You realise you’re in love after the 3rd relapse, when you’re laying in some gutter with a needle in your arm. The only thing tethering you to the moment is the hand clasped in yours, the familiar face looking down at you and murmuring at you not to go. Of course you’d OD’d, because your whole life was a cliché apparently, third time’s the charm etc etc, but the hand in yours, the eyes boring into you… It might be enough. It all might be enough.
Later, when you’re vomiting, sweating, shaking, unable to sleep, can’t sit still, a wreck of a human being, she’ll smooth your hair from your eyes, whisper you can make it. Your only memories of this time will be of her, of her stern and steady gaze. She’s the only reason you make it you think in your more romantic moods. The rest of the time you’re sure it’s because Catherine would have killed you herself if you hadn’t.
Suddenly everyone is telling you you’re recovered, that the rest is down to you, meaningless platitudes that make you long for escape. Instead, you smoke 50 a day and drink a lot of tea. You take up gardening, first in pots in the brick square that counts as a garden, then in the allotments. The first time Catherine lets you go by yourself you feel like a young girl again (well what you imagine those girls who actually had rules and a curfew felt, anyway.) To begin with, you have no idea what you’re doing, but you learn. The feel of dirt under your hands, under your
nails, is reassuring and solid. You’ve found your tether. A weight has been lifted; you feel able to breathe again, to think past the burning in your veins.
Then Helen is there again, slipping back into your life and offering you an opportunity. The thought of helping those less fortunate than you doesn’t appeal straight away, but it’s not like you’d have an easy time of it getting an actual job. To your surprise, it fits you, this giving to the needy. Maybe it’s the sense of kinship you feel from your time on the street. Maybe you’re actually just a good person. A dark voice whispers that it’s just because you get to see Helen for everyday, get to talk to her, to continue to break down her walls, to lap up any piece of affection she gives you. You ignore it, just as you ignore all the insidious whispering inside your head.
It’s still surprising you how calming just being in front of the cross makes you feel. You hold no particular belief or faith but the thought of there being some sort of deity out there, looking out for you, is reassuring and compelling. Somedays you want to rage at it, to cry where were you when all the shit was happening, when you were at the bottom of the pit. But you managed to crawl out, and that’s the thought you cling to. Maybe Helen was your guardian angel? It makes you smile for a moment, a small private thing aimed at the floor in the middle of the busy kitchen, a blush rising to your cheeks, and yes, now you felt like a young girl again with your first crush (though back then it had been on your English teacher.) When you look up, Helen catches your eye, making your cheeks flush hotter. She smiles, a proud sort of expression, a look how my project is doing kind of thing. You’d deflate, but you’d never begun to kid yourself that you were anything else.
The conversation is happening. That one where you all go round and say whether you’re married, divorced, got a boyfriend, etc, the one you’d managed to avoid for months. You hate this, the constant coming out every time you meet someone new, checking to see if they know. It hadn’t been so bad for the last couple of years, everyone too busy worrying about your health to think about whether you were dating, but now…
“So, what about you? Boyfriend, husband?” It’s one of the nice younger girls, working here so she can put it on her university application, and the question is obviously harmless.
“Erm, no, no. I’m, er, well, I’m gay, actually.” You play with one of your rings awkwardly, trying to analyse the faces around the table.
She takes it in stride, bless her, “Girlfriend, then?”
“No, it’s a bit difficult to meet middle aged lesbians, honestly.”
The table chuckles nervously and you smirk at making them uncomfortable. Awkward gay jokes you could do.
Helen pulls you over afterwards. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well it didn’t see important. You seem like quite forward folk, I’d assumed you’d be alright with that. This. Whatever.” You’re more nervous than you expected to be, desperate for her approval.
She tutted. “Of course I’m fine with it, I’m just worried about why you felt you couldn’t tell me?”
“Coming out to the people who matter is… Hard. You never know.”
Tutting again, she pulled you into a tight hug. “Of course it’s fine, you silly goose.”
That’s the last surprise you spring on her.
Her first, and probably last, is that she’s ill. There’s a lot of terminology you don’t understand, but you hear that she’s dying, that she’ll get tired a lot. It awakens a protective fire inside you, something you haven’t felt since Catherine was getting bullied at school eons ago. You try to hover around Helen as unobtrusively as possible, give her the easiest tasks, constantly ask if her she’s tired, and making her a ridiculous amount of tea. She knows what you’re doing, of course she does, but with rolled eyes and exasperated huffing she allows you. With a lurch you realise she knows how this feels, to be constantly worried about someone, to need to help and protect them.
Maybe you can be her guardian angel now.
Not that you can save her. She’s dying, there’s no two ways about it, nothing you can do to stop the decline of her health. You think of the future, to watching her waste away. You gulp your scalding tea, chain smoke, pinch the thin skin between your fingers, anything to try and dampen that needy fire that’s filling you again, the familiar pull to a needle.
It’s only later, when your hands are dug into the firmness of the earth, buried deep, that you wrestle back your control. You weep then, sob, yell at the heavens, and allow yourself to grieve. She’s not dead yet, but you swear to yourself that she will not see you cry. Not a single tear will be shed in front of her, not for her. You’ve had people crying over you, felt your heart splinter in two as Catherine had pulled your limp body into your arms and cried, deep and gulping. You refuse to make Helen suffer in anyway, refuse to be responsible for her pain insomuch as you are capable.
Another thing you promise is that you won’t think of the future. You won’t think of a relapse as inevitable once she’s gone, you won’t think of what will be left of you, what’ll be left of your life After. A bitter smile twists your face as you think about how ridiculous the universe is, that it’ll take someone pure and genuinely good like Helen and leave you, with your twisted and bitter soul, here to rot.
You push your hands deeper still into soil, shut your eyes, and breathe deep. Living is the only thing you can do now. That’s your third and final oath. You’ll try your best to live, even if you don’t do it particularly well, you’ll do your best for her. It’s what she’d have wanted after all. Do tears make good fertiliser? you wonder, and bury your face against your upper arm as you laugh hysterically, hands still in the earth.