People Like Us

An ongoing look into the inner-lives of people you know

Tracey, 21

Screwfix Click & Collect, Southampton

Saturday, 13:23

Her press-on nails are a diluted pink. Sometimes, when she’s searching the online inventory for screws and nails and power drills, she feels the customer watching her hand work the mouse. Some of the men who come in here make her sad. Their clothes are twisted and stained; they have dull hair and mothball breath that she can smell even with the perspex Covid screen. They say something about the weather or tell her about their DIY project. They ask her if she’s a student. Last week, a man whose grey eyes were swimming and bloodshot, he told her she was far too pretty to be working in a place like this, but that he didn’t mind one bit. When she said thank you, he made an airy, sucking sound and smiled and winked and called her his buttercup.

She tells them, yes, she’s studying. She makes up different things—architecture or engineering or medicine or marine biology. The truth is she’s been working here for almost three years. She tries to take an interest in paint and tools and all the different types of tape you can get, but something blocks her from being able to. Some men come in here and she can tell they’re annoyed because she doesn’t know anything about what they’re asking for. Like what is she working here for if she doesn’t even know what that is? She types the thing in the inventory but it doesn’t show up. Maybe she’s misspelt it. She doesn’t want to ask him to repeat the word. She shifts and clicks the mouse pretending to be looking but the words on the screen fall apart and begin rushing towards her. She feels hot and a sound like the drone of an airplane swells her head and makes it heavy. When this happens, she gives them an actual paper catalogue with everything in it and she’s embarrassed because her hands are shaking.

They watch her hand work the mouse. She mostly wears black t-shirts, a couple sizes too big so as to disguise her breasts. She doesn’t like her tummy or her thighs but she’s been told she has nice hands—long, soft, shapely fingers. Sometimes she likes having big tits because she isn’t that pretty, but most of the time she wishes they were smaller. Though maybe if she didn’t work here she would feel differently about them. Some of them men are really nice, just decent, and sometimes one will come in who is exactly what she wants—tall and slim and strong-looking, with longish hair and a kind face. But this almost never happens. Those are the ones she’s wants to tell she’s only here for the time being. She has dreams and ambitions, she has plans to do something great with her life. They never ask.

She likes rainy days in the shop. Not like today, when the desaturated autumn sunlight cuts sharp angles into the walls and floor, nauseating her and making her feel lost. Dark, rainy days in the shop, she finds she can be more like her truest self. She doesn’t really know what this means, what it is about dull, quiet light and drizzle, except that she belongs to it and that it is probably the weather within her.

Things will change, no doubt. She can feel it. She’ll go to beauty school, or maybe something to do with music. She’ll learn guitar. Perhaps she’ll travel, teach English in China like Becky is doing. It doesn’t seem that difficult, and you earn okay money, plus you’re so far away, on the other end of the world. But what will Mum say if I leave her all alone? It’s October, again.

Katarina, 36

In her garden in Newton Abbot

Tuesday, 01:13

There’s overnight rain predicted, and she’s just remembered the washing is outside. She closes her book and rises from the sofa. Grant and the girls are asleep upstairs. She can hear him snoring. The dishwasher is working away, heaving and clunking in the kitchen.

It’s normal for her to be awake at this hour, even on a weekday. She likes the peace and quiet when everyone is asleep. A few hours to feel fully like herself again, to remember who she really is. She drinks chamomile tea and reads and thinks about things. A nice home, a job she enjoys, a loving husband and two healthy children—there is much to be grateful for. She knows this, but sometimes her mind wanders off in the direction of something else. When this happens, she is surprised to find herself there, longing and regretting and questioning some important decisions she’s made. Appalled at herself, she shakes her head to rid her mind of these imaginings. What are you doing, Katarina?

When she opens the door to the garden, she’s surprised at how mild it is outside. This time of year—early autumn—she expected it to be colder. It’s overcast, but she can see a half-moon glowing gauzily through the cloud. There’s the smell of rain. She breathes in deeply—memories of growing up in Innsbruck, that freshness and greenery, the Alps watching over the city with thunderous silence. She considers those some of her cleanest memories, unencumbered by conflict and complications; the warm conviction of being where you are meant to be, and being who are you are meant to be. A full life still ahead of you. Notions of ageing and death and disappointment not even a single spark of static in her being yet.

She uses a torch to avoid stepping on the slugs that are always out this time. Sometimes, when a focused circle of torchlight falls onto one, creeping salivaly through the grass, she pauses and watches it, feeling for a moment like she is inside that world. Slow-moving, silent, nocturnal, and, at times, repulsive to herself.

