A not so spooky Halloween story
A SHORT STORY
I’m here, topless in a bathtub in the middle of the street, because I hate my job.
Behind me, there’s this giant queue of cars and trucks and vans. The queue is growing longer and longer behind our crashed van. Hands stuck on horns. The soundtrack of my floundering life.
This is the kind of accident that always happens to somebody else. Like, you’ll never be the one with a kettle exploding in your face. That will never happen to you. You’ll never be the one ending up on the street, naked. That can’t be you.
People in the queue are yelling to get the hell out of the street. Heads sticking out the drivers’ windows.
They’ll all be late today and they won’t need any creative excuse. They saw a girl was half naked in a bathtub in the middle of the street. Stopping traffic. Stopping time and the whole town for a while. Everybody will laugh at them. They’ll say that’s the craziest excuse anybody ever came up with.
Until tomorrow. Until pictures of me in this stupid bathtub appear on the news. On every newspaper. It’s only when you see yourself printed on paper that things turn real.
I can see camera flashes all around me. I can see people capturing videos with their phones.
Everyone’s big moment to be the great reporter. To capture the breaking news in their life. There are mummies and monsters all around the street. Tons of blue fairies. And cowboys. Lots of cowboys and cowgirls. There are some screaming masks too.
Some of these kids can’t even spell their own names. And they are here, filming me holding my naked breasts. Wearing only my bright blue bikini that became a monokini. My topless swimsuit.
This is embarrassing.
I crawl out of the bathtub, and two of my fingernails are gone. I feel my shoulder burning. My arms, those are burning too. The graze caused by the asphalt on my skin is getting covered in blood.
Red and white blood cells trying to fix this big mess of my life. All those blood platelets pouring all over my skin. Trying to rebuild whatever can be rebuilt.
When our van braked, it left two skid marks. The bathtub I was in slid sideways on the asphalt and crashed into a barber’s window.
All the barber’s customers are now standing with their bibs still hanging off their neck. With their hair half done. One of those before-and-after photo compositions. Just a live version.
Everybody’s looking at me. Looking at the bathtub. Kids with blood painted all over their faces. Fake axes stuck in their heads. There are swords, clubs and magic wands.
In front of our van there’s this delivery guy. He’s lying face down on the asphalt, surrounded by people. His leg stuck in the bike wheel. A sticky pool of blood growing under him.
When they ask him if he’s all right he says that the cook had to take a dump. He says, “Restaurant policy.”
They tell him not to move. Maybe he hit his head too hard. Better leaving him where he is. Raving.
The pool of blood growing on the asphalt. Soaking his fluorescent rider jacket. One of those jackets cars can see from half a mile away. So they don’t drive through you. That didn’t quite work this time.
So you know, this is not one of those sad heartbreaking stories. Keep your weeping tissues in the box. You won’t need them. This is not one of those dead-in-five-minutes stories. Nobody dies here. At least not the way you think of dying. Wooden coffin six feet under and eternal peace.
No, this is not that kind of story.
This is not a bleeding boy meets a naked girl story either.
My name is Cassy Spedding, and this is the story of how my life shifted from a slight dissatisfaction to a cosmic disaster.
Jump back to my mum and I having tea in the kitchen. Mum thinks I’m still at Uni and she asks me what I plan to do next.
I say, I don’t know.
Here, in our woman-to-woman kitchen conversation, our mum-daughter intimate moment, I’m just lying.
Mum thinks I’m going to graduate soon. But I won’t. I dropped Uni a year ago. When trying hard turned into struggling and then just painful. After that, it’s all downhill towards the dumping ground of your failures. That’s more or less how shame works for everybody.
My mum always told me I could be whatever I wanted. Then she’d do a long pause and she’d add, “Within reason though.” Whatever that means.
It’s not that I’ve got a good memory or anything. But tell me any quote from some good old movie and I can go on with the dialogue for minutes.
Titanic is one of them. Boy meets girl on a ship and one of them dies.
Unhappily ever after.
I never watched the movie for real. But after I dropped Uni the only job I could find was at this local cinema. Security manager role. I had to sit in the back, making sure everybody survived the screening. The same number of people who got in had to get out. Simple equation. That was easy.
When Titanic came along there were three screenings every day. That movie is a three-hour-long marathon.
On screen, Jack wins his life-dream ticket to death. And I’m sitting in the dark at the back. The Titanic hits some giant iceberg and starts sinking. And I wait for the ship to flip. To break in two like a chocolate bar. I wait for the violinist to play on his own, with water flooding. And the other musicians joining him and playing till they die. They drown and the audience sobbing in despair.
