by Ciara Healy  

Sally hangs out at bars talking to men. They buy her drinks. To them, she remains nameless. Still, she throws her head back and laughs, curls a string of yellow hair around her finger and presses her bony hand to her chest. The sound she makes is forced, but they hardly notice. She has an air of sophistication that is immediately lost after her second glass of wine. She shouts until she is hoarse and her red lipstick stains her teeth. The men take one look at her bloody grin and walk away. She takes out her phone and scrolls through her contacts, lingering on one name for just a fraction longer than the rest. She catches her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Just one face amongst many. The crowd has become increasingly manic; their faces contort as they screech for the bartender and their flailing limbs throw notes in the air. She pockets her phone and gets up to leave. 

The deafening music drives her out of the building and onto the street. The city is a horrible place. She eyes her watch and tries to walk faster, but her heels clatter awkwardly against the stone cobbles. Her skirt rides up above her knee and her bare legs feel vulnerable. It's a warm summer night and unwelcome thoughts are pressing in. Onto the main street and the neon signs and dingy kebab shops swim past. Men leer at her through blurry windows, meat dripping down their chins and grease staining their shirts. There is no sense of being either here or there, she's immersed in the countless bodies that swing against her, pulled in and spewed back out by the grinding sound of wheels on tracks.  The pressing of legs and chests and the harsh breathing of strangers fills her days and clogs her lungs. Every night the black bile travels up her pharynx and she presses a tissue to her mouth.

The city can feel oddly lonely for a woman. The buildings loom above her in horrible intimations of their male architects. Ben is tall and spindly; his face follows her everywhere as she desperately tries to evade his reach. He's horribly loud, and never gives her time to form a clear sentence before he's banging on again. Paul's sermons drag on, he blasts the length of her skirt, the low cut of her top, the pill she swallows at approximately 3pm each day. Tate pretends to know a lot more than he actually does, and sips chai tea whilst explaining why Tracy Emin is the death of modern art. Saatchi beats his wife but alleges that it was only ever a 'playful tiff'.

That night she stands in front of the mirror in her underwear. A matching black set. The lace is frayed and there is a tiny hole where he pulled at her bra. She always wanted them to be bigger. She grabs at the excess fat around her stomach and pulls, it melts at her touch, liquefies and drips down her leg, pools around her feet, sinks into the carpet. She pours herself a glass of wine and knocks it to the floor, the red stains her hands. Just like the paper cut that healed only hours ago. She knows that blood can pour from uglier places.

She falls asleep a few moments after twelve and dreams of islands that can never belong to her. She is always changing, never stable. She is the sea; beckoning, always beckoning. The alarm wakes her and she shudders at its touch. Cold fingers press against her body as she gently leaves the safe confines of her bed. She stands before the mirror once more and watches as her skin slowly stretches over newly formed fat, her body morphing before her very own eyes. Her shape is always shifting, only her eyes remain the same, constant and wary.

At work she borrows their language but her tongue can never quite grasp the strange guttural sounds that echo across the room. Their words reach around her throat and more often than not she finds she cannot swallow them, and ends up choking, vomiting up her own femaleness. The day continues like any other.

She knocks into a man on the underground. He swings around to apologise, and then stops himself, mouth half open. Sally stands there awkwardly, her face frozen in disbelief. Eventually Fred regains his composure. He utters an apology, she turns red and dismisses it, blaming herself for the collision. They begin to chat. She asks him how Sarah is.
"She's pregnant", he replies.
Her eyes become a fraction wider.
"I know what you're thinking", he says, hands in pockets.
"I'm glad you're happy", is all she can say. 
"Are you?" He asks sceptically. There is a pause. She recovers quickly.
"I've just been promoted". Her smile is strained.
He ignores the blatant lie. They stare at each other for a moment, memories resurface and they find themselves back in their shared kitchen. Broken shards of glass on the floor, his bloody fist, her tear-stained cheek. His eyes cloud over. She utters a curt goodbye and leaves. He is left standing there alone.

