Day Three is the Hardest
by Ninon Schubert
Stay away from triggers
Barb turned off the alarm. The lingering smell of beer, frying fat and sweat took her breath away. The craving was back instantly – just arrived at work and already on the verge of cracking.
She left all the doors wide open, hoping there‘d be enough wind and sun to flush out the grime. But the wind was no more than a trickle and any natural light was swallowed up by the plush carpet and the nervous flicker of colours from the poker machines in the gaming room.
She would feel empty and restless, the leaflet had warned, today was day three and day three was the hardest. Barb dug into her pocket and got out her bad-effects list:
– dried up and shrivelled in the mornings
– headaches all the time
– clothes stink
– money down the drain
It didn’t help that she’d had a dream about Sergei. In the dream his features were pulverized to gravel and blasted into her eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Barb had woken up with a violent fit of coughing and spent the next few hours trying to resist the urge to light a cigarette. She got up, prowled around the house and emptied the fridge waiting for Sergei to move out of her head and the craving to subside. But the moment refused to pass. Around her the darkness ground to a complete halt, leaving her stranded in the middle of the night, blaming herself for everything.
Keep yourself busy and breathe deeply, the leaflet said. As the cleaners arrived and started vacuuming, Barb walked around gathering the dirty glasses that had been left by the evening staff. She checked the gaming area, her movements weaving and folding into the liquid gloom and the flashes of green, yellow and red from the poker machines – her routine creating a thin, protective membrane that shielded her from the outside world.
“Hi, how’s it going?” a woman’s voice called. It was Mandy popping in on her way to work. “I got you some of that nicotine gum.”
Barb turned and was suddenly unable to say anything at all; her eyes filled with tears, her hands shook.
“You okay?” Mandy came up to her holding the gum.
“Knowing me I’ll get addicted to that, too.” Barb took the packet.
“Go easy on yourself,” Mandy said, “just take things an hour at a time and buy that inhaler if it gets really bad – that even worked for me.”
“D’you think it’ll get rid of Sergei as well?”
Mandy laughed, “You never know – try putting him in the mouthpiece and burning him.”
“I’d have to burn him out of my head first.”
They walked back to the entrance and stepped out into the glare of the Melbourne summer. It was still morning and already the bitumen was wilting in the sun. The outside world curled and broke in a massive wave over Barb’s head. She could feel its eddies and flows and treacherous currents mingling with the weight of a sleepless night: heat, light, cars and voices all crashing down on her.
On the other side of the street people were going about their business. One woman stopped and looked at something in a shop window. It was Olivia. The wave churned and foamed around Barb’s legs, dragging her down into its undertow.
Mandy grimaced. “She’s my first customer today.”
Barb stared at her.
“God knows what she wants,” Many added.
A tram came hurtling down the road, cutting through Barb’s field of vision and wiping the street clean in its wake: when it passed, Olivia was gone.
Mandy stepped out on the road and turned back briefly. “Don’t forget to use that nicotine gum!” She waited for the next tram, dodged the oncoming traffic to the other side and hurried up the road. Before she disappeared around the corner, she waved.
Go easy on yourself, Mandy had said. Stay away from triggers, the leaflet recommended. What a joke – the whole day was turning into one big trigger-happy trigger.
Learn to chew the gum
Just as Barb was about to go back inside, she saw old Theo coming out of the supermarket with his shopping. He shuffled up the road, leaning and creaking like a derelict shed, two plastic bags flapping at his sides.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she shouted.
Theo turned, swaying slightly. Barb beckoned to him. His face lit up as he shuffled towards her.
“Ferguson won’t be in today – he never comes two days in a row,” Barb said as Theo drew level.
Theo hesitated, then grinned like a little kid, “I’ll just drop these bags off at home then,” turned and creaked back up the street.
The minute Barb went inside, the artificial light and the smells wrapped themselves around, calming her down. No chance of Olivia materializing in here. As Barb walked past the entrance to the gaming room something caught her eye. There was a dark shadow near one of the poker machines – the one where Sergei always used to play. Someone was hunched over peering into the corner. She broke out in a sweat.
