Checking Out

This is Mary.

Mary has brown hair and brown eyes. She lives in a house with windows and doors. It has one bedroom and one bathroom. It has one lounge and one kitchen. In the kitchen there is some mould around the taps which Mary cannot get off, even when she tries really hard.

Mary wakes up at 6 o’ clock. She has a shower and brushes her teeth. Sometimes she brushes her teeth in the shower. She likes to see the toothpaste mixing with the shower water when it goes down the drain. It is a little bit unusual.

It is the most exciting thing Mary does all day.

At work Mary sits in a chair which has wheels on, but it isn’t as much fun as it sounds. Mary’s colleagues are talking about the things they did on the weekend. One of them took his children to a park which has zip wires. One of them went out on a date to the cinema. One of them went to a club and got drunk. Although Mary sits near them, they do not ask Mary.  She tells herself it is lucky, really. At the weekend she mostly just tried to get the mould off the tap.

Look at Mary.

She is working. Her computer screen has lots of messages. It is very important that she replies to them all. They have little red exclamation marks next to them. This means that they are very urgent. Lots of Mary’s messages have these marks on them. She is tapping at her keyboard as fast as she can go. One of Mary’s eyes keeps twitching, and her shoulders are all bent up and forward. It is uncomfortable but Mary will not move until she finishes. It is a bit like somebody has glued her in place.

At home, Mary goes to her fridge and pulls out a special meal that you warm up in the microwave. She has lots of these meals. They have a picture of a tape measure and a woman on the front of them who is smiling because her trousers are too big. Sometimes, when they are on special offer, Mary eats the exact same meal for a week. They don’t taste of much but it says on the label that they contain vitamins.

Afterwards Mary sits on her sofa. She watches a film about a man and a woman. There used to be a man who lived with Mary. But he hasn’t been there for quite a long time now. He left when he met someone whose stomach is as hard as Mary’s shoulders. Her name is Trudy. She is a bit like the lady on the front of the meal packets. Except her jeans are not too big. They are tight, tight, tight. When she wears them you can see the whole outline of her bottom.

Mary gets up at 6 o’ clock. She showers and brushes. She goes to work.

At work she answers lots of messages. Her back aches and she rubs it. One of her colleagues says “You alright there Mary – not pregnant are you?” All of Mary’s work colleagues laugh. It is funny because Mary lives alone. It is funny because they can’t imagine anyone sleeping with Mary and because her husband left her years ago.

It is not really funny. Mary’s colleagues are mean.

Mary goes home. She eats a special meal without tasting it. She watches a film. She sleeps.

Mary gets up. She showers. She works. She has lots of messages and also a new project. They have given it to her even though she is already too busy. But Mary is a ‘try hard’. That’s what her boss said to his boss. And all of Mary’s colleagues are busy. Today they are talking for one hour about what they will wear to a party. All of them are going to it. Mary is not.

Mary goes home. Eats. Watches. Sleeps.

Gets up. Showers, works, eats, watches.


Even Mary’s dreams are boring.

Sometimes Mary has to go away for work. She goes on an aeroplane and she flies for a short distance and then she goes to a different office with different colleagues. Today she is leaving for one of these trips.

Look at Mary. She brushes her teeth in the shower. Her suitcase is already packed. She did that two days ago, in-between eating and watching. She has ordered a taxi and when she gets into it she does something unusual. She makes a small smile. It is like a nervous twitch at the corner of her face. It is fun and also dangerous, a bit like the toothpaste. When she gets out she walks just a little bit quicker than normal.

Is Mary excited?

When Mary gets off the aeroplane at the other airport, she stops for a moment to visit the toilet. Mary does a small wee. After the wee she checks her reflection. She brushes her hair and now she is reaching inside her handbag, and pulling out a tube of lipstick. It is almost the same colour as her lips are without it. But there is a little difference. If you knew her you would notice.