Cinemas are the escapism of your teenage years. In cinemas you kiss. You hold hands. And if you are in a row hidden enough, you might also get a hand sneaking into your pants.
The Titanic sinking with people screaming their life away on screen, and you unzipping your blue jeans. By the time the ship is laying down in the ocean, you’re done and couldn’t care less about who dies or survives. For the price of a ticket you could get a dark room, a soundtrack and an orgasm, all in one.
That’s a bargain.
Back in the kitchen my mum’s asking what I want to do with my life. I say, I got everything I need right here with me, air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper.
At least that worked for Jack in the first class of the Titanic.
Mum says, don’t be stupid. She says, “How you gonna pay rent?” I say, Jack I’m flying. And I ask her if there are more chocolate biscuits.
Then the most famous cosmic flop of the history of the cinema came along. And suddenly I was rich. These were the good times when if you were famous you were famous for real.
Take the most famous English pop girl group on the planet and put them on screen. Make it ninety-two minutes of a loony mockumentary that bored the hell out of the audience, and you’ve got Spice World. That made more than a hundred million dollars worldwide. All those herds of teenagers jumping and singing along. When the movie was done and they’re all gone, my treasure hunt started. There were so many tenners and fivers on the floor I paid rent and bills for months.
I was rich. Rich until they found out I wasn’t sharing the pot. And they kicked me out for good.
Fast forward to me looking for a real job. In this office that is not really an office. This office is just this guy’s spare room in his flat. There’s a desk in the middle of the room and the guy says, “Grab a seat, sweetheart.” And he sidewalks behind the desk, because the room is full of toilets, pipes and bathroom tiles piled up everywhere. Marble pattern. Vintage pattern. Fake wood veining.
He says they are the best in town. And when he says they, he means himself. There are no chairs, so I pull down the lid and sit on a toilet.
“Welcome to my kingdom,” the guy says. And he opens his arms as big as an Olympic diver before a jump. “This is what we do,” he says.
And I ask if they help people with serious constipation.
He bends his neck back and laughs. His belly bounces on the desk and sitting on this toilet reminds me I really need to go to the bathroom.
Marketing assistant the advert said. And I thought I could finally start doing something meaningful with my life. I could be proud of myself. My parents could be proud of me. Proud, proud, proud. That sort of thing.
He gives a quick glance at my resume and then trashes it in the bin. He says, “We don’t need this, do we?”
And for a moment, I’ve got the feeling he’s trying to figure out if I’m wearing a bra beneath my red blouse. He sticks his hand out to me, and says, welcome aboard.
So I flush my toilet but no water comes out. And I leave with a new job and a desperate need for the bathroom.
Jump back to the accident. To the bathtub crashed in the window of the best barber in town. All those people with half haircuts standing outside. Taking pictures of themselves taking pictures of me.
We always look for a memorable moment to capture. Best when it happens to somebody else. Naked on the street, nobody wants to take my place.
After a car accident the world around always slows down. Blurred and fogged. Everything runs in slow motion. Like in your worst dream. You just wait to wake up but that never happens. If you’re alive. Or if you’re dead. That works either way.
Then time catches up and the world speeds up. Fast forwarding like a film you already know the scene.
Jack, I’m so cold, I can’t feel my body.
And I hate my life being such a drama. Somebody tried to be the big hero and called the police. The ambulance. The firefighters.
God save us everyone.
When people are checking if you are alright after a car accident, they always look for a broken bone. Some offal sliding out. Seeking the out-of-the-ordinary. A woman with her bikini standing in the middle of a car accident holding her breasts, that’s out of the ordinary for most people.
The delivery guy has got his face in a puddle of noodle soup and blood. In a car accident you can’t move anything. Can’t move anybody. Dead or alive. There’s always the risk you might snap their neck. Move a vertebra and mess their spine for good. Nobody wants that responsibility.
So I get next to the guy and I bend over. I ask if he’s alright. And when he lifts his gaze from the asphalt the first thing he looks at are my breasts. And then I figure that no matter how much blood they lose, men will always save some to sport an erection.
He asks if he’s dead. I say, no, I don’t think so.
He says that I look like an angel. And I tell him, I’m just a topless marketing assistant on the street. I can see him checking my legs, my toes. And he faints.
Jump back a few weeks before the accident. I’m working in the office sitting on the toilet. Lid up. My boss says he wants something special for Halloween. He says we should start theming our advertisements.
And I think that probably he’s not as dumb as he looks.