When she was younger she used to try and make herself feel as small as possible. She used to cram herself into kitchen cupboards and wait, sometimes for hours, until her mother clucked impatiently, opened the door and shooed her out. There was something exciting about being hidden, tucked away, unseen. She didn't realise that soon enough the world would demand it of her. She should've taken the chance to be bold and loud and rash. Rashers of bacon used to sizzle in the frying pan every evening as her dad fumbled around the kitchen. Her mum would sit delicately at the table with a pyramid of sprouts and a sliver of fish. She couldn't stand the smell, but she learned to love it.

Fred is a vegetarian. Fred had made her feel important. He had listened to her, really listened. Then slowly he unlearned all of the things that had made her love him in the first place. She stuck around, hoping, in her ignorance, that things might return to the way they were before. Then she gradually accepted that this was all life owed her. Then he left.
The apartment is always empty now. The cupboards are bare, the carpet is stained and the mirrors are catching shadows. She used to think, when she stared at her own reflection, that if only she could step through she might become a better version of herself. She rings her mother once a week but tonight she doesn't pick up. Instead she hears the low, scratchy voice of her father. He asks her if she's okay for money and she dismisses his concerns.

"It's only a matter of months. You really should come and visit soon."
All he does is talk about death. The conversation is short and they exchange goodbyes. Sally is like her father in that way. They hate talking on the phone. She considers leaving the city one day but knows it will never happen.

She goes to sleep that night and dreams of islands once again. This time, something is different. The water is moving violently against the coast, eroding the cliffs and flinging all kinds of debris against the strong, smooth surface of the rock. She can see the land changing, and time is momentarily sped up. The current is unforgiving and leaves destruction in its wake. The smell of salt stings her nostrils and her eyes are blinded by the darkness that surrounds her. She is neither here nor there, she is lost within the momentum of it all. She has never felt more alive.
When she wakes up, she lies for a moment in bed, her eyes tracing patterns on the off-white ceiling. Sometimes things just sit naturally in your mind, and it's best not to question how they got there. For the first time she does not stand in front of the mirror. She has an inkling that if she keeps chipping away at herself, soon there will be nothing left.

On the tube she fights her way through the crowd and sits down in her chair with a thump. Her chair. She spreads her legs wide and grins at the stranger opposite her. He frowns and looks away, affronted. She collapses the buildings in her mind's eye, watching Ben, Paul, Tate and Saatchi desperately grab at her skirt, but she pushes them aside with ease. She bites into a greasy, fat burger and the meat juice dries on her hands. She disrupts the perfect order of the office and lunges across the table, grabbing her boss by his tie and spitting in his face. She strips naked and jumps from chair to chair. She scrawls offensive words across the bathroom mirror with her bright red lipstick and laughs maniacally the entire time. She downs bottle after bottle of rosé at the bar and runs home barefoot. Later that night she is arrested for indecent exposure. Her apartment floods and she misses her father's call. She vows never to apologise again. 

For the first time in her life, she is exhausted. Not the irritable tiredness of sleepless nights and long commutes. Her bones ache and her skin sags and her head is pounding. In the early hours of the morning she is released. Her father waits for her outside, his face etched with concern. He stares at her for a few moments.
"Come with me". Wordlessly, she follows. 
The walk is long and her feet are sore with blisters, but she never loses sight of him. His body stiffens and his hands clench into fists. She can see his shoulders moving up and down as he pants from the exertion. He was never one for exercise. He preferred the dim shade of his room, curtains drawn, a pack of cigarettes to hand. His belly hangs over short stumpy legs and his bald scalp is slick with moisture. She wonders if she, too, is damp from sweat. She declines to examine herself in the passing shop window. They are not the same. 

