I am a different person to who I was back then. That is what I try to convince myself of as I lie awake in the darkness. The soft snores of a man I don’t love fill the humid air that’s suffocating me. The white of our carpet, bedroom furniture and open window frames are bordered by the slightly paler colour of the posts of our bed, the drapes that adorn them and our bed sheets. The drapes in particular hold my attention. They flutter in the same way that skirts dance in the wind. I want to shut the window, to stop the chilling reminder, but it’s too warm for the action to not be suspicious. I can recall the panic as she tipped backwards perfectly. I haven’t told my husband why I don’t have any best friends.
For so long after John left me, I sleepwalked through my life. I got an office job, I joined a yoga class and moved into a city apartment not unlike the one I used to live in with Immogen. I bought the nicest things to fill it, developed a taste for white, spacious rooms and started to keep tropical fish. These are habits that came with me when I moved to this suburban house with my husband fifteen years ago. I married him because he drank too much- still does- and needed taking care of. He must know I have secrets. He must know I don’t mean the loving words that I utter out of habit. As long as there’s liquor in his cabinet at the end of the day, he doesn’t care. It works for me.
We rattled around in this house, living separate lives, for years before our daughter happened. I was older than most mothers; too old really. He’d given up years ago on children by me although I’m not naive enough to not realise where the money from our account goes each month. He has at least one other child by another woman who he doesn’t tell me about. He gives me my secrets; how could I begrudge him his? Alice was a beautiful surprise to me, a passing joy to her father. I wanted, craved, needed, a companion. I envisioned her being this saving grace.
Looking back, I don’t know how I let it get to the point it is now. Alice and I constantly bicker. We have plenty of room that we could avoid each other in, but we seek each other out. She acts in ways she knows upset me and I can’t help but get at her. I complain her outfits are frumpy and that she looks like a hippie. She buys a tie-dye skirt. It comes from me. How could it not? I am her parent. I am her first cause. I just can’t bite my tongue...She looks so much like Immogen that my chest aches.
I clean our house every day; our white house with our white fence. White is the colour of innocence. I don’t think we could have chosen a colour less suited to our household. It suited Immogen. She had a sweet naivety about her.
Guilt and sadness taint every memory I have of her. What she did was so utterly selfish. She’s ruined my life. Those are my thoughts in my darkest moods. I convince myself that this was all her making. In the darkness I am stripped of these defenses. There is a sadness that belongs to the night alone; when you can’t even hear the shuffle of another person in the next room or footsteps on the stairs. This sadness, paired with exhaustion that prevents the numbing anger, gives me such pain I could gasp at it.
I bake cakes for when the wives of my husband’s colleagues come for tea. I dust our spotless, clinical house. I vacuum once a week. I peel vegetables for dinner and keep a small herb garden. I try to read but can’t focus. I can’t shake the feeling she’d be living my life so much better had she lived. She’d take genuine pleasure in entertaining guests and maintaining a beautiful house. If it was her life it would be a home. She’d have married John. I know it. I always knew it. I was jealous. I did it on purpose. I can’t hide from it any longer. If she was selfish then it was only the righting of the balance I messed up with my own selfish acts. I am paying the price. She doesn’t have to. Maybe that is unfair. I acted first. I killed her.
I can’t breathe. The truth of my thoughts is crushing me, killing me as I killed her. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her.
“Emily?” A voice in the darkness? Choking sounds. Someone...dying? No, crying. Me. Who am I to cry? I’m alive. But, at the same time, I am not. I walk with death. She hangs in the air. She is the unanswered questions, the natural pauses in conversation and those more awkward pauses that need to be filled. They are where she would have fit; her laugh, her input, her opinion. That is where they belonged. I denied her, and the world, that.
I can’t forgive her though. It was selfish and stupid. It worked. She was angry. She wanted me to pay. Now I do. Every single day of my life I pay for what was the selfish mistake of a young woman. I’m never sure quite which of us it was whose mistake I’m paying for. Both, I guess. I wish she was here right now. She always knew what to say. No, what I really wish she was here for is forgiveness. All I wanted from this dreadful charade that has become my life is her to hug me and tell me it’s okay, that it was just something she had to do, that I didn’t cause her death. It’s impossible because I did. It would be a lie if she could tell me but she can’t.
My husband’s voice is irritating me. So his wife is crying inconsolably in the middle of the night? He doesn’t love me. My best friend is ashes fluttering in the wind; again with the fluttering in the wind? I can see her skirt again. Her legs giving way...her body tilting...the pain in her expression...The last thing to disappear from sight was that damn skirt.