“Hello?” She stepped into the room and paused, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. The lights of the machines threw blotches of colour onto her skin.
What was he doing?
When she finally worked up the courage to go over, there was no sign of Sergei or anyone else. It was just the plastic tree, half hidden in its corner. Time to have some of that gum. She tore open the packet and read the instructions:
– chew on gum gently for approx. 1 minute
– park gum in cheek to let lining of mouth absorb nicotine
– chew gum again when taste fades
Chew and get a grip.
What an arsehole Ferguson was. People had complained about Theo hanging around the machines. One woman had accused him of harassing her and someone else had claimed Theo was trying to interfere with his game. All he did was talk to people. Barb stuffed another piece of gum in her mouth. Ferguson had frog-marched the old man out with everyone watching. Who would do that to an eighty-two-year-old? And yesterday had been her second day. The day that nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak, the leaflet warned. She’d have murdered for a smoke. Instead, she screamed at Ferguson and almost lost her job. In the end he’d been content to take her into his office and taunt her by lighting up a cigar and puffing the smoke in her face as he gave her a lecture on how patient he was.
She spat out the gum and started rifling the back of the bar for a packet of cigarettes. Just one drag and everything’d be okay. The evening staff always kept a packet stashed away somewhere. She imagined herself outside, leaning against the wall, inhaling deeply, feeling the sun on her skin and the rush of smoke in her lungs.
Theo arrived just in time to save her with a packet of biscuits. She ripped it open and demolished one after another in quick succession.
“Plenty more where that came from,” Theo said, beaming at her.
Understand your habit
A couple of hours later a few people were dotted around the poker machines but none of them were regulars. The rest of the day staff had arrived and the smell of food drifted in from the kitchen. Theo was perched on a stool at the bar trying to peer into all corners of the gaming area.
“Forget it,” Barb told him.
He put on his innocent face.
“You‘re not going in there. If anyone complains to Ferguson we’re both done for. Wait for Jack or Christos.”
A plate of chops and mash was brought in from the kitchen and she put it down in front of him. “My shout.”
Barb ate the last of the biscuits while Theo tucked into his chops. He’d started hanging around when his wife died, but he never played, never drank and never smoked. He was drawn to the flickering lights like an insect to a bed of flowers, fluttering from machine to machine to strike up conversations, telling people the most personal things completely out of the blue. Like how his son Nick had just taken off one day to spite his mum, and if Theo hadn’t tracked him down in Western Australia when she was dying of cancer, she’d never have seen him again.
As Barb brushed away the biscuit crumbs she realized her craving for a cigarette had waned slightly. You should keep a smoking diary for at least a week before you quit, the leaflet said, you should understand your habit. Barb hadn’t bothered – she knew that smoking boosted her self-confidence and helped her relax. With Sergei, her intake had doubled.
Jack, the laundry owner from up the road, sauntered in and, as usual, surveyed the place for women. Apart from Barb there was only one other woman in there, although she must have been at least thirty-five, well over Jack’s usual cut-off point. No matter. At the sight of women he went into automatic. Like a poker machine: throw coins in the slot and it starts whirring, flashing and making funny noises. Barb had seen through him the minute she clapped eyes on him. Unfortunately, she’d fallen for Sergei instead. Mandy, who’d almost lost her beauty salon paying off her husband’s debts, had warned Barb over and over, stay away from him, he’s bad news. But Sergei gave Barb one of his paintings and she loved it so much he promised to paint a whole series for her. He told her no one had ever appreciated his paintings the way she did; no one inspired him more.
Build your resolve
The door opened. Christos, who owned the wedding shop next to Jack’s laundry, took one last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out before coming in. He walked up to Barb and blew the smoke straight at her. It skimmed her cheeks and set her skin tingling. For a moment it felt like Sergei running his fingertips down the side of her face, lightly touching her lips, her chin, her neck.
Christos was looking at her. “Sorry, did you want one?”
“Sure? You’re allowed to have a break, aren’t you?”