The clothes on the clothes horse are still damp. Shirts, t-shirts, trousers, underwear—there is no space left. She knows another full wash basket awaits her tomorrow. All those clothes; they forever remain just an hour away from being truly dry. The sight of the girls’ stuff on the racks makes her heart ache with their smallness, and with the damage that could be done to them, to her children. But seeing Grant’s clothes hanging there makes her feel an odd resentment. She wants to pull them all off and throw them on the ground. Now is not the time to consider why she feels this way, but it is a feeling she is certain of, and feels no shame about. She looks up—beyond the dark window and closed curtain sleeps a man she is convinced she does not love, and probably never really has.

A sudden wind blows through the world. She holds onto the rack to stop the clothes flying away. Rain has started to fall. She switches off the torch and removes her slippers to feel the cool, wet ground beneath her. With eyes closed she turns her face to the clouds. The rain, icy now, stings her face. Help us, God. Please, please help us. 

Nick, 56

The bathroom in his home in Woking

Thursday, 03:54

What’s this—the third time tonight? I have to be up in three hours. It’s light already. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back to sleep. Tina left a hairband in the bathtub. Must have been from her bath earlier. I wonder how many times she’s bathed in this tub over the years? One every day just about for 26 years. That’s what—more than 6,000… No, no more like 9,000. More than 9,000. Surely that’s not right. 9,000 days. 9,000 baths. All those evenings. Dinner in front of the TV. Tina going to bed and me staying up, drinking wine. It’s more than 9,000 days. How do we manage it? How do we get through it all? What do we fill all that fucking time with? I’m getting old, now. I can feel it. Look at my dick. I’m so tired. There’s things I wanted to do. I can still do them. What’s stopping me? Think of what I’ve got to do at work. I can’t imagine it. In a few hours I’ll be in a suit, sitting in a meeting, being this person. I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to. A few hours before, I was sitting on the toilet because I’m tired of the way my piss sprays all over the place when I pee. They have no idea. I’m not even sure I really want to live anymore. When does this end? How? I must get round to cleaning up those cobwebs and fixing the hook on the door. I don’t know who I am or what I’ve done with my life. Hopefully another three and a bit hours of sleep.

Becky, 43

Torquay Marina

Wednesday, 18:16

When she pictures her life now, it is funnel-shaped. The wide opening is her childhood and early years—her teens, extending into university, a time of vast possibilities and a freedom and wonder that vibrated with bright chords, a sharp clarity of being, a certainty of path.

She’d experimented—a bit of cocaine, a lot of marijuana. She’d travelled—Egypt, the Far East, South America, all the way to Isla Negra in Chile to see Pablo Neruda’s grave. She’d slept around, too. This was inevitable. Not only was she unusually beautiful—a blue-eyed blonde with the tall, darting stealth of a gazelle—she was bright, with a Master’s in both biology and philosophy. Good boys and bad boys, brutal alphas and gaunt, soppy epicenes—she’d fucked them all; for every imaginable type she had twisted, bent and gasped in the dark.

This was the widest opening. A hot, blurry period of indiscernible length and boundary. A passage of time with its own taste and sound, of warm orchestral strings and the tang of cunt blood. To see it now was to watch through the muffle of frosted glass, observing miscreant figures climbing in and out of beds and cars, stretched and uneven; drunk laughter secreted in early grey hours, when the air is cool with English fog and birdsong and the ancient flavour of treetops.

Then she met Raymond. And though she has only recognised it—only traced it—these past few years, that was when the funnel began to narrow.

At first, it was imperceptible, for Becky has since realised Raymond had falsified who he was, or who he was to become. Ah, yes—his bookshelves stacked with Nietzsche, Descartes and Wittgenstein, Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Bespectacled and shaggy-haired, with the sideways glance of a man who knows he is destined for the serene wonders of melancholy and self-destruction, for day upon day and hour upon hour of dreary wine and ink and sleeplessness.

This was who Raymond pretended to be, or was, for a time. And she enveloped him. There were years when they drifted like newborn spiders, many-limbed and poisonous in the breeze, fucking each other in a murderous and mangled way, stringing devious webs while the other slept and dreamed of further darkness.

But then, in their third year of marriage, Raymond found God. Overnight, he renounced philosophy—the very basis of his relationship with Becky—as the work of devious, worldly minds; he repeated that the only way was through God the Father, through the Son and the Holy Spirit. There was no oblivion—something they had previously agreed and consoled each other upon—only salvation for the elect, and an unending fiery suffering for the rest. His stiff, murky-breathed vehemency stretched across dinner tables, across birthdays and anniversaries and the marital bed, which is now brittle and dry.

The funnel narrowed. He forced her to go to church, threatened her with damnation if she did not sit in a hard pew every Sunday and attend Bible classes on a Tuesday evening. This church, with its beige walls and rooms of smudged urns and Formica, of biscuit tins and sexless shoes. This fucking church, which believes without logic or conscience that even a child, hypothetically vomited up on an island and never given the wherewithal to be washed with the blood of Christ, will, with utter certainty, go to hell. Even exemplary Hindus and Muslims, even the stillborn—if they’ve not recognised their inherent state as that of a worthless, miserable sinner, have they not “accepted Jesus into their hearts”—will forever squat in fire and be eaten by worms.

