Breathe: Chapter One
As we pull up to the new house in Leytonstone I feel hopeful, excited and nervous.
It’s a middle of the row terraced house, a rental of course because who could afford much more in zone three, it has two floors split into two flats which over look the valley of cars otherwise known as the North circular. On the other side of the cavern is the tube station. At the back of the house there is a small unkept and leaf covered garden which, as the ground floor flat, we will have full use of. The rooms are, as is usual in this type of house, either too big or too small for real habitation and being a woman of some peculiarities, I prefer small spaces, I volunteered for box room at the back of the flat.
Dad and I step out of the car and onto the pavement, stretching away the aches and stiffness of the five-hour drive and have the obligatory yawn, we start to unload the neatly packed in suitcases and boxes when the front door opens. Running down the path in fluffy slippers, bright green tights and a striped jumper dress is my mad and beautiful best friend Alice. She flings herself forward and embraces me in a whole body hug, which nearly sends us plummeting to the ground, but we find our balance by bouncing up and down. We chatter excitedly about missing each other over the last few months and I can almost hear my Dad rolling his eyes.
“Hello Alice, lovely to see you; how are you?” He asks in his soft Welsh twanged voice.
“Great thanks Mr. Jones!” Turning back towards me, “So glad that you are here, it was awful having the first night alone, you are going to love it here though Soph!” She rambles.
To look at us you wouldn’t think we were compatible as friends, we are a perfect stereotype of opposites and way back when we arrived young and glowing at university we very nearly didn’t make it as friends let alone besties. Alice is tall and naturally svelte, despite eating like a horribly fat pony, she has shoulder length blonde hair that seems to float like it’s in constant motion and iridescent green eyes. I can’t even talk about her bone structure without feeling sick with jealousy, but at the risk of sounding cliché, she has cheek bones to die for. She’s irritatingly smart and does some shmancy job in ‘the city’ (whatever that means) that she fell straight into after uni, and she never fails to make me chuckle. In comparison, I know I shouldn’t compare but I can’t help it, am short with a mop of chestnut frizz atop a round freckled face with boring blue eyes and have had cankles my whole life, I am not really sure what I want to be when I grow up — which seems a fair excuse at twenty-two but I know it won’t fly for much longer. People always look twice at Alice when she walks into a room, where-as they generally just look straight over my head.
Alice scoops up a suitcase and a ‘bag for life’ full of shoes and we trot into the flat nattering as we go, Dad stoically follows and finishes unloading the car whist I put the kettle on.
“Soph, I will make my tea!” My Dad shouts down the short hallway nervously.
“Yeah I know Dad” I reply.
“The thing is the size of cup is pivotal to how much…”
“…sugar and milk is required. Yes, Dad, I know” I say, giving him a kiss on the cheek and wandering into my new room. Its long and thin and sparsely decorated with bright white wall and a dusty industrial brown carpet and I am fairly certain I can detect the distinct musty aroma of mould, but who cares it is my new home for the foreseeable future and I love it already. As long as I can remember, I have always known without a shadow of a doubt that I would move to London and now I am here I cannot help the grin tickling my lips in to a smile.
Alice helps me to unpack and make the room my own, I decide to put the small double bed in the corner with the window behind the bed head, the chest of drawers and wardrobe go snugly side by side along the longest wall, leaving space for me to stack my books by the bedroom door. I hang my fairy lights along the wall to side of the bed and plump up my butterfly cushions. Alice and I plop down exhausted as Dad knocks on the open door, ‘Hellooo’ he sings.
“Hi Dad, you don’t need to knock” I reply.
“I have cleaned the bathroom and the kitchen and fixed the shelves in the living room, I think it’s about dinner time don’t you?”
“Thanks Dad, you didn’t have to, what do you fancy? Pizza?” I ask hopefully. He pulls a face and I let out a sigh, I know he hates pizza but it was worth a try.“Okay, how about Chinese?” I say evenly.
“Sounds great, my treat. I saw one…”
“…No Dad you don’t have to…” I attempt to cut in but he keeps on talking, flapping his hand to signal he is insistent, “…on the way here, so you girls settle in and I will be back in a mo.” He finishes and pulls the bedroom door to behind him.
“Don’t forget the BBQ sauce!” I shout after him, “Ooh and can you get some veggie spring rolls Mr.J?” Alice squawks excitedly, we hear the door shut and hope he heard out requests.