He says, “We need something people will remember forever.” He wants our sales to go through the roof. We need our sales to boom. He says, “We’re broke.”
He asks if I know what the most successful themed business ever is. And I say candy shop, clothes shop, toy stores.
He says, no. He says, “Porn.”
And I’m not sure I want to know where this is all going.
He says holiday-themed porn is the most clicked on the web. There is Christmas-themed porn. Easter porn. Summer holidays porn.
You’d wonder how he knows so much about the porn business.
“Halloween porn,” he says.
We’ve got a van driving around town with our stickers all over. O’Brien’s Bathrooms, the best in town. Nobody ever calls. And when the phone rings they’ve dialled the wrong number. People on the other side of the line are just looking for somebody to talk to.
Our phone number’s got one digit different from the suicide prevention lifeline. End it with a zero and you have a brand new bathroom. End it with an eight and your life’s on hold for a bit longer.
Most of the time when the phone rings they’re not trying to renovate their bathroom. When your hand is shaking the last number you dial always slides from eight to zero. So I pick up.
Sometimes these people on the other side of the line are trying to end their life. Sometimes they just need somebody to listen. And I do. Strangers opening their heart on the phone makes me feel my life’s not all shit. I answer sitting on the loo. Sometimes we talk for hours and I give them my personal number too.
These people on the other side of the line are relieved. They told me about their lives. Their broken marriages. They told me about their parents kicking them out. Their own children they can’t meet. They tell me they went by the platform and they were a train whistle away from taking one more step.
My boss thinks nobody ever calls us. The truth is that our landline is busy most of the times with people asking for help. If they’re looking to refurbish their bathroom they can try again later.
In the end, sitting on the toilet, my job is all a matter of priorities.
The van, the one that drives around with our advert stuck all over, has got a bathtub on top. My boss’s idea. To capture people’s attention, he said. The bathtub loosely tied with ropes to the frame, so that you always wonder if it’ll make the next turn.
I tell my boss we could fill it with pumpkins. That’s a hell of a Halloween theme.
I could do marketing for anyone. I could market toothbrushes. Toilet paper. This job brings the best out of me.
He says, no, that wouldn’t work.
I feel I can be creative here. I can be myself.
He says, we need something more exotic. Something that will make people gasp.
He scratches his bald head and there’s a glow in his eyes. Something coming from a place I don’t know. Something I don’t want to find out.
“You,” he says.
I touch the toilet I’m sitting on, then my legs. Just checking I’ve still got my trousers on.
“You’ll be in the bathtub,” he says. “Full of bubbles and wearing a bikini. Waving at people. They’ll love it.”
I think of Kate Winslet and DiCaprio in Titanic. With her sitting on a sofa on board. Naked like a pig in a slaughterhouse. And Jack making art on canvas. Before he bangs her in the car. Before the big leak and everything started sinking in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
My boss says, that would be art. He says, “What you think?”
I think I should have finished Uni. I think of my mum. When she told me I could be whatever I wanted, within reason.
I say, a mannequin could do the job anyway.
And he says he wants to make it pop. He wants it to be beautiful. He says I’m beautiful. Anyway, a mannequin would cost too much.
I’m cheaper than a mannequin. That’s where my life’s at. Titanic sunk. And my life’s sinking too. All over again.
I should flush the toilet under my arse. Flush my crappy job away and get out of here. Then the phone rings.
I say, “I’ve gotta take this.”
On the other side of the line a woman says it’s not worth living. She says she doesn’t know what to do.
My boss shapes an “OK” with his hand and nods. Big smile and eyes wide open. Happy like a kid at his birthday party.
The woman on the other side of the line is telling me she feels the world is meaninglessly orbiting around her. She feels the lonely star in galaxy ignoring her. She says it’s like nobody gets too close to her, to her feelings. She asks if this is what black holes are.
I stick my thumb up and I nod to my boss. I whisper “yes, fine.” And the woman on the other side of the phone says she can’t find any purpose in her life.
My boss leaves and I flush my desk loo. There’s a little burp, but no water comes out.
Then I say, “I’m listening.” I say, “I’m here for you.”
The Italian restaurant the delivery guy worked for had noodle soup, fried rice and dumplings. They took over an Italian business that failed and since rebranding the whole restaurant was too expensive, they just changed the menu. One cook running the whole show in the kitchen. A solo performer.
That’s how you save on your employees. You just hire one of them.
The cook could also make pizzas. That made them one of those progressive hybrid cuisine places. The ones you book a table at when your friends can’t decide if they should go Italian or Asian.