The funnel has narrowed further. Days of fruitcake and lukewarm tea; the pious judgements of abominable frumps who throw themselves weeping and unworthy at the feet of the kind and “judge-ye-not” Jesus, while delighting, too, at the fiery fate of sodomising faggots and adulterers, of heretical scientists and those wretched, disillusioned Catholics and Jews.

Now I’m a goddamned pastor’s wife.

A funnel. Or a triangle, viewed from above. She is hurtling towards the point where the two lines meet. She feels three-quarters of the way there—another three years maybe. This wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for Ben and Emily. What will happen to them? Aged 10 and 12, they are probably at the worst possible age for their parents to divorce. Is divorce even an option? Surely he won’t allow it—the shamed, hypocritical pastor! She knows he will find a passage in the bible that says divorce is a sin, and another passage about the duties of a wife. He will make her sit up with him and pray, pray into the night for their wretched souls. He will bow his head and clutch her shoulders too hard.

Something has to happen. How can I make something happen? I can’t go on like this. He can have the children. I want my life back; I want myself back. This is not where I’m supposed to be; I want to go back in time and un-meet him. I want to be a baby again and wait and wait and wait until the moment comes, then turn away. I don’t care if I have to go through school again; I don’t care if I have to knowingly repeat all those years. I just want to get to the point where I meet him, so I can stop it right there.

But something will change. The funnel must eventually converge to its narrowest point; we can all fall through it then—the children, and Raymond, and I—and begin our other, truer lives.

She watches the light dance off the water, watches the cold waves end their journey against the sea wall. Another three years. I think I can do that. Just push through it. After that, things will get better. It’s really not that hard—just tell him the truth; tell him you’ve had enough, that you’re on different paths now. I wish I could tell him. I don’t know how to tell him. The children.

Eddie, 39

The beach at Milford-on-Sea

Friday, 17:57

He stands at the shore in the cold black of January. He’s come here from work, driven past his house in Lyndhurst and carried on another 20 minutes to the coast. It feels impulsive, but he knows it’s not. First of all, he’s not generally an impulsive person and secondly, they have been pushing each other to this point for a while.

This is 26 months of luscious, appalling want that has had to remain unfulfilled; this is two faces lit by their mobile phones as they text in the 2am secrecy of their homes; this is breathless, sometimes risky phone calls at work, followed by interminable hours of silence and wondering until there’s another opportunity to make contact. Sometimes it’s days or weeks that one of them is unable to speak—“I’m going to be on holiday.” “It’s my cousin’s wedding.”—and the wait is like childhood’s boredom; time takes on a new heaviness, and a steady, low hum guides your life into believing this is how it will forever be.

Neither of them know how to stop this. It frightens and depresses them. She once said, “I’m worried you might make me think my life isn’t worth living.” They think about each other when they’re fucking their spouses. They’ve openly admitted to this, admitted it with hot delight and the downplayed wickedness that spurs them on.

How do we stop this?

They ask this over and over to each other. It’s fun and terrifying to indulge in something that seems bent on destroying everyone’s lives. We can’t. It’s too strong. It’s bigger than both of us. Bigger than the universe.

He feels her on him constantly, embedded in his skin, housed in some mysterious place inside him that is shaped like the sound of her name. It wasn’t always like this, but it became like this very quickly. He in the UK, she on contract in Turkey. That was how it started. Distance can make old friends finally admit the proximity they feel towards each other. Now it’s too late. Or is it? They fantasise about a cabin in the woods. Just the two of them. They’ve dropped out of the world. They fuck palely in a room covered in drizzle. This is what they want. This is all they want. They want it all.

They attended each other’s weddings. There are faces and handshakes to this unfaithfulness. At first they hesitated, considered the morality, rationalised the potential for inflicting hurt and loneliness on the people they’ve loved. They’ve threatened to fly to one another, or meet somewhere in Europe. The wished-for cabin in the Black Forest. Days of bruised skin and wonder and wondering.

I don’t think we should ever meet again—what if it doesn’t live up to our expectations? But, my god, what if it does?

She is on him like Dali’s hourless ants. He, to her, a mirror of herself, of her brilliant mind and every depraved desire she has craved to be made real. Place two mirrors opposite each other and they stretch to infinity. Today, while he was at work, she told him this was them.

He’s removed his shoes and rolled his trousers up past his ankles. As the tide rolls over him, it goes straight to his bones. He’s alone, he must be—what kind of madman stands in the English tide on a January evening? He can’t make out the horizon. The pebbles being pulled back by the tide sound like her gasps when she’s cumming for him across datelines.

He can’t make out the horizon, but he imagines it. He looks straight ahead over the dark waters and focuses on where the end might be. He draws in all his breath, until his lungs hurt. Then, hoping this might do something, even temporarily, he screams until he tastes blood.