“I said, no thanks.”
“You know bloody well I’m trying to quit.”
Christos put on an air of being hurt. “Just offering.”
“Yeah, right,” Barb pushed his beer across the counter.
Suddenly he grinned.
“What’s so funny?” Barb asked.
“Why are you in such a bad mood? No wonder you’re always being dumped by your boyfriends.”
“Since when have you been sober for long enough to keep track of my boyfriends?”
Christos looked as if she’d just punched him in the face. Theo tugged at his sleeve and pushed him towards the gaming room.
Christos downed his beer, slammed the glass down on the counter and the two men moved over to the poker machines. They greeted Jack, who by this stage was teaching the woman how to press the buttons rhythmically for maximum effect.
“I’ve got a bit of celebrating to do,” Barb heard Christos say.
“Good news?” Theo asked.
“We won that court case – my lucky socks won the day,” he pulled up his trousers to reveal a mass of blue and white stripes.
Theo gave him the thumbs up.
Christos seemed to remember something, turned around and called to Barb. “I saw Olivia on the way here. She was having a laugh with your mate Mandy outside her beauty parlour – I didn’t know they were so pally.” He grinned.
Jack, who now had his arms around the woman as he stood behind her and operated the machine, winked over at him.
Bastards, Barb thought, but her craving was back with a vengeance. What was it the leaflet recommended? Set your quit day and make sure you tell your family and friends so they can support you. It conveniently failed to mention what to do about the Christoses of the world. Or the Sergeis.
Why had things gone so wrong?
She had meant that evening to be a celebration but Sergei never came.
Everything had been fine up till then. They’d even set the date for him to move in – the spare room would be his studio. Instead, Barb found herself leaving endless messages on his voicemail, trying desperately not to sound desperate. She’d never found out where he lived – he was in between places, he said – so she wandered around hoping to see him turn a corner, leave a front door, step out of a car, go into a shop or just hesitate somewhere for one brief moment long enough for her to re-enter his life.
Weeks later she came home to find a message from him saying that something had come up and to stop ringing – he’d get in touch with her. Famous last words.
In the afternoon, when Theo had gone and Jack had generously offered to accompany the woman back to his place, Bernie came in.
Fat, squat Bernie who threw money into three or four machines and then ran around in a frenzy trying to work them all simultaneously. He got into such a sweat that his permed hair stuck to his forehead and the dark patches under his arms grew till they joined up on his back. When he came to the bar to get a drink his body odour was so pungent it made Barb shudder, but she developed the knack of leaning away to scan the room as they spoke. She got to know him better when his wife kicked him out. He told Barb he’d come home one day to find his things strewn all over the veranda and the front door fastened by a sparkling new lock. His wife had worked long hours at one of the local supermarkets and Bernie had promised to take her on a world tour – they would stay at all the best hotels. But she got tired of waiting and lending him money. After they separated, Bernie put in even longer hours at the machines, scrambling around, never far from total meltdown. It was healthier than drowning his sorrows, he claimed. At least it kept him fit. He reckoned he ran about five miles a day and that it was a great way of losing weight. He told Barb about a system he’d worked out that involved complicated sequences when pressing the buttons. It was guaranteed to turn him into a millionaire and win his wife back. As it happened, she’d met someone else and wanted a divorce.
“How’s it going?” he asked Barb.
“I keep thinking I see Sergei.”
“I used to come home at night and I’d think Liz was lying in bed,” Bernie paused, “it looked like her head was on the pillow.” For a while he was lost in thought. “You’re too hard on yourself, you should try playing, that always works.”
“I don’t know, Bernie.”
The leaflet recommended trying out new activities when you quit smoking – give yourself the feeling that you’re gaining a whole new life. Somehow she didn’t think that included gambling.
Bernie started his usual routine of throwing money into various machines. Christos went outside for a cigarette. Barb watched him leaning against the wall, smoke curling upwards, twisting and turning, developing a life of its own, beckoning and full of promise.
