Opening the door I gaze at the gleaming white tiles. Their starkness and cleanliness reassures me. I am glad I chose this flat with its oversized bathroom. After months away – in a small room with only a minute utilitarian shower cubicle to wash in, it’s good to be home. I had almost forgotten how glamorous my bathroom was, with its traditional roll-top bath, cast iron feet, oversized chrome taps, strategically positioned on the side of the bath so there was no need to stretch forward. You could just lazily adjust the temperature while remaining horizontal.
Turning on the hot tap I add the bath relaxer from the posh London spa, ‘The Sanctuary’, a welcome home present from my sister, letting it spill out in a thin orange ribbon under the water. A vapour of almond essence rises up and then a mass of bubbles. Opening a wicker basket on the stool next to the bath I take out coloured night lights. The little metal containers make a scratching sound as I place them one by one on the marble floor. Unable to see any matches in the basket, I pad back through the bedroom, across the hall and into the kitchen. I find matches in the drawer next to the hob. Opening the fridge I check again on the bottle of champagne lodged in the door next to the carton of semi-skimmed milk and fruit juice. I have bought Bollinger, it is Henry’s particular favourite. On the counter in a tall glass vase are the yellow roses he sent. Their green stems criss-cross where the vase is too narrow for them all.
Back in the bathroom I take my time lighting all the tiny candles before switching off the lights. Through the slightly open door I can hear my iPod on its docking station shuffling through my favourites playlist.
As I step into the bath some of the water overflows and the candles nearest the tub begin to move slightly- floating this way and that. I lower myself gently down and let the perfumed bubbles encase me. I plunge the sponge down into the warm water and holding it above my head, squeeze out its soapy contents. I repeat the action over and over, letting the warm droplets wash away all the traces and smells of the hospital. Finally, I sink right down under the water, so my whole face is covered.
When I climb out, I take care not to step on any of the candles. From the heated chrome rail, I take a large fluffy white towel, wrapping it right round. In doing so some water drips onto the candles: they fizz and hiss and go out. Unhurriedly I rub myself dry, starting with my arms, then my legs, my right breast and finally taking particular care of the scar on the left side. Only when I am sure I am completely dry do I fold the towel carefully and place it back over the rail. Bending over the bath, I pull out the plug and watch while the tepid water swirls and gurgles away, leaving only a froth of bubbles.
In the bedroom I lie down and close my eyes. For the first time in weeks sleep comes easily.
I awake to find the room in darkness save for the red glow from the bedside clock radio – it tells me I still have plenty of time.
I haven’t looked in the wardrobe since I went into hospital and that was over four months ago. I’ve always liked the pale blue cotton dress with its oversized white buttons down the back. I hadn’t realised how much weight I’ve lost. I’ll need a belt. I know I don’t have one. I’ll have to improvise. I’ll use the scarf Henry gave me. It’s long and silky with a deep fringe. I twist it around my waist and tie it so the fringe hangs down. Looking in the long mirror I admire my new trimmer figure. Without thinking, I go over to the windowsill and pick up the silver backed brush that belonged to my grandmother. If I had been good she would sometimes let me use it. When she died I found myself using it every day. But not now all my hair has fallen out. I’ll need to find another scarf or maybe a hat. I tip out the bag of make-up; all the little pots and tubes tumble onto the bed. Holding the mirror in one hand I start applying some colour to my face. I add a little more foundation and blusher; ‘You don’t want to look peely wally’ as my grandmother would have said. Being as careful as I can be, I draw in two new eyebrows. At the back of the wardrobe I find a pair of high heeled strappy sandals. As a last minute thought I open the jewellery box and pin on Henry’s birthday present from two years back.
The phone rings.
“Hello Henry” I hold the receiver impassively, it’s as if I am detached from the conversation. “No problem. I quite understand.” He says he’s been held up at work. He isn’t going to be able to get here on time. He isn’t going to make our reunion.
I remember his face the first time he saw me with no hair. I’d been in hospital for about a month. I knew I looked awful, but I didn’t think it would matter to Henry. He’d seen worse in his work. He sat awkwardly on the edge of the bed near the end, not wanting to get too close. It was as if he thought I was contagious. He hadn’t stayed long. After that there had been texts, emails, phone calls and endless ‘Facebook’ chat. But no more visits. I didn’t mind. He was doing a lot of traveling for work; it was a hectic time for him. Back and forth to the UN and Africa as part of the World Food Programme. His work was his passion and it drove him, I’d always known that, it had been the reason I’d fallen in love with him. Now he was working with people like Cheri Blair, on this new programme, ‘Women4Women’, empowering women across Africa to feed and care for their children, it was so important he told me. So important.
I feel sick – I rush back into the bathroom and vomit. I miss the toilet – it’s all over the marble floor.
I thought I was over all that.