillness, lifelessness.

All she could depend upon were her little pink tablets. They were her compass and her sails, they controlled the weather, they positioned the moon and stars, they set the tides. Thanks to them she could calculate her course through the day and nights. They never brought her to land, of course, but, thanks to them, she knew that journey’s end was always well within her reach—if needs be.

9:00. Outside, it was a perfect summer’s morning.

Yes, would she make it a good day or a very good day?

She didn’t have bad days anymore—those terrible days when her whole body was so charged with adrenaline she couldn’t keep still. Hardly able to breathe, to speak. And her mind … her mind thrashing around like it was drowning, unable to get a fix on the everyday world of chairs, tables, meals, dates, times, sunlight. Days when her mind was always just about to go under, and take her with it. Thankfully, there were no more days like that,
not anymore.

It was time to prepare for the day ahead, to make sure it would be yet another good day. Having showered and dressed she returned to the bathroom. Her hand trembled as she opened the mirrored door of the cabinet. She lifted the blister strip of tablets off the glass shelf. Her very own Advent calendar, she called it, her chemical countdown to a good day or to a very good day. The choice was hers. She popped the little pink tabs out of their plastic bubbles and laid them on the rim of the washbasin. So little, so pink, so round—the shape and colour of the future. Pharmaceutical prophecy really was that simple.

One tablet would have her still completely strung out, unsettled, her mind like an agitated bird peck-peck-pecking at nothing, picking up nothing, and flitting in alarm every few seconds.

Two tablets steadied. Two tabs soothed, but didn’t dull. Her mind focused, her body feeling at ease, she’d feel confident to go about her familiar daily tasks—running the house and, more importantly, helping Graham to run the business. Two tabs and everything would be sure to function at maximum efficiency, herself included. Her office next-door to his—Human Resources. Her laptop with the screensaver—a field of yellow sunflowers. The colour of happiness.

Three tabs meant an even better day, too good perhaps—an indulgence.
Four meant a day already
slowing down.
Five tabs meant shut-down.
Six tabs meant no day at all.
She ran the tap and filled the glass. One tablet. Swallow.
Second tablet.

She pressed the plastic bubble and popped tab number three. So little, so pink, so round—lying almost weightless in the palm of her hand, as weightless as the day ahead would become.

Fuck it, why worry? Let the morning blur a little at the edges and go ever-so soft-focus, leaving her free to drift effortlessly from one anxiety-free moment to the next, and to the next after that…

Allow herself the third? Tempting. So, so tempting. A day of slowly winding down after the strain of yesterday’s birthday celebration. It had been a good day, but stressful. The whole staff. The cake. The present. Her and Graham’s dinner together. It had been an evening to treasure, hadn’t it?
No. Two tabs was enough. She’d be strong. She’d impress.

But maybe just an extra half tab for luck, a bit of fine-tuning. She snapped it in half along the handy indentation, and swallowed.
To be on the safe side she slipped the other half tab and a couple more, just in case, into the breast pocket of her blouse—a comfort to know they were within reach, if needed. Yes, just like they say at the airport—for her comfort and security.

Yesterday had been a two-tab day, hadn’t it? She deserved a treat.

Time to move into action. She picked up the cordless from the bedside table.

“Morning, Michael. You can tell Marja she can do the bedroom now. I’ll have breakfast downstairs, thank you.”

Graham next.

His line was busy. She left a message telling him she was up, dressed and would be in the morning room if he wanted to drop by. No worries.

It was when she was taking her first few steps down the staircase that she felt the tabs really start to kick in. She paused to savour the moment. Her left hand gripping the polished wooden banister and her feet set firmly on the carpeted stair, she let wave upon wave of delicious ease wash over her. No longer a staircase, but a stepped waterfall she could feel cascading downwards in slow-motion, carrying her with it. Sunlight on her face, its warmth soaking into her bare arms…

If she let go the bannister, she felt she could almost float away. Had she really taken only two tabs?

Only two tabs and she was feeling so relaxed, so very relaxed—she must be getting better! She had her feet firmly on the ground. A tab and a half to hand, for herself. But it would be her choice—she knew exactly what she was doing. She was in control, in total control. She…

“Mrs Bell? Are you all right?”

It was the new maid coming upstairs.

“Fine, thank you, Marja. Never better. A lovely summer’s day today.”

A two-tablet day.

The girl was still looking at her. Her upturned face brimming with sunlight, her clear eyes, her smooth skin, cheekbones. Another couple of weeks and this one would be ready for hiring out as a maid. And more. She was pretty enough for that. The girls from Eastern Europe were born for Executive Service. They came cheap, were eager to learn and desperately grateful for everything—those who weren’t, she fired on Day One.

Marja had taken her arm. “We go down, yes?”

The individual stairs were cascading a little too fast, making the girl stumble—which made her stumble too, as she tried to keep her feet. The varnished oak bannister swept alongside her in a surge of reflected light. She grabbed hold of it and managed to keep them both afloat as the current bore them down towards the main hall. Above the roaring onrush DD could hear the girl calling out the steps in Polish … each meaningless word taking her that little further into the day.

She was sitting in the morning room. In front of her—a cup of tea, a rack of toast, butter, milk, marmalade. The tea had been recently poured, its surface still swirling. Had she done that? She was quite alone.