A group of men came in and headed straight for the gaming room. One of them started an argument with Bernie for hogging so many machines. Barb was too busy trying to overcome her craving to pay much attention. She breathed deeply. The craving didn’t go away. She went over her bad-effects list. Still no change. Then she tried to think of all the rewards that came with quitting:
– getting fatter
It was useless.
The new you
Late afternoon and who waltzed in? Barb felt a sudden silence descend around her and looked up. Bernie was staring at something near the door and Christos was grinning.
It took Barb a moment to realize what was happening. By that time, Olivia’s smile was hovering somewhere between the entrance and the bar, floating through the room completely disconnected from her person and making its way over to Barb. When it got there, it hung in mid-air and broadened.
“I had a wonderful facial at Mandy’s, she’s very good, and I was thinking – she could do with a bit of publicity so I offered to help with some brochures. Sergei’s doing the artwork.”
Barb’s mind scrambled to connect the smile to Olivia’s voice and face.
“I just wanted to let you know that we’re expecting a baby.”
Barb felt a rush of air and a door slamming shut with a soundless bang.
“I wasn’t sure if Sergei would tell you but I thought you’d like to share the good news with us,” and with that Olivia turned and walked out, still smiling.
From the kitchen came the sound of shattering glass.
Some more blokes came in wanting drinks and change for the machines. When things had calmed down, Barb was dying for a cigarette and this time she knew she’d crack. She’d kept it up by telling herself, just one more hour, just till lunchtime, till Theo leaves, till the next customer arrives, the next plate of food, the next beer, the next coin in a slot. Now there was nothing left to keep her from hitting rock bottom.
How could she have been so stupid?
All that talk of feeling hemmed in and wanting to leave Olivia to focus on painting. Barb had gladly offered to fill the void – she’d given him money for exhibition space, a vernissage, invitations and ads in all the right magazines. She’d refused to believe Bernie when he told her that Sergei had used her savings to pay off a money lender who’d lent him money to pay off gambling debts.
“Barb … Barb!” Mandy‘s voice interrupted her train of thought.
Barb looked up.
“Are you okay?” Mandy asked.
“I need a smoke.”
“Go get yourself that inhaler. I’ll hold the fort here.”
“Go on,” Mandy insisted. “I’ll wait.”
The sun beat down as Barb waited for a gap in the traffic. Mandy was right. She shouldn’t be caving in now.
By the time she got to the other side of the road, Barb knew what to do. She’d have Mandy over for dinner, she’d apologize for how cranky she’d been lately and together they’d make a list of new things to do:
– dancing lessons
– cookery classes
– finding the right man
A whole new chapter. You’ll be gaining a new, healthier life, the leaflet said. That was it, Barb thought. They would make plans.
When she came out of the chemist’s with the inhaler, there was a tram at the top of the hill slowly making its way down. Barb crossed the road and hesitated, catching a few moments of sun before plunging back into the gloom and the fluorescent lights. She didn’t know what made her turn around. On the other side of the street people were going in and out of the shops: a woman with a pram losing her patience over a dawdling kid, a man in a business suit, and another man hurrying away. All Barb saw was the back of his head but she knew immediately who it was.
“Sergei!” she shouted.
Instead of turning around he walked away even faster. Or was that just her imagination? She hardly knew what she was doing. She bolted back across the road. A car screeched to a halt. The driver blew his horn furiously. Barb kept running. It wasn’t till she heard the loud clanging of the tram, saw it looming above her and the horrified face of the driver as it shuddered to a halt, that she realized what she was doing. She jumped out the way. More cars slammed on their brakes on the other side of the tram. Shaken, Barb made her way to the kerb. People were staring at her.
When she looked around, Sergei had gone.
Ninon Schubert is from Melbourne, Australia, but currently spends most of her time in Germany and Ireland. She has been writing screenplays for films and TV for a number of years. In 2010/2011 she wrote and co-produced the feature Sleeping Dogs which screened at international festivals and received a number of awards and nominations. One of her short stories, An Hour to Kill, was shortlisted for the Writers’ Forum (UK) short story prize. Day Three is the Hardest is her first short story publication.