It’s suddenly suffocating me again, only worse this time. It’s coming from inside my head as well as outside. The humid air, the tightness in my chest and the strangling, inescapable guilt are pulling and pushing the air from my lungs between them. I’m on my feet before I’ve registered the wish to perform the action.
“Emily? Emily!” I shake my head. I want him to be quiet. I need to get some space, I won’t be long, I want to say. Shush, you’ll wake Alice, I want to warn. I leave instead. I’m not in any rush. He follows behind me, no longer shouting, just looking concerned and still slightly drunk. I can’t stop my face contorting with disgust at him. He smells of stale alcohol and that look of concern is about who’s going to cook his meals if I walk out on him, not for my mental or physical well-being.
Why do all the shoes I own have high heels? I miss my old college flats. Sensible, ugly, cheap and not specially ordered on the internet. I walk out barefoot, closing the door behind me and grabbing the car keys. I’m not cold, though I’m only wearing my night shirt. The gravel bites the soles of my feet as make my way across our ridiculously out-sized driveway. The posh car my husband is scarily proud of unlocks with a click and the door slides back. Sitting behind the wheel for the first time, I take a moment to familiarise myself with the layout of his car. It’s been years since he let me drive anywhere. I put the key into the hidden ignition, turn it and burst into fresh floods of tears as the composure I’d summoned to get me out of there dissolved.
I don’t know how long I lie slumped across the steering wheel, the car humming near silently below me. I usually avoided crying like this, lest someone see me with mascara smudges...forever keeping up appearances.
The dust from the gravel makes my feet feel dusty against the pedals as I make myself contain the building hysteria. I’ll cope with it when I get wherever I’m going. That’s a good point. Where am I going? I don’t think for one minute one of my ‘friends’ would be interested in me without my husband and his money and real problem in their place. By that I mean one that doesn’t concern this season’s cupcake colour or Marylou Jones’ new shoes.
Could I? I’d have to meet her.
John and I had as much love as me and my husband did.
But still...does he hate me?
He left me for her. I should hate him.
I don’t, though.
I’m suddenly aware of my husband watching me from the doorway and my mind is made up. He’s the only friend I had. No, that’s not right. You had two best friends, Emily, I tell myself. You just couldn’t hold onto them.
The car lurches forward with just the slightest application of my weight on the pedal and then comes to an abrupt halt. I can almost feel the laughter from the doorway behind me. My thighs and the back of my neck have stuck to the leather seats in the humidity. I open the window with one of the labeled buttons set into the door. The light-up symbols hurt my eyes. I relax my foot onto the pedal again and let it rest there. I’m flying as the car pulls out of our drive and onto the deserted stretch of road beyond. My flying isn’t like Immogen’s though. I’m not going to land with such a sharp thud.
Images of her lying broken on the pavement flash in my mind’s eye again and my real eyes drift out of focus for a second. That’s all it takes though, isn’t it? One second and you’re off the road, bumping up, over the curb and into a bush. Then you’re hit by the horror that the bush hasn’t stopped you and you’re still moving; so I’ll skid to a halt in a farmer’s field, you think, I’ll freak out at the close call, regain my composure and make a quick getaway, you reckon?
I hear it before I see it. Gushing, unstoppable, frightening. The cold water seeps into the cabin before I can process the fact that I’ve driven into the river. The water rises in the cabin and over my legs, easing the night’s heat from my body. I’m going to die. Oh my God! No! Please! I want to live! It’s too late though, isn’t it? It was too late the moment she fell...jumped...
It’s bittersweet that I can finally forgive myself at the last moment. Maybe I have lived my punishment for the whole of my life and now...now I can finally say that I’ve paid for my part in the death of Immogen. I made her unhappy but she was stupid, she did choose it and I don’t have to forgive myself for murder because it wasn’t. I wronged a friend, but I didn’t kill her. She killed herself. We were young and stupid and I’ve just never stopped being stupid, would she have, had she not succeeded in being so stupid? I don’t know.
Cold, muddy water fills my nose, mouth and lungs as my body makes a desperate pull for oxygen. It tastes disgusting but it would be a waste of what little energy I have left to expel it from my system. The lights on the dashboard are still shining at me through the gloom and somehow this stops me from being scared. It’s familiarity, I guess. I’d studied them so many times while pretending to listen to my husband’s stories that I know them so well that my mind can fill in the blurry blanks. The blue lights dance in my mind, in the dark green water and then again in my mind and all I can think is that I’m just so sorry.