Helpless by Emmy Smith

A very close and personal, though mysterious, friend picks apart the emotional state of the complex protagonist in this story by Emmy Smith.

You make me laugh when you brush your teeth, always leaning uncomfortably over the basin so you don't get toothpaste foam on your towel. Every day it stays tucked neatly over your ignorable breasts, leaving nothing uncovered except your shoulders. I like those, one of the few things I do like. They look so smooth and satisfyingly round, I would touch them if I could. Rivers of black flow past them, wet and straggly. You should brush it before it gets too bad.

In the morning you look five years younger than usual, glutted with sleep. Your puffy cheeks fill up with the gas of dreams and you wash it all away in the shower.

And you are running out of toothpaste, you had better get some on the way back from work along with something for dinner. Maybe a stir-fry, onion, peppers, beansprouts, see what there is when you get there. Maybe invite Katherine round; you have barely seen her since you started your job at Morstead and Fisher. Despite the awful situation she will think you are a bad friend and won't care when you need her most. And it'll be all you deserve.

As you cleansed and moisturised you talked to me like your oldest friend. I love it when you do that, because it is only me that truly understands you.

"Got to talk to Travers today, got to be clear and confident. Got to show him I can do it. Yes, Mr. Travers, I agree completely! What do you think?"

You looked at me with an expectant expression, but I said nothing and just returned the look. You kissed me on the lips, leaving a lipstick mark, then wiped it off in a slightly embarrassed manner and left me in the bathroom.

Walking far too fast for comfort I saw you from car and shop windows as you blundered along to Fulham Broadway station. Brushing your hair out of your eyes whenever you saw me you carried on rushing. You only moved here a couple of weeks ago so you don't yet recognize the faces you pass on the way to work. From behind I saw your indecision at the traffic lights, do you wait or risk it? Is it better to be late and careful or on time and carefree. You waited for a suitable gap, waved awkwardly at the car that braked to allow your crossing and stumbled at the opposite pavement in your slight heels.

I lost you for a while as you headed underground, grabbing the 'Metro' paper as you flew by, but the curved mirrors in the bendy corridors allowed me a glimpse of your flushed face. Even the curvedness didn't make you look as fat as you think you are. And yet you are overweight, you know. I am always completely honest about that.

Crashing past the concrete, being thrown through the coldest tunnels at an unsafe speed I saw you from the other side of the carriage. Gushing through like the urgent blood flow of London. The Tube takes people where they are required and spurts them out.

A deeper rumbling came and people were unbalanced. You drifted in and out of awareness, cleaning your fingernails underneath the newspaper so people wouldn't notice, then getting distracted by the empty faces opposite. Man, man, man, woman, woman, woman. Do people feel threatened sitting next to someone not of their own gender?

You checked either side and found middle-aged ladies, one reading Jackie Collins and the other trying to read your newspaper. Your glances were quick, you didn't want to be too intrusive, people get scared by the weirdoes on the Tube. And you went back to gazing straight ahead with the occasional return to the advert with the holiday snap of Carol Smilie. You didn't talk to me for the whole trip, but that was only to be expected. You were on your way to work; you always ignore me when you are around people. But this is normality, you don't mind nearly so much when marvelous things are happening.

Your face on the day you left for America was so beautiful, glowing with hope; I almost cried right back at you. The unknown wonders that you were going to find were humming in your imagination. I grinned back at you as you packed your toothbrush and soap and other bits that your mother warned you countless times not to forget. I couldn't wait to see you on the other side of the ocean, watching your subtle incredulity as you wander through big cities and softly drift along dream beaches with your mirrored sunglasses.

You returned, ready to make your mark on the world, to fill it with all of your gifts. You have so much to offer, but you deny yourself, not knowing how to use your knowledge and increasing your own sense of inadequacy. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, stare at me, and claim that this is a new day, a fresh start and the beginning of a new adventure in your life. It generally declines into rubbish before noon.