A tall, concrete building looms ahead. She presses through the crowds with newfound haste. The sun bares down on her and she licks her dry lips, desperate for water. She remembers the long droughts of her youth. Her father moaning about the hosepipe ban, her mother carrying buckets of water outside to wet her newly made rockery. The flowers would work their way around the hard grey stone, spawning leaves and reaching in different directions. Her father would bat her hand away impatiently every time she tried to pick one. Just as he pushes her aside now when she tries to open the door for him. Not her place. She wonders what has happened to the rockery. Her father never took much interest in it. 

Inside, the hospital is just as she remembers. At every turn they force feed her disinfectant. The squidgy sound of soap as she rubs her hands together makes her insides squirm. She wants to bang her head against the wall, if only to dent the flat white surface. The artificial light bleaches her surroundings, draining everything of colour. She hangs back reluctantly as they approach the double doors. 

Her father stops ahead to talk to someone before moving on. She recognises the distinctive slouch. Fred looks up at her as she approaches. His eyes are red, he looks as though he has been crying. 
"Hi, your dad called. He's been looking for you all night. You weren't answering your phone."
She stares at him, perplexed. 
"I came straight here", he says quietly. It takes her a while to find her voice.
"You didn't have to. It's not your place, not anymore."
"I know, but I wanted to." 
They stand in silence for a few moments, both looking at their feet. She can't help but think he's playing some sort of cruel joke on her. 

"I should probably go in", she mutters. He nods in understanding and moves aside so she can pass. He is left standing there alone. Sally approaches the doors and takes a moment to steady herself, knowing what she will see on the other side. 

Her father has opened a window and the faint beeping of the monitor is drowned out by the furor of engines. The city never relents. Sally turns to the bed to greet her mother. Shaved head, sunken cheeks, paper skin. So unfeminine. She finds she does not miss her brown curls, her soft skin, her full face. Strangely, she's never felt more real to her. Sally sits beside her mother and searches for her hand. Her mother uses what little strength she has and smiles gently back. There's no use, she can see the fear in her eyes. With a sob, she whispers, “I'm sorry”. 

They sit there for hours, all three of them. Her father has shut the window and they are finally alone. Eventually, her heart rate drops. Her eyes are closed, but there is nothing peaceful about it. Sally lets go of her mother's hand and raises it to wipe her cheeks, but they are dry. As the doctors rush in she quietly excuses herself. Her father doesn't notice. The corridor outside is empty, Fred must have left. It is evening now. The sky has a purplish hue to it, the moon barely visible through the clouds. She breaths in the night time air, but the dirt sticks in her throat and she doubles over, coughing. The fit subsides and she straightens up. The silence is eerie, the sound of traffic noticeably absent. The city is spread out before her, the streets meandering off in different directions. It waits for her, silent and acquiescent. She makes her way through narrow alleys and ventures under low arches. The buildings are still and lifeless. Only the sound of running water beckons her forward. She runs the last mile, her legs thrashing against concrete and her arms swinging wildly by her sides. She collides with the barrier and collapses against the metal bars, severely winded. Her gasps fill the quiet. 

The river swells, pressing up against the bank. Empty bottles and plastic bags break the surface only to be swallowed whole once more. It is a thing of terror, and for the first time she cannot understand how an island so small has withstood such rage. The first time her mother took her swimming she nearly drowned. She drifted out with the tide and her mother fought relentlessly against the bitter wind and grabbed her just before she went under. She'd never been baptised, but she imagined something similar, water rushing over the head of a wailing child. 

The faint sound of buzzing from one of her pockets draws her attention back to the present. Against all odds, her phone is still intact. Fred is ringing her. Without hesitation, she throws the mobile into the river and walks away. All that waits for her is a flooded apartment and a string of emails from her boss. She catches her reflection in a passing shop window and stops. She looks at her face, properly this time. Acne scars mar her cheeks and ugly smudges of day old makeup have formed underneath her eyes. The dark gooey liquid has dug its way into the crevices of her skin, even her laugh lines. For the first time, she doesn't resent their presence. She finds her way onto the tube and settles down into a seat. She falls asleep to the grinding sound of wheels on tracks, her legs spread out before her.