You sit in and they serve you in less than twenty minutes. That comes in pretty handy even when you have nowhere else to go. Because everything should be on the clock. For everybody the clock is ticking. Even when you’ve nothing else to do. It’s all a run, run, run. Even if you’ve nowhere to run. The important thing is that you move fast. The giant marathon of life. We’re all such runners.
The restaurant takeaway policy is: From the pan to your doorstep in twenty minutes, otherwise it’s on us. You order your curry chicken with brown rice on the side and you pray for a broken traffic light. You pray for a queue somewhere on the streets. The delivery comes late. And you eat for free.
But they don’t want to refund anybody so if you’re the delivery guy you’ve got to ride the hell out of that bicycle. They don’t refund a meal and you save on your gym subscription. It’s a win-win deal.
That night after five hours standing in the kitchen the cook says, “If I don’t go to the toilet now I swear to God I’ll shit here on the floor.”
The orders keep coming and piling up. Twenty minutes refund policy. Which doesn’t count your chef taking a five-minute dump because he has a bad stomach. When he comes out the delivery’s late on every order.
The delivery guy said that it must have been a family-night order. He could figure out who made the order from all the items. Two noodle soups. Vegetarian spring rolls. Shrimp chips.
Kids can’t be bothered with hot soup. They just have a bite of spring rolls and chips before food and napkins start flying above the fake leather sofa. Every dinner is a drama, drama, drama. The only gift to yourself is to order a takeaway. Forget about the cooking and the washing.
Living your life one pain at a time. One tiny relief after another. Success and achievements are so relative you don’t even remember what you hoped for.
Then the delivery guy’s sprinting the bike. He’s only got one more minute to complete the delivery. The traffic light’s green and he stands on the pedals. He glances at the map hanging on the handlebar and he can’t figure out if it’s the next block or the one after.
And then it’s fifty seconds. Then the traffic light turns red and he figures the house is the second turn.
Eyes on the map, he crosses the road.
We made bath bubbles out of the soft pink cotton. Me in my bikini, hugged in a cloud of cotton candy. One arm waving at people on the street. The other holding the cloud of cotton on my legs, on my belly. My feet sticking out from the tub. My last pedicure was weeks ago but nobody would notice from a distance. The biggest sunglasses I could find on my nose. Trying to limit shame at all costs.
On the street all these Halloween zombies and mummies are waving at me. Taking pictures of me waving at them. I’m Audrey Hepburn in a horror movie. Kids throwing candies at me, in my floating castle of bubbles. And me throwing flying kisses back.
Little fairies dancing on the street. Pointing at me.
Just for a moment, I feel like a Goddess. Hiding behind the sunglasses nobody knows that I am me. I’m just acting. I’m glowing on this street of monsters. Every stop the bathtub moves. I smile at the crowd and I yell at my driver to slow down.
Spurts of confetti all over.
Then on the footpath on my left I see two screaming masks chasing a cowgirl. She looks beautiful with her leather boots and skirt. She looks scared and runs through the crowd, pushing people away. Glancing behind her. The masks are getting closer. They’re shouting, “We’ll catch you, Wonder Woman.”
I yell, leave her alone. But they can’t hear me.
Then I punch on the bathtub and I tell my driver to follow those two prats. And the van speeds up. There are no cars in front of us. I leave the cool Audrey Hepburn pose and sit on my knees. Pirate pose, pointing at my preys. I say, go go go. And cotton clouds rain behind us.
The pedestrian light turns green and the cowgirl crosses the street. The two masks behind her. They’re close to catching her.
The traffic light in front of us turns green too. We speed up.
And then a bicycle comes out of nowhere.
The van brakes screech on the asphalt. And everything goes into slow motion. I see people turning their heads. Monsters and kids covered in blood, they all turn to look at the van. Mummies with loose bandages and stiff legs stare at the van braking. I see the van hitting the bicycle, hitting this guy with a fluorescent jacket and a big bag on his back. I see the guy disappearing under the van. The ropes around the bathtub loose. And I clutch my hands on the bathtub.
Then, I’m flying.
Fairies, zombies, mums and dads. Cowboys and cowgirls. A world of monsters beneath me. And I’m flying in a bathtub. A spurt of pink cotton farting behind me. The cowgirl stopped to look at the van. To look at me. The two screaming masks stop too.
I’m the centre of the world. I’m a rockstar. I’m a celebrity. All the eyes pointing at me. I see kids following my falling trajectory with their mouth shaped with that big O of wonder. Me catapulted out of the van. Plummeting. The perfect metaphor of my life.