You seemed more tense than usual at the office today. You arrived only a couple of minutes late, running desperately up the stairs and feeling pink and unfit as you came out onto the office floor. I witnessed your dealings with Mr. Travers and you will never get that promotion. Not only does he not like your ideas, he thinks they are naïve, but he doesn't want you in his department because you make him feel uncomfortable. You both try to speak at the same time, then you both stop, and then there is silence for a painful minute. He doesn't want you there. You stared at me through the glass in his door as you left filled with the loss of another chance, another opportunity blown by being you again. And you sat in your cubicle and returned to entering figures into the database.

You have tried to make the most of your office cubicle, putting the hedgehog holding a huge '21' your mother had given you for your birthday on the top of your shelf next to a small pocket mirror, a picture of Jane and Laura (housemates from university) and a couple of books of Charlie Brown cartoons and a snow globe from London your mother got you when you were seven, or eight. Even the 'Kinder' egg toys on the top of your monitor don't help to make you at ease. Things are not quite right here. You should get out, find somewhere where you can use your design ideas, your wonderful sense of colour. Get out, go, leave, escape and run away from all the grey.

The art folder tucked under your bed is only viewed at annual intervals, a nostalgic reminder of your youthful longing to make theatre sets, backgrounds and large props. You always promised your mother that all your teenage theatre activities were just a hobby, just a way of meeting people, and that you would get a proper job after your degree. A proper job, earning proper money with a proper career ladder to climb. But you never guessed how soulless it was, how fake all your co-workers seemed, since daily behavior is constantly on show in the vain hope of promotion and progress. Every day you want to leave, and every day you can't.

Going home again on the Tube was the same rigmarole as usual, I saw you pushing along with all the others, gasping for home. No seat on the return journey as per usual. You shook when everybody else shook, you squashed yourself out of the way same as everybody else was doing when somebody in the middle of the carriage wanted to get out somewhere obscure. And you arrived, looking tired and drained of life.

"Mind the Gap!"

You minded the gap. You straightened yourself up and became reattached to the swarm of people bursting out onto the pavements of Fulham. Your composure was reapplied and faint dignity reassembled, the people became few and far between as you walked further from the station, drifting in and out of shops for good things to eat and a bottle of wine to aid the girly, indulgent conversation to be had later. The local greengrocer always smelled so satisfying; I think you feel at home there because it reminds you of shopping with your mother when you were small.

As you leaned against me in the hall you stared at me with such ardent disappointment when you left that doleful message on Katherine's answer phone

"Oh, well, Kath... It's me. I was only calling to... ummm... see if you wanted to come round for a drink tonight, but I suppose you are at Jason's. God, I hate answer phones. I've had a crap day at work. Ummm... well, if you could call me back sometime I'm sure we can do it again sometime. Bye."

I was also upset because I knew just what you would do as soon as 'Eastenders' finished.

Why did you call him? I was so angry with you, going back to him again, putting up with being ignored and forgotten. You hesitated before picking up the phone in the hallway, I felt the strength of how much you really didn't want to fall back into his bed, but it wasn't enough. You looked at me as if you wanted answers, knowing that I couldn't give you any. The empty resignation you showed as you dialed was plain and sad. It was kept brief and you were expected within half an hour. You opened the wine, had a full glass and proceeded to call the taxi company. You spoke so quietly the guy could barely hear you. 27 Gilmore Crescent you requested, as if it was not your choice but mine, or Katherine's or anyone else's.

That passive guise rested on you once more. It had been a month since Katherine had relented and finally admitted that they had slept together. You kind of knew anyway, things had become so strange between you and David, another horrendous break up that was never going to mend, like all the ones that had happened so many times before. And Katherine had maintained her impartiality. You knew that Steve and Jason would be as fair as possible, especially considering he was their friend before you were even in the picture. But now you needed Katherine to say that you were right and that he was a bastard and all the other things that friends say in soap operas.

But she didn't, and you knew she still went round there to watch old films and have a smoke with the old gang, your oldest friends from school. While you were apart it was like you were not allowed, but it was so easy to reignite that whenever you felt weak and alone he was easy enough to guilt into one last fling, because there was always room for one last fling. Even when he had slept with your best friend, and quite likely a few random supermarket workers, he was still the best chance you had.