She felt in the pocket of her blouse. One-and-a-half tablets all present and correct. She could relax. After her rushed descent she had reached a pool of most welcome quietude. From its accumulated stillness, from the full complement of perfectly laid out breakfast things upon the coffee table, from the motionless furniture arranged around the room and from the stability of the paintings hanging on the walls—from each of these in turn, she could draw solid confirmation of her own calmness. No threatening weather here, no uncertainties—only the security of a familiar room, a shut door, and double glazing that gave onto the same stretch of lawn day after day.

She sipped her tea, selected a piece of toast, buttered it. At her ease now, she was ready to sit back and let the morning begin. The bread had been thick-cut and crunched deliciously in her mouth, the sharp-but-sweet coolness of the orange marmalade, and the butter smoothing the toasted crispness to a perfect mellowness with the soft white inside—how perfect were the simple things in life. Her tea was not quite hot as it could be—a tad too much milk, perhaps? She laughed to herself, no one’s perfect. A shake of her head, then she topped up from the pot. Easily fixed. English Breakfast tea at just the right strength and temperature—what could beat it? She could spend the rest of her life sitting here, sipping and crunching—and feeling good. A modest enough wish. Wanting nothing more than what we already have—is that not perfect happiness? She must tell Graham. He used to worry about these sorts of questions: human happiness, the nature of reality and so on. Really, life is very simple—it’s people who are complicated. But not her, not any more. Another slice of toast, thickly buttered. She should take it up to him—an audio-visual aid to prove how perfect life can be. Actually, she laughed again, she’d rather eat it herself! Now the whole day ahead was hers, and all the days after. Amazing thing was—it had always been like that, only she’d never realized it before. But now she has, her life will…

At once, as if on cue, a siren screamed the length of the street outside.

A police car most likely. But that MAKE POVERTY HISTORY stuff was surely history? The circus had left town, hadn’t it? Who needed it?

She was about to pour a second cup when the door opened. It was Graham.

How was she? Had she slept well? Did she need anything?

She had to answer quickly.

“Some tea?”

Banality was all it took. Without waiting for his reply, she poured out a fresh cup.

“There’s some toast, if you fancy a slice? It’s really good.”

“I’m fine, thanks. Just popped in to see if you were—”

“Perfect day, by the look of it. The acceptable face of global warming! How are things for Feast & Famine tonight?” Which proved she remembered what day it was—proved it to him, and to herself. Three tabs and she was good. She was completely in control.

Graham sat down. “After the march last Saturday and then the anarchists, the police are still pretty jumpy. They’re playing it safe with traffic diversions, cops everywhere and so on—so there might be some late arrivals and security problems tonight. That aside, everything’s on track. STV and BBC are both covering the event for their main evening news and you’ll be able to watch the opening live on cable. Five hundred subscribers—a full house.”

Watch it? I want to be there.”

“DD, we’ve been through this a dozen times. It’s best you stay here. Nice and easy with your feet up and—”

“I can help you, can’t I?”

“That would be great, but… Look, DD, everything’s taken care of. There’s no need for you to—”

“But I want to.”

The calm and consoling surface of things that she’d relished only minutes earlier—the full-length curtains, the pale carpet, the armchairs, the paintings, the sofa and, most of all, the light and shadow falling between them—was becoming agitated. “I want to be there, to be with you. To take part. To be of some use… Please?”

“But you are, DD. You are.” Graham’s reassuring smile looked stuck-on. “You hear that?” Another siren went screaming past the house. “I want you to be safe. Till the G8’s finished, they’re on stand-by for trouble at any moment.”

“You don’t want me there. Do you?”

“DD…” he was shaking his head, which said it all. “Of course I do. It’s just that…”

She stopped listening. Once Graham had gone, she’d take the extra half tab—why the fuck not? She’d tried her best, hadn’t she? Having a great day till he turned up. Come to that, why not take the other tab as well? Then stretch full out on the couch, and enjoy the room lapping gently against its sides like she was floating in the middle of a lake—or, even better, adrift in the middle of an ocean. With no land in sight. Close her eyes, so there’s only the gentle rocking of the boat carrying her from nowhere to nowhere…

But she was no longer alone. Herself, remember—she had herself. Like a secret friend. Invisible, imaginary—but quite real. For fuck’s sake, she was real, wasn’t she? She managed to get through the days and nights, didn’t she? Every single day, every single fucking night. Face the facts—she trusted herself a lot more than she trusted Graham. Who wouldn’t? She was the only person in the whole universe who was totally on her side—and who had her interests at heart, her interests only, completely and unreservedly. Even God, it seemed, struggled to be that loyal.

Graham was still talking, still blundering through his repertoire of explanations and excuses. His mouth kept opening and closing—he could be one of the fish swimming round and round beneath the surface of the ocean. His eyes were searching out hers—just like the koi she used to feed, their eyes gazing up at her from the pond, gazing and yet completely blank. Needing to be fed was all—with Graham, it was his needing to be sure she wouldn’t bother him.

Which she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t bother anyone—and no one would bother her. She held up her hand for silence:

“Fine, Graham. No problem. Run along now. Bye. Hope everything goes well.”

She’d hardly heard the door close behind him when she reached into her blouse pocket.

A last slice of toast, a last sip of tea. Three tabs, four tabs, who’s counting? She was in tune for the day ahead. She’d lie relaxed and comfortable at full stretch on the couch…

Or, even better, why not go out to the summer house where no one would disturb her?

As she passed through the hall a phone rang somewhere in the house. She ignored it. She knew it wouldn’t be for her.