Then I see the asphalt getting closer and closer. I shut my eyes and clutch the tub as tight as I can. And then the whole world goes blank.
The day after at the hospital the nurse changing my bandage says that I’ve been lucky. She says it went much worse for the delivery kid but he’ll be ok.
My mum’s sitting by my bed with a wad of newspapers on her lap.
Mum reads, “On Halloween Angels Can Fly.”
There’s a picture of me, hands clutching the bathtub halfway in the air. My mouth opened in a big silent scream. Like those snapshots of you rolling down on the rollercoaster. When they capture your face screaming in terror and they sell it at the exit for the price of an English Breakfast. I’ve got mine for free.
“At least they call me an angel,” I say.
The nurse says I can’t shower for a bit. She says I’ll be a stinky angel for a while. Mum moves to the next newspaper headline. She reads, “Trick or Treat?” And a picture of me holding my breasts in the middle of the street. My tits are all over the newspapers. My tits grabbed only a few times by clumsy boys’ hands. Checked and bounced. The way you grope an avocado at the grocery store. My tits are now everywhere.
With me topless in the paper, my first thought is, damn if I look fit. My second thought is that maybe this is just the beginning of my modelling career.
The nurse says in a few weeks I’ll be as good as new. And I thank her. Mum says, “Why did you do that to me?” And she covers her face with both hands.
She says, she thought I was in Uni. She thought I was so close to graduating.
I say, I lied.
Trying to cover shame with shame sometimes is the best you can do. The only thing you can do.
Then my phone rings. I say, “I have to get this.”
The voice on the other side says that it was amazing. The best live advert anybody’s seen in years. My boss says there were people who wanted to interview me. Tons of people who wanted their bathroom refurbished. Their whole house rebuilt.
I say, cool.
He says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And I say I’m in the hospital. Not sure when I’ll get out.
He says, “You saved us.”
And I think of Rose on the floating board in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I’ll never let go, Jack. And then Jack is swallowed by the freezing water.
The nurse says I should get some rest. And my mum starts to sob. Big tears shedding from her eyes. Dropping on the newspaper. Watering the picture of my face. Watering my bum. My legs. With tears watering me, I don’t look that fit any more.
My mum boohooing and sniffing. She says she’s failed. She failed as a woman. As a mum. Her face hidden behind her hands she says, “What have I done wrong?”
I say, this is getting a bit too dramatic.
And she waves the newspaper at me. My picture is all watered up with her tears. It doesn’t even look like me anymore.
“How can it get more dramatic than this?” she says.
The phone rings again and somebody’s sobbing on the line. My mum’s sobbing on the chair in front of me. If I were dead, she’d cry less.
My mum says she’s failed, failed, failed. And the guy on the phone thinks this is the suicide prevention lifeline. He asks me if I can talk and I say, “I’m here.”
I say, “I’m listening.”
The guy tells me about those people who always ask you a question but have never time to listen to the answer. I say, “I know what you mean.”
My mum says she told me I could be whatever I wanted.
And the guy on the phone says that’s when people don’t even ask you questions it’s when you start feeling lonely. Like a leftover in the fridge, nobody wants to eat. Left there, rotting the hell out.
Mum says, “Whatever you wanted, but within reason. I’ve always told you, ‘Within reason’, for the love of God.” And she asks if all this mess now looks reasonable to her.
When I close the call, my mum’s still weeping. The guy on the phone thanked me. And bandages and excoriations no longer matter. My ass on the newspaper no longer matters.
Then the nurse comes back and says I’ve got to rest. The visiting time is over. She says I’ll be all right and she walks mum outside. Before she leaves she winks at me. And I already like her.
Then the phone rings again. I take a big breath. Somebody will be feeling lonely on the other side. Somebody looking for a friendly voice. Somebody who could listen to them.
The voice on the other side says, “Cassandra Spedding?”
I never give my last name at the helpline. Just my name.
This voice is not seeking help. Maybe it’s a journalist. A reporter who wants to capture the angel before and after her street flight. The Halloween angel everybody’s talking about. The star of the moment.
The voice says, “I’m Mrs Margaret Smith, I’m calling from Suicide Prevention Lifeline.” And she asks if I have a minute.
I say, “I do.”
I say, “I’m really sorry.” I say I meant to tell them, but I was too busy flying topless over the streets. I say I didn’t want to hijack their calls. Can they forgive me?
Mrs Smith says she’s glad I did. Then she says, “Are you looking for a job?”
And I say, “I’m here.” I say, “I’m listening.”