Outside, Mary’s driver is waiting. She always has the same driver. He wears the same uniform and he drives the same car. He is employed by the Company. But he knows Mary’s name. When he sees her he smiles very widely. It is as though Mary is a nice thing that he likes. That he likes very much, like sunshine or ice-cream. He says “Hello Mary,” and she says “Hello Mike.”

In the car, Mike and Mary are chatting. It is as if they are friends. Mike tells her about the holiday he has been on with his wife, and Mary is laughing and telling Mike about Cornwall. Cornwall was five years ago, but that doesn’t matter. And Mike doesn’t mind. Mike wants to hear about Cornwall. Mike is pleased to see Mary. He knows Mary’s name.

When she travels in his car she always goes in the front.

Mary says goodbye to Mike outside the hotel, but he picks up her suitcase and carries it all the way in. It is what you would do for someone important. People don’t normally do that just for Mary.

The hotel is quite old and also it is small. But the man on reception is young and his smile is big. “Good afternoon Mary,” he says, “You look well. Will it be the Guardian again in the morning?”

He knows Mary’s paper. He knows Mary’s name.

And look at Mary! What is her face doing? It looks different. It’s moving! It’s as though it was sleeping and now is awake. She is laughing and talking and, when she is looking, she is looking right at people. As though that’s OK.

When Mary is here, Mary is different.

Mary goes for a walk and feels sea salt spray on her cheeks. She digs her hands into her pockets but lets the wind lift her coat. She pats her knees for a dog and it runs towards her. She giggles and pets it, plunges her fingers into its coarse, dirty fur. She doesn’t even know the dog! But the owner says hello to her.

Mary goes to work in the different office. There are still exclamation marks, and projects, but the people she sits with include her when they make tea.

That evening Mary goes to the hotel restaurant. There is a little fizz inside her, like the fizz in lemonade when you first turn the top, and you want to turn it really fast so the lemonade shoots out and goes all over the kitchen. But Mary does not do that. She is careful. For now. Even so, the fizz feels lovely. It is like she is made of popping candy.

And now, here it comes. The waiter emerges from the kitchen, and he sees Mary, and he makes a little noise and claps his hands. The noise is a mixture of an “ah!” and a “ha!” and it is a pleased-surprised kind of noise. Mary turns then, and even though she knew he would be here, she makes the same noise and giggles, though no one has actually made a joke.

“The usual?” says the waiter, and Mary says “Yes please!” He brings her a cold glass of white wine and the menu. And he winks. Mary travels to this hotel at least one time every couple of months. She stays two to three days. And they always do this. Her and the waiter. They do it every time, they say always the same thing.

But somehow it’s different to the microwave meals. Somehow this sameness is actually OK. This is a sameness which reaches down into the coldest, most cobwebby parts of Mary, and switches on the heating and polishes them bright.

Mary orders her dinner, and the waitress brings it, and she too, is happy-surprised-pleased to see Mary. And Mary and the waitress talk about the weather, and the dinner and films they like watching. And the longer they talk, the more fizz there is in Mary and she eats her dinner, and sips her wine and she is the closest thing to happy that she has ever been.

Two days later Mary steps back off the aeroplane, and plods steadily and stolidly into a taxi. The driver is a man who is talking on his mobile. He and Mary have never met before. She has to direct him to her home.

When she gets inside she tries to stave off the chill by warming up another big-trouser microwave meal. She tries to watch a film but there is a lump inside Mary which feels heavy and dull. It has been there a long time but it seems to be growing. It has nasty sharp edges that dig into her inside.

She sleeps. She works. There are messages. There are colleagues. There is a rumour about her which isn’t true. There is a not-very-fun-at-all grey wheely chair. She sleeps. She watches. She eats. At night sometimes, she dreams that she is dead.

Weeks and months happen. The lump inside her weighs her down. It is as though it is growing all the way into her, burrowing in to stop the blood in her veins. And it moves now. It pulls at her. It wriggles and pinches. It squeezes at her organs and it twists in her gut. It gets a whiskery, blotchy grey felt tip pen. And it uses it to colour her heart all in grey.