After dinner we settle in to watch a film, we all fancied a rom-com but aren’t entirely convinced by Ben Stiller and Jennifer Anniston’s impression of an awkward couple dating in New York, we still have about forty-five minutes left of Along Came Polly when I call it a night and hustle Alice out of the living room. It’s a long drive home so Dad is staying the night and heading back in the morning, I did offer him the bed but he said he would be happier on the couch.
“But is only nine o’clock” she grumbles.
“Yes, but he’s an old man Al” I whisper.
“I heard that!” Dad says. Whoops.
I shuffle towards my room, my hand on the cold metal of the handle before I realise Alice has followed me down the hallway, she is looking at me closely as if trying to see into my head and it’s disconcerting to say the least. Doing her best impression of a fish I wait patiently for her to spit it out, whatever it is.
“Are you…OK?” She asks with a shrug which denotes the recognition of her vagueness.
“Yeah of course! I am pretty tired but so excited to be here with you Ally-bum.” I reply with a smile.
“I just…I know things have been tough…if you want to talk…”
“— Al I’m fine! I wish everyone would stop treating me like I’m going to squish!” I cut in rather more irritatedly than intended. Alice doesn’t even flinch, she pulls in for a hug, her soft, coconut scented hair tickling my forehead as I awkwardly nuzzle into her armpit.
My first nights sleep is fairly restless it’s probably going to take me a good week before I get a proper nights kip, I never sleep well in unusual places. I roll onto my back and stare at the light pattern on the ceiling before letting out a frustrated huff and reaching my hand above my head for my phone. I unlock it automatically to look at Facebook and check on the time, I know that they say the light of your phone screen will only wake you up further but I can never resist its call when sleep is avoiding me. It’s just after three in the morning so there isn’t much going on in cyber space. My exhausted mind on autopilot swipes through the news feed, hardly taking in what I am seeing, Ginny Garner (someone I vaguely knew in secondary school) has liked a picture of someone I don’t know who is smiling out at the camera whilst cuddling a gorgeous baby with a blonde quaff, there is so much content relating to obscure third parties I have never known and never will and it always makes me feel uncomfortable, like I am peeping into their lives unbidden. Despite my slight despondency I can feel a ball of nervous energy fluttering in my stomach, I let out a huff of breath I don’t even know I am holding as a familiar face pops into view. A sharp pang creeps through my body as I see his profile picture has changed. My stomach plummets and I can’t help the tears that start to trickle. I think it’s more with annoyance than hurt or pain, my face becomes wet and hot, I can feel my eye puffing up and my mouth gaping as the ugliest crying face contorts my features. I exit Facebook and put my phone back on the window sill above my head, cuddling into one of my cushions and breath in the scent of home hoping to steady myself. I let the shudder of tears take me in to an agitated sleep. I dream vividly, the misty black and white images all-consuming. I dream that I am falling unable to get purchase or stop. I dream and fret and already know I won’t remember the contorted stories in the morning, only the deep pitted emptiness they will leave behind.
I start awake at five o’clock and can hear my Dad pottering in the kitchen, he has always been an early riser, he’s so used to country life and getting up to walk the dogs. Sitting up I rub my puffy face and tumble out of bed, I wrap the blanket from the end of the bed around my shoulders and amble into the kitchen like a monster from the deep. We sit and have a quiet breakfast together. Dad had picked up milk, tea bags, bread and Marmite when he went out last night for the Chinese, he knows I haven’t liked the black gloop since I was small. He glanced up at me when I emerged, his troubled eyes lingering on mine longer than usual, but if he noticed my puffy red face he didn’t vocalise it. We munch our way through a couple of rounds of toast, washed down with strong sweet tea — or coffee in his case. He does the breakfast dishes, as is his routine at home, before he makes his way out to the car. He’s not a fussy man and doesn’t do big shows of emotion, so I am surprised when he shuts the boot and turns to me with slightly soggy eyes.
“Love you Sophia. Be careful and make sure you keep your mum and me up to date with the job hunt” he says.
“I will Dad, safe journey. Love you too” I say. We hug and I wave him off, standing on the pavement with the rough concrete digging into the soft soles of my sock-less feet until his car has rounded the corner at the end of the road and I am left standing alone.