The taxi arrived and I was forced to watch you leave from the hall. You had put a skirt on and some make-up, just a bit of mascara and lipstick because you knew that he hated you wearing too much, but it made a difference to your face, gave you a mask of enticing beauty. You were making an effort, knowing that it made no difference. The taxi smelled of beer and you set your eyes on the pavement as a stranger in a cap escorted you to that man. There was still time, you could still not go. The taxi turned onto the main road and accelerated, hastening any decision. He said he was alone, but you are going to feel so small if the guys are there and he asks them to go.

I saw you pause for a whole minute by his glassy front door. The house was not huge but it was enough for David and his music. You had known him from his first gig in the parish hall and he had never lost that spark. And that is why you always go back because he is something special that you can't bear to lose. Which is why you walked straight in when the door was opened instead of shouting, slapping him and running home.

Nobody else was there, a tiny blessing, and he offered you a drink. A Stella from the fridge which you accepted, thinking quickly for any subject that wasn't filled with tension or any of the issues from the previous few weeks. You moved your eyes across the modern living room, a white clinical background with a cold steel table and bookshelf. It is cool, trendy and you hate it immensely. David came back and sat by you on the sofa, not yet touching you, but he had a way of gradually sinking behind you and whisking you away.

And at the same time, before the inevitable had happened, I heard the voice shrieking in your head to end this pathetic situation eternally, to get out, go, leave, escape and run away from all the white. But there you sat and you ran a finger along his leg, the silver chain on your wrist flowing next to his trousers while he spoke of his latest signing, about which you really didn't care.

Having avoided his eyes for a full half an hour, having muttered some vague nonsense about your job being fulfilling, you looked up at him and he said what you wanted to hear, he said the bit that meant you would feel wanted again, if only for a few hours.

"I suppose you want to stay over. And it's ok with me. I mean, I know you and Katherine have sorted stuff out and I'm cool with keeping this whole arrangement going. The Katherine thing, it was bound to happen really. I'm pleased you aren't all fucked up about it."

But you were fucked up about it; you figured he even knew that you hated yourself for still sleeping with him. But the screaming in your head had stopped, since you reassured yourself absently that in the morning you would say that it is over, in the morning you wouldn't swear or get violent, you would calmly tell him he was using you and that it was over.

And you allowed your hand to be grasped by his as I looked on helplessly from the hallway. I heard the frantic reasoning turning around in your mind, things like if he was with you there had to be some connection, maybe it did mean something after all. Funny how you had thought that he was always so cruel to you, you thought as he led you gently up the stairs to his room. You came back to your senses briefly and stopped.

"I just want to go to the bathroom, I'll be up in a minute."

You crept back down the stairs and into the bathroom, shutting the door indifferently behind you and then looking up at me with your palest gaze. You leaned close to me, one hand on the sink supporting you as you examined odd patches of your face, as if there was some physical sign that your mind was breaking. And then you looked blankly at me for five minutes, emptying your mind, so thoughts of guilt and uselessness were banished.

"It is all ok, it is ok, it doesn't have to happen again. I'll tell him in the morning and that will be it. If he doesn't care, he won't be difficult, he will just say 'see ya' or something else stupid. But it doesn't matter now; I don't have to think about it now. It'll be ok, it'll all be ok."

And you took yourself from me and went to him.

And there I see you now from his wardrobe door, a few hours later, uncomfortable but not shifting in case you wake David up. You torture yourself with thoughts of inadequacy, of escape, of how stupid and easy he thinks you are. You never sleep when you are this tortured.

Whether the glass on your watch or the last sanctuary of David's bathroom I am with you. As your reflection, I am you. I define how you look deep in your own eyes to discover what you want. But even when you know what it is, you do nothing about it. And that is why you fail.


  1. As I understand it, Hemmingway struggled to avoid extensive exposition in early years, and this piece is accordingly concise. This is a cut to the chase, insigtful observation of someone close at hand whom the writer appears to admire and desire very much. Gender and related clues are omitted ecause they aren't needed in this clever yarn.

  2. less is more. this rests on its merits. i don´t think the writer admires or desires this man, i think, like most, if not all of us, she accepts him faults and all, just happy she´s got someone to go to.

  3. Well done! I walked along, watching the subject too; you made me part of it. Most readers can relate to this, because we have been there.