Now there are some messages she does not rely to. Exclamation marks that she ignores. She gets up at 6:30, then at 7 o’ clock. Once she does not get up at all for three days.

Something is happening to Mary.

Then one day Mary has to travel again. She packs and she goes and she flies and she wees. She rides and she walks and she laughs and she eats. And she sips her glass of chilled white wine.

The man at reception is called Andy. The waiter is Daniel. The waitress is Clare. The dog on the beach is called Benjy. The owner is Sue.

Mary sees them. She knows them. She knows all their names.

But when Mike comes to drive her back to the airport, she can feel it again. The lump inside her. And it has grown even bigger than it had been before.

Mary is quiet and sad on the way to the airport. Mike looks at her. He is worried, so he asks what is wrong. But Mary cannot answer Mike. If she opens her mouth the lump will come out. It will bubble out all hot like a burning volcano and then harden until the outside of Mary is as cold and grey as the thing inside.

And then what would Mike do? He would have to lift out the grey rock that used to be Mary and throw it over the cliff edge and into the sea. He couldn’t just drive it around in his car. So Mary stays quiet. She doesn’t want to make that kind of trouble for Mike. She sits very still and stares straight up ahead. And the sea salt spray that she felt on her cheeks seeps back out of Mary from her eyes.

Mary is at the airport. She is walking away with her suitcase. She has Mike’s number because he cares. He will go home and talk about her concernedly to his wife.

But Mary has to go. She has to stand in a queue. She has to put her shampoo into a little plastic bag. She has to take off her high heels and then put them back on again. She has to walk into the waiting room and stare at a screen. She has to wait. She has to watch the grey-white planes land. She has to watch other grey-white planes fly away. She stands and she watches and, after a while, she hears a voice on the tannoy telling her to get into one.

But Mary is a statue made out of stone. If she moves she will shatter.

People walk past Mary and onto the plane. Mary watches them leave the airport building. They go one by one and have only their cases for company. They climb up the aeroplane stairs and then they walk into a grey metal tube. After they have done that Mary cannot see them anymore.

Perhaps they no longer exist.

Now the voice on the tannoy is urgent. It is like a red exclamation mark.

But Mary has been ignoring those for some weeks now. And nobody at work has noticed. They barely even know her name. When she finished the project the man who set it said, “Thank you Um”.

The voice knows it though. The one on the tannoy. It is saying it over and over again. It is saying “Miss Mary Cammon, that’s Miss Mary Cammon…”. It is saying it and also it is calling her home. But Mary is mesmerised just by the sound of her name.

Only when the voice stops calling her, only when she has watched the grey metal tube turn slowly, and lumber off into the grey cloudy sky, does Mary blink and move again. She turns and walks, wheeling her case behind her, back down, past the place where they checked her baggage, towards the exit, into the light. She walks and the walking is like waking up. She breathes, and the breathing is like drinking white wine.

Mary walks out of the airport and she gets out her phone and she dials Mike’s number. She listens to the dial tone and it sounds like birdsong.

And as she waits she feels something rising upwards inside her.

The something is light and sharp and bright. It is bigger than Mary and it is stronger than stone. It dissolves the great grey lump inside Mary as though it were all just a great grey dream. Just a scatter of salt in the ocean. Swallowed up by the great gleam and glitter of the sea.

It is a something which laughs and dances inside her, which colours her heart in with fluorescent pink.

And she says “Hi Mike.”

She says, “I’m sorry to bother you.”

She says, “Could you come back and get me please?”

She says, “It turns out I’m not going home after all.”

And it feels like orangina. Like sticky, sweet, forbidden nectar, that might rot her teeth and might just save her soul.  That bubbles up inside her and fizzes out of her nose. That explodes in ecstatic sugary fireworks in her mouth and out of her nostrils.

Mary gasps with the surprise of it. And then the gasp makes her snort. And the snort makes her laugh. And the laughing makes her cry. And when she cries, the tears she cries are made out of laughter and fizzy pop. Bright and sharp and sweet and glinting.

Like summer sun on